Story-Telling: The Sixth Key?

As I’ve said before here, I look forward to July 21 and the release of Deathly Hallows as much as every other Fandom reader, if perhaps for different reasons. Yes, I just want to find out how the story ends and will devour the book mindlessly cover to cover in the early hours of the day it is released. Won’t we all? What a relief that will be!

I am looking forward to P-Day (for “publication”), though, almost as much because it will end the Interlibrum and the super-speculative fascination of Fandom waiting on the saga’s last volume. There will be plenty of questions left over at book’s end, I’m sure, that only Ms. Rowling’s version of a Silmarillion will resolve but at least a new period of writing and thinking about the books can begin. This period, to last until the Lord comes I guess, will focus on the interpretation of the meaning and discussion of the artistry of the series. “What’s gonna/gotta happen?” will be supplanted by “What makes these books so popular to so many different people?” as the chief question thoughtful people are trying to answer.

Which is good news and bad news for me. I have been trying to answer the latter question since 2003 and finally having the complete series will mean I have to re-write Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader and cut out the speculative parts and expand the explanations in light of what we will soon know about Harry, Severus, and company. The good news is that finally Ms. Rowling will answer questions about the alchemy in the books, her themes, and her grand-scheme for the stories. The questions, in other words, that I have been trying to answer without her help.

That, frankly, is as exciting to me as finding out what happens to Harry in Deathly Hallows. I won’t miss the speculative side of things because (a) I’ve only engaged in it to illustrate larger points (and have some fun) and (b) I’m not very good at it because I don’t think like a story teller.

I have two friends that I’ve met through my books on Harry Potter who are story tellers. They’re quick to tell me I stink at the speculative side of things because I neglect the story-teller’s art and the requirements of said art. Janet Batchler, author of What Will Harry Do?, is a professional screen writer and semi-pro Harry Potter maven. I love everything Janet writes about story set-ups and pay-offs because it comes from a perspective absolutely alien to me (and comes to conclusions that baffle me – Harry not a Horcrux? I don’t get it!). She doesn’t jump up and down about the alchemy or postmodernism or symbolism like I do but what Janet does “get” is the story-telling side of things.

And that really is important. The absence of this consideration is what makes so much of my speculation so heavy and unlikely. As good as my plot point posibilities are in unlocking the genius of these books, they aren’t story telling keys. I think after reading a note from one of my favorite writers, Regina Doman, that the pre-Deathly Hallows version of my book should have a Sixth Key for those who are only interested in the speculative side of things.

Regina wrote me a letter after reading Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader that said very kind things about literary alchemy, postmodern themes, and the other keys and how much she learned from the book (which I hope she is turning into a review for Amazon and!). She also threw a beacon light into my story-telling blind-spot. Here are those un-cut corrective comments:

John, when it comes to your SWAG theories, again, I’m inclined to disagree with you and Mr. Prinzi, et al, because I have a feeling you’re missing the book’s emotional and character arcs, as well as one big factor: the audience. (As a communications major, “Remember Your Audience” was hammered home to me again and again and again throughout college, so it’s the first thing I think of.)

The books aren’t best sellers because of the astounding plot twists (Da Vinci Code had some of those) or the ultra clever endings but because (I think) the audience loves Harry, Hermoine, Dumbledore, et al and consents to follow them on the journey.

And it seems to me that JKR is very aware that her primary audience is children. I keep remembering how with the launch of Book 6, it seems that most of her energy went into being with the children who were her fans. I think she takes them seriously, and because she’s so aware of her audience, she’s not going to do things that will break their hearts or disempower them. A serious breach of trust, such as you’re suggsting might have happened with Dumbledore, Snape, etc. play-acting in front of Harry’s Scar-o-scope would be betraying the audience. Generally, kids are not ready to hear that their mom or dad has betrayed their trust. The audience now believes that Dumbledore has accepted Harry as an adult by confiding in him and bringing him along on important missions. Dumbledore has not been set up as someone who would take advantage of even a dunderhead like Harry. For Harry to discover that his mentor/substitute father has been using him as a ‘scar-o-scope’ this entire time (even for “the common good”) would reduce DD to a coldblooded espionage master and shatter the emotional buildup of the story into smithereens. I’m not sure JKR’s kid audience would trust her after that.

You could argue that she did this to us with Crouch-Moody, revealing that the man who was becoming Harry’s father-figure was a Polyjuiced Fake — but that was in Book 4, and Crouch was a definite baddie — not a good wizard purporting to be friends with Harry in order to defeat Voldemort. Polyjuiced DD or Scar-O-Scope Actor DD would make DD into Saruman or Denethor, fighting the Ring with the Ring. Fudge or Scrimgeor would do this to Harry in a heartbeat, but not Dumbledore. And this is book 7 — I don’t see her setting off that kind of bombshell this late in the game when she has no time to rebuild our trust in Dumbledore (and, for me at least, she never succeeded in getting me to trust the Real Moody again either!).

So I think DD was playing straight with Harry when it came to the emotional storyline, and I don’t think he was shielding or sheltering him from anything, or keeping him busy so Snape could get the real work done. I don’t think we’ll have a revelation that the man we thought was DD in Book 6 was someone else, any more than JKR would make Hermoine a Slytherin Assasin who pulls out a knife and stabs Ron in the back at the climax. Too great a betrayal of trust, with little payoff. Great, so we were all fooled. Now we feel stupid, and instead of loving JKR for creating such wonderful characters, we hate her for leading us on for seven books.

I remember reading in a book on mystery writing that a good fictional detective stays exactly one step ahead of the reader. Not on the same step as the reader, or the reader and the detective are equal. Not one step behind the reader, or the reader is figuring things out before the detective does, which is annoying. Not two steps ahead of the reader, or the reader is lost and resents the detective’s brilliance. No, just one step ahead, so that the reader is willing to trust the detective, and so the reader feels a little bit as smart (though not at all the equal of) the detective.

It’s more than that the answers in Book 7 need to be simple answers. They don’t have to be simple, but for the book to be satisfying, we have to feel that with just a little nudge, we could have seen it coming. Not a crack over the head with a hammer, which is what the Polyjuiced/Scar-O-Scope theories are — just a nudge. It’s like a balancing act.

And I really believe that Harry will be finding and destroying real horocruxes during Book 6, because the first rule of writing for kids is that at the end, you give the kids adult’s work to do, adult-sized tasks to accomplish. The theories award the big heroic parts to Snape/Slughorn/DD — and Harry is left with nothing to do except love Voldemort out of existence, or whatever. Harry is the hero of the series, and that demands that he do the real work — MOST of the real work — in Book 7. And yes, Snape will help, but I bet that he doesn’t get to steal very much glory from Harry when all is said and done.

All the theories in the book are plausible (they would “work”), I admit, but they don’t jive with the basic rules of the story she’s telling, which is not just a detective story or The Wizard Who Came In From The Cold, but a hero’s story. And that means Harry’s story.

I will not weep big tears if Scar-o-Scope is a bust. [I am re-reading Phoenix now, though, with my cadets and I confess to thinking S-o-S explains a lot.] What Janet and Regina say about story telling and simplicity have the ring of truth to me — if we believe, as they do, that these books have been written to end as conventional “Young Adult” fiction. As devoted and loyal as Ms. Rowling is to her children readers, I suspect Regina may have underestimated Ms. Rowling’s aim for these books and what unexpected places she may have to go to achieve “the biggest twist” in English literature. But if I were to include a sixth key, the piece I have neglected out of ignorance and lack of sympathy, it would be the art of story telling, for sure.

I look forward to reading your thoughts about Harry Potter as conventional Young Adult books and the likelihood they will end as Harry-is-Hero books.


  1. “I look forward to reading your thoughts about Harry Potter as conventional Young Adult books and the likelihood they will end as Harry-is-Hero books.”

    I think this boils down to common sense. I would feel cheated, after my investment in the character and the books, to find he was always to be relegated to the sidelines in the last act. Further, the Scar-o-Scope theory, as you formulated it, breaks down when you realize that they would have to *perfectly* deceive Harry, being able to predict his behavior and all major future events (Besides not believing in divination, DD admitted that when he makes mistakes, they’re big ones; why risk something like this?) and feeding enough accurate info to Harry to finish his mission, while withholding enough information to not tip their hand to Voldemort. That is a balancing act that not even DD could accomplish.

    Another difficulty of the scar-o-scope theory is that LV purposefully cut off the connection because Harry had learned to use it in reverse. Could he become more accomplished and subtle? Sure, but Snape, the accomplished legilemens, was still felt by Harry in HBP. I would suggest that LV would only use the connection under desperate circumstances. And with the lack of characteristic scar activity in HBP, I might suggest that LV hasn’t used it in a year or so.

    An aside, but I think your theory on the soul fragment “supercharging” Harry during the priori incantatem in GoF is wrong. You underestimate Harry’s willpower and toughness. In showing Harry, enraged by Cedric’s death, persevering through the confrontation and bringing out the essences of those who had fallen by LV’s wand to his aid, it contrasted evil with good and showed which one was truly deficient, having LV reap the “rewards” of his deeds. And all of this happening after LV had just finished talking about how Harry was nothing special (as memory serves).

  2. As I said, I look forward to the end of the Interlibrum/speculation phase of Potter-mania. I think the charitable and just good humored quality of exchanges will have to go way up (and the “you’re-stupid- your theory-is worse-and-your-mother-dresses-you-funny” tone one hopes will diminish) when the question shifts from “what will happen?” to “what does it mean?” As it stands, it seems everyone has their own copies of *Deathly Hallows* made up of their expectations which they feel obliged to defend if they read someone else’s copy of their speculative theories. These defenses always lean hard to the unpleasant, due to the nature of electronic exchanges. I for one long for and will enjoy the Postlibrum period — once, that is, the speculative victors have despoiled their vanquished e-enemies and moved on to other subjects.

  3. richardtenor says

    Unrelated question–do I hear correctly that you’re speaking in Indianapolis at Christian Theological Seminary this fall?

  4. Travis Prinzi says

    Just for the record, since my name got put into this discussion – I’ve been against Scar-o-Scope from the beginning, for exactly the “storytelling” reasons that Regina has proposed. (I explained all this this post and in this podcast.)

    I think John‘s point about Rowling’s intentions for a huge surprise stands, even if I don’t think Scar-o-Scope is the method she’ll use to make the surprise happen. Her surprises reveal our prejudices, and the surprise will serve that end. Somehow, she’s going to make a surprise happen that will simultaneously fit Regina‘s points about Rowling’s audience (which I agree with entirely) and John‘s point about the need for surprise.

    I’m writing a podcast right now called “The Snape Surprise” which is going to address directly the great difficulty Ms. Rowling faces in trying to create a surprise ending to a 10-year long series. John‘s words highlight the great difficulty involved – the “unexpected places she may have to go.” But ultimately, if the surprise fails, it will because she’s been loyal to the heart of her story and audience – and she’ll be right to sacrifice surprise for the heart of the story.

  5. Am I speaking in Indianapolis at Christian Theological Seminary this fall? Not to my knowledge! If Amazon’s book lists are signs of life, I believe there is a John Granger Cook who writes about Christian theology. Could this be the speaker you’re thinking of?

  6. John,
    I remember an incredibly delicious theory floated prior to OotP release that I simply could not buy into. It was that Minerva McGonagall was EverSoEvil! (or ESE!McGonagall)

    Citations from canon were trotted out and it did look pretty damning. Starting with the first chapter in PS/SS and her Animagus form twitching when it saw Dumbledore. (Or some such thing.) It also included her trying to interfere with Harry seeking Dumbledore’s assistance at the end of the book in order to protect the Philosopher’s stone.

    I thought it delicious because I find treachery and betrayal of those you thought trustworthy is wonderful dramatic material. I wouldn’t want that in my real life, but I enjoy seeing it in fiction.

    However, I could not accept the idea of McGonagall being evil. Why? Because in the Potterverse, names have significance. Her first name is the Roman varient for Athena, who is the goddess of wisdom and victory.

    I could not accept the idea of Minerva McGonagall being evil. The subsequent books from OotP and HBP seem to vindicate her as well as being trustworthy.

    I brought that up in the context of discussing the idea of storytelling. You need to have character consistency, but also transformation. It is when you change character traits without the seemingly understandable reasons that readers balk.

    I’ll have more to say on that topic soon on my blog. I saw some things that I thought were wildly Out Of Character (OOC) for Hermione in HBP that really bugged me. That’s too long for comment posts, but I will let you know when those are up.

    I did put another post on my blog about the HP series, and it deals with what I thought were leaps or lapses in logic.

    :shrugs: this shows the difference between how we read the series. You understand the incredible symbolic imagery from alchemy and I look at dramatic structure and consistency.


  7. Arabella Figg says

    I haven’t been able to keep up with this blog for several weeks. So I confess upfront that I haven’t yet read the scar-o-scope theory in full, although I’ve read the Stoppered Death posts and Who Killed Albus Dumbledore. I’m just beginning Unlocking Harry Potter.

    I feel both you and storytellers like Regina are good at ferreting out aspects of the story. It would be easy, John, to consider your work “left-brained,” and Regina’s work “right-brained.” This is a pathetic and lacking distillation, but I hope you see what I mean. Both sides of the brain are equally important to the fullness of this grand story.

    As I haven’t fully read the scar-o-scope theory, I’m sticking my neck out to say that, from what I have read, I don’t lean toward this. This reduces Harry to mere tool, something I don’t believe DD would do. He knows Harry has had a life of nothing but deceit from his family and, unfortunately, from those he respects in the wizarding world, including DD himself (OoTP). He’s also been used as a tool by Barty Crouch as Moody, Lockheart and others. At least DD is remorseful over his withholding of truths about Harry’s life and mission.

    So I can’t see DD using Harry as a weapon.

    Neither can I see Snape impersonating DD in HPB. DD is too much HIMSELF in the book, stoppered or not; the book reeks of his personality–one of it’s great delights. I simply can‚Äôt believe Snape could authentically impersonate DD‚Äîhe‚Äôd have to slip up somewhere. I don‚Äôt feel he could maintain DD‚Äôs graciousness for even ten minutes. Also, I feel Harry could detect the difference. He may be a ‚Äúdunderhead,‚Äù but he‚Äôs not emotionally stupid‚Äîabused children have extremely attuned antennae. I believe Snape is a White Hat and possibly DD‚Äôs truest man ‚Äúthrough and through,‚Äù but I also believe he is emotionally crippled and has genuine antipathy to Harry because of old hatreds and because he must subsume his own quotidian heroics to help Harry accomplish his mission.

    I think you’re both on the right track. There will be serious twists, surprises and enough alchemical aspects, misdirection, etc., to intrigue us all. But there will also be reader satisfaction in terms of emotional storytelling. We need both analyst (“the incredible symbolic imagery from alchemy”) and storyteller (“dramatic structure and consistency”) to enlighten our way with these books.

    Oh, the kitties are howling!

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