Here in the Lexicon, there are multiple essays on Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Snape, physical locations, creatures, and practically anything else you can name. And yet there is not one essay about one person whose fate is tightly linked to Harry’s, and who has been moving gradually but inexorably towards a more important position in the books: Neville Longbottom.
I think Neville becoming more important fits in just perfectly with how Rowling likes to develop characters and relationships. Consider Ginny, as discussed in several essays here: there are a number of hints in earlier books as to her “true” character, but she is kept in the background until Order of the Phoenix, and then brought fully front in Half-Blood Prince. Similarly, Neville starts out as basically comic relief—unable to catch his toad, constantly stumbling, forgetting (or messing up) spells, perpetually forgetting passwords, stepping in rather than jumping over the vanishing step, and on and on.
And yet . . .
And yet there are any number of clues that Neville is important that are developed early. We hear much more about Neville than, say, Dean or Seamus in Sorcerer’s Stone. Although used primarily as comic relief, Neville is very much a prominent character from the first novel on. And then in Order of the Phoenix, of course, we receive a huge bolus of hints pointing towards a much more central role for this son of two Aurors.
The obvious hints, of course, are the parallels between Neville and Harry. Other than by sheer chance, Voldemort might have thought Neville was “the Chosen One.” Neville was born at the same time as Harry (OP37). Like Harry, Neville has had high expectations placed on him (by his grandmother), although they are not, of course, of the same order. Harry didn’t know of his wizarding background until the letters from Hogwarts started arriving; Neville was thought to be a possible Squib up until about the same time (PS7). Neville too can see the Thestrals (OP21). And although they are still alive, Neville’s parents also suffered a horrible fate because of Voldemort (OP23).
In addition, Neville is in Gryffindor, rather than where we might expect (Hufflepuff). And despite his clumsiness, awkwardness, and shyness, he faces his fears again and again. Consider that it was Neville who was first chosen by Professor Lupin to face the Boggart—not Harry, or Hermione, but Neville (PA7). (And he successfully vanquishes it, a wonderful foreshadowing of his success in the D.A.) Neville goes with Harry and the rest to fight the Death Eaters at the Ministry (OP33). And though he struggles, he does not give up, and continues to try to fight even with a broken nose, even after he is hit by a curse (OP35).
It is also worth noting that only Hermione is seen as a superior student in Harry’s Defence Against the Dark Arts instruction. Indeed, Neville is the superior student in my view, in that he starts out much farther behind (only Harry had been a better D.A.D.A. student than Hermione), and reaches a point where he learns spells nearly as fast as Hermione (OP25) and gets an “Exceeds Expectations” in his D.A.D.A. O.W.L. (HBP9). Quite an achievement for a boy who keeps forgetting the House password (PA13).
As the books have moved along Rowling, while still keeping Neville in his “comedy relief” mode (for example, the Stinksap incident on the Hogwarts Express in OP10), shows us in many ways both subtle and obvious that Neville is advancing in knowledge and confidence. It is Neville who gets a date with a very popular Ginny to the Yule Ball (GF23). It is Neville who is arguably the best student at Herbology (such that Professor Sprout will be “delighted” to have him back in her N.E.W.T. class after he achieved an “Outstanding” in his Herbology O.W.L.) (HBP9). And finally, it is definitely worth noting that Professor McGonagall is encouraging and supportive of Neville pursuing a N.E.W.T. in Charms, against the wishes of Neville’s Gran, even to the point of saying that she will send Neville’s Gran an owl “reminding her that just because she failed her Charms O.W.L., the subject is not necessarily worthless.” (HBP9)
While in Rowling’s world heredity is hardly everything, and indeed it is shown numerous times that effort and concentration are more important, one should not dismiss the fact that both Neville’s parents were highly-regarded Aurors (OP23). And as far as Neville being determined, even Harry notices that, after the Christmas encounter in the locked ward at St. Mungo’s, “The news of his parents’ attacker’s escape had wrought a strange and even slightly alarming change in him . . . . he barely spoke during D.A. meetings anymore, but worked relentlessly on every new jinx and countercurse Harry taught them, his plump face screwed up in concentration, apparently indifferent to injuries or accidents, working harder than anyone else in the room.” (OP25)
And finally, I have a very hard time believing that the person who was perhaps the last to receive a wand from Ollivander (HBP7) is someone we can safely ignore as mere comedy relief. No; I think something’s coming for Neville, and I think it’s key.
Frankly, I believe that Rowling is engaging in one of her favorite past-times—employing misdirection (“Neville is a buffoon!”) to keep us from seeing what is right under our noses (“Neville and Harry’s destinies are linked”). I believe Neville will be a very important player in the final book. But of course, only time will tell.