Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited -

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

- and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin’:

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? - also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass’; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.


  1. Posted 27 June 2007 at 21:21 | Permalink | Reply

    I usually back up and re-read the preceding Potter before launching into the latest one, but haven’t gone back further than that. So it’s been a while since I read Chamber of Secrets (and seeing the film is a quite different experience, albeit a more recent one.) Which makes it interesting to view it through your eyes, so to speak. I hadn’t known of the original title, though as you say it explains some things. Re your comment about the numbers (or lack thereof) in the magical world, one could I suppose envisage other, lesser, schools of magic bearing the same relationship to Hogwarts that a secretarial college bears to Winchester. That they go unmentioned would be no more odd than the lack of discussion of secretarial colleges in public-school stories. In any case, the Ministry of Magic would still be required to deal with magical beings. And one of the things I found interesting in CoS was the ability to compare magicians like Harry and Dumbledore with magical creatures such as Dobby. Here is an unassuming being with so much magical force that he can close up platform 9.75 itself, to say nothing of the way he handles Lucius Malfoy once he’s out of contract. I think a rogue house elf would be quite a trial for the Ministry (as of course we see in book five). And IIRC the names of some of Voldemort’s Death Eaters imply foreign origins, though I suppose we don’t know where they were recruited.

    PS I have tagged you with a meme over on Eine Kleine Nichtmusik. Feel free to pick it up or ignore it, but please consider supporting Clare who is putting up quite a decebt contest in the Big Blogger house.

  2. Posted 11 July 2007 at 20:42 | Permalink | Reply

    Just remembered I never responded to this.

    On the numbers, Rowling is pretty clear that Hogwarts is it – but she does say that there are about 600 people at Hogwarts, which doesn’t really add up. She also makes your point about the responsibilities of the Min of Mag, incidentally.

    Really must review HP&tPoA. Looking at it again (I re-read it about a month ago) I’m amazed how little there is to it – it’s one of my favourites in the series, but it’s *all* buildup.

    Mmm, memes…

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