Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.
So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)
Part 4: Foreshadowing, Prophecy, and a Few Heart-Breaking Red Herrings
J.K. Rowling, like many great authors before her, appreciates the importance of foreshadowing in fiction – the art of dropping hints for the reader about events to come. All of the books in the series contain some form of foreshadowing, although some examples are more significant than others.
Take, for example, Ron’s jest in Book 2 that Tom Riddle might have been given an award for ‘Special Services to the School’ because he killed Moaning Myrtle. At first glance, it appears to be a throwaway comment, but those re-reading the books will be all too aware that Tom Riddle, the young Voldemort, was indeed responsible for Moaning Myrtle’s death (as the Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets was unleashed by him, and the award conceals the truth that he actually framed Hagrid by claiming Aragog was the monster).
The presence of the locket in Sirius’ old house (12 Grimmauld Place) that no one could open in Book 5 is another example of the use of foreshadowing. This object is understood to be evil but nothing else is really said about it initially. It is, of course, a Horcrux, but the reader does not realise this until Book 7, once the hunt for R.A.B. (who turns out to be none other than Regulus Articulus Black, Sirius’ little brother) has begun. Rowling demonstrates an uncanny ability to hide clues like this in plain sight.
Another one of these ‘clues in plain sight’ has to be the Vanishing Cabinet. Harry encounters this as early as Book 2, in Borgin & Burkes, and in Book 5, it is confirmed that the cabinet allows passage to somewhere beyond the castle when Montague (a member of the Slytherin Quidditch team) is trapped in the broken Hogwarts cabinet. All the hints are there that it could be used to enter the castle from outside – a feat which Hermione stresses repeatedly is difficult to achieve. Now, when Harry walks past the Vanishing Cabinet in Book 6 to hide his Potions book, I actually can’t help but groan, because it seems so damn obvious.
However, the most effective and direct examples of Rowling foreshadowing significant plot points come in the form of Trelawney’s prophecies and predictions. In an earlier post, I have already mentioned that her first prophecy – that “neither can live while the other survives” – does hint that they both have to die, and that Harry must die to extinguish the ‘Other’ part of Voldemort that lives in within him, but all this is cleverly disguised in ambiguous wording.
Her comments regarding the “servant” who will return to his “master” in Book 3 also predict Pettigrew’s return to Voldemort, and Voldemort’s resurrection, before the reader is aware that Pettigrew is still alive and that Sirius did not kill him after all. These comments also, to some extent, help foreshadow the events at the end of Book 4 – the prophecy states that Pettigrew will help Voldemort return to power, and Harry’s dreams repeatedly stress that the two are together and plotting.
However, Trelawney’s ability to predict the future does not end there, despite her character being portrayed as an old fraud. I’m not talking about Neville dropping his teacup or Hermione leaving the class at Easter – the first is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the latter a coincidental alignment (Trelawney most likely meant “leaving” as “dying”, and was referring to Harry not Hermione).
She makes another prediction in Book 3, as she prepares to join the table for the Christmas feast, and hesitates and states that “when thirteen people dine together, the first to rise is the first to die”. This is an accurate prediction. Of course, Trelawney is not aware when speaking that there are already thirteen people dining at the table, as Pettigrew is in Ron’s pocket. Dumbledore is therefore the first to rise from the table, to greet her as she arrives. Dumbledore is also the first of the thirteen gathered there to die, in Book 6.
However, not all the comments made by characters and their behaviour actually hint at what is to come. Some of them are red herrings which make what actually happens all the more heart-breaking. Harry making Dobby promise never to try and save his life again, and then Dobby doing just that, leading to the little elf’s death (still not quite over that). Fred talking about how it’ll be when he gets married at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, then dying at the Battle of Hogwarts, young and single, never to grow old (definitely not over that). And Snape… perhaps the most heart-breaking red herring of all. He’s portrayed as the villain until his very last moments, and now I know he’s really one of the good guys, I can’t read his final words (“look at me”) without tears in my eyes.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that Rowling is pretty damn skilled at her craft. I can’t remember the last time a twist in the plot surprised me more than Moody turning out to be Barty Crouch Jnr., and although it seems so obvious now, I don’t know a single Potterhead who expected Rowling to ‘kill’ Harry in the final book of the series.
More to come in further posts in this series!
(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)