Phoenix 3: The Saddest Thing

It’s a Monday, so let’s get the week off to a depressing start and talk about Neville Longbottom’s parents.

I thought I remembered from the films that Neville’s parents were dead, killed by Bellatrix Lestrange. But the actual facts were even worse. We found out about the poor Longbottoms in Goblet of Fire. They were Aurors who were tortured by Death Eaters (still including Bellatrix) using the Cruciatus Curse until they were driven insane from the pain. (You get the feeling it would have almost been kinder if they had indeed been killed.) Hence the reason Neville was raised by his grandmother. Already a sad story, even if it had never been explored again after Goblet.

But Rowling brought us back around to that subplot with a gut punch, and on Christmas no less. Harry and the gang were visiting Mr. Weasley in the hospital and accidentally ran in to Gilderoy Lockhart, still amnesiac but as self-obsessed as ever. For a moment, it seemed this whole encounter would just be some mild comic relief and a way for Rowling to briefly follow up on a dispatched character. But as soon as the nurse asked Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Ginny to follow her to the “long-term care” ward to continue their reluctant visit with Lockhart, my stomach sank. Just those words created a sense of foreboding, as I was pretty sure what Rowling had for us next.

And sure enough, the gang encounters Neville and his grandmother, just leaving a holiday visit with poor Frank and Alice. I felt such desperation for Neville to get away unseen by our main characters, and a dreading as each new shoe dropped until his entire backstory was revealed against his will.

Some inherently sad stuff happens in this series, right from the start. Your parents getting murdered while you were a baby? Sad. Being raised by family who hates you? Sad. Watching your parents’ murderer come back to power after murdering a fellow student in front of you? Sad. Not being allowed to punch Draco Malfoy with impunity? Saddest of all.

But never had Rowling made me feel as much sadness as when Alice Longbottom walked out in a brain-addled state to give Neville a bubble gum wrapper as his Christmas present. Neville wheels around after she leaves, as if daring anyone to laugh, but “Harry did not think he’d ever found anything less funny in his life.” Neville’s grandmother tells him to throw away the wrapper as he leaves — his mother had already given him enough to cover his walls. But Harry instead sees Neville slip the wrapper in his pocket instead.

Neville’s grandmother accused him of being ashamed of his parents when she learned he hadn’t told his friends of their fate. But it’s immediately clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Neville shakes during Fake Moody’s introduction to the Cruciatus Curse in Goblet. In Phoenix, he tries to fight Malfoy for mocking the hospital where they’re staying, and was ready to fight his best friends, too, if they dared made a crack. He’s not embarrassed; he’s desperately protective. The pain of the situation is clearly haunting him.

Neville will never receive all the love and affection his parents would have showered upon their only child. He’ll only receive a piece of trash, and he’ll cherish it as a prized possession.

There’s your tragedy. Happy Monday.

********************

I’m now through 24 chapters, or 542 pages. Other thoughts on this installment of Phoenix:

  • Sirius has become slightly disappointing as we’ve moved further into the book. His reactions to being cooped up inside his house, a home he hates, are believable and interesting, but just not quite what I wanted to see from him. Earlier in the book, he angrily broke off a fire-chat when Harry told him not to come to Hogsmeade for his own protection. Going into spells of moping when Harry is about to leave at Christmas is one thing, but the magical equivalent of hanging up on Harry isn’t what I’d expect from a character so fiercely devoted to his godson. But after Snape’s recent taunt, calling Sirius a coward, it’s clear that we’re only going to see his recklessness grow, which may be what leads to the untimely death I know is coming. I’m not sure we’ve seen enough resolution of those two sides of Sirius’ personality that are so obviously at conflict: his intense love and protection of Harry, and his wild, almost dangerous inclination to follow his impulses in ways that could make him unable to care or provide for Harry.
  • In my last post, I complained about the lack of development of Ginny Weasley for where we’re at in the series. Almost as if by response, Rowling gave Ginny her best moment of the series thus far, arguably the first moment where we start to get any real insight into her as a character. After finding out about his link with Voldemort, Harry quickly lapsed into the moody isolationism that has dominated his emotional reactions in this book, as he continually drives people away through angry outbursts or moping. In this case, he isolated himself in the most literal sense, locking himself away from all his friends. When the gang finally confronts him, Harry begins to put up his woe-is-me shields yet again. And, shockingly, it’s Ginny who breaks through, angrily reminding Harry that he’s not the only one who’s suffered at Voldemort’s hands (or mind). She even ends the crisis of the moment by convincing Harry he’s not being possessed. It was a strength far beyond anything we’d previously seen form the character. I only hope we’ll see her develop more, and faster. Her replacing Harry as the Gryffindor seeker could be an interesting method of doing just that, if it’s followed up on.
  • In the meantime, Harry’s current love interest is plenty interesting enough on its own. I like Cho Chang quite a bit, and if I were reading this without knowing whom Harry is destined to marry, I would be happy enough to see Harry end up with her. The awkward fits and starts to Harry’s courtship of Cho are a great window into the growing pains of adolescent love. Moreover, we’ve gotten more insight into her so as to make her more than just a stock character. I might have preferred we actually learn of Cho’s many conflicting emotions from seeing more of them in Harry and Cho’s interactions, but I was fine with Hermione merely listing it all for our oblivious teenage boys.
  • I love the Dumbledore’s Army scenes. Again, following up from my last post, the D.A. training sessions have indeed reinforced the extent of Harry’s magical talents. It’s nice to see him so capable at something. I’d still like to see him be at least a little good at his regular classes, but watching him train and lead an “army” is definitely a big development for the character.
  • Poor Ron. He makes the Quidditch team, only to be subject to such intense psychological warfare that it causes a brawl that gets half the team kicked off. I hope to see him respond well to such challenge. He’s been rather hapless as a Prefect, and I still want to see him grow into his competence better.
  • Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape got off to a promising start, and should quickly become a good vehicle to see more of Snape. Snape is a good character and had been underutilized to that point in the book.
  • Finally, I’m still digging Umbridge as the day-to-day villain of the book. Most pleasant surprise of this volume so far.

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