Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”

Well, here it is, the second installment of my adventures in re-reading Harry Potter.  Today, I wanted to talk about the second volume in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this book has aged, as well as how compulsively readable it is.  It now occurs to me that it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that this series became the phenomenon that it did; these books pull you in and they don’t let go until the very end.

What struck me anew as I read this second book was how very much of a mystery it was, in the sense of leading us inevitably toward the revelation of a deep history that was there right in front of us all along.  I’ve often found that these books in particular operate on a number of textual levels; while you can certainly enjoy them as individuals and in the moment, it is only when you finish both the novel and the series that the true genius of the construction comes to light (I find this to be even more true for Prisoner of Azkaban, but I’ll get to that in my next post).

I also particularly enjoy how this novel does not shy away from the darker side of the wizarding world.  Although we got a glimpse of it with Quirrel and Voldemort in the first novel, now we really get a sense of the great fissures that still exist in the magical realm, particularly concerning wizarding blood and bloodlines.  Naturally, this is a commentary on the deep-rooted classism that still exists in much of British society, but it is also a potent wake-up call to any sort of eugenics movement that stresses the importance of blood.  It also serves as an important reminder that even a world as seemingly halcyon as the wizarding one has its ugly parts as well.

Although Harry is ostensibly the hero and star of this book, I actually found Tom Riddle to be the most compelling part, partially because at this early stage he is still something of an enigma, both to Harry and to us as readers.  We don’t yet know all of the things that led him down the dark road that he would eventually travel.  What we do realize, however, is the uncomfortable similarities that exist between Harry and his nemesis.  While of course, as Dumbledore reminds Harry (and us as readers), it is the choices one makes that determine one’s fate, it still is worth considering just how deeply runs the darkness in all of us, and how much we must continue to fight against our own baser natures to forge a more just and peaceful society (which seems, in the end, to be what Harry and his friends are seeking).

What really sticks with me, however, is just how much this book doesn’t answer.  I am still uncertain just how much Lucius Malfoy knew about the diary that he snuck into Ginny’s possession.  Certainly, he knew that it had great power, but just how much did he know of the charms that had been put upon it?  After all, he was one of the most powerful of the Death Eaters and was part of Voldemort’s inner circle, so it’s entirely possible he knew that it had some greater purpose than merely being charmed.  Of course, Lucius would never be so foolish as to reveal that knowledge to anyone, and it’s a testament to Rowling’s skill with he characters that she doesn’t reveal too much of his hand either.  There are times, it appears, when it’s better not to know all of the information.

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Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

On a whim, I recently decided to start re-reading all of the Harry Potter novels from the beginning (since it’s now been over a decade and a half since the first one debuted).  I also thought it might be worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts as I go through, noting how my perspective on these novels has changed (or hasn’t) in the 13 years that have passed since I started reading them (I began them when I was still in high school).

I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by how well these books have aged.  As I dove in to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was prepared to be met with the same sort of sticky sweetness that clings to the first film (which I had seen more recently than I had read the book).  What I encountered, however, was a novel that could literally appeal to both young people and adults (however tremulous that distinction is).  The characters and their relationships are well-thought out, and there is a definite menace to the appearance of Lord Voldemort that hints at the dark and perilous things to come in Harry’s future.

What stood out most to me, however, was the very queerness of what I was reading.  I know that my 17 year old self (no less queer than my 30 year old self, mind, but less aware of queer subculture) would probably not have picked up on this, but there are definite echoes between the wizarding world and those queer subcultures that have existed in most parts of the world.  Much as queers have been forced to keep their existence a secret, in the process creating their own world (and worldviews) and vocabularies to express their lived experience, so the witches and wizards of this world have their own secret language and way of looking at the world that is faintly askew from the Muggle world, and infinitely more pleasurable and vibrant than its “ordinary” counterpart.  Just there is something immensely validating about a new queer finding out about the community which he never knew existed, so we as readers are caught up in Harry’s joy as he encounters this new world.

This latent queerness probably helps to explain why this novel continues to exert a powerful hold over me.  I simply could not put it down, even though I knew all of the major plot details and other points.  It’s well-written and tightly-plotted, for sure, but it is this sense of queer pleasure that, I think, explains why it had such a hold on me when I was young and why it continues to exert its hold on me even now.  It also helps to explain why I react so viscerally to the Dursleys, easily the most vile secondary villains to appear in all of young adult literature.  The way in which they seek so relentlessly to repress Harry’s magical abilities (read:  his queerness), is evocative, especially now, of the ways in which so many non-queer families treat their queer members, with resentment, hostility, and often outright violence.

And yet, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone allows its heroes and heroines to recognize that there is a great power in queer/wizardly solidarity.  There is something so immensely satisfying about the ending of this novel, as Harry realizes that even though he has to return to his awful Muggle/normal family, there will always be a place awaiting him at Hogwarts and in the wizarding world, where difference in its multiple forms is accepted and celebrated (at least by the “good” characters and their allies).  This is a message that, it seems to me, is especially important now, and why this book will no doubt continue to be popular among its legions of queer fans, both young and old.