Red Hen Publications

Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Minding the Gap
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!

One of the oldest theories in the whole collection is the one about the Grindelwald Conspiracy. I think it — in some form or other — was a part of the original essay collection when I first uploaded it in the spring of 2003. That particular theory was around, in one form or other, for years before it was summarily canon-shafted by HBP. There honestly hadn’t been anything in canon prior to HBP to contradict it, which, considering how thoroughly it got exploded by HBP was a bit surprising. It was a bit of a consolation, too. There really wasn’t any way I could have guessed otherwise before that.

But, it got shot down, and it got shot down thoroughly.

Yet, I now discover that it’s shed its skin and is back, slythering underfoot, flicking its tongue at me. It’s embarrassing. It’s also very disconcerting, regardless of how amusing I usually find snakes.

And, like I say, I really have no excuse.

Because in retrospect, it’s perfectly obvious that however thoroughly Rowling’s version of the official Riddle backstory may have gutted the original Grindelwald Conspiracy theory, it didn’t plug any of the gaps which the Grindelwald theory had been designed to fill.

It merely painted them over.

Imho, in the course of the final three books Rowling did a lot of painting over gaps. In fact, by the end of the series she was painting with so broad a brush that she appears to have painted over the windows, the door, and made an energetic effort to hermetically seal the room. Unfortunately, paint alone will not support the weight of an inconvenient fact when one puts its foot through a hole in the floor.

Whereupon you abruptly find yourself in a snake pit.

• • • •

The gaps which the Grindelwald Conspiracy was designed to plug were:

  1. The fact that — in our world, anyway — during WWII children were evacuated from London and (a number of other major cities), sending them out into the countryside to get them away from the Blitz. Wouldn’t you expect Tom’s orphanage to have done the same?
  2. The Dark Arts are not taught at Hogwarts. Yet, despite the fact that Tom was unaware of even the existence of magic at the age of 11, and supposedly spent his summers in a Muggle orphanage, he still managed to become an accomplished Dark wizard by the age of 16.
  3. Neither of these gaps were ever satisfactorily plugged. Apart from a thin, brittle layer of paint, there is nothing supporting them but open air.

    One might feel a need to add at least one additional item to this list, which had not been originally on it. Namely that we are also supposed to accept the claim that:

  4. Tom managed to set off three AKs in a Muggle drawing room at the age of 15 without activating his “Trace”.

• • • •

Now, admittedly none of these gaps are as unbreachable as they looked back during the 3-year summer.

The third, I have to admit, we didn’t even consider back during the 3-year summer. We’d never been officially told about any Trace at that point. Still, back then, we also all believed that Tom had murdered his father and paternal grandparents upon finishing Hogwarts in 1945, and, having at least turned 17 by then would no longer be under anything like a Trace — which, if one recalls, was never openly mentioned in canon until DHs. (And makes no sense as described at that point.)

Most of us had already worked it out that there had to be some form of monitoring on underage wizards, since Dobby’s wandless hover charm had brought the Ministry down on Harry as early as CoS. The Ministry had also been immediately aware when Harry had inadvertently blown up his aunt a year later. But that could have been some special arrangement specifically designed for Harry. Back in PS/SS Hermione claimed to have been trying out spells at home before starting Hogwarts and we never heard that the Ministry slapped her down for it.

So. Taking these points in order:

The mystery of the non-evacuation of London orphans in the Potterverse, upon examination, turns out to be something of a non-issue. Which I certainly didn’t expect.

Despite Rowling’s posing, and preening, back in the joint interview in the summer of 2005, and spouting off about how she “feels” that the events of the Potterverse run parallel to those in the Real World, and that the magical war and the Muggle war fed off each other, the official Grindelwald arc, as she finally gave it to us in DHs irretrievably renders just about every word of those statements into complete gibberish. It now appears that she was only striking poses to impress the swooning fansite owners. She ended up never actually supporting any of those statements, by, y’know, actually building them into the story.

Permit me to point something rather obvious out to you all:

A global war involving Muggles, and Muggle technology, in the mid-20th century, is not, repeat, NOT going to be resolved by one confrontation involving single-combat between two wizards — which, may I remind you, Muggles do not believe exist.

I’m sorry, but if you are determined to claim that you actually believe that, you are either a fool, or you are lying. Even if you are JK Rowling.

Of course the statement did distract us all for a couple of years trying to figure out how that was supposed to work rather than putting our efforts toward following any sort of trail that actually might have had something to do with the story. Assuming she had even left us such a trail.

Ms Rowling has stated in the past that she usually means what she says in her interviews — when she says it (only usually?). But that she often changes her mind. On this matter, if we are charitable, we will simply have to suppose that she changed her mind. Given the logistics of trying to depict a global war somewhere in the background in which a magical conflict and a Muggle one fed off one another I cannot say that I particularly blame her. It sounds like a recipe for an unworkable, no-win situation right there. But what she gave us in its place is no better.

It does, however, resolve the confusion of why children were not evacuated to the country to get them out of the way of the London Blitz.

In the Potterverse, there was no London Blitz.

Grindelwald never took his war to Britain. We are flat out told as much in DHs, Chapter 2.

The progress of the entire mid-century Potterverse war is therefore cut loose from any considerations of the progress of the European theater of our WWII in one fell swoop. We cannot use WWII as our basic template. It no longer applies.

There is also now a good chance that the years of the Potterverse’s mid-century war were not even the same years as the ones that our WWII occupied, either. Nor that the Potterverse even had two global wars, each with a European theater in its 20th century. In fact, if Grindelwald is supposed to have been behind the unpleasantness, it now seems likely that there was only one war and that it started at a different date, and, on the Muggle front at least, was finished much earlier. Probably by 1940. Possibly before Tom even started Hogwarts.

Not that British Muggles were not involved in the Muggle part of it. Frank Bryce certainly was off to a war at some point. But we cannot say to what degree or in what capacity. He may have gone off adventuring in someone else’s conflict, in much the way that any number of young idealists marched off to take part in the Spanish Civil War — when they had no personal reason or obligation to.

All we know is that Frank was back in Little Hangleton by the summer of ’42, and the account given in the opening chapter of GoF makes it sound as if he had been back for some time. A couple of years, quite easily.

Nor is there any indication that his war had ever reached out to touch the villagers themselves.

• • • •

Admittedly, there does appear to have been something like WWI in the Potterverse. There is a war memorial prominently displayed in Godric’s Hollow. But then, most of the British war memorials scattered across the countryside were originally erected commemorating WWI with the casualties of WWII simply tagged on in addition. In the Potterverse, thee may have been no such addition.

• • • •

As to the second point; how Riddle learned the Dark Arts when there was no one at Hogwarts to teach or guide him; Rowling made a half-hearted effort in DHs to retrofit this issue by contradicting what she had already told us in HBP. It wasn’t at all a convincing effort, and it still failed to suggest a possible tutor or source for any of this supposedly classified information.

This was the primary issue that the original Grindelwald Conspiracy had been designed to address. I had originally postulated a group of pureblood supremacist Dark wizards who, for convenience, I had suggested might be a small cluster of the members of the Knights of Walpurgis, under the leadership of a fellow who went by the name of Grindelwald. I further proposed these wizards had taken Tom Riddle under their wing for the sake of his mother’s bloodlines, and had been grooming him to serve them as a front man in a sort of “palace coup” takeover of the Ministry.

My purpose was to provide Tom with a group of mentors, who he had ultimately turned against, which might explain why, when he finally returned to set up his own coup, it was the scions of the families of exactly this sort of wizard that he first chose to deceive and enslave.

Well, the official Riddle backstory as we were given it in HBP allows no room at all for the Grindelwald Conspiracy as I had envisioned it.

But neither does it plug the gap concerning just where and how Riddle learned quite so much about the Dark Arts at such an early age, when, as a Muggle-raised child he supposedly had no resources other than those actually at Hogwarts itself.

Admittedly, we have all figured out by now that yes, there are quite a lot of Dark Arts reference works in the school Library’s Restricted Section. It is entirely possible to learn quite a bit about the Dark Arts in the Hogwarts Library.

But, you will not be taught them there.

And I really do not think that Tom would have so exposed his proclivities as to have drawn attention to himself by frequently discussing matters related to the study of the Dark Arts with the staff.

For that matter, neither are you able to just randomly wander into the Restricted Section during your lower years at Hogwarts. You need a permission slip signed by a member of the staff to do that.

Well, that much, at least, is easy enough to reconcile. Slughorn would have happily signed a slip for Tom to get into the Restricted Section. Tom could easily have lied about what he wanted to look up there. And probably did.

But this certainly doesn’t explain the confusion about where Tom learned about the concept of Horcruxes, because I flatly do not believe Harry’s later (and contradictory) statement that Tom was only asking what would happen if someone made multiple ones, or that Albus had been sure that Tom already knew about them when he broached the subject to Slughorn.

What on earth was the point of all that song-and-dance over recovering the Slughorn memory about if Albus already had other clear indications that Horcruxes were their problem? Was he just too squeamish to bring the subject up to Harry himself, and wanted Slughorn to break the ice for him?

As to that, Albus certainly never had the nerve to “upset” Harry by informing him that *he* was one of Tom’s Horcruxes. He left it up to Snape to do the dirty work for him over that.

And for that matter, how could Albus be so sure that Slughorn’s unedited memory would confirm his suspicion that there were multiple ones? Had he been eavesdropping in Slughorn’s head without leave?

So this is a gap that is still a gap. We’ll be getting back to it presently.

• • • •

As for our belated third point; the problem of the Trace:

We do not know when the Trace upon underage wizards was first implemented, although it was evidently in reaction to legislation which was adopted in the later 19th century. Nor do we know whether the form of the Trace used in Riddle’s day was the same as that used in Harry’s. We are simply left to assume that it was. Which makes for a degree of difficulty here.

Had Tom possessed his uncle Morfin, made him cross the valley and murder the Riddles, we would have much less of a problem. Even Morfin’s blackout could have been explained by an episode of possession, since that is exactly what happened with Ginny Weasley. But it was Tom himself that Frank Bryce caught a glimpse of on the Riddle property that night. And Morfin, while he remembered murdering the Riddles, didn’t remember meeting his nephew.

Besides, Tom was all of 15 when he finally tracked down the Gaunts, and, accomplished Dark wizard or no, that seems a little young to be possessing people. (Although we do have to remember that the Diary Revnant appeared to be only 16, and I definitely think that possession had everything to do with Myrtle’s murder.)

Or, for that matter, Tom’s being able to murder the Riddles without setting off his Trace. The Trace wouldn’t have led the Aurors to Morfin. Though Tom may very well have used Morfin’s wand to do it. There would have been no trace on Morfin’s wand.

Maybe that’s the answer. At that point in time the Trace was linked to the wand, not the user. Morfin’s wand wouldn’t have had any kind of a Trace on it. Things may be different now.

— Even leaving aside the whole murky issue that at no point in the entire 4000 or so pages of the series has anyone other than Tom Riddle ever been cited as having “possessed” anyone. Taking possession of others does not appear to be a typical wizarding skill, and Tom’s clear ability to do it is completely unaccounted for.

Another somewhat minor, but rather more suggestive issue which connects to this whole business at this particular juncture is the question of Tom having modified his uncle’s memory. He is credited as having suppressed Morfin’s memory of their meeting — which could be easily enough explained by Obliviate — but he is also credited with having overlaid Morfin’s memory with his own memory of killing the Riddles. i.e., Tom definitely already knew how to extract and share/deposit memories into external storage.

In the year following this incident he went on to build the entire function of a Pensieve (sealed and incapable of spilling, or of being further edited) into a paper Muggle diary.

We certainly did not really get the impression from Tom’s “fishing expedition” to discover what Headmaster Dippett was going to do about the death of a student that he was a particular pet of the Headmaster’s. Dippett had some trouble remembering just who Tom Riddle was. So it is unlikely that Tom had free access to the school’s Pensieve. And a Pensieve is not the kind of magical artifact whose proper use is immediately evident.

So where did Tom learn about Pensieves (which we have been told are rare) and how to use one. For it seems plain from the business with Morfin that Tom already knew how to get a memory into and out of a Pensieve well before he showed up on his uncle’s doorstep.

• • • •

But, regarding the Trace:

Frankly, Rowling seems to have bundled the Trace into the story at the last minute in an attempt to make the escape from Privet Drive seem more “desperate” and “exciting”, and yet nothing happened to Harry due to his performing magic during that escape. Despite the fact that he was throwing spells around as much as everyone else involved, there were no consequences of his still being under “the Trace”. If we are to believe Albus, this was because he was throwing spells around in the company of other wizards, so the Ministry couldn’t tell who was actually performing the magic that was going off all around him. Nevertheless. *He* was the only one in that party who still had the Trace on him. Everyone else was legally an adult. If the Trace actually *works* it ought to have indicated that someone underage was using magic, somewhere. (Ergo: the Trace doesn’t actually work, and we might just as well forget about it.)

So, given that the Trace seems to be bogus, are we to assume that any magic anywhere is going to be registered somewhere in the Ministry? People were throwing about AKs in the presence of at least one minor. Where was the Ministry in all that? The Ministry hadn’t fallen yet at that point.

In which case, what is the point of it? Why put a trace on people for the purpose of being alerted when they perform unauthorized magic if the tracking spell doesn’t even tell you whether they are the ones doing it? It would make more sense to put magic sensors on the homes and schools of Muggle-born wizards to track when magic gets performed there, rather than trying to follow the child around.

But of course, that would entail singling out Muggle-born wizards, and of course the Ministry doesn’t do that! (Riiiight.)

If you ask me, the Trace is a load of hooey that Rowling shoehorned in to use as a retrofit. She only remembered it whenever she wanted to throw an artificial stumbling block in Harry’s way. And in common with most of Rowling’s retrofits it raises more questions than it answers. Frankly, this one really doesn’t hold up at all. One can readily accept that the Trace wouldn’t activate in the Castle or on the school grounds (or that if it did, no one would take the slightest bit of action about it). But you would expect it to be tracing the use of unauthorized underage magic in Hogsmeade. Kids as young as 13 are routinely allowed to go to the village — with their wands — on Hogsmeade weekends, and yet have we ever seen or heard of anyone getting in trouble for using magic in Hogsmeade? Not once. And don’t try to tell me that the kids off in Hogsmeade for the day haven’t been using magic. We’ve seen them do it.

And it still doesn’t explain how three AKs went off in the Riddles’ drawing room and no Trace pointed the Ministry anywhere at Tom. The best we can do from what we have been told is that it pointed them at the nearest known wizard, who, of course, was Morfin. Which is just not satisfactory at all.

But it does rather explain why the Ministry is so piss-poor at catching the perps who were facilitating Voldemort’s reign of terror with magical attacks on the Muggle citizenry, doesn’t it? The Ministry has technology that can immediately pinpoint anyone who mentions Voldemort by name, but it cannot identify who sets off an illegal spell.


I’ve tried to use search engines that worked like that.

• • • •

There are probably other similar gaps lying around which were already in place before HBP or DHs came out, but that much will certainly do to be going on with. In any case, you can see the kind of holes I was trying to patch when I first drafted out the Grindelwald Conspiracy.

However, I had completely overlooked the rather more serious gap which just opened up underneath me in June, 2008, a full year after DHs came out.

And I knew better. I just didn’t pay attention.

So, just what opened this new, and critical gap?

Rowling’s unthinking invocation of the literary trope of the “orphan”.

• • • •

There is no getting around the fact that literature is crawling with orphans. Orphans are a trope that gets deployed in stories intended for just about every level of audience. And the way the trope is used varies somewhat according to who its intended audience is.

In children’s adventure tales, you are often convinced that the protagonist is an orphan merely to get the grown-ups out of the way, so they will not hijack the story. Indeed, so many protagonists of children’s adventures are orphans that you sometimes rather get the impression that orphans all must lead very dashing and exciting lives.

In YA novels being an orphan is frequently the focal point of the story’s conflict, since one whole purpose of YA fiction is to extrapolate what it takes to function as a young adult. Often a far-too-young adult. Indeed, an “adult” aged 10 or less.

But fiction marketed to adults also makes frequent use of the motif of the orphan, sometimes as the protagonist, sometimes as a supporting character, sometimes as the “damsel in distress” or the McGuffin. One could probably attempt to generalize about the use of the orphan in fiction intended for an adult audience, but you will have to excuse me if I decline that particular invitation, the field is just too broad.

Nor is it only fiction or “literature” which invokes the orphan trope. This trope is also a staple element in myth and folklore. I am inclined to suspect that this was the manner in which Rowling was attempting to deploy it. This may have been a mistake. She was writing fiction. She ought to have used a fictional variant. It’s not like there aren’t enough of them.

Folklore is not literature. Nor is it, properly speaking, fiction. It is essentially psychodrama, and very little in it is really what it pretends to be. The “evil stepparents” are in fact your own parents whenever they set out to thwart you. The witch who tries to enslave or devour you is not really a witch, the wolves in the woods are not really wolves. You can flitter about and amuse yourself with the surface of the tale without digging any deeper, but if you are wise, you will take nothing that you meet there for granted, or at face value.

And, while any author can borrow from folklore and make insertions from it into their work, what they will create is fiction. They can potentially create literature, and sometimes, very rarely, they may synthesize myth, but an individual author never “creates” folklore. The transfer goes in only one direction. It is not possible for an individual author to produce folklore.

That takes a village. And a great deal of time.

At that point Rowling had not yet altogether released her story into the keeping of the village.

Before the (now global) village can subject Rowling’s story to the long winnowing process and distill it into its essence, it would have to pry it out of her hands.

And when the village is finished with it, it will no longer be Rowling’s story.

But that is neither here nor there. It is unclear whether Rowling is aware that folklore is not really fantasy, regardless of the fact that modern fantasy has adopted many of its trappings wholesale, or that it was always going to be beyond her skills to produce any. Fictional fantasy was as close as she was ever likely to get. For most authors, that would be enough.

• • • •

So what went wrong with the trope? Given that orphans are as common as dirt in adventure fiction, how did Rowling’s deployment of the orphan trope manage to open up a gap big enough to fall through?

It appears that she overlooked what being an orphan entails.

She was fixated on the orphan’s mere lack of living parents.

She was happy enough to make use of an orphan’s lack of family responsibilities, but she wasn’t prepared to deal head-on with the ramifications of an orphan’s narrowness of prospects.

Right off the top: Let me assure you that I am not talking about Harry, here. Harry Potter, as our universal cinderlad had to be an “orphan”, and he had to be an orphan of exactly the specific variety that he is. A child who has lost his parents, but who nevertheless has a identity and a hereditary place in his society, which he has been denied. Complete with unsympathetic relatives who will, nevertheless, house him until he comes of age.

This is not an orphan, this is, in fact, the “Long-Lost Heir”. Neville also fits this pattern, at least to some degree. Harry and Neville have both lost their proper parents, but they are not truly orphans. And for that matter, neither is Teddy Lupin, so there was no convincing reason for Rowling to murder his parents in order to try to make him one.

But Tom Riddle was.

Tom was not merely “an orphan”, but an orphan who was raised in an orphanage.

Traditional orphanages, particularly the sort you encounter in literature, did not house children until they came of age, you know. It housed them until they reached an age to legally work for a living. And then the kids were hired out to employers, who took over the responsibility of housing and feeding them. The orphanage washed their hands of them at that point.

Traditionally orphans were hired into domestic service, as boot boys and scullery maids. Out in the country they were taken on as farm laborers. And that was usually the end of any chance for formal education for them. A farmer’s or tradesman’s education was typically 8th grade or its equivalent (i.e., 3rd year. Just like Hagrid). That was certainly the case for most orphans. High School was High School. And was generally only attended by the children of the middle class, or those working people whose parents could afford to keep them in school an additional 3–4 years.

I knew that. My own grandmother hadn’t been able to attend school beyond 10th grade because her parents couldn’t afford to keep her there any longer. She went to work as a filing clerk at 15.

I’d read plenty of stories which had been about orphans. And they were nearly all about finding one’s own place in the world — and as often as not that was defined as work that they were suited for, and enjoyed, and which offered the possibility of a future.

I remember that in such stories, as I gather traditionally happened in the in the Real World, in the orphanage, Sunday was “visiting day”. When their chores were done, the children would dress in their best and prepare themselves to line up in the hall or the parlor to be inspected in case someone came looking for a youngster to hire and take away with them. Occasionally, if one was really lucky, a couple might be looking for a child to adopt. Stories usually followed this particular dreamscape. But, in reality, if a kid didn’t hire out by the time they reached the legal age to work full time, then the orphanage had no further responsibility toward them, and they were turned out on their own. It was probably the factory for them then. Or the mines.

Why on earth didn’t I remember that?

Because I didn’t. I completely forgot about the whole issue until an e-mail exchange with one of the authors who has a number of novels over in the Publications area pointed it out to me in passing. This particular author, Arsinoe de Blassenville, had a history of pointing out to me well-scaled and impeccably placed hypothetical plot elements which actually manage to make sense of the kind of twaddle that Rowling uses in the place of a history for her world. I am deeply indebted to her.

And, returning to the point of this exercise, at just what age might an orphan like our Tom expect to be cut loose to fend for himself? How old did you have to be to get a job in Britain in the mid-20th century?

Well, in the UK, as I write it, right now, that age is 16. I don’t know what the legal working age was in 1940. It could have been as young as 13 or 14.

So — at the very least — by the time Tom was asking Headmaster Dippett to permit him to stay for the summer, he may have already known that his orphanage wouldn’t have taken him back.

Whoops! I didn’t see that there was a gap there!

• • • •

Rowling certainly doesn’t seem aware of there being a gap. Despite all her work for children’s charities. And I’m sure that she has to have read any number of stories that featured orphans, too. I mean it would be much more difficult for a person not to.

But upon the whole, we’ve lucked out, because the series is finished. Rowling may or may not ever produce the Scottish Book, but she isn’t suddenly going to insert one of her usual lame explanations into the existing narrative that creates more confusion than the original problem did in order to try to patch it.

This one we are free to deal with, ourselves.

• • • •

Actually I cannot really fault Rowling too much for not having realized that this was a hole that needed plugging. No one else seems to have realized it either. And I do suspect that she was deploying the folklore iteration of the orphan element, not the literary one. Folklore doesn’t much give a damn about legal working ages, child labor laws, or documentation.

And, for that matter I haven’t been able to really nail down just what was likely to have been Tom’s experience of reaching leaving age at his orphanage either. The light, once-over I did trying to research it turned up variables that were all over the map.

Leaving age rose as the 20th century progressed and there were fewer jobs for which an employer would be willing to hire a child of 15 or younger full-time. Also as the century progressed, more and more jobs required the equivalent of a High School diploma or GED. An orphanage nowadays would at least house a child until he finished his schooling. But I did certainly find anecdotal incidents of 20th century orphans who were turned out at 14, or even 13. A lot depended on who ran the orphanage, for while many were run by private concerns, others were run by the local government, or a church, and there appear to have been no standards to which all were held. Still, Tom’s orphanage was clearly understood to be an orphanage, it was not a workhouse.

So even though it may be a stretch to put Tom Riddle out on the streets at 14 in ’41 it is far from an impossibility to see him there. If Tom had been a nice child, and well-liked, the very fact that he had his “scholarship” for Hogwarts to cover his maintenance for most of the year might have led the orphanage to stretch a point and give him space over the summers until he finished. But it is obvious that he had blotted his copybook badly enough that although Mrs Cole wasn’t prepared to hand even Tom Riddle over to the first dodgy-looking stranger with a plausible tale (without magical coercion), she would have wanted him out from under her roof at the earliest possible opportunity.

But we are still stuck with the question of what did Tom do in the summers after he outgrew his orphanage?

And when one stops to finally *ask* that question, you realize that it isn’t really that difficult to paste in a viable answer.

We might as well try. Rowling isn’t going to do it.

• • • •

So what do we have, and where do we start?

Well, we might as well start with an 11-year-old Tom Riddle who has just found his way into Diagon Alley for the first time. Completely unsupervised.

With a small bag of gold coins from the Governors’ Fund, and a list of supplies that are going to be required. And a whole new world to investigate.

He also has magic at his disposal, a remarkably high degree of control over it for his age and a history of roaming around Greater London unsupervised. I imagine that his orphanage was perfectly happy to see the back of him for the day whenever he slipped out. He may have returned to the orphanage only to sleep. Which suited everyone just fine. And no one had any real control over him out on the streets of London.

Now stop and consider what that suggests.

It isn’t as if he was a “well brought-up” child, after all.

Item: He has magic, and knows something of how to use it.

Item: He is a bully who likes exercising and demonstrating his power over others.

And, as my fellow traveler Swythyv reminded me, he is a thief.

• • • •

You know, with magic at his disposal, I think he got his hands into the till in any number of the local shops. Just because his trophy collection back at the orphanage was made up of items of no particular value, doesn’t discount the likelihood that he helped himself to untraceable cash whenever the opportunity presented itself.

From Albus we were given to suppose that his satisfaction was in the taking of trophies, not their intrinsic worth. But I’m no longer sure that such a reading is objectively true. And indeed, his collection of essentially worthless trophies may simply indicate that he’d already sold or pawned the ones which had any real intrinsic value.

A fanfic author might spin out a tale of a veritable little Artful Dodger, but I do not write fanfic, and I suspect that Tom was a bit less... professional than that. But I think he certainly wasn’t above helping himself to loose cash, and he certainly wasn’t above shoplifting.

And he didn’t know squat about wizarding security measures.

And I still think he needed a mentor to get to where he had got to a mere four years later.

• • • •

So. Who is lurking in our cast of characters that is unethical enough to agree to teach a child the age of our Tom the Dark Arts?

More to the point, who do we know about who would profit from such an arrangement? Who have we met, in Diagon or Knockturn Alleys that has something to gain by investing in the training of a Dark Wizard?

Because I do not think that you are going to find anyone who would undertake such tutelage out of the goodness of their heart. However much one may approve of the Dark Arts in either theory or practice, or however much Tom may have wanted to learn them, one does not undertake to train a Dark wizard unless one has a use for one.

And such a person would probably want their trainee to be under obligation. It’s safer that way.

So, who have we met who would have a legitimate use for a fledgling Dark wizard?

How about someone who deals in intrinsically Dark, or cursed objects for a living?

Can you say; “Caractacus Burke”? There, I was sure you could.

Caractacus Burke, who we can easily suspect never did anyone a disinterested favor.

Caractacus Burke, who Riddle is known to have been working for just a few years later.

Caractacus Burke, who, when you stop and think about it, is most unlikely to have hired a random stranger off the street.

In fact, if Riddle finished school and went right off to work for Burke, it rather suggests that they already knew one another, doesn’t it?

• • • •

We were given only one real glimpse of Caractacus Burke in the course of the series, and we do not know precisely when that likeness was taken.

However, the most probable date of the Burke interview in Albus’s collection of memories would have been during the investigation of the death of Hepzibah Smith when the DMLE might have wanted a word with the sales assistant who had visited the lady a couple of days earlier. They seem also to have wanted to get some provenance on the Slytherin locket, which Madam Smith had originally purchased from Burke. Certainly the portion of the conversation which we were shown was primarily concerned with where and how Burke had originally acquired the locket. Such an interview is most likely to have taken place somewhere in the vicinity of 1947–1950 give or take.

We never were given any reason for why Albus would have been investigating the Slytherin locket. Rowling needed him to be able to inform Harry about it, and didn’t bother to include a reason for why he would be interested in it. These days, I rather think that he got that memory from Alastor Moody who was an active Auror at the time, and may well have been involved in the investigation of Madam Smith’s death.

Albus, at the time, may still have still been trying to build a case for a retrial for Morfin Gaunt. Which is another investigation which would have suggested taking a closer look at a certain Tom Riddle.

Bob Ogden had been a part of a Magical Law Enforcement Squad in the mid-1920s. I think that Ogden still found his run-in with the Gaunts memorable even twenty years or more later.

By which time, according to Harry Potter, Burke was “a little old man”.

• • • •

Well, we know that Borgin & Burke carries an ever-changing and highly eclectic stock, and much of it would be obviously valuable and probably quite fascinating to a youngster like Riddle. Who, let us not forget, may have already been in the habit of always investigating anything he came across that resembled a pawnshop. From our glimpse of him, Burke also wore his hair in such a manner that it completely covered his eyes, which might have tempted young Tom to suppose that Burke would not notice what he was up to.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to discover that the first time Tom wandered into B&B he tried to lift something, and was caught at it. I also suspect that Burke’s lesson of; “thou shalt not steal from my shop” may have been just as startling and rather more painful than Albus’s lesson of; “stealing isn’t nice”. I rather think that any security measures at B&B would be something other than gentle.

Which would have given both Burke and Riddle ample opportunity to take the other’s measure.

At that point Tom, who had already been given ample reason to be wary of wizards, was probably on his best behavior when dealing directly with them and trying to impress them favorably, even if he hadn’t quite perfected his act. So he may have turned on the charm and passed the faux pas off as innocent curiosity and tried pumping Burke for information about the items in the shop. I wouldn’t count on whether he fooled Burke or not, but he may have, and, you know, I really don’t think Burke would have a lot of objection to someone taking an interest in the kinds of artifacts he deals in. Even if it isn’t someone in a position to purchase anything.

In any case, Burke may have been a bit more forthcoming about the kind of items he had in the shop than Borgin was in Harry’s day. Or at least more so than one would expect him to be toward a child who was clearly not going to actually buy anything. Particularly if the inquiry was somewhat less gauche than Hermione’s. But if Tom came back with questions about the items in the shop on a regular basis, that might have eased over a bad first impression. Particularly over time.

While we are at it, Riddle may have already managed to liberate some other item from some other shop (or somebody’s pockets) and offered to sell it to Burke.

And Burke was likely to be quite informative on the sort of artifacts he dealt with. Information regarding the “value-added” nature of his curios is his stock in trade. And most varieties of artifacts eventually turn up at B&B if you wait long enough.

I think it may have been the list mom over at the loose_canon Yahoo group who first floated the possibility that Tom had probably taken summer jobs in Diagon or Knockturn Alley.

I didn’t stop to explore the possibility back when the subject first came up over there, since the probability of the orphanage’s kicking Tom out at 14 (or 16) hadn’t registered yet. But that possibility really does line a lot of our ducks up into a very tidy row.

It even inserts some plausibility regarding my facetious suggestion that Tom was the one who tinkered with the curse on the silver-and-opal necklace until it zaps you before you can even put it on!

I’m pretty sure that once he found the place, Tom was in and out of B&B fairly regularly. Burke probably thought he’d attached a little fanboy. More fool he. Nor would he have much questioned the legality of the methods that Tom used to “discover” any items that he might occasionally bring in to sell, or, later, to separate collectors from their treasures when Tom went to work for him. Someone determined to write fanfic could parlay the whole association into a regular Fagin’s Academy. But I won’t be going there. Not quite.

• • • •

So. At one end of our equation we have Tom, at loose ends in London. Possibly as early as the summer of 1941 — having been turned out of the orphanage because he’d reached the age of 14 and had no intention of becoming a boot boy. He had his “scholarship” to Hogwarts, but no other obvious immediate prospects.

At the other end, we have Burke.

It really is easy to speculate that Tom had been in and out of Knockturn Alley during the summers for the past three years.

The possibility becomes even more likely if we postulate that Tom found the Room of Hidden Things fairly early in his Hogwarts career. That place is a treasure trove. And even though a lot of what is hidden there is rubbish, more than a few things in that room were described as being potentially quite valuable. And no one was claiming them. I rather suspect that our Tom made a little shopping trip among the hidden items before school broke up for the summer each year after he found his way in there, and kept himself in pocket money thereby.

Which would have given him ample reason to be very well acquainted with Burke.

And by 14 he’d learned how to charm people. If he had known just where to find Sluggy he might have had Sluggy pull a string for him here and there, and parlay that into summer housing, but I rather think he thought of Burke first. He may have decided to see if he could get taken on for the summer at B&B or one of the other shops in the district on his own account, before he started asking assistance from someone who had to be contacted by owl. Or to whom he would need to be “obliged” for the rest of his natural life, and who might end up asking favors of him.

His actual needs weren’t as great as all that. He wasn’t really accustomed to “living large”. If he was able to wrangle housing (and possibly board) at his employers’ expense, with the Governors’ fund to cover his school supplies, he was primarily just in need of the aforesaid pocket money.

Of course he might well have started a growth spurt by then, which would have put him in need of clothing as well, but we know there are 2nd hand clothing shops in Diagon Alley. And by that age he might have been able to charm his employers into seeing to it that he was “presentable”.

And Burke might have stepped in with a counter-proposal.

Something on the order of an apprenticeship, or perhaps some other form of contract, one magically binding. Tom would come to work in the shop for the summers and Burke would house and feed Tom, and teach him what he needs to know in order to deal effectively with the stock. Much of which fights back. Essentially, Tom would have a place to sleep, meals during the work day, and Burke owns him until closing time. It was of course unspoken and not written into the agreement that Tom would continue to bring Burke whatever items of value he could, at the end of each school year to add to the shop’s stock.

For an agreed-upon term of years.

And there was no need to let Hogwarts know of his change of address. A Post Owl with the following year’s texts and supplies list will find him regardless of where it’s addressed to.

Well, why not? No one is claiming any of the items that the boy brought in. What is the harm of putting them back into circulation? The boy was going to need a job after finishing school, too. He’s bright, personable, Burke would teach him the ropes and take him on full time once he has his NEWTs.

And I think that someone of the caliber of Burke would want the boy under a binding contract, and Tom really didn’t have a broad choice of other options — or the leisure to explore them. The orphanage had already turned him out, and he had nowhere else to go.

And summers spent working at B&B certainly seems to be the most economical way of connecting the dots for having Tom know what a Pensieve was and how to use one by the following summer.

• • • •

Something else which one suddenly wonders is whether his employer might have eventually pulled some strings in order to have his employee, who was effectively an “emancipated minor” removed from the oversight of the Trace.

Burke could probably make a good argument for it, since Tom was an employee who he was “paying”(in kind if not cash), and to not be able let him use magic — especially in that shop — would not be the most effective return for his investment. Burke was also fairly well-connected (well enough for someone in his family to have married one of the Blacks), and some of his connections probably had Ministry ties. Tom’s place of employment was in a secluded, exclusively wizarding district, so there was no risk of his performing magic in front of Muggles there. Or of doing so unsupervised. I also imagine that Burke might have intended to occasionally send Tom out on errands in Muggle London — with which Tom was familiar. Possibly even errands of a sort that the least said to the Ministry, the better.

Tom would be off to Hogwarts in September, of course, and would probably stay there during term breaks at someone else’s expense, although perhaps not. He might have come to help out during the Christmas rush. But I could readily see an old crook like Burke pulling the strings for his own benefit, especially if it put the boy under obligation and brought him back the next summer.

And the next, and the next, and the next. It was four summers before Tom was finished at Hogwarts. Although he would have been of age during the last of them.

And neither of them would have really seen any reason to be trumpeting information about that contract around the School.

It would also make all kinds of ease in connecting the dots between what we are actually told in canon if Tom was not actually under any form of Trace by the time he tracked down his mother’s family, even if he was still only 15. He certainly set off three AKs in a Muggle drawing room before he had even sat his OWLs, and no one came hunting for him.

From what we were actually shown of that episode, he also showed up at Morfin’s hut after dark. And in summer, in Britain, dark doesn’t come until quite late. i.e., It was after the shop’s closing time, and Tom was off-duty. He was still too young to legally Apparate, unless Burke had reason to clandestinely teach him to, but he was clever enough and resourceful enough to have made or bought an illegal round-trip portkey. (Made is my guess. I doubt he would want anyone to get a handle on where he was going.)

It certainly didn’t do Burke any harm to have a contracted trainee that he could depend upon for several years running, either, rather than try to find new help every summer. The inactivation of the boy’s Trace (assuming that the Trace actually exists and isn’t simply a boogyman to threaten school kids with) may have been only for as long as Tom had an employer vouching for him, but I rather doubt that the Ministry reactivated it after closing time and switched it back off again in the morning. More likely they inactivated it once he reported for work at the end of June and then formally reinstated it the day before Tom would catch the Hogwarts Express.

• • • •

Burke may very well have negotiated a deal with young Tom that appeared to primarily benefit himself, but Tom was in no great hurry to get out of it. Certainly not while it gave him housing and pocket money during his summers, and if it inactivated the Trace as well, he was coming out way ahead. The bargain also gave him virtually unlimited access to some highly esoteric resources and information.

A formal apprenticeship might have traditionally covered 7 years. At the time that Wizarding Secrecy was established, those were always for 7 years. If Burke negotiated something like that with young Tom that would have bought him Tom’s services until some date in the summer Tom was 21. And, in those days, among Muggles, Tom would have been counted a minor until that age as well, even if you could be turned out into the street to earn your living at 14 (and he would have grown up under the mindset that you formally come “of age” at 21).

Tom may not have felt he was getting the worst of the deal, either. Even if it did inconveniently give him some long-standing obligations that he was going to need to meet. And so far as that is concerned, I am sure that he found B&B well worth his time. It would have been a highly productive training ground for such matters as were rarely encountered at Hogwarts. He was learning to recognize artifacts of virtue, and getting an intensive crash course on dealing with Dark artifacts and cursed objects every summer, between sweeping and dusting and making nice with the collectors. (Who were potentially very useful contacts for him, too.)

He also probably had access to materials and references which may very well not have been in the Hogwarts Library’s collection. B&B has a broad clientele, and they are just about all Dark Arts connoisseurs. And I am sure that Burke handles choice items from any number of their estates.

No, I don’t really think Tom was in any hurry to get out of that contract. Particularly since, if Founders’ artifacts were what he was really after, it put him into exactly the place where he was most likely to get a line on them.

• • • •

While we are at it; as of the end of 2019, a long-belated issue was brought up by one of my correspondents. It is actually a matter related to Tom’s Horcruxes, but it has a strong connection to B&B. So, a digression:

By Harry’s day, one of a pair of vanishing cabinets is on display in the main showroom at B&B. This cabinet, and its Hogwarts equivalent were drawn to our attention in CoS, and featured prominently over the course of OotP and HBP.

We have absolutely no indication of when that cabinet got into the shop. I have speculated, in the past, that the two cabinets constituted Headmaster Phineas Nigellus Black’s emergency route home to #12 Grimmauld Place in London. We know from the dodgy Black Family Tapestry sketch which Rowling contributed to a charity auction in February 2006 that Phineas Black died in 1926, that his sister Elladora died in 1931, and that his daughter Belvina married a Herbert Burke.

It is easy to suppose that after her father, and possibly her aunt’s deaths, Belvina asked for the cabinet and her brother let her take it. We have no information of what relationship Herbert Burke was to Caractacus Burke, but in a society as small as Rowling insists the wizarding world of Britain is, it is unlikely that they would be unrelated. Belvina’s death is recorded as being in 1962, which is well after the period that Tom would have been in and out of the premises. Therefore, I had speculated that Draco Malfoy had connected the dots from family anecdotes, when he heard Montegue’s story of being trapped in the cabinet, and utilized this information when he was charged with enabling an invasion of the school.

However; while this makes a degree of sense, and is not contradicted by anything that is actually in canon, it is only one possibility. How large a family are the Burkes, and did a part of the family live above the shop? For that matter, although the two cabinets had clearly been the property of some member of the Hogwarts staff — for otherwise the second cabinet would have hardly been at Hogwarts — we have no certainty that it was actually the property of Headmaster Black.

It could have been there for decades before Black became Headmaster.

And, for that matter, the London cabinet might have reached B&B well before Tom was employed there.

I will be exploring these possibilities more thoroughly in some other essays in this collection. It is not so relevant to this one.

• • • •

I’m not convinced that Burke ever knew anything of Tom’s family background, though. Tom wouldn’t have spread it around. For that matter, Tom didn’t know anything of it himself when he and Burke first met. And all that anyone could say for sure is that Riddle was not a traditional wizarding name.

In fact, it may well have been Burke who finally told Tom to forget about trying to trace his father, since Burke would have known who all the oldest families were, and that there were no Riddles among them. Plus, it would have been over the following year, his 4th, the first year after Tom had (hypothetically) gone to work for Burke, that Tom, abandoning his attempt to get information about the Riddles, started trying to trace his mother’s family and got a line on “Marvolo” and the Gaunts before the year was out.

Before the following summer was over Tom was flashing around a ring with the sigil of the Deathly Hallows questers. Which Burke would certainly have recognized, although he wouldn’t necessarily volunteer the information if Tom didn’t think to ask about it. Indeed, Tom may have claimed to have traced his mother’s family, and that the ring was an heirloom, by then — or, given what he had arranged for Morfin, possibly not.

But the fact that the sigil wasn’t really associated with any single family, but with an exclusively wizarding not so-“secret society” might have gone a long way toward convincing Burke that the boy might not be out of the top drawer, himself, but he had some sound antecedents. I doubt that he ever knew that Tom was a Parselmouth. Tom had already learned not to boast of that in public.

I suspect that for the rest of the summer that he was 15, Tom was checking back through the shop records from the period around his own birth. Morfin had told him about Slytherin’s locket, as well about as his Muggle father. If his mother had taken it to London with her, but not had it by the time Tom was born, then she was likely to have sold it at some point. And she wasn’t likely to have sold it to Muggles.

And, if that was the case, he would have soon struck pay dirt. And that would have given him all the more reason to hang around that shop.

After all, collectors always come back.

• • • •

Because, yes, I am considering that we seriously need to question Harry’s confident assumption that after having sweet-talked the story of what happened to the Ravenclaw diadem out of Helena’s ghost, Tom set right off for Albania before he took up his post at B&B. We’ve got absolutely nothing but Harry’s spur of the moment conviction that Tom did anything of the sort. And nothing else in canon supports it.

If Tom had signed a contract with Burke as a boy, and was obligated by contract to work at the shop until the summer after he turned 21 — not to mention that he would have wanted to hang around trying to get a line on the locket (and what are the bets that he already knew exactly who had purchased it by then, and was waiting for her to make a return trip?) then I think he may have put that projected trip off until after he had accomplished one or other of those goals. After all, the diadem had been there for close to 1000 years, it wasn’t likely to turn up by accident before he went to find it.

He had all but certainly made one of his Horcruxes by the time we caught up to him with Hepzibah. Or at any rate, Rowling’s insistence on pointing out his “elegantly wasted” appearance would appear to suggest as much.

One could also raise the argument that by that point his term of obligation to Burke had expired and he was now just a regular employee who could leave whenever he chose. It is a viable hypothesis that he was already making plans for the next stage of his campaign, having created a “traveler’s insurance policy” Horcrux from the Ring, and hiding it in the Gaunt ruin in Little Hangleton against the hazards of his projected trip. He was certainly still young when that visit to Madam Smith took place. And he was not observed to still be wearing the Peverill ring. Having recently turned 21 seems as likely an age for him at that point as not. He was certainly not significantly older.

And waiting for Hepzibah to finally show up had paid off in spades. He bagged two founders’ artifacts for the price of one! Now he just needed to find and collect the diadem and he would be nearly to his final goal (assuming that Albus wasn’t just talking through his hat about Tom being fixated on Founders’ objects, frankly, I’m inclined to suspect he was). By then, Tom may have known from rumor and legend that the Sword would eventually surface at Hogwarts. If the School could be pushed into the proper sort of a state of emergency, and he may have been confident of being able to manage that.

If this reasoning is on target, then we can tentatively pinpoint the time that Tom skipped out on wizarding Britain, as well as the time he returned with the Diadem to set up his interview with Albus, hoping to establish himself at Hogwarts and wait for the Sword to turn up some 10 years later. Even though we have no idea what he was doing in the 10 years between.

We certainly haven’t been given information in canon of any activity which would have taken an additional 10 years.

Unless it took that long to find the ruddy diadem.

Which, upon consideration, it very well might have. If Helena stowed it in a hollow tree sometime back in the 11th century, it isn’t likely to have still been in situ. That tree would have been long gone, and the diadem itself buried deep in several centuries worth of forest compost. It might be only by the merest chance that Tom managed to find it at all.

If Tom was about 21 at the time of Hepzibah’s murder, with a hypothetical 7-year contract with Burke no longer in effect, the murder would have been around the summer of 1948. His return would have been perhaps the winter of ’58–’59. (Minerva was hired as Transfiguration instructor in December of ’56. Albus I am pretty sure had been serving as DADA instructor at that point.)

• • • •

I’ll admit I’m not at all convinced about what Tom was waiting for before completing his projected set of six Horcruxes. Because I still do not believe that the Diary was intended as one of his original ones. There is no convincing reason for it to have been one of the intentional ones.

When he had his interview with Albus, I believe he still needed two more to complete his projected collection of 6. We have been told directly, in canon, that he would have been hoping for the Sword of Gryffindor to make a reappearance, so he could use that for one of them. Admittedly, we were told this by Albus, but I am inclined to think that Albus really believed this to be the case and there is a very good chance that he is right. I rather suspect that the Sword was fairly widely rumored to periodically turn up at Hogwarts in times of emergency. And I think that Tom would have felt himself perfectly capable of creating such an emergency once he was in place as the DADA instructor.

I do suspect the Sword had been incommunicado during most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The castle has probably not often been under direct attack in recent centuries, which is the sort of situation which has most likely always been required to cause the Sword to manifest. So Tom counted on that, even if he was not aware that the Hat was the means used for its return.

The Sword of Gryffindor might have been his 5th planned Horcrux. But we don’t get any clue of what he originally wanted to use for his last one.

I’m now inclined to think that after he was told about the Prophecy, he decided to sacrifice his last, unassigned soul fragment on the diary as a tool to be used in order to get Albus out of his way, and to use some other artifact for the Horcrux created by the death of the foretold child.

Although it is possible that by that time, that simply would be much too rational a plan for our Tom.

• • • •

And in any event, it didn’t work out that way, did it? For all that Albus may claim that *he* thinks that Tom intended to create his final Horcrux from the death of an infant Harry Potter at Godric’s Hollow in 1981 — and that is certainly a theory which sounds in character for Tom — we have no idea what artifact he intended to use for any such Horcrux at that point. We’ve heard of no artifact of note that had fallen into his hands by then, either. And we certainly *saw* no such artifact in the alleged flashback sequence wherein we followed Tom to Godric’s Hollow to kill the Potters. If Albus was ever right about that hypothesis, we have no explanation for why Rowling neither told nor showed us anything of the matter (frankly, I suspect she’d simply forgotten about it). But the fact remains that you don’t create a Horcrux by accident in the course of an ordinary murder. So, in this case, Albus seems to have been more on top of things than his author. Which would suggest that Tom had already given up on the plan to subvert the Sword of Gryffindor, for whatever was supposed to be created instead of the Harrycrux would have been his 6th Horcrux, and if Albus’s theories were ever at all on the right track of there being an Arithmantical significance of the number of horcruxes, Tom would have had no intention of exceeding that number of them.

Which certainly throws some light on a rather nagging question; in DHs, once our Tom had complete access to the school, and the sword of Gryffindor was right there, in the open, for the taking, why didn’t he go ahead and turn it into a Horcrux if he was so determined to create one from artifacts from each of the founders? (Even if he inadvertently ended up using the fake sword instead.)

Had he discovered when he created the Nagini Horcrux that he had best not try that again since he was over his limit? Or had his creation of the Nagini Horcrux had already taken the last assigned slot in the projected series of six and he was determined not to exceed it?

And echo answers us nothing. The Sword of Gryffindor turns out to be been yet another totally dropped element from Tom’s whole story arc. For Rowling appears to have completely forgotten that Tom ever had taken an interest in it. And evidently expects us to do the same.