Sunday, April 15, 2007

Neville Longbottom and the Importance of Memory

I've been re-reading the Harry Potter series prior to the release of book 7 this coming July. I've also been reading John Granger's excellent new book: Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader, which is fascinating as always, especially the chapters on Harry as alchemical literature.

So I've got HP on the brain, and while I've been jotting some notes over at Re-Reading Harry, the "joint online journal" Erin and I have been contributing to off and on for the past couple of months, I thought I would put some of my musings here as well.

As usual when I read Harry, I find myself loving the character of Neville Longbottom. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Neville is his deep connection to the theme of memory, which for my money is one of the most interesting, and in some ways unexplored, themes of the entire series.

I had hoped that I might manage to write a lengthy, coherent essay about the memory theme, at least sometime prior to July, but that's looking less likely. But I thought I would at least begin journaling some of my musings here. Who knows? They might begin to take shape and grow into an essay. So in no particular "ordered" fashion, here goes my first go-round.

Our introduction to Neville comes at the same time as our introduction to Hermione Granger; the fact that the two of them come upon Harry and Ron in the train compartment on the way to their first year at Hogwarts, and then the four of them journey together in one boat when the first years follow Hagrid on the lake, is a bit of a tip-off, I think. These four are the important four, even though Neville will stay on the periphery of the trio through most of the first six books at least. Other students have important and recurring roles to play: the Weasley twins, Ginny Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Luna Lovegood...but only Neville, from the very beginning, seems like a shadow member of the trio, almost making it seem like a quartet. Given Rowling's fascination with the numbers 2, 4 and 7 (tip of the hat to John Granger's chapter on arithmancy!) I think the fact that Neville makes the trio a foursome is somehow significant.

When Hermione and Neville meet Harry and Ron on the train, they're looking for Neville's toad, Trevor. Trevor, bless his little toady heart, seems to serve at least a dual purpose besides the obvious one of being the plot device that brings the kids together. First of all, he's a toad, not a rat or a cat or an owl, which apparently makes him the low animal on the totem pole of animals that Hogwarts students are allowed to have with them at school.

The fact that Neville has a lowly toad underlines Neville's lower, outsider status. In many ways, he's even more of an outsider figure than the other three. Yes, Harry is Harry -- the most unusual student in his year (at the very least) and marked since birth as different. He's also an orphan who was raised by Muggles. Ron comes from good wizarding stock and has popular brothers, but is quite poor (old hand-me-down robe, wand?, and even the rat) and is also a "younger brother." Hermione, besides the fact that she's a girl, comes from total Muggle parentage. Neville, as it turns out, comes from good wizarding stock himself, but at least at the beginning of the series we're led to believe (and certainly he believes himself) that he's not much better than a squib. He even says as much in Chamber of Secrets when his friends try to point out to him that he doesn't need the amulets and other "protections" that he's wearing, in fear of the unknown monster unleashed by Slytherin's heir. They remind him he's a pureblood wizard, so not likely on the heir of Slytherin's hit-list, but Neville reminds them stubbornly that the heir went after Filch first, and that "everybody knows" that just like Mr. Filch, he (Neville) is "practically a squib." It's interesting that Neville feels a connection to the non-magical caretaker.

Besides underlining Neville's lowly, outsider, almost-non-magical status, Trevor's presence -- or rather absence -- underlines Neville's lack of ability to keep track of things. From the first, Neville is characterized as someone who is forgetful and who loses things, even things that matter to him. This is a theme that will continue to expand all through the series, especially the first three books. Neville's memory problems plague him and also lead to some serious problems for his friends.

Neville's poor performance in Potions -- from the very first class (that oh so important first class that we've come to realize contained huge amounts of important foreshadowing for the rest of the series) comes in part because of his poor memory. Granted, it's hard to remember anything when you have Snape breathing down your neck and making you feel like an idiot -- later in the series we realize that Neville's performance even in Potions improves dramatically when he's able to brew things in front of another teacher or examiner. But that in itself is interesting and something I want to come back to: how anxiety and stress affects Neville's ability to remember things and keep them in the proper order.

So Neville's forgetfulness and inability to brew correct potions gets Harry in trouble from the start, mostly because Snape is looking for any old excuse he can find to land Harry in hot water. "You -- Potter -- why didn't you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he'd make you look good if he got it wrong, did you? That's another point you've lost for Gryffindor." (SS, "The Potions Master," p. 139).

More explicitly, Neville's "remembrall" (a magical ball his grandmother sends him...the white smoke inside the glass turns red if you're holding it and you've forgotten something) really affects Harry's destiny. After Neville breaks his arm in their first flying lesson, Madam Hooch hurries him off the infirmary and Draco Malfoy finds the remembrall in the grass. Never one to miss an opportunity to show off and torment other kids, Draco taunts Harry when he tries to recover the ball for Neville, then flies off with it, claiming he's going to hide it in a tree. Instead he throws it, and Harry, flying for the first time, has to make a spectacular dive in order to grab it. The whole scene is a very destiny-shaping scene for Harry: he learns he's a natural born flyer; it's one of the first times (but certainly not the last!) we see him trying to help out an underdog (that "saving people thing" in embryo); and because McGonagall sees Harry's amazing dive, she makes Harry the new Gryffindor seeker, the youngest house player at Hogwarts in a century. All of those things happen because of the presence of the remembrall.

"Remembrall" -- a "remember ball" that helps you "remember all" -- JKR's wonderful ability to play with words comes to the fore here. I love this one in particular because so much of the Harry Potter stories have to do with Harry's gradual uncovering/recovering of the memories that shaped who he is at the deepest core. If Hogwarts has a "foundation story" (tip of the hat once more to John Granger, this time to his reflections on postmodernism) well, so does Harry, albeit perhaps in a slightly different sense of the word "foundation." Harry's "foundation story" -- the story that provides the scaffolding for who he is, how he sees the world, and what he will become -- is the story of the first year of his life, particularly the final night of his parents' lives at Godric's Hollow when they die at Voldemort's hand when Harry is just a year old. Because they die protecting him (especially his mother) Harry is doubly-marked that night, not only marked by the killing curse that goes awry, but more deeply by his mother's sacrificial love. The foundation or core of Harry is forged that night: he is a beloved son worth dying for, a truth that will shape him for the rest of his days.

But there is so much of that night that Harry doesn't remember. He longs to remember; he tries hard to remember -- even in the early pages of SS, we see him straining his memory during long nights in his cramped cupboard, trying to recall his parents. The unfolding of the full memory has not yet occurred, but we've been watching it unfold gradually as the series progresses, and we've been realizing how crucial the full recovery of that memory is. First Harry recalls the green light, later the high, cruel laughter of Voldemort, and by Prisoner of Azkaban he can remember his mother's screams and her voice. He's also given more information about that night from various sources, including Voldemort himself as well as Dumbledore. We are watching Harry "remember all" -- flying high and sometimes at great risk in his seeking of the elusive and important truth that shaped him, and by extension (because of the story in which he finds himself, and the destiny to which he's called) the entire world/community in which he lives.

Whew! I've wandered far afield from Neville, and I want to get back there. I plan to. I'd like to think more about Neville's memory problems and how they help shape the story, and how they throw light on other aspects of memory in these stories. More reflections soon.


Erin said...

Ah, Neville, how I love you... It's interesting, I always do think of Harry, Ron and Hermione as the core characters, but Neville is always sort of hovering around the periphery. I think it's a mark of Dumbledore's wisdom and compassion that he not only gives Neville credit for trying to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione at the end of SS, but mentions him last so that he's the one who tips the balance, winning the House Cup for Gryffindor.

Snape picks on Neville so relentlessly; he seems to have a special interest in him, and I wonder if it's sort of the opposite of how it appears. He maybe sees some of himself in Neville, an awkward boy who generally escapes notice, and he wants to toughen him up, to help shield him against the cruelties that could befall him at the hands of other students, while not revealing that he actually is concerned about him. And while taking those points from Gryffindor because Harry didn't warn Neville about the quills was totally unfair - I'm sure Harry was much too busy worrying about his own potion to notice Neville's - it shows his disdain for people who flaunt themselves at the expense of the well-being of others.

I really loved what Rowling did with Neville in the fifth book; it was like he'd been waiting in the wings till then, very much there but usually unnoticed, and I suspect he'll have a big role to play in book seven...

Beth said...

Oh yes...I think so too! In fact, I think the very point you make about Neville's points putting Gryffindor over the top at the end of SS is very important. Somehow I have always hoped that's foreshadowing and JKR plans to come full-circle. Wouldn't it be amazing if Neville is the one who puts us over the edge of victory again?

I've been sick as a dog for the past 48 hours, so I've had lots of reading time...finally finished Chamber of Secrets. More posts to come, either here or the other blog. And more Neville musings, I'm sure! :-)