So, this article is going to be very different to my usual style! I normally write in a much more mainstream manner, but this is gonna change it up a bit. Alongside running this website, I also study a Creative Writing Masters. I recently had to write an essay on any topic of my choice as long as it had a literary angle. Seriously, I was given free rein to pick any topic of my choice. In the end, I decided that there’s no series that means more to me than this one, and so I chose to explore the use of foreshadowing in Harry Potter. I thought that some of you might be interested to read more about it, hence why I’m publishing it here. It’s going to be an absolute nightmare for SEO, but I figure that’s not the priority here. So sit back, grab a cup of tea, and learn all about this fascinating literature technique. And don’t worry, I checked with my professor, and I’m allowed to publish this online!
Also, just a heads up, this does contain several spoilers, so don’t read if you haven’t finished the series. It also primarily uses examples from the books, but the movies do come into it at times.
The Use of Foreshadowing in the Harry Potter Series (Essay)
Harry Potter is the global phenomenon that nobody could’ve predicted. J.K. Rowling was a previously unheard of author, but Bloomsbury saw something special in her, “The whole of Bloomsbury was galvanised by excitement about the book, and began a campaign to spread the word” (The British Library, 2017, p. 20). Despite the odds, her debut series became the best-selling book series of all time, having sold over 500 million copies (Investopedia, 2020). In 2001, I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), and my perspective on stories changed forever. I’d always loved reading, but never before had I come across a world as magical or enticing. Harry Potter spoke to me in a way I’d never before experienced, and it formed a core part of my personality. This was a world full of fantastical creatures, compelling characters, and wondrous settings. This was a world full of powerful plot arcs and impactful decisions. This was a world that I could escape to again and again. Rowling employs many literary devices that allow fans to enjoy reading the series repeatedly. However, my favourite of these techniques is foreshadowing, and of that, there is plenty.
Foreshadowing has been used for thousands of years in the storytelling devices of various civilisations, as far back as the ancient Romans, and further still. There’s even evidence of foreshadowing in the Mesopotamian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh which was originally written circa 2,100 BC. Foreshadowing involves “letting the reader in on small amounts of information, but not enough to reveal the entire plot, thus creating suspense”, (Staals, K.M., 2017). When done correctly, it creates layers of nuance to a story, beyond just that which is immediately apparent. It can prepare the reader for what is to come, and allows them to try and predict future plot points. When the foreshadowed event comes to fruition, it can evoke similar emotions to when the idea was first introduced. “Foreshadowing is also a great tool to prepare your reader emotionally for big reveals”, (Masterclass, 2021). It’s a technique that needs to be expertly woven throughout a story to increase the payoff when large twists are eventually revealed.
Foreshadowing is different from a plot point, the latter being explicitly stated, and something that the audience knows is relevant. For example, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), the Philosopher’s Stone is mentioned early on, but this formed a key part of the plot, and the intent was clear on a surface level. Foreshadowing not only enhances the initial experience, but allows for more enjoyment on a reread, as the reader will be more attuned to discover examples as they’ll know the later plot relevance. In one study, researchers investigated the effects of foreshadowing techniques on what they refer to as ‘sentimental readers’, that is, readers who are emotionally invested and make active efforts in their reading experience (Bae, B.C. et al., 2013). They deduced that there are two main methods of including foreshadowing, ‘advance notice’ and ‘advance mention’. They claimed that both serve a separate purpose from a narrative perspective, and that when done correctly it can evoke suspense and direct (or misdirect) the reader to future events. For this essay, I’m going to look at specific examples of foreshadowing across the seven Harry Potter books.
Professor Trelawney often seemed rather kooky, and her Divination lessons did little to convince that she really possessed mystical powers of foresight. However, over the course of the seven books, she makes several prophecies that do indeed come true. Of these, her most famous prediction is tied to the overall plot arc of the series. There’s one line in particular that’s heavy in future relevance, “neither can live while the other survives”, (Rowling, 2003, p. 841). Although it’s correctly interpreted by Dumbledore and Harry as meaning that one of them (Harry and Voldemort) will have to kill the other in the end, it actually goes much deeper than that. The specific word choices used by Rowling foreshadow the interconnectedness that we’ve seen between Harry and Voldemort throughout the series. She doesn’t say something akin to ‘one must kill the other’, she deliberately states that neither one will be able to ‘live’. Living is not the same as surviving, which is why both words are used in the quotation. Living is about more than just being alive. It’s about thriving, being able to exist without barriers. If the prophecy were just about the fact that Harry and Voldemort would one day face off against one another, it would not account for their intense relationship with one another. Instead, their fates are literally intertwined, and the prophecy foreshadows the depths of that. Harry and Voldemort meet repeatedly, clashing but never dying. They are unable to live their lives without encountering each other. This comes to a head in the book prior to this prophecy being revealed, where Voldemort literally uses Harry’s blood to resurrect himself. This, in combination with Trelawney’s prediction, foreshadows the greatest twist of the entire series – that Harry himself is a horcrux. Voldemort has a part of Harry inside of him, which hints at the fact that Harry also contains a part of Voldemort.
Whilst the previous prophecy is very obvious, and practically begs the reader to consider it more deeply, this next prediction is subtler. It’s played off as a throwaway line, one that seemingly holds no significance. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Professor Trelawney refuses to sit at the Hogwarts Christmas dinner, claiming that “when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die,” (Rowling, 1999, p. 165). There appear to be twelve at the table in this scene, however, Ron is carrying his pet rat in his pocket, who is later revealed to be the animagus form of Peter Pettigrew, thus making their group thirteen. Dumbledore rises to give his seat to Trelawney, and he indeed ends up being the first of those present to meet his untimely death, as he is murdered by Snape in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005).
An interesting observation is that names have significance in the Harry Potter lore. Some names hint at a person’s characteristics, such as Minerva McGonagall being named after the Roman goddess of wisdom. Others are simply a joke, such as Neville Longbottom, whose amusing name reflects his being the comic relief of the books. However, some names actually foreshadow details of that character, and when deciphered, reveal a character’s secrets.
A great example of this is Professor Remus Lupin. At the end of the third book, Lupin is revealed to be a werewolf, but there are two clues to this hidden in his name. Remus was the name of one of the fabled founders of Rome. In the story, brothers Romulus and Remus were abandoned to be drowned in a river, but were discovered by a mother wolf who raised them as her own, (Brittanica, 2020). The surname Lupin is also significant, as the Latin word for wolf is ‘canis lupus’, of which ‘Lupin’ is clearly derived. With both of his names being related to wolves, this foreshadows his being a werewolf, especially when combined with the several hints throughout the series, such as his boggart being mistakenly perceived as a crystal ball (which represented the moon), and Professor Snape doing a lesson on werewolves during the full moon. There’s one other interesting point to note about Rowling choosing the name Remus instead of Romulus. In the original Roman story, Romulus actually kills his brother so that he can be the sole ruler of Rome, (Brittanica, 2020). Just like the original Remus was betrayed by his brother, Remus Lupin was betrayed by a man whom he considered his brother, as Lupin discovers that Peter Pettigrew was the traitor responsible for James and Lily’s death.
Another fantastic example of names foreshadowing reality is the case of Sirius Black. In astronomy, “Sirius is well known as the Dog Star, because it’s the chief star in the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog”, (EarthSky, 2021). Not only is the name Sirius synonymous with dogs in general, but specifically the ‘Big Dog’. When combined with his surname, Sirius is ‘the big black dog’. Throughout the third book, Harry frequently sees a big black dog watching him, and assumes it to be The Grim, an omen of death. Towards the end of the book, it’s revealed that Sirius is an animagus, and it was actually he who was the dog. However, astute readers could have surmised this using the name as a clue.
One of my favourite scenes in terms of foreshadowing is the moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) when Mrs Weasley encounters a boggart. “No!’ Mrs Weasley moaned. ‘No … riddikulus! Riddikulus! RIDDIKULUS!’ Crack. Dead twins…” (Rowling, J.K., 2003, p. 176). In this scene, we see Mrs Weasley become visibly shaken when dealing with a boggart, as it keeps morphing into images of her dead children. This is the same Mrs Weasley who, up until this point, is always portrayed as being very strong and in control. She’s always unofficially been the head of her household, and we’ve never seen her out of her depth. Yet in this scene, she’s unable to face a creature that even third year school students can defeat because her fear is so all-encompassing. This scene demonstrates just how fiercely she loves her children, and prepares readers for the emotional impact that losing one of her children would have. This scene foreshadows Fred’s death inthe final book as what Mrs Weasley saw with the boggart actually came to pass in reality. Knowing what comes next makes the boggart scene so much more powerful on a reread, as it evokes the emotions we felt at Fred’s actual death. The movie excludes this particular scene, and as such, whilst still heart-breaking, Mrs Weasley’s grief elicits less of an emotional response than it does when reading it. For me, this is a clear demonstration of how powerful foreshadowing can be as a means of evoking emotions in the reader.
There’s a precedent throughout Harry Potter for fears having relevance to future events. Ron reveals that he has a phobia of spiders after he sees them scuttling away from Mrs Norris’ petrified body. Later in that very same novel, he encounters his fear on a massive scale, as he faces Aragog, the leader of the acromantula colony in the Forbidden Forest. Similarly, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Harry’s boggart reveals that he has a fear of dementors. Throughout the novel, he has confrontations with the fearsome creatures, each one having a devastating effect. All these encounters with dementors foreshadow the moment when he’s attacked by an entire swarm of them. However, just like Harry survives all the previous encounters, he too survives this ultimate culmination of everything that has been foreshadowed throughout the book. Fears play a central role throughout the series, both in terms of how they set the tone of the scene, and how characters approach them (Mugglenet, 2019). Indeed, the core theme of the story is essentially about fear vs courage. Voldemort’s fear of death leads to him committing atrocious acts to create horcruxes to extend his life, but also ultimately leads to his own destruction as his fear blinded him. Meanwhile, from the moment Harry chooses to be in Gryffindor, he makes a conscious decision to be courageous, and he continues with that bravery throughout the series, with that being the very thing that allows him to gather the strength to defeat Voldemort. With fear being such an integral part of the story, it’s very clever how Rowling uses it as a literary technique in combination with foreshadowing to give more meaning to certain moments.
One of the saddest scenes in the entire series is found in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003) when Sirius is murdered. This is devastating to read about as he’s the closest thing that Harry has to a father figure, and their relationship is integral to Harry feeling a connection to his own parents. However, it’s made even more poignant upon a reread where eagle-eyed fans will discover that his death is foreshadowed several times within the book. The first hint that readers gets comes in Chapter Four, “The others’ hushed voices were giving Harry an odd feeling of foreboding; it was as though they had just entered the house of a dying person” (Rowling, 2003, p. 60). As we soon learn, Sirius is the one who owns the house, and therefore Harry’s observation foreshadows that Sirius is not long for this world. But that was merely the first clue, and the second one is a lot more sinister. Fred and George turn 17 in this book, which means they’re allowed to use magic outside of school, and they take full advantage of this fact. They’re messing around with spells inside the Black family house, when this haunting line occurs, “… the bread knife slipped off the board and landed, point down and quivering ominously, exactly where Sirius’s right hand had been seconds before,” (Rowling, 2003, p. 83-84). There is a well-established precedent within literature for knives being an allegory for death, and the fact that Sirius only narrowly missed out on being struck by the knife shows how close he is to his final hour. The relationship between knives and death spans a wide history. There’s the obvious face value of it – knives are sharp and dangerous, and can easily kill you, but there’s also more to it from a symbolic point of view. In Anglo-Saxon culture, they would bury their dead with a knife so as to leave the deceased with a weapon with which they could defend themselves in the afterlife (Sunsigns, 2021). Even in modern media, knives have a strong connection to death, a theme which is explored in the movie Knives Out (2019). The movie is a murder mystery with many gruesome twists and turns, and knives are featured as heavy symbolism throughout, indicating deception, danger, and foreboding. Similarly, in the aforementioned book scene, the knife that nearly struck Sirius represents his forthcoming murder.
As I mentioned earlier in the essay when discussing Professor Trelawney’s prophecies, it was said that the first person to arise from a table of thirteen would be the first of that party to meet their end. During one scene in the fifth book, the members of the Order of the Phoenix are dining together in Grimmauld Place, and Sirius stands up to leave first. This could be seen as ominous due to Trelawney’s previous warning, and by this point in the series it was established that she was indeed a true seer. But, arguably, the hardest hitting of all the scenes foreshadowing Sirius’s death is this next one. In Chapter 24 of the same book, we read this line, “Harry had an unpleasant constricted sensation in his chest; he did not want to say good-bye to Sirius. He had a bad feeling about this parting,” (Rowling, 2003, p. 523). This scene ends up being the very last time that Harry sees Sirius before witnessing Sirius’s murder in Chapter 35. Harry’s stated anxiety sets the tone for how the reader reacts to the sentence. Harry’s sense of foreboding mirrors how the reader feels when they encounter that line. It makes the reader question why Rowling has placed such an emphasis on Harry’s farewell to Sirius as they’d said goodbye plenty of times prior to this, and it had never been described so hauntingly. Of course, upon a reread, it becomes clear why Harry has such a bad feeling, and it makes the line all the more harrowing.
Death is a central theme to the series, and is used to frame Harry’s experiences and character development (Brown, H. D., 2017). Sirius’s death in particular affects Harry the most, and in the following months after the incident, Harry’s personality goes through dramatic shifts. He struggles to manage his rage, withdraws from his friendships, and becomes much moodier. As such, it makes sense that of all the deaths in the series, Sirius’s death is the one that Rowling chose to foreshadow the most. It affected Harry deeply, and by including so many scenes leading up to the incident, she ensured that it also had a strong effect on the reader to match Harry’s experience. Foreshadowing is here used not only as a technique to create more emotional impact, but also to form a connection between the reader and the protagonist. We can feel Harry’s grief more deeply because we’re seeing all the signs of Sirius’s forthcoming murder and that makes it more tragic once it finally arrives. A study by Jensen, J. D., et al. (2017) showed that participants are more affected by deaths when that moment is foreshadowed. In this case, participants were more likely to make an active effort to protect their own health when they read about a fictional character who died of melanoma if that character’s death was foreshadowed throughout the story. This demonstrates that foreshadowing creates a more engaging story, and makes readers feel more connected to what’s going on.
As you can see from the above examples, foreshadowing is a recurring technique throughout the series, and there were countless other scenes I could have written about. Rowling wove together an intricate narrative fuelled by excitement and character development, with literary devices being the glue that held it all together. The imagery and symbolism found throughout the books is exceptional, and as I’ve demonstrated throughout this essay, foreshadowing in particular is impactful to the reader in a way that could not be replicated on a screen. Although the movies are undoubtedly a stellar addition to the world of Harry Potter, they could never hope to evoke the same response as the written word. They have to squeeze an entire book into a feature length film, and as such, many scenes from the books do not make an appearance. Amongst those scenes that are cut are many examples of foreshadowing, meaning that when the event comes to pass, the pay-off is less rewarding than it is in the books.
In a movie, it’s harder to notice foreshadowing even when it is present. There’s always so much going on in the sets as the production team have to create a compelling backdrop for the action. Therefore, whilst some props will have significance, others are merely there to create ambience. Contrast that with the books, where every word is deliberately chosen or excluded. Rowling decides how much of a scene she will describe, and therefore the reader pays more attention to the specific details. Consider Chekhov’s gun; “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off,” (Screencraft, 2021). This explains that any choices you make must have relevance, and Rowling has clearly followed this rule. There are so many lines that seem innocuous at first glance, but contain glorious foreshadowing when further investigated. As Bae, B. C. (2013) explained, a conscientious reader picks up on these clues, and it leads to greater comprehension and interest in the text. This is especially true upon a reread, and every time I return to the series, I discover something new that I missed the previous time. Foreshadowing contributes to a deeper experience and expanded lore, and I truly believe that the Harry Potter series would not have enjoyed the same amount of success had Rowling not fully utilised this powerful literary technique.
Investopedia (2020, November 19). The top selling book series of all time. https://www.investopedia.com/highest-selling-book-series-5087534
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Staals, K. M. (2017). Symbolism and coherence: Harry Potter and the magic of symbolism in the narrative [Unpublished manuscript] (p. 27). Faculteit der Letteren, Radboud University.
Masterclass (2021, August 25). Writing 101: Foreshadowing definition, examples of foreshadowing, and how to use foreshadowing in your writing. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-foreshadowing-foreshadowing-literary-device-tips-and-examples#what-is-foreshadowing
Rowling, J. K. (1997). Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
Bae B.C., Cheong Y.G., Vella D. (2013). Modeling foreshadowing in narrative comprehension for sentimental readers. In: Koenitz H., Sezen T.I., Ferri G., Haahr M., Sezen D., C̨atak G. (eds) Interactive Storytelling. ICIDS 2013. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 8230. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02756-2_1
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Rowling, J. K. (2000). Harry Potter and the goblet of fire. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
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Brittanica (2020, December 9). Romulus and Remus. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Romulus-and-Remus
EarthSky (2021, February 7). See Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. https://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/sirius-the-brightest-star/
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Rowling, J. K. (1998). Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
Mugglenet (2019, May 30). Fear need not frighten: “Harry Potter” and the fight against fear. https://www.mugglenet.com/2019/05/fear-need-not-frighten-harry-potter-and-the-fight-against-fear/
Sunsigns (2021, June 17). Knife symbolism: Love and relationships. https://www.sunsigns.org/knife-symbolic-meaning/
Johnson, R. (Director). (2019). Knives Out [Film]. T-Street.
Brown, H.D. (2017). Harry Potter and the meaning of death. [Unpublished manuscript]. The Cupola Scholarship, Gettsyburg College.
Jensen, J. D., Yale, R. N., Krakow, M., John, K. K., King, A. J. (2017). Theorizing foreshadowed death narratives: Examining the impact of character death on narrative processing and skin self-exam intentions. Journal of Health Communication, 22:1, p. 84-93. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2016.1252816
Screencraft (2021, July 29). Everything you need to know about Chekhov’s gun. https://screencraft.org/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-chekhovs-gun/
Congratulations if you made it this far! I know it’s a long essay, but hopefully you found it as fascinating as I do. It’s not my usual style of content, but I know I would have loved something like this when doing my research, so my hope is that it can not only be a source of interest for fans, but also a source of inspiration for fellow students. My hope is also that Google doesn’t punish me too hard for ignoring every aspect of SEO (in order to preserve the integrity of the essay) and end up dropping me in their rankings!
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I’d also like to clarify that although I still love Harry Potter as a series, I 100% disagree with Rowling’s comments about transgender individuals. Screen Hype is an inclusive space where everyone is welcome, and bigotry will never be supported or tolerated.