When Jo first drafted the Black Family Tree, she wrote at the very top that “(there are many stories between the lines).” (BFT)
Indeed, a dozen years after the Black Family Tree was made available, the stories between the lines remain as elusive and intriguing as ever. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about those stories – I lead discussion meetups for The Group That Shall Not Be Named, and our last three have been about the Black Family, the Marauders (including Sirius), and fathers in HP. During my last pondering of the family tree, one date jumped out at me: the birth date of Walburga Black. 1925.
That date should set off all kinds of alarm bells for HP fans. Now, with the important caveat that this is assuming the Black Family Tree dates should be taken seriously as canon (math is not Jo’s strong suit), this can provide a wonderful explanation for a small mystery lingering in the HP books to this day.
If Walburga was born in 1925, that means she was at Hogwarts with Tom Riddle, a year or two ahead of him (depending on when in the year her birthday falls). And since Sirius says, “My whole family have been in Slytherin,” (DH671) Walburga was in the same House as Tom Riddle.
Thus, they must have interacted somehow during their time at Hogwarts – the charismatic younger ringleader and the “aristocratic” older girl. We know that Walburga never became one of Voldemort’s followers:
“Were — were your parents Death Eaters as well?”
“No, no, but believe me, they thought Voldemort had the right idea, they were all for the purification of the Wizarding race, getting rid of Muggle-borns and having purebloods in charge.”
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Whereas Walburga and Orion never became followers of Voldemort, they were happy to have Regulus join up. But as we know, Regulus grew disenchanted with the Dark Lord, and upon finding out about Slytherin’s locket and the cave, set out to destroy it. He left Voldemort a message, that included the sentence, “I have stolen the real Horcrux and intend to destroy it as soon as I can.” (HBP609)
The question that springs to mind is how Regulus, an eighteen-year-old, knew about Horcruxes. Recall that the very topic of Horcruxes is banned at Hogwarts, Dumbledore made sure that no one speaks of it and no books on the subject are available in the library. Lucius didn’t know about them, and nothing in the text indicates that Snape knew.
Unlike some writers I could mention, Jo does not make her story’s secrets open secrets just as soon as the protagonist learns of them. So how did Regulus come to know about this arcane and secret Dark Art?
Why, from dear old mum, of course! Walburga (and Orion) for that matter went to Hogwarts before Dumbledore was headmaster – the topic was still very much frowned upon, but information was available. Moreover, there seems to be a solid chance that Walburga had it straight from the snake’s mouth: Tom Riddle well could have told her.
We know that young Tom Riddle enjoyed making himself seem more impressive to his peers – adopting the name “Lord Voldemort” among his “most intimate friends” and so on. (CS314) And who would Tom Riddle want to impress more than an older Slytherin girl who came from the “toujours pur” Black bloodline? One fine day, he probably regaled her with tales of the awesome Dark magic he had done, and making a Horcrux would have been a crowning achievement.
Many years later, Walburga told Regulus about Horcruxes. We can’t guess exactly when or why – to arm Regulus with knowledge, as casual dinnertime conversation, or as a bedtime story – but it happened at some point. This is how an upstart Death Eater fresh out of Hogwarts found out Voldemort’s deepest darkest secret – a chat with mum!
Walburga’s Schoolyard Rival
Depending on the source one believes, this 1925 birthdate would also make Walburga the exact same age as McGonagall. (There are conflicting sources about McGonagall’s birth year. A 2000 interview said McGonagall was a year older than Tom Riddle, [“Professor McGonagall is a sprightly seventy” at the end of Goblet of Fire. J.K. Rowling’s live interview on Scholastic.com. October 16, 2000. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/1000-scholastic-chat.htm] which would make her the exact same age as Walburga. Pottermore retconned her to be a decade younger, but I take Pottermore with a giant grain of salt.) This presents a fascinating dynamic.
One has to wonder, were the two girls rivals? A haughty Slytherin “aristocrat” and an overachieving half-blood Gryffindor… one can see where they would clash. If there was indeed a rivalry, it’s amusing to think of Minerva entering Grimmauld Place when it was headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, seeing Mrs. Black’s portrait, and gloating over her former rival. If Mrs. Black attempted screaming insults at Minerva, Minerva would have shut her down in style, and I really need someone to write this fanfic.
The Madness of Mrs. Black
Kreacher uses an interesting turn of phrase in his tale of Slytherin’s locket: “his Mistress was mad with grief, because Master Regulus had disappeared, and Kreacher could not tell her what had happened.” (DH197) Given what we know of her portrait, it would appear “mad with grief” is not being used as a figure of speech here – Kreacher is speaking literally.
If one looks at the timeline, Walburga lost her entire family in a very short amount of time. In 1977, when Sirius was sixteen, he ran away from home. (OP111) No matter how antagonistic a mother’s relationship to her child, that kind of disappointment must be hard to stomach. Two years later, in 1979, Walburga lost both her husband and her remaining son – the latter, gone without a trace.
(Talk of stories between the lines, there has to be a good reason why Regulus and Orion died in the same year. We don’t know which one died first, though there is no mention of Orion in Kreacher’s Tale.)
It makes perfect sense that having lost her husband and sons in the space of two years would drive Walburga mad with grief – particularly if there was a vein of mental instability already present from pureblood inbreeding.
Walburga lived for six years after losing all her family. She was dealt another blow when her niece Bellatrix was incarcerated two years later. While we can’t know the specifics, it’s probable that Walburga was close to her nieces – their father was very young (13 when Bellatrix was born), so presumably their mother was too, and Walburga could have served as a mother figure for the girls.
That left Walburga alone with her grief and her house-elf in the House of Black. When considering that background, the portrait we see does not seem such an outlandish caricature after all.
Walburga in Future Stories
If Walburga was a Hogwarts contemporary of Tom Riddle, that would also place her as a contemporary of the mysterious Lestrange boy, whom I believe to be integral to the story of Fantastic Beasts. (Given what we now know of Crimes of Grindelwald, he could be either Newt’s son or Theseus’s, but I’m still confident in the rest of my theory in “Hippolytus… Lestrange.”) What was their relationship like? Did it inform Walburga’s feelings about Bellatrix marrying Rodolphus Lestrange? And most importantly, will we see a young Walburga in the Fantastic Beasts films?
Walburga being at school with Tom Riddle helps shed light on the story we know from HP, but it could also factor into future stories of the wizarding world. Frankly, I hope it does – not only will it flesh out someone I find to be a fascinating character, but it would also be a chance to wear my favorite HP cosplay!
Do you enjoy reading about Harry Potter? It may interest you to know that I’ve written a book about Dumbledore that is being published on July 31! If you’re in NYC, come join me at the launch party!