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Reading backward - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Reading backward
This is jumping off of some R/T stuff, but it's something I've thought about in other cases as well--the idea that new information revises understanding of old information. This is sometimes true in life (maybe even often), but it's always true in fiction.

There was a lot of argument in SW about whether or not Lucas originally meant Vader to be Luke's father, and whether or not Uncle Owen's "That's what I'm afraid of" in ANH was about fear of Luke going bad. Now, I tend to come down on the side of it being intended, but ultimately, the argument doesn't even matter, because subsequent revelations would re-interpret the scene no matter what its original intention. I know that as a writer, I've been surprised by things that happen later in a story that cast earlier actions in a different light, but in terms of the story's arc, it's what ends up being the case that counts. Uncle Owen's line was foreboding in the context of "He might end up dead," but chilling in light of what we're to learn was actually the case about Luke's father. That's the case whether Lucas intended to follow that path during the initial writing or not, because what we later learn to be true was always true in the internal world of the fiction; we just didn't know it before (and the author may not have known it before). The new information revises the old understandings, and what is now so was always so.

Take a typical Law and Order kind of plot. There's a body, and the detectives start to investigate. A witness tells them that she thinks she saw "a guy in a red coat" running away. Further interviews give a few more details, and eventually, they come back to the first witness, and it turns out that she was expelled from a school whose varsity jackets are red. And, oh, the victim turns out to have been a legacy student there, and people had seen them together earlier. Ultimately, it works out that the killer was her partner and they were getting revenge on this privileged jerk who launched a complaint about her that got her expelled. It's certainly not the first assumption anyone made, but once it's revealed, it's not something that's newly become true; it's what the case was all along. We just hadn't discovered it yet.

To some extent, all stories are mysteries. We're dropped in in the middle of things, and we see things that we don't have explanations for. As the story goes on, we learn some back story (and don't learn other back story) that explains actions we initially see. We open HP up with Hagrid on Sirius's motorcycle and talking about what happened at Godric's Hollow. Later, we find out how he came by the bike, and that he believes he should have been suspicious because of the loan, and that Sirius was a very important figure that night. Did JKR know that when she wrote the opening scene? Most likely... but even if she didn't, it became the case when she wrote Prisoner of Azkaban. By the same token, Percy's behavior in CoS is only suspicious the first time through--once we've read the end and know that he's just nervous about revealing the fact that he has a girlfriend, his behavior makes a lot of sense. Was Sirius always the scion of a bigoted pure-blood family? Obviously, there were a lot of people pre-OotP who didn't think so. Well, now he was. Likewise, Snape was always a half-blood from a less-than-spiffy neighborhood, Tom Riddle's diary was a Horcrux, and Lily Evans was good at Potions. If JKR goes with "Snape had a great unrequited love for Lily" in book seven, I'll be annoyed by it, but... it will turn out to be what was always true, so reading back into the earlier books, it will be there.

Are there things that will be unsatisfactorily explained? Almost always. Why in the name of heaven did Sirius slash up the Fat Lady's portrait, or not go to either Remus or Dumbledore? Mad as a hatter only goes so far. Why did Uncle Owen let Luke keep his birth name? A matter to be addressed only by fic writers (be they pro or fan). Those things always seem to be left lying around. You can chalk them up to goofs or lazy writing, or you can come up with elaborate explanations, but either way, they don't change what we've learned about the underlying facts of the case.
13 comments or Leave a comment
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: November 30th, 2005 05:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, good insight. Have you read The Neverending Story? There's some bits in there that relate to your point that "what is now so was always so." I'd have to reread, because it's possible the connections aren't as overt as I'm remembering, but it has interesting ideas about story and fantasy and reading and our influence on what we read and the importance of those and the importance of not dwelling in them entirely. Good stuff.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: November 30th, 2005 05:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
One of the things I love about writing is the discovery of some throw-away line in chapter one is vital in chapter five. As writers we can go back, of course, and plant the clues to play fair with readers, but that instant moment when the unintended minor becomes major is like champagne.

JKR might certainly have developed some things early and dropped them in the first and second books to blossom in the last - I think of Ginny's comment "You're not listening to a book, are you?" in HBP; how completely right that is, just where it is. Since the half-blood prince subplot was originally written in CoS, I can see that the quote may have been written long ago, but she put it where it was best eventually. But from my own writing experience, I wonder what she put in as a little filler that will have long repercussions. In particular, the scars on Harry's hand from Umbridge's quill. I think that has to come back, somehow. I don't think that Sirius, knowing that it's expected that long-term prisoners in Azkaban, would be willing to take the risk of going to either Remus or Dumbldore with Pettigrew in hand. Siruis' temper was certainly displayed when he slashed the portrait, furthering the red herring that Sirius was a madman out to get Harry.

Why Owen let Luke keep his birthname? Now that's a good question.
From: marciamarcia Date: November 30th, 2005 06:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why did Uncle Owen let Luke keep his birth name? A matter to be addressed only by fic writers (be they pro or fan).

What are some of the post-rationalizations you've read for this? That's something that's always kind of bugged me and I'm curious how other people explain it.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: November 30th, 2005 06:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I only know mine, actually--it's not a question I've seen addressed a lot. I basically said that Owen had no introspection about the matter at all and when Obi-Wan tried to explain that he should change the boy's name, Owen just stubbornly said, "It's his name, and I won't take it away from him." Besides, the people around them knew them, and knew the whole Lars family, and knew that Beru hadn't been pregnant, so their best bet was to say he was a relative of Shmi's, to avoid local questioning (since Shmi was an "outsider" who'd come into town).
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: November 30th, 2005 06:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I also like that JKR was sending this message herself in PoA; the first time that the kids live through Buckbeak's "death" as far as they know he IS dead ("as far as they know" being the operative words). The second time Harry and Hermione live through this time they know that he doesn't die because THEY SAVE HIM. They find out what REALLY happened.

And that's what happened all along. It never changed. They didn't alter reality; they FULFILLED it. I think Dumbledore knows all along that Buckbeak lives because he sees them rescuing him; but it's still a mystery to HIM how and why this occurs. He simply goes along for the ride and gamely stalls Mcnair and Fudge by taking so long to sign his name, so that they won't see what he saw. (This is my belief about this scene, at any rate.) It's only later that Dumbledore gets the full picture, too, and realizes that he needs to encourage Harry and Hermione to go back in time to do what he already saw them doing. (I doubt that he had any way of knowing, the first time, that they were time-traveling when they saved Buckbeak; I think he put it together later, when he considered that Hermione still had her Time-Turner so this was possible.)

I just wish more people would stop thinking that there are still different ways to interpret various passages in the earlier books; there were some things that used to be open to interpretation, yes, and once upon a time those folks were willing to say, "Yes, it could be my way or it could be your way, or it could be some other way," but now, even though we KNOW how to view many of these previously vague passages, they are INSISTING that ONLY their way of seeing those passages is valid and that this means that JKR screwed up by not writing the conclusions that THEY came to. Um, just no. Having more information should not mean that an incorrect interpretation becomes carved in stone; it should mean being able to discard erroneous interpretations.
artaxastra From: artaxastra Date: November 30th, 2005 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
This makes so much sense!

And it really makes me understand how important it might be (if I ever publish my Black Ships *fingers crossed*) that a couple of scenes stay in there even though they don't advance the plot. Because if there were a second book, those scenes would need to be there so the reader would go, "oh, yeah. I see that she tried to tell us that before."

Because nothing drives a reader crazier than canon that appears contradictory, rather than organic. Which is something JKR never does. When something seems like it comes out of left field, if you go back and read carefully it does seem like it was "supposed" to be that way all along.

Which is one reason I subscribe to the theory that the locket at Grimmauld Place is the horcrux that Regulus snitched before he was killed.
jennnlee From: jennnlee Date: November 30th, 2005 06:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is actually something I find very interesting, both as a writer and a reader. It's a great feeling to have the story go off in a new direction, or have characters brought into the story, and be able to go back and pick up a thread, even as small a thread as a motorcycle that someone rode, and be able to do something with it.

I experienced something like this when I wrote fanfic for The Mummy/The Mummy Returns. I introduced a bad-guy character with no idea who he really was, just started writing him by the seat of my pants. As time went on, he became the brother of a minor character in the first film. Except he looked nothing like the guy - I'd already described him as tall and blond, while the movie character was short and dark. But as it turned out, one of my characters had to bluff about having met the movie character, and when she blurted out "Why, you look just like him!", she was busted, the bad guy was pissed, and here comes the climax of the story. So it worked out great. :-)

I buy your theory on Owen keeping Luke's name, BTW. Makes sense to me.
agnes_bean From: agnes_bean Date: November 30th, 2005 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very interesting and very true post.

I’m reminded of Douglas Adam’s introduction to The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he explains that he had no real concept of where he was going with the later books, and when things fit together nicely he was just as surprised as the readers. Which I think is a great thing for him to admit, but it also doesn’t change the fact that once you read the later books, what they illuminate about previous events hold true, even when we know that wasn’t why the early books were written the way they were.

sparkly_stuff From: sparkly_stuff Date: December 1st, 2005 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Those things always seem to be left lying around. You can chalk them up to goofs or lazy writing, or you can come up with elaborate explanations, but either way, they don't change what we've learned about the underlying facts of the case.

So true! Thank you for writing this; I wish everyone could understand that.

I'm relieved to find that no one else knows why Sirius slashed the fat lady's portrait...I always thought it was just me and I had just missed some small detail. And I agree with you that it doesn't make much sense for Luke to have kept his name, but I think maybe it was necessary to write it that way to keep things from getting too complicated for the audience to keep up with.
story645 From: story645 Date: December 1st, 2005 03:38 am (UTC) (Link)
*bows* and fangirls. too tired for anything coherant
hymnia From: hymnia Date: December 4th, 2005 06:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very good point. The inability of some HP fans to "read backward" is what inspired me to drag out this quote from C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength recently:

"I suppose there are two views about everything," said Mark.

"Eh? Two views? There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there's never more than one."
From: _kneebiter Date: December 7th, 2005 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Maybe on Tatooine it's just the convention to name any sailor's son (so to speak) "Skywalker"? There is a busy port, and not a classy one. Stands to reason there would be a lot of kids like that.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 7th, 2005 06:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Hey, that makes lots of sense!
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