Chekhov’s Gun, Dark Horse, and Macbeth

by Saint_Helga and Dan Estes

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.
(A. P. Chekhov, Gurlyand’s Reminiscences)

The Biggest Surprise

Hangman is mentioned in the Potterverse way too often to be a mere coincidence. Recently, several essay authors have come up with thorough analyses of hangman clues and claimed that “the Hanged Man” tarot card is going to be an important one for the outcome of the last book. Zarathustra, for example (in the essay The Importance of Borgin and Burke’s) cites the following meaning of the card:

This card is used to represent an overwhelming challenge or personal cross to bear, whereby The Fool is forced to let go of his preconceptions and see the world or his challenges with a new understanding. He sees with new eyes and his perspective may be turned upside down or reversed. It represents a paradigm shift in thought.

The author concludes that in Deathly Hallows “a great shift in someone’’s perception of another character or set of circumstances” is likely to happen. So, a character is going either to see someone else or to be seen in a completely new light. It is reasonable to suggest that likely candidates to cause this paradigm shift are those whom we have seen being hanged up in the series.

There are at least two people who will most likely be causing this paradigm shift in the last book. Severus Snape, for one (hanged up by his ankle by James Potter), is likely to turn out to be loyal to Dumbledore – to Harry’’s complete surprise; Ron who was hanged up by his ankle by Harry several times is likely to turn out the most successful, well-known, and accomplished wizard out of all his brothers – to his personal total surprise. However, when speculating about possible “hanged men”, people forget one other person who was also hanged upside down in the books – in fact, much earlier than other hanged men –– Neville Longbottom.

Neville Longbottom was eight years old when his Great Uncle Algie suspended him upside-down out of an open window and then accidentally dropped him. Fortunately, he bounced to safety and his family was relieved to get a hope that he might turn out magical after all. Many awkward years later, he continues to surprise as he grows in both his magical skill as well as his self-confidence. However, most fans still don’t realize that the biggest paradigm shift is going to be connected with Neville. He is the ultimate “Hanged Man”. By the end of Deathly Hallows, we will see Neville in a completely new light. He will turn out to be the one to finish off the Dark Lord.

This claim brings us back to the question of which boy really is the true subject of the prophecy. Fan theories about Neville’’s being the true ‘Chosen One’ have been abruptly put to end in the fan community after May 2005, when Rowling posted her reply to the FAQ poll question:

What is the significance of Neville being the other boy to whom the prophecy might have referred?

Her answer seemed conclusive:

Neville is not the Chosen One, he …remains the tantalizing ‘might-have-been’
(F.A.Q. section,

Fans seemed satisfied. However, this confidence needs to be re-examined, for there is much more to the story than it seems.

But before readers start shaking their heads in disbelief, let us make ourselves clear. We believe that in order to defend the idea that Neville is going to be the one to finish the Dark Lord, it is not necessary to decide who the real ‘Chosen One’ is or how prophecies really work. We can support this idea by analyzing literary techniques and genre traditions.

A Gun and a Dark Horse

To begin, why would Rowling, at the end of Order of the Phoenix, introduce Neville as a possible nemesis for Lord Voldemort only to brush him completely aside before the release of the next book? The answer can be found with the help of a literary device known as Chekhov’’s Gun. Chekhov’’s Gun, famously summarized by the quote above, is the technique, whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but whose significance does not become clear until later on. In the world of Harry Potter, every detail is potentially significant. Neville does have a larger role to play, and that role is related to the fulfillment of the prophecy, otherwise Rowling wouldn’’t have made him a possible “run-up.” Chekhov’’s gun hung on a wall in act one is going to fire in act three. There are several clues in the text that allude to that.

Long before we learn about Neville’’s connection to the prophecy in Order of the Phoenix, his name comes up unexpectedly – Harry uses it to cover his own identity on the Knight Bus in Prisoner of Azkaban. This small fact remains purely insignificant until much later.

Only in Order of the Phoenix, does it finally obtain its potential meaning when Neville’’s relation to the prophecy is revealed. Was Harry’’s attempt to conceal his identity under Neville’’s name an allusion to the fact that the identity of the true vanquisher of the Dark Lord, Neville, was still “hidden” from the public under the name of other boy, Harry Potter?

Interestingly, in the same book (Prisoner of Azkaban), we find one more case of Neville playing the role of Harry in an important task – in Harry’’s dream before the last Quidditch game of the season.

Harry slept badly. First he dreamed that he had overslept, and that Wood was yelling, “”Where were you? We had to use Neville instead!””
(PoA, U.S. paperback, p.302)

Neville’’s new wand could also present a potential hint for his future significance. In Half-Blood Prince, he finally gets his own new wand, possibly the very last one sold by Ollivander. Since it was specifically mentioned, it is very likely to be important in the future.

And finally, it is necessary to mention one other Neville-related clue from the text. In his first year, Neville fearlessly stood up to the trio before they set out to find the Sorcerer’’s Stone. His intervention earned Gryffindor the final ten points they needed to win the House Cup that year. Might that scene foreshadow the importance of Neville in the final confrontation against Lord Voldemort in Deathly Hallows? It is a good possibility.

If Chekhov’’s Gun and text clues are not enough, there is one more argument to mention — another very popular literary technique that is clearly being used by Rowling –– Dark Horse. Harry Potter is a famous boy; everyone expects him to save the world. He is not a Dark Horse. Neville is. In the genre Rowling writes (we clearly see elements of mystery and detective genres), it is not the most likely candidate who is going to do the deed; it is the Dark Horse. Neville will, in the end, turn out quite worthy of his famous father and mother. Every magical child will know his name.

Though Neville’’s turn-around seems only logical from the literary point of view, there are two more clues in the text that may hint to the future Neville’’s triumph: Trelawney’’s second prophecy, and persistent mentioning of Dumbledore’’s mistake.

Unnecessary Prophecy and a Giant Mistake

In Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Trelawney made this prediction while entranced:

(PoA, p.324)

We now know that she was speaking about Wormtail, but initially we almost certainly thought Trelawney was referring to Sirius Black. But what is much more remarkable about this prophecy is how non-essential it is to the story line of Prisoner of Azkaban. This subplot can be removed from the book completely and it does not effect the action of any of the characters in the slightest. The question remains, why include it at all? Perhaps to set up the rule and to foreshadow another prophecy that appears two books later. The prophecy in Prisoner of Azkaban serves two purposes: (1) to hint that the first Trelawney’’s first prophecy is going to be fulfilled too, and that Lord Voldemort will be vanquished by a boy who was born at the end of July 1980, (2) to set up how her other prophecy is going to function – it appears unquestionably to be about one person (Harry), but will in fact turn out to be about another (Neville).

Another hint referring to an unexpected fulfillment of the prophecy is the haunting idea of Dumbledore’’s mistake. Dumbledore is the greatest wizard in the world, infallible, whose advice the Minister of Magic often seeks, and who literally sees though people. Yet a possibility of Dumbledore being mistaken is brought up often to be just a demonstration of Harry’’s stubbornness. In each book, Harry suspects Dumbledore of making serious mistakes in judging people or events. Dumbledore himself accepted a possibility of his own mistakes several times. He also suggests that being smart he can avoid making small mistakes but tends to make bigger ones.

“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.”
(HBP, U.S. hardback p.197)

In Goblet of Fire, the central book of the series, there is even a phrase ““Dumbledore’’s Giant Mistake”” (Rita’’s article title). Though it seems to be only a clever word play by Rita, referring to Hagrid’’s giant blood, it may indeed mean, literally, Dumbledore’’s mistake – and the big one too, about the role Harry is to play in the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Macbeth Didn’’t Expect it Either

Rowling made sure we understood her opinion about the way prophecies work –– the one who chooses to act on a prophecy, makes it true. So, she claims (both in person and through Dumbledore’’s words), that prophecies are “self-fulfilling.” In other words, a possibly false original statement may affect human actions that will ultimately result in fulfillment of the prophecy.

Rowling references the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, as an example similar to what happens in the Harry Potter stories. In Macbeth, three witches deliver a series of prophecies, which become allegedly fulfilled only because Macbeth sought to try and undermine them. Rowling confirms her opinion about the mechanism behind the prophecy in an interview to TLC and MuggleNet:

“If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.”

The use of Macbeth as a comparison tells us that the first Trelawney’s prophecy is also going to be fulfilled, in the end. But if the prophecy is a self-fulfilling one, does it necessarily mean that Harry will ultimately be the one to fulfill it? No, it does not. He seems to be the most likely candidate, but if no boy was predestined then it may as well be Neville.

And what is most interesting: Neville’’s saving the day will not at all contradict Jo’’s own words about Neville’’s insignificance as a possible prophecy-boy. Indeed, Lord Voldemort’’s choice and free will made Harry go through a lot of difficulties, gave him an extremely hard childhood, presented him with some special powers — in other words, made Harry the “Chosen One.” Neville wasn’’t the chosen one in that sense, but that has nothing to do with the Neville’’s role in the future. Did Rowling ever say that Neville will not be the one to finish the Dark Lord in the end? No, she did not. The fact that Lord Voldemort chose to act upon one boy doesn’’t mean this same boy is going to be the one to finish him off.

At this point, most readers can object along the lines of “the prophecy matches Harry’’s description – he was marked by the Dark Lord as his “equal,” he has “the power Dark Lord knows not.” These seeming matches, however, only prove that Harry is not going to be the one to get rid of Voldemort. It is the typical trick of prophecy-centered plots – prophecies tend to be interpreted wrong. After all, they are worded so vaguely. The classical prophecy-related literary piece, Macbeth, had a prediction that no one borne of a woman can harm him. So he decided to fight Macduff, sure of his chances to win. However, Macbeth was killed and discovered while dying, that Macduff was ripped from his mother’’s womb. It is very likely that in Deathly Hallows, we are going to see an alternative interpretation of the prophecy – the one that matches Neville.

Most of literary examples of prophecies (from Oedipus on) are misinterpreted and fulfilled in a totally different way than characters expect. Rowling’’s example of Macbeth as a prophecy-model for her books, only proves that there is no way her own prophecy is going to be fulfilled in the expected way. Trelawney’’s first prophecy is misinterpreted (most importantly, by Dumbledore). Indeed, can we really expect Rowling to be so predictable that she delivers the outcome every reader expects? No way. Harry will not be the one to finish the Dark Lord.

Rowling’’s own words on her website might give us another clue. She says:

It remains to be seen how he [Neville] will feel if he ever finds out how close he came to being the Chosen One.
(F.A.Q. section,

It seems that Neville, in Deathly Hallows, might find out about his relation to the prophecy and Harry’’s task. Then, fully consistent with the theory of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Neville might make choices that will eventually lead to an unexpected end.

The Way Prophecies Work

Now that we demonstrated that there are a lot of reasons from the literary point of view for Neville to be the one to finish the Dark Lord, there is one more question to ask. If Neville will indeed be the one to finish the Dark Lord, will we ever be able to say what the true reason behind this outcome was: a sequence of human choices that led to this result or a fate that meant Neville all along?

We strongly believe that at the end of Deathly Hallows, no one (neither readers nor characters) will be able to answer this question. Indeed in most literary works, it is simply impossible to say in the end: Was it all the result of people’’s choices or was it just the hand of fate in action? Consider Macbeth again: we can only believe it was a result of his actions that caused the consequences, but it could as well be the work of fate. Rowling speaking about Macbeth uses the same word “believe” –– she says “”I believe he made it happen.”” (interview with TLC and MuggleNet).

But haven’’t we agreed, just several paragraphs above, that prophecies are not real and people make them fulfilled? Yes, Rowling said so. Yet at the same time, she included in her books, a prophecy that contradicts her own words spectacularly. Trelawney’’s second prophecy (Prisoner of Azkaban) was fulfilled without anyone taking any action to prevent it or to fulfill it. That prophecy seems to be very much “real,” mystical sort of prophecy. Which theory is right then?

We believe Rowling created this contradiction on purpose. She wants both “logical” (prophecies which are not fulfilled unless someone acts on them) and “mystical” (prophecies which are fulfilled whatever you do) explanations behind the prophecy in question to be possible. This is the brilliance of Rowling’’s world. It is as complicated as life itself, in her world, not all questions can be answered. Some of them will just have to stay open forever – for wizards as well as for Muggles.


We want to thank Prof. James Krasner of the University of New Hampshire who helped us significantly by sharing his professional opinion about Chekhov’’s Gun technique and the features of prophecy-centered plots in relation to Harry Potter books.