Great Plotting Blunders #1: Regulus Black

One complaint I have heard about Hogwarts Professor is that I don’t post many items that are critical of Ms. Rowling’s writing. I think that’s fair criticism. My job for the last seven years has been to explain to folks who believe the writing is trash and the books “slop” how the books succeed, which is to say, how Ms. Rowling’s artistry and meaning are responsible for Potter Mania.

I find conversations like this one at The Hog’s Head about the lack of grieving time for Harry, in which readers discuss how this isn’t that much of a problem, more interesting than ones where folks look down their noses at “obvious failings” in plot and characterization.

But there are some problems worth discussing. And we should talk about them here. Because I’m not very good at this, though, I will hand the blog reins today to two Potter Experts from the Debt Coast, Wendy and the Red Hen. Their subject: the critical and failed plot points of Regulus Black’s sacrificial death and the Locket Horcrux.

Wendy wrote to me post Azkatraz and my wonderful breakfast with her, Travis Prinzi and the Red Hen (picture at bottom):

If Jo had detailed a Dark Magic library at Grimmauld Place then we’d have the link between Regulus and just the topic of Horcruxes. Otherwise, how would Reg have learned of Horcruxes given that it was a banned subject at Hogwarts? If we knew that Regulus liked to haunt the Restricted Section like Tom, then that would have been a decent connection. Otherwise Jo gives us no explanation at all as to Reg’s knowledge of Horcruxes, let alone the specific one in the cave basin.

I don’t see how Kreacher could apparate back and explain the details/situation in the Cave. How could this incident, the mistreatment of Kreacher, how could it have been the impetus for Reg’s conversion from worshiping Voldemort to sabotaging him? That is’ a HUGE leap in persepctives!

I guess she could have fleshed out the Black Family’s pen chance for surprising conversions beyond Sirus preference for hanging out with the senior Potters. The fact is that Blacks liked to behead their expired house elves, not put them on a fuzzy pedestal. The mawkish display itself lends distaste for the sanctity of remains disposal, not respect nor love.

If you think about the HBP movie and the importance of the Cave trip (the big climax before the key climax), you gotta wonder how the filmmakers will deal with it in the next movie(s). Are they going to accept that the mystery of the swapped Horcrux and the note is a topic not worthy of explanation, and give it a pass? I hope not. Unclear why JKR herself has never tried to set the record straight on this major plotting blunder.

The Red Hen agrees with Wendy and explains at greater length:

The whole Regulus issue was particularly poorly handled. Even for a post-burnout Rowling. What I suspect happened is that she fixated on the Locket and its movements, and the actions of the characters were never more than a distant secondary issue, filled in for local color. Where the first three books are by and large character-driven, the last three are completely jerked around by the needs of the plot and *nothing* that was ever established in the course of the story is allowed to get in its way.

She botched the setup, by giving us our first account of the matter from someone who was never in a position to know what happened, and supported it by someone who knew even less. She never formally pointed out in the course of the story that both of these people were *wrong*, and that their story was a complete fabrication of their own.

She seems to have completely forgotten that, unless Sirius was making that up as well, the Elder Blacks wanted nothing to do with our Tom, and made Regulus a perfect little fanboy under his parents’ noses. This might have played as Reggie’s own style of adolescent rebellion, but she never really suggests that.

She had fanboy!Reggie making scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of Tom’s speeches, when she ha
d already established over the whole course of the previous book that Tom was never out there making public speeches, and that the Prophet had certainly not been printing them. Instead, the purported “Lord Voldemort” was an outlaw from the get-go. Any newspaper articles concerning him would have been concerned with what a danger he was. She may wave the red flag and try to pretend the issue is political, when, on Tom’s side, it was obviously never more than criminal activity dressed up in traditional pureblood rhetoric. So where did Reggie’s newspaper clippings come from, then?

From which all I can conclude is that she never *had* a backstory on Regulus and the Locket. She had an outline item which said something like “R switches lockets in Cave, K returns it to #12, MF steals it, gives it to DU.” and just threw together any kind of a story which hit those high points. She didn’t care about the characters, just used the death of Regulus as a cheap tear-jerker and something to give Harry something to go emo over, so we could wallow in sympathy for Harry. There was certainly never anything established as to *why* Regulus should have suddenly turned on Tom and tried to destroy him. She just filled in the blank with whatever excuse she could come up with off the top of her head, and kept going, hoping that no one would notice and start asking inconvenient questions.

In point of fact, she has been asked how Regulus knew that Tom had a Horcrux, and the best she could do while on the spot was to suggest that Tom had been making public hints as to how he had safeguarded his life, and that Regulus had merely “guessed”. Without ever giving any information which would confirm that Regulus had out-of-school sources that would *enable* him to guess.

Frankly, the theory that Wendy, Swythyv and I thrashed out, in that the Elder Blacks knew that Tom was a halfblood (and we had a very reasonable chain of information which would allow for that) and wanted nothing to do with him on that basis *regardless* of his rhetoric. That Reggie signed up without knowing this, and that his parents blew a gasket when they found out. By then, Reggie was stuck. Now, adding a storyline of borrowing the family elf and killing him *on top of that* might have pushed him over the edge. But that would have required giving some actually *development* to a peripheral character, so she couldn’t do that.

As to beheading worn out Elves and mounting them on the wall; this is probably a direct reference to the once-popular habit of stuffing and mounting one’s dead lapdogs, cats, parrots, and whatever else, and displaying them in the parlor. It also serves to illustrate exactly what the traditional position in a family the House Elves occupy. They are *pets*. They are symbiotically a part of the *family*. One does not purchase them in a slave market, one goes to the House Elf Relocation office and applies to adopt one. And “freeing” them is regarded by all parties as unacceptably cruel. As cruel as dumping unwanted dogs and cats in a parking lot.

Tom (the dirty halfblood) “borrowed” and killed Reggie’s “dog”. Or intended to.

Phew. Makes me long for the days of the speculative inter-librum.

The problem in a nutshell is that Regulus Black’s insight about the Dark Lord making Horcruxes is not credible and his turning on him, sacrificing his life in the hope of a future Avenger, is even less believable. As Wendy says, “Reply with the exact reason why Regulus turned his back on the Dark Lord and stole the Horcrux. It simply cannot be because he objected to the way Voldemort misused his house elf Kreacher.”

If you’re looking to me for answers, you’re out of luck. I don’t know why he turned on the Dark Lord. Why did Sirius choose to become a Gryffindor because of a conversation on a train? There are several life-changing incredible choices in the books that are head scratchers but which advance the plot and alchemical drama but which in themselves are anything but satisfying.

Could Regulus and Sirius’ deaths be considered mirror reflections? Both turn on/are caused by a relationship with Kreacher, both are sacrificial deaths motivated by love and a turn away from the House of Black Slytherin legacy, both are inexplicable, sudden, and unsatisfying, upsetting…

But I’m grasping at the proverbial straws. What are your thoughts? Is this a major gaffe? If not, why not? If so, is the only way out the elegant Black family back story suggested by Wendy, Red Hen, and Swythv in Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?



  1. If the Blacks rejected Voldemort on the basis of being a Halfblood and “blew a gasket” when Regulus became a Death Eater, it directly contradicts what Sirius has to say about this in OoTP: that their parents thought LV had the right idea before they realized how far he was willing to go, and that Regulus was a “right little hero” when he joined up. The latter is speculative on Sirius’ part, but I don’t know why the *only* account of this would be intentionally wrong.

    I admit I never really noticed this plot flaw, if it is a flaw. I may not have noticed it because JKR establishes that Lucius Malfoy has another Horcrux in his possession, though probably without fully understanding what it is and what it does. The Death Eaters all seem to know various Dark Spells that aren’t taught at Hogwarts, and the Blacks have all sorts of nasty Dark things in their house, even though it isn’t explained what they are and what they do. A library with more Dark Arts books in it seems reasonable, but if JKR had established that there was one, she’d also have to explain why Hermione hadn’t found it and read everything in it, which would rush the exposition of Horcruxes.

  2. nikenipter says

    Elementary, my dear John! JKR is, as I have argued, a Calvinist. Perhaps she’s not a five pointer, but a true daughter of her Kirk of Scotland none the less.

    Her characters only think they choose their house but like Paul on the Damascus road discover in an epiphany while lying on a floor in Dumbledore’s office or listening to a beloved “pet’s” sad tale that “our choices show us who we are” as opposed to make us who we are.

    As Dumbledore taught, Harry was not forced by the prophecy to hunt down and destroy his alter ego Valdemort, but God wove all things together so that he truly had no recourse. See Joseph saving his people as the result of God’s weaving of envy, hatred, slavery, adultery, prison, betrayal, dreams, and prophecy together to accomplish His goal.

    “And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” (Genesis 50:20 ASV)

    John, I sincerely hope you continue to devote your brilliance to explaining the Potterverse and don’t become distracted with “Magicians” or other unenlightening material.

    “As for me, I have always tried to pursue the light and suggest you do the same” – Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn.

    With great admiration,

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I just finished re-reading DH for the first time since it came out. I also wondered how Regulus, surely only on the fringes of the LV circle, knew about Horcruxes. None of the DEs knew about them; it’s was LV’s absolute secret.

    I have an easier time with Kreacher. I think Regulus was disturbed that LV would use betray his loyalty by using his elf (of whom he was fond and who adored and trusted him) in such a horrific way. Perhaps he was already questioning his allegience and this was the last straw. If LV would do this to a devoted disciple, what else would he do?

    But the whole thing stands on pretty weak legs. I agree–plot device. And the newspaper clippings–yeah, puzzling. Unless LV’s early efforts were reported as news, quoting his speeches.

    As for Sirius/house choice, what better way to tweak the parental units? I think he wanted to avoid Slytherin at all costs. He appears to have only decided on Gryffindor on a whim–because his new friend James is going there. What if James had been a Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw?

  4. Uh, we know of no other reformed Death Eaters? Perhaps Snape might qualify too.

  5. Very good comments, Beth. As I read Kreacher’s Tale I never got the feeling that the whole thing was just a mere plot device. Although it certainly is a plot device. Whether or not it’s a failed one, well, let’s just say I disagree with Wendy’s & especially Red Hen’s take on it. I think it still works for the greater story. Sure, there are lots of things we’d like to know, but I think for the purposes of the greater story we were given enough information & knowledge of Regulus to give us an understanding of him while still yet leaving many mysteries. Besides, in real life, in such cases as this, you’re not always going to get all the answers you’d like.

  6. As to where Regulus got his information, certainly it’s a good question, but it’s not an insurmountable question or a deal breaker for the whole story. In essence, it’s a mystery. Plus, we don’t get Regulus’ tale, we get Kreacher’s tale. So, of course, we’re not going to get the whole story. I suppose Rowling could’ve found some way to force an annotated & expansive backstory about Regulus & a detailed story of his life as a Death Eater, but then I’m sure people would’ve complained about that & how it shows what a poor writer Rowling is & how she doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.

  7. Arabella Figg says

    I correct myself. I don’t beliefe Regulus was questioning his allegiance to LV, as he was so obviously honored to be singled out for an important assignment.

    I think Regulus must have felt that LV betrayed his devoted loyalty, and that he himself had betrayed Kreacher’s in sending the elf on an unknown assignment where he was used so cruelly and callously. This was a disillusioning wake-up call about LV’s real nature for this young, passionate “fanboy.”

    That said, Reg’s story lacked development, especially about the Horcruxes, serving mostly to move the story along and give us some mystery, bad-boy resolution (we know of no other reformed DEs), and Kreacher to represent downtrodden house elves in DH, whose loyalty can be won by love. As to the elven heads on the wall, I’m betting Kreacher would have felt honored to join them.

    Re Sirius’ version of Reg’s story, we have to take spite and his penchant to sourness into the equation.

  8. Interesting thoughts, Arabella! I still need to think through the whole “how much does this feel like a mere plot device” issue (I don’t remember it jumping out at me overtly as such, although I did wish we had more back story on Regulus and the Blacks in general).

    One thing that occurs to me though is that we do have present-day characters who have some affinities with Regulus-the-reformed-DE. Snape certainly would qualify as such, at least in some respects. Whatever else one says about Snape, we know that what ultimately turned his allegiances in the right direction was his love for Lily and his horror over what Voldemort did to her (not to mention his own complicit actions, but still…)

    And in Draco (who fits this profile even better, I think) we also have a steady, ongoing picture of a very young, just recruited DE who is having major second thoughts and realizing with dawning horror that life on the dark side is not exactly what he thought/expected it to be. I know we never see Draco fully reformed, but we get so many indications that his allegiance to Voldemort has him wracked with fear and anxiety. Draco works for me as a possible mirror-image of the earlier generation Regulus, helping me to fill in some gaps on Reg’s back story without having to stretch my imagination too much. They’re both parts of pure-blood families with long, dark lineages, essentially forced into a certain kind of mold because of their past. (It would have been fascinating to see what any siblings of Draco might have turned out to be like…another possible rebel, a la Sirius?)

    I think the idea of Regulus coming to a slow but real recognition that he was wading in and about to drown in evil feels quite plausible. I also think it’s quite possible that a young man in that situation might try to do something “under the radar” (like the fake horcrux/note) as an act of quiet rebellion that didn’t draw too much attention. Where he *got* information about horcruxes is a really good question though.

    For some reason, I keep playing around with the possibility of some connection to Slughorn. Didn’t he “collect” Reg as part of his set? I can’t imagine Slughorn willingly giving up information to another student about horcruxes, but given the nature of “inner rings” it does make you wonder if certain information about Tom Riddle’s activities at school had not passed down, like respected lore, to the kids who inherited the mantle of dark arts enthusiasts/potential DE’s. I would guess a lot of these, by nature of their pure blood status, might end up hanging around together or hanging around that generation’s version of the Slug Club. And surely Dumbledore wasn’t the only wizard alive who could begin to put two and two together on some of the rumors that were flying…

  9. Regulus is a member of the ancient house of Black. This ancient family did not shun the dark arts. Surely they had a library, perhaps very old, mouldy and neglected…

    If the Blacks had a forgotten copy of the “Secrets of the Dark Arts” then Regulus, once he had an inkling of what LV was up to, could have found out about horcruxes.

    When Hermione refers to this book in DH, it is made clear that even the creation of one horcrux will greatly destabilise the soul. Maybe Regulas believed that the locket was the one and only horcrux?

    By the way Hermione speculates that the Hogwarts version of “Secrets of the Dark Arts” was only removed by DD from the restricted section of the library once he became headmaster, ie after LV would have had sight of it.

  10. Sirius’ spite wouldn’t account for his statement that his parents approved of Voldemort early on, which is incompatible with the idea that they “blew a gasket” because LV is a half-blood. Question: did they even know? Isn’t Tom himself unclear about the identity of his father and doesn’t he spend a good deal of time looking through school records for mentions of a “Riddle”?

    I cannot remember when Dumbledore is supposed to have become Headmaster. Certainly before his interview with Riddle, after which the DADA job became cursed, but I can’t quite determine when that was.

    Also, if the “Slug Club” is mostly a group that passes on the Dark Arts, I can’t see Lily Evans as ever having become part of that. There may have been some overlap, but it’s not the kind of mistake Slughorn would make twice.

  11. Arabella Figg says

    Oh, man! Pardon my “reformed DE” gaffe. Thanks for the correction.

    Beth, I really like the Draco connection and think it fits. It’s certainly possible, as I first posited, that Regulus was becoming disenchanted with LV. He could have sent Kreacher out of fear, although he told Kreacher it was an honor.

  12. If all Regulus knew was that LV had asked Regulus if he might use Kreacher for a very important task, and then abandoned Kreacher to his fate, this alone would easily be enough to turn Regulus!

    A true English gentleman’s word was his bond. Anyone who does not keep their word is a ‘bounder’ or worse.

    Prior to the mid-nineteenth century men would duel to the death for less than this. I therefore do not think the 20th / 21st century’s ‘relative’ Western views on the matter apply here.

    I would look at the way Regulus might react as more along the lines of the

    Samurai or the Knight in Armour, who would die to protect the honour of their Lord, Lady or family.

  13. Couldn’t Regulus be interpreted as a literary version of the 1944 failed bomb attack against Hitler by some noble old German generals and intellectuals? And backwards from there: as another yes to the old ethical thinking on «tyrannicidium» (= the right to kill a tyrannus who has gone mad)?

    In that case: Do we need more than the mere possibility that Regulus observed things which convinced him of the need for a killing stroke?

    This does not solve the horcrux knowledge question, but it solves the motivation question.


  14. Also, if the “Slug Club” is mostly a group that passes on the Dark Arts, I can’t see Lily Evans as ever having become part of that.

    Good point, Moonyprof. I didn’t meant to indicate that I thought everyone who belonged to the Slug Club was into the Dark Arts, but I can see how what I wrote might give that impression. The Slug Club (of which Reg seemed to be a part during his generation at the school) made me think, however, of the influence of inner rings or cliques at Hogwarts. I somehow think it’s likely that Regulus, as a Slytherin from a family steeped in the Dark Arts, was also hanging out with other potential DE’s at school.

    I can imagine a group like that feeling privileged (especially if some of them were also buddy-buddy with their influential head of house) and trying to dig up all the information they could about the kind of stuff the legendary Tom Riddle got up to when he was at school.

  15. Arabella Figg says

    Hmm. I was thinking. Tom Riddle stupidly thought he was the only one who knew about the Room of Hidden Things, despite the vast array of objects in there. Perhaps more knew of having a horcrux. He couldn’t have been the only one to raid the library. But he may have been the only one evil/clever enough to make one.

  16. professor_mum says

    Joining the party late….yes, I guess as an author she has the perogative to assert or imply that the Regulus backstory is a thrilling tale, never to be told. However, it is the centerpiece of B6/M6 you have to wonder how the “common man” (i.e. none of us Potterheads) will wrap their minds around the Cave trip and the subsequent note in the locket as the film moves forward. It’s the big mystery ending of HBP and it near fizzles in DH canon.

    I still can’t see the “why” behind Reg’s tratorous action. To turn on Voldemort was tantamount to a death warrant, so you’d expect there to be a darn good reason behind it. He didn’t just leave the organization — he pulled a dirty trick as well.

  17. schmalchemy says

    A couple quick comments:
    Regulus could have learned about horcruxes from a family library (the house was full of dark stuff…one of Harry’s earliest observations at first arrival at 12GP) but remember in Phoenix, Molly Weasley was cleaning out the first floor of anything dark. Could the books have been thrown out prior to Hermione’s (and Ron and Harry) living there in DH?
    I find it interesting that Wendy who wrote in “Who Killed A…” about the Black family being Voldemort’s destruction is now saying just the opposite.
    Loved Beth and RevGeorge’s comments..I think they have much of the gist of it.

  18. professor_mum: as Oshove and I have tried to point out, the ‘why’ is because LV is not a gentleman and broke his word.

    I cannot speak for North America but, once upon a time, amongst the ruling classes of Europe this would have been more than reason enough.

    The Wizard universe created by JKR has many references to the Middle Ages (eg: chivalry) and to the Renaissance. In those times the ruling classes considered it worthwhile to venture one’s life if it meant maintaining the family honour.

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