Russell F. Hirsch
The Impossible and Inevitable Potter
Today is Harry Potter’s 37th birthday and in homage to the birthday boy-who-lived and the continuing summer festivities marking the 20th anniversary of Philosopher’s Stone, I thought I’d look at one particular thing JKR does brilliantly in her plots. Now, at 37, HP might be in a mid-life crisis buying a Nimbus 3000 or something of the sort, but rather than focus on such middle-ness, I wanted to look at the endings Rowling uses, especially in the first four books, which help make her stories so effective.
Age isn’t everything, after all.
The Potter books are epic in the scope of their world-building and their good vs. evil high stakes, but the first few books are very much mysteries rather than quests. With a mystery, naturally, there has to be a baddie you don’t expect revealed at the end and JKR is the master of such misdirection.
In books and lectures on plot structure, I’ve often been encouraged to strive for endings that are both unexpected and inevitable.
PARADOX! How is it possible?
Well, I think the first four HP novels do it perfectly. Rowling is always able to reveal a villain who comes seemingly out of nowhere and yet she drops just enough hints along the way that when it’s explained, it could not have been anyone else! Rowling’s endings are not just unexpected and inevitable, they are impossible and inevitable!
The best examples are Books 3 & 4.
Book 3: Who’s the baddie? Obviously the mass murderer.
Just kidding. It’s the guy presumed dead for twelve years masquerading as the pet rat. This makes for some wonderful, Sherlock Holmes-style moments. They are explanatory scenes, but they are also intensely dramatic and satisfying because they fill in the gaps of a mystery that is even more mysterious than we thought!
Book 4: Who’s the baddie? Snape probably! Or the sketchy ex-KGB Death Eater! Or both!
Not even close. It’s the guy who “died” in prison but secretly got smuggled out, stole a magic eyeball, and impersonated a teacher for a year while the real teacher is locked in a trunk.
Books 1 and 2 don’t do it quite as powerfully, but Rowling’s misdirection in PS and CoS still gave me some of the most enjoyable moments I had reading the series as a child.
Book 1: When my mom, who read the first book aloud to me, revealed Quirrell was the villain, not Snape, I distinctly remember telling her she got it wrong and she had to show me the word “Quirrell” on the page before I believed her. Quirrell was an unlikely suspect, but having Voldemort stick out the back of his head made it impossible. But also inevitable—who else could it possibly have been?
Book 2: Okay, obviously no one believed Hagrid was really the bad guy, and Riddle does seem like a sketchy character from the get-go, and yes, lots of fun has been poked at his middle name…
But when he rearranged those letters in the Chamber of Secrets it blew my eight year old mind. Honestly. That was pretty much the clincher when I decided I would spend my own life working with letters and words.
So, Happy Birthday HP! With you, nothing’s impossible, or at least, the impossible always finds a way to happen.
Except Ronbledore. That’s just impossible. Or is it?
“Well, I’m no Mark Neilstein at any rate.”
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