The Harry Potter books often hit similar beats in the whodunnits at similar points, a by-product of the construct of one book spanning one school year. For example, the reveal of the villain at Halloween became such an obvious pattern that Jo chose to forego it in the latter half of the series. But I have found another remarkably consistent pattern across the series: Chapter 13.
In the Potter books, Chapter 13 is always a turning point.¹ Two things always happen in Chapter 13. First, we learn about a magical item or specific type of magic that ends up being the “how” of the central mystery. Second, we are misdirected with a false suspect, but (with hindsight) we actually find evidence of the real culprit. In the first four books, there is a third element: Draco Malfoy gets bested by Harry and co.
The Pattern Detailed
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 13 is when the trio finally figures out who Nicolas Flamel is – and that Fluffy is guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is also the chapter in which Harry overhears Snape threatening Quirrell: He assumes this is evidence of Snape’s guilt, but it actually shows that Quirrell is the villain. During the Quidditch match, Neville tells Draco, “I’m worth twelve of you,” and Ron gives Draco a black eye.
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 13 is when Harry finds Tom Riddle’s diary – and when we first meet Tom Riddle in the memory where he frames Hagrid. Going into the chapter, we’d just learned that it wasn’t Draco who opened the Chamber of Secrets. After Chapter 13, we believe we have evidence of Hagrid’s guilt, but it’s actually Tom Riddle who’s the villain. (We also get Ron’s prescient joke about Tom Riddle: “Maybe he murdered Myrtle.” ) Draco tries to bully Harry by reading the diary, but Harry successfully casts the Disarming Charm on him.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 13 is when Sirius Black breaks into Gryffindor Tower. Up until then, we thought Sirius was after Harry. But in Chapter 13, he is standing over Ron’s bunk with a knife. This appears to be further proof that Sirius is the bad guy, but it actually shows that Sirius isn’t after Harry at all. The magical device in question is the Patronus, which Harry successfully casts at Draco and co. – this will be the key to Harry saving everyone in the climax. And the Patronus definitely humiliates Draco after his unworthy sabotage attempt.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 13 is when we properly meet Mad-Eye Moody. Moody curses Draco by turning him into a ferret (that’s the “how” of Moody’s impersonation: transforming humans). So there’s our usual besting of Draco. But this also serves to make us trust Moody as the cool professor who’s on Harry’s side, although he ends up being the villain and even refers to Lucius and Snape as “old friends.”
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 13 is short on Draco (words are exchanged in Care of Magical Creatures, and that’s it) but long on Umbridge. In “Detention with Dolores,” Harry’s scar twinges, and he fears that she is working for Voldemort. As usual, this is a misdirection: Umbridge is vile but not (at the moment) allied with Voldemort. Harry’s scar – and the mental connection with Voldemort – is the magical device that fits our billing.
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 13 is the second lesson with Dumbledore about Voldemort’s past. We see our key magical artifact in the first memory, where Caractacus Burke relates how he bought Slytherin’s locket from Merope. There’s a usual bit of misdirection here: Harry asks about the mouth organ at the end of the chapter, not the locket, but Dumbledore hints at the magic at work in the locket (“the mouth organ was only ever a mouth organ”), implying that the ring and the locket were more than that.
Chapter 13 in Half-Blood Prince is such a perfect reflection of Chapter 13 in Chamber of Secrets; it’s astounding. Both introduce us to a Horcrux but don’t reveal its properties. Both introduce us to a young Tom Riddle for the first time in their respective books. The titles even complement each other: “The Very Secret Diary” and “The Secret Riddle.” And whereas Chamber of Secrets begins with the trio confirming that Malfoy isn’t behind the Muggle-born attacks, Half-Blood Prince opens with the trio debating whether he’s behind Katie Bell’s attack.
As to misdirection regarding the villain, Dumbledore dismisses Harry’s theory that Malfoy is a Death Eater and – by extension – dismisses that Malfoy was the one behind Katie’s attack. However, it later turns out that it was Draco behind all of it.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 13 is when the trio breaks into the Ministry of Magic with very messy results. There isn’t really a misdirection regarding the villain because the villain is apparent throughout the book: Voldemort. But we are shown a hint at the magical device that will prove crucial: Harry sees the photo of young Dumbledore and Grindelwald in Rita Skeeter’s book – the same photo that will later guide Voldemort straight to Grindelwald and the eventual possession of the Elder Wand.
Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows has even more layers to it: It serves as a glorious climax to all the previous Chapter 13s by factoring in elements from all six. In the first few books, it’s as simple as small things popping up, but in the latter three books, it’s an undeniable crossover of all Chapter 13s’ signature elements.
Echoing Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card in Sorcerer’s Stone, in Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows, we see a photo of Grindelwald in Rita Skeeter’s book.
Echoing Riddle’s memory in Chamber of Secrets, in Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows, Rita Skeeter is mentioned to have authored Armando Dippet: Master or Moron? Both Chapter 13s also deal with things/people that were previously flushed down a toilet: Riddle’s diary and Ministry employees.
Echoing Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows sees Harry cast a corporeal Patronus for the first time in the book.
Echoing Goblet of Fire, Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows sees a focus on the mistakes of the Ministry of Magic. In Book 4, this was a sensational headline by Rita Skeeter proclaiming “Further Mistakes at the Ministry of Magic.” In Book 7, that headline would actually be applicable, but instead, Rita’s byline is found on The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. And while that article in Goblet of Fire expresses disdain for Arthur Weasley, in Deathly Hallows, we see papers in Umbridge’s office disdaining Arthur Weasley’s “unacceptable pro-Muggle leanings.”
In addition, Moody takes center stage in these chapters. In Goblet of Fire, Moody lends his name to the chapter title and closes the chapter by transforming Malfoy into a ferret. In Deathly Hallows, Moody’s eye is found in Umbridge’s office and is what tips people off that there’s a break-in.
Deathly Hallows also contains an inversion of Goblet of Fire. In Goblet of Fire, we see a Death Eater masquerading as a respected Auror using Polyjuice Potion. In Deathly Hallows, we see the trio masquerading as respected Ministry employees (in a corrupted Ministry) using Polyjuice Potion.
Echoing Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 13 sees Umbridge revealing the true depths of her sadistic depravity. In Order of the Phoenix, it is using her blood quill on Harry for the first time; in Deathly Hallows, it’s heading the Muggle-Born Registration Commission and putting Mrs. Cattermole on trial. It’s also the first time in each book we enter Umbridge’s domain: her Hogwarts office and Ministry office, respectively.
Echoing Half-Blood Prince, Chapter 13 of Deathly Hallows focuses on Slytherin’s locket, which is taken from its current owner through ill means. And in a perversion of Chapter 13 of Half-Blood Prince, instead of venturing into the Muggle world to welcome a boy into wizarding society, we venture into the core of the wizarding world to expel a woman from wizarding society.
(Spoilers for Chapters 1 through 13 of The Ickabog are contained below.)
The reason I undertook this exercise was to do some theorizing on The Ickabog, which I have been avidly reading every day with joy. Chapter 13 just screamed turning point to me as the story, theme, and characters came into focus.
Now that we have a rubric, if we assume that Jo will follow this pattern, maybe we can make some educated guesses for how the rest of The Ickabog will turn out.
For the magical artifact or device, there are three obvious candidates. First, the titular Ickabog itself could end up being the answer to everything. Second, there is Lord Flapoon’s blunderbuss, a literal smoking gun in the story. But the third – and (in my mind) likeliest candidate for an important artifact – is King Fred’s jeweled sword. Major Roach takes the sword as a bribe for his treachery and intends to tell King Fred it wasn’t recovered. It would not surprise me at all if the reveal that Roach has the sword ends up proving to Fred what’s going on or if the fancy jeweled sword ends up having magical powers.
But even more than the magical artifact, I’m wondering about the villain. It appears that Chapter 13 reveals to us that Major Roach is a bad guy and an accomplice to Spittleworth and Flapoon. We’re supposed to think these three are the villains of the piece, and there’s no doubt about it – they are villains. However, it seems to me they are far more likely to be second-tier villains, rather like the Malfoys, instead of the actual antagonists. After all, the title is The Ickabog.
So what could be misdirecting us?
I think I have an answer: the shepherd and his dog, Patch.
Tangled up in these brambles was a terrified, skinny dog, whimpering and scrabbling to free itself, its eyes flashing in the reflected moonlight.[…]
Spittleworth waded through the marsh to pick up the king’s sword and used it to slash apart the brambles imprisoning the dog. Then, giving the poor animal a hearty kick, he sent it yelping away into the fog.
This is exactly the type of misdirection I expect from Jo. A little throwaway bit about the dog: The shepherd thought it had been eaten by the Ickabog, but it was here all along.
But there is something fishy here: the timeline. Chapter 9 gives us information about this timeline:
‘And next day I sets off, sire, to come and see ye. The Ickabog ate me dog, sire, and I wants it punished!’[…]
‘I have traveled for five long days for to see ye.’
And in Chapter 11, King Fred’s journey to the Ickabog takes a further three days: He spends one night each in Kurdsburg, Baronstown, and Jeroboam. If my math is correct, that means the dastardly trio came upon poor Patch a full nine days after the Ickabog got him. Patch was imprisoned in those brambles for nine days without food or water but has the strength to run away yelping into the fog?
A cursory Google search shows that a dog can live about three days without water and five days without food. Poor Patch should have been well and truly dead when he was found if the shepherd’s story were true. The fact that he’s not – and that there is nothing corroborating the shepherd’s perspective of things – suggests that there is more going on.
Could the shepherd have wanted to lure King Fred to the Marshlands? Is he a revolutionary? Is he hoping to take out King Fred under the guise of the Ickabog or to stoke tensions between the haves and have-nots of the kingdom? Perhaps the shepherd also had loved ones die because of King Fred since that seems to be a recurring element already. Whatever he’s up to, I’m keeping an eye out for that shepherd and Patch.
Do you have any theories about The Ickabog thus far? I will attempt to write more pieces in response to chapters as they’re released – and come July, we’ll see if Jo managed to pull one over on us yet again.
¹ This corresponds roughly to “Part 12: Double Time” per Brandon Ford’s rubric for Potter books.