J. K. Rowling

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J. K. Rowling Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are similar in construction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. To solve the mysteries at the heart of each story, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the three principal characters, act as amateur sleuths who sift through clues and puzzles to eliminate suspects and identify actual wrongdoers. The books require careful reading, as seemingly insignificant phrases and sentences often turn out to be major clues. Throughout each narrative, Rowling presents several possible solutions to the mystery, which frequently lead the characters to draw false conclusions based on circumstantial evidence. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione act on their incorrect assumptions, they discover that things are rarely as they seem and that their mistaken conclusions have blinded them to the truth.

In general, each Potter novel follows a set formula. At the beginning of each book, Harry is living with his nonmagical (“muggle”) aunt, uncle, and cousin, the Dursleys, during his summer vacations. In the fall, Harry returns to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he, Ron, and Hermione become involved in increasingly dangerous adventures that lead them to new revelations concerning the series’ central villain, Lord Voldemort, and his plans to dominate the wizarding and muggle worlds. The climax of each story occurs when Harry and Voldemort—or one of the latter’s Death Eaters—engage in a dramatic confrontation. Following Harry and Voldemort’s altercations, the school’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, reveals to Harry more about his family history, as well as the possible outcome of his inevitable final battle with Voldemort. When the school year ends, Harry returns to the home of his muggle relatives until the next term begins.

The overall story arc does not change from book to book, and plots of the individual novels are intricate and multilayered. Magical objects, characters, and places mentioned only briefly in one book may play a major role in another. As the characters mature, the plots become more weighty. Over the course of the series, the children deal with life and death issues, the ups and downs of adolescence, and the pain of loss.

The final chapters of traditional mysteries tie up loose ends. Although Rowling follows that custom in each of her novels, she also leaves important questions unanswered or poses new ones that she addresses in later books. Volumes in the series as a whole can be viewed as individual chapters in a larger story that poses a number of central questions: What is the true relationship between Harry and Voldemort? Which of them will be victorious? Are certain major characters truly what they seem? Interconnections among the novels maintain suspense from book to book until the final resolution is reached in the seventh novel.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Laying the intricate groundwork for the succeeding six books, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, introduces Harry as an eleven-year-old orphan who does not realize he is a wizard. Although a nonentity in the muggle world that he shares with his nasty aunt, uncle, and cousin, he is famous in the parallel wizarding world because he survived Lord Voldemort’s murderous attack that killed his mother and father when he was an infant. During that attack, Voldemort’s curse left a lightning-bolt scar on Harry’s forehead. The battle also robs Voldemort of his body and most of his power. A wraith of his former self, he goes into hiding for years. It is unclear why Harry did not perish with his parents, and the mystery surrounding his survival is explored in subsequent books.

The philosopher’s stone, a magical object that bestows immortality on...

(This entire section contains 3553 words.)

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its owner, leads Harry to his second encounter with Lord Voldemort ten years after his parents’ deaths. When Harry arrives at Hogwarts, he and his new friends, Ron and Hermione, learn that the stone is hidden somewhere on school grounds and that Voldemort’s followers need it to restore Voldemort to his full power. When Harry overhears Professors Snape and Quirrell discussing how to get past a giant three-headed dog guarding the entry to a subterranean room, he concludes that Snape wants Quirrell to steal the stone for Voldemort. To stop Quirrell, Harry, Ron, and Hermione must decipher various clues and puzzles and play their way across a huge chessboard populated by living pieces. Their quest ultimately leads Harry to Quirrell, whose own body hosts the disembodied Voldemort. Harry learns that Snape was actually trying to talk Quirrell out of stealing the stone. Snape remains an ambiguous character throughout the series; it appears that he hates Harry for reasons left unexplained until later volumes; however, he shields him from harm.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

In the second volume, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling reveals more about Lord Voldemort’s background and how he and Harry are connected. When Harry returns to Hogwarts, he hears sinister voices announcing that someone will be killed. He also sees a message scrawled across a wall proclaiming that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and witnesses the results of attacks that leave some students in a petrified state. The Chamber of Secrets can only be opened by the heir of Salazar Slytherin, one of the four founders of Hogwarts. Suspicion for the attacks falls on Harry because he can speak to snakes, a dark arts trait he shares with Voldemort. His classmates wonder if he is a dark wizard in disguise.

Meanwhile, Harry finds an enchanted diary written by Tom Riddle, a student at Hogwarts fifty years earlier. The diary reveals that the Chamber of Secrets was opened when Riddle attended the school. In the diary, Riddle vows to catch the person who opened the chamber and accuses a large boy who is raising a huge spider. Harry recognizes that that boy is his friend Hagrid, the good-natured but simple-minded Hogwarts game keeper. The picture Riddle paints of Hagrid’s supposed transgression is deliberately deceptive, portraying Hagrid as the villain and Riddle as the conscientious student. Harry, Ron, and Hermione cannot believe that Hagrid would practice dark magic.

After Hermione goes to the library to seek information, she is found petrified. Ron and Harry later discover that her stiff hand holds a piece of paper with information on a basilisk, a giant serpent that can kill by gazing into its victim’s eyes. This information enables Harry and Ron to gain entrance to the chamber to look for Ginny, Ron’s younger sister. Harry finds her on the floor with the ghostly image of Tom Riddle beside her. Riddle admits that he, not Hagrid, opened the chamber fifty years earlier and that he has possessed Ginny to open the chamber again. He also reveals that he is the heir of Slytherin and will become Lord Voldemort. When Harry kills the basilisk and destroys the diary, Riddle’s apparition fades away. The narrative culminates with the destruction of the diary, but it plays an important part in solving a mystery of a later book.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The primary mystery of the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the identity of a man named Sirius Black, whom Harry and the Dursley family learn from television news has escaped from prison. When Harry leaves the Dursleys’ house, he sees a large black dog. The animal seems to be a portent of death. Eventually, Harry discovers that Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban, the wizard prison, and may have been responsible for betraying Harry’s parents to Voldemort. Sirius’s name is significant because Rowling’s ingenious choice of names is one way she inserts clues into her narratives. Drawing on Greco-Roman myth, as well as the Anglo-Saxon and French languages, she creates names that hint of the characters’ secret traits, identities, and motivations. For example, the last name of Draco Malfoy, Harry’s archenemy classmate at Hogwarts, means “ bad faith.” “Voldemort” means “flight of death” in French, an evident allusion to Voldemort’s quest for immortality. Black’s first name derives from the name of the double star known as the Dog Star in the constellation Sirius. Black is eventually revealed to be an animagus, a wizard who can transform himself into an animal, in this case a large black dog.

Remus Lupin, the seemingly even-tempered defense against the dark arts teacher in the third novel, provides a counterpoint to Black’s threatening presence. Lupin’s name also reflects a secret aspect to his personality. He is a werewolf, which makes him an outcast even within the wizarding community. He takes a fatherly interest in Harry, however, and acts as his protector and mentor.

As the story progresses, Harry eventually has an opportunity to kill Black and avenge his parents. However, Lupin intercedes and explains that Black, Harry’s father, and a boy named Peter Pettigrew—all animagi—were his best friends in school and roamed with him when he became a wolf during the full moon. The surprising revelation that Sirius Black was actually the best friend of Harry’s father, James, and is Harry’s godfather casts the frightening appearances of the black dog in a new light. Black was trying to protect Harry, not kill him. Another shocking disclosure is that Peter Pettigrew has been masquerading as Ron’s rat, Scabbers, to spy on the trio for Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione return to school for their fourth year, Dumbledore announces that a contest among three schools of magic—the Triwizard Tournament—will be held at Hogwarts. An object called the Goblet of Fire selects one champion from each school to compete in the tournament’s three highly dangerous tasks. Contestants must be seventeen, the age at which witches and wizards are considered adults. After the goblet selects Cedric Diggory as the Hogwarts champion, Fleur Delacour as the Beauxbatons Academy champion, and Victor Krum as the Durmstrang Institute champion, it unexpectedly spits out a fourth name—that of the underage Harry Potter. The primary mystery in the novel centers on who entered Harry’s name in the goblet.

As Harry prepares for the tournament, he is helped by Mad Eye Moody, the new defense against the dark arts teacher, who frequently sips something from a mysterious hip flask. The first task requires the champions to capture golden eggs from dragons. The second task requires the champions to rescue persons they love from the bottom of a deep lake. Harry does well at both tasks. The third task requires the champions to make their way through a booby-trapped maze to reach the Triwizard Cup. When Harry and Cedric reach the cup at the same time, they agree to seize it together. The cup turns out to be a portkey that magically transports them to a graveyard. There they are met by Peter Pettigrew, who carries a deformed infant that is actually Voldemort. Voldemort has Diggory killed immediately; Pettigrew binds Harry and bleeds him and cuts off his own hand. In a frightening resurrection scene involving Harry’s blood and Pettigrew’s blood, Voldemort rises from a large cauldron in possession of his full powers.

In a dramatic confrontation scene, Voldemort and Harry duel, but their wands lock in an unyielding connection neither of them understands. When Harry breaks the link, he grabs Cedric’s body and uses the portkey to return to Hogwarts. There, Mad Eye Moody takes him to his office and reveals that he is actually a servant of Voldemort impersonating the real Moody by sipping a potion that has transformed his appearance. He also admits putting Harry’s name in the goblet and helping to engineer Harry’s path to the portkey and Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a pivotal book in the series. This novel, more than the previous three, points to a deep link between Voldemort and Harry, raises new questions about their connections, and foreshadows the deaths of major characters.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore reassembles the Order of the Phoenix, a group of witches and wizards who fought Voldemort the first time he rose to power. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sirius Black offers his home at 12 Grimmauld Place in London to the order for its headquarters, while the Ministry of Magic publicly denies that Voldemort is alive and silences all those who insist that he has returned. Because Dumbledore refuses to follow the ministry’s orders, a senior ministry official, Delores Jane Umbridge, is made the new defense against the dark arts teacher at Hogwarts, where she spies for the ministry. Umbridge’s instruction is so inadequate that Hermione persuades Harry to teach his classmates how to repel attacks by dark wizards. About thirty students, calling themselves Dumbledore’s Army, meet in the school’s Room of Requirement, despite Umbridge’s ban on students meeting in groups without her authorization.

Meanwhile, Harry experiences severe pain in his scar and suffers from recurring nightmares. In one disturbing dream, he enters a snake’s body and attacks Ron’s father near the entrance to the ministry’s Department of Mysteries. In another dream, Harry sees Sirius being tortured at the ministry. Harry, Ron, Hermione, and three other students fly to the ministry to rescue Sirius. However, Voldemort, who is finally aware of the mental connection he shares with Harry, has tricked Harry into thinking Sirius is in danger, and his Death Eaters await in ambush. Voldemort seeks a particular prophecy in the Department of Mysteries, and Harry is the only one who can retrieve it for him. When Harry and his friends engage the Death Eaters in battle, other members of the Order of the Phoenix join the fray, and Sirius is killed in the fighting. Dumbledore and Voldemort duel, but Voldemort flees.

After Dumbledore and Harry return to Hogwarts, Dumbledore apologizes to Harry for having kept information from him. He also tells Harry that the prophecy Voldemort sought foretold the birth of a boy who would vanquish him, and that neither Voldemort nor the unnamed boy could live while the other survived. Furthermore, Dumbledore tells Harry that the reason he must stay with the Dursleys during the summer is because his aunt is a blood relative. The family relationship draws on deep magic that protects Harry from Voldemort’s attacks.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

After Voldemort’s assault on the ministry, both the wizarding and muggle worlds are turned upside down. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, dementors, the spectral guardians of Azkaban that are now under Voldemort’s control, roam freely, while Death Eaters wreak havoc in both worlds. The situation at Hogwarts has also changed. Severus Snape has finally become professor of defense against the dark arts. Dumbledore is often away from the school, strong spells protect the grounds, and aurors trained to combat dark magic stand watch. An ominous tone pervades the book, but it is the first in which Voldemort himself does not appear. The novel does, however, offer more of Voldemort’s history, exploring the psychology of evil that motivates him.

Through pensieve sessions with Dumbledore, Harry learns that he and Tom Riddle share similar backgrounds. Both are of muggle and wizard ancestry, both were orphaned at an early age, and both possessed magical skills beyond their years at similar ages. Their major difference is that Harry’s parents loved him, and his mother’s love still shields him from Voldemort’s attacks. Because Voldemort never experienced love, he cannot understand the reason for Harry’s continued survival.

Dumbledore is ever ready to give people a second chance, but his trust in Snape is puzzling. Snape was once a Death Eater, and his loyalty to Dumbledore is suspect throughout the series. At the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Snape kills Dumbledore. His apparent betrayal seems firmly to place him among Voldemort’s cadre of loyal followers. However, the murder scene contains hints that he is acting in concert with Dumbledore: Dumbledore’s plea, “Please, Severus,” is ambiguous and is an example of Rowling’s propensity for narrative misdirection. If Snape is truly Dumbledore’s man, does he really kill him, or will Dumbledore rise again?

Another central mystery in the novel concerns horcruxes, magical storage receptacles in which dark wizards hide part of their souls to attain immortality. If a horcrux is destroyed, its dark wizard dies. Voldemort has created seven horcruxes—one of which remains unknown even to him—leaving an eighth piece of his soul in his newly formed body. By the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, two horcruxes have been destroyed—Tom Riddle’s diary, which first appeared in the second book, and Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, which appears in the sixth book. After the publication of this sixth book, speculation was rife among readers arguing that Harry’s scar is a sign that Voldemort unintentionally made Harry himself into a horcrux when he was a baby. The quest to discover which objects are horcruxes and how to destroy them continues in the seventh and final novel.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

During the interval between publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, fans and critics alike were consumed with curiosity about several questions raised in the previous books. Which characters will die and which will survive? Is Snape good or evil? Where are the horcruxes? What are the “deathly hallows”? Is Harry a horcrux? Will Voldemort ultimately be defeated?

The plot of the seventh novel revolves around two quests: Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s search for the missing horcruxes and their search for three magical objects known as the deathly hallows. The latter comprise the stone of resurrection, the cloak of invisibility, and the elder wand, which together are believed to conquer death. Originally belonging to the Peverell brothers, the hallows were passed down as family heirlooms. Harry’s father left him the invisibility cloak, which originally belonged to Ignotus Peverell. Marvolo Gaunt’s ring, inherited by Voldemort through Cadmus Peverell, qualifies not only as a horcrux but also as one of the hallows because it is set with the stone of resurrection. At the beginning of the seventh novel, Harry is in possession of the invisibility cloak, and the ring has been destroyed (although its stone is missing), but the whereabouts of the elder wand is a mystery.

The book opens with Harry’s departure from the Dursleys’ home with an Order of the Phoenix guard. Shortly after they take flight, they are attacked by Death Eaters, who kill Mad Eye Moody and Harry’s pet owl, Hedwig. After spending the rest of the summer with Ron Weasley’s family, Harry begins his journey with Ron and Hermione to find the horcruxes and the deathly hallows. Their search takes them to Sirius’s Grimmauld Place house, whose house elf helps them retrieve the third horcrux, which is later destroyed by Ron. After the three friends are captured by Bellatrix Lestrange, Sirius’s Death Eater cousin, Lestrange’s behavior leads them to believe that the fourth horcrux is hidden in her vault in Gringott’s bank. The trio breaks into the bank and steals the cup. Meanwhile, Voldemort momentarily drops his mental guard and inadvertently reveals to Harry that a fifth horcrux is at Hogwarts.

Alberforth Dumbledore, the brother of the dead headmaster, helps Harry and his friends sneak into the school, where a monumental battle between Voldemort’s forces and those of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army commences. As the battle rages, Harry, Ron, and Hermione find the next object, Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem, in the Room of Requirement. However, Draco Malfoy and his henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle, are there to oppose them. During a scuffle, Crabbe botches a powerful spell, killing himself and destroying the diadem.

Harry again connects to Voldemort’s mind and sees Voldemort and Snape at the Shrieking Shack. When the three friends reach the shack, Voldemort is gone after attacking Snape, who lies dying on the floor. Snape gives Harry his memories, which answer many important questions raised throughout the series. For example, Snape loved Harry’s mother throughout his life, and Dumbledore trusted him because of his ability to love. Also, Gaunt’s ring infected Dumbledore with a slow-working but fatal curse, and Dumbledore arranged for Snape to kill him to prevent Draco Malfoy from killing him under Voldemort’s orders. Finally, Harry himself is indeed a horcrux and Voldemort cannot die while Harry remains alive.

These facts make it appear that both Voldemort and Harry would have to die. However, in the first of two battles between Voldemort and Harry, one of Voldemort’s curses stuns Harry so severely that it rids him of the piece of Voldemort’s soul that had resided in him since he was an infant. Harry feigns death until he meets Voldemort again in the great hall of Hogwarts. In a dramatic confrontation, Voldemort is vanquished and Harry survives.

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