Monday, December 13, 2010

A Riddle for You

Sorry for the long silence. Things got really hectic around here and I was unable to blog for a while.

But, I have a riddle for you. Here's a curious passage regarding a riddle from Deathly Hallows:

"She ain't answering, you old besom! You open it! Garn! Do it, now!"

"Certainly, if you wish it," said Professor McGonagall, with awful coldness.

There was a gentle tap of the knocker and the musical voice asked again.
"Where do Vanished objects go?"

"Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything." replied Professor McGonagall.

"Nicely phrased," replied the eagle door knocker, and the door swung open.

What do you think JKR meant with McGonagall's answer? What exactly is she trying to hint at with Vanished object, and how can it go into everything?

I've got a theory on what she's trying to say here, and I think it directly relates to the theme of the book: death.

If any of you have read His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (who JKR has commented on), I think she's drawing from a haunting image Pullman gives his reader near the end of his last book, The Amber Spyglass. Lyra and Will travel through the world of the dead, and when Will cuts an opening with his knife into another world, the ghosts step through into the new realm and dissipate into nothingness, the last thing visible their smile.

I think, with very few words, JKR hinted at the exact same imagery and maybe even gave a tip-of-the-hat to Pullman.

At the point where Harry overhears the above exchange with McGonagall, he is very close to facing death. He knows it. The reader knows it.

Throughout the series, JKR has tackled some of the deepest, most difficult issues surrounding death: our fear of it, our avoidance of it, the finality of it. Here's she tackles one of the most difficult aspects of all: the mystery of it all.

Where do we go when we finally die? According to Pullman, it's not locked away somewhere in a realm where we exist as ghost-like corporal beings, but rather our atoms are broken down and reabsorbed into the life around us. Into everything.

So, as the Ravenclaw knocker asks, "Where do Vanished objects go?" JKR gives her reader an extremely subtle clue as to her own view regarding, where do the dead go? Our spirits?

Her answer: Back into the life that surrounds you. Into everything.

Once again, I may be reading too much into JKR's words, but this time, I truly don't believe so. As a writer, I'm amazed by her ability to hint at so much with so few words. Of course, she's had a huge series to build up her themes and subtext to the point where she CAN use so few words to say so much.

But a passage like this is a strong example, when it comes to message, of "Show, Don't Tell." I know in some of my earlier work, I've felt the need to beat the reader over the head with "what it's all about," not trusting my reader to catch onto subtle clues and hints. Honestly, I tended to get preachy.

It takes a lot of time and learning to write in such a way that weaves your message subtly through the fabric of the story, hinting with imagery and action, and perhaps the occasional riddle, at the deeper messages you wish to convey. And too, some styles of story call for more subtle weaving while other styles are blunt, in-your-face.

Who would look for the mystery of death to be camouflaged behind a riddle password to a secret door? Perhaps the same readers who found voices whispering beyond an ancient arch in the basement of a government building.

Death. We can't see them, but we can hear their subtle whispers in the air around us, because those we love never truly leave us. They live on in our hearts and minds and the world that surrounds us. In everything.

JKR quoted on Pullman
Ravenclaw image source


  1. This is one of my favorite posts so far.I always raised a curious eyebrow at this passage and couldn't quite wrap my mind around what she meant. Your clarification helped a lot! Damn. I gotta read this series again.

  2. Thanks so much, BookGeek. I'm so glad you liked it. I always feel I'm going out on a limb with some of this stuff!

  3. Nice. I did not catch that. The arch yes. The riddle no. And you have a very convincing argument!