I’m still trying very hard not to be absolutely furious with Rowling, but the show must go on, and this chapter was fortunately inoffensive. Just nonsensical.
Chapter Thirteen: Nicolas Flamel
Today’s picture is of a conifer plantation. The Forbidden Forest is mixed woodland, but good try.
Some of you may have noticed in previous posts that I’ve occasionally spelled ‘Nicolas’ as ‘Nicholas’ – I think I caught them all before publishing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed one. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly since the book doesn’t seem all that sure either. Without the H is the correct spelling, and the one used in my UK hard copy; in the British PDF we’re mostly working from, the chapter title is correct but the page headers add the H. In the US PDF we keep for reference, the title uses the H, but the name is spelt both ways at different points in the text. Mitchell’s physical copy is in the attic so we couldn’t check that; regardless, we found this a bit odd.
Harry’s mostly completely over his inexplicable addiction, as we expected last chapter. Though for some reason he’s now telling us he desperately wants to forget what he saw in the Mirror, which I don’t understand – wanting to forget about the Mirror itself, yes, and maybe if he seemed frightened of the addiction this would make sense, but as it is I’m not sure why he’s so eager to forget the images of his family when he was obsessed with them two days ago and why it’s suddenly traumatic when nothing bad happened. He’s also having nightmares about his parents dying in flashes of green light and the high laugh he’s ‘remembered’ (imagined) before, and I don’t know where this has come from because he’s never had this sort of dream before and the images in the Mirror shouldn’t have triggered it. This passage is treating it as though he literally saw images of their deaths in the mirror, and that wasn’t the case at all.
I suppose this is what happens when you’re going through Mirror-withdrawal?
Ron’s reaction is about as sympathetic as you’d expect: “You see, Dumbledore was right, that mirror could drive you mad.” Very helpful, Ron.
Hermione’s reaction when she comes back to school is more complicated, focusing on the ‘horror‘ of what would have happened if Filch caught Harry and disappointment that he didn’t find out about Flamel. We’re meant to read it as her preoccupation with Harry breaking rules overriding everything else, I think, but it seems more likely that the boys didn’t actually tell her about the Mirror. Even if she was somehow focused more on the rule-breaking than everything else, she would at least have mentioned it, even if only to ask how it works and are there other creepy mind-reading things in this world, or to wonder what she’d have seen if she’d been with them. I can’t accept that she has literally no reaction to a mind-reading addictive magic mirror. Also, note that use of ‘horror’ – she was worried about Harry being caught, not disapproving of him being out of bed. It also seems odd that she has no reaction to Harry’s inexplicable trauma dreams, either to be sympathetic or to tell him that it serves him right.
The alternative explanation is that Rowling either couldn’t or wasn’t interested in writing her reaction to that part and just glossed over it, but I think I can more easily buy Harry being too embarrassed to want to tell her – or the boys just not caring enough to keep her informed.
Incidentally, ‘horror’ seems a strong word. The students all seem weirdly frightened of Filch, but he’s not actually allowed to do anything except report them to a teacher. He can’t even assign detentions himself. He’s an elderly man who’s not in the best of health, and at least some of the students must have figured out that he either can’t or won’t use magic, so why are they all so terrified of him? (Well, in the movieverse he’s Walder Frey, which is a very good reason to be petrified of him…) In later books when he turns rather creepy and spends his time muttering about whips and thumbscrews I can understand it, but right now it’s just a bit strange.
And again, children, you think Snape wants to kill Harry, so shouldn’t you be more worried about him than Filch? More on this later.
Anyway, they’re still looking for information about Flamel, but Harry hasn’t got much time now term has started again because we’re back to bloody Quidditch. Wood is continuing his odd drill-sergeant stereotype by forcing the Gryffindor team to practice an insane amount, and I really don’t know how they have the time for it even if you accept that the other three teams really don’t care all that much. (There’s also a little more weather fail; we’re somewhere in the first half of January – happy birthday Snape – but the snow has already melted and given way to rain. It’s possible, but not very likely.)
Gryffindor’s next match is against Hufflepuff and if they win they’ll overtake Slytherin which is apparently a big deal for some reason. It doesn’t actually matter until later in the year, you know. At least, I don’t think it does, but we’re not actually told how the Quidditch Cup works – I think I assumed it was more of an elimination thing, all four houses play one another and the two with the most victories play a final deciding match, insert tiebreaker games as needed, but it seems to be more of a league affair with points given for winning or drawing and the scores being cumulative. Anyway, the real reason it doesn’t matter is that Harry is a special snowflake, as we know.
Wood informs the team that Snape is going to be refereeing this match, and everyone is duly horrified. I’m wondering how Wood knows, honestly – is this really such a big deal that they’d tell the students in advance? Based on what we see of Hooch’s performance in every other match in the series – yes, this is the only one that will have a different referee – the referee doesn’t actually do anything. At all. So does it really matter who it is?
Obviously, the Gryffindor team are all convinced that Snape’s going to be really unfair and rig the match to make sure they lose. I really don’t know what they’re basing this on, since despite the book’s best efforts to tell us how partisan and unfair he is we really haven’t seen any evidence of it thus far, but he won’t actually be allowed to do that. The whole school watches these stupid matches and the commentator is a Gryffindor. Snape’s only going to be allowed to assign penalties when someone actually breaks a rule – I can understand why the team would panic over this, now I think about it, since Hooch seems to look the other way and ignore it whenever that happens, but enforcing the rules isn’t unfair.
On a related note, Harry’s convinced that Snape’s done this purely to try and kill him again. Yes, Harry, it’s obviously going to be much easier to assassinate you with the entire school watching than it would be to do so from hiding. Also, you have lessons with the man at least once a week and those lessons involve explosions and dangerous chemicals. He could have killed you several hundred times by now if he’d wanted to, and that’s without counting all the times you’ve run into him out of hours. The fact that you’re too stupid to be afraid of him except when sport is involved is neither here nor there; either he’s trying to kill you or he’s not, this is not a part-time thing.
This does raise the question of why Harry actually isn’t dead, though. You don’t need literal assassination attempts – Hogwarts is already a deathtrap, how hard can it be to arrange an accident? I’m surprised students aren’t dying every week. What is our villain actually doing? I haven’t been keeping count but I’m sure there have been hundreds of chances for Harry to die by now. This is not how you write scary bad guys.
Anyway, Harry runs to tell his friends.
” ‘Don’t play,’ said Hermione at once.
‘Say you’re ill,’ said Ron.
‘Pretend to break your leg,’ Hermione suggested.
‘Really break your leg,’ said Ron. “
I like this exchange. But Ron’s a pureblood from a crazy family and knows that broken bones can be healed in minutes; a broken leg wouldn’t stop him playing and Ron shouldn’t think it would. You don’t even need your legs to play Quidditch anyway.
Harry says he can’t; there’s no reserve seeker and if he doesn’t play then Gryffindor can’t play. They can, you know. There is an actual game going on in the background while you chase your shiny walnut around. They’ll lose, because this sport is broken, but they can play perfectly well. And there should be a reserve seeker; if Wood takes the game as seriously as it seems, he ought to have conscripted most of the house into several reserve teams just in case. We know why there isn’t one, of course – it’s because Harry couldn’t be a special snowflake if there were! Also, again, Harry – perspective. Your life is not worth a Quidditch match. If you play and get murdered your team are also going to lose.
Neville crawls into the common room at this point, with his legs bound together by something called the Leg-Locker Curse. Everyone in the room ‘fell about laughing‘ at him, of course, because they’re all horrible people. Except Hermione, who not only doesn’t laugh but instantly jumps up to help him and does the counter-curse.
Current spell count: Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Harry, 0. You know what, it was Draco who cursed Neville… Current spell count: Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Harry, 0. Welcome to the count, Draco. Congratulations on being more effective than the protagonist. Leave Neville alone. Technically this magic happened offscreen, but I say it still counts.
Hermione urges Neville to tell someone, but he refuses. Ron tells him it’s his own fault for not standing up for himself, and Neville says, “There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor, Malfoy’s already done that.” You go, Neville – Ron is every bit as bad as Draco, thank you for pointing it out to the boys and girls. Have a hug.
The plot demands that Harry uncharacteristically show a bit of compassion here – well, what he actually does is insult Slytherin, which isn’t particularly compassionate or helpful, but it’s meant to be. He was laughing at Neville ten seconds ago, but now offers him chocolate – the last frog from the box Hermione gave him for Christmas.
Good job Hermione’s not a selfish ass like her friends, isn’t it? If she hadn’t bothered giving them Christmas presents, you know, like they did to her, this scene probably wouldn’t have happened, and God knows how this plot would have limped to a conclusion otherwise.
Neville continues to be a delightful human being and thanks Harry for the chocolate before giving him the card from it, because he knows Harry collects them despite almost never getting to actually speak to the rest of his house. Have another hug, Neville. Though actually Harry doesn’t collect the things – he has a few from the train, but after this scene he’ll never show any interest in them again, and for all that Ron’s supposedly more enthusiastic and has almost a complete set nor will he.
Mitchell and I tried to work out what Rowling was going for with the chocolate frog cards. The closest analogy we could come up with was American baseball cards, because I couldn’t really think of a British equivalent. I mean, when I was at school we collected all sorts of things, but they had a purpose – Pokemon cards, Pogs, marbles. Things you played with. Collectables with no real use aren’t something I really remember. I suppose there were football stickers, but even then those were to put in a special sticker album that you could display, you didn’t have them just for the sake of having them. Honestly the closest thing I can think of are the cards you used to get in packs of cigarettes, before my time (maybe Rowling was remembering those?).
Anyway, Harry glances casually at the card, which happens to be Dumbledore’s, and sees Flamel’s name. Thank God that’s over. Though to be fair I actually do like the foreshadowing of Flamel being mentioned way back on the train, that was genuinely well done.
Hermione has her own little Eureka moment and sprints off to fetch one of her library books from the dormitory, which turns out to have an entry on Flamel in it. The only way to even try to make sense of the fact that she didn’t remember this before is to assume that when she says she checked this book out ‘weeks ago‘ she actually meant ‘months’; that she read it before Halloween, before she was friends with the boys, before she knew Flamel was apparently important, and thus had no reason to remember the name before now. Though even then it’s a stretch, because we were told several chapters ago that she has an eidetic memory (she must do because there’s no other way a young girl can completely memorise half a dozen textbooks about utterly alien concepts in the few months she had them before coming to Hogwarts) so she should have remembered in the weeks they’ve been searching.
This would have worked so much better if she’d said ‘Oh, so he’s an alchemist, let’s immediately go to the library again and look him up in a book of alchemists’ and found this information that way. Particularly since, unlike either Harry or Ron, she’s heard of the Philosopher’s Stone already. (Interesting that Ron knows about invisibility cloaks but not this.)
I also have no earthly idea what book she’s reading, because take a look at the part she reads out.
“The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.
There have been many reports of the Philosopher’s Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera-lover. Mr Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).”
Firstly, there’s a hell of a lot more to alchemy than the Stone. It’s a science in its own right. Secondly, why does Flamel’s age, where he lives or the fact that he likes opera get a mention? I strongly suspect that this text is left over from an early draft, where Harry read this from Flamel’s own chocolate frog card.
Also, if this book openly lists Flamel’s name and location, why has nobody gone after the Philosopher’s Stone before now? Why didn’t Voldemort kill him and take it during the first war? Why didn’t Grindelwald take it in the war before that? (Why didn’t Dumbledore? You can’t tell me it would have been out of character.) Immortality and infinite wealth – half the world would have been digging around in Devon looking for him. And why is it the only one in existence? Someone somewhere would find out what Flamel’s area of expertise is and would have worked out how to make another one by now.
Though I suppose this probably explains why the Stone was being kept at Gringotts – I’d imagine the goblins confiscated it. “Our currency is gold coins, we cannot allow you to keep the source of infinite gold because you’ll break the economy.”
I’d also like to mention that on Dumbledore’s frog card Flamel is listed as his partner in alchemy. Flamel has been an alchemist for nearly seven hundred years. Dumbledore would be his very lowly assistant at best.
[We also noticed that this book is described as an ‘old’ book but nothing is said about when it was actually published; despite that, Ron immediately assumes that the age it gives for Flamel is current, and I’ve noticed fans doing the same from time to time. Curiosity led me to do some maths, and this is probably an error on Rowling’s part; Wikipedia gives 1330 as approximate year of birth for the historical Flamel, and that would have made him 666 or 667 years old in 1997, when the book was published. So I suspect she was going for some kind of accuracy but didn’t take into account the time difference between the fictional book being published and the characters reading it, nor that the story wasn’t meant to be taking place the same year as she was writing it.]
Also let us just reflect for a minute on that date. 1997. Nearly twenty years ago. Do you feel horribly ancient yet?
I hope you enjoyed your brief glimpse of the plot, because now it’s time for yet more Quidditch. Harry tells us the entire team is panicking and no seriously why is this such a huge deal, you lot haven’t won against Slytherin for seven years, it makes literally no difference.
Harry also tells us Snape is apparently following him around, is being really horrible in Potions, and must therefore somehow know that the Trio have found out about the Stone. This is not only nonsense – and will never come up again; if Severus really is following him, he apparently gives up or hides it better after this single paragraph – but is also once again devoid of emotion. Harry’s not scared. He finds Potions ‘torture‘ because Snape’s being mean, but he’s not worried that the man’s supposedly trying to murder him. He does wonder if Snape can read minds, since he doesn’t know how else he could have found out what they’re doing, but he’s not scared of that either.
The feel of this entire sub-plot is really strange. Harry is absolutely not afraid of someone apparently out to kill him, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s not trying to avoid Snape, he’s not terrified of going to Potions lessons, he’s not trying to get evidence so he can report it to someone; Snape apparently being a murderer is just a piece of background detail. It doesn’t matter to Harry, it’s just the way it is. And yet at the same time he’s being ridiculously melodramatic about it:
“Harry knew, when they wished him good luck outside the changing rooms next afternoon, that Ron and Hermione were wondering whether they’d ever see him alive again.”
I genuinely can’t work out if Harry even believes what he’s saying or not. He’s pretty much reading cue cards that are instructing him to tell us that Snape’s trying to murder him, and in between reading them he’s forgotten all about it.
I don’t think Ron and Hermione are taking it all that seriously either. Their strategy is to practice the Leg-Locker curse we saw earlier in case they need to use it on Snape. Aside from kindly making sure he can’t fall off his broom, I’m not sure what this is meant to achieve – they’d be better off using it on Harry in that case. I’m sure Hermione knows actual useful spells, so this is really just emphasising the weird feel of this chapter – the cast of characters keep being reminded by an impatient director offscreen that they’re meant to be frightened of Snape, but none of them are really feeling it.
Anyway, as the team are getting changed Fred sees that the whole school has turned out to watch, even Dumbledore. Everyone immediately rushes to see and treats this as really shocking – I suppose this does explain why he didn’t intervene in the last match; apparently he wasn’t there – but for the rest of the series he’s going to attend at least most of them and it really doesn’t seem unusual for him to be there. We have to infer that he starts this habit because of Harry, and never bothered before, but in that case why was he apparently not there for the first game?
Harry is very relieved that Dumbles is there to protect him and thinks that Snape won’t dare do anything now. Harry, your head of house was there last game, she sits in the commentary box. There were at least two teachers in the crowd and I would guess most of them were there. Hagrid was there. There are already plenty of adults watching; if you don’t think you’re safe already, Dumbles isn’t going to make a difference. This just shows how quickly and easily he’s been brainwashed into thinking that Dumbledore is God, doesn’t it? Nobody else can possibly do anything, it’s only the precious Headmaster who can save him. Never mind that said Headmaster has done precisely bugger-all except talk nonsense on the single brief occasion they met.
The match itself is mercifully brief. Lee doesn’t seem to be commentating this time, there’s no commentary at all, and most of the game is from the point of view of Ron and Hermione sitting in the stands with Neville while Draco tries to start arguments with them. Neville attempts to stand up for himself and it’s adorable, and Draco responds by moving on to insulting Ron instead.
Snape gives Hufflepuff a penalty because George deliberately hits a cannonball at him. Yes, attempting to assault the referee does usually have consequences. George should also have been sent off, but that doesn’t seem to exist in Quidditch. We’re told in the next paragraph that Snape gives Hufflepuff another penalty ‘for no reason at all‘ but there’s no mention of the non-existent commentator asking why, or anyone in the crowd getting angry, or any signs that this actually happened. Rowling wants to tell us that he’s cheating to rig the match, but can’t quite manage to write it happening because there’s no possible way he can do it, so we just get this weird half a page of nonsense interspersed with the children bickering.
After a few minutes of insults Ron turns around and physically attacks Draco. Well, I assume that’s what happened, though if they were any older this scene might sound a lot more suggestive…:
“Ron snapped. Before Malfoy knew what was happening, Ron was on top of him, wrestling him to the ground.”
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. The slash subtext in these books is ridiculous.
More seriously, I’m tempted to start a count of all the times Ron responds with violence to basically everything, but that would require going back over the chapters we’ve already covered because it’s happened several times already. This time Neville joins in, for some reason, attacking Crabbe and Goyle – no, Neville! You’re being infected with Gryffindor! Get away quickly! – while Hermione ignores them and keeps watching Harry chasing his walnut.
“She didn’t even notice Malfoy and Ron rolling around under her seat.”
It’s canon, I can’t help it.
Once again forgetting that the man’s supposedly trying to murder him, Harry charges directly at Snape in pursuit of the shiny (speaking of which, are we meant to assume that quidditch referees are normally flying about right in the midst of the play area? No real-world sport does this). Once again displaying inhuman levels of patience, Snape doesn’t incinerate him for it, or ‘accidentally’ collide with him in a way that just happens to leave Harry impaled by bits of broomstick, but just moves out of the way and lets Harry catch the walnut and end the match. Harry assures us that it took him less than five minutes and that he’s the greatest seeker ever, but the boys were squabbling for longer than that before getting into a brawl – which is still going on, by the way, even though Hermione’s trying to tell them that the match is over.
As Harry lands, Dumbles teleports onto the pitch to touch his shoulder and congratulate him and deliberately remind him of the horribly addictive mirror he’s been trying not to think about for weeks. This is gross – it’s like walking up to a recovering alcoholic and congratulating them on not having had a drink yet today. Perhaps in recognition of how terrible and manipulative this is, the scene ends with Snape spitting on the ground. My sentiments exactly.
This game ending so stupidly quickly caused another digression, as you might expect. We wondered how it’s possible to have Quidditch in a school environment when matches can apparently last for weeks. This game started in the afternoon; what happens after a few hours when it’s getting dark? What happens if they play through the night and the match still doesn’t end? Do they miss lessons? Meals? What about exams?
More interestingly, what would happen if the two opposing seekers made a deal and simply didn’t catch the walnut? It wouldn’t be hard to fake just barely missing it every time it showed up. How long would the match be allowed to go on for before the teachers intervened? It’s really not hard to imagine a couple of students conspiring to do something like this if, say, they’ve got an exam the next day they’d rather not have to sit. We found ourselves wondering if this is why Hogwarts encourages antipathy between students of different houses, so it wouldn’t occur to them to cooperate on something like this.
Sadly we’ll never know. Every match Harry plays in will be over in about twenty minutes. But it’s fun to think about.
About an hour after the match, something weird has happened to the nature of time and it’s suddenly evening and everyone’s stopped fawning over Harry to go and eat dinner. For some reason Harry hasn’t, he’s still down in the changing rooms putting his broom away. He continues to display absolutely no sense of perspective:
“He’d really done something to be proud of now – no one could say he was just a famous name any more… He’d done it, he’d shown Snape …”
Harry. Dear. Defeating Voldemort – whether you remember doing it or not – was a teensy bit more important than your team temporarily taking the lead in a sports contest that’s not going to end for months yet. You haven’t actually won anything. And you believe Snape’s after the Philosopher’s Stone, source of infinite wealth and literal immortality – on what planet do you really think he gives even the tiniest of fucks about school Quidditch?!
I don’t object to Harry feeling good about winning the match, like he did last time. I do object to him insisting that it’s the greatest achievement in the universe and more important than the actual supposedly really serious plot – how are the readers meant to care when the characters don’t?
Stretching the nature of coincidence, he finally leaves the changing rooms just in time to see someone walking towards the Forbidden Forest, and recognises Snape from the ‘prowling walk‘. Good to see that Severus has recovered from the serious dog bite by now, but it’s evening in January and Harry can apparently see a man wearing black walking across unlit grounds into an equally unlit and quite dense forest? I don’t think so. Inevitably, he jumps on his broom and follows, though he flies over the castle to do so, which makes no sense. Conveniently, Snape waits for Harry to get on his broom before inexplicably breaking into a run; I don’t know what his hurry is, Harry can’t see a thing and it’s not like this scene is urgent.
Proving my point, by the time Harry reaches the treeline he’s lost sight of Snape and flies aimlessly in circles trying to see where he went. In defiance of how the world works, Harry manages to hear voices at ground level while flying above the canopy, and further defies the nature of the universe by landing ‘noiselessly‘ in a beech tree (not a pine tree; sorry, chapter artist). Not only that, he then scrambles around in the tree while carrying a broomstick, and still somehow appears to remain both unseen and unheard. Even though it’s January and the tree is half-dead, and the branches and any remaining dead leaves or empty beech nut husks will be rattling and rustling and snapping.
I’m also not sure how Harry knows it’s a beech tree. A Boy Scout he ain’t. Beeches themselves aren’t exactly common in Scotland either – they’re native to southern Britain. But whatever, magic forest.
He proceeds to observe a very weird meeting between Snape and Quirrell. This is not how you do stealth, guys. Everyone else is at dinner and the absence of two teachers is going to be obvious, and why the hell are they out in the forest anyway? At this point I think we have to assume Snape’s putting on a show for whatever warped reason, but it must be causing him physical pain to have to be this obvious about things.
The purpose of the meeting is for Snape to threaten Quirrell. He’s demanding to know what Quirrell’s contribution to the defences around the Stone is and whether Quirrell knows how to get past Fluffy yet, and he’s sounding delightfully menacing while doing so. (Don’t judge me.) He’s also interrupting Quirrell every time the man tries to answer – maybe he’s tired of the stutter – and ends the meeting and stalks dramatically into the night after only a few sentences and a final threat, just to underscore the message that there was literally zero point to this scene for anyone involved.
Harry scampers back to the castle to tell his friends. Ron’s more interested in gloating about having given Draco a black eye; he also tells us that Neville’s out cold and has been since the match ended. Madam Pomfrey says he’ll be fine, apparently, but he’s been unconscious for over an hour. Something is seriously wrong. But that doesn’t matter, because Fred and George have stolen a load of cakes from the kitchen to throw a party for Harry and that’s obviously more important. Never mind that they’ve all literally just eaten, or that cake is the sort of thing you make fresh as needed and don’t just leave lying around, or that as we know ‘stealing’ means ‘walking in and asking for stuff’.
Anyway, Harry drags Ron and Hermione away to tell them what he saw, rather optimistically stating that he thinks Quirrell’s done an anti-Dark Arts spell that Snape will have to break through. Good job you’re wrong, Harry, because that would take him about 0.03 seconds even on a bad day.
” ‘So you mean the Stone’s only safe as long as Quirrell stands up to Snape?’ said Hermione in alarm.
‘It’ll be gone by next Tuesday,’ said Ron. “
It’s a good line to end on, I admit, but it’s already been more than a full term. I think you’ll be okay for a while.
So let’s talk about Snape (not that I ever need a reason to do that).
We’re still being told that Snape is the villain of the book, even though we’re only a few chapters from the end now. This is a bad habit of Rowling’s writing that I saw a lot more blatantly in the Strike books – if she comes up with something she thinks is clever, she will go to utterly ridiculous lengths to avoid telling the readers about it until the last possible moment and do everything possible to hide it. This can work in moderation, but it’s a really bad way to write mysteries.
Good authors – one of the more famous examples would be Agatha Christie – give the readers all the necessary information as the story progresses, but in such a way that you don’t work it out until the right moment, along with the hero. It’s very hard to do well but it allows the reader to figure things out along with the protagonist, or even just before the protagonist does, and it’s a lot more fun that way.
Big plot twists – like a sudden revelation that the supposed ‘villain’ is no such thing – can be very effective, but it needs to be a lot more subtle than this. You need characters misinterpreting far less obvious things. If this was to be done well, Snape would not be using B-movie techniques to shout HEY LOOK I’M A BAD GUY REALLY; instead there would be nothing overtly suspicious about him at all, except that he keeps showing up in unexpected places and seems to take a little too much interest in the main characters. That plus his dislike of Harry would be enough for the children to plausibly suspect him, and wouldn’t involve butchering his character to the point where the only logical explanation is a conspiracy theory that he’s faking it because he’s been told to take the rap. We would also see more of the other teachers so Quirrell isn’t our only other plausible option, and there would be more small things for the readers to misunderstand.
You can probably handwave this, as with so many other things, with ‘but this is a children’s book’. As a defence it’s starting to lose its validity. Children aren’t stupid and shouldn’t be treated as though they are; I started reading ‘adult’ books at a very young age because I was bored with the books I was ‘supposed’ to be reading. Nobody told me my new choices were too difficult for me, and I never noticed. A child old enough to understand the vocabulary in this book is old enough not to need flashing neon signs explaining the story at every step.
In any case, nobody misunderstood anything about the Snape-Quirrell twist. The book is simply flat out lying to the readers. It’s not a case of Quirrell secretly being the villain all along; Snape is the villain, until suddenly he isn’t. It just makes it obvious that in the first draft he was the villain and that a lot of the writing was just left unchanged. And that’s a shame, because we’ve seen just in this chapter that Rowling can do it well when she tries – the identity of Nicolas Flamel is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. We’ve already seen that information, but we didn’t know it was important, so we forgot about it just like Harry did, and now we read it again along with the characters and think ‘Oh, yes, that’s right, I remember that now!’
The fact that she can do it when she tries means that we can’t give her the benefit of the doubt here and say she can’t write that sort of thing, or that it’s too much for a children’s book and everything needs to be more obvious. She can do it, and do it pretty well. She just didn’t, and it’s a shame. This whole chapter feels wasted, somehow; even though there’s a genuine plot point or two in here, I get the impression that it was a transition between two parts she was more interested in and that this was more of a necessary chore to write in order to get to other parts of the story, which might explain why a lot of it isn’t well done. I don’t blame Rowling for that, necessarily, since I’ve done it myself – but if I were writing something I intended to try to get published I’d damn well polish it a bit.
I was going to talk about this plot twist at the end of the book, and we probably will talk about it again when we get there, but in light of Snape’s conversation with Quirrell we were trying to figure out just how much either of them know at this point. It’s really not clear. Snape’s implying that he knows about all the defences except Quirrell’s, but how? Either he was in on it from the start and just happened not to see that specific defence being put in place, or he’s managed to ask everyone else about their contributions without anyone wondering why he wants to know. In either case it’s weird that he hasn’t just gone and asked Hagrid how you get past Fluffy, since after this many years he must know the man can’t keep a secret to save his life – though it’s possible he has done just that by now, since he was asking if Quirrell knew, not what the answer was.
In any case, does Snape know why Quirrell’s after the Stone? I’m inclined to say no, because he certainly wouldn’t be acting like this if he knew Voldy was lurking under the turban a couple of feet away. And there’s no reason he would know, since Quirrell was never a Death Eater and for reasons that are never explained (because Rowling can’t think of a way to retcon it) Snape’s Dark Mark hasn’t reacted to its creator being literally right there next to it.
But it’s equally possible to read this as though Snape does know and is pretending he has no idea; he’s certainly a good enough actor, and he must know that Voldy can’t do anything about it right now. In which case, does he think Quirrell believes he knows? Again, I don’t think so. Though something else that will never be explained is why Voldy never makes Quirrell approach Snape; he’s got a Death Eater right there, a much more effective minion than some random untested wizard he happened to possess in Albania. Surely he would at least attempt to find out whose side Snape is on now, particularly since Quirrell must have observed that Snape doesn’t like Dumbledore and rumours must have spread that he doesn’t like Harry either. Snape could potentially be a very important ally, yet there’s no indication that Voldy ever tried to find out.
It’s even more interesting given that Snape’s putting on a show of wanting to get to the Stone himself. He could have offered to work with Quirrell – infinite gold and immortality-juice by definition means there’s enough to share – but instead he’s choosing to threaten and intimidate him. It’s hard to tell if he’s trying to scare Quirrell off, or trying to manipulate him into asking for an alliance.
Even assuming that most of his scenes are left over from the first draft where he was the bad guy, it’s impossible to tell how much of a bad guy he was meant to be. Is he acting the Death Eater, or does he just want the cool shiny thing, or does he just want to oppose Dumbledore?
I don’t really know where I’m going with this, honestly, but I think the book would probably have been a lot more interesting if Snape really were a villain, though definitely not any more coherent. It would certainly have been more interesting if he’d been allowed to do his own thing.
To put this all a slightly different way, I think what we’re trying to say is that if you’re going to write a dramatic twist reveal that changes everything you thought you knew, you have to go back and make sure all of the scenes the reader ‘misinterpreted’ make sense when read with the new knowledge in mind. What we’ve been finding throughout this book, quite alarmingly, is that she doesn’t seem to have made any such effort, and as a result scenes like this just don’t make any sense at all. Trust me, we tried. We were asking each other all sorts of questions about what Snape should know, what Quirrell might think Snape knows, does Snape know what Quirrell/Voldy knows about what he knows, etc, but we couldn’t think of any permutation or level of depth here which should lead to the conversation Harry overhears. Instead, all she did was retcon it and assume the reader wouldn’t go back and check. Though I’ll also say that it baffles me that we never seem to have noticed this before, nor do most fans; we aren’t sure if we think that’s because people reread the first book less frequently or something like that, or it’s something else… regardless, we don’t really have the data.
This was a pretty short chapter this time. Next time, here be dragons…