1. Being and Time-Turners
When Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out in 1999, some fans wondered why the time-turner that Hermione possesses in that novel (and which she uses to slip back in time in hourly increments and so double-up the number of classes she can take, the swot!)—why that time-turner couldn't be used to put an end to Voldemort before he ever became Voldemort. You'd have to give the device 250,000 turns or so, but that's a small exertion to undertake to prevent all the horrors that Tom Riddle unleashes on the world, surely! So why is the time-turner used only for trivial, and never for world-saving, purposes?
At the time, I came up with my own answer to this question, one which satisfied me, though it may not you. Maybe people had tried to use the time-turner that way. Maybe they'd tried many times, but each time they'd only ended up creating a present that was more monstrous and unbearable than before: they tried killing Riddle as a baby, or educating him differently, or treating him with different magic spells, and it made things worse and worse. Eventually, after much experiment and tragedy, they (whoever 'they' were) lighted on the only timeline in which Voldemort could be defeated, and that's the one spelled out by the novels we now have. Possibly, possibly not. More interesting than the likelihood of this particular fan-theory are the grounds on which such theories address the text at all.
Come at the same question another way. A related issue with this device is why it appears only in Prisoner of Azkaban, and vanishes from the later novels. Such a trinket could come in very useful in (say) Deathly Hallows, after all, and its disappearance rather smacks of an author, anxious not to paint herself into an impossible corner plotting-wise with one too many magical get-out-of-narrative-jail-free cards, nudging this extraordinary item under the carpet with her toe.
Now Rowling is the kind of writer who pays attention to her fans, and later HP books quite often include incidental details papering-over the cracks in her earlier worldbuilding that those fans have pointed out. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016), for instance, reveals the previously unmentioned 'Croaker's Law' that limits time-turners to a maximum backtime-travelling of five hours (any longer, we're told, would create ripple effects that would harm either the time traveller or time itself; although of course the plot of Cursed Child depends upon an extraordinary and illegal time turner that takes us back many years, so at the same time as filling that worldbuilding divot Rowling gouges out another). As for the 'why not use time-turners in the battle of Hogwarts?' puzzle: in Half-Blood Prince Hermione reads a newspaper account of an accident at the Ministry of Magic, in which a cabinet containing all the time-turners in the world has been destroyed. On account of the turners' special properties, the cabinet falls, shatters and repairs itself endlessly in a rather neat temporal short-circuit, that happens to keep them conveniently out of the way of the remainder of the plotting Rowling has to do.
She hasn't plugged all such internal coherence gaps, I think. (Why is Hermione in Prisoner of Azkaban so tired all the time? We're told it's because, using the time-turner, she's doing twice as much school work. But she has a time-turner! Why doesn't she use it to do twice as much school work and get twice as much sleep?) But the longer I go on with this kind of nit-picking, the more you get the sense that I'm missing the point. You're right: I am. Hermione's time-turner has its manifest role in the plot, but it has a much more resonant and powerful latent role in the thematic through-line of Prisoner of Azkaban as a novel; which is why it appears in that novel only, and isn't needed for later installments. That's because Prisoner of Azkaban brings one of the main themes of the series as a whole into a particular dramatic focus. I'm talking about the relationship between the parental generation and the children who succeed them. Harry misses and idolises his parents. As the novels go on he discovers his Dad was a bit of a bully when he was Harry's age. In Azkaban, threatened by Dementors, Harry is saved by somebody casting a patronus spell: a stag. He thinks this is his father, except obviously it can't be, since his father is dead. At the end of the novel it turns out that it was he himself, time-returned, who saved himself. Wendy Doniger is right about how forceful and touching this scene is:
Thanks to a wonderfully complex and subtle episode of time travel that traces a Möbius twist in the chronological sequence, Harry encounters himself in the loop where past and present come together and overlap. The first time he lives through this period, he sees, across a lake, someone he vaguely recognises: perhaps his father? No, his father is dead, but that person sends a silver stag which saves him from present danger. When he goes back in time, he runs to the same place to see who it was, and there’s no one else there: he is the one who sends the stag to save himself in the future. The moment when Harry realises that he mistook himself for his father is powerful; and it is, after all, the only real kind of time travel there is: each of us becomes, in adulthood, someone who lived some thirty years before us, someone who must save our own life.Fun though it can be to debate the in-story consistences and inconsistencies of Rowling's intricate worldbuilding, only a fool would think that the success of these novels was a consequence of intricate consistence of worldbuilding. That success has much more to do with the way these novels express a complex of, fundamentally, affective and existential truths, things that chime deeply with its readership of children and of adults both: things to do with friendship and solidarity, with school and love and loss, and especially I think to do with parents and children. The novels are littered with ingenious trinkets and amusing spells, but most of these remain mere narrative garnish unless—like the time-turner—they express something deeper. And when they do it kind-of misses the point to focus all one's attention on the epiphenomena of the artefact. Doesn't it? The scene in Azkaban where Harry sends the stag patronus to save himself is indeed a satisfying plot point, but it is more importantly a way of saying something profound: that we struggle for a long time to come to terms with the influence, good and bad, our parents have upon us, to find a way out from their shadow, to understand them, to love them properly, and then, without warning, we discover we have become them, and it is a surprise. It's no less of a surprise because we understand that this is the way of things; it's how the species carries on. And indeed it's not only the transition, it's the apparent elision of the two conditions. We are wholly dependent upon our parents; we separate ourselves from our parents; we resent and fight our parents; we are our parents. Just like that!
2. The Surveillance Unto Death
Another problem Rowling-as-writer has, in terms of boxing herself into a corner, is how massively over-surveilled her world is. The story needs its mysteries to remain mysterious until the proper point in the narrative when they can be revealed with the conjurer's flourish and the satisfied 'ahh!' of the audience. Disguises must not yet be penetrated, hidden people and things have to remain hidden a while longer, and so on. Yet magic allows anyone and everyone to see, pretty much, everything. Take the Marauder’s Map, which is easily filched, and passes from schoolchild to schoolchild. This map shows the true identity and location of everybody in Hogwarts. No magical countermeasure, not Animagus disguises, Polyjuice Potion or Invisibility Cloaks, can fool the map. So, we might wonder, how did Fred and George fail to notice that their brother Ron spent his nights cuddling up with a full-grown man, Peter Pettigrew? How, in the first book, did they not see, with appropriate startlement, that Lord Voldemort himself was in the school, always close beside Quirrel?
To follow my own advice, I'm going to focus less on the in-story manifest logic of surveillance artefacts and spells, and more on the latent significance. Because it's not just maps. An important thread in the novels is that characters are granted access inside the minds and memories of other characters. It takes what in conventional novels would be 'eavesdropping' to a new level of psychological intimacy (although there's is also a great deal of old-fashioned eavesdropping in the stories, as it happens). There are two main iterations of this. One is the use of magical artefacts such as the Pensieve to re-play the memories of others, most notably when Harry gathers tears from the eyes of dying Snape, and by dropping them in the Pensieve not only learns but, it seems, experiences the secret history of Snape's whole life: his love for Lily Potter, how he was bullied at school, and the double-game he played at Dumbledore's prompting to keep Harry safe. Another example of this sort of thing is even more intimate: the direct connection of mind to mind, primarily dramatised via the link that exists between Harry himself and Voldemort. This link is actualised via Harry's forehead scar, which grows more painful as the connection strengthens. It's a major narrative strand in the series, in fact: Voldemort tries to use the connection to possess Harry, and when he can't he plants false visions into Harry's mind (Harry nearly dies after V. lures him into Department of Mysteries by showing him false visions of Sirius Black being tortured, for instance.) Finally Harry learns to use the connection to surveil Voldemort and to track down Horcruxes—a plural form I insist in believing, despite all evidence in the text to the contrary, should be Horcruces. In Deathly Hallows Hermione scolds Harry for looking into Voldemort‘s mind: 'Harry, You are not supposed to let this happen anymore!... what good is it to watch him kill and torture, how can it help?' [Deathly Hallows, ch 27]. Harry's reply ('Because it means I know what he's doing') strikes us as weak beer, because we understand something far more crucial is represented by this linkage.
We could make a Foucauldian, Disciplinary-Punishing point with respect to all this surveillance if we wanted to. After all, Hogwarts School is a remarkably Panopticon-like space, in which the pupils are under continual surveillance by not only their teachers, but by prefects, by ghosts and house-elves and even by the portraits on the wall; not counting such items as the invisibility cloak and the marauder's map. But I'm going to go in a different direction, in part because Hogwarts, despite being so thoroughly surveilled, is such a Deleuze-Guattarian holey space: there are just so many hidden rooms, secret paths and veiled elements. Even the Marauder's Map doesn't show the Room of Requirement or the Chamber of Secrets. And that's as we might expect: it's part of Rowling's inheritance of the Gothic, where the actual structure at the heart of the story (castle, monastery, stately home) literalises the symbolic structures of society and, especially, of family, in order to dramatise the truth that such structures are built on secrets. Secrets, and the uncovering of them, are the entire plot-thrust of the Harry Potter novels. (That's an overstatement, I know: there are other things going on in these books that endeared them to readers: the inventiveness and charm, the strong central relationships, the apprehension of school as the most important forum of youth. But you see what I mean). And since this paragraph seems to have slipped into the nether reaches of Theorist name-dropping I'll add two more: the topography of Hogwarts is not Foucauldian: it is much better described by Abraham and Török.
There are many individual secrets and hidden-things brought to light during the course of the seven Harry Potter books. But in what remains of this blogpost I want to suggest that all of these lesser secrets are constellated around, and in various ways reflect upon, one core secret: the 'big' secret that the series works through. And that means we can finally get to the Kierkegaard. At last. I'm only søren it's taken me so long.
So I propose that what I'm calling the 'big' secret of the Harry Potter novels is: Abraham and Isaac. Which is to say: the mystery (in the strong sense of that word) of why the old are called upon to sacrifice the life of the young, to kill the favoured child, the chosen one. And why they do so without any apparent qualm.
"So the boy ... the boy must die?" asked Snape quite calmly.Dumbledore can't quite believe Snape's profession of outrage, here, if that's what it is. “But this is touching, Severus,” said Dumbledore seriously. “Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?” (In the movie this line of dialogue is shifted slightly to make it even more deflating: 'don't tell me you have grown to care for the boy?'). But Snape is quite right. 'The boy who lived' is revealed as 'the boy who lived in order to die at the appropriate time.' These two old men are conspiring in secret to sacrifice—literally, not metaphorically, to sacrifice—a favoured son on the altar of a cruel and unresponsive Providence.
"And Voldemort himself must do it, Severus. That is essential."
Another long silence. Then Snape said, "I thought ... all these years ... that we were protecting him for her. For Lily."
"We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength," said Dumbledore, his eyes still tight shut. "Meanwhile, the connection between them grows ever stronger, a parasitic growth: Sometimes I have thought he suspects it himself. If I know him, he will have arranged matters so that when he sets out to meet his death, it will truly mean the end of Voldemort."
Dumbledore opened his eyes. Snape looked horrified.
"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment? ... You have used me ... I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to keep Lily Potter's son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter." [Deathly Hallows, ch.33]
It's a feature the Harry Potter universe shares with Middle Earth that none of its characters spend any time in church or temple, or devote any of their energies to worshipping God or pondering the spiritual dimension of things. In the case of Tolkien this was, perhaps counter-intuitively, because he was so religious himself. The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, 'is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.' It's possible Rowling, who was raised an Anglican and attended Church of Scotland services whilst writing the novels (her eldest daughter was baptised in Edinburgh), is doing something similar in which case 'Providence', at the end of that previous paragraph, may be too evasive a piece of nomenclature.
At any rate, the whatever-it-is that requires Dumbledore and Snape teleologically to suspend their ethics, is veiled in these novels. Rather we follow the major plot of Harry's sacrifice through Harry's eyes:
He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange that, in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop,and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest? Terror washed over him as he lay on the floor, with that funeral drum pounding inside him. Would it hurt to die? All those times he had thought that it was about to happen and escaped, he had never really thought of the thing itself. [Deathly Hallows, ch 34]It's the story of Abraham and Isaac from Isaac's perspective; and it answers the question 'but why must we die at the hands of the nom-de-la-mort Voldemort?' with: because there is a little piece of this mort already inside your soul. But it does so in order to twist a surprise existential short-circuit out of the encounter: death ends up destroying not us but the shard of death inside us. Eucatastrophe!
This isn't what Dumbledore thinks will happen, of course. It's clear he believed that Harry would die. When his shade meets Harry after the event, he describes himself as a 'master of Death'. 'Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?' he asks, and the question is not a rhetorical one.'I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.'
“Hallows, not Horcruxes.”All the twists and turns of the seven novels, all the 'Snape's a baddie! no he's a goodie! wrong, he's a baddie! oh, final reveal, he's a goodie!' back and forth, they all resolve themselves into these three fundamentally Kiekegaardian problems. Is there a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical in the Potterverse? On what grounds might it operate? Voldemort, and Grindelwald, and young Albus all suspended the ethical in search of a particular telos: overcoming death. That led to great suffering: in Kierkegaardian terms, a tragic, rather than Abarahamic, outcome. But to continue with Kierkegaard's 'problemata': how does the specific suspension of the ethical provision not to sacrifice Harry Potter merit any more suspension than those earlier experiments? Voldemort dispenses with the ethical for purely selfish reasons: that he himself might not die. Snape is prepared to do the same for less selfish reasons: to save the life of the woman he loves. But Dumbledore's rebuke to him on this ground carries meaningful ethical force: “You do not care, then, about the deaths of her husband and child? They can die, as long as you have what you want?” Snape is abashed by this, and quite right too. So what about Dumbledore's reasons for doing what he does? That's trickier to justify, and trickier still even to identify. The answer is to be found in the eucatastrophic survival of Harry himself, just as, in the Genesis story, Abraham's faith is only retrospectively justified by the intervention of the angel, staying his hand. Could we say: the thing that justifies Dumbledore's secret scheme literally to send Harry Potter to his death is that he is, in a Kiekegaardian sense, a knight of faith? 'A wizard of faith' sounds odd; but maybe that's what we're dealing with.
“Hallows,” murmured Dumbledore, “not Horcruxes. Precisely.” ...
“Grindelwald was looking for them too?”
Dumbledore closed his eyes for a moment and nodded.
“It was the thing, above all, that drew us together,” he said quietly. “Two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession.”
[Deathly Hallows, ch. 35]
Kiekegaard's third problema is also relevant here: 'Was it Ethically Defensible for
Harry thought fast, his scar still prickling, his head threatening to split again. Dumbledore had warned him against telling anyone but Ron and Hermione about the Horcruxes. Secrets and lies, that's how we grew up, and Albus ... he was a natural ... Was he turning into Dumbledore, keeping his secrets clutched to his chest, afraid to trust? [Deathly Hallows, ch 29]This takes me back to where this starting point of this blogpost. Because all the secrets in the novel, though they do work on the level of textual content, also work on the level of textual form. Indeed, they are the level of textual form of these novels, which, once we get past 'learning the world of the Potterverse', boils down to: uncovering these various secret things. It's what a writer does to keep a reader reading: pulling them along on the leash of the promised revelation of the secret. It works very well, as millions of satisfied readers will testify. But, to repeat myself, all the various specific secrets with which the neo-Gothic structure of the novels is supplied resolve, I think, into one core mystery, Dumbledore's sacrifice of Harry.
Why does he do it? What is hidden in the Abrahamic-Töröky crypt of Dumbledore's psyche? What is he hiding from the world? Something to do with the 'obsession' that he shared with Grindelwald. That same Grindelwald we now know, from the most recent Rowling/Potterverse movie, looks like that most handsome of movie actors, Johnny Depp. 'It was the thing, above all, that drew us together; two clever, arrogant boys with a shared obsession': to short circuit life and so overcome death itself. Ask another famously gay wizard, how is it that death comes into the world at all and he'll tell you: it's pretty girls who make graves. Dumbledore's secrecy is about more than just holding back plot elements until their most dramatically effective place in the story; it is constitutive of him. Of his modest flamboyance, his childlessness, the extent to which he is closeted. I don't want to disappear too far down the 'is Dumbledore gay?' rabbit-hole, but it has sometimes struck me that there's a Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard-y quality to Edelman's much-discussed No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004): a polemical attack on the 'reproductive futurism' culturally and socially embodied by the Child. Abraham kills his own son; Dumbeldore sends Harry to his death; Edelman sets out to symbolically slay 'the child' who 'remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention', intervention always framed as 'a fight for the future'. Edelman's is a kind of Leap of Queerness, the assertion of homosexual identity as 'the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism'. Instead of moving on to the broad sunlit uplands of reproductive futurity, queerness works through its magical disruptive loop, like those time-turners forever falling and crashing and resetting and falling and crashing again. It's a knot, and it ties together all these things, after the manner of the knot of Abraham's impossible rationale for doing what God tells him to do, his promise and command: I shall, through your son Isaac, make you the father of nations, but in order for this to come to pass you must kill your son Isaac whilst he is still a child and thus cut-off your destiny. It's more than a paradox; it's the foundational mystery of the tribes of Israel, and therefore of the Judaic-Christian heritage.
The blankness of Abraham's motivations, in the Genesis narrative, is the starting point for Auerbach's still-essential Mimesis (1946). Auerbach contrasts the expansive, detailed mode of representing reality employed by Homer with the elliptical, opaque and intriguing mode used in the Old Testament. We learn nothing of Abraham's thought processes as he receives his baffling, monstrous divine commandment; he simply takes up his son and goes to Moriah.
Fear and Trembling opens (after its quizzical 'Johannes de silentio' preface) with a section entitled 'Attunement' in which Kierkegaard repeatedly retells the story of Abraham and Isaac, each time adding a speculative explanation for Abraham's behaviour. So the first tells how he
seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, "Stupid boy, do you then suppose that I am thy father? I am an idolater. Do you suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire." Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, "O God in heaven, have compassion upon me. God of Abraham, have compassion upon me. If I have no father upon earth, be You my father!" But Abraham in a low voice said to himself, "O Lord in heaven, I thank You. After all it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in You."In the second Abraham cannot forgive God for requiring so terrible a sacrifice from him; in the third 'he threw himself upon his face, he prayed God to forgive him his sin, that he had been willing to offer Isaac'. And in the fourth Abraham, at the moment of crisis, with the dagger raised, simply loses his faith.
Each of these midrashim establishes a different mode of understanding the mystery of Abraham. Could we construct four similar fables to explain the mystery of Dumbledore's motivations? The boy who lived must die, at the right time, and not only the specific manoeuvres to bring this about but the very fact of it at all must be kept secret. The sacrifice must be performed in the unwavering and whole-hearted belief that the boy will die, that this is necessary. It is only after the event, when the knight of faith has not only leapt but landed safely on the far side, that the sacrifice can be justified, and the boy saved.