It used to be a broadly popular belief throughout much of early fandom that James Potter, and possibly Lily as well, Like Frank and Alice Longbottom, were all employed as Aurors at the time of their deaths at the end of October, 1981.
This was no doubt encouraged by Rowling’s off the wall assertion that what the Potters had done for a living was “important”. Post DHs, we are expected to conclude that it is important to fancy yourself a freedom fighter while living off your family’s money. Both of the Potters were apparently unemployed.
Post-OotP, however, we seemed to have discovered that James — let alone Lily — having been an Auror was unlikely to have been the case anyway. There simply did not appear to be enough time for James or Lily to have finished training and to become established as Aurors between leaving Hogwarts and the date that they were killed. Particularly not if you accepted the HP Lexicon’s 1960 birth date on the matter as being accurate. (Which I didn’t, but Rowling has since that point insisted upon it.)
According to Minerva McGonagall’s list of the challenges one must meet in attempting to become an Auror (OotP, Chapter 29); Auror training takes three years to complete. If we accept the Lexicon’s statement that James Potter was born in 1960 then he could not have started Hogwarts before the Autumn term of 1971. If he did not start at Hogwarts until September of ’71 he could not have finished before June of 1978. This finishing date leaves only enough time for a marriage probably within the year, his wife’s pregnancy established by 16 months after finishing Hogwarts, a child the following summer and an early death 15 months later. Even if James, and/or Lily had entered Auror training immediately upon leaving Hogwarts they would barely have had time to even become qualified before the summer of ’81.
• • • •
The Longbottoms, consequently, must have been at least a few years older than the Potters. Perhaps some 4 or 5 years or more. But probably not more than 10. And, for that matter, if the Callidora Longbottom née Black who shows up on the Black family tapestry sketch as having been born in 1915 is Frank Longbottom’s grandmother (Augusta’s mother-in-law) then Frank is unlikely to be significantly older than Andromeda Tonks née Black, or Lucius Malfoy.
Even if one had chosen to favor my own original interpretation of the Potterverse timeline in preference to that of the Lexicon, wherein James Potter and his classmates were born in 1959 rather than 1960, the likelihood of James Potter’s having been an established Auror at the time of his death was not much better. True, he might have passed his Auror qualifications about the time his son was born, if he had, in fact, been accepted into Auror training immediately after finishing Hogwarts. But the fact is that as an Auror trainee he would have still been engaged in classwork at least as much — if not more than — fieldwork for most of the ensuing three years, and, as a trainee, would have been subject to whatever restrictions apply to the not-yet-qualified (surely there must be some, or what is the point of qualification?). As a trainee, he would probably have had less opportunity to draw Voldemort’s attention to himself than if he were a private party, with no connections to the DMLE.
In any case, once examined, the notion that the Potters were Aurors all seems highly unlikely. They would still have been trainees at the point that Sybil made her Prophecy, and the notion that they were targeted because they were Aurors does not really satisfy. It is far too random and arbitrary, even for the Potterverse.
Rowling’s background for the story is drawn in broad, sweeping strokes with very little attention paid to detail, or plausibility, and as such, to simply take her word for things is a fine recipe for leaving the whole backstory unexplored and unexamined. Because she didn’t really do a good job of packing. You will not find a cohesive picture of the foundational events of the story in what Rowling has to say about the background to it. All she gives us are the highlights, and since I doubt that she considers them a “real” part of the same story, they have tended to shift over the years as new “cool ideas” occur to her. Much of it does not connect. Much of it contradicts itself. Like many terminally lazy writers, Rowling leaves it up to the reader to make all the connections for her.
• • • •
One thing which is glaringly evident is that James Potter was never in the same position as Harry. He was certainly not the child foretold of some maybe-prophesy related to the fall of the Dark Lord. Frankly, James is unlikely to have ever been anything like as important to Voldemort as Harry was. But he may very well have been a continuing annoyance to Voldemort’s followers. One who, in the Dark Lord’s opinion, needed to be swatted, like a fly.
And, as such, he had evidently needed to be swatted well before the Prophecy was made. The Prophesy stated that by the time the child was born, those to whom he would be born would have already “defied” the Dark Lord three times.
One of the main things which we were led to believe from canon, is that somehow, between the end of his 5th year, in 1976, when we got our first glimpse of him, and the birth of his son in the summer of 1980, James Potter managed to escape from Voldemort’s “attentions”, or those of his followers, the requisite three times, which featured so prominently in the Trelawney Prophecy. Actually that timeline should probably be adjusted to the date of James Potter’s finishing Hogwarts and the point that Trelawney made that Prophesy, some months before Harry's birth; narrowing the time to the period between the end of June 1978, and some point between shortly after Halloween, 1979, the earliest possible date that the Prophecy might have been made, and the summer of 1980. Which all sounds unlikely.
What I now am more likely to credit is that “those who have defied him thrice” was in fact a description of collective defiance. A prediction that the child would be born to someone who was a member of a group who had defied Lord Voldemort at least three times. By the time of Harry’s birth, the Order of the Phoenix was certainly such a group. But then, so was the Ministry. Anyone who signed up for either of these was automatically a viable Prophecy target.
• • • •
Our next point of attempting to fix a date of the Prophecy shows up in the scene in the chapter devoted to the Prince’s Tale, and the meeting between Snape and Dumbledore on the windy hilltop. Fans living in Scotland have pointed out that the leafless trees on that windy hilltop where Snape turned up and confessed having told Voldemort what he had overheard would put that scene at a point around mid-November or afterwards. Which, if it took place in 1980 would have been after Harry’s birth and anything up to a year after the Prophecy was made. Rowling is not to really be relied upon for weather and the state of the seasons, however. She tends to paint pretty word pictures without regard to the almanac.
However, we have never actually been told anything which would suggest that James, himself, would be a natural target of Voldemort’s wrath. The lack of any such compelling reason for James’s having been so targeted, paired with the “defied him thrice” statement in the prophecy, is largely responsible for the widely held belief that he must have been an Auror and actively engaged in the war. Targeted for his function rather than on his own account.
• • • •
However, the “defiance” stated in the Prophesy may not have all been of the passive “escape” variety that Dumbledore cites. I had originally thought there may have been defiance of a more active, provocative order as well. Possibly in the matter of public statements, on the part of not just James Potter himself, but that of his family.
Apparently the answer is not so simple. Further complications to our reasoning were added to the issue with Sirius Black’s summation of his own life and his own associations with the Potter family before he was sent to Azkaban. Sirius claims to have left home around the age of 16, i.e., at some point after the end of his 5th year at Hogwarts, and he tells us that he had essentially camped out during the term breaks with the Potters until after his 17th birthday (probably at some point during their 6th year) and the death of his uncle Alphard who left him enough money for him to get his own place. He states that he was still welcome at the Potters’ after this point, which would appear to confirm that James’s parents seem to have survived until at least the end of their son’s years at Hogwarts.
In fact, it does nothing of the sort. It only suggests that Sirius Black decided to pay for his own bachelor pad during the summer before his last year at Hogwarts. Once he was of age, in short. Whereupon, I suspect that James probably spent much of his time crashing with Black, off his parents’ radar. That stupid off-canon scenelet that Rowling tossed out of the two of them larking about in a car chase with Muggle police and suspected DEs on brooms would appear to have taken place during that summer.
It is widely understood from interviews that by the time of his own death, less than a handful of years after finishing school, James Potter had inherited enough money that he did not need to actually work for a living. And that by the time of Voldemort’s first defeat at Godric’s Hollow, Harry’s only surviving close relatives were the Dursleys.
• • • •
Part of this mystery was supposedly “explained” in Rowling’s joint interview of July 2005, following the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The answer which we were given turns out to have been far less dramatic than the fans had expected. James Potter’s parents had been “getting on” in years, even by wizarding standards, when he was born. He was an only child, treasured and widely indulged (much like Draco Malfoy) and both of his parents had died suddenly of some magical ailment.
The rest of the mystery was suggested to have been cleared up by the release of the Black family tapestry’s information, circa February 2006. On that tapestry is the notation of one Dorea Black, who married a Charlus Potter with a notation of “1s”. If these were intended to represent James Potter’s parents, his mother would have died by the end of the Autumn term of her son’s 7th year. Since we know that James was orphaned young, it is assumed that her husband did not long survive her. Indeed, may have predeceased her. Dorea’s death was recorded as having taken place in 1977. James, born in what now has been officially established as 1960 would have been 17.
Such an event may have contributed to James and Lily’s early marriage. James, who was certainly anything but cold-blooded, did not enjoy being left alone in the world before he was 18. But this does not get us any farther in explaining why Voldemort would have wanted him dead.
• • • •
On that issue we do at least have one clue, however. Even though Rowling appears to have gone nowhere near it.
By all accounts, particularly that of Sirius Black, James Potter honestly loathed the Dark Arts and everything to do with them. The adversarial stance he took with Severus Snape, a suspected student of the Dark Arts, (“famous” for it, when he was at school) makes it clear that this was a stance which had already been established by the time he reached his school days. His public choice of a Muggle-born bride, as well as the long association with a renegade like Sirius Black as his best friend would probably also have contributed to painting that target on his back. Three fifths of the Black family, in their generation, had already aligned themselves with the Dark Lord.
According to Lucius Malfoy, our only other source of information on this issue, Harry’s parents had been “meddlesome fools too”.
Well, we have known for some time that Lily Potter was allegedly offered an authentic choice of whether or not to save herself when Voldemort finally confronted her. So it really doesn’t sound as if she had mixed into anything that meant that she had to be killed for it. But James, evidently had.
Post-HBP, we realize that the Death Eaters are really a much smaller organization than we had ever been led to expect. And they’re a much more petty organization, too. And it turns out that James Potter and Sirius Black had been at school with rather a lot of them, and they were not friends. I rather doubt that either James or Sirius would have shied off from mixing into some business of Malfoy’s, or that of the Lestranges’ if they discovered any and damn well felt like it, just to do them all a bad turn and thrust a spoke into their wheel. Given an opportunity, they would probably have considered it a point of honor to do so. And if it would also constitute one in the eye for Severus Snape, all the better.
Voldemort himself probably wouldn’t have known James Potter from a hole in the ground, and did not care, either, but he approved the selection of him as a target. Why not? The young twerp was an avowed blood-traitor, make an object lesson of him.
And, from what we have been told about James Potter himself; if he had managed to escape a DE attack, he is unlikely to have chosen to keep his head down and live forever looking over his shoulder, trying to keep from being noticed. He is far more likely to have stepped forward, publicly screaming defiance at the whole Death Eater movement in the pages of the Daily Prophet. Which would have constituted an another act of defiance on his tally and probably have positively invited subsequent attacks.
I postulated that James Potter was not targeted through anything like a work-related association, but because he had become something on the order of the Blood Traitors’ faction’s poster child. James may not have been a major wizarding celebrity on the order of his son Harry, perhaps, (from the indications in HBP, if either of the Potters was any kind of a rising star, it is more likely to have been Lily) but he was widely known. Particularly in so small a community as the wizarding world. One belatedly recalls that even on the presumed day after Voldemort’s defeat, everybody seems to have already known exactly who the Potters were.
But none of this tells us anything about his source of income.
• • • •
A number of alert fans have noted that the inventor of the Golden Snitch, a halfblood wizard by the name of Bowman Wright (1490-1560), hailed from Godric’s Hollow, and many have speculated that Wright may have been an ancestor of James Potter’s and the invention of the Snitch the basis of the Potters’ fortune. This is an extremely likable theory, but we have no information to either confirm nor to contradict it.
For that matter, at this point we cannot be altogether certain whether the house in Godric’s Hollow was even the Potter’s own home or one that had been found for them to go into hiding at. Post-DHs it could well have been the old Dumbledore property.
But in any event, the Potters had, by the middle of the 20th century, amassed enough of a fortune for its possessor not to need to hold down a high-paying job, and to be to at least to some extent engaged in the sort of “money-farming” which is generally regarded as occupying the time and energies of the likes of Lucius Malfoy.
Among other considerations, only something on the order of such a financial safety net would have allowed James the leisure time necessary for taking an active and voluntary public stand in whatever action passes within the wizarding world as a “war effort”. But that (and money farming) aren’t likely to have been the only things that James Potter did. After all, neither of those activities is likely to have a lot of potential for creating fun. And James Potter did certainly like to have fun.
Well, I thought I was reasonably sharp. But sometimes I’m just not too swift. For herein follows a half-baked illustration of how sometimes it takes an amazing amount of time before the penny finally drops.
It also rather neatly illustrates how the coin can drop into the wrong box altogether, given enough time for one to become fuzzy about one’s sources. And, boy howdy, did it ever manage to drop into the wrong box this time.
In other words: the following is an example of how to feel like a fool in one easy lesson.
• • • •
I am sharp enough not to confuse actual fanon with canon. I did NOT read the germ for this particular flight of fancy in a fanfic.
It lives in the author’s notes of a fanfic.
Excuse me while I writhe in mortification for a moment or two.
The fanfic in question is a very old fanfic, and a very good one**. One which I had copied and pasted into a document on my own hard drive for rereading and striped the notes out of, so as not to be tripping over them. (** Angie Astravic’s ‘Legacy of Slytherin’ which may be found over in the Publications section of the site.)
Consequently in the 2-3 rereads that I made over the following 3 years, I never encountered the notes, and forgot that they had ever been there. I did not, however forget the information that I had read in them. But I only remembered having read the relevant notes “online”, some years earlier (around 2001, in fact).
But in any case, for a year and a half there, I thought I’d finally figured out what it was that James Potter did for a living.
And I’m rather sorry to find out that I was wrong.
What Rowling’s always told us in her interviews is that most of James’s money was inherited. More recently she’s worded this as saying that James had come into enough money that he didn’t need a well-paying job (or, one presumes, a steady one). But everything we’ve been told, and everything that we’ve seen of James Potter’s disposition suggests that he would still have chosen to do something with himself, even if it didn’t exactly pay much. And he would have wanted to have fun with it, if he could.
Well, at the end of June ’04, somebody over on the Yahoo group WIKtT posted a question regarding Patroni, asking whether they always took the form of animals.
And I was off to the races.
• • • •
It was a reasonable question, certainly. And every Patronus we’ve ever seen in canon has taken an animal form, whether a natural animal or that of a Fantastic Beast. However, I have a fairly retentive memory and the question recalled what by that time I was misremembering as a very old Rowling interview (which I could not find any record of, obviously for good reason, since Rowling never said it. I’ve paid much closer attention to what Rowling has and hasn’t said since that point), from some period after the release of PoA back when everyone was keenly interested in the Marauders, and Patroni were the newest variety of magic on the block, wherein we had been informed — or so I quite clearly recalled — in response to the question of what form James Potter’s Patronus had taken, that the form of James Potter’s Patronus had been a nose-biting teacup.
As it was presented, he had evidently been trying to develop one and was so delighted when he succeeded (do we really need to guess just whose nose ended up getting bitten?) that the silly thing eventually dictated the form that his Patronus took.
Well, the author’s notes are indeed presented in Q & A format, and the style of humor inherent in a nose-biting teacup Patronus is certainly not something that I believed that Rowling was incapable of. Three years later I think that having confused it with a Rowling interview is not that unreasonable.
But; it’s simply, entirely, WRONG.
• • • •
However, back in 2004, my recollection was:
Well, excuse me, but weren’t we told in PoA that nose-biting teacups one of the items sold at Zonko’s?
Well, yes, they are. I checked. But that confirmation on its own didn’t manage to clue me in that I was on the wrong track, or to head me off. Rather the contrary.
Ergo, one had to ask; unless he was attempting to improve on the commercial version, why would James Potter try to make a nose-biting teacup if he could have just gone out and bought one? He had no shortage of pocket money.
Unless nose-biting teacups weren’t an item sold by Zonko’s back then.
Unless James was the person who invented them in the first place!
— And either sold the procedure to Zonko (or Zonko’s supplier), or patented it and was paid a royalty on every one sold. Harry’s Gringotts account might still be collecting a steady trickle of knuts from James Potter’s nose-biting teacup. And quite possibly from other similar items that James developed as well. We do not know how long magical patents last. But I doubt that they expire in a mere 10 years.
Hagrid comments that Fred and George Weasley would have given James and Sirius a run for their money, but he never claimed that the Weasleys had outclassed them. Nor can one imagine that Fred and George would have been particularly likely to “outgrow” their interest in creating ever bigger and better prank devices by the time they reached the age of 21. Which was James’s probable age at the time he was killed. And indeed they didn’t. Or, rather, George didn’t.
Even without the Weasley twins’ spur of actually needing to make a lot of money, I simply can no longer imagine any vocation which is so likely to have been as attractive to a young James Potter as the development of the sort of joke items which are sold at Zonko’s.
Rendering Harry’s decision to back the twins financially a singularly apt bit of poetic justice, and an eminently fitting memorial.
• • • •
But, in the event, the nose-biting teacup Patronus is not a Rowling invention, so by chasing after it we find we are left in a blind alley.
And we are left with No Clue, as to what James Potter’s Patronus was (assuming that it wasn’t necessarily a stag) and no idea what it was (if anything) that James Potter really did do for supplementary income, and that for all Rowling really did say in one old interview that it was “important”, and also that we would eventually find out, I suspect that this piece of information is one of the minor threads that she discarded in the wake of the 3-month revision which was made to the series outline between GoF and OotP.
And, for the record, even though “James Potter; inventor of joke products” is all but guaranteed to be wrong, I still like the idea.