J.K. Rowling, Chekhov’s Gun and the Joys of Rereading
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.Anton Chekhov – Valentine T. Bill (1987), Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom, Philosophical Library
(Editor’s note: Major spoilers are included in this article. You have been warned.)
The only thing I have found more enjoyable than reading through the Harry Potter series is reading through it many times.
My reasons for reading it twice a year or so (with the intention of continuing to do so a minimum of once a year until I die) are legion and normal. I get just as many chills the fifth time I read Harry call for his Firebolt during the first task of the Triwizard Tournament as I did the first time I read it. I got just as emotional during Dobby’s death and during Snape’s final pensieve memories the last time I read as the first time.
Some things are better when I reread, such as the final battle between Harry and Voldemort, which is so rich in detail it had my head spinning the first time. I needed several times to grasp it all. Sometimes I just miss details until I reread, as I didn’t note until about my third reading that Ron put his socks on Dobby’s feet before they buried him, a detail so touching and impacting I cannot believe I missed it the first times.
But on that note, there is one thing that stands out about Harry Potter than causes me to adore rereading beyond the typical reasons. They call it “Chekhov’s Gun” and J.K. Rowling was a master at introducing seemingly minor plot devices in passing that turn out to be hugely significant hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages later. Some were major their first appearance but even then their magnitude after the gun goes off blows me away as I reread.
I am pretty much the opposite of someone like Sherlock Holmes; I don’t notice detail immediately and that actually helps to get lost in stories while reading and watching TV and movies. Plot twists and fired guns catch me completely off guard. Which is a glorious feeling. And Rowling was a magician at these things for over 4000 pages. I remember during my first reading my wife told me: “Rowling doesn’t introduce anything by accident. It all has a purpose.”
And while her plot twists are already legendary, and as they are so well covered, I want to focus on these Chekhov’s Guns, which is trope of a different color. There are many and I’ll mention several but not nearly all. These are more or less my favorites after having been through the series several times (note I may have some minor details wrong on these and if I do I welcome correction):
The Vanishing Cabinet(s)
First mentioned in Book 2 when Harry hid in the one in Borgin and Burkes after he ended up in in Knockturn Alley by mistake. The Hogwarts twin is mentioned that same book when Harry is in Filch’s office for getting in trouble for spreading mud on the floor. They become a bigger yet still minor part of Book 5 when the Weasley twins trap Slytherin Montague in the one at school, where as a result he realizes there are two and that they connect. And that becomes the basis for how Draco uses them to help kill Dumbledore in Book 6. Amazing.
The Necklace at Borgin and Burkes
In the very same scene on page 52 of Chamber, Draco notices the poisonous necklace that he eventually uses in Book 6 to try to kill Dumbledore, but instead nearly kills Katie Bell.
The Hand of Glory
Yet again first mentioned in Book 2 when Draco sees it in B&B (how insignificant these details–in such a short scene–seem at the time!) Then, early on in Book 6, Ron mentions that Draco has a HoG. And it becomes a crucial part of how he foils Harry’s friends from stopping him in the climactic scene.
The Tiara on the Mannequin
This one and the next one win for “Most random, easy-to-overlook-while-reading detail that becomes monumental later on”. In Book 6 when Snape has Harry trapped for using the Half Blood Prince’s potions book, Harry hides in in the Room of Hidden things and marks its location by noting it is next to a bust with a wig and tiara. Finding that Tiara is as crucial to anything in Book 7, as it was a horcrux.
[Not quite as cool but still on topic is that halfway through Book 7 Luna casually mentions the “lost diadem of Ravenclaw” in passing and her father was wearing a (sort of) replica.]
The Locket at 12 Grimmauld Place
The mention of the locket is so brief in Book 5 when they are cleaning the Order’s Headquarters that I’ve twice read the book looking for its mention and still missed it. It’s so brief and camouflaged by a million other details on the page that only the most brilliant, hyper observant people likely remembered it the first time through when Hermione recalls it in Book 7. What a gun to go off in the last book! Covering pages and pages and chapters and chapters of finding the locket, stealing it back, carrying it around and then finally destroying it. And think of all that happens in those pages: the break into the Ministry, Ron leaving, Ron coming back, the doe, the sword, etc.
Dumbledore’s Broken Nose
3,500 pages or so between gun appearance (the very first appearance of Dumbledore in the first book mentions his nose) and gun going off (Rita Skeeter publishes that Aberforth punched Albus coffinside at Ariana’s funeral). Incredible!
Aberforth and Goats
Not as crucial to the plot but quite hilarious: In Goblet Dumbledore references his brother getting in trouble for illegal charms on a goat. In the next book, Harry notices that the Hog’s Head smells like goats (and that the barkeep looks strangely familiar). In the final book, we find out Aberforth is the barman for the Hog’s Head. So clever!
Dumbledore’s Prophecy About Wormtail
As Harry bemoans letting Wormtail go free at the end of Book 3, Dumbledore assures him one day he will be grateful he did so. And in Book 7, thousands of pages later, Wormtail’s mercy in return helps them escape certain death.
Dumbledore and Snape’s Argument
In Book 6 Hagrid lets it slip that they were arguing so Harry thinks it’s a reason to not trust Snape. Book 7 clears up that they argued about whether Snape would kill Dumbledore.
Dumbledore references the Room of Requirement
In Book 4 at the Yule Ball, Dumbledore casually claims he found a secret room to use the bathroom when he needed it most. In Books 5 and 7 that very room, the “Come and Go Room” (or “Room of Requirement”), becomes the room for the Hogwarts anti-Voldemort movement. Thank you, Dobby. And sadly, in Book 6 it is used to plot the eventual death of Dumbledore.
This is a huge gun shown in Book 2 (marvel at the moment towards the beginning of the book when they are going to King’s Cross and Ginny forgets the diary at home and they have to go back and get it) that goes off at the end of that book. But even more impressively, it goes off again in as it ends up being deemed a horcrux in Book 6.
Marvelo Gaunt’s Ring
Another major gun first mentioned in Book 6 in a pensieve memory, it is so significant that it turns out to be a Hallow and a Horcrux by Book 7.
Why is he the “Bloody” Baron?
Book 1 mentions the Bloody Baron is covered in blood and even asks why he is covered in blood. We don’t get the answer for nearly 4,000 pages. Stunning!
Harry’s Scar Prickling
This one is very early, less than halfway through the very first book and of course we think it has to do with Snape. But we learn quickly that it does not. And it goes off over and over, Rowling adding layer upon layer to why Harry and Voldemort are connected. So while not as obscure as many others, I mention it because amazingly, the final firing of the gun (and the richest detail) isn’t until the penultimate chapter, at King’s Cross in Book 7. We find out that Harry was the horcrux Voldemort never intended to make. This makes reading about the first prickling of his scar in the Great Hall his first day in Book 1 so much more meaningful. And speaking of this…
Dumbledore Tells Harry (Essentially) That He is a Horcrux…in Book Two
This is probably my favorite of all. Read this dialogue, with the end of Book 7 in mind:
“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Lord Voldemort can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do I’m sure.”
“Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?” Harry said, thunderstruck.
“It certainly seems so.”
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17 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling, Chekhov’s Gun and the Joys of Rereading”
I love to reread books. In fact, I believe that unless you have the incredibly rare ability to understand, remember, or appreciate even the tiniest details in a story, you WILL miss a lot if you only read a book once. And the Harry Potter books are no exception. She layered her stories with so many of these little moments.
Agreed completely. For me personally there is no way I could read these books once and be satisfied.
You covered most of my favorites. Mafalda Hopkirk, the Peruvian instant darkness powder, the Department of mysteries, the Gray lady and all of Moaning Myrtle’s story are some other favorites of mine. But I find new ones every time I read it through again. I am also personally convinced that the cabinet that Aragog was raised in is the same cabinet that Harry puts the diadem atop in the room of hidden things. I imagine that the other ghosts’ stories all have great meaning behind them too, I just haven’t gotten there yet. Thanks for sharing in the magical world of Harry.
You truly set the bar high for fandom Ana and give me something to reach for. It’s why I tag you every time in my FB shares! You see so much.
There is a bunch of conversation happening on this topic over on Facebook. I wish that conversation was happening here.
I wonder if you would consider Neville Longbottom and his relation to the prophecy a gun? It was Neville who killed Nagini which allowed Lord Voldemort to be defeated. Just curious on your thoughts. Love this post. It makes me want to re-read the series all over again.
Yes, for the purposes of what I am communicating I would very much include people in that kind of vein. In fact, the quote from my wife above is in context of us talking about Ginny. I knew she liked Harry at first but then he like Cho and then came back around to her and then they got together. So my wife was pointing out that Ginny wasn’t just a Weasley younger sister to fill in detail. She ended up being Harry’s wife. That’s huge.
Neville could be like that. For 5 books he seems like just a doofus and a background character and then he starts to come alive during Dumbledore’ Army. Then by Book 7 is a hero of heroes and people love him. Good point.
Neville had been a good character since the beginning, but I think there really started being added depth to his character and apparent that there was much more to him even before Dumbledore’s Army. His rise as an important character began in the Goblet of Fire when we first found out about his parents.
I’m reading through this again and want to mention some other guns from “Philosopher’s stone”:
1. The question is asked – I cannot remember by whom – about why the Bloody Baron is covered in blood. That is not answered until almost the very end of Book 7 right before everything really heats up (literally) when they destroy the diadem. That has to be close to the record for longest time between gun appearance and gun firing. This one is so cool that I edited the article above to include it and took out the one with Dumbledore and the Mirror of Erised since it isn’t nearly as cool to me.
2. The centaurs in Forest during the students’ punishment allude strongly to a coming war and Harry’s being the cause of it.
3. At one point the boys think that Snape has the ability to “read minds”. Boy is that a huge part of Book 5.
In Book Two a very subtle gun is when Hagrid mentions that the roosters have been killed. And it goes off when we find out Voldemort/Riddle had Jenny kill them to protect the basilisk.
Another one is the early mention of the spiders around Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom. They come into play heavily at the end.
A potential gun in Book 3 is the Trelawney statement: “When 13 dine, the first to rise will die.” We assume Harry and Ron are the first to rise but since neither dies it sounds like more hokum from the divination professor. BUT…if Scabbers was with Ron (the book doesn’t say) then there were already 13 people at the table and Dumbledore stood up to greet her. And he was the first of those 13 to die.
Similarly there were 13 people eating at 12 Grimmauld Place and Sirius was the first to rise and he was also the first to die.
One gun not mentioned above is how Sirius mentions his brother Regalus in Book 5 when they are at the HQ for the Order. At the end of Book 6, “R.A.B” is significant but they have no idea who he is. Anyone paying attention closely in Book 5 could have guessed it.
I’m reading Book One to my unborn son at night in Spanish so he can get used to the sounds of the language and so he can hear Harry Potter (it would be ideal for a native speaker to be reading but we go with what we’ve got). And I noticed when Harry sees the suits of armor his first week at Hogwarts, he has a sneak suspicion they can come alive and move. They don’t until the Battle of Hogwarts in Book 7. So cool! These books are endless supply of the topic of this article.
Ha! REO has definitely helped me embrace that, and I mean that as complimentary as possible. My wife has too, especially with this. 4.5 years ago I hadn’t read a page or seen a minute of the movies.
I’m reading them in English now as a part of my yearly personal romp through the three greatest fantasy series of all time and here are things you get just from the *first 100 pages* of Book One, none of which have been mentioned yet:
1. Hagrid borrows Sirius Black’s motorcycle to deliver Harry in the very first chapter. Sirius is so significant in Book 3 he is the subtitle, not to mention everything else in Books 4 and 5 that he does.
2. Hagrid tells Harry that you’d be crazy to try to rob Gringotts, which they do in Book 7 (and Harry recalls this).
Sub-notes on that one: He also says that the two safest places in to keep things are the bank and Hogwarts (which Harry also recalls) and both house Horcruxes in Book 7. He also mentions the dragon guarding the important vaults. And Griphook is who helps them, who is crucial in Book 7’s plot to rob the bank.
3. Hagrid tells Harry that Voldemort didn’t have “enough human left in him to die” – which totally foreshadows the horcruxes to me. In fact I think – again – Harry recalls this in Book 6. When I get there I’ll make a note.
4. On Dumbledore’s frog card that Harry collects on the train ride to Hogwarts, it says A) he defeated Grindelwald in 1945 (which has gone way beyond these 7 books now) and 2) something about Nicholas Flamel, which is only a gun for later in Book One but still a huge one.
In Book 2 Hagrid comments that the Defense Against The Dark Arts teaching job at Hogwarts is jinxed. Yep!
Book 3—-Harry’s sneakoscope repeatedly goes off throughout the book even though no one (seemingly) evil is around. But it was going off because Peter Pettigrew was there…as Scabbers. Clever.