Tell me if you’ve heard this one: a naive, entirely benign young boy (let’s call him Harry) is betrayed by the last people he would have expected and whom he relied upon. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he is sent out to an infamous prison in the middle of the sea from which there is supposedly no escape.
In the prison, however Harry meets someone there who becomes a close and perhaps only companion. The friend educates Harry in a variety of subjects, helps piece together the truth about how he was framed, and assists in his escape, most likely dying in the process.
Presumed dead, he returns to his old stomping grounds many years later as mysterious, brooding, immensely wealthy and highly cultivated personality, completely changed in every way from how he used to be. He discovers that his betrayers have all become very rich and powerful, and sets about using their own evil pasts and tainted passions to enact an elaborate and cruel revenge on all of them. A complication is that their associates are, by and large, genuinely good people who Harry quickly numbers among his
friends harem. Plus, there’s that girl he left behind…
Sound familiar? It should. It’s a common plot line of the Harry Potter fandom. It usually happens after fourth year, which is about the book the fandom started disliking Dumbledore (which I find really unfair, since he had good reason for how he was acting in the book, but this isn’t the time for that. Maybe next time). As the old saying goes, ‘Hater’s gonna hate’, but they like giving in-story reasons for Harry to hate him as well.
This plot, however, is also exactly the plot of The Count Of Monte Cristo. If you only know it by the movie of the same name, trust me, either watch the Black and White version or read the book. It’s infinitely better.
While the “Harry Potter gets sent to prison/Azkaban” plot line is relatively old, the first known instance where someone connected the dots and said so out loud was during the fanfic Harry Potter and the Something Something, a mockfic/parody of Harry Potter Fanfic cliches by Legendary Legacy (normally I’d link right to the chapter in question, but it’s a good fic, and worth a read).
This seems to be a very strange instance of parallel plotline evolution. I have no data as to the reading habits of the Harry Potter fandom (beyond, of course, that they read Harry Potter, and even that is questionable because of the movies) but given the quality of some of the writing I’ve seen (I will not name names, as I want to be polite), some of those writers seem too young to have read Dumas’ doorstopper of a book (of course, I could be wrong. I read the count in high school, freely and of my own will. I thought, by the title, that he was a vampire. What? The only count I knew was on Sesame Street and Dracula). Of course, in this day of ‘wrongfully imprisoned’ storylines (The Fugitive, Prison Break, etc), there are other sources besides Dumas for the plot line.
In analysis, breaking down the storyline into its constituent parts/phases might be most helpful. First, the imprisonment. In these sorts of fanfics, Harry is always unfairly imprisoned, with a better than even chance he is betrayed by someone he trusted, usually Ron or Dumbledore (Ron, because some people find him, not without cause, annoying, and Dumbledore because he’s an authority figure, ad people don’t like him ‘controlling’ Harry). The stated reason for Harry being sent to prison never matters (it can be anything from murder, under aged magic and jaywalking), as long as he is unjustly sent. We’re usually supposed to hate those who “betrayed” him, especially if they’re in on the plot, especially if it IS a plot (a common reason for Dumbledore “betraying” him is because Harry can no longer be controlled. I’m sensing pubescent authority issues…).
There is, of course either a montage or block of paragraph about how demeaning this is. The graphicness of the violence varies, as well as the vindictiveness. It could be anything. I once found on where they cut off his arm just because (though it later becomes obvious this is just so the writer can give him a cool cyborg arm, and no other reason).
Then of course, IT happens. The Plotpoint. Perhaps he finds an ancient treasure map cunningly drawn into the stone of his cell with a snake’s tooth, so of course he’s the only one to notice up to now (because Parseltongue can do anything, not just talk to snakes. Silly ignorant reader, of course that’s not in the book, it’s dangerous information…). Perhaps there conveniently happens to be a Blackened Denarius possessed by a fallen angel in his cell. Or that he learns to be an Animagus and escapes. Or he learns how to be tough from a grizzled but kindhearted old convict (never mind that the only ones there would be Deatheaters… if HE could be unfairly imprisoned, so could others, doubtlessly also by the evil Ministry/Dumbledore/Ron). Or he finds Excalibur under his bed being used to prop it up. Or he finds an old priest who just happens to know about a treasure buried in the island of Monte Cristo…
The he escapes. Easily. So easily you wonder why he was stuck in there in the first place (ah, but of course! The guards, in addition to being evil, are also incompetent. Silly of me to forget). And then he becomes rich/powerful/sexy. And vengeance happens. The end. Or NOT end, if the writer tries to draw it out. Gotta get those reviews…
Okay, first, the imprisonment. As well as the thing that gets the whole story going, it’s also a fairly good barometer for the mood of the whole fic. But beyond that, it’s also usually the story’s excuse for any morally questionable/downright evil actions of the protagonist. It produces a strange feeling of entitlement in the lead. The system has failed them or outright turned against them, so now they are no longer beholden to it, or actively working to bring it down and humiliate it. It gives tacit karmic permission to screw the rules. Plus, the in-story miscarriage of justice somehow naturally overshadows any lawbreaking they themselves commit, or, in some instances, contrast sharply with how they don’t break the law but rather twist it into an N-dimensional pretzel to get what they want (for story reasons, beyond the initial bout of lawbreaking [if there is one] the authority figures/designated antagonists either never resort to the same tactics, or are comically ineffectual and/or out maneuvered when they try).
It all ties in, I suspect, with authority issues, whether in the story or in real life. Not that I mean anything anarchist. But the fear of authority, of the System, the Man, turning against you, when you feel you’ve done nothing to warrant it, is a very real fear, more so in some countries where it’s VERY likely to happen. The betrayal of close friends, even more so, because if you can’t trust anyone, who can you rely on? But entwined with this is the fantasy of defying authority, defying the System, the Man, because they turned against you first. That comes later, but the seeds for it are laid now, in the set-up of how trust is broken. Because people only bow to outside authority by consent. Sometimes fear is involved, what with police and ad,IRS and such, but generally, the government can only tell you what to do because you let them. You can stop at any time, and even if they threaten you back in line, obeying is no one’s choice but your own.
Huh, maybe there IS something anarchist going on here…
Next, the Plotpoint. We’ll gloss over the suffering montage because it’s usually only there to underline how evil the imprisonment is. The treasure map. The mentor. The magical/mystical/legendary/whatever Macguffin. The object of wish fulfillment. It’s a rare story of this sort that doesn’t have revenge as a motivation (by murder or humiliation, for preference), so that’s already a given, but this bit of writer-desire is usually how it is accomplished. It comes in many forms. Money. Power. Respectability/Prestige (amazing how Harry can find evidence of how he’s the reincarnation/Heir/long lost cousin/whatever of a Founder in a prison). But why settle for one? Most fics go with all three. The psychoanalyzing depends on the fic, but expressed wish fulfillment is expressed wish fulfillment. That’s always been one of the points, as such, of writing. To express what you want to have or happen.
Next, the escape. A more subtle bit of wish fulfillment, as a expression of what the author would do in this situation, but story-wise, sometimes it’s used to show who’s trustworthy. If Harry escapes unassisted, then he’s an avenge loner. If friends break him out of prison, he knows there are some who can be trusted. If he arranges to be broken out, same thing, except he has a more dominant role. It all boils down to social standing, I suppose. The feeling of alienation,of whether you have to do things alone or in company of others.
Finally, the revenge. It happens. Sometimes it’s long Nd subtle. Sometimes it’s swift and brutal. Either way, it never ends well for the characters the authors don’t like, even if they weren’t all that bad in the books. The only hard and fast rule is no one ever takes revenge on Luna Livegood. Ever. For any reason. Cause for some weird reason, everyone’s cool with her. I think she reminds then of Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe in early episodes of Friends…
I think I’ll stop here and not get into the harems, which is only shipping anyway.
So there we have it. Fear of authority and or betrayal. Wish fulfillment. An ascertaining of social standing/alienation. And the invincible Luna Lovegood. Near central to any Prisoner!Harry plot, and most appear in Dumas’ book (yes, probably even Luna. She can do things like that).
In conclusion, I’d like to take a moment to ruminate over this. Not everyone who writes this subgenre (and it IS big enough to be a subgenre) have like read of the Count. I think that this combination of betrayal, wish fulfillment and and vengeance is a recurring theme in human story telling. You don’t need to squint very hard to see it in Aladdin, or Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, or the story of Perseus. It’s just that the protracted tale of subtle vengeance, plots, and madness that is the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most well-developed, beautifully engineered examples. Still, I think it says something about humanity in general that this sort of story, of high intrigue and betrayal and power and power abused, should show up so strongly in a fandom like Harry Potter. Why does this particular storyline keep recurring, when it already has its own version in the canonical Sirius Black? It can’t be the lack of intrigue. Most of the books are, when you get right down to it, mystery-based conflicts (who is the Heir of Slytherin? Who is Voldemort’s agent in the Triwizard Tournament? Who is the Master of Death? What’s the big deal with the hall of prophecy?) every book has at least one traitor. And everyone can use magic, surely wish fulfillment in action.
So why? Why does this particular plot line keep recurring?
What, you expect an answer? I’m just a blogger, not God. Still, I think we should all sit down and wonder why the mistrust of authority, betrayal, power and vengeance speak so strongly to so many in such a fandom…