The Other Boy – Neville, the Prophecy, and How We’ve Been Duped

by Dan Estes (dan dot estes at gmail dot com)

This past summer, during an interview on the talk show “Richard & Judy,” J.K. Rowling touched off the debate about who will live and who will die in her forthcoming and final installment of the Harry Potter series. While discussing how her original plot outline had changed slightly, she said,

“One character got a reprieve…but I have to say two die that I didn’’t intend to die.”

Her announcement re-ignited the worry of readers everywhere concerning the fate of our favorite young wizard. Will The Boy Who Lived die at the series’ end?

A few weeks after that interview, British literature professor James Krasner, of the University of New Hampshire, chimed in with his own opinion:

“Harry won’t die because Rowling’s too good of a storyteller to completely undercut her genre…[It] would be a miserable plotting failure.”

Krasner argued that the Harry Potter stories are similar in style and form to the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and other popular writers from the 19th century. To kill off Harry would be inconsistent with her plot setup.

This article caught my attention, not so much because of Krasner’’s assertion that Harry Potter will live, but because of what followed near the end of the piece: So if Harry Potter doesn’’t die in the final book, who does? According to Krasner,

“Lord Voldemort has to die. And Snape, who is really fighting for good despite all appearances, will likely die. Neville Longbottom is really the chosen one, so I suspect he’ll die. (Emphasis mine)

The “chosen one” is of course referring to the prophecy as written in Order of the Phoenix (all book references are from the American hardback editions):

-pg. 841, OotP

Readers know the prophecy could have originally applied to either Harry or Neville because both, according to Dumbledore, were “born to those who have thrice defied him” and “born as the seventh month dies.”

I was startled by Krasner’’s matter-of-fact tone as if this revelation was completely apparent, and at first, I dismissed him as someone who had not actually read the books. Wasn’’t it Harry who was marked with a scar by Voldemort, and doesn’’t he know the power of love that Voldemort does not? Didn’’t Dumbledore reaffirm that the prophecy undoubtedly refers to Harry? And hasn’’t Harry confronted Voldemort on several occasions, and survived to meet him again? In other words, how can Neville be the Chosen One when Harry so evidently fits the meaning of the prophecy?

And that was my first clue.

At the heart of each Harry Potter story is a mystery, a good old-fashioned crime tale. The genre will always consist of a villain, a crime, a sleuth, multiple suspects, clues and arguably the most important element, misdirection. The story plays out successfully when the most unlikely outcomes unfold to become the only obvious solutions.

Therefore, Neville has to be the Chosen One because the prophecy is clearly referring to Harry. Still sound ridiculous?

The prophecy first appeared near the end of Order of the Phoenix, when Harry and company discover it within a glass ball in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic. It was titled for the “Dark Lord and (?) Harry Potter.” Shortly after that, when Harry learned from Dumbledore that the prophecy could have applied to his friend as well, he asked, “…but then, why was it my name on the prophecy and not Neville’’s?”

“”The official record was relabeled after Voldemort’’s attack on you as a child,” “said Dumbledore. “”It seemed plain to the keeper of the Hall of Prophecy that Voldemort could only have tried to kill you because he knew you to be the one to whom Sibyll was referring.””

““Then –— it might not be me?”” said Harry.

“”I am afraid,”” said Dumbledore slowly, looking as though every word cost him great effort, ““that there is no doubt that it is you.””
-pg. 842, OotP

In Half-Blood Prince, neither Harry nor Dumbledore return to the idea of Neville being the subject of the prophecy. Instead, Dumbledore aims to convince Harry that the prophecy is relevant only because Voldemort chose to make it so by acting upon it, and therefore Harry must be prepared. This one passage discussing Dumbledore’’s guesswork about Lord Voldemort’’s past is the most telling:

“But you think you’’re right?” said Harry.

“Naturally I do, but as I have already proven to you, I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being –– forgive me –– rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.””

““Sir,”” said Harry tentatively, ““does what you’re going to tell me have anything to do with the prophecy? Will it help me –… survive?””

“”It has a very great deal to do with the prophecy,”” said Dumbledore, as casually as if Harry had asked him about the next day’’s weather, “”and I certainly hope that it will help you to survive.””
-pp. 197-8, HBP

It’’s interesting and awfully coincidental that Rowling included a comment from Dumbledore about making “huge” mistakes followed by Harry questioning what Dumbledore was going to tell him had anything to do with the prophecy.

In addition to the book evidence, there is another important source to consider. Shortly before the release of Half-Blood Prince, Rowling answered a poll question from the fans that addressed Neville’’s connection to the prophecy. The question was, “”What is the significance of Neville being the other boy to whom the prophecy might have referred?”” Her answer seems to remove all doubt that Harry is indeed the Chosen One as indicated in this part of her reply:

“In effect, the prophecy gave Voldemort the choice of two candidates for his possible nemesis. In choosing which boy to murder, he was also (without realising it) choosing which boy to anoint as the Chosen One – to give him tools no other wizard possessed – the scar and the ability it conferred, a magical window into Voldemort’s mind.”

I must admit that her response stumped me for the longest time because I believed her when she said that she would never intentionally lie to her fans. She might choose to not answer potentially revealing questions, but not lie. I suspect that Rowling is playing word games with us here.

The title of “the Chosen One” has been freely used by the fans to refer to the one the prophecy is connected with, who we assumed is Harry. Yet the wording states, ““The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches” not “”The chosen one with the power…”…” Rowling took this opportunity to designate Harry as the Chosen One because he was the boy who was sought after and marked with a scar by Voldemort. The phrase, “the Chosen One,” doesn’’t even appear in the books until Half-Blood Prince, and then it was simply introduced as a designation coined by the wizarding community. Here is part of an article from the Daily Prophet as written in Half-Blood Prince:

HARRY POTTER: THE CHOSEN ONE?…The nature of that prophecy is unknown, although speculation is rife that it concerns Harry Potter, the only person ever known to have survived the Killing Curse, and who is also known to have been at the Ministry on the night in question. Some are going so far as to call Potter “the Chosen One,” believing that the prophecy names him as the only one who will be able to rid us of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
-pg. 39, HBP

What is significant here is that Rowling’’s poll question reply predated the release of Half-Blood Prince by only a couple of months, as stated above. Before then, fan editorials and discussion topics concerning the prophecy generally cited ‘the One,’ not ‘the Chosen One.’ Once Rowling’’s answer was posted and book six was released, the idea of Harry Potter being the Chosen One was hammered into our heads so often that we have come to assume that both designations are synonymous.

“”…He will undoubtedly try to collect you, Harry. You would be the jewel of his collection; ‘the Boy Who Lived’…or, as they call you these days, ‘the Chosen One.’””
-pg. 75, HBP““People believe you are ‘the Chosen One,’ you see,”” said Scrimgeour. ““They think you quite the hero –– which, of course, you are, Harry, chosen or not!””
-pp. 344-5, HBP

This is how Rowling hoodwinked the fans without lying to them. The result is that Harry is the Chosen One, but it is Neville who will vanquish the Dark Lord. Once this distinction is made, the remainder of Rowling’’s poll response regarding Neville is very cleverly crafted in the art of misdirection.

In her opening paragraph, Rowling makes a point of saying how glad she was to receive this question because it was the one she most wanted to address. Could this be because she wanted to effectively mislead even the most ardent readers from thinking Neville was the subject of the prophecy? A final nail-in-the-coffin sort of reply?

She continues by recapping how both Harry and Neville do fit the first part of the prophecy, and then clearly labels Harry as the Chosen One as cited above. She then proceeds to set up a series of very important questions, and then cleverly allows her characters to answer them.

“Had Frank or Alice thrown themselves in front of Neville, however, the Killing Curse would have rebounded just as it did in Harry’s case, and Neville would have been the one who survived with the lightning scar. What would this have meant? Would a Neville bearing the lightning scar have been as successful at evading Voldemort as Harry has been? Would Neville have had the qualities that have enabled Harry to remain strong and sane throughout all of his many ordeals? Although Dumbledore does not say as much, he does not believe so: he believes Voldemort did indeed choose the boy most likely to be able to topple him, for Harry’s survival has not depended wholly or even mainly upon his scar. (Emphasis mine)

By showing that Dumbledore really does believe Harry was correctly chosen as the boy most likely to destroy the Dark Lord, Rowling has tricked many a reader into believing that she believes, or knows to be true, the very same thing.

She then downplays Neville’’s importance in comparison to Harry. He has neither any “hidden powers” nor a “mysterious destiny,” she says. In the last line of this section, Rowling reaffirms Harry’s title:

“It remains to be seen how he [Neville] will feel if he ever finds out how close he came to being the Chosen One.”

Misdirection again!

In the penultimate paragraph, Rowling finally sets up the yes or no question of whether the text refers to Neville, and then sidesteps the answer.

“Some of you, who have been convinced that the prophecy marked Neville, in some mystical fashion, for a fate intertwined with Harry’s, may find this answer rather dull.”

Only at the end, disguised as a consolation prize for those who still blieved Neville to be the One, does Rowling hint at his importance in the final two books. I wonder if it was accidental or intentional that she let slip that Neville would survive through the end of book six? She then offers us a literary wink when she says, “”As for the prophecy itself, it remains ambiguous, not only to readers, but to my characters.”” It’’s as if she’s trying to tell us to not necessarily believe everything her characters believe.

Between Harry and Dumbledore’’s conversations in books five and six, the repeated use of the term, “the Chosen One,” and especially Rowling’’s poll answer here, it’s easy to understand why fans are firmly convinced the prophecy refers to Harry Potter.

I was curious to read what others had thought of Krasner’’s interview. I suspected an even split of opinions on whether or not Harry would die, but I did not expect such a furious reaction to Neville’s proposed prophetic status. You would have thought Krasner was suggesting Dobby was the Chosen One. Here are a few samples from the reader comments of Krasner’’s interview on both and

“It would be nice if this guy read the books a little more thoroughly before he shot his mouth off.”“Mr. Krasner was doing great, until he said Neville is really the Chosen One. He must not have been paying very close attention.”

“Oh, and by the way there’s something I MUST say with certainty: Neville is SO NOT the ‘Chosen One’.”

“Neville is NOT ‘The Chosen One’! JKR herself has confirmed this. I respect this man’s opinion, but before he starts giving out interviews about a subject he is an expert on, he should confirm all the facts.

And my personal favorite:

“Neville can’’t be the Chosen One, Dumbledore said so.”

To the fans who are convinced the prophecy does refer to Harry, when has Rowling ever set up an obvious solution to a riddle which actually turned out to be the correct one? Remember, misdirection is the staple of the mystery genre. And why is it that Harry has to be the one to slay Lord Voldemort? This is what readers are expecting and yet this is not the case in other stories that are similar to Harry Potter. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Frodo’’s burden is to carry the One Ring into the cracks of Mount Doom and cast it into the fire, effectively destroying Sauron and his power hold over Middle Earth.

For those who know the story, does Frodo march into the pits of Doom and defiantly toss the ring into the inferno? No. He succumbs to its power at the very end and turns his back on his quest. He is saved only by the persistence of Gollum, who wants the ring for himself and wrestles it away successfully. Frodo is freed from the burden and Gollum’’s greed causes him to tumble into the fire himself with the ring in tow.

Even though it was Frodo who carried the One Ring to the edge of destruction, it was Gollum who inadvertently destroyed it and ultimately, Sauron.

In Stephen King’’s seventh book of his Dark Tower series, the gunslinger Roland Deschain faces off against the malevolent Crimson King, but despite Roland’’s many years of calculating determination, he is powerless to overcome his enemy. Only his traveling companion, a scrawny, mute teenage boy, possesses the means to defeat Roland’’s nemesis. King’’s final book in the series is infamous for defying literary convention, but this one instance of help coming from an unlikely source is precedented.

In “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” Luke Skywalker engages Darth Vader in an epic lightsaber battle inside the Emperor’’s throne room, and the moment when Luke is poised to slay Vader once and for all, he disarms himself and backs down. He will not kill Darth Vader because to do so would be to give in to the dark side of the Force and succumb to the same fate as his father. Vader is ultimately and indirectly killed when he betrays the Emperor.

Foreshadowing is another literary device that is a must in mystery stories. With serial novels like Harry Potter, foreshadowing the outcome of the final book does occur throughout, but it tends to be the most prevalent in the first book of the series, which functions as the setup for the entire story arc. It is here where the important plot points and themes are introduced. For example, in Sorcerer’’s Stone, the prophecy was alluded to, Snape’’s allegiance was questioned, Harry’’s important friendships with Ron and Hermione were formed, Voldemort’’s quest for power was established both in the past and the present, Harry’’s scar and his ability to love were included, and…Neville’’s final triumph over Lord Voldemort was foreshadowed.

Remember when Neville earned the final ten points that Gryffindor needed to win the House Cup? Harry, Ron, and Hermione had just braved the dungeons of Hogwarts using their shared skill and gut instinct to prevent the Sorcerer’’s Stone from falling into the wrong hands. Ron and Hermione earned fifty points each for their heroics and Harry earned sixty, but it wasn’’t enough to win. It was Neville’s small gesture of great courage that put them over the top. Book one was just about house points, but book seven will be for life and death.

Of all the important characters in the Harry Potter series, Neville is almost certainly the one who is furthest away from being even remotely capable of conquering Lord Voldemort. What power could he have? Voldemort marked Harry by his scar, and the scar has allowed them both to share thoughts. Harry also possesses the ability to love, which Voldemort downplays and underestimates. What does Neville have to offer that will put him on equal footing with Voldemort?

We’’re meant to assume that the part of the prophecy that states “…and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not,” was fulfilled when Voldemort attacked the infant Harry that night in Godric’’s Hollow. This is a ruse. It is more likely that this event hasn’’t happened yet, and it is Neville who will be marked. Watch for this to unfold in book seven. I do know of one significant advantage that Neville has over Harry in the fight against Lord Voldemort, and I’’m not talking about Herbology. I’m talking about anonymity. Voldemort may see Harry as a petty nuisance, but he’’s not so blind not to see him as a possible threat, especially since he still obsesses over the prophecy. Neville is a complete unknown to Voldemort.

I admit it’s a stretch to suggest that Neville will be the one to ultimately defeat Lord Voldemort based solely on the idea that he’’s the most unlikely to do so. I’’m surprised, by the fans who insist Harry is the subject of the prophecy AND they want him to cast the final blow against Voldemort AND they want him to survive. If I’’m right about Neville, then this should be good news for them. Harry is already a hero in the best sense of the word, and I suspect he’’ll play a large part in the next book weakening Voldemort, either through the destruction of his Horcruxes or directly. But in the end, Neville will be the one to sacrifice, and Harry will be the one who survives.

Lately I’’ve been finding myself wondering about this mysterious “last chapter of the series” that Rowling mentions here and there and has shown to audiences on several occasions. She claims she knows how it’’s all going to end, and I don’’t doubt her. Rowling has said before that this chapter was meant to be her goal, her finish line, but why should it be remarkable to the rest of us other than just finding out what happens at the end? I believe it’s’ another clue.

I’’m willing to bet that, back before the first book was published, she wrote this legendary last chapter in conjunction with another chapter in the series, and both were intended to be parallels of one another. She might have gone so far as to give them the same name, and it is this latter one that is directly related to the prophecy. The meaning of this final chapter can be best understood by answering an inside-out version of Rowling’’s poll question, “What is the significance of Harry being the other boy to whom the prophecy might have referred?”

He is, of course, “The Boy Who Lived.”