Narrative misdirection is Joanne Rowling’s signature device as a writer. Using the narrative line to turn the reader from what is happening requires remarkable planning and care. This “trick” is so much a part of her way of thinking and writing that I suggested last week that the “big twist” in store for us in Deathly Hallows is learning how Dumbledore and Snape contrived to make Half-Blood Prince a case study in narrative misdirection. If you missed that post, take a minute to read it here and be sure to read the responses. Most are profoundly skeptical that the characters in Ms. Rowling’s novels are using her tricks to put one over on their opponents in VoldeWar II the way she does to us.
If she is doing this, it would not be the first time.
In Chapter 13 of Chamber, “The Very Secret Diary,” Ron and Harry find a diary in the girls’ bathroom where Moaning Myrtle “lives.” Ron tells Harry not to pick it up or read it because books can be dangerous. Harry laughs that warning off, picks up the diary, and is not satisfied until he learns how to “read” it. I wrote in Looking for God in Harry Potter that Chamber is largely a book about how to read books and how to discern what makes a book good and what makes a book dangerous. In Chapter 13 of Chamber we learn that books really can be dangerous, if not exactly for the reasons Ron gives. Trusting the narrative line, Harry shows us, can make us believe things we shouldn’t believe.
“The Very Secret Diary” is a Horcrux we learn in Prince but even in Chamber’s finale “miles beneath Hogwarts” we find out that this diary is a reservoir for Lord Voldemort’s memory. He’s not a bad writer, as a he tells us; “If I say it myself, Harry, I’ve always been able to charm the people I needed” (Chamber, Chapter 17, Scholastic pg. 310). We see him charm Harry right out of his core beliefs, in fact, when Harry agrees to enter into Riddle’s diary, in much the same way as Harry later drops into Dumbledore’s Pensieve.
Inside Riddle’s diary, we experience along with Harry the turning of the story on its head via the author’s telling the story so (1) we see only what the writer wants us to know of the story which, (2) because of our mistaken belief or leaning, leaves us thinking we know something that we didn’t see. Nothing that Riddle tells Harry about his turning Hagrid in as the Heir of Slytherin and the wizard whose monster killed Moaning Myrtle is untrue; Riddle shows Harry the facts of the matter, however, so selectively and out of context that Harry exits the diary believing that Hagrid, his best friend among adults at Hogwarts, is a monster and a murderer. Harry believes this because he knows Hagrid loves monsters and does not suspect that Riddle, the author of the story, has an agenda.
This trick of Riddle’s book, of course, is narrative misdirection. Controlling, by which I mean “restricting,” the narratological perspective in such a way that we readers believe we know much more than we really know, especially when the restriction confirms our preconceptions about the butler doing it, sets us up for the stunning ending. There we find out what we missed because our attention was focused elsewhere and because we neglected to find out (as if we had the option!) what other key players were doing or thinking.
Ms. Rowling does this by restricting our view to the “what Harry sees and thinks” without making the restriction obvious by using a first person narrator. Third person, limited omniscient narrows the view to the individual level, of course, but with the appearance of being broader than it is because it isn’t one person telling his story. If we had our choice, though, of whose shoulder and head we want to look over or into, it sure wouldn’t be Harry’s!
All “narrative misdirection” amounts to really is our being suckered into believing, because the story is not being told by Harry himself, that we are seeing the story as God sees it. Of course this isn’t the case but over the course of the tale our looking down on Harry and friends (and enemies) from “on high”, even if “on high” means only from a few feet over Harry’s head, we begin to think we have a larger perspective than we do.
We don’t, of course; we never have anything but the smallest fraction of information about what is going on with Voldemort, Dumbledore, or Snape. Of all the perspectives on the story Ms. Rowling could have chosen to give us, she chose to give us the relatively clueless angle on events in the wizarding world. Harry doesn’t know that much about what’s going on.
It is possible that Harry knows information and has ideas that Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Snape do not know about, but, frankly, I doubt what he learns on his own is very important compared to what the other three know that Harry knows.
That being the case, please ask yourself this question. “If Ms. Rowling could tell these stories from any angle or perspective she wants, why would she choose Harry’s perspective when he knows the least, perhaps nothing that one or more of the others do not know?”
The short answer to this question is “narrative misdirection.” The longer answer is “because it’s the easiest way to keep us from knowing what’s really going on so we can be stunned at the story ending.” We forget or never realize we’re looking at things from the least informed position in the stories. We believe we have a bird’s eye or God’s eye view of what’s happening, though we haven’t even got the perspective of the better informed story characters.
For Ms. Rowling’s peculiar genius with this artifice, you need to add that the misdirection always reinforces the reader’s prejudice. We revere Dumbledore because of his openness with us at the end of the first five books and, well, we just don’t like Snape. Both of Harry’s views have become our own and we have stopped asking ourselves “what are these guys up to?” We should be as eager as Harry is at the beginning of Phoenix for explanations, but, like Harry, we get caught up in the drift of things and forget once again that we know more about what Lord Voldemort is doing (because of the crisis in each story) than we ever find out about the Dynamic Duo’s machinations.
Is it implausible to think that these two have learned by deduction, observation of Harry (to include by Legilimency), and by Severus’ access to Lord Thingy’s activities that Voldemort has learned how to crawl into Harry’s head space at will? Hardly! They say as much, even to Harry, albeit in guarded fashion lest the Dark Lord think they have found him out. A better question is, if Snape and Dumbledore know Harry is a live camera broadcasting to the Chief Deatheater’s head-space, would they think to stage a drama about Horcruxes and Dumbledore’s death that would deceive Voldemort about the real extent of their successes in finding and destroying Horcruxes?
Maybe showing a few other characters doing the narrative misdirection stunt would make this possibility – a nasty idea, after all, because it means Harry has been intentionally misled and used by Albus and Severus since the end of Goblet – more plausible…. Here are the ones I found. I look forward to your sharing the ones I missed.
Narrative misdirection is so much Rowling’s way of writing that almost all her savvy characters are adept at it. In addition to Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber, we see Snape in Phoenix (Chapter 28) trick Harry (and Voldemort) by loading the Penseive with his “worst memory” to give a deceptively one-sided view of Harry’s father. Harry has every reason not to trust the Potions Master and Occlumency instructor but the panoramic view the memory gives him causes him to think he’s seeing things as they really were. As Lupin and Black point out to him later, this incident was hardly the beginning or end of the Potter/Snape war, just one ugly slice chosen for Harry/Voldemort’s consumption. Besides planting a seed of sympathy for Severus in Harry’s mind, the story also gave Snape the excuse he needed to cut off the Occlumency lessons as Lord Voldemort no doubt had told him to.
Hermione in Phoenix (Chapter 32) uses Umbridge’s conviction that Dumbledore is plotting against Fudge to get her into the Forbidden Forest. In a bit of play-acting in the High Inquisitor’s office that would embarrass a dinner theatre thespian, Granger manages to get her to buy into a tale of a secret DA weapon hidden in the Forbidden Forest. Umbridge’s prejudice and arrogance, her thinking that she has the larger view of things, leads to her date with the Centaurs.
And narrative misdirection is almost all Voldemort is doing in Phoenix — and Dumbledore knows it! The Dark Lord tries to tempt Harry into the Department of Mysteries by a persistent dream he plants in Harry’s head because he assumes Dumbledore has told Harry about the Prophecy. Dumbledore hasn’t told him just so Harry won’t be tempted into the Prophecy vault and the Headmaster sets up faux Occlumency lessons to show Voldemort that he knows the Dark Lord’s plans. Voldemort succeeds in getting our young hero into the Ministry basement by activating Harry’s “people saving” reflex, again by telling a story that confirms Harry’s presuppositions and plays on his jerk reactions. Once that hero button is pushed, it’s hard to hold Harry back.
Not to mention, Lord Voldemort lies low the whole fifth year because he knows his remaining out of sight, when combined with everyone’s desire to believe he has not come back, will result in few people believing Dumbledore or Harry about his return. The Dark Lord understands narrative misdirection and hoodwinks almost the entire magical world because the story he writes confirms what those “readers,” the naive witches and wizards who hate the idea he has returned, want to think is true. They turn on the messengers of the bad news, news they can dismiss because Voldemort is writing the story they want to read by remaining invisible.
If Phoenix has a load of internal narrative misdirection on top of what we experience looking over Harry’s shoulder, Half-Blood Prince, as I’ve said above, may have an even bigger twist. In fact, I think the entire narrative line of the sixth Harry Potter novel is a drama written and performed by Dumbledore, Slughorn, Hagrid, and Snape to deceive Voldemort through Harry’s scar-o-scope.
It may be hard to believe at first blush, but the Scar-o-Scope Staged Story idea isn’t wrong because Ms. Rowling has never had a character tell a deceptive story using narrative misdirection. Lord Voldemort loves to do it and even the good guys have had their turn. I look forward to reading the narrative misdirection stories you have have found told by the characters within the novels themselves. I’m betting there are another three or four I’ve missed. How about Moody?