Disclaimer: The Harry Potter universe belongs to J.K. Rowling; the author of this story appreciates her continuing indulgence of those of us who are so attached to it we can’t resist tweaking it a little.
F&B: Before we get to listeners’ questions, as promised, we have to talk about the most sensational and most disturbing allegation which is reported to appear in your book. We hear from several sources that your biography claims to have convincing evidence that, in his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter attempted suicide and committed homicide. Do you in fact make that charge?
AG:Yes, I do. Being careful to include the caveat that “homicide” does not mean criminal homicide. I believe that Harry killed, but in self-defense.
F&B: That isn’t news, though; we know he killed Voldemort.
AG:I’m talking here about the deaths of some of Voldemort’s followers, not of Voldemort himself.
F&B: And you do charge that Harry attempted suicide?
AG:In essence, yes, I think he did. What counts as “suicide” is also something we could wrangle over, but maybe it’s best if I just tell the story as I found it, and let your listeners decide how much of it they believe, and – if they do believe the story – what they would call it, what Harry did.
F&B: Go ahead.
AG:Okay. Sixth year was, in many ways, the worst for Harry. He had lost his godfather, he was blaming himself for the death, and he’d been given this ‘present’ of being told it was up to him to stop Voldemort. Then, as the term went on, it seemed that Voldemort was acting at will, even in Hogwarts itself, sabotaging passageways, plucking students out and holding them hostage, sending taunting messages to Harry inviting him to come rescue them.
F&B: Did he try? To rescue the students, I mean.
AG:Everybody knew he would try, given half a chance, and that he would be walking into a deathtrap. So he wasn’t given half a chance. He was made a virtual prisoner and watched constantly. Naturally, Harry was getting more and more frustrated and angry, was lashing out at friend and foe alike—
F&B: —and also was feeling guilty, perhaps?
AG:And guilty. The students were being taken because of him, Harry couldn’t help thinking of it in those terms. It hit bottom when Dennis Creevey died. Dennis’s brother Colin virtually stalked Harry through the hallways, asking why he didn’t do anything for Dennis, saying he would have done something if it had been Ron or Hermione who’d been taken.
F&B: Is it possible that Colin had a point?
AG:It’s hard to see what Harry could have done for Dennis except die along with him. But Harry didn’t see it that way. When his friends tried to keep Colin away from him, Harry actually yelled at them, “Leave him alone; he’s got a right to say anything he wants; he’s lost his brother, don’t you understand?”
[Pause.] Then, just before Christmas Break, his mood took a sudden change; he was calm and cheerful, had a pleasant word for everybody, even smiled at all the usual Slytherin taunts.
F&B: It sounds as if he’d found some way to get past all those feelings of guilt and anger.
AG:It might sound that way, if you really could work your way through that burden that quickly, under those circumstances, without any visible effort. But if you don’t believe that such psychological magic can be performed, what it really sounds like is the calm of someone who has made up his mind that there’s no point getting upset about anything because it’s all going to end soon anyway. And this is clearly what Hermione was worried about, because she was very desperately begging him to talk to her, to talk to Dumbledore, to talk to somebody, and not to ‘do anything rash.’ Hermione was so frantic she wasn’t even bothering to keep this quiet and private; we could hear her halfway down the Great Hall sometimes.
F&B: But apparently she was wrong, wasn’t she? Or was there an attempt which was covered up?
AG:Well, let me continue first with what I witnessed myself, then we’ll get to what I researched later and whether that spells ‘cover-up’. After we all came back from Christmas break, Harry was not seen anywhere for the first week of second term. When he finally appeared, two Slytherin students – Crabbe and Goyle – were heard screaming threats and invective at him, including “murderer.” And a couple of days after that – according to persistent reports from credible witnesses – Harry was ambushed and attacked by Crabbe and Goyle, and barely escaped with his life. Crabbe and Goyle themselves fled the school and became Death Eaters. But nobody would say – for the record – what the motivation was for the attacks.
F&B: Do you think that you know?
AG:Even at the time, I thought it was pretty clear: Harry had somehow killed Crabbe’s father and Goyle’s father, who were both Death Eaters. Neither boy was the type to be particularly disturbed by the death of anybody who wasn’t close to them. But there was never any public report of the deaths of the two. So if Harry did kill them, how? And why? And where?
F&B: And how did he go from being suicidally depressed to being an avenger of Death Eater crimes?
AG:Right. When I took up this job – and don’t get me wrong it’s been a great privilege and mostly a great pleasure to be Harry’s biographer – I knew I would have to try to get answers to questions like this. But in this case, Harry flatly refused to give any answers, and so did all his friends and family members who might have any clue about where to get them. So, I had to try to look up what I could. And the first thing I looked for was a report on the deaths of the senior Crabbe and Goyle. The Ministry does keep track of these things, because they naturally want to know that all the old Death Eaters are accounted for in one way or another, so sooner or later I was bound to come across an official reference to them. And I did.
F&B: What was the official word, then?
AG:It comes from a very short parchment, dated January 1997—
F&B: —That is, just at the time you were speaking of: beginning of second term, Harry’s sixth year.
AG:That’s right. The parchment gives the date of death – which was just around the time Harry went “missing,” so to speak – and gives the cause of death as “WH-SD”, which is code for death “at a Witch or Wizard’s Hand, in Self-Defense.” For the killer’s name, it simply states “Underaged Wizard.” And it lists two others as “Witnesses”
F&B: And the names of the witnesses?
AG:They are given as “Underaged Witch” and “Underaged Wizard.”
F&B: And you’re assuming this could only be Harry – the killer – and Ron and Hermione, the witnesses?
AG:No, that would—
F&B: —Because if anything, the presence of two witnesses would point away from Ron and Hermione, wouldn’t it? I mean, I find it hard to believe they simply stood and watched while Harry was in a fight to the death—
AG:—No, I wouldn’t believe that either. But “witness” doesn’t necessarily mean passive witness in that sense; for legal purposes its key meaning is that they didn’t deal the fatal blows, and weren’t part of some conspiracy to deal them. Still, at this point I concede we can’t be jumping to conclusions.
But there’s more. The place where this all took place is given in code, indicating a location under some national wizarding security secrecy. But the Ministry isn’t terribly good at hiding things in code…
F&B: Should we feel worried by this, or reassured?
AG:A little of both I guess. It’s certainly fortunate for historians and biographers. In any case, it doesn’t take too much cross checking to find the building referred to in the code, and it turns to be Number 12, Grimmauld Place.
F&B: I have to admit, although you say that with a splendid dramatic air…
AG:Thank you, I try…
F&B: …it still doesn’t mean much of anything to me or I guess to most of our listeners.
AG:First of all,Number 12 Grimmauld Place was the ancestral mansion of the Black family, whose last descendant – Sirius Black – was of course Harry’s godfather. It was also for some time the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, the anti-Voldemort resistance group headed by Albus Dumbledore, though it wasn’t their headquarters any more at the time Crabbe and Goyle met their end there.
F&B: Intriguing, but still nothing that leaps out and says “Harry Potter was here.”
AG:Consider this: in January of 1997, there were two people, and only two people, who would have been able to access this building without breaking some of the most powerful magical wards imaginable. They would have been, first, Albus Dumbledore, who was the head and secret keeper of the Order, and whose Fidelius charm protected Number 12 and hid it from those not invited; and, second, the legal owner of the house, who inherited it through the explicit bequest of the late Sirius Black: Sirius’s godson, Harry Potter.
F&B: So Harry took a trip to his godfather’s old house during Christmas break, and found the senior Crabbe and Goyle waiting for him? Because you’ve just got through implying that people like Crabbe and Goyle couldn’t possibly have gotten there…
AG:Couldn’t have gotten there on their own. They might have gotten there if they were invited by the rightful owner.
F&B: I’m still lost. Why would Harry have issued that invitation?
AG:He might have issued it, not only to Crabbe and Goyle, but to all the Death Eaters in the British Isles, and to Voldemort himself, if he thought he somehow had a spell at hand which could vanquish them all.
F&B: That would have had to be quite some spell.
AG:It would indeed. And here’s the last piece of the puzzle – at least, the last piece I have myself. Grimmauld Place was listed for a long time among many guidebooks to the fabulous homes of the world’s richest wizards, and a number of these guidebooks had updating spells on them to keep up with changes in ownership and accessibility and so forth. All these guidebooks’ entries regarding Grimmauld Place were temporarily erased when it came under the Fidelius charm, but then they all updated themselves at precisely this time – in January of 1997 – when the house was declared to have become uninhabitable and no longer worth listing. I’ve seen some of the pictures, and “uninhabitable” is quite an understatement. The building was utterly destroyed. Whatever spell it was, it reduced all of the furnishings to rubble. For example, the massive, old oak dining tables – rumored to have been from the Middle Ages and seemingly indestructible – were reduced to a few pieces of wand-shavings and some piles of ash.
F&B: How, then, could Harry have lived through it, if he was the one who cast the spell?
AG:I don’t know. What I suspect is this: Harry set the trap, the Death Eaters walked in on it, Ron and Hermione somehow found out about it, and they dragged Harry out before the spell could be completed; thus saving Harry’s life and presumably the lives of a number of Voldemort’s witches and wizards at the same time.
F&B: In fact, given that Harry knew the prophecy, it would be a virtual certainty, wouldn’t it, that Voldemort himself was there, and Harry was trying to finish him?
AG: Yes, I think so—
F&B: —because throwing away his own life without disposing of Voldemort first would have left the rest of us still at his mercy—
AG:—and Harry wouldn’t have done that no matter how depressed or suicidal he was, no. I agree; the plan must have been to take out Voldemort himself, with as many of his followers as possible. I imagine Voldemort somehow perceived the danger and scarpered, leaving his followers to sort themselves into the quick and the dead.
F&B: And the names ‘Crabbe’ and ‘Goyle’ have never been listed among the quick.
F&B: So, let’s suppose for the moment that you’re right. Would you necessarily still call it an attempted suicide? It sounds as if Harry was trying to deal a decisive blow to the enemy, like a good soldier often does at great risk to his own life, or even with the knowledge that his own death is all but certain.
AG:That’s one way of looking at it, sure. You could say it depends on how real the possibility was that the sacrifice would work: that is, was it primarily a tactically brilliant plan for getting rid of Voldemort, which had the unfortunate but inevitable side effect that it would take Harry with him, or was it primarily a way for Harry to end all his heartache, attached to a slim, desperate chance of taking out Voldemort too? Obviously I can’t answer that question, and even if we knew the exact nature of that terrible spell, it still might not answer it. I don’t know if – I really don’t think even Harry himself knew then, or knows now, how much of the plan was aimed at Voldemort and how much at himself. And what are we going to say, that if it was fifty-one percent one way, then Harry is a heroic soldier performing a sacred task, but if it was fifty-one percent the other way he was a contemptible coward running away from his duty? I can’t – I just don’t think we can calculate things that way. I’ve had to try curing myself from time to time of the temptation to think we always can calculate everything out that way…
F&B: I think that’s known as “Ravenclaw Syndrome.”
AG:[Laughter] Okay, call it that if you like.
F&B: But – without benefit of calculator – how would you sum up or categorize what you think happened to Harry at this time?
AG:I would say, given what we know of Harry’s mood before January 1997, given the obviously devastating and indiscriminate power of whatever spell he used, and given Harry’s apparent depression after that – remaining invisible, not even putting up much of a fight against Crabbe and Goyle’s ambush, because it’s hard to imagine those two setting up an ambush, and it’s harder to imagine them so readily getting the better of Harry, even if they did get in the first blows, unless he just wasn’t fighting back very hard – given all that, I would say Harry went into Grimmauld Place not expecting or particularly wanting to come out, and came out of Grimmauld Place resentful of the fact that it hadn’t all ended there as he had planned.
F&B: Still, your case remains very speculative and circumstantial, doesn’t it?
AG:Absolutely. I certainly wouldn’t want to see anybody convicted of anything based on this kind of logic. But I have some further reasons for feeling that the account I’ve just given is at least generally correct, and I think they’re very strong reasons. When I agreed to do this biography, one thing I had to agree to was allowing Harry a final review of the book, and giving him the authority to cut out anything which he knew to be basically untrue…
F&B: That’s an agreement which gives Harry a lot of power to cover his own skin in case you found some unpleasant facts about him.
AG:Yes, he could use that clause as an excuse for self-interested censorship, and I would ordinarily have gotten outraged at the suggestion that I agree to that kind of clause; how can a biographer, with his responsibility to the truth, let his subject decide how much truth gets told? But I accepted the clause because I didn’t think Harry would abuse it that way. And he never did.
Now, the best reason I can give you for believing that what I’ve deduced about Harry’s sixth year is at least broadly true is this: I showed him my conclusions. I told him I wanted to put them in the book. Harry had a perfect moral right to stop me if I was slandering him, and he had a perfect legal right to stop me in any case. He did not do so. He didn’t look at all happy about it, but he did not tell me to take it out.
There’s a second reason as well, and that’s the reaction I got when I posed the question to them…
F&B: I thought you had already asked for information, and been turned down?
AG:I had, but in past interviews I had only brought it up in terms like ‘Where was Harry the first week of January 1997’ or ‘Why did Crabbe and Goyle attack him,’ and I guess they were prepared for that. But this time I pulled something of a nasty trick on them in order to try prying something loose. I had the four of them all talking, and I had already learned about the death of Crabbe and Goyle the elders, and about the destruction of Grimmauld Place, but I hadn’t told anybody that I knew any of this. So I tried – I guess it was really pretty immature, trying to imitate the sort of tactic you see in trial-room fiction, but pretty much out of nowhere, after a conversation involving something completely different, I asked “Harry, in January 1997, what happened at Grimmauld Place?”
F&B: I imagine that got some reaction.
AG:It certainly did. Harry, Ron, and Ginny definitely looked annoyed and somewhat upset. But it was Hermione – Hermione was absolutely livid. I had never seen her like this, she positively raged at me, saying this interview was over, this book deal was over, and my career was over if she had anything to say about it, and maybe – well, I was half-instinctively covering some of my anatomy. She said to Harry “You don’t have to talk about this, it’s over, it’s behind us,” and started crying. Ron “suggested” that I leave them all some privacy for a while.
F&B: For a woman as brilliant as Hermione, though – she must have realized that this kind of reaction told a story itself, told you that there was indeed something terrible or shameful surrounding that time and place.
AG:I’m sure she realized it a second or two later, but she clearly couldn’t help herself.
F&B: Why? Why would Hermione in particular, rather than Harry’s wife Ginny, or Harry himself, feel so frantically protective here?
AG:There are two main reasons, I think. First, Hermione never believed in the prophecy…
F&B: She thought it meant somebody else, not Harry?
AG:No, I mean she just doesn’t accept the existence of prophecies; she thinks they entail certain logical paradoxes and inconsistencies.
F&B: She doesn’t accept…? Isn’t that like saying you don’t accept the existence of dragons because it’s not possible for animals that size to fly or breathe fire?
AG:I suppose Hermione would try to argue that the existence of dragons can be confirmed in a way that the existence of true prophetic powers cannot. But whether or not her beliefs make sense, they are her beliefs. So from her point of view, this was not a case of Harry doing something awful but perhaps necessary, it was a case of Harry throwing his life away for a delusion, the delusion that it was up to him to stop Voldemort.
F&B: Obviously Harry didn’t have any such skepticism about the prophecy himself, even though – like Hermione – he was raised in a non-magical environment, and his first experience with Divination class was not an inspiring one. Why wasn’t he skeptical?
AG:I asked that of Harry, and his answer was “I guess after everything that had happened to me, when I was told ‘there’s a prophecy which has terrible, terrible news about you,’ my reaction was ‘well, that certainly sounds like a gold-standard bit of prophecy’.”
F&B: You don’t really think he was being serious?
AG: I think he thought he was joking, but I don’t think he really was joking. I think he had come to feel, on a very deep and hard-to-eradicate level, that bad news, and only bad news, was likely to be true. And – again, getting back to the theme of the book – I think we should all be happy that Harry has been able to make a life for himself that’s let him pretty much shed that assumption.
F&B: Getting back to Hermione, you said there were two reasons for her reaction…
AG:The second reason is a little more speculative on my part. I think that especially after the rebirth of Voldemort, Hermione found herself put in the role of worrier-over-Harry, even more so than Ron or Ginny. She had very strong ideas about what kind of psychological help Harry needed, and wasn’t getting. She didn’t trust the teachers to provide it, because she thought they were too reliant on magical solutions to really take a Muggle-sounding disorder like “depression” seriously. She didn’t trust Ron or Harry himself to get that help because, no matter how many dragons or Dementors they’d chased away, in the final analysis they were still – boys, males. And males just have no idea about emotions and those sorts of things. So Hermione felt herself responsible for taking care of Harry in this way. And when Harry slipped away, so to speak, she felt both betrayed by Harry and deeply guilty at the thought she had somehow failed him. And the whole memory of that episode would therefore be horribly painful to her.
I guess I should add that I was eventually able to get Hermione to talk to me again—
F&B: —And you’re still anatomically intact?
AG:[laughs] Reasonably so, at least.
F&B: I’m sure at this point many of our listeners are wondering… are you sure there was never anything going on between Harry and Hermione? Because the kind of emotional intensity you’re describing, as fueling those deep feelings of protectiveness, certainly sounds like more than you’d get from ‘just friends.’
AG:Oh they are more than just friends; it’s very clear they love each other deeply. But it apparently isn’t the kind of love that leads into the bedroom. And I’m pretty well convinced that one reason Harry never really considered anybody else but Ginny as a love interest, never started dating other girls, was because he knew that almost any other relationship would have been doomed, because virtually any other woman would rather quickly have gotten very jealous of Hermione, and would have implicitly or explicitly demanded of Harry, “you’d better move further away from Hermione if you want to get any closer to me.” Which he would never have done.
F&B: That was sort of the lesson he would have gotten from the experience with Cho.
AG:I don’t think that only Cho – I rather think that almost any girl, not just Cho, would have some feeling of jealousy for such an intimate relationship with another woman, even a non-sexual relationship. It’s just that Ginny knows both Harry and Hermione so well, has shared so much more with both of them, that she’s either immune to that or able to get past it.
F&B: You know, you could take this even further. There are certain things Harry wants – the ordinary life, as you put it, with a home, a family, a curtain of privacy…
F&B: …and obviously he wants to remain as close as possible to his closest friends, Ron and Hermione. And the only person who has – who is – the key to all this, who can make it all fall into place…
AG:…is Ginny, yes.
F&B: Harry gets to be Ron’s brother-in-law, and Hermione’s – what do you call the wife of your brother-in-law?
AG:I guess she’s his sister-in-law too, I’ve never been quite clear of the terminology myself.
F&B: So mightn’t Harry have very strong motivation to marry Ginny, even if he were not in love with her? I know this sounds like a somewhat… Skeeterish?… insinuation, but…
AG:No, I know what you mean, and – on a theoretical level – you can’t really deny it. Harry would have that motivation. But he would be the last person in the world to do anything that calculating or exploitative.
F&B: Well, he was almost sorted into Slytherin, wasn’t he?
AG:No, really, Harry would sooner kill himself. And the rest of the Weasleys would be sure to finish the job if he didn’t.
F&B: Consciously, he wouldn’t. But subconsciously? Don’t you think people can fool themselves into thinking they’re in love?
AG:Well, if you dosed me with Veritaserum and asked “isn’t it possible,” I guess I’d say, yes, it’s theoretically possible. Lots of things are theoretically possible. I mean, it’s possible that both marriages are shams; that all four of them are gay and they’re disguising the true partnerships with this gambit. But I don’t think so. From what I’ve seen, Harry and Ginny are a very close and affectionate couple. And I think you can usually trust the woman to know what the man’s real feelings are, and if Ginny thought Harry might be using her like that – she just has too much pride to allow herself to be married like that.
F&B: Even to the man she’s loved so strongly for half her life?
AG:Yes, I would say so.
F&B: When we come back we’ll give our listeners a chance to contribute. If you have a question for Anthony… well, you know how to conjure us.