Some Harry Potter thoughts, with topic links for your browsing convenience. 90% philosophy-free!
Thoughts on plot in books 1-4
Well, I finally made it through the weight-lifting device also known as “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”, and I’d like to reiterate what I said earlier: I think, of the four, I prefer “Prisoner of Azkaban”.
There’s a lot of reasons for this, but the primary reason is that Azkaban is the only one of the four to break Rowling’s otherwise constant plot formula. “Azkaban” is the only one of the first four books that doesn’t end with Harry facing some version of Voldemort, and finding himself possessed of some dues ex machina power or aid that he doesn’t understand and that enables him to defeat Voldemort. The power or aid is then explained to Harry afterwards by Dumbledore.
In “Philosopher’s Stone”, Harry goes down to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone, encounters Voldemort riding shot gun inside Professor Quirell and manages to burn the man’s face without understanding how he did it. Afterwards, Dumbledore tells him that “his mother’s love” enabled him to do this. This explanation is very vague in that first novel. It’s not until later we understand that Lily Potter saved Harry’s life with some sort of ancient spell involving the sacrifice of her own life. That spell caused Voldemort’s attempt to kill Harry to back fire on him and brought him near to death. The effects of Lily Potter’s spell also lingered inside Harry, giving him the ability to burn Voldemort when they encountered each other ten years later.
In “Chamber of Secrets”, Harry goes down into the chamber to save Ginny Weasley and encounters the memory echo of Tom Riddle (the young Voldemort). Just when things look bleak for Harry, Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawkes appears with the Sorting Hat. Harry puts it on his head for lack of any better ideas and gets hit in the noggin with a sword that enables him to fight the snake beast of the chamber. And later, there’s Dumbledore to tell him why it worked: only a true Gryffindor could have pulled that sword out of the hat (it was Godric Gryffindor’s sword). This has thematic relevance to the rest of the book, though. Harry had been quite worried in the second novel that he should have been in Slytherin because he seemed to have a lot of Salazar Slytherin-like traits (which he actually got from Voldemort when Voldemort tried to kill him as a baby).
In “Goblet of Fire”, after Voldemort is restored to power, he challenges Harry to a duel of wands and Harry manages to hold Voldemort off with the magical power coming out of his wand. Harry can’t figure out why he is able to do this, although any reader with a decent knowledge of Harryverse metaphysics should have guessed correctly that it had something to do with Harry and Voldemort’s wands sharing feathers from the same phoenix (a la Philosopher’s Stone). But if the readers were as distracted as Harry was at the time, later there’s Dumbledore (naturally) to explain about the power of the phoenix feathers evening the odds.
In “Prisoner of Azkaban”, on the other hand, the “enemy” is the Magic world establishment rather than Voldemort. The Ministry of Magic wrongly sees Sirius Black as the traitor who betrayed the Potters to Voldemort and killed a dozen Muggles. They do not realize that Peter Pettigrew, the alleged hero who tried to “stop” Sirius and “died” because of it, was the actual traitor, and is alive and the true danger to them now. Harry is told what he needs to do to save the day by Dumbledore ahead of time, and with the help of Hermione and a cleverly foreshadowed time-travel plot device, Harry saves his friends from danger and helps Sirius escape on the back of the Hippogriff that the cowardly Draco Malfoy had sought to destroy.
Not that “Prisoner of Azkaban” isn’t without its awkward plot devices. Rowling uses the “Harry learns everything he needs to know by overhearing a conveniently detailed conversation” not once, but twice. The need for some sort of device like that is dictated by the constraints of the third-person subjective she writes in.
And predictability in a novel series isn’t always a bad thing. For example, you know Harry will escape the clutches of Voldemort in book 4 just as he did in 1 and 2. So when Voldemort challenges Harry to a duel in the graveyard and Harry stands up, determined to die on his feet fighting, I actually said out loud, “You go get’m Harry!” Since I was on a bus at the time, people looked at me rather oddly.
You often hear people on the ATPo board praising the idea of subverting old familiar story cliches, but I think there’s something to be said for a certain kind of predictability. Ancient familiar story lines endure because they reinforce certain values. And in our post-modern throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater attitude about the value of values, it’s nice to have real heroes, to know that Harry will come out of the battle with his buns in tact, even if the emotional scars will fester for some time.
Other random thoughts on Goblet of Fire
The Harry Potter series has always dealt with the theme of celebrity, from the opening pages of the first novel. Harry encounters worship and awe from witches and wizards the moment he steps into the Magic world, and he encounters envy and hatred from people like Malfoy.
But Rowling ups the ante in “Goblet of Fire” when Harry becomes the unwitting object of attention from an unscrupulous
gossip monger reporter (I guess the Magic world doesn’t have libel laws, eh?) At first she tries to show a sympathetic portrayal of the lime-light shunning Harry, but when he isn’t cooperative, her articles become increasingly negative (ludicrously so).
One wonders, back when she was writing “Philosopher’s Stone”, how far Rowling intended to go with the celebrity thing. Did she go in the direction she did because she planned to, or is it a reflection of her own experience with celebrity, and the worship and hatred she has encountered?
I can see why “The Order of the Phoenix” was so anticipated by fans. “The Goblet of Fire”, all 600+ pages of it, is really kind of a preface to OOTP, a long stretched out attempt by Voldemort to get his hands on the well-protected Harry Potter so that he can use special magicks to embody himself again and start a rise to power that will no doubt engender a great civil war between the good and evil sides of the Magic world.
But did I have to slog through that whole, drawn-out Triwizarding tournament to get there? I mean, honestly. At least there was plenty of Ron/Hermione subtext rapidly becoming text and Hagrid almost getting some (“cuppa tea, cuppa tea, almost got shagged, cuppa tea”) and a nice little father-son ‘ship growing between Sirius and Harry to keep me entertained. I suppose Rowling’s books are still mostly seen as children’s books, hence the apparent emphasis on the Contest, with sexuality only occuring in subtext. But the real action of the book is not the Contest at all, but the broiling world of Wizard politics.
So any kid who reads the book and invests him or herself in the outcome of the Contest is going to get a scary life lesson when instead of victorious win with a celebration afterwards, they get instead the grisly death of Cedric Diggory and Harry getting tortured by Voldemort.
And speaking of power and politics in the Magic world, what’s up with the B-story line about house elves in “Goblet of Fire”? Is this meant as an allegory for anything in real life? Maybe, maybe not. But BYO allegories.
As I see it, the subtext of the story line goes something like this:
Don’t try to help the house-elves. They’re happy being enslaved. They don’t want to make money or have any say over their own lives. They just want to serve their masters. What? You’re still feeling bad for them? Don’t bother. They’re better off this way, trust me. If you freed them, you wouldn’t be doing them any favors. At least as slaves, they can be converted to Christianity. If we freed them, they’d just go back to being Godless pagan savages on the Dark Continent.
Oops, I was talking about Harry Potter, wasn’t I?
Prelimary thoughts on Order of the Phoenix
I’m up around page 50 of OOTP, and the initial thing that struck me was the distinct change in voice. Of course, now that I think back on it, the “voice” the novels are written in changes from year to year. Rowling writes in the third person subjective, which is rather like the first person in that it gives us only one character’s point of view.
But not just one character’s point of view. Because we are seeing the world of the novel through the thoughts of that character, the words themselves are words that character would use. So as Harry grows up and changes, the words Rowling chooses change. As Harry’s world expands, the things she writes about change. Which is why “Philosopher’s Stone” comes across as a merry little fantasy book and “Azkaban” and “Goblet” are rife with political intrigue.
And why “Phoenix” matches the broiling hormonal teen-aged angst of Harry with the broiling political angst of the Wizard world.
I also write using the third-person subjective, only I trade off point of view with each new scene. I wonder if Rowling does the same thing I do: I write the first draft of a scene in the first person to get the character’s voice clear in my head and in the prose. Only then do I change it into third person. Anyone know if there are interviews where Rowling talks about her writing process?