Making a Prophet

The fiction: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, released 2001. Director: Chris Columbus. Props master: Barry Wilkinson.

The newspaper: Daily Prophet

Journalism doesn’t really start to be important to the Harry Potter series until around the fourth book — not coincidentally, this is after JK Rowling became famous and the newspapers started writing about her. But Rita Skeeter, bugging and Rowling’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry are some way off, because the Daily Prophet was still around in the Potterverse from the start. So, how do you make a newspaper stand out in a world where pictures can already move?

The answer, apparently, is to go mad with gothic typography.

After Harry has arrived at Hogwarts, he gets a Daily Prophet when the owls bring the morning post with breakfast. There’s been a break-in at Gringotts, the wizard bank.

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Gringotts appears to be the only wizard bank, so the idea that the Daily Prophet might be the only newspaper for wizards — I don’t recall ever hearing of another — is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Obviously, they have splashed with the news of the bank robbery.

The Prophet here has gone in for lots of blackletter — that’s the ornate, thick sort of typeface with lots of chunky serifs and, here, elegant swirls coming off the letters. It puts you in mind of medieval manuscripts that some poor monk spent weeks inking with a pen.

“Break-in at Gringotts” is a very functional headline but it’s hardly exciting. “GRINGOTTS ROBBED” would be more dramatic, “BURGLARS STRIKE AT BANK” would take out the bank’s name which, if there really is only one, would make sense anyway. It would also clear up the irritating repetition in that subhead, “Gringotts’ Security Breached”, which really needs some work.

It adds nothing to the existing headline; of course security has been breached at Gringotts if there was a break-in at Gringotts. That subhead, short though it is, could easily divulge that the vault had nothing inside. Keeping the letters to the same size in that three-line space, you could fit in a clunky-but-useful “Goblins: Hit vault was empty”, which also has the benefit of presenting the emptiness as a claim by the goblins, rather than one researched by the paper (which seems to be taking the claim as truth rather than PR spin, though it does turn out to be true).

The Prophet further eschews journalistic tradition with its opening sentence:

Believed to be the work of Dark wizards or witches unknown, Gringotts goblins, while acknowledging the breach, insist nothing was taken.

That’s two sentences awkwardly forced into one, and neither are any good. A more standard intro would run: “A SHOCK raid on Gringotts failed yesterday as the targeted vault was empty, claims the bank.”

The Prophet continues its story, without breaking sentences up with paragraphs as you might expect:

The vault in question had, in fact, been emptied the very same day.

This will make enough sense to the reader but as the story has yet to actually mention a vault, just the ambiguous “break-in” (which doesn’t necessarily mean a vault was raided), “in question” seems a little incongruous.

“But we’re not telling you what was in there, so keep your noses out if you know what’s good for you”, said a Gringotts spokesgoblin this afternoon.

Oh for spokespeople in this universe to be so direct. It would save us all so much time.

Gringotts now need to readdress their security system.

An obvious line to go down, although it’s veering close to editorialising in the middle of a news story. And I strongly disagree with Gringotts being treated as a plural noun — I would write “Gringotts now needs”, treating it as a single entity.

Goblin security specialists are combing the land for a better breed of security dragon to replace the now [presu]med useless existing ones. They are [    ] going as far aſ examining muggle [sec]urity systems.

Is that really a long S (or, to the lazy typist, just an f) in the Prophet, but only in that single instance of the whole article? It certainly looks like it:

as prophet

Gringotts need to get [an]other security system in place before any more breaches occur. Wizards, Witches all over the country are scratching their heads wondering how safe their money is in the so called safest wizard bank. Head Goblins are ur[ging] the wizard community for [calm.]

I don’t approve of the apparent capitalisation of “witches” or the omission of “and” before it, and I’d hyphenate “so called”. Again, it gets close to the point of offering an opinion on the news, but it is vague enough and true enough that I’d let it slide.

So while the Prophet’s reporting is non-traditional and inelegantly written — perhaps wizarding quirks or just the rush to get a late-breaking news story out — it does a good enough job of presenting the facts of the story.

What is more alarming, then, is the date in the Prophet’s masthead.

prophet date
Friday August 14 2001

Philosopher’s Stone, the film, came out in November 2001. It is quite reasonable to believe that whoever made up the Prophet prop did so in August of that year. There is nothing within the text of the film itself to dispute this date for when Harry reads the Prophet — the year is never mentioned, and no months are given.

Book fanatics will, however, be aware that Harry’s birthday is July 31, 1980 — he turns 11 and gets his Hogwarts letter, then, in 1991. (If you want to go even further down this disputed timeline between books and films, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which should begin in 1997, starts with Death Eaters attacking London’s Millennium Bridge — unsurprisingly not constructed until 2000.)

Furthermore, the school year at Hogwarts begins in September, so Harry wouldn’t even be receiving the August Prophet by the time he’s had his first few classes.

It’s possible that the Prophet is genuinely from August and somebody has made sure Harry got a copy a few weeks later, to clue him in on the break-in at the vault Hagrid and he had visited at Gringotts. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it could be Dumbledore’s doing. The mistaken year, however? Well I guess a muggle like me just wouldn’t understand.

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