Harry Potter And The Problematic Portkey

This week, we’re back at it again with the books (although this one’s been made into a movie)! As you can probably guess from the title, we’re going to be discussing the Harry Potter series, specifically the fourth installment, Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire. You see, there’s something in this book (and the movie) that is both a pretty central plot point and… somewhat inconsistent. Early in the book, the characters are introduced to the concept of a Portkey, a single-use magical device that allows those who touch it it to be transported to a pre-determined location at a certain time, after which the object is entirely useless. However, later on in both renditions, Harry Potter is transported to a graveyard by a Portkey, unwillingly participates in Voldemort’s resurrection and duels with him, uses a summoning spell to pull the supposedly-useless Portkey to him, and… is transported back to Hogwarts. As you can imagine, this has made it something of an easy target for the plot-hole legions of the internet, who claim that this is an egregious mistake that ruins the logic and meaning of the story. But is this really true?

Well… maybe a little bit. Which is to say, in the substantive ways certainly not, but this is, undeniably an inconsistency. Rowling clearly establishes a rule of this particular kind of magic, then breaks come the end of the story. However, this is magic we’re talking about, and this is specifically magic performed by a cabal of wizards and witches known for their practicing of dark, strange, forbidden, and, when it comes to Voldemort, unnaturally powerful magic, so it’s not truly a plot hole explanation (thought it would be contrived) to argue this doesn’t break the established rules of the story to say “this is different because Voldemort made it!” And as an extra little aside, were any of you thinking about this little difference between the behavior of the Portkey and the stated rules of magic when you were first reading or watching this scene? Because I most certainly wasn’t.

One other thing to keep in mind here is that even if this moment truly presented a jarring incongruence that took us out of the story for a moment, it might have been worth it. You see, one of the things that Rowling actually gets very little credit for in her storytelling is how well the climaxes generally tie everything together and incorporate all the little bits of magic introduced throughout the year. In the fourth book, for example, Harry spent almost an entire chapter learning the summoning spell accio. In the graveyard climax, the Portkey that brought him there is just out of reach, requiring him to use that exact same spell, and providing an even more powerful payoff for that chapter we spent following his learning of the spell earlier. That scene also brings in Portkeys, the way spells generally interact with each other when they collide, and the past and present politics of the wizarding world, all of which were discussed or introduced earlier in that exact same novel. And having a Portkey able to work twice, so that it needs to be summoned to Harry in order to let him escape and also makes the entire scene possible is well worth it. Even if there was no logical explanation for the Portkey to function more than once, in other words, the scene this “plot hole” facilitates ties together and pays off so many of the narrative’s threads that it would be well worth a minor plot hole to see them.

One could argue, though, that this is a plot hole because the scene in question could have taken place anywhere, or that people could have come to rescue Harry instead of him transporting himself back to Hogwarts, either of which would have negated the need for a multi-use portkey. However, either of these would have robbed the scene of its resonance. After all, the symbology of the Portkey taking Harry back to Hogwarts, and the resulting shock delivered to the students because of that return, is incredibly powerful. What’s happening here is that a moment of joy and camaraderie and fun - the end of the Triwizard tournament and reveal of its winner - is being hijacked, transformed into something much more dark and somber and sinister: an announcement that Voldemort has returned and the death of a student. That, in turn, is the entire theme of the book and its place in the broader series: a signal that the carefree moments of Harry’s true childhood are over, and that the struggles and hardships of adulthood - literalized rather powerfully in the much more somber fifth installment of the seires - are being tragically thrust upon him at a too-early age. The second usage of the Portkey, in other words, allows this scene to function as a microcosm of the novel in a way that’s both incredibly emotionally powerful and thematically resonant. It takes the liberties it has to in order to create the most engagement possible with the audience, doing exactly the opposite of what true plot holes do. In short then, this mistake is a plot hole in name only. While it does genuinely force the story to contradict something it had earlier established, it does so in service of more important things than strict logic such as theme and emotions and story, and does so in a way that doesn’t break our engagement with the narrative. By making this “mistake”, Rowling shows us that she knows exactly how stories work, and what matters when it comes to telling a good one.

Next week, we go somewhere else that won’t force me to use my younger brother’s name every paragraph. Where? You shall see.

With excitement and optimism,