Sunday, October 27, 2013

HPP: Problems with Authority

Plots and subplots are braided together in these latest chapters of The Chamber of Secrets, and things we thought at first were distractions and little excursions into dead ends wind back around, ushering us to the center of the labyrinth.  An empty, 50-year-old diary; an exceptionally annoying phantom; a lost enchanted car; a half-giant's soft spot for carnivorous monsters; and the authorial purpose of placing spiders near the scene of the crime.  This is where Rowling gets a chance to flex her muscles and show her mettle.  This is darn good storytelling.

The Valentine's Day celebration was suitably sickening, being, as it was, orchestrated by Gilderoy.  And it helpfully allowed for Harry to discover that the blank diary perhaps wasn't blank after all.  We learn that the blank diary is in fact a two-way device, and Harry communicates with the memories of one, Tom Riddle, who attended Hogwarts fifty years ago--the exact time the Chamber of Secrets was last open.

Of the re-lived memory, much is significant, outside of the capture of the so-called Heir of Slytherin.  First, the opening of the Chamber of Secrets and death of a student is confirmed.  Second: Riddle is much like Harry, a lonely boy raised in the Muggle world, with no real home to return to outside of Hogwarts.  Sympathy-inducing and character-deepening all at once.  We're shown also the contrast between Professor Dippet and the young Dumbledore.  Masha puts perfectly what I absorbed on a subconscious level.  So I know that this impression is powerful enough to affect even the most casual reader:

I think we've mentioned Rowling's successful use of place, regarding especially the Hogwarts castle. In this book we see the strength of place growing as we see both Harry and Riddle's relationship to the school. Both boys obviously see Hogwarts as home. And there is a sort of magic to home, both in the series and in reality. Being rooted to a place is powerful and leaves a mark on both the person and the place. It seems too that Dumbledore is very much at home in Hogwarts. It is his place as well. Rowling shows it best when she gives us a glimpse of the school's previous headmaster: Armando Dippet. Dippet is kind, and I'm sure very competent, but he doesn't infuse the school with his presence the way Dumbledore does. The sense is that Dumbledore's emotional connection to the school is similar to Harry's and to Riddle's. It's his place, and because it is his: emotionally as well as vocationally, the change in official status does nothing to damage his magical link to the school and it's students. It's a rich detail, I think, and one that gives a layer of tangible, natural magic to the series. And I hadn't noticed it until Jenna pointed it out.

Also, did anyone pick up on it--?  There was more than just Riddle, spectre-Harry, young Hagrid, and Hagrid's furry creature prowling about that night.  Who or what remains to me seen.

Poor Hermione ends up in the hospital wing yet again.  Students spend quite a bit of their educational time there, so it's a good thing Madam Pomfrey is so protective.  But when their best friend falls victim to the growing terror, Ron and Harry decide it's time to confront Hagrid--as usual, taking matters into their own hands rather than confiding in an trusted adult.

I understand why Rowling has them do this.  But that doesn't put me any more at ease with the idea of my young, impressionable son idolizing as role models these otherwise capable boys.  I'm back in the discomfort caused by the opening chapters now, when Ron and Harry chose to take the enchanted car to Hogwarts.  I hope and trust that my son will make better choices than these two young wizards.  As it stands, a young adult story, with adolescents as the main characters yet which takes place in a school setting, is likely to take me over and again to this discomfort.  Rowling plays it off well by making Hogwarts an unconventional and rather dangerous place to begin with.  It is a common characteristic of the wizarding world.  And so, I find, very little suspension of disbelief is needed.

Now we turn to Azkaban.  The first mention of the wizard prison appeared in previous chapters, and it rises again and again, here and there in casual circumstances, so as to accustom us to its name and existence.  But in Chapter 14, it steps to the foreground for the first time.  Cornelius Fudge insists on taking Hagrid there for safe-keeping, making the excuses that he's "got to be seen doing something" and that the "Ministry's got to act."  If that mentality is not perfect fodder for the growth of fascism, I don't know what is.  It's a tendency of the wizarding world that I think will crop up again in the future.  As, I suppose, is common in a society so often besieged by danger and destruction.

This throws into juxtaposition Dumbledore's wise, benevolent, almost anarchist-by-comparison approach to leadership.  It's an interesting subject for scholarly study.  Those in official positions of authority have their hands tied.  In crisis, they act in what can be argued is a logical way, as their duty is to act according to the good of the whole society. Then we have Dumbledore, who is also an authority figure, but who acts on preternatural instinct.  He appears to be capable of the spiritual gift of reading of souls.  Whatever the origin or the method, Dumbledore sees through to truth.  Yet it is a very personalized gift, and as such, open to misuse and corruption.  One wonders whether it is not dangerous to trust to safekeeping a school (or society) on the "feelings" of an assumed-unbiased, capable individual who has the good of everyone in mind--without recourse to greater authority.

Going back to Azkaban: I am struck by the atmosphere of horror surrounding the place.  If a man like Hagrid (who braves the Forbidden Forest regularly and claims hideous monsters like other people collect kittens) is fearful of it, what kind of place is it?  Is it ethical to imprison criminals, no matter the crime, in what could possibly be a living Hell?  And how does that figure in a fallible system, in which innocents can be accused and sentenced?

The problem is aggravated by the existence of magic.  As a resource so powerful as to render a witch or wizard almost god-like, things could go very wrong very quickly if it were used for ill over good (or even neutrality, if it is possible to ever use something in such a way).  How does a civilization protect itself from some dire potentiality?  The answer appears obvious: there needs to be a rigorous and impenetrable penal system.  But it comes at a high cost.

Placing ambiguous magic as the central mover of a story comes with many such difficulties.  When characters can harness such mighty powers, the setting in which such people may live or exist is thrown under scrutiny.  What would such a society look like, and how would if function?  What would be the moral repercussions in such a civilization?  It's not an easy thing to work out.  I'm looking forward to seeing it in greater detail as we read on in the series.

Enough of the deep stuff!  Winding down with Chapter 15: I am with Ron and Jenna.

...okay, Hagrid, really? I know you wanted to reveal some things, but you thought it was safe to send two twelve-year-old kids and a cowardly dog into a nest of acromantulas? Way deep in the Forbidden Forest? Really?!!!

Totally.  Oh, Hagrid.  You seem to take for granted that not everybody can look at a wild beast of legend and see a pet, not a predator.  Or cut, lift, and carry a twelve-foot tall Christmas tree.

Aragog and Mosag immediately brought to mind the names of the giants Gog and Magog, of western mythological fame.  Whether or not Rowling was aware that people like me would hear the musical similarities and associate them as such, I don't know.  But she's none too shabby on her mythology, so it's not out of the question.

At the rescue of the enchanted car, my first instinct was to cry, "But what if the car hadn't been there!  They would have died!"  In reading, I often test plot developments in such a way.  I'm uncomfortable with the chance occurrence because it has little to no origin in the free will of the characters--which I find infinitely more fascinating.  Or it could be that I'm a little bit of a control freak in my own life and am scared silly at the idea of having to depend on luck, or fortune, or providence to get me out of a sticky, webby situation.

And, at last . . . something to lend dignity to poor Moaning Myrtle!  Glad to see she's got value other than comical relief, at least for her sake.  Stay close for the Chapter 16 reflections later this evening.



  1. Gog and Magog! I can't believe that connection never occurred to me! Well done. :D

    I enjoyed your thoughts on Azkaban, the justice system, and ambiguous magic as the central mover in the story. The next book should open up lots of possibility for discussions about those things. I want to put some more thought into them, myself. Hopefully I can remember. ;)

  2. You don't find out until the next book, but Azkaban works because innocence will protect you there. No doubt it is a horrible experience, like any sort of incarceration would be; I won't go into more detail, but the fear is of WHO is at Azkaban, not what the place itself is, but this WHO has no power over you if you are truly innocent. So it's on a par with incarceration in a real-world system, I think, if not better because the innocent don't go through the same suffering as the guilty?

    I don't actually see confronting Hagrid as a problem with authority; here I see two people putting trust in a friendship they have valued, and having faith that a friend will be honest with them. The alternative, as you say, is to tell an adult - but who? The only person Harry would trust is Dumbledoor, but Harry has seen that Dumbledoor is already aware of the situation. Harry also has a lot of faith in Dumbledoor, so feels instinctively (as the reader does too) that if Dumbledoor is cool with it, then Hagrid can't be a threat. So where, then, is the danger in asking Hagrid?

    Admittedly afterwards they do go on a ridiculously dangerous jaunt, but hey, that's partly Hagrid's flaw in thinking dangerous creatures are fluffy bunnies, which not everyone can cope with!

    Besides, if at every conflicting situation a child MC went running to a responsible adult there would be no good children's books, in any genre. I think we have to trust in our own teaching of our children that they know in real life when to ask for help, and allow them to suspend disbelief in a book and go on those wild adventures. When I was 8 years old and reading CoS, I thoroughly enjoyed the car ride to school, but remember thinking how daft they were for not just waiting for the Weasleys to come back. But where would be the fun in that? ;)

    I love your insights on the powerful feelings of Hogwarts as home - perhaps this is another reason the story is so gripping for children and teenagers...when you're trying to find your place in the world and experimenting with your identity and the struggles of growing up, its reassuring to have a home you can return to in a book.

    Happy Halloween hon! xx


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