Harry Potter hanky-panky

Book publishers' furtive change of a key detail in "The Goblet of Fire" has fans buzzing.

Topics: Harry Potter, Books,

To err is human. But to correct surreptitiously is fishy, especially to Harry Potter fans.

In July, careful British and American readers of J.K. Rowling’s children’s fantasy series took immediate notice of an error that appeared in the fourth installment, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” The mistake concerned the order of Harry’s parents’ emergence from villainous Lord Voldemort’s wand in the novel’s climactic scene. In the previous Potter books, Rowling makes it quite clear that Voldemort killed first James and then Lily Potter. In “Goblet of Fire,” however, the ghosts of the evil wizard’s victims emerge from his deadly wand, we are told, in the reverse order in which they were killed, yet James steps out of the wand before Lily.

This led many of Rowling’s most ardent fans to speculate that the discrepancy was intentional, a plot twist to be picked up in Harry Potter V, a notion that sent readers’ imaginations running wild and inspired innumerable theories. According to Brian Dorband, one of more than 500 members of the international HPforGrownups mailing list on eGroups, this has been a subject of discussion for months. The “list mom” for HPforGrownups, Penny Linsenmayer, says that members have been coming up with theories “ranging from the perfectly plausible to the insane.”

All of this conjecture, Potter fans now realize, is in vain. Recent editions of “Goblet of Fire” now describe Lily as emerging from the wand before James. In an e-mail to HPforGrownups members, Rowling’s British publisher, Bloomsbury, acknowledged that the order of the ghosts’ appearances in earlier editions was an error. “It was spotted by our editorial team in July, and corrected in subsequent editions,” explained the unnamed Bloomsbury representative, and “the difference in timing of corrections between editions, both our own and the U.S., is down to reprint timings.” While the news proved disappointing to Rowling’s fans, the way in which the correction was handled incited anger and frustration among list members.

“We were completely taken aback that (a) it was just a mistake, (b) the ‘correction’ was done silently, and (c) the ‘corrected’ passage reads very strangely,” writes list mom Linsenmayer. There was no mention of the correction in the press, and booksellers have neglected to bring the corrected editions to consumers’ attention, likely because neither Bloomsbury Publishing nor the Scholastic Press alerted them to the change. Dorband declares, “We are in quite a tizzy over it,” and confesses that list members have another theory. “We don’t believe that Rowling wrote this correction because, for one thing, Lily’s name is spelled wrong. They spelled it L-i-l-l-y. It comes out lame the way they changed it.”

Linsenmayer agrees. “It’s really not enough to simply change the pronouns and proper names to make Lily appear before James. I would say that most of us at HPforGrownups believe that it was a colossal mistake to have slipped by J.K. Rowling and the editorial staffs at both Scholastic and Bloomsbury. It was a passage that gave virtually all of us pause on the first read, and many of us have speculated that the release date for ‘Goblet of Fire’ contributed to several errors that should have been corrected with adequate editorial supervision and reasonable deadlines.”

Some Potter readers think that Scholastic and Bloomsbury should have allowed Rowling “a more creative way to write about it,” says Dorband. “We fully expected it would have been explained later on. And it wouldn’t have been a big deal.” Which leads HPforGrownups members to wonder, according to Dorband, “Did she actually correct it, or did she just say, ‘Oh jeez, we got it wrong. Go ahead and change the words’?” Neil Ward, a British member, thinks it must be the latter, because the correction in both the English and American editions is worded exactly the same; “it seems to me very unlikely that Bloomsbury and Scholastic would be able to agree on the same rewording without the author’s involvement.”

For now, these questions will have to go unanswered. Arthur Levine, Rowling’s editor at the Scholastic Press, refused repeated requests for comment.

Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonik

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