Who But McGonagall?

by Asher Dostoevsky

There must be a spy.

J.K. Rowling has structured a very real war that mirrors reality to the letter. Good and evil, battles and warriors, jail breaks, messages intercepted, forging difficult alliances, breaks within allies, casualties… She’’s covered many of the bases real armies during real warfare face. And there are always spies, whether in actual combat or literature. Why would Jo abandon this particularly juicy war situation? The conclusion, the obvious, canon, irrefutable and inarguable conclusion is that Snape is a spy.

For Dumbledore, of course.

There are easily dozens of reasons that explain Snape’’s murder of Dumbledore. They have already been covered exceptionally well and there’’s no purpose in re-tracing them. But there’’s one, solid reason that has been kicked off the path –– because, frankly, it’’s not something fans like to think about at all.

Snape does not exist. He is a character created from a woman’’s imagination. The daily lives of students and the subtle dealings of politicians and teachers didn’’t unfold in reality – they were invented. J.K. Rowling has written a book. (I can hear a few fans dying untimely deaths at their computer screens at this information. I’’m sorry. It was a shock for me too.) Its characters must be viewed that way, as creations not as real people with real agendas, if we want to get very far in our deductions. And the trademark of the Harry Potter books is their author’’s exceptional understanding of red herrings. The term “red herring” comes from a form of hunting, where a fish would be dragged across a trail to throw the dog off the true scent onto the fish. Literarily, we’’re all familiar with how a red herring is used. The reader is given a strong scent to follow that distracts them from the weaker, true scent underneath. The red herring actually protects the weaker scent by giving a false sense of security that “you’’re on the trail.” The moment of triumph for the well-placed red herring is when you look up in shock as the well-hidden truth is revealed and you realize that you never even caught a whiff of it.

Does this sound like the trail of Severus Snape as a Death Eater? Certainly not. Snape’’s dark leanings are definitely the stronger scent. Even Snape’’s strongest supporters (who I proudly throw in my lot with) don’’t look at him and instantly have a feeling of goodwill and joy towards him. Nobody – nobody – unconditionally trusts him. How could Jo plant such an obvious spy, a spy that nobody trusts? He couldn’’t be a very effective spy, literarily or as a character, if there was a major debate running over whether he was one or not. No, she’’ll hide him well from us and the characters, and keep up his cover until the last possible second, when the red herring and the weaker scent will both come out.

The foundation has just been laid for the character of a spy. At the end of book six, we must be completely and utterly convinced of his (or her) goodness.

Who do we trust implicitly? Who is the one person that is never leaped upon and mauled by violent fans? Who is one of the two most trusted by Dumbledore?

Professor McGonagall.


Because we trust her. Because Dumbledore trusts her.

And here the puzzle begins to take shape. Dumbledore tells Harry in HBP:

“I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being — forgive me — rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

In fact, the idea of Dumbledore being human, making mistakes, and trusting where trust should not be given is largely understood as one of the major themes of the books. In the post-HBP interview, JK Rowling mentions Dumbledore’’s fallibility and the issue of trust, his one blind spot. Characters, good and bad, have stated, mentioned, or sneered that “Dumbledore is too trusting,” at least once in every book. Jo is giving us a clear warning about something.

Could it be Severus Snape? Certainly, Dumbledore has said a hundred times that “I trust Severus Snape,” and that specific trust is mainly what is alluded to as the foolish choice. Then when Snape is “revealed” at the end of HBP and kills Dumbledore, the leads and hints all seem to come to their obvious conclusion. But the very word “obvious” makes me pause and step back. This is J.K. Rowling – she doesn’’t do “obvious.” This scent is far too strong to be the truth. If the quote about mistakes doesn’’t refer to Snape, then what can we pin it to? Something that Dumbledore, Harry, and us, the readers, have taken at face value and accepted – a dangerous something and a well hidden something. Because if Dumbledore didn’t realize it, how could we dare imagine that it would be something obvious?

Have we actually toyed with the idea that Dumbledore could be blinded by someone with the past that Snape has? Dumbledore may be too trusting, but he is not an idiot. To think that he would make such an enormous judgment call is an affront to his memory. Mistaken trusts do not occur when there is an enormous mound of evidence and you choose to disregard it – they happen when you fail to look closely at something at all. Dumbledore looked very closely at Snape and, taking all evidence into consideration, trusted him. He also looked very closely at Tom Riddle and distrusted him. He will not be hoodwinked once he has been put on his guard – he is, after all, one of the greatest wizards in a century. But if he doesn’’t put his guard up at all – if there are no hints to warn him – if there is no reason to look past the facade –– Dumbledore just might make a mistake and trust the wrong person.

Who but McGonagall?

But –– she’’s so wonderful! We love her and cheer for her –– her crotchety old spirit, strength of character, biting wit, her constant support of Harry even under pressure, and the fact that she is just plain cool… A bit like Mad-Eye Moody in GOF. Jo doesn’’t mind giving us a favorite character whom we respect and chuckle behind our sleeves at (The Amazing Bouncing Ferret, anyone?), and then smashing our castle brutally. And McGonagall isn’’t a person. She is a character. A very cool character, but a character invented by an author who has proven that she is the master of the red herring.

By the way, did you know that McGonagall and Tom Riddle went to school together?

McGonagall is two years older then Tom Riddle, according to the Harry Potter Lexicon, which dates McGonagall’’s birthday in 1925 and that Voldemort’s in 1926 or 1927. Therefore they both attended Hogwarts and were within two school years. It’’s safe to assume that they were both prefects. They must have known each other. This seems to be very important information – why haven’’t we been told? The only reason we wouldn’’t be told was if JK Rowling didn’’t want us to know. And why wouldn’’t she want us to know something so important but seemingly so innocuous? Perhaps because it isn’’t innocuous. There is a parallel nature to their lives that gives two foundations: one, it gives ample opportunity for them to meet and become connected, and two, it leaves doors opened for later explanations of events –– such as the connection between Voldemort’’s job at Borgin and Burkes and McGonagall starting at Hogwarts, which happened a year apart.

Certainly, we cannot convict McGonagall on the grounds of “having opportunity to side with Tom Riddle.” But although we all love McGonagall, has she ever done anything that would disqualify her for being a Death Eater? When we rush to defend her, citing cases of strength of character and witty retorts, do we ever have in our hands actions –– things that she herself has committed –– that place her firmly on the side of Dumbledore? In other words – what, officially, prevents us from believing that McGonagall is a spy? And is lack of evidence for a good McGonagall enough to convict? After all, none of her actions show any leaning towards evil, although noticeably neutral. Nothing she’’s done is actually suspicious… Or…. perhaps it is.

Perhaps the fact that she appears at Privet Drive that fateful day before Dumbledore. The fact that he was not anticipating her arrival, although it “amused” him. Process that. Dumbledore didn’’t send McGonagall to Privet Drive. So what was McGonagall doing all day – the most important day in Wizarding history – sitting on a stone wall? Especially when we find out that she had no idea that Harry was arriving there. How did she know that Dumbledore was going to be at Privet Drive –– or did she even know? And if she didn’’t know, why was she there? Why is she so angry –– angry –– at the celebrations taking place? Why does Jo attach adjectives to her like “coldly”, “piercing”, “sharply”, and “angrily” all in the same two pages as they are discussing –– not the death of Lily and James –– but the demise of Voldemort? Why does she become almost out of control at the idea of Harry living with the Dursleys? And why are there so many unanswered questions about McGonagall from this one scene?

It’’s not only the opening chapter of PS/SS that cast a shadow over McGonagall. The trio goes to her with the information that the Philosopher’’s/Sorceror’s Stone is about to be stolen. When Harry wants to talk to Dumbledore and tells her it’’s secret, she’’s “cold” and answers him sharply. Why the negative response? But that’’s nothing compared to her reaction to their knowledge of the Philosopher’’s Stone. She is extremely flustered, dropping things, reacting with “suspicion and shock” that these children know such a well hidden secret. Which makes me wonder –– if these children know such a well kept secret, isn’’t it less guarded then originally thought? And if that’’s the case –– shouldn’’t she at least mention it to Dumbledore? Considering that she’’s his second in command, the fact that she doesn’’t even notify him is very strange.

Remember her reaction to Ginny’’s return –– alive and well – in CoS?

““I think we’’d all like to know [how she got out alive],” McGonagall said weakly.

Weakly. She’s certainly in a bit of shock. Remember who was with Barty Crouch Jr. when the dementor administered the kiss in GoF? Isn’’t it strange that one of the most powerful witches of her day couldn’’t prevent that happening in the same room with her? Re-reading the books, I’’m struck by how often McGonagall’’s actions are neutral, and how often her words could be taken to mean so many different things. When McGonagall first hears of Dumbledore’’s murder, she sinks into a chair in shock and gasps:

“”Snape…We all wondered… but he trusted… always… Snape… I can’’t believe it…””

Substitute Voldemort for “he” in that sentence and listen to the implications –– a bit shocking how easy that was, isn’t it?

Even beyond double meanings, though, the final scene with Harry and McGonagall is disturbing. Harry will not tell her about his trip with Dumbledore, and her reaction –– rather then grudging acceptance of his loyalty to Dumbledore –– is anger and frustration. But she too is supposed to be loyal to Dumbledore –– and considering that he’’s just died, the fact that she is prying into his personal information through Harry seems at best inconsiderate, and at worst– treacherous.

J.K. Rowling is playing a very tight game here. She has to give us enough very cleverly hidden clues so that when the truth is revealed, we believe it despite the shock and horror, because we can return to the older material and find the weaker scent. However, if there is too much evidence and paper trail, it’’s ferreted out and there is no surprise. Is there lack of evidence? No. Is there abundance of evidence? Obviously not.

Alright, I admit that there isn’’t any conclusive evidence against McGonagall. But let’’s do a bit of literary role playing. You are J.K. Rowling. You are starting to plot out the Harry Potter books, and you decide, for kicks, to create a spy. You want it to be revealed at the end of the seventh book, so for six books you have to hide him from your reader’s prying eyes. You begin to lay out the game plan, with this thesis –– if there was a spy, what would he look like and how would characters around him behave? He would be:

  • Trusted by Dumbledore –– high up in command.
  • Trusted by Harry and his friends.
  • Trusted by the readers.
  • No doubt about his/her loyalties.
  • There would need to be someone or something to distract people (readers and characters) from thinking about him/her at all –– say, a more obvious target.
  • Someone with ties to Voldemort that were discreetly hidden.
  • Mild hints scattered that were recognizable from hindsight, but barely visible at first glance.
  • Nothing to disqualify him/her –– random acts of goodness –– that would have to be explained away.

Is there anything I missed?

If there was a spy at Hogwarts, his/her character would be developed in exactly the same way as McGonagall’’s character. Catch that?

If JK Rowling created a spy for Voldemort, she would have to create the character in the same way she has created McGonagall.

I’’d say that that’’s an indictment.

It’’s still all guesswork and whistling in the dark, of course. But then, if it was anything else and we could prove it, JK Rowling wouldn’’t be a master at her trade, now would she?