Prince 3: When Doves Cry

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

Love and destiny.

Two abstract ideas that we morph into creeds, dogmas, overriding tenets. They shape belief and action, war and peace, and, occasionally, literature. The last of those can be difficult, however. The more often a well is visited in writing, the more difficult it can be to draw anything but cliches from that well; few wells have been drawn upon more than destiny, and probably none more than love.

So when J.K. Rowling ties her hero to a destiny and arms him with the power of love, she’s immediately walking a narrow line between triumphant and trite. As we near the end of Prince, she seems to acknowledge that tightrope as she addresses head-on (through Dumbledore, naturally) what love and destiny mean to her narrative.

Let’s take love first, as Rowling does. When Dumbledore tries to tell Harry he can defeat Voldemort because he has an ability that Voldemort does not, Harry finishes the sentence mockingly — he can love. Rowling give him the eyeroll the reader might have: the hero is going to defeat the dark wizard because he has the power of love? It does sound a little like a Care Bears plot where a bioterrorist learns that love is the only good chemical weapon. (Note: possibly not a a real Care Bears plot.)

But Dumbledore makes a series of increasingly impassioned admonishments to try to force Harry (and us) to understand the importance of that “power of love.” Voldemort possesses such an array of lures, of both temptation and force, that only love can resist them all. We saw that from the first book, as Harry could only see the means to defeat Voldemort/Quirrell because of his love for his friends, love for his parents, even love for what’s right. Evil cannot love, so Voldemort cannot even perceive the full power of love. As almost painful as it is to see the phrase “pure of heart” written seriously, there’s a certain beautiful simplicity to it all. In a world of grays, Voldemort vs. Harry will be remarkably black and white: evil vs. love.

Now, take destiny. At the end of Phoenix, this seemed simple enough: there was a prophecy, and Harry would fulfill it. But Dumbledore elucidates much more of a sense of choice in Prince: it’s only knowledge of the prophecy that is leading to the prophecy’s fulfillment. Voldemort, trying to avert his own destruction, marked Harry with the power to destroy him. Dumbledore indicates Harry has a choice in whether to pursue his ultimate confrontation with Voldemort, but also leads Harry to realize he’s already made that choice. The prophecy will be fulfilled, and destiny realized, but that doesn’t create an absence of free will. It’s fate without predestination.

Destiny as narrative device fascinates me. Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The speaker is engaged in a passionate love affair, but faces challenges and disruptions, seeing his flawed parents in his own relationship. The thought of what he might become, that negative potential destiny, makes happiness a little more elusive. Love is pulled asunder by destiny, or even the threat of destiny.

Harry, on the other hand, protects his ability to love by now embracing his own destiny, throwing himself into the means of defeating Voldemort. The clearest example yet of that was his ability to put aside his anger at Snape and Dumbledore upon learning that Snape was the one who told Voldemort of the prophecy. Harry was boiling with rage, but he knew he had to at least temporarily overcome it if he was to accompany Dumbledore to find the Horcrux. The mission, his fate, matters most to him when pushed.

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I’m now through 26 chapters, 578 pages, of Prince. More thoughts on this penultimate installment from the book:

  • The whole book has done a great job of setting us up for the idea of these Horcruxes, taking us down Voldemort’s memory lane and introducing his odd sentimentality as a way of setting the stage for the search and destroy missions that will now have to take place. I’m glad that we get Dumbledore as the guide for the first of these. Dumbledore has a way of making simple exposition seem surprisingly exciting, and in finding and retrieving the locket Horcrux, we got one last badass Dumbledore moment.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Felix Felicis mission of Harry getting Slughorn’s memory. The turns of luck were well-thought-out and focused more on plot devices than ridiculous chance. Watching Harry control and manipulate the situation was really enjoyable.
  • Harry and Ginny are together now, and … whatever. I don’t really want to harp too long on that whole situation, but I just thought the lack of buildup to their relationship really took away from the impact when they finally kissed. From Ginny’s side, we knew she had a crush on Harry as a little girl; we were told in Phoenix that she was now over him, and since we’re given no contrary information until the kiss, we now assume that was always a lie. So, on the one hand, we have a girlhood crush that apparently never went away. For Harry, he just suddenly liked her, and while his emotions in watching her with someone else were amusing, we were never told why he likes her, or what about her. So on his side, we just have pent-up mystery emotion. And then: kiss, Ron blesses it, and relationship that we see very little of. It was just disappointing to me.
  • Glad we got to see Harry put at least one smackdown on Draco in the series, even if that fight was more abbreviated than I might have hoped. Though I can’t help wondering if it would have been better if Harry had let Draco use Crucio on him and had their battle discovered that way. If it really is an “unforgivable” curse (which is in doubt — Harry certainly never faced consequences for using it in Phoenix), that might have been his best way of stopping Draco. Not that he could have thought of all that in the midst of battle.
  • After finding out that it was really all Snape’s fault that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, it’s even harder for me to imagine Harry and Snape having a good relationship if both were to live after the eventual revelations. That would be a tough memory to move past.

That’s all for this installment, as I want to get back to reading. Only a couple chapters left. Dumbledore and Harry got the Horcrux so …  yeah, that’s probably it, right? There’s the climax, and everything else in the book will surely just be falling action. Yep, if there’s one thing I feel confident in, it’s that’s nothing horrible and traumatic is about to happen.

Prince 2: 1999

[Optional soundtrack to this post.]

If J.K. Rowling intends to have an overarching message to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I doubt she means for that message to be the triumph of the hormonal urges of adolescence. But for a very large chunk of the book, we could take that away as the dominant theme.

At the conclusion of Order of the Phoenix, Harry found out that only he or Voldemort could survive. In Prince, he’s explored the origins of Voldemort — and what dark origins they have been. He’s been journeying to the past to find the secrets that may determine his future. He’s been growing stronger as a wizard, while taking on more responsibilities.

And with all of that life-changing, possibly soon life-ending, stuff going on, the one thing he can’t keep off his mind is … Ginny Weasley.

I remain incredibly disappointed in the romance, or lack thereof, between Harry and Ginny; all of a sudden, he liked her, almost obsessively, though I’m not sure we’ve ever been told a single thing he actually likes about her. But whatever criticisms I have about the origin of Harry’s feelings for Ginny, the pursuit of those feelings has been amusing and well-done. His emotional state is more affected by Ginny having a boyfriend than it is by the knowledge that he will one day have to be a killer or be killed.

The same triumph of adolescent affection is prevalent throughout the book thus far. Obviously, the biggest example is the continued evolution/devolution of Ron and Hermione from sparring partners to budding romantic partners and back to frenemies again. Their mutual affection is eclipsed only by their mutual immaturity, and thus they repeatedly find themselves besotted by various obstacles as they make each other jealous, reconcile, get angry — but never quite admit their feelings.

At times, these love triangles and their complications create a tonal unevenness in Prince, as the dark foreboding that will build to the book’s conclusion rarely matches with the teenage flights of fancy that build its romantic entanglements. But, perhaps another Prince can help us reconcile these shifts.

In 1982, Prince release 1999, his breakthrough album. The titular song played on the idea that the world might end in the year 2000, so, “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.” The song was a protest of the proliferation of nuclear arms that could cause a fiery end to civilization at any moment. It’s a dark subject matter, and yet … it’s so damn upbeat. Consider the abrupt shifts in two of its verses:

War is all around us
My mind says prepare to fight
So if I gotta die
I’m gonna listen to my body tonight

Everybody’s got a bomb
We could all die here today
But before I’ll let that happen
I’ll dance my life away

The moral is twofold. First and foremost was the idea that violence and destruction are wasteful, unnecessary ends. But also foundational is the idea of making the most of whatever time remains.

And if Rowling intends an overarching message in Prince, perhaps it is that, instead: make the most of whatever time you have. It’s a platitude, but true. And we see it throughout this book; Harry might die, but for as long as he has, he’ll dream of Ginny. We go time and again from the evil schemes of Draco and the evil origins of Voldemort, to the first loves that seem inane to all but their beholders.

So Harry will chase Ginny, Hermione will chase Ron, and Lavender will chase the goal of a single intelligent thought. And all the while, darkness closes in. Because life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.

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I’m through 21 chapters, 468 pages, of Prince. Other thoughts on this installment:

  • Dumbledore just revealed that since Voldemort requested to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, no one has had the job more than a year. AHHHHHH is that the explanation at last?! Did Voldemort curse the job itself? Is that why we’ve had this revolving door of dangerous teachers? And maybe Dumbledore wouldn’t give Snape the job because then something might’ve happened to him? Did that whole situation finally just make sense?!?!?! I feel so relieved.
  • As you can probably tell from previous posts, my memories of the HP movies are often hazy; as someone who wasn’t already a big fan of the series, I didn’t always watch them super closely or absorb all the details. So, I thought I remembered Ron’s whole infatuation with Lavender was the result of a love potion. But the reality is he was just being kind of a dick to Hermione. I mean, I do get some of where he’s coming from. But Ron still hasn’t come across very well this book.
  • Why is everyone still so reluctant to believe Harry’s Draco-is-evil theory? I mean, Dumbledore, sure; he’s the man who knows everything but refuses to reveal the pieces to Harry, so whatever. But Katie Bell nearly dies, Ron is clumsily poisoned, and Hermione, especially, is still all, “Oh, it just couldn’t have been the son of a known Death Eater who goes to this school and has already done some fairly awful things to us over the years.” Riiiiight. Consider your “smartest character in the series” title revoked, Hermione. I’m giving it to Neville now. He’s barely had a line in this book, but there was brief mention of him earlier, completing an Herbology assignment before everyone else. Boom. Neville wins.
  • Young Tom Riddle has a delightfully creepy manner about him. From a child, we see his tendencies toward arrogance, impetuousness, and prideful superiority. Rowling works in some staples of pre-serial killer psychology, including the killing defenseless animal(s). But even as we learn more about Voldemort’s past, we never lose the sense of mystery. It’s becoming clear that Rowling has no intention of filling in every single hole in Voldemort’s backstory, and I think that’s a good thing. We’re learning main events that give us a greater sense of him as a character, but we’re not intended to know everything about him, we won’t get full perspective on each event in his life that molded him. We have never seen Voldemort in the present in this book, yet Rowling’s deft ability to make him a more fully realized character without losing that air of mystery has really added even more to the level he achieves as villain.
  • Percy is still king of the douches. I have no doubt that before the end of the series, Rowling will at least have him reconcile with his family, and perhaps try to redeem him as a character. But it’s too late for me. I’ll never forgive him for ruining Christmas for Molly Weasley.
  • I’m glad to understand the Room of Requirement, after expressing my confusion in a Phoenix post. Someone else’s use of the Room is discoverable, but only if a person knows exactly what it’s being used for. Draco/Umbridge could discover the D.A. headquarters because what’s-her-name blabbed, but because Harry doesn’t know exactly what Draco is using it for, the Room won’t reveal itself to his attempts. Right? I think I got it. Clever, and I’m always glad when Rowling closes another potential source of confusion or explains away an arguable plothole.
  • Every now and then, I wonder why Hogwarts isn’t depicted as a more terrifying place. Apparition lessons were such a time. A bored Ministry official calmly explains that leaving behind a limb during apparition is common for beginners — and of course, he only tells the students this after someone has done it; there’s no warning. Another example is Ron being taken in by a love potion, treated almost as ordinary fun instead of the horror it actually would be to have your affections so completely rewritten by magic (especially since we’ve already seen how far that can go, with Voldemort’s parents). Yet in Rowling’s world, no one is terribly upset by such things. Someday, Harry Potter will enter the public domain, and someone will be able to re-imagine Hogwarts as the demented place it would feel like if always taken realistically. I would say I look forward to it, but the copyright won’t expire til well after I’m dead, so I’ll just imagine it myself.

Prince 1: Harry and Snape, BFFs

From watching the films, I knew two things about Snape going into the books: 1) He ended up being the good guy; 2) Until that revelation, he was kind of a dick.

Knowing these two things all along has made Snape one of the series’ most consistently interesting characters. I’m fascinated to think about what it was like for original readers to follow him at this point without knowing what’s to come. Were you expecting him to turn out good or bad? And even if good, were you expecting the complete redemption he gets in the end of the series?

Furthermore, as I read through the scenes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince where he continues to be viciously and unnecessarily awful to Harry, I wonder: just how complete is that redemption? I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself with his big Book 7 redemption reveal, but it’s hard not to think about what I know is ahead; every time Harry grinds his teeth about his least favorite professor, I remember how Harry will one day be so moved that he names his son, in part, after the dead Snape.

All of which makes me think: what would Snape and Harry’s relationship have been like if Snape had lived?

I don’t really think Snape should have lived; his tragic end was a powerful moment in the films, and I’m sure will be as good or better in the books. But I do wish we could see an alternate universe where Harry finds out everything about Snape, but Snape makes it through the battle. Then what? Harry was able to forgive the memory of Snape, but that might have been easier than it would have been to forgive the real thing, and be able to move on from the memories of torment. If he still saw Snape all the time, would he only see the man who was secretly on his side? Or would he, inevitably, also see the man who made his life hell for nearly seven years?

Because it’s interesting to see just how truly awful Snape is to Harry, something much more apparent in the books. Being a jerk in class is bad enough, constantly singling out Harry, humiliating and belittling him. Being an angry disciplinarian is worse, as we’ve already seen him try to get Harry expelled, and he always comes down harder on him. But Snape keeps going even further, repeatedly attacking the memory of Harry’s father to try to almost torture Harry, and at this point, Harry is also blaming Snape for the death of Sirius. I get that Snape hated James and Sirius, and it’s believable to think that he’d protect Harry even while remaining bitter about Harry’s dad and godfather. But Snape has often been downright cruel.

So if Snape had lived, how would they look back on these pre-redemption years? Maybe they would have gotten past it, but I have to think it at least would have been uneasy for a while. It’s easy to see Harry finding an appreciation for Snape the fallen hero. It’s harder to see Snape, had he lived, becoming warm and tender and assuming the role of a father figure to Harry. I think it would have been fascinating to see that relationship become uncomfortably redefined after all the bad that’s happened so far, and all the good that’s still to come in the series.

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I’m through the first 11 chapters, 236 pages, of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Other thoughts:

  • I’m short-handing this book’s title as Prince, rather than Half-Blood, HBP, or anything else, in anticipation of whom I’ll be listening to in order to cope with the emotion at the end of this book. Can’t wait to sob through “Purple Rain” as Dumbledore dies, wailing at my dogs to not look at me, and trying to convince my wife that this a perfectly normal emotional reaction. It’s going to be great/awful.
  • Prince opens with a meeting between the British Prime Minister and Cornelius Fudge. The point of the chapter seems to mostly be exposition about how the war against Voldemort isn’t going well, with the payoff that Fudge is out as Minister of Magic. As far as Rowling’s beginning chapters go, let’s just say that in terms of excitement and drama, Goblet of Fire remains the rather uncontested champ.
  • A better opener might have been the second chapter, where Snape proves his Death Eater loyalty by binding himself to help Draco Malfoy. Along the way, we got an explanation to one of my persistent questions: why does Dumbledore wait so long to give Snape the Defense Against the Dark Arts job? The answer, Snape tells Narcissa and Bellatrix, is because Dumbledore feared the subject might tempt Snape into a relapse into his old ways.

I was floored by what an incredibly underwhelming explanation this is. First, it requires a reevaluation of the Dumbledore-Snape relationship, with Dumbledore’s statements of, “I trust Professor Snape completely” now interpreted better as, “I trust Snape, so long as he isn’t tempted.” Second, and more importantly, this explanation doesn’t even make sense. Perhaps for the first four of Harry’s years at Hogwarts, you could understand it if Dumbledore had that reasoning. But at the end of Year Four, Voldemort returned to power, and soon after, Snape returned to playing spy in Voldemort’s camp. Yet Dumbledore still passes over Snape, creating the situation for the Ministry to appoint Umbridge and ruin Hogwarts for a year. So Dumbledore’s reasoning would have to be that it was too tempting for Snape to teach about Dark Arts, but not that it was too tempting for him to practice Dark Arts in order to get into the Death Eater inner circle.

In short, I’m hoping against hope that this isn’t the real explanation, but just something that Snape tells Voldemort groupies like Bellatrix to convince them he’s an O.G.

  • Dumbledore’s thoroughly polite verbal smackdown of the Dursleys’ parenting skills was yet another highlight for a character who’s racking them up more quickly as he nears his end.
  • I complained early in Phoenix that Harry often didn’t seem competent enough, middling through most of his classes. His teaching the D.A. helped show how much he excels in certain areas, but his O.W.L. results were also a good reinforcement, with him doing well on nearly everything. He never needed to be the perfect student Hemione is, but we needed to see him as more capable than he was usually portrayed as during class.
  • Along those same lines, I’ve enjoyed Harry’s sudden brilliance in Potions. Sure, it’s more than a little cheating, but this is the first time we’ve seen Harry be the best in class at something other than flying and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Plus he’s captain of the Quidditch team, getting another authority position to follow up his D.A. leadership.
  • Professor Slughorn is an enjoyable character, very capable and with a flair for the dramatic in his teaching. I like the central conceit of the character, networking for his own benefit through his students, yet in a harmless enough way. I’m interested to see how his benign self-serving personality interacts with his dark revelation later.
  • Fred and George are off to a great start in their business, and I love how awesome they are at it. I also like that their mother has forgiven their dropping out of school, which seems like how Molly should act in such uncertain, dangerous times, especially when already estranged from another son, Percy. However, it’s a shame we never got to see her initial reaction to the twins’ Hogwarts escapade; Phoenix took its darker turns almost immediately after the Weasley twins’ departure, so there wasn’t really time for that surely humorous event. But you know it would have been awesome. As my friend Elle pointed out, you don’t mess with Molly Weasley:

  • Doesn’t it seem like everyone should be more willing to believe Harry about Draco going Death Eater? Given what the characters know about his father, and how Draco himself has acted all series, it seems like everyone should have been pretty ready to accept that theory.
  • I feel like I should like Tonks more than I do at this point, but I’m fairly indifferent. I think the lack of conversation between her and Harry on the way to Hogwarts, though believable, was a missed opportunity.
  • Ron and Hermione have such quick, fun moments that hint at their future relationship. We’ve gotten these snippets for so long now that Rowling can afford subtlety, which makes them all the more well-done. For instance, Hermione finds out that Harry called her the best in their year, and Ron eagerly chips in that he would have said the same with the opportunity — and is disappointed when she isn’t as appreciative.
  • Harry and Ginny, meanwhile, are still moving slowly. I’m well over a third of the way through the book, and they’ve barely progressed. The most we’ve gotten is Harry being briefly disappointed when Ginny goes to hang out with her own friends on the train, because he’d gotten so used to being around her over the summer. After being told that the relationship developed at a more steady pace in the book than the film, I’m a little disappointed by the lack of progression well into the book.
  • Dumbledore uses the pensieve to give Harry, and us, the biggest glimpse yet into Voldemort’s past and heritage. It was dark and creepy looking within the House of Gaunt, a family of parseltongues that produced Voldemort’s abused mother. There’s an interesting chain of tragedy leading to the present evil. Merope was seemingly tortured by her awful father and brother; once free, she lashed out by snaring her heart’s desire, Voldemort’s father. Voldemort’s conception was essentially rape by magic, leading to his parents’ break and his unhappy childhood. From that upbringing, he finds an inclination toward pure evil. Each generation’s sins affects the next, and each generation grows horribly worse.

Phoenix 5: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

I’ve finished Order of the Phoenix, which means that a fairly major character is dead.

Sirius Black became one of my favorite characters, partly because he came from such an interesting premise, and at least partly because I pictured Gary Oldman every time Sirius appeared. I’m sure I would have still liked the character if I hadn’t seen the films before reading the books, but anytime you can picture Gary Oldman, it never hurts.

As Phoenix progressed, though, Sirius’ flaws became more pronounced. I mentioned in a previous post that Sirius was becoming slightly disappointing to me. Part of the appeal of the character had been in his intense devotion to Harry. His triumphs over the Dementors and insanity to get to Harry in Azkaban had been one of the most impressive things in the series to that point; he continued that devotion in Goblet, risking everything in his flight from justice to meet with Harry. In Phoenix, though, he became moody, so upset about his forced isolation that he sulked alone rather than spending time with Harry. It was believable, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

It wasn’t until Sirius died that I fully understood how essential the Book 5 brooding was to his character.

When Harry used the pensieve to see Snape’s memory of James and Sirius as teenagers (a great, bold scene), we get our biggest glimpse of pre-Azkaban Sirius. He’s arrogant, easily bored, and contemptuous of Snape. Yet we can also at least understand the causes of his flaws: he naturally excels at everything, is wildly popular, and has reason to dislike pureblood agendas (like Snape’s) because of his family. Sirius isn’t supposed to be an ideal character; he’s generally good but still flawed. He’s full of contradictions and faults he can’t quite overcome.

It feels incredibly important that Sirius’s last words were mocking his cousin and killer, Bellatrix Lestrange — “Come on, you can do better than that!” — right before she hit him with a fatal blow. This couldn’t have been a more serious situation: his god-son was in peril, his fellow members of the Order were sustaining significant blows, Voldemort’s plan was near fruition. Yet in the midst of it all was Sirius, seemingly just giddy to again be a part of the fight. And after all he’d been through, how could he not have been? He’d spent years in a hellhole, tortured by Dementors and racked with guilt over the fate of his best friend; when he finally confronted Peter, he didn’t get the revenge he so badly wanted, needed. He never got his name cleared. He got shut him up in a house he hated. To see him finally battling Death Eaters was to see pure id unleashed: all instinct and emotion — but no reason or caution. It was his final contradiction. He was so driven to help fight the battle that he weakened the war by dying.

That’s what his flaws throughout Phoenix were supposed to show us, and that’s what his death is supposed to teach Harry. Harry spent so much of Phoenix angry at his circumstances, lashing out at friends and being difficult to be around. Sirius’s death showed the eventual outcome of such a trajectory — losing yourself in id, losing the fight. And, we can presume, his deadly example ultimately will pull Harry off that path. Sure, Harry’s anger continued, as potent as ever as he confronted Bellatrix and even Dumbledore. But this anger was more a stage in the grieving process, and we see Harry progress through others, as well: denial (believing Sirius was still alive beyond the veil), bargaining (looking for Sirius to return as a ghost), and of course, depression. We get a hint at his acceptance as the book closes, but I assume that stage will remain a moving target for Harry, as it is for all of us. The only family he ever really knew is gone.

If Dumbledore was the wise man in Dylan Thomas’s poem, then Sirius Black was the wild man, raging against the dying of the light. But rage is an uncontrollable emotion, and Sirius was an uncontrollable character. He didn’t follow an easy character arc, but he might have been all the more poignant for it.

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  • So, Harry used Crucio. Not particularly effectively, but still, that seems like it should have had repercussions (and perhaps still might?). Is that really an “unforgivable” curse, or do they give you a break if you just watched your world shatter before your eyes?
  • Dumbledore vs. Voldemort was perhaps the most thrilling scene in a book full of them. I covered in my last post how we finally saw Dumbledore unleash his inner badass while escaping Hogwarts. Child’s play, as it turned out. He should have been at an impossible disadvantage, being unwilling to resort to deadly force like Voldemort. Yet Dumbledore countered every move with precision and power. I wanted it to go on longer and have a more decisive victor, but Rowling left no doubt who would have won if that battle had been to the death. But Dumbledore couldn’t be the one to take out Voldemort, because he just isn’t the chosen one. Which brings us to…
  • Prophecy time! This was a case where the book held another distinct advantage over the films. In both, the prophecy isn’t exactly earth-shattering. We can tell in the first installment that this series has to end in a final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, just because we’re so conditioned to how fictional narratives inevitably play out; explicitly telling us that one has to kill the other really only confirms what we could easily infer. But in the book version, the “revelation” still carries a big blow. We readers might have known it would all come down to that, but Harry didn’t. Seeing a teenager, still reeling from watching a loved one die, grapple with the knowledge that he must either murder or be murdered was very impactful, and I’m sure will be wrestled with even more as we move forward.
  • When fans talk about how Rowling laid the groundwork for later parts of the series early on, I assume the further revelations Dumbledore makes to Harry are part of what they’re talking about. Do I really believe that Rowling had everything planned out as to why Harry had to stay with the Dursleys when she began the series? Honestly, no; those early books were too elementary for me to buy that every element she introduced there was always intended to be part of a master plan. But nevertheless, I respect the hell out of her finding a way to tie that all together. The whole “blood magic protection” thing was a little weird and hokey, but at least it was an explanation. If she had revealed that Dumbledore knew the prophecy, and thus Harry’s extreme importance, all along, without explaining better why he would leave Harry in such a seemingly insecure location, that would have been a problem in the narrative. But she solved it, quite well.
  • If you think I am going to devote a bullet point to the heroic departure from Hogwarts by the Weasley twins, my favorites, then you are…wrong, actually. That deserves way more than a bullet point. That’s getting its own post at some point, maybe as part of a post-series wrap-up. It also deserves its own statute, its own commemorative coin, and an annual Weasley Twin Day (celebrated by giving kids the day off school, of course). It was that awesome.
  • Another item that may deserve a longer follow-up is the house-elf situation, considering how long my initial critique of that subplot was. It progressed in good and arguably bad ways, with Dumbledore’s take being the best argument in favor of Rowling redeeming the issue. I’m still not entirely there, though.
  • Harry’s relationship with Cho ended with a whimper. I was hoping for a little more resolution after all that buildup, but I suppose what happened was just as believable, if less satisfying. Sometimes relationships don’t have easily pegged starting and stopping points, but rather, a slow, awkward build, and an uncomfortable trailing off. I was still glad to see that subplot.
  • Meanwhile, Ginny Weasley officially became the one friend who just tells Harry to shut up when he’s being a jerk. Hermione spent the entire book tip-toeing around Harry’s moodiness, and Ron mostly tried to stay out of any conflict he could. But as the gang prepared to go save Sirius, it was again Ginny who stood up to Harry when he started acting rude. While I still might wish some of this character development had been happening sooner, I’m thrilled it’s happening. Harry may be the chosen one, but he’s still going to end up with a wife who can back him down, and we saw in this book how much he needs that sometimes.
  • Neville rules. Know that.
  • Dolores Umbridge is finally defeated, carried off by violent, angry centaurs. If we never heard from her again, we could just assume she was dead. But we do see her again, very much alive, nearly catatonic … and with not a scratch on her. Huh? Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Unless you read the first entry on this list. Then it seems to make a lot more sense, in a rather horrific way. My initial instinct was to reject that website’s explanation as too extreme for this young adult series, even if only implied. But really, what’s the alternative explanation for her very odd state in the hospital? I don’t have one. What else scarred her so much while leaving no visible damage? I think Rowling really did go there. Wow.
  • I was bummed to see Professor McGonagall stunned during Hagrid’s attempted capture. We saw Dumbledore unleashed in this book, and twice, it seemed like we were about to see McGonagall unleashed as well, only to have it foiled both times (when Dumbledore told her to back down in his office, and when she was attacked in the dark without warning on her way to help Hagrid). It was still great watching her openly defy and mock Umbridge, but now I want to see what her magical fury can do. Book 7, perhaps?
  • Let’s finish by returning to what Harry saw in Snape’s memory. Again, what a bold scene by Rowling. It would have been far easier to let James Potter remain forever untarnished, a wonderful memory of a loving father cut down before his time. But of course he couldn’t have been perfect, a fact that she made us and Harry confront by seeing him at his worst. We may know that he was still a good person, and we may be told how much he matured from that moment. But that’s still the only scene we’ve actually had of James, and therefore, it’ll probably be the one that sticks with me the most when considering him. It forces you to reevaluate not only him, but Sirius, Lupin, and of course, Snape. Harry will try to move past it, but when he’s lived a life of hero-worshipping, the flawed reality will be tough.

And that concludes Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. What a book. This was my favorite yet in the series.

Phoenix 4: Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Let’s talk about Albus Dumbledore.

Most of what you can say about him is fairly obvious. We know he’s wise, highly (though vaguely) powerful, and at times, extremely cool. I centered a post around him once before, early on, with the angle of how frustrated an average student must get by the many dangers that occur in Hogwarts on Dumbledore’s watch. The post was largely facetious, but I found it amusing how the series’ recurring plot points, viewed in the right light, can be seen as evidence of one big pile of evidence of Dumbledore’s incompetence.

But after he takes down five opposing wizards in a matter of seconds and with seeming ease, Dumbledore is no laughing matter.

Sure, one of those wizards was Kingsley Shacklebolt, secretly an ally of Dumbledore who didn’t actually want to hurt or subdue him. But Dumbledore was still facing another trained Auror, the Minister of Magic, his Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and a recent graduate (and Head Boy) of his school. We don’t know exactly how skilled or powerful Fudge, Dawlish, Percy, or even Umbridge really are, but we can reasonably assume that none of them would have achieved their stations without quite a bit of ability. And even Kingsley had to appear to try to fight Dumbledore in order to stay undercover; he may have intentionally been a second slower on the draw, but it’s not like he could openly help Dumbledore.

Yet against all that: boom, flash, everyone unconscious, Dumbledore with time for a friendly chat before leaving. If he’d actually broken a sweat, he probably could have knocked them out long enough to make himself a sandwich, pack some phoenix snacks for Fawkes, and dust the former headmasters’ portraits before leaving.

The whole scene built up beautifully to that moment. Harry walks in ready to defiantly confess and accept his expulsion, but Dumbledore guides him through the interrogation with quick wit and subtle directions. Umbridge brings forward wave after wave of evidence, and Dumbledore calmly defeats them all, until he at last encounters the list of names, carelessly left behind in the haste to leave. And then he falls on the sword for Harry and takes the hit himself, rather cheerfully confessing as Fudge o-faces at his seeming triumph.

And then, there’s that moment: “I am afraid I am not going to come quietly at all, Cornelius.” Dumbledore has been such a passive character for much of the series; we’re told he’s so powerful and brilliant, but we’re actually shown relatively little of it. Finally, here he is, making a stand before our very eyes, fighting off forces who would unwittingly serve darkness by taking him into Azkaban.

Wise men do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas wrote. Dumbledore hexes that good night into submission.

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I’m through 27 chapters, 623 pages. With about 200 pages to go to finish the book, I’ll again save the final chunk for the weekend so I can hopefully read it in one sitting. Other thoughts on this installment of Phoenix:

  • Umbridge has been a surprisingly enjoyable villain for me, and she is obviously about to become Headmistress. But am I wrong to think Dumbledore made a large tactical error in creating a situation where she could become a Hogwarts professor in the first place? Umbridge was only appointed to the Defense Against the Dark Arts position because Dumbledore couldn’t find a suitable candidate; the rumor was that no one wanted the job because people thought the position was cursed. But we know he trusts Snape; why not give him that job, then hire someone to fill Potions — which should be much easier with it not having that “cursed” reputation? Thus no Umbridge, thus a year in which his students are actually learning Defense Against the Dark Arts (which he knows is extra important right now), and thus a much easier time in preparing for the coming war.
  • What’s been interesting is to see how Umbridge is both tightening her grip on Hogwarts yet losing control at the same time. She won’t teach real Defense Against the Dark Arts, yet many students are secretly learning more of it than ever. She finally fires Trelawney, but Dumbledore had already outflanked her by finding Firenze to replace her. Firenze is an interesting character, very zen yet apparently a touch rebellious if he was willing to be exiled to teach at Hogwarts. Most importantly, he’s a centaur, the type of non-human Umbridge cannot abide; thus Rowling has planted the seeds of Umbridge’s downfall.
  • What are the rules of the Room of Requirement? Could Harry have prevented its discovery by thinking about his need for a room that was not only perfect for training, but could not be discovered by anyone outside the D.A.? Or a room that would conceal any important papers from anyone outside the D.A.? But then what if Umbridge walked by, thinking of how she needed a room with incriminating evidence?
  • I was glad to see Harry being more proactive in getting his story out, even if Hermione did all the real work. It was about time.
  • Harry’s date with Cho was an exercise in delightfully awkward missteps. I was grinning so hard later when Hermione walked him through everything he did wrong.
  • Another Ginny update: we got another hint into how cool she might be. Nothing as dramatic as her yelling at Harry earlier, but she does follow in Harry’s footsteps by impressively catching the Snitch in her first Quidditch match (though too late to win). The best result from this was when the Weasley twins wondered aloud how she got so good, when they’d never let her play with them; Hermione nonchalantly informs them that Ginny has been stealing their brooms since she was 6 and practicing, which impresses the twins. It’s a relatively small thing, but Ginny’s proficiency, and the Fred-and-George style in which she’s gained it, makes her that much cooler, and makes that much more of an impression on the reader.

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.

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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.

Phoenix 2: All hail the barely competent hero

I’m now 16 chapters (~350 pages) into Order of the Phoenix, a smaller chunk since my last update than I normally cover for a post. But there’s so much to discuss in this book that this seemed like a good spot to take a quick detour and ask: just how good is Harry at magic?

It seems like he should be really good, right? I mean, it’s a series about magic and his name is in the title. And ultimately, I think that’s probably the right answer. But it’s not as clear cut as I was expecting by this point in the series.

Now that I’m nearly halfway through the fifth book, I can’t help assessing where we’re at in the series. There are certain things that Rowling has been doing incredibly well at developing gradually. Perhaps most notable is the relationship between Ron and Hermione, who have been in a near-constant frenemy state since Book 3. But Rowling keeps showing a growing affection, and you feel like it’s manifesting as bickering largely because the emotions aren’t matured enough to manifest as romantic. (And because it’s just in both of their natures to bicker, of course.) The most overt example of that underlying, growing affection was Hermione yelling at Ron in Goblet for not asking her to the dance. But it’s also been shown in subtler ways, like Hermione trying (though failing) to stay awake for the celebration when Ron makes the Quidditch team, and her genuine interest/concern in how he’s progressing as a player — despite the fact that we know she doesn’t really care about Quidditch otherwise. It’s been a layered, gradual approach, and it’s really good writing. Ron hasn’t really shown the same signs, though we can easily infer he has similar feelings underneath, but is less capable of manifesting them or realizing it — because he’s kind of an idiot, in a completely lovable way.

On the flip side, there’s the complete lack of development with Ginny and Harry. That’s been a disappointment, after I was told that Rowling built that relationship much better than the movies (where they seemed to just be very suddenly into each other). And it’s actually not that I mind the lack of romantic development between them, as I’m enjoying the Harry/Cho subplot and am fine with his feelings for Ginny coming later. But I do wish Rowling had been building Ginny as a character this whole time. Again, it’s nearly halfway through Book 5, and all she’s really done is be duped into opening the Chamber of Secrets. I feel like I know nearly nothing about her personality or abilities; she rarely even has lines. Sure, it’s tougher to develop her because she’s not in the same year as Harry and the others. But Luna Lovegood is also a year behind them; it hasn’t even been 200 pages since she was only introduced, and I already feel like I know her better than Harry’s future wife.

Somewhere in between the good and bad is the development of Harry’s magical ability. I guess I’m undecided how I feel. Early in the series, I wrote that I liked how Rowling didn’t make Harry immediately good at everything. I still like that; it’s much more interesting to watch someone grow and develop than it is to watch him come in and just be pure awesome. Yet she also showed that he was a natural at some wizardy things, like flying in the first book, so that you still felt like he was special, even when he was failing miserably in Snape’s class. Again, well done.

But now, I’m wondering if he’s good enough at this point in the series. Where I’m at, he just had the meeting in the pub to agree to teach a bunch of fellow students some real Defense Against the Dark Arts. They all oohed and aahed as they got a refresher course in Harry’s achievements thus far, while Harry himself mostly protested about how it all wasn’t as impressive as it sounded.

So how impressive is he? Earlier in the book, I was really starting to wonder, as we see him continue to struggle and fall behind in every single class. It was humanizing early in the series, but has started to feel slightly excessive at this point. Shouldn’t he be getting better by now? Struggling in Snape’s class is one thing, but he’s consistently a little bit slower or worse at just about everything. He doesn’t have to be Hermione, competing for every top mark, but I want to see him progressing a little more at this point.

Presumably, that’s where his role as an unauthorized teacher will come in. I hope and expect that his Defense Against the Dark Arts lessons will serve to reinforce that for all Harry’s struggles, he can already do many things his fellow students (or even adults) cannot. It kind of already has reinforced that, even in that first meeting to schedule future lessons. I guess I just hope it doesn’t stop there; we already know he’s good against the dark arts. I’m hopeful that this spurs him on to try harder and be better at other subjects, too.

Because of the O.W.L.s that are supposed to encourage fifth-years to think about their future and careers, I’ve also been trying to imagine future jobs for our heroes. I don’t know if Rowling unveils what they all actually do for a living in the book version of the series’ epilogue, so for all I know, it’s left to the imagination. Hermione’s love of academia would seem to make her a natural to come back to Hogwarts as a professor, and her drive for social change would also make the Ministry a possibility. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her as the Headmistress or the Minister of Magic, with the former being my preference. Ron, I don’t even know; he kinda has me stumped. He expressed interest in being an auror, but it just doesn’t feel as natural of a fit. Maybe parlay his love of Quidditch into being Ludo Bagman’s successor running the magical games? Everything in Harry’s background would suggest auror, and that’s certainly been where his talents lie so far. Though I wonder, after the seven years he’s going to spend battling and eventually defeating Voldemort, would he get to a point where he thinks, “Eff it, I’m burnt out on fighting dark wizards.” And if auror were off the table (for any reason), what other fit is there? Is he good enough to play professional Quidditch? Even if so, what does he do after he retires from that? Right now, he’s not good at anything else. (To be fair, I wasn’t good at much at 16, either, but the wizard world doesn’t seem to have a college or graduate school; Harry doesn’t have as much time to figure things out.)

That whole line of thought makes me think of a moment at Harry’s trial earlier in Phoenix, with he and Arthur Weasley going through the Ministry. Harry has to turn over his wand to a bored security guard. Obviously, this security guard has to be a wizard, since Muggles can’t know about all this stuff. We’ve mostly seen adult wizards with cool magical jobs, like dragon tamer, curse breaker, and dark wizard hunter. But the wizarding economy is apparently the same as our own: there are still jobs like bored security guard and bus driver. Those jobs surely still take some wizarding skill, but I doubt they’re what anyone went through Hogwarts dreaming of doing. So start studying, Harry. I don’t want to see you working at a McDumbledore’s, asking customers if they’d like fried flobberworms with their hippogriff burger.

Final thought on this chunk of Phoenix: I’m not hating Dolores Umbridge. I’ve sighed a lot in previous books at Rowling’s use of excessively annoying or unrealistically exaggerated characters, and nearer the end of the series, I might do a post more fully explaining why that tendency bothers me. As I mentioned in passing in my first Phoenix post, I was bracing myself for Umbridge to be the latest such character I hate; she certainly was in the film version. But to my pleasant surprise, she hasn’t been. I’ve actually found her a fairly enjoyable villain so far, as her villainy-by-sweetness has come off much better in the book (not having to actually hear her probably helps). It’s still somewhat early, but right now I’d put her more in the “love to hate” category with a character like Snape. I hope I still feel that way at the end.

Phoenix 1: You can’t handle the (veritaserum-induced) truth!

Like Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix gets off to a much faster, better start than the first books in the series. Early in the series, I would intentionally start a book late at night, thinking I would just get through the Dursley chapters so I could move on to genuinely enjoying it the next day. But now, rather than making us slog through the Dursleys’ exaggerated awfulness, Rowling has gotten better about using them as a briefer, more focused springboard that prepares the upcoming plot. I could still do without that entire family, but at least I don’t go into an HP book anymore expecting to dislike the first couple chapters.

As of this posting, I have completed the first 11 chapters (220 pages) of Phoenix. Just enough to get the gang back at Hogwarts and through the opening feast. A few more thoughts from roughly the first quarter of the book:

For the second time in the series (the first being early in Azkaban), Harry is forced to briefly contemplate life after possible expulsion from Hogwarts. And assuming the seventh book is substantially the same as the seventh and eight movies, we do eventually get to see that idea of Harry on the run come to fruition. But this might have been the most interesting time for it to have happened. In Azkaban, Harry had no real plan beyond the immediate tasks of trying to get enough money to live off before the Ministry caught up to him. In Deathly Hallows (at least the film version), he’s occupied with the resistance against Voldemort. But in Phoenix, only, he has Sirius. As I mentioned while wrapping up my Goblet discussion, Sirius has become perhaps my favorite character. (So I’m dreading what I know happens near the end of Phoenix.) So it’s intriguing to think of what Harry’s life on the lam with Sirius would have been like. In that sense, I was a little like Sirius himself in the book: happy to see Harry win his case, but a little disappointed at the possibility lost.

Speaking of Mr. Black, Sirius vs. Molly Weasley was one of the most underratedly captivating scenes the series has produced thus far. Two characters whom I love, facing off against each other with the same underlying intent in mind: doing what was best for Harry. Sirius and Molly might be two of the strongest-willed character we’ve seen. This is obvious in Sirius’s case; he survived more than a decade in the horror of Azkaban, maintained at least most of his sanity, and escaped the inescapable in order to protect his godson. But Molly might be just as impressive in her own way. Just being a mother is surely difficult, but her circumstances must have been almost laughably impossible: seven kids, six of them boys, most of them troublemakers, and with very limited funds to accomplish it all. She must have needed an iron will at times, but her argument with Sirius might have been the first time we’d really seen it. We’d seen her angry before, disciplining various children, but this was her actually battling, fighting for what she believed would be best for someone she thought of as a son.

So now the closest thing Harry has had to a mother and a father were battling it out. Sirius mostly wins, and in the moment, I was glad. It certainly felt more fair to let Harry know what was going on, and if anything, it seemed unjust to keep him in the dark about any details. But I’m pretty sure I remember why Dumbledore, and thus Molly Weasley, wanted certain information kept away from Harry (Voldemort can invade his mind?), and the reasoning is sound. Sirius’s approach is probably more respectful of Harry, trusting in his ability and believing in his right to know all he was up against. But Molly might have been acting like more of an actual parent, wanting to protect her “son” at all costs. Her protective impulse was powerfully shown again later, when the boggart reveals her worst fear: her family’s deaths.

No matter how understandable Dumbledore and the others end up being in trying to keep certain information from Harry, it’s easy to feel Harry’s frustration. I was forewarned that Harry gets pretty whiny for much of Phoenix, and that has certainly been true thus far. But it hasn’t bothered me. At this point, no good reason to keep him in the dark has yet been revealed. His explosion at Ron and Hermione is full of “woe is me” attitude, yet his emotions still feel justified. His jealousy over Ron becoming a prefect is a little immature, but when he lists all his triumphs over dark arts, you can understand his hurt over his exclusion. We’re seeing a lot more raw emotion from Harry than we had in the rest of the series, but so far, I’m ok with it. If it gets out of control, I’ll write a “When good wizards go emo” post.

As for our other characters, the happiest development for me was Ron’s becoming a prefect. First, it was just hilarious; the reactions were hysterical, especially the twins’. But mostly, I was happy for Ron to beat Harry at something, even if it turns out the decision was only made for Harry’s protection. The whole series, I’ve wanted Ron to find his niche, but it’s kept not happening. Even Neville got a niche sooner, with his herbology. But finally we see Ron get something, and while it’s not something he particularly wanted, I expect we’ll see him grow into it. Elsewhere in the Weasley family? Ginny can still barely get a line; I’m getting impatient for her to become more of a character. The twins are still awesome, as they progress toward their natural career, and they take over my favorite character spot if I’m allowed to combine them into one entity. And we see the (perhaps inevitable) fall of Percy from douche to willing family pariah. Part of me wonders if he’s under the Imperius Curse. On the one hand, everything he’s done seems like a natural outgrowth of his ambition, strict adherence to rules, and annoying lack of perspective. But on the other, so completely turning on his family felt like a bit much. I doubt it’s the Imperius, as it seems more likely that he’ll just have an error-of-my-ways redemption story later, but still, it’s disappointing to see someone from the World’s Greatest Family go so astray.

The Order itself is full of potentially interesting characters, though we don’t meet any of them with much depth yet. Tonks is clumsy and can change her appearance, but she didn’t make a huge impression on me; I understand that she’s fairly beloved by some fans. We see the real Mad-Eye Moody, and sure enough, he’s pretty much just like his imposter. But as I noted at the end of Goblet, he doesn’t have any rapport with our main characters. He’s still interesting conceptually, but I have to say, it feels like something has been lost there. Outside the Order, we finally are introduced to Luna Lovegood, but while I like her, I actually found the movie version more immediately interesting. Maybe that actress just nailed the role so well.

Finally, there was also the matter of Harry’s trial. At the end of Goblet, Cornelius Fudge’s willful ignorance brought him to the edge of becoming another of Rowling’s excessively exaggerated characters. At Harry’s trial, he probably crosses that line as he huffs and puffs his way to becoming the bad kind of laughingstock. But I won’t harp too badly on Fudge; from where I’ve stopped in my current reading, the next chapter is titled “Dolores Umbridge,” and I have a feeling I’ll need to save all my eyerolls for her.

The trial itself was entertaining, thanks largely to Dumbledore’s extreme coolness in the face of Fudge’s reddening face. But as they progressed, I found myself wondering why the wizard court goes to so much trouble in its trial. We see the same issues of factual uncertainty and witness credibility arising as we would in the Muggle world, but this is a magic court. You people are magic! Use magic! Just last book, we saw the introduction of veritaserum, which compels the truth. Harry was afraid of taking it in Goblet; even though he could have exonerated himself against stealing from Snape, he was frightened by what else he might be asked. So it’s one thing that he wouldn’t volunteer to take the potion. But why wouldn’t the court force defendants to take it? Are we supposed to believe the wizard legal system has some equivalent of the Fifth Amendment that prevents self-incrimination? This is a justice system that sends its convicts to a prison where magical creatures suck all the happiness out of them until they die. Civil rights don’t seem to be a big issue. Make Harry take the veritaserum, ask him about the dementors, and you’re done. It’s not that hard, people.

Goblet 3: Everything else

In the interest of finally moving on to Order of the Phoenix, I’m going to try to wrap up the rest of my Goblet thoughts in this one last post. Considering I haven’t really covered much yet, there’s a lot to still get to, so here we go.

Despite my incredulity at the house-elf subplot, I still highly enjoyed the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series. The trio of main characters were now fully emerged from childhood to adolescence, with all the petty jealousy, hormonal confusion, and complete awkwardness that comes with that pubescent stage. Ron’s jealousy/anger at Harry for being in the Triwizard Tournament felt natural, and more importantly, lasted the perfect duration; Rowling dragged certain subplots on too long in the second book (Ron’s broken wand) and third book (the mystery of Hermione’s simultaneous classes), but her timing was far better in Goblet. Ron was upset just long enough; similarly, the mystery of how Rita Skeeter was getting her stories was introduced late enough to not drag on excessively — but really, Rita was annoying enough that I could have done without her anyway.

The dance, especially the build-up to it, was extremely fun. As a former prototype of the awkward teenage boy, I felt very sympathetic/amused at Harry and Ron’s difficulty in finding dates and knowing how to behave on said date. The fact that Harry, Ron, and I all got married is a true testament to women’s ability to overlook flaws. The culmination of all that youthful angst comes in Hermione’s eruption that Ron should have asked her to the dance first. It was a great moment, and the first time you can tell for sure that those two will end up together.

The other schools were interesting, and Rowling did a fairly nice job of building up Krum, Fleur, and especially Diggory to be identifiable characters, rather than just faceless competition for Harry. The multitude of revelations about dark wizarding backgrounds — Karkaroff, Bagman, Crouch — was particularly exciting, and really showed the tangled web of questionable allegiances that still remain so many years after Voldemort’s first defeat. But of course, none compare to getting a big piece of Snape’s backstory. We finally get confirmation to the long-held suspicion that Snape was a Death Eater, and while I know how it turns out, I can see how readers would echo Harry’s unease; Dumbledore vouching for Snape should be enough, but Dumbledore has been fooled before, and we’ve watched Snape torment students for fours years now. Rowling has made it so readers aren’t quite sure whom they can trust.

Harry might not have gotten to ride off into the sunset with Sirius like I wanted at the end of Azkaban, but at least we still get healthy doses of Sirius. That’s a very good thing. We see yet again the lengths he will go to in order to protect Harry, or even be near him. He’s protective without being annoying, wise without being pretentious. And he still has that wild desperation about him that makes him so interesting. Possibly my favorite character, unless I can count George and Fred Weasley as one.

Mad-Eye Moody is a seemingly great addition to the cast of characters. He’s perfectly grumpy, extremely capable, and he gives the students perhaps their best Defense Against the Dark Arts instruction yet (no disrespect to Remus, whom I loved). But of course, it turns out that we didn’t really meet Moody at all, but Barty Crouch Jr. doing an elaborate yearlong impersonation. On the one hand, that was slightly disappointing to me; I couldn’t remember the movie well enough to recall whether Moody had ever been present, or if it had always been an imposter. Learning that this character who was so likable was never really himself was a bit of a bummer. Sure, there was a real Moody, and Crouch’s impression of him must have been excellent, even beyond the physical aid of the Polyjuice potion, to avoid suspicion. But even if we can reasonably assume the real Moody is similar (or even identical) in manner to his imposter, it still was never him. He doesn’t really know our trio of main characters or have the relationships built up with them that Crouch did. Moody may still exist, but we still lost a lot of the foundation of a great new character.

But on the other hand, it may have been worth it, because having Crouch have been the imposter all along makes the Death Eaters’ plan all the more intricate. Voldemort alone (more on him in a moment) makes the forces of darkness plenty intimidating all by himself. But while Voldemort alone shows off sheer power, the intricacy of the plan that Barty Crouch Jr. carries out as Moody shows off the Dark Lord’s cunning, as well. So much of what made Fake Moody endearing was all calculated toward Voldemort’s end goal. His kindness toward Neville (which Neville so badly needed) was just an effort to tip off Harry; even his effectiveness as a teacher was perhaps just to make Harry more prepared for his challenges. And sure enough, it all came together about perfectly.

Except…wait, why was all that necessary? Voldemort needed (or at least wanted) Harry for the ritual, to provide the blood that would help return him to power. So to get Harry to the graveyard, Fake Moody secretly guided him through to the Triwizard Tournament trophy, enchanted to be a portkey to transport Harry to his unwitting destination and presumed death. But again, why? Rowling established early in the book that a portkey can be literally anything. So why the Triwizard trophy? Wasn’t that a LOT of extra work, all of which added greater exposure and chances of failure, when they could have just enchanted one of Harry’s shoes to be the portkey? Sure, there would have been risk that making some common object the portkey would result in someone else touching it first — but no less risk than was already present in the Tournament. If Cedric hadn’t been noble, he could have gone through alone, without Harry, foiling all that effort. So is the plan incredibly unnecessarily elaborate for really no greater chance at success? Does the entire basis for the book’s plot boil down to the equivalent of trying to kill Austin Powers using sharks with lasers on their heads instead of just grabbing a gun?

But whatever flaw in logic brought Harry to that graveyard was worth it for the scene that resulted. I remember watching the first two movies years ago and wondering if the entire series would involve Harry foiling attempts to bring Voldemort back to power. But the end of Goblet turns the entire series on its head with Voldemort finally returning. After nearly four full volumes of building up her villain, it would have been easy for Rowling to accidentally disappoint when we at least see him in the flesh. Amazingly, he exceeds all expectations. As mentioned a moment ago, he exudes power, but there’s more to it than just that. He has a creepy stillness about him as he angrily yet calmly takes stock of his followers and their questionable loyalty. As he moves to finish off Harry, it’s clearer than ever what a great villain Rowling has created. Voldemort is evil, but there are a lot of evil characters; Rowling sets her antagonist apart by being effortlessly chilling.

I don’t know what I would have expected to finish off the book if it were my first time in the story at all, but after Harry’s narrow escape from Voldemort and the revelations from Barty Crouch Jr., I doubt I would have expected a government cover-up. Cornelius Fudge’s blindness to reality was almost too aggressive of ignorance, and it nearly took me out of the dramatic denouement with which Rowling was trying to cap off her breathtaking climactic chapters. But it ultimately worked; Dumbledore’s assertive actions after Fudge left really went a long way to setting up the next book. Dumbledore had always been the figurehead of wisdom in the series, but we’d rarely seen him take much overt action. Watching him morph into a field general as he handed out assignments was a welcome change.

There was certainly no doubt that as Goblet drew to a close, the series had turned to far greater darkness. A student had been murdered, the personification of evil had risen, and wizardkind’s wisest leader was marshaling his forces for the coming battles. It was a perfect end to an imperfect (but still very good) book, and like every installment thus far, Goblet of Fire created the impression that the best was still to come.

Goblet 2: When Bad Excuses for Slavery Happen to Good Books

I began my discussion of Goblet of Fire with one of the highlights of the book: an extended stay with the Weasley family. So it seems only fitting to jump straight to the worst the book had to offer: a widespread defense of slavery. Rowling treats the enslavement of house-elves, and Hermione’s efforts to end it, with a mostly light and even mocking tone. It seemed like she viewed it with a sense of amusement, operating under the assumption that no one would think too critically about the obvious parallels of her creation. But it didn’t really even take a very critical eye to come away shocked at the inexplicable decision to include that storyline at all.

From Chamber of Secrets, we knew that house-elves are seemingly powerful magical creatures who have somehow been forced to act as slaves to wealthy wizarding families. The only elf we’d actually encountered prior to Goblet was Dobby, a bumbling elf who tries to help Harry (and mostly fails, doing more harm than good) and practices self-flagellation for disobeying his masters. He wasn’t exactly the most sympathetic introduction to his species — or at least to me; I know others found him more amusing, but he was annoying to me. But whatever else I might say about Dobby, at least he wanted to be free. He achieved that freedom at the end of Chamber, but I knew he came back near the end of the movies, so I assumed he’d have even more of a role in the remainder of the books — perhaps with more explanation as to the whole enslavement of house-elves.

Whatever I was expecting, though, it wasn’t that we’d see the return of house-elves, only to learn that all of them except Dobby want to be enslaved. What’s more, nearly every character in the HP world supports that slavery, as well. This is about the part where I started blinking a lot and wondering if I was imagining all this happening. No one would actually put all this in an ostensibly kids’ book, right?

Yet it was real, and got increasingly worse. Hermione was the sole character who seemed to understand how completely screwed up the whole situation was. But when she tried to do something about it, her friends either tried to ignore her (Harry) or convince her how wrong she was (Ron). It’s important to note that because we experience the book mostly through Harry’s point of view, his dismissive attitude toward Hermione’s beliefs about house-elves results in a rather mocking tone being presented to the reader. The implication is that Hermione, who has always had a tendency to get far too worked up about certain things, is just engaging in another silly cause. She almost immediately abandons her own hunger strike cause, and most of her efforts involve pestering people who couldn’t care less to buy badges. Even the name of her movement, Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (S.P.E.W.) invites mockery. (Sidenote: the most intelligent character in the series doesn’t realize that creating an organization with the acronym SPEW is going to make it hard to be taken seriously?)

It’s also important to note that it’s not like we’re only seeing the Malfoys, or even Barty Crouch, on the opposite side of Hermione, though those may be the only characters who are outright cruel toward house-elves. But Hermione is even opposed by Harry, all of the Weasleys, and Hagrid. (Yes, Hagrid, who supports wild and dangerous magical creatures being free, does not support the same for house-elves.) These are characters we’ve been conditioned to like and mostly agree with. Writers often give “good” characters a dark or fatal flaw to make them more rounded, but this doesn’t feel like Rowling trying to do that. There’s no price for Ron or Harry to pay for condoning slavery. The only one who pays at all for her views is Hermione, with mockery and scorn.

And the defense so often cited in defense of slavery? It’s good for the elves, and the elves want it. They wouldn’t know what to do with freedom or wages. What’s more, Rowling makes these arguments vindicated. We see that the house-elves really don’t want freedom, and repeatedly turn it down when offered. There are two house-elves we’ve actually seen freed, Dobby and now Winky. Winky ends up wallowing in despair and eventually alcoholism once she’s separated from serving her master. Dobby is considered an embarrassment by the rest of his kind for wanting wages, and even he still wants to serve others and turns down Dumbledore’s initial offer for far more pay and vacation time, requesting less money and fewer breaks, because that’s what he’s more comfortable with. Even the one elf who wants his freedom doesn’t want too much of it.

Are you cringing yet? Because you probably should be. What an awful, abhorrent storyline. Even if we give Rowling every benefit of the doubt, she’s at least horribly tone-deaf in including this story, in this manner, at all. How historically ignorant do you have to be to not understand that these are some of the same arguments made in favor of real-life slavery? Or, more likely, did she include these arguments because they did mirror real-life history? And if so, how could she be so foolish as to not explicitly condemn them?

Other than Hermione, who loses every battle on the issue, we only see two oblique references to anyone supporting house-elf freedom. The first is that Dumbledore does give Dobby a paying job, when no one else would, and offers him very nice compensation (which, again, Dobby turns down so he can earn less). Because Dumbledore tries to treat Dobby so fairly, it’s a fair inference to think he would give Hogwarts’ many other elves their freedom and wages if they would accept it. Because Dumbledore is the undisputed master of wisdom (despite his failings that suggest otherwise), this may be Rowling’s attempt to subtly show Hermione’s position as the enlightened one. But subtlety has rarely been Rowling’s style, and this wasn’t a good place to start, not with so many popular characters espousing such unfortunate views.

The other show of support comes from Sirius Black, and it really isn’t even that supportive at all. When our trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione meet up with Sirius, Hermione heatedly mentions Barty Crouch’s mistreatment of Winky, and Ron tells her to give it a rest. Sirius replies that Hermione has a better understanding of Crouch than Ron, saying, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” That’s about as mild as support gets; Sirius is still explicitly calling the slave-elves inferior. But at least he appears to get that abusing them is wrong; even that seems refreshing compared to Ron rolling his eyes at how bothered Hermione is by the abuse.

And that’s it. We have Hermione, who fervently supports house-elf freedom, and is mocked for it. We have Sirius, who views the elves as inferior, but thinks they should be treated well. And Dumbledore, who is at least willing to treat them fairly, but still uses the willing slaves. And then we have everyone else, favorite characters who are annoyed by someone wanting to do something about slavery, spouting off lines from a Stephen Douglas speech. And we have those views validated by elves who are ashamed when one of their own seeks freedom, and fall into depression when forcibly freed.

And then? We have no real resolution to the subplot. The books ends, and the issue lingers past it. No one else is freed. No one recants their position. No elves realize they deserve more. Sure, it’s a seven-book series, and Rowling still has time to resolve that story. But that’s too explosive of a plotline to leave dangling for future books, in my opinion. If you’re going to make excuses for slavery in a book, then conclude that angle before the book ends.

To be clear, I don’t think Rowling is racist or even that she was trying to make her characters be racist. I think in her mind, house-elves and blacks (or any other group that’s been enslaved) are completely separate. But I think she was incredibly misguided, in a way that defies comprehension. Even if the intent was pure, the sheer stupidity astounds me, to tackle slavery in any form and not realize the obvious and immediate connotations. (Or to tackle it and not safeguard against how those connotations would affect readers’ perceptions of your story.) I’m not saying this blunder has to taint your entire perception of the series, but I am saying that it was bad and unnecessary.

Somehow, incredibly, I still enjoyed Goblet of Fire despite the slavery subplot. And that might be Rowling’s most impressive magic of all.