Part I. Harry Potter and the Dursley Horcrux Fan Theory.
There’s a fan theory about Harry Potter swimming around these here Internets, best summed up here:
I suppose I could go and find the original tumblr post. But this one has pictures!
As the Fan-Theory-Grinch that I frequently tend to be (only in regards to Harry Potter, for some reason. Something about fan theories and Harry Potter in particular makes me clutch my pearls and scream “my childhood!” So I am not exactly coming from a place of no bias here), I am going to discuss this one in unfavorable terms. I don’t mean to be one of those assholes who says that fan theories are an example of “overthinking” the original material– I do appreciate that fan theories are a fun way to really engage more deeply with books/movies/TV. And, while they do sometimes tend to be presented in ways that could best be described as obnoxious (remember that thing on Spirited Away? I do), this one bears no such sins. I just intend to over-overthink this one. Extra-overthink. Super-overthink.
The basic gist of the theory is this: Harry is a horcrux, horcruxes exude a miasma of asshole-inducing evil, Harry’s horcrux-miasma made the Dursleys assholes.
But: this doesn’t hold up all that well.
Caveat before going forward: I am discussing the books, and not the movies. I have put a great deal of effort into forgetting the movies, and I have been very close to successful, and that despite spending all of my free time on Tumblr. No one is going to fuck that up for me, capische?
First quibble, specifically with the Cracked article writer:
“It always seemed odd that Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, would be good enough to take him in and raise him, only to keep him locked in a cupboard under the stairs…”
No, it did not always seem odd. The baby is delivered unto said aunt and uncle with a letter from Dumbledore in it, the precise contents of which we never find out. We do know, however, that Dumbledore seems to have no problem at all telling Aunt Petunia to toe the damn line (remember that Howler, in Book 5), and impresses upon Petunia the immediacy of “if you, personally, do not keep this kid, this kid is going to die”, unless, of course, they managed to find an orphanage run by another relative of Lily Evans, which, apparently, they did not. Basically, keeping Harry isn’t so much an indication of their one-time goodness as it is an indication that weren’t yet ready to fucking kill him, and if that’s our standard of not being an asshole, then almost anyone can apply.
The horcrux miasma is super inconsistent.
The Cracked article points to Ron’s experience with the locket, which is fair, because that’s the one that’s explicitly discussed. Ron says: “… it affects me worse than it affected you and Hermione, it made me think stuff– stuff I was thinking anyway, but it made everything worse, I can’t explain it, and then I’d take it off and I’d get my head on straight again, and then I’d have to put the effing thing back on–” Which is all pretty straight-forward.
Firstly, if you find the scene wherein they’ve only just retrieved the locket from Umbridge, when the locket hasn’t yet had much more than a few minutes’ worth of time to affect anyone yet, Ron is already behaving like quite the asshole. Which is explained– they’ve just apparated away from the Death Eaters, which left little bits of Ron behind because apparating is not something the kids have really mastered yet, and bleeding all over the place, one might surmise, does not tend to improve the mood. The trio then goes through a few months of living off the land, and winter fugitive camping, which is to say, a poor diet and poor quality sleep, does not put anyone in good spirits (though I have to say, Ron, the wizard fugitive lifestyle looks miles better than the muggle fugitive lifestyle).
But then we have Ginny, of Book 2, who has that diary for much longer than Ron had the locket and while she does become possessed and start trying to kill people, she doesn’t seem to become an asshole, per se. Maybe we just don’t see it because she’s a very shy asshole, but I have a hard time buying that because Book 2 is peppered with background descriptions of what’s up with Ginny. She’s pale and sickly, crying constantly, apparently depressed, still very much in love with Harry, and basically an anxious mess, all in contrast to the rather vivacious person she proves to be in the later books.
But then again, we have Kreacher, of Books 5, 6, and earlier, who, remember, has the locket during that time, before Fletcher steals it. The locket and its horcruxiness isn’t credited for Kreacher’s antagonism, nor its absence for his Heel-Face Turn, but the times when he has it does correspond nicely to when he’s evil, and vice versa.
Then again again, we have Harry the horcrux, which, while he may have spent ten years with the Dursleys, spends another six years at Hogwarts, and seven years in the very close company of Ron and Hermione, apparently without turning anyone (except, according to this theory, the Durlseys) into proximity-afflicted assholes. He spends an enormous amount of time with Seamus, Dean, and Neville, given that they dorm together, have class together, and eat meals together, and even more time with Ron and Hermione. According to Hermione, a horcrux is most likely to have an effect on a person if that person really loves the damn thing, by pouring their heart and soul into it… or, let’s say, befriending it. By that logic, ten years of the Durlseys’ neglect of Harry should mean less horcruxy proximity than seven years of the trio’s friendship. If we go with the fan theory, that means that the Harry horcrux worked its transformative powers on the Dursleys, and then when he got to school, just stopped, for no apparent reason.
And then, there’s Harry himself. Harry is the horcrux, practically speaking, but if we’re really going to get down to the precise details of matter (which I am), he’s wearing it. Or, more like, his soul is wearing it. The two are not one in the same, because when the killing curse hits Harry in Book 7, the horcrux is killed but Harry lives on (kind of. He sort of dies, but only for a bit). He even goes to Kings Cross/ Heaven and gets to view the thing, separate from himself (remember that? You have to remember that, because it was gross). Therefore, by rights, the person who should most be turned into an asshole through the power of the horcrux is not the Dursleys, but Harry himself. Just as Ron wearing the locket is worst for Ron than when he is merely in the same room (tent) as someone else who is wearing the locket.
Allow me to postulate: I don’t think the horcrux misama induces assholery in people. I think it induces depression.
Rowling’s got precedent with magically and thematically induced depression (please see the Dementors). Ron, it appears, is an angry-depressed; Ginny’s reaction to the horcrux as depression holds up well; Kreacher was probably depressed regardless, because oh my god, how long was he alone with just that painting for company; and Harry! We’re told in Book 3, when Harry is trying to learn the Patronus charm, that prior to Hogwarts, and even including Hogwarts, he literally can’t summon up a single truly good memory. Which, damn, kid. That is largely credited with the Dursleys’ unique style of nephew-raising, but even so, that is fucking grim.
Are the Dursleys depressed? And, therefore, assholes (like Ron)? I don’t know that I want to come down one way or another, but I’m inclined towards a ‘no’. But for the existence of Harry, and other eyesores they don’t care for, the Dursleys seem pretty pleased with their lot. In the case of Dudley, I’m going to come down on a hard no, because Dudley meets the Dementors in the alley and treats it like something he’s never felt before. It’s described as the feeling of like you’ll never be happy again, which is, more or less, depression in a nutshell.
Last quibble, and the biggest:
That first fucking chapter, yo! We meet the Dursleys before they ever meet Harry, and hey, they were assholes then, too. That first chapter of the first book, which is told from Vernon Dursley’s close point of view (until it switches to Professor McGonagall’s), well establishes that Vernon and Petunia were always terrible. They’re overly concerned with appearances and propriety and being the right sort of people (sins we will later see manifested in an entirely different way in the Malfoys), they’re getting a head start on spoiling Dudley into a terrible human being, they’re nosing into their neighbors’ private lives so as to better judge them, and they think that Harry, a hero name, is “nasty, common”. Furthermore, their behavior is clearly fueled by deep anxiety, a fear of being found out as people who are connected to weirdos (and this is written by an author who clearly has a deep fondness for weirdos). In short, not only are they terrible before they ever lay eyes on Harry, they are terrible in precisely the ways in which we will see them be terrible ten years later, but with some more child neglect thrown on for spice.
So, why are the Dursleys so awful? There is the matter of the general structure of the story; the Dursleys’ assholery (a) facilitates Harry finding out that he’s a wizard, rather than having known all along, (b) means that he goes off to Hogwarts quite happily, without us ever having to read about even a moment of home-sickness, despite the fact that he is an eleven-year-old child, and ( c) means that he has his adventures with a decided lack of parental supervision. A concerned parent might have some things to say about Harry getting into the forbidden forest, or deciding to stop Voldemort with the help of two school friends, or the fact that there’s been a series of attacks on children perpetrated by a giant snake, or that part about the castle being surrounded by soul-sucking demon guards meant to keep out a supposed Harry-hunting murderer, or most of the rest of the events. The Dursleys, not so much. In other words, the Dursleys are assholes for the same reason that every author offs the protagonist’s parents at the beginning.
But why are the Dursleys terrible in specifically the way in which they are terrible? They are, after all, a slice of middle class mundane English pomposity, and in that regard, they are rather unlike any of the books’ later characters.
Well, I think the answer can be found in one Roald Dahl.
Part II. Dahl vs. DWJ.
I am a far cry from the first person to start drawing connections between Rowling and Dahl, as seen here:
This is an important distinction: the plot and everything about the Harry Potter series is very much unlike the kinds of stories that Roald Dahl liked to write. The large fantasy series format was not exactly Dahl’s schtick, and there’s a humorous brutality to his writing that Rowling replaces with compassion. Hogwarts, and especially the lovability of Hogwarts, can be read as a staunch rejection of the types of schools, boarding and otherwise, that populate Dahl’s books. But I would say that the differences between Dahl and Rowling make it all the more obvious when her work takes on a Dahlian bent, and that is at the beginning. Those first few chapters, from Dursleys up to the arrival of Hagrid, read more like Dahl than Rowling, and the Dahlian influence doesn’t completely disappear until we get to Hogwarts– which is still very early on in the grand scheme of the series. I tend to think of the Dahlian influence as Rowling’s training wheels. May I add, Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone is her first book, and it is a massively impressive feat for a first-time author, training wheels or not.
The thing I remember best from reading Dahl as a child (and an adult, let’s be honest), is his bullies.
Especially this one.
I’ve been thinking about bullies lately, since you, Artichoke, made me read Aunt Maria, by Diana Wynne Jones (hereafter referred to as DWJ, which in my mind is pronounced “Dwige”, whether Artichoke likes it or not). Now, admittedly, I’ve been using and will continue to use the word “bully” whereas in any sense of reality, the word “abuser” would probably be somewhat more accurate. Let’s all just bear that in mind.
Roald Dahl, a curmudgeonly Norwegian Englishman who wrote books for children, was born in 1916, and was largely active 1942-1990; DWJ, a curmudgeonly (?) Englishwoman who wrote books for children, was born in 1934, and was published from 1970 until after her death in 2011. They’re only kind of contemporaries, but they are both giants of the British Children’s Literature genre, at least until Rowling blew onto the scene in 1996 and made it rain in Publishingville and we all forgot about all other books forever before and after and there is only Harry Potter there has only ever been Harry Potter. Oh, and DWJ is the better writer of the two (fight me).
What is interesting to me is how both DWJ and Dahl put enormous care and thought into crafting their bullies. Don’t get me wrong, both writers meticulously created themes, characters, and intricate plots, but it is the bullies that feel like these extraordinarily precious works of art, lovingly rendered, beautifully complex, nature-defying bulldozers of childhood trauma that they are. These bullies are to be found in most, if not all, of both of their books.
There’s one key difference between Dahl and DWJ and their construction of bullies, and that is while Dahl’s exist in a world of fantastically and imaginatively horrible violence, DWJ confines hers to just inside of realism, despite the fantastical nature of the books. It is a deliciously sharp boundary.
Consider the dual matters of the Trunchbull and Aunt Maria. The Trunchbull, who swings a girl around by her pigtails like an Olympic hammer, and has an improvised iron maiden 4 Kidz in the school basement, could probably expect to get arrested, were she introduced into the real world (that kid with the pigtails would not have ended her day with some fucking wildflowers, I will say that). Whereas in comparison, Aunt Maria’s bullying is, as far as I remember, psychological but entirely nonviolent, and yet succeeds in turning Mig’s mother into her slave.
Dahl’s bullies are kind of fun; you know you’re suspending disbelief beyond what is reasonable, but you’re so fascinated by what the Trunchbull will do next that you’re willing to go along with it. Meanwhile, DWJ is perfect at getting just up to the line of believability. Dahl is writing a stylized fiction, a tall tale with a wink and a cruel slant but a happy(ish) ending, while DWJ is performing a frequently subtle and entirely horrifying examination of human psychology under the influence of the abuser– but for kids. DWJ knows us better than we know ourselves. She knows that we all believe that in the moment of a crisis, in the face of unfairness, we would all stand up and start screaming, and she knows that abusers are experts at getting us right up to that edge of screaming without ever quite pushing us over, and exploiting every moment of it. She knows that edge is much farther away than any of us would so like to believe. You can see it not just in Aunt Maria with the titular character, but in Dogsbody with the foster father’s seemingly endless tolerance for the foster mother’s abuse of Kathleen; in Hexwood, with the Reigner’s treatment of Mordion and co; in Fire and Hemlock with Polly’s tolerance of her terrible parents; in Time of the Ghost with much, much worse parents than Polly’s.
It is tempting, I think, to at this point look into the authors’ backgrounds and make conclusions about their various life experiences and how that could have influenced them. And you can certainly find that evidence; Dahl’s biography of his early years consists of one terrible boarding school, canings and all, followed by another, while DWJ has written extensively about how truly awful her parents were. The fact of the matter is that they both suffered truly horrendous childhood abuse and both went on to depict it in their fiction, but in very different ways. Both share a knowledge, a knowledge that the rest of us really don’t want to think about, that an adult with authority can do whatever they please to a child, without consequence.
It’s easy to see Dahl’s influence in the characters of the Dursleys, but I think you can see DWJ’s influence as well, in this year’s book-that-deserves-all-the-awards, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, in the character of Setheris. (I wrote about TGE here) In TGE, Setheris is Maia’s cousin and guardian, and while Setheris gets only a scant handful of scenes, Addison has crafted him with careful but ruthless complexity. Like DWJ’s bullies, Addison takes her readers right up to the edge of believability (who in the fuck in their right mind would beat up the Emperor’s kid? And yet, in the context, we do believe it), and like DWJ’s writing, the character of Setheris seems to crawl right off the page; you can feel Maia squirming, because as the reader, you’re squirming too. It’s the depiction of a bully that pins you between moral injury and self-defense, a bully who has an exploitative expertise at getting others to do as he wants. Addison takes a step back in a way that DWJ does not, and shows us that such a bully is not merely a monster but the product of a person who is both deeply unhappy and trapped, and will take it out on whatever’s closest.
In conclusion: when it comes to writing bullies (read: child abuse), take your lessons from the best: Dahl and DWJ (and mostly DWJ). Also, can we not blame Harry for the Dursleys being terrible? And everyone should read The Goblin Emperor.
Artichoke, I will see you tomorrow.