by Dawson Smith
When asked how she came to the inspiration for the Harry Potter series, JKR has only said that it “fell into her head” on a delayed train from Manchester to London. While some have thought this answer was merely a coy way of asking people to back off, I find it inspiring in itself. Moreover, as a writer myself, I think it has the ring of truth. Fiction writers are of a different breed from others for whom writing is a part of their daily life. Whereas academics will painstakingly research for years, discussing theories with their colleagues and lecturing to oftentimes hostile crowds before publishing the most refined, carefully chosen words they could discern, novelists and screenwriters (and I imagine most of you fan-fiction authors out there too) will wait out in the ocean of free-flowing consciousness, waiting for that perfect wave to come by, and then the job, simplistically put, is to surf that idea through to completion. Of course, points are added for style and technique, but I’m not here to belabor the metaphor. My point is that while the scholar’s mental desk is one of carefully filed annotations, the fictionalist’s is cluttered and covered with cobwebs and Chinese-food boxes, where the only system is based in serendipity. As any storyteller can relate, that flash of knowing what your next tale is going to be doesn’t feel anything like creation; rather it feels like finding a set of keys that you had forgotten you ever had in the first place.
Here’s my question: how many aspects “fell into her head” at once? I know that every mind is unique, but when I find inspiration it always comes as a fusion of two or more ideas that wouldn’t have stood on their own, but together create something new. In the biography on her web-site, she refers to the initial idea as being about a boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard, but a committee-room full of Hollywood executives could have come up with that before having their coffee. It’s the other details that make up the magic, and the detail I’m most curious about is this: when did she decide on the conceit about the DADA teachers, and the revolving door “curse” that brings us a new one each year?
The more you think about those particular teachers, the more that ‘curse’ set-up appears to be the literal back-bone of the story. Their inconsistency opens up every book with an intriguing question, their position provides a central irony, as they are always central to the climax, and every climax has had at least an element of pivotal distrust towards them (even Lupin, remember the first time you read the passage wherein he hugged Sirius upon seeing him in the shrieking shack?) and each of them guides the overrunning theme of the book. Think about it, if you haven’t already:
Quirrell: Nervous, Shaky. Harry’s introduction into the wizarding world (Quirrell is one of the first wizards Harry meets.) Also, he sets up the distrust with DADA professors, but his betrayal is done in a simplistic way, very akin to how the first book is written.
Lockhart: The antithesis of Harry’s state at the time, Lockhart seeks out attention (for things he hasn’t done) whereas Harry tries his best to avoid attention for the things he has. While their reputations differ, both deal with fame throughout the book, and it becomes Harry’s main struggle. Again, Lockhart reinforces the lack of trust for the DADA professors.
Lupin: Provides a link to Harry’s family at a time when he is learning the disturbing truth about their downfall, to the point whereby he becomes Harry’s surrogate father. Also, goes against the trust expectations by actually being trustworthy, just like Sirius, the story’s suspected villain.
“Mad-Eye Moody” a.k.a. Barty Crouch Jr.: Like the overall tone, darker. More so, provided a feeling of danger, but also of authoritative safety, much like the Triwizard Tournament itself, while the machinations of both led Harry directly to Voldemort. Just in case I need say more – CONSTANT VIGILANCE!
Umbridge: Quite frankly, the most overt antagonist has seen outside of Voldy himself, and less avoidable, what with the power of the Ministry behind her. An even darker figure than Crouch, to fit with an even darker tone, one could say that the entire book was really about her. The tone was one of dread – appropriate that there were no real betrayals and that her hideous cards were on the table from the moment we met her. The dramatic question was about the futility of fighting something greater than ourselves, and every victory was in a way a victory against Umbridge – the fireworks, the twins’ escape, “Fight and Flight”, even the Gryffindor Quidditch Cup win showed that her meddling couldn’t shake them down to defeat. In a book where ignorance and an oppressive authority were the ever-present shadow, she symbolized both to a T.
I do not wish to guess who the next DADA teacher will be anymore than I want to speculate on the Half-Blood Prince. Even if I tried, I would almost certainly be wrong on both counts, as no one has yet been correct on their blind interpretations of the new professors or what the titles refer to (aside from the obviousness of the Order of the Phoenix.) What I’m getting to is this: She put in that curse for a reason, and I believe it is four-fold. The first is thematic, as I have discussed above. The second is to show the importance of that particular course. McGonagall is their head-of house, yet Transfiguration has never played a role of importance outside of her classes, nor has Charms, nor Potions, nor Astronomy, nor divination, in any way in which any of them have been taught. Only Defense Against the Dark Arts has. Third is to exacerbate Snape’s brewing anger and hatred, but the fourth is to show this: Look at how Harry taught the DA. Every DADA teacher has had his or her faults. Quirrell garnered no respect from his class, Lockhart spoke only of his own deeds (which weren’t even true), Lupin taught material that was, admit it, below their level, Mad-Eye intimidated all but the heartiest of students, and Umbridge refused to let them practice. Harry’s teaching went against all of those styles. He had nothing but respect from the DA, he tried to avoid talking about his own battles, he pushed them beyond what any of them thought they were capable of, he was caring, walking around the class and encouraging them while giving them pointers, and the entire nature of his “classes” was based in practice. In short, he’s the best teacher they’ve had.
I know this sounds obvious, but I’ve never seen it written down. The fourth reason that the DADA is so important is that Harry’s never going to make it into Auror training. Harry’s destiny is to break the curse, and to be the best DADA professor that school has ever seen.
Questions and/or comments? Dial firstname.lastname@example.org on your computer keyboards.