Sunday, November 3, 2013

HPP: Of Phoenixes and Free Will

Hallowmas was the perfect week to finish up The Chamber of Secrets, and it did not disappoint.  Chapter 17, "The Heir of Slytherin," was a sledgehammer of ah-ha! moments and I-gotta-remember-thats!  So let's begin, shall we?

In Chapter 16, Ron and Harry's intention to question Moaning Myrtle is postponed in several steps: (1) they are caught by McGonagall on the way to the bathroom and must make the detour to the hospital wing  to cover their story; (2) they discover the crumpled paper in Hermione's hand and the nature of the beast and decide to inform McGonagall; and (3) they're thrown completely off track by the news that Ginny has been taken--and most likely killed--by the Heir of Slytherin.  This is all great story-building and plot strategy.  I'll take a pinch of unbelievability for a gallon of masterful layering and cross-layering (is that redundant?) any day.

When they at last come to themselves again, Harry and Ron decide to confide the information they have to Professor Lockhart, who is to descend into the Chamber to attempt a rescue.  Why they would go to him rather than to McGonagall, who is clearly more capable, I don't know.  But it works.

In the staff room, by Marta T, source

This is one of the instances I wrote on previously, in which Harry asserts himself--as a character, as a personality, as the subject of his novels, rather than just an object to be acted upon and blown about by every wind.  In which he lays down the title earned for him by his mother, the Boy Who Lived, and fits out a reputation of his own making.  He gets angry.  And it is that very human anger and its source in love for his near and dear that brings me closest to him thus far.  It's when I really believe him and feel I know him as a person.  I just love it when he gets angry!  (Whoa--am I having a Ginny moment?)  Harry is one of those unassuming people who's not easily ticked--he's never anything other than kind to the moon-eyed little sister of his best friend, Colin's obsessive photo-snapping, and even Lockhart's friendly arrogance (okay, well maybe just "tolerant" of that last one)--but if and when he is made angry, heaven help you!

Henceforth, all the pieces fall into place.  Lockhart is revealed as the charlatan; Myrtle gets her five minutes of fame; the Chamber entrance is discovered.  The boys go forth alone, with only their fragile bravery, their determination, and a good-for-nothing Professor of Dark Arts.

After Chapter 17, I understand why people say Chamber is the darkest book.  The bleeding black ink; the sinister and apelike statue of Slytherin, crude and vast, reminiscent of dark, primitive demons that accepted blood sacrifices in the jungle; the heavy body uncurling itself from a black hole of a mouth.  Masha feels that Riddle is more distressing than Voldemort as a villain, and I agree.  

Riddle is an ideal villain in this one book. His Voldemort self is less convincing, and less interesting to me than the conscience-free, arrogant boy facing Harry beneath the castle. Is this why Chamber of Secrets is more unnerving than the rest of the series? Because Harry is still so young, still likeable, and Riddle is very much the image of a boy seduced by darkness, and not the incompetent, almost ridiculous little demon he becomes?

The smiling, handsome schoolboy, model student, orphan, prefect, head boy, calm and cool, like a brunette James Dean is poorly suited to the demented, murderous intention, the calculating conniving, the raw, yet-to-be formed and distilled craving for power, the self-stylized name . . . juxtaposition highlights perversity.  (Harry, why oh why did you put down your wand!)

Tom Riddle, by glockgal, source

The infiltration of Ginny by Tom Riddle is by far worse than Voldemort's parasitical relation to Quirrel.  Quirrel was a willing host.  Ginny is literally possessed.  And how he possessed her, by feeding on her fears and secrets!

"If I say so myself, Harry, I've always been able to charm the people I needed."

That's the part that refuses to leave you in comfort--the outright deception.  At least Voldemort stands and faces his enemies.  They know him.  His name is feared.  But Riddle works like an infestation or a terminal disease, and you've no chance to defend yourself.  By the time you know what he is, it's too late.

Now the other thing I noted was how similar the attitudes of Draco Malfoy and Tom Riddle were.  Riddle's interest in opening the Chamber of Secrets (and in re-opening it through Ginny, at first, before he learned of Harry) was in ridding the school of Mudbloods.  Draco expressed approval of such a purge several times.  I daresay that he has the capability to become another Voldemort, if not the talent, charm, and intelligence, then in intention.

[Quick side question: why is such a despicable person such as Salazar Slytherin head of Hogwarts, even if he was one of the founders?  If, say, a racist bigot founded our school or town or club, we'd be in all sorts of hurry to unaffiliate with him.]

Fawkes & the Basilisk, by odella, source

Riddle's anagram-name is narcissistic, unlike Harry's confidence in and loyalty for Dumbledore.  Fawkes's unearthly music is one of the truly magical moments in Harry Potter.  The "eerie, spine-tingling, unearthly" song that "lifted the air on Harry's scalp and made his heart feel as though it was swelling to twice its normal size" is more magic to me than any charm, potion, or transfiguration; even more so than an enchanted ceiling is that thin, high note ringing out in the dark, kindling hope in the heart.  Masha:

The magic in Harry Potter is not magic in the true sense, and teaches us nothing about how to approach this "embodiment of the sublime virtue of hope", with all it's dangers, pitfalls, and beautiful potentialities. More often than not, the magic of Harry Potter is mere 'hocus-pocus spells' - not fairy at all. But then, there are at times that real sense of 'ritualized optimism' that makes the magic real.

Fawkes is splendid.  But the best part of this chapter is, surprisingly, not in the the feeble but unwavering faith and loyalty of the good; but in the unflattering but accurate portrayal of evil as something dull, arrogant, and uncreative.  While Harry has no idea how a shiny bird and a shabby hat will save him, Riddle is assured his victory.  He refers to Lily's valiant sacrifice flippantly as "a powerful counter charm" and mocks Dumbledore's aid to Harry, even to the point of forgetting--he, the most brilliant and powerful of wizards--that phoenix tears have healing powers.  Voldemort's prideful carelessness can be counted on much more than Dumbledore's haphazard and sometimes dubious help to secure the the triumph of goodness.  So in the end, it is Riddle's own creature--the fang of the basilisk plunged into that black diary--that destroys him.

The girls have already spoken sufficiently on Harry's (and Dumbledore's) extreme kindness to Ginny.  So I won't say more on that.  But I will say that Gilderoy without any memory is a much more likeable person than normal Gilderoy.  Funny how he is the most himself, as opposed to the person he wants everyone to think he is, when he doesn't know himself:  "Am I a professor?" said Lockhart in mild surprise.  "Goodness.  I expect I was hopeless, was I?"

I pouted a bit about the lack of free will in the last book club post.  That was well remedied in Chapter 18, when Dumbledore makes his famous assertion: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."  And I like that.  I'm a huge champion of free will operating in stories--especially when it is made blindingly clear by one or two very grave choices, upon which all the rest of the story hinges.  Which is why Harry can wield the sword of Gryffindor.  He chooses to.

We come back to Dobby at the end of the story.  It seems like such a long time--a school year packed with hard lessons, difficult classmates, social awkwardness, lovely holidays, exciting sports, deadly adventures, real fears and desolations--since the little house elf stood in the upstairs room in the Dursleys and begged Harry not to come back to Hogwarts.  Harry's kindness to Dobby is yet another example of choice shaping fates.  When Lucius Malfoy reels on Harry with his wand raised, Dobby knocks the wizard off his feet and commands him to leave (see how the tables have turned!).  And since Dobby's role was too small in this book, I expect to see him again in later stories, where the opportunity for Harry's choice in kindness can bear fruit for another adventure.



  1. Quick side question: why is such a despicable person such as Salazar Slytherin head of Hogwarts, even if he was one of the founders? If, say, a racist bigot founded our school or town or club, we'd be in all sorts of hurry to unaffiliate with him.

    W. . .e. . .l . . l. . . yes, you or I probably would be -- but don't underestimate the power of "tradition" coupled with the power of unspoken bigotry combined with institutional inertia to leave things like Slytherin House untouched for a long, long time.

    I totally agree that it would have been the right thing to do to cut Salazar Slytherin out of Hogwarts the minute he started blathering about blood purity back in 990 or whenever it was. Barring that, at any point in the next thousand years, Slytherin House should have been either dismantled or renamed, and Hogwarts should have made an official statement disavowing the ideas of Salazar Slytherin and affirming its commitment to Wizard Anti-Racism. But! as much as I make fun of Hogwarts for holding on to a Racism and Bullying House, given that JKR invented this house, it's not super unrealistic that it continues to exist. Sentimental or straight-up bigoted Slytherin alumni (or alumni of other houses who just can't see the problem), discomfort with change even when it's for the better, a tendency to underestimate the diversity of opinion in the past and therefore let its bigots off the hook, and an unwillingness on the part of school officials, parents, the Ministry etc., to pay attention to things that don't directly affect them could all play a role.

    In the US. where I live, there are many historical bigots who have institutions named after them. I think it's probably the same deal in England. Once something's been in place for even a fairly short time, it's easy to keep hanging onto it in the name of tradition or of not making a fuss. So I'm not surprised there's still a Slytherin House -- I am surprised and disappointed that it's not more controversial. It makes sense for this house to persist and for some people to be attached to it. It doesn't make sense that none of the HP adults seem to really question the value of celebrating Slytherin and maintaining his House. I get that subtle bigotry is more common among wizards than most of them would like to admit, but I don't believe that they're all convinced that All the Houses Must Work Together.

    Whoa, that was a long comment; sorry! As you can see, I have FEELINGS about Slytherin House.

    Oh, and I agree that Tom Riddle is creepier than Voldyface. I mean, that sword and sorcery Dark Lord stuff is all well and good, but the Gifted and Talented Killer who uses people's own best qualities against them is a much better villain. And now I kind of want to see fanfic where Tom Riddle actually succeeded in some of his early goals [SPOILERS? I forget which book has Tom's early career ambitions in it].

    Poor Lockhart, though. Is he going to recover enough to learn from his mistakes? I hope so. Maybe now that he has some first-hand experience of the monster-hunting life, he'll have a little more respect for the people whose stories he's been stealing. Maybe he'll even find them and give them his royalties. His career won't even suffer from it too much; as a good-looking doofus with an ego and a loyal following, he should bounce right back in no time. His confession will make the fans love him even more for his vulnerability and belated honesty, and he can find a niche selling quack therapies for Jinxed Sneezes and Magical Menopause after sales of his next book, Magical Mystery, Magical Mess: Monster Hunting's Broken Idol Comes Clean about Life, Lies, and the Healing Power of Love slow to a modest trickle.

    1. oh jeez; that was even longer than I thought it was going to be! OOPS.

  2. I love your comments about the sinister Slytherin statue and about phoenix song. <3

    Also, that picture of Riddle.

    Your points about Riddle's possession of Ginny were outstandingly creepy. One of my greatest horrors in life is the idea that with good intentions and a strong dedication to doing right, you can still wrong people, and you can still be made use of by evil. Scares the bejeebers out of me.


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