Are the Hogwarts Portraits the Magical Version of CCTV?
Dumbledore is without doubt the most well-informed character in the series. At times, the depth of his knowledge appears to border even on omniscience. As Harry tells Ron in SS,
Dumbledore knows more or less everything that goes on [at Hogwarts].
The evidence of this statement only mounts as the saga progresses. Again and again, Dumbledore proves that he is aware of events that should be impossible for him to know. The question is “How does he know it?”
In London, CCTV cameras line nearly every street, giving police the ability to observe almost any area of the city at any time. This is why London has become known as the most-watched city in the world. In Hogwarts, portraits line nearly every corridor, the occupants of which can observe the students in almost any part of the castle. So perhaps Hogwarts could be considered the most-watched school in the world.
There are a few examples in the Harry Potter canon where we can actually see the portraits functioning in ways similar to CCTV.
One of the first things the students notice about Hogwarts is that the people in the portraits can move and that they are, indeed, observing them.
The people in the portraits along the corridors whispered and pointed [at the students] as they passed.
This initial interaction between the students and the portraits demonstrates the way in which the portraits scrutinize and discuss the students in much the same way that the CCTV operators might scrutinize and discuss the citizens of the UK.
According to Ben Brown of the Home Office Police Research Group in London, one of the purposes of CCTV is to “monitor potentially difficult situations.” In GoF, we see one of the portraits doing exactly that. The Fat Lady’s friend Violet listens in on the conversation about whether or not Harry will be allowed to compete before reporting the information to other portraits within the castle.
Well, well, well…Violet [has] just told me everything. Who’s just been chosen as school champion, then?
According to Brown, another important benefit of surveillance systems like these is that they help people feel more secure. No doubt having the Fat Lady guarding the entrance to their dormitory helps the Gryffindor students feel safe in their beds at night. In PoA, she even guards the common room at great risk to herself when she forbids entry to Sirius Black.
Ashamed, Your Headship, sir. Doesn’t want to be seen. She’s a horrible mess. Saw her running through the landscape up on the fourth floor, sir, dodging between the trees. Crying something dreadful… he got very angry when she wouldn’t let him in, you see.” Peeves flipped over and grinned at Dumbledore from between his own legs. “Nasty temper he’s got, that Sirius Black.”
The Fat Lady is not the only portrait that can be observed standing guard over a location in the series; the portrait of Mrs. Black fiercely guards No. 12 Grimmauld Place. When still alive, Mrs. Black magically sealed a portrait of herself onto one of the walls, so that it was impossible to remove, in hopes of keeping out those she deemed unworthy, those with less than a purely magical lineage.
Brown also tells us that in order for a surveillance system to be considered effective “it must be able to provide officials with a wide range of coverage.” The Hogwarts portraits would be able to provide Dumbledore with an extensive view of the caste. Not only do they adorn the walls of nearly every room and passageway in the castle, but the subjects of the portraits are not stationary. They can move at will either linearly from portrait to portrait or directly to another portrait of themselves in a different location. Sir Cadogan is a shining example of a portrait that travels into other frames.
A quest!” The knight’s rage seemed to vanish instantly. He clanked to his feet and shouted, “Come follow me, dear friends, and we shall find our goal, or else shall perish bravely in the charge!” […] And he ran, clanking loudly, into the left side of the frame and out of the left side of the frame and out of sight.
CCTV is used in London primarily for the purpose of gathering information. The most convincing example of the school portraits acting as a surveillance system comes in OotP, when we see Dumbledore using them to gather information after the attack on Arthur Weasley. He sends the portraits of Everard and Dilys to investigate from portraits of themselves in different locations.
Everard returns, reporting,
He doesn’t look good; he’s covered in blood. I ran along to Elfrida Cragg’s portrait to get a good view as they left.
The portrait of Dilys does the same:
Yes, they’ve taken him to St. Mungo’s, Dumbledore…. they carried him past under my portrait…. he looks bad…
So perhaps there is a tangible reason Dumbledore is so well informed of everything taking place within Hogwarts and throughout the larger wizarding world. Maybe the collection of portraits of former headmasters and headmistresses are still doing their duty to the school by keeping the current headmaster informed. It may even be the case that the founders of Hogwarts lined the halls of the school with so many portraits for the very purpose of keeping a closer eye on the students.
What do you think? Do you think Dumbledore would use the portraits in this way? Can you think of any other examples of the portraits acting like CCTV throughout the canon?