On the face of it, Dobby’s story is simple: he’s overheard Lucius discussing his plot to open the Chamber of Secrets; Dobby fears for Harry’s safety and comes to warn him that he’s in danger; Harry eventually figures out what’s happened and Dobby is freed. Straightforward enough, right?
Until you really start thinking about it. Because when you start to consider things like the laws governing house-elves, the precise nature of Dobby’s motives, or what exactly Dobby must have overheard (and when), it turns out there are some pretty large inconsistencies in Dobby’s story.
How was Dobby able to stop Harry’s mail all summer without the Malfoys noticing his absense? How did Lucius know Ginny would be at Diagon Alley so he could give her the diary? What was so darned special about Ginny anyway, that Lucius would plot so carefully to give her the diary? These sorts of issues can very nearly be satisfactorily explained. Many people, including yours truly, have made attempts to do so. But every time I’ve read one of these explanations, I’ve come away with a deep-down feeling that something still just isn’t right.
After a lot more thought, I’ve decided that the reason I’m not satisfied with these explanations is because we’ve all inadvertently ignored the key question of the entire situation:
Why does Dobby believe that Harry Potter is specifically in danger?
Because he has to believe that, doesn’t he? Why else would he go to so much trouble to warn Harry about it, and then try to prevent the poor kid from attending school?
The answer to this question, of course, lies in the conversations that Dobby overhears at Malfoy Manor. So let’s begin with a look at Lucius Malfoy.
The first sign we get that something funny is up with Lucius (aside from the fact that his house-elf is following Harry, anyway) is when Harry happens across him and Draco in Borgin and Burkes. He’s selling his Dark items, which is innocuous enough on the surface. But then he makes a very interesting comment:
”In that case, perhaps we can return to my list,” said Mr. Malfoy shortly. “I am in something of a hurry, Borgin, I have important business elsewhere today –“ (CS5)
Important business elsewhere? Then why do we see him an hour and a half later, still with Draco, hanging out at Flourish and Blotts?
It’s possible of course that his “important business” was at another shop or office (the Daily Prophet is headquartered in Diagon Alley…) and that he then continued his shopping afterward. It’s also possible that he was simply making an excuse that he thought would help his bargaining power with Borgin. But we later discover that while he was in Flourish and Blotts, Lucius did something that he would have considered quite important – he slipped Riddle’s diary in with Ginny Weasley’s schoolbooks, setting in motion the very chain of events that had Dobby so worried in the first place. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this is the important business he was referring to, especially given J.K. Rowling’s tendency to drop little hints like that in her writing.
But just what was Lucius’s plan here?
It’s clear that Lucius has a grudge against Arthur. And there’s a surface explanation that reflects this. Dumbledore himself provides it for us:
”But [Lucius] went ahead and carried out the old plan for his own ends; By planting the diary upon Arthur Weasley’s daughter, he hoped to discredit Arthur and get rid of a highly incriminating magical object in one…