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Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Well, it’s been quite some time since I shared my thoughts on the Potterverse, but with a Prospectus due to my Advisor and my annual Tolkien reading commencing, I haven’t had as much time to indulge in the world of HP.  However, I have had the chance to finish Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, so here are some of my reflections on the fourth, and in many ways the best, of the Harry Potter books.

Even more than Prisoner, this novel reveals that shit is finally getting real.  We as readers know this from the very beginning, when the unfortunate Muggle gardener runs afoul of Wormtail and the frail Voldemort and pays with his life.  We now know, if we hadn’t before, that Voldemort is absolutely willing to murder anyone who threatens any aspect of his plans, no matter how trivial.  I remember being shocked when I first read this novel over a decade ago, and that earliest murder, as well as the darker conversation the gardener Frank overhears, still sends shivers down my spine as I read it.

There is much in this novel that is actually quite chilling, not least the fact that Barty Crouch’s wife actually sacrificed her life for the son that was so unambiguously in league with Voldemort.  There is something fundamentally touching and disturbing about the lengths to which she was willing to go to save a son that was, by all accounts, as monstrous as any of the other Death Eaters.  For all that her actions have made possible all manner of atrocities, one cannot help but be at least somewhat sympathetic for a mother’s desire to save her son from the horrors of Azkaban.  Although Rowling’s world is typically painted in broad strokes of black and white, this is one of those moments when a shade of grey gradually begins to make itself seen.  Who can say that they wouldn’t do the same thing, if presented with this sort of perilous and terrible decision?

More than perhaps any of the other novels in the series (except for perhaps Half-Blood), Goblet allows us to see the true consequences that come from the battling of evil.  Voldemort, however he may have begun, however oppressed and abandoned he might have been in his youth, has now become a creature so far beyond the emotional capacities of ordinary human as to be something else altogether.  His casual dismissal of Cedric as “the spare” vividly illustrates this, and Cedric’s death still remains one of the most saddening in the series, in no small part because it is both so unexpected and sudden.  Indeed, Cedric’s death illustrates something that will become increasingly clear as the rest of the series unfolds:  the battle against evil inevitably leaves the bodies of many innocents in its wake.  And that, I think, is one of the key features of the best fantasy.  The best fantasy, especially epic fantasy, is that which does not end on an entirely happy note.  Indeed, I am most satisfied after reading something that leaves me with a sense, however faint, of melancholy after I have finished the last page.  It’s good to  be reminded that, even when the quest is over and the war is won, nothing can ever be the same again.

It’s quite astonishing, really, how much this novel manages to accomplish, and accomplish well.  As with the previous novel, it has a beautiful artistry all of its own that allows you to recognize its brilliance only after you have read through the entire narrative.  Only after you are finished do you realize that all of the goings-on in the beginning were part of a larger master plan, delicately laid and executed (both by Rowling and by Voldemort).  Likewise, the elements of the Triwizard Tournament are compellingly written, with just enough mystery layered in to make them worth reading (though they do, of course, play second fiddle to the larger narrative of Voldermort’s return).  And who could forget the revelation that so many prominent members of the Wizarding community still maintain their loyalty to their master.  It is this revelation, perhaps even more than that of Voldemort’s actual return, that really brings home to me the reality that this world, far from being a safe haven, is itself full of dangers and betrayals as grave as any that appear in the Muggle world.

All in all, Goblet emerges as one of the best-written and tightly plotted of the series.  Unlike its successor, Goblet manages to weave its various plot threads together into a cohesive whole without seeming overly long or drawn-out.  At this point, we haven’t yet got mired in the teenage angst that plagues the fifth and seventh volume of the saga, but we still get the richer and more compelling character development.  Ironically, this was actually the first Harry Potter novel that I read (being the weirdo I am), and so it will always occupy a special place in my heart.  Having re-read it for the first time in many years, I recognize that it fully deserves that special place.

Re-Reading “Harry Potter”–“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”

Since it’s been a while since I posted about my return to the world of Harry Potter, I thought I’d finally get down to writing about the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Although its film version is by far my favourite of all of the films, the book version is not my favourite of the series, though it does mark, in my opinion, a significant turning point in the way that the story develops and is for that reason a linchpin in understanding the series as a whole.

If the first two books saw Voldemort neatly defeated and banished back to his in-between life, this book finally starts to suggest that he may in fact be making a more significant and longer-lasting return.  The revelation that Scabbers the rat–a character that, while tangential, has nevertheless maintained a constant presence in the earlier two novels–is in fact Wormtail is sheer brilliance, as it forces us to reflect on just how much of the doings of the wizarding world were inadvertently revealed to him after Voldemort’s original fall from power.

What is most striking and enjoyable about this novel, however, is the way in which the big reveal brings so much else of the narrative into clearer focus.  I have written before about how it is only after you have read the entire series that you can recognize the gradually-unfolding brilliance and structure of the whole, and I think this novel illustrates that fact better than any of the others.  It is only after we find out about Wormtail’s real identity, as well as Sirius’ innocence, that we recognize the instability of meaning and everything that we have up until now taken for granted about this world.

And speaking of Wormtail…in many ways, I find him to be the most reprehensible character in all of the Potterverse, even more than the horrid Malfoys and even Lord Voldemort himself.  There is something disgustingly lurid about his absolute cowardice and his willingness to betray even those who loved him best, all out of his alleged fear of what the Dark Lord was capable of doing.  Mind you, I’m not entirely sure that I take Wormtail at his word that his reason for submitting to Volodemort was his fear.  It seems just as likely to me that he was as ambitious and ruthless as any of the Death Eaters but found it convenient (and safe) to hide behind his mask of ineptitude.  That, I think, makes him even more reprehensible.

Just as importantly, this novel finally begins the series’ turn toward the endlessly and relentlessly tragic.  As we learn throughout this novel, both Lupin and Sirius have suffered unjustly because of the conditions that govern their world.  Lupin’s affliction in particular has decidedly queer overtones, as the Wizarding world’s rejection of him as a result of his werewolf nature evokes the specter of what happened to those with AIDS during the height of the pandemic.  And the injustice of Sirius having been imprisoned all of these years, while tragic and profoundly pathos-inducing in itself, is only compounded by the fact that everyone believes he betrayed the people that he loved most.  One cannot help but wonder how he could live with that knowledge through those long years of imprisonment in the worst place imaginable (Harry wonders something along the same lines in The Order of the Phoenix).

This novel, in other words, begins the slow process of revealing just how repressive the Wizarding world truly is.  While we have gained glimpses of this in the earlier references to the obsession with blood purity and the Malfoys’ ability to manipulate those who are in power, Prisoner really begins to tear away the flights of fancy motif of the first two novels to reveal the darker, more sinister side of the magical realm.  The fact that this world relies on a prison that uses the Dementors–easily one of the most potently evil and unpleasant forces in this universe–as the guards indicates what type of world we are dealing with, and it is not a very flattering portrait.

Lastly, no review of this novel would be complete without at least mentioning the vitriolic and unpleasant Aunt Marge.  Though she disappears from the narrative early on, she leaves a lasting impression, as Harry remains haunted by his lack of knowledge about his father.  What stands out most to me about the scene where she continues to assault his parents’ is just how angry became while reading it.  Small wonder that he loses control and ends up blowing her up to several times her normal size.  And small wonder that he reacts with such joy when he thinks that it is his father who has summoned the Patronus charm, and with such disappointment when he realizes that it was himself all along.  It will not be the first time we weep with Harry, as my next Harry Potter post will show.

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.

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.