“Fifty years ago, at daybreak, on a fine summer’s morning … “
That’s from chapter one of Goblet of Fire, as you probably already knew. That’s when Tom Riddle Senior and his parents were mysteriously killed in their mansion near Little Hangleton. Frank Bryce, the caretaker, was accused but not charged, since there was simply no evidence of murder. Frank stayed on to take care of the big old house for the next half a century.
When Goblet of Fire came out, we fans had worked out that the stories were taking place in the early part of the 1990s. The date on the cake at Nearly-Headless Nick’s 500th Deathday party gave us that clue. That put the beginning of Goblet of Fire as happening in the summer of 1994 and the attack in Little Hangleton fifty years before, in 1944.
But of course, the text never says that it’s happening exactly fifty years before, and more clues in the next books revealed that the date was actually a year or two earlier. Fans have debated just what year it was. After all, this was a very important event in the timeline of Tom Riddle’s transformation into Lord Voldermort. It was from this multiple homicide that Riddle created his first Horcrux, using the ring that he stole from his degenerate grandfather on his mother’s side, Marvolo Gaunt.
The single most telling clue comes from the 17th chapter of Half-Blood Prince, where we find this passage:
All he had to go upon was the single name ‘Marvolo,’ which he knew from those who ran the orphanage had been his mother’s father’s name. Finally, after painstaking research, through old books of Wizarding families, he discovered the existence of Slytherin’s surviving line. In the summer of his sixteenth year, he left the orphanage to which he returned annually and set off to find his Gaunt relatives (HBP17).
We learn from the memories Dumbledore shared with Harry, that it was on this excursion that Tom murdered his Muggle father and grandparents. So it was in the summer of his sixteenth year.
So why the debate? Pretty straightforward, right? Except many fans have made the mistake of assuming that this meant the summer when he was sixteen years old, which would be 1943. But that’s not what it says. It says “his sixteenth year.” That means his sixteenth year of life. Since he was born on the very last day of the year 1926, his first year of life would be 1927, and during that entire year he was age zero. Every year following, the same holds true: he would be one year old for his entire second year of life, two years old for his third year of life, and so on. This is true for everyone, obviously, and since Tom was born on the very last day of 1926, it so happens that his years of life match actual years.
Follow that pattern up another decade and a half and you arrive at Tom Riddle’s sixteenth year — the year 1942. So that’s the year he killed his Muggle father and grandparents and created his first Horcrux. He was fifteen years old, not sixteen. What that means is that if Rowling had been trying to be accurate in the first chapter of Goblet of Fire, she would have written “Fifty-TWO years ago, at daybreak, on a fine summer’s morning … “
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Music: "Winter Chimes" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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