Friday, August 23, 2013

HPP: Back to School, Part II

Chapter 4 of The Chamber of Secrets further acquaints us with the Weasleys and the idiosyncrasies of wizard society.

Mr. Weasley's fascination with Muggles is meant to be humorous.  We, the readers, shake our heads at him with affection and say, "Silly Arthur, don't you know, it's you who are the fascinating ones?"  But I'm a stubborn advocate of the magic of ordinary; though I know it's exactly the opposite I'm supposed to take away, I wholeheartedly concur with his conclusions:

"Fascinating!" he would say as Harry talked him through using a telephone.  "Ingenious, really, how many ways Muggles have found for getting along without magic."

Here, here, sir!

And aren't we, though?  It's something that irks me about wizards' attitudes toward Muggles.  At least one sensible wizard recognizes our resilience, vision, and resourcefulness as a race.  There's an opportunity here to bring a touch of magic to readres' lives, by helping us view them through the admiration of an outsider.  I hope to see more on that.

by reallycorking, To Freedom

Meanwhile, we re-visit Diagon Alley, one of the pleasures of the first book.  To see how the wizarding world works outside of Hogwarts.  Harry, unaccustomed to using Floo powder, gets off one fireplace too early and steps into Knockturn Alley, a section off of Diagon devoted to the Dark Arts.*  (As a folktale enthusiast, I appreciated the Hand of Glory cameo.)

Malfoy the elder and son are poking about on suspicious business, so Harry must hide.  For the first time we hear Voldemort referred to as The Dark Lord, by Lucius.  Not very convincing if his family were supposed to have been controlled by Voldemort against their wills.  Harry barely escapes being caught.  He is then scooped up by Hagrid, who is "lookin' fer a Flesh-Eatin' Slug Repellent."  Hagrid leads Harry down the road and out into the more wholesomely quirky Diagon Alley.

Among other things (entangling mysteries and further plot and character developments in this part abound), I'm surprised that the Dark Arts are so easily accessible.  In The Sorcerer's Stone, I got the impression that such things were outlawed, and that black magic had to operate in secret under the benevolent law of the Ministry of Magic.  But shady is not illegal, and the presence of Knockturn Alley bugs me like an itch.  Just what is the consensus regarding the Dark Arts in the wizarding world?  There doesn't seem to be the moral authority to proclaim them universally Wrong and banish their practice; only a general sense of wrongness and a distaste for those who have an affinity for it.

I was glad to see Hermione's parents and was curious as to why they didn't get much "screen time."  At that point it would have been tedious to introduce and flesh out two new characters, but we might have got a bit of dialogue, or even a gesture--a nodding of the head, a raising of the eyebrow--other than a passive description of general nervousness at the situation in which they find themselves.  I want to know how two decent people previously ignorant of an entire parallel society living among them react to the sudden revelation that There Is Such a Thing as Magic.  Oh, and Your Daughter's a Witch.**

Heather Campbell, Weasleys meet the Grangers, source

Gilderoy Lockhart and his swooning female fans--Mrs. Weasley among them--are in good fun.  They further convince me that the foundational backdrop of the Harry Potter story is meant to be a parody--a kind of cultural stereotype upon which to unfold an entertaining plot and unpack and examine deeper, more significant questions.

As Masha and Jenna noted, Harry's kindness to Ginny is a sweet moment.  I enjoyed seeing Ginny step out of two dimensions as a character.  Her introduction is well-handled.

by glocgal, Arthur vs. Lucius

Ron and Harry's mad adventure is typical boyish mischief, just the sort of thing I can see my son doing (and my husband, at that age).  Parental formation might deter irresponsible choices, but some children are just willful and insist to learn through deviation!  I felt a great deal of satisfaction at events not turning out how they expected, in both a motherly I-told-you-so way and a makes-for-a-more-interesting-read sort of way.  Though some of that was lost when they did indeed end up winning the admiration of their peers, as they had planned.

At this point it can be called a recurring circumstance: the absence of any real negative consequence for the protagonists' actions.  I don't like it, for two reasons: 

  1. It's unrealistic.  Which could be overlooked using suspension of disbelief, perhaps, if not for the fact that
  2. It's weak storytelling.  One of the more annoying circumstances surrounding a Mary Sue is that everyone, except for the obvious Bad Guys, are on the side of the protagonists and don't fault them for doing bad things with innocent intentions.

A third reason could be listed, and that is morality.  What kind of message is communicated to young people, if their heroes are never given more than a slap on the wrist for seriously poor choices?  For putting the lives of themselves and others in danger?  But I'm not sure if I'm comfortable including that as a literary failing since I don't believe stories ought to be didactic.  Of course, we're still early in the series, so we have yet to see if Harry and co. incur any significant consequences for misdeeds, intended or no.

Or is it telling that the chapter ends with the final words "Harry couldn't help it.  He grinned, too"?

*  Knockturn Alley, huh?--i see whut u did thar
**  We've touched on this before in combox discussion, but it's another book element I'd like to examine further: the use the word witch for a female wizard.  The two have very different connotations and bring up questions of gendered language.



  1. I totally agree with you about Arthur's fascination with Muggles and Muggle technology! It's one of the reasons I love that guy so much. He's a great character, even if hen-pecked.

    Flagrant lawbreaking is pretty common, isn't it? And the heavier and stricter the laws, the more flagrant and organized the lawbreaking will be... I get your point, though, and I'm not sure how Knockturn Alley stays in operation if it's just around the corner from Diagon Alley. That's not even trying to be secretive.

    Rowling is known for little mistakes like that--primarily because she's read so frequently and so closely, I think. All of us writers make logical errors from time to time.

    At this point it can be called a recurring circumstance: the absence of any real negative consequence for the protagonists' actions

    Your take on it may be different, but I think over the course of the series, this washes out. There are some things Harry and Co. get away with and other things they do not. There's one instance where a teacher gets Harry out of what would likely have been unfair punishment and then gives him a beautiful (and effective) takedown. And there's another instance where Harry gets precisely what he deserves--from Snape, of all people. And then there's a horrible SPOILER who punishes people for not being evil... but if I say anything else, there'll be lots and lots of spoilers; I've been free-tongued enough. :P

    If you write a post on gendered language, I'll definitely be interested to read it. :)

    1. is known for little mistakes like that--primarily because she's read so frequently and so closely, I think. All of us writers make logical errors from time to time.

      It's true, and I'm an especially big stickler for things like that, even for casual reading. Continuity, for me, is one of the great pleasures of world-building, and I spend way too much time on it!

  2. Hey! Did you hear your boy Chesterton is up for sainthood..I mean, you probably did, but I'm out of things. Congrats anyway!


    yeah. Harry gets away with too much, and it's definitely a believability issue - because honestly, even when there are consequences (even extreme consequences) they don't seem to have a lasting or deep effect on Harry. And I do wonder how much of that was Rowling being shallow (in the sense that she obviously is more comfortable writing 'loud', surface emotions) and how much is her deciding that - with all the trauma her characters do experience, it's better for the story to keep it moving and dwell less on the developing interior life of those characters.

    Little mistakes bug me too..but everyone does have them, even God's gift to world-building (also known as Tolkien). So I can't hold it against her too much, unless it happens again and again and again, in which case, it's just laziness. ;)

    Write on gendered language!!!! I want to read that one! I never was bothered by Witch so much as the pairing of witch and wizard. Wizard (I thought) was sort of gender-neutral and witch ought to be paired with warlock..maybe with wizard being the over-arching term, or the term for a particularly skilled witch or warlock..but I don't usually see negative connotations in witch..that might be just me though. I totally want to read your thoughts!!!

  3. Yes! Please do write on the gendered language! I've been trying to put a post together about it myself, but it keeps turning into twenty other things.

    I think warlock gets used, but only as an archaism, like you'd find in legal documents -- but I could be just making that up.

    I do think there ought to be a more. . . robust . . . sense of the consequences of . . . certain actions in HP (thought that way [SPOILERS] lie). I don't think that comes from didactic motives so much as I think it would make a better story.

    But I don't mind Harry not getting thrown out of Hogwarts every other week; it's probably a generally good policy for (apparently) the only magical school in the UK to be flexible and to err on the side of mercy. Plus, Harry's known to be a minor in a very abusive household; it makes sense to be a little lax about cutting off his only escape route.

    Of course, that's exactly what happened with [SPOILER], also. :/

  4. The whole "no consequences for Harry" bit (which, as Jenna pointed out, doesn't always hold true) reminds me a little bit of the opposite end of the spectrum seen in Paul Atreides character in "Dune". Particularly the scene where he's essentially forced into one-on-one combat with this dude; totally against his will; and is still scathingly cut down by his mother and the tribal leader when he wins because they see that it's important to his development. In that scenario he's done the right thing but gets "punished" for it. Those kinds of incidences form his character so strongly he becomes a victim to the culture that created him, while Harry is given more of an opportunity to create himself.

    Overall, Paul is actually a fascinating counter-point to Harry in that there are so many similarities in their existence but such different reactions from their worlds.

    -The Neglected Husband


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