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Guns on the Wall
There's a famous saying by the Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov, which goes: 'If you hang a gun on the wall in Act I, you must use it in Act III.' Sometimes it's differently translated as: 'If you introduce a gun at the beginning of the play, you must use it by the end of the play.'
J.K. Rowling hangs plenty of gun-equivalents on the walls of Hogwarts and elsewhere, but Chekhov's rule needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when we're talking about novels. What he had in mind was the script of a play, where anything that's important enough to be mentioned in the stage directions should have its part in the action. Suppose, though, that in such-and-such a scene set in a stately home, that gun on the wall of the stage-set wasn't in the play script but is just a touch of high-class decoration added by the set designer…?
Harry's Uncle Vernon actually does buy a gun in Chapter Three of Philosopher's Stone--but it's not there to be used, only to underline how desperate he's getting (and also, when Hagrid so easily takes it away from him, to remind us again of what a wimp Vernon really is). It's an extra touch of make-up or stage decor, rather than an important piece of plot machinery.
Part of the fun of reading detective stories is the challenge of trying to sort out these ornamental extras from the real 'guns on the wall', the clues which are part of Agatha Christie's or Dorothy Sayers' or J.K. Rowling's secret script. As her readers have discovered, Rowling is rather good at inventing smokescreens of comic diversion to help conceal important clues, even when they're right under our noses. Now you see it, now you don't.
In Philosopher's Stone, our author wants to plant the name of Nicolas Flamel--the wizard who created the Stone itself--in such a way that we barely notice its appearance, and will later kick ourselves for not remembering it. So the brief mention of Flamel is deftly slipped into a mini-biography of Albus Dumbledore, printed on the back of the collectable picture card which Harry finds in his very fi rst Chocolate Frog wrapper.
Meanwhile, during this scene on the Hogwarts Express, there's a flood of distraction as Harry boggles at new wonders of the wizarding world. It's the first time he's met photographs whose subjects wander in and out of the visible picture-frame, and it's also his first encounter with half a dozen other brands of magical sweeties like the very weird Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. A subtler distraction for the reader is the nagging thought that perhaps Chocolate Frogs are a little homage to the Crunchy Frog sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus--whose Cockroach Clusters will indeed turn up much later, in the third Harry Potter adventure...
All this inventive stuff is great fun, and it is also a conjuror's display of dazzling lights and coloured ribbons, designed to lure your eye away from the key reference to Nicolas Flamel. Rowling has a real gift for this kind of misdirection, as perfected by stage magicians who subtly guide you to look in just the wrong place.
Onwards! A bit closer to a literal gun, since they contain real explosive, are the Filibuster Fireworks which appear early in Chamber of Secrets. At first sight these don't appear to be at all important--just something to provide entertainment for young wizards and witches, like all those weird sweets. But by writing these fireworks into the story, Rowling is secretly preparing a stage-effect for a much later chapter. When Harry needs to cause a diversion in the Potions class, tossing a Filibuster Firework into a Slytherin student's cauldron is a perfect way to create total chaos.
Why are they called Filibuster Fireworks, anyway? The most common meaning of 'filibuster' is to make long, long speeches in Parliament or Congress, not to convince anyone of anything, but to waste time and prevent unwanted laws from being passed. It's a tactic of diversion and delay--which, of course, is exactly how Harry uses his firework.
The most obvious 'gun on the wall' in Chamber of Secrets is Ron Weasley's wand, which gets broken early in the book when the flying car crashes into the Whomping Willow. As a result, the Spellotape-repaired* wand becomes a totally unreliable weapon. Ron tries to curse Malfoy, and the wand backfires, leaving Ron himself burping up great masses of slimy slugs for the rest of the day.
As well as being good entertainment in itself, this magic-gone-wrong comedy lays the groundwork for a much more serious miscarriage of magic. Near the end, Gilderoy Lockhart himself tries to wipe out Harry's and Ron's knowledge that he's a posturing fraud. But it's the broken wand that he grabs, and his Memory Charm bounces straight back at him. The 'gun on the wall' has gone off at last, and--as neatly foreshadowed by those slugs--it backfired.
An interesting side-question: could Lockhart really have got away with it if he'd succeeded in wiping out the boys' memories? This isn't some remote village in Transylvania or Tibet, but Hogwarts School, where Madam Pomfrey and Dumbledore would work their hardest to cure a couple of dazed and blank-minded pupils. As Voldemort himself knows, and mentions when talking to Wormtail early in Goblet of Fire, the effect of a Memory Charm can be broken by an expert wizard. The most likely explanation is that Lockhart was too ignorant of the higher branches of magic to know this important fact.
Putting Back the Clock
The little mystery of Hermione's classes, and how on Earth she manages to attend more than one at the same time, runs through the action of Prisoner of Azkaban. Is she using some special charm that allows her to split into two or even three Hermiones, all of whom can go to lessons or take exams simultaneously?
Eventually all this bafflement is explained by the Time-Turner which Professor McGonagall has persuaded the Ministry of Magic to loan to Hermione. Now, with special permission from Dumbledore himself, Harry and his closest friends can save the day by going back in time to do all the things they didn't achieve in the three hours that had just gone by. If such an amazing gadget had simply appeared when needed, this would have been a totally unconvincing way to save the book's plot. What makes it satisfying is that the Time-Turner's effect on Hermione's timetable has been a running joke, and a source of mild bewilderment, ever since we first found her planning to take three classes at once in Chapter Six.
The Time-Turner is such a powerful plot device, capable of solving so many problems, that Rowling later takes some care to rule out its further use, as we'll see in the chapter 'Awkward Consequences'.
Key to Transport
The introduction of the Portkey in Goblet of Fire is much more straightforward. It's not a mystery, but just a useful part of the vast magical crowd-control apparatus that's needed to organise the Quidditch World Cup in a country full of Muggles. As the 'port' in the name suggests, this device instantly transports or teleports anyone who's touching the key (the tip of a finger is enough) when its spell is triggered.
So the Portkey doesn't seem to be an unused 'gun on the wall'--it goes into action almost as soon as it appears. We're left with the knowledge that just about any object of any shape can be enchanted as a Portkey: a manky old boot, a newspaper, a drinks can, a rubber tyre... Much later, at the very end of the Triwizard Tournament, the Goblet of Fire itself turns out to have become a Portkey that opens the way into a terrible trap.
One of the most puzzling questions in the series is why the Dark Lord's agent within Hogwarts should go to the trouble of preparing such an incredibly elaborate booby-trap. Wouldn't it have been so much easier to place the Portkey enchantment on Harry's toothbrush, or some piece of his broomstick maintenance kit, or one of his school textbooks? If Portkeys are more difficult to make work inside the walls of Hogwarts, why didn't the villain enchant a piece of Quidditch equipment or some other ordinary object out in the school grounds? Since this Dark impostor gains Harry's trust almost as soon as he begins to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts, he could have given our hero a wrapped-up Portkey at any time--'Secret instructions, my lad!'--and told him to open it in private, out in the woods, or in Hogsmeade village...
Perhaps the best answer to all this is that Voldemort--like the villain of many a James Bond movie--prefers his foes to be defeated in the most spectacular way possible, just as murders committed by himself and his followers were signalled by the emerald-green glare of the Dark Mark in the sky. By the same logic, Harry must be captured exactly at his greatest moment of triumph, so that he can be thrown from this height into the deepest possible despair, and then gloated over at length before his final end. To a Dark Lord, this probably makes sense.
Rowling introduces a different and much subtler kind of unexploded plot device in Order of the Phoenix. This is Harry's chronic teenage anger, and we don't even recognise it as anything special. After all, the boy is now fifteen--of course he's going to have random fits of sulks, and shout embarrassingly IN CAPITAL LETTERS at even his best friends! Especially when Dumbledore, who could tell Harry all sorts of things, has gone mysteriously reclusive and refuses to talk to him for most of this book. Dumbledore's reasons for this silence are not entirely convincing, but that's a different issue.
By giving a big showing to Harry's adolescent moodiness and tantrums--when he arrives at 12 Grimmauld Place, for example--Rowling encourages us to wonder again whether our hero has a touch of the Dark side within him. Indeed, Harry worries about this himself. Of course, the hidden truth is that some of this apparently random anger comes from the frustrated Voldemort, transmitted to Harry along their psychic link. Harry's increasing dream-obsession with the room of prophecies at the Ministry of Magic is a refl ection of Voldemort's own obsession.
When Harry fails to master Occlumency and learn to shield his mind from outside influence (did Dumbledore really believe the boy would learn anything useful from private lessons with the hated Snape?), Voldemort turns the situation to his own advantage. Harry is led up the garden path by a carefully crafted and entirely deceitful 'vision'...
A traditional smoke-and-mirrors technique of detective fiction is to describe a lengthy list of items, among which just one significant 'gun on the wall' is buried, like the 'Chocolate Frog' incident earlier. Enumerating the contents of a suspect's pockets or handbag, for example, or a detailed account of the murder room's furniture are good examples of this technique.
Many Rowling-watchers suspect that something of the sort is going on during Harry's last, hasty visit to the Room of Requirement in Chapter Twenty-Four of Half-Blood Prince. Obviously, the main thing that we're supposed to overlook is the 'broken' Vanishing Cabinet, a familiar object that played its part in Order of the Phoenix and has now been retired from action--or so Rowling would have us think.
Could there be an extra layer of bluff here, with another significant item slipped into that page-long list? The stuffed troll, the five-legged skeleton in its cage, the chipped bust and the dusty wig don't sound very promising, but what about that massive, bloodstained axe? (You can't help wondering whether Nearly Headless Nick has painful memories of this.) What about the tarnished tiara? Harry's shopping list for book seven includes a search for some unspecified object that originally belonged to Gryffindor or Ravenclaw House. Perhaps he has already seen it...
Like the Filibuster Fireworks in Chamber of Secrets, the imported Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder sold in Weasley's Wizard Wheezes has a part to play much later in Half-Blood Prince. Showing that the enemy can be just as resourceful as Harry and his chums, Draco Malfoy not also makes cunning use of Polyjuice Potion, and Hermione's own invention of magic communicator coins, but he also outwits Ron and Hermione by blinding them with Fred's and George's Instant Darkness Powder at the climax of his Hogwarts invasion plan.
Draco himself is immune to the Darkness Powder because he carries the Hand of Glory, which gives light to its owner and no one else. This dark-magic talisman was introduced several books earlier, in Chamber of Secrets, when Draco begs his father to buy him the Hand in Borgin and Burkes' seedy emporium. That was a gun that took a long, long time to go off.
The last and most fascinating of Rowling's 'guns on the wall' are the remaining Horcruxes, which contain fragments of Voldemort's life, as explained in Half-Blood Prince. We'll look more closely at these darkly magical stage-props later.
* Critics who grumble about the Americanisation of the Harry Potter novels (for poor dears who don't know what a philosopher is, or what's so special about his stone) often claim that Spellotape becomes Scotch tape in the US editions. It's not quite that bad: Spellotape was left unchanged, but Sellotape did become Scotch tape.