Essay: What Did Dobby Know?
by John Kearns, November 2009; substantially modified and updated August 2011.
When Dobby hits the scene in the second chapter of Chamber of Secrets, there’s a big mystery behind where he comes from, what he knows, and exactly what he’s divulging to Harry. Most of that mystery is resolved by the end of the year, of course, but on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that there are still a couple of loose ends hanging out there. And the closer we look at those loose ends, the more intriguing Dobby’s interactions with Harry become.
On the face of it, Dobby’s story is simple: he’s overheard Lucius discussing his plot to open the Chamber of Secrets; Dobby fears for Harry’s safety and comes to warn him that he’s in danger; Harry eventually figures out what’s happened and Dobby is freed. Straightforward enough, right?
Until you really start thinking about it. Because when you start to consider things like the laws governing house-elves, the precise nature of Dobby’s motives, or what exactly Dobby must have overheard (and when), it turns out there are some pretty large inconsistencies in Dobby’s story.
- How was Dobby able to stop Harry’s mail all summer without the Malfoys noticing his absense?
- How did Lucius know Ginny would be at Diagon Alley so he could give her the diary?
- What was so darned special about Ginny anyway, that Lucius would plot so carefully to give her the diary?
These sorts of issues can very nearly be satisfactorily explained. Many people, including yours truly, have made attempts to do so. But every time I’ve read one of these explanations, I’ve come away with a deep-down feeling that something still just isn’t right.
After a lot more thought, I’ve decided that the reason I’m not satisfied with these explanations is because we’ve all inadvertently ignored the key question of the entire situation:
Why does Dobby believe that Harry Potter is specifically in danger?
Because he has to believe that, doesn’t he? Why else would he go to so much trouble to warn Harry about it, and then try to prevent the poor kid from attending school?
The answer to this question, of course, lies in the conversations that Dobby overhears at Malfoy Manor. So let’s begin with a look at Lucius Malfoy.
The first sign we get that something funny is up with Lucius (aside from the fact that his house-elf is following Harry, anyway) is when Harry happens across him and Draco in Borgin and Burkes. He’s selling his Dark items, which is innocuous enough on the surface. But then he makes a very interesting comment:
”In that case, perhaps we can return to my list,” said Mr. Malfoy shortly. “I am in something of a hurry, Borgin, I have important business elsewhere today –“ (CS5)
Important business elsewhere? Then why do we see him an hour and a half later, still with Draco, hanging out at Flourish and Blotts?
It’s possible of course that his “important business” was at another shop or office (the Daily Prophet is headquartered in Diagon Alley…) and that he then continued his shopping afterward. It’s also possible that he was simply making an excuse that he thought would help his bargaining power with Borgin. But we later discover that while he was in Flourish and Blotts, Lucius did something that he would have considered quite important – he slipped Riddle’s diary in with Ginny Weasley’s schoolbooks, setting in motion the very chain of events that had Dobby so worried in the first place. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this is the important business he was referring to, especially given J.K. Rowling’s tendency to drop little hints like that in her writing.
But just what was Lucius’s plan here?
It’s clear that Lucius has a grudge against Arthur. And there’s a surface explanation that reflects this. Dumbledore himself provides it for us:
”But [Lucius] went ahead and carried out the old plan for his own ends; By planting the diary upon Arthur Weasley’s daughter, he hoped to discredit Arthur and get rid of a highly incriminating magical object in one stroke.” (HBP23)
This itself raises some funny questions. For one, if Lucius was intending to give the diary to Ginny, how did he know when she would be in Diagon Alley? For that matter, how does he even know that the girl exists, or that she’s starting Hogwarts this year?
There are explanations, of course – Lucius could have had someone in the Ministry do a little snooping for him, for example. It’s also fully possible that Lucius didn’t have any specific kid in mind, but simply went to Diagon Alley that day looking for a little Mudblood, and when he happened across the Weasleys decided in the moment to use Ginny instead. These explanations work, in the sense that they aren’t blatantly contradicted anywhere. But they still leave open questions.
Most important is that lingering question of Dobby. If Lucius has been plotting for months to give the diary to any old kid (or to Ginny, for that matter), then why is Dobby so intensely worried about Harry Potter? Does he just think Harry is that important, that he has to be protected from any danger, no matter how slight?
Hardly. Dobby didn’t show up when a notorious mass murderer was breaking into Hogwarts in search of Harry, did he? And during the Triwizard Tournament, he gave Harry gillyweed – which unquestionably put Harry in more danger than he’d have been in sitting on the banks of the lake!
It seems odd, doesn’t it?
So it’s worth considering the idea that everything may not be as it seems. In fact, there’s another explanation that fits the facts much better. And that fits Lucius much better. And that explanation happens to revolve around another Hogwarts student, who was roaming Diagon Alley on that same fateful day that Lucius slipped the diary to Ginny. A student who everything always seems to revolve around. And who Lucius’s servant had been following for months.
Lucius intended to give the diary to Harry Potter.
So why the heck would Lucius do that?
Lucius is a shining image of everything Slytherin. Every time we see him, he’s doing something to bring himself attention and power. He’s ambitious. He’s incredibly self-centered. And he’s cunning. If Lucius is trying to bump off Harry, you’d better believe it’s because he has something to gain from it. So what does Lucius stand to gain from killing Harry?
In his life as it is now, he doesn’t really gain much of anything. Maybe a few of his Death Eater buddies would be impressed, if that. But he certainly doesn’t end up with more power, money, or prestige than he currently possesses.
No, what Lucius stands to gain from Harry’s death revolves entirely around a hypothetical, but very real, possibility: what if Voldemort comes back?
The Death Eaters have to know it’s on the table. Voldemort openly bragged about making himself immortal before his disappearance – Bellatrix even shouted about it during her trial, well after he was gone.
And Lucius knows that if Voldemort comes back, the Dark Lord won’t be pleased with him. After all, he was supposed to be one of Voldemort’s most favored servants; yet in eleven years, despite having his freedom (unlike Bellatrix), Lucius has made a conscious decision not to help Voldemort return to power.
It makes sense that he wouldn’t want to, of course. Lucius has probably long regretted signing up as a Death Eater, given the prestige and power he holds in the wizarding world today. But the fact remains that if Voldemort shows up again, Lucius knows he won’t be at all pleased that it was without Malfoy assistance.
But: What if, in the meantime, Lucius has seen to it that Harry Potter has been killed? Using Voldemort’s own weapon, no less! What better way to get on Lord Voldemort’s good side than to say you were the one who finished off Harry Potter?
Lucius is hedging his bets. By killing Harry Potter, he’s ensuring that if Voldemort does return, he will once again be a most favored Death Eater. At the end of the day, the death of Harry (and knowledge that he’ll be in good shape for a potential return of the Dark Lord) is far, far more advantageous to Lucius than the death of Ginny Weasley, which is really just an underhanded blow in a petty feud. Of course Lucius wants to give that diary to Harry!
Granted, the timing seems a little funny. It’s not like Lucius doesn’t know when Harry is scheduled to start at Hogwarts. So why not enact this plan during Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, instead of waiting for his second?
Because this isn’t the first plan Lucius has concocted that revolves around Harry Potter. He’s beginning to sound a bit like Voldemort in this respect, no?
Consider what Snape later said about Harry, while talking to Bellatrix and Narcissa:
”I should remind you that when Potter first arrived at Hogwarts there were still many stories circulating about him, rumors that he himself was a great Dark wizard, which was how he had survived the Dark Lord’s attack.” (HBP2)
Lucius didn’t know how Harry had killed Voldemort; all he knew was that he was happy the Dark Lord had gone. When Harry and Draco were preparing for their first year at Hogwarts, it seems there was a very real possibility that Harry was destined to grow up to be a powerful Dark wizard himself (who would also defeat Voldemort if he did return).
From Lucius’s perspective, this was perfect. Not only might Harry get rid of his Voldemort problem for him, but Lucius was perfectly positioned for a powerful position in this new Dark wizard’s world order. After all, his son was in Harry’s class, and probably house, at Hogwarts.
So Lucius sent Draco to Hogwarts with explicit instructions to befriend Harry Potter.
How’d that work out?
At any rate, by the middle of the school year it’s clear that it doesn’t matter that Draco failed to befriend Harry; to the contrary, it’s apparent that Harry is decidedly not a Dark wizard of any type. He’s a Gryffindor, for crying out loud.
So it’s time for Lucius to resort to plan B. While Harry and Draco are still in their first year (“months” before the summer, just as Dobby describes), Lucius begins plotting to get the diary into Harry’s hands. The Chamber of Secrets will open; Harry will hopefully be killed; nobody in government will ever trace it to Lucius; and if Voldemort ever does return, he will know immediately who was responsible and reward Lucius. Heck, maybe Lucius can even get rid of Dumbledore in the process!
All Lucius has to do is get that diary into Harry’s hands. It’s simple enough; at some point the boy will have to go to Diagon Alley, and Lucius can bring Draco along so he has an excuse to get close to Harry while Draco needles him. He simply has to find out when Harry will be there. The easiest way to do that? Sending his servant to read the boy’s mail, of course.
So Lucius orders Dobby to spy on Harry, read his mail, and learn when he will be in Diagon Alley. It doesn’t occur to him to specifically forbid Dobby from talking to Harry, or from keeping Harry’s mail for that matter, because it wouldn’t have occurred to him that Dobby would want to. And Dobby, much the way Kreacher will years later, seizes the opportunity and uses it for his own ends, warning Harry that something is afoot.
Meanwhile, Lucius does meet up with Harry in Flourish and Blotts, just as planned. But then, his plans go completely awry:
“Clearly,” said Mr. Malfoy, his pale eyes straying to Mr. and Mrs. Granger, who were watching apprehensively. “The company you keep, Weasley … and I thought your family could sink no lower –”
There was a thud of metal as Ginny’s cauldron went flying; Mr. Weasley had thrown himself at Mr. Malfoy, knocking him backward into a bookshelf. (CS4)
Arthur Weasley, who Lucius Malfoy absolutely despises, goes and tackles him. In public. And in a fit of rage, Lucius decides last-minute to drop the diary not into Harry’s book, but into Ginny’s instead.
And everything backfires spectacularly. Harry thwarts Tom Riddle, Dumbledore is reinstated as headmaster, and Lucius is kicked off the board. And two years later, Voldemort returns, and Lucius’s downfall really begins.
It’s interesting to imagine what might have happened had Lucius not had a moment of Malfoy stupidity and changed his plan. Would Harry have fallen for the diary the same way Ginny did? Regardless, I think it’s safe to say Lucius will regret that particular moment of weakness for a long, long time.