Roderick Roach and “The Lightning-Struck Tower”
Caution: Spoilers for The Ickabog through chapter 48.
I am loving reading The Ickabog every day just on its own merits as a terrific piece of writing. But as with anything Jo writes, I also love seeing what insights we can glean into the Potter books from it. Reading chapter 46 of The Ickabog, one feels a weird sense of déjà vu: as if you’ve stumbled into an alternate universe (AU) version of “The Lightning-Struck Tower” where appealing to Draco’s better angels actually works to sway him.
As a matter of fact, this moment more than any other is the “what if” that captures my imagination. What if Albus Dumbledore had just one more minute to get through to Draco? Their conversation atop the Astronomy Tower is one of Jo’s most masterfully crafted dialogues. We can see Dumbledore gradually begin to sway Draco over to his side, a full change of heart tantalizingly close and growing closer. In the end, it looks like it worked: Draco lowers his wand just as they’re interrupted by Death Eaters, and Draco retreats back into his role as a Malfoy.
Through the events that follow – “The Flight of the Prince” and “The Phoenix’s Lament” – Draco remains at the back of the reader’s mind. And just as we’re about to forget him, Harry thinks of him, recalling that Draco “had lowered his wand […] Harry did not believe that Malfoy would have killed Dumbledore” (HBP 640).
I firmly believe Draco’s arc in Deathly Hallows is absolutely perfect for his character. But I was always left to wonder what would have happened if the Death Eaters arrived 60 seconds later. Would Draco have accepted Dumbledore’s offer of protection? Would he and Narcissa have joined the Order’s witness protection program? Could Lucius have torn himself away from chasing Voldemort’s shared glory for his wife and son? If I could have just one AU of the Harry Potter books, this would be it.
This brings us to chapter 46 of The Ickabog, which viscerally reminds me of that scene.
If Bert Beamish is our protagonist, then Roderick Roach is the Draco to his Harry. The parallels are myriad, but the most important is his parentage. Roderick – just like Draco – is the son of the villain’s chief lackey, a chief lackey who greatly disappoints his master. Roderick then finds himself with a hero at swordpoint, in perfect position to commit a foul deed that will put him in the villain’s good graces. And so the scene is set. (All Ickabog quotes are from chapter 46; all page numbers are from Half-Blood Prince.)
‘What are you smiling about?’ growled Roderick, staring into Bert’s filthy face.
‘I know you’re not going to stab me, Roddy,’ said Bert quietly.”
Draco Malfoy did nothing but stare at Albus Dumbledore, who, incredibly, smiled.
‘Draco, Draco, you are not a killer.'” (585)
The Draco scene first opens with Dumbledore chatting with Draco about whether there are Death Eaters at Hogwarts – a bit of de-escalation on Dumbledore’s part. Bert and Roderick skip that, partially because both Bert and Rodrick are clearly alone. But then, the language is eerily similar: a mention of the hero smiling and then a declarative statement from the hero at wand/swordpoint: “You are not a killer.” “You’re not going to stab me.”
It’s not a question nor a command, as either of those would leave the aggressor with a sense of agency. By stating it as a fact, it shifts the power dynamic, which (from the aggressor’s point of view) relies on the understanding that he will kill/capture the victim.
Even though Roderick was the one holding the sword, Bert could tell the other boy was far more scared than he was. The shivering Roderick was wearing a coat over his pajamas and his feet were wrapped in bloodstained rags.”
Similarly, there are references in “The Lightning-Struck Tower” about Draco doing things “nervously” (589), his voice going “up an octave” (590), and being “white” with fear (591). Even though neither explicitly says it, both Bert and Dumbledore can tell that their would-be killer is the frightened party here.
‘Have you walked all the way from Chouxville like that?’ asked Bert.
‘That’s none of your business!’ spat Roderick, trying to look fierce, though his teeth were chattering.”
Dumbledore also makes small talk with Draco. Unlike Roderick, Draco engages in small talk with Dumbledore right away, but it’s incredible how similar Bert and Dumbledore’s rhetorical strategies are here. And just like Roderick, Draco is putting on a brave face, saying things “forcefully” (585), “snarl[ing]” (586), and “sneer[ing]” (587, 588).
Later in the chapter, Roderick does answer all of Bert’s questions about the how and the why of it all but only after they do away with the pretense of Roderick capturing Bert. Draco keeps up the façade even while engaging in small talk.
‘I’m taking you in, Beamish, you traitor!’
‘No, you aren’t,’ said Bert, and he pulled the sword out of Roderick’s hand. At that, Roderick burst into tears.”
‘You’re at my mercy….’
‘No, Draco,’ said Dumbledore quietly. ‘It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now.’
Malfoy did not speak. His mouth was open, his wand hand still trembling. Harry thought he saw it drop by a fraction -“ (592)
That last line of Dumbledore’s never fails to give me chills. But again, the echoes between the two scenes are staggering. The aggressor once again tries to assert dominance and their plan to capture/kill the victim – Draco does this an additional time before this too: “I’m about to kill you -” (591). The victim once again asserts, in a declarative statement, that it will not happen. And the aggressor comes around, giving up his sword and lowering his wand…
Or at least, he would if it were not for those infernal Death Eaters bursting in. They couldn’t have waited a few more seconds? To my great chagrin, there is no equivalent passage in Half-Blood Prince to the next line in The Ickabog:
‘Come on,’ said Bert kindly, and he put his arm round Roderick’s shoulders and led him off down a side alley, away from the fluttering Wanted poster.”
There are a lot of factors for why the détente with Roderick worked out better than the one with Draco. For one, Bert was able to gently disarm Roderick at the last moment, whereas Dumbledore was in no physical condition to do so and had to rely completely on Draco himself to do everything. If Dumbledore had just a bit of strength left to speed along the process, maybe things would have worked out for Draco.
Bert also has a better rapport with Roderick than Dumbledore with Draco. Ironically, this stems from one of the key differences between The Ickabog and Harry Potter: While Harry refused Draco’s offer of friendship, Bert did strike up a friendship with Roderick. Add that to the tantalizing list of what-ifs. What if Harry had befriended Draco?
Another difference is the absence of third parties. If it were just Draco and Dumbledore up in that tower, I firmly believe Draco would have come around. But the presence of the Death Eaters changed the course of Draco’s life.
Yet the biggest difference of all, I believe, actually has nothing to do with Bert or Dumbledore and everything to do with the villains: our respective Lords, Spittleworth and Voldemort.
There is one text that I find crucial to understanding the Potter books: Machiavelli’s The Prince. I discuss at length in my Dumbledore book, Life and Lies, that Albus Dumbledore clearly subscribes to the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli about how to be an effective leader. Many other writers over the years have written about Snape and Machiavelli.
But there has not been much analysis of how Voldemort’s leadership style fits with The Prince. And there is some sense in that: As the series goes on, Voldemort begins to serve as a cautionary tale against everything Machiavelli warns leaders not to do. (Unless Machiavelli were a wizard in Jo’s world, Voldemort wouldn’t have read his work, so perhaps that explains it.) However, in one key point, HBP-era Voldemort actually does much better with Machiavelli’s teachings than Lord Spittleworth does.
Chapter XVII of The Prince makes this statement:
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause.”
The last sentence is precisely where Spittleworth trips up.
The gist of this passage is that it behooves rulers to be feared, but if they are hated because they are excessively cruel, that never ends well.
Here is where Voldemort excels at keeping his Death Eaters in line. Unlike many more caricatured Dark Lords, Voldemort never kills his followers in fits of pique or shoots the messengers who bring him bad news. (The exception is in Deathly Hallows after the Gringotts break-in, and that was a very bad move on Voldemort’s part, but he was getting very sloppy towards the end.)
Voldemort tortures his Death Eaters to punish them, yes – recall Avery during Voldemort’s Goblet of Fire rebirth. But he does not torture his Death Eaters for no reason. He also has no problem killing those who are disloyal – from Karkaroff to Pettigrew. But again, he does not do this for no reason.
This is the context for his threat against the Malfoys in Half-Blood Prince.
‘I’ve got to do it! He’ll kill me! He’ll kill my whole family!
He told me to do it or he’ll kill me. I’ve got no choice.'” (591)
Voldemort is feared enough by his Death Eaters that they know not to call his bluff and not to give him a reason to kill their loved ones. But there is also the understanding that if Draco does what’s needed, then Voldemort will uphold his end of the bargain, and the Malfoys will be safe. This is why Draco is hard to convince to change allegiance and why Lucius Malfoy never actually comes around to betray Voldemort. Through some twisted Stockholm Syndrome, they believe they can thrive under Voldemort.
Spittleworth, on the other hand, gets much sloppier than Voldemort as the story progresses. He uses a similar playbook and threatens people’s loved ones to coerce them. But he becomes too cruel and doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
‘But n-now he’s been – been killed!’ sobbed Roderick.
‘Major Roach is dead?’ said Bert, taken aback. ‘How?’
‘Sp-Spittleworth,’ sobbed Roderick. ‘He c-came t-to our house with soldiers when n-nobody could find you. He was so angry Father hadn’t caught you – he grabbed a soldier’s gun . . . and he . . .'”
Instead of merely threatening the Roaches with death, Lord Spittleworth’s temper gets the best of him, and he needlessly kills Major Roach. This is what Machiavelli warned against: A leader must only kill people “on proper justification and for manifest cause.” Otherwise, a leader loses the loyalty of his followers.
If Voldemort had actually killed Lucius Malfoy after the Department of Mysteries fiasco, I believe Draco would have been much easier to persuade to come over to the Order’s side. Once the illusion of safety in exchange for good behavior is gone, Roderick willingly allies himself with Bert, just as Draco would have done. In Draco’s mind, his choices are (1) kill Dumbledore, and his family is okay or (2) don’t kill Dumbledore, and his family dies. In Roderick’s mind, the choices are (1) capture Bert, and maybe his family is okay, but his father is dead or (2) ally himself with Bert, and there’s less chance his family is okay, but his father is dead either way.
That’s not to diminish how hard the choice is for Roderick. He still attempts to go through with the first option: “It was for my m-mother and brothers. I thought I might be able to g-get them back if I turned you in. Spittleworth t-took them away.” But because of Spittleworth’s needless cruelty, Bert was able to sway his allegiance much more easily than Dumbledore could with Draco’s.
Not that we needed more reasons to love The Ickabog but this is a material one for me. I’m getting to experience my favorite “what if” actually written by Jo: What if Draco had switched sides in Deathly Hallows? In chapter 48, we already see Roderick standing up to bullies, so it appears that this will be a true redemption arc for him, and I can’t wait.