Thursday, January 3, 2019

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Source of book: We own all the Harry Potter books...but this one was the Stephen Fry audiobook version borrowed from a friend.

So, this year, I finally started working my way through the Harry Potter books. (You can read my thoughts on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone here.) I figure that now that I have made it through the first two books, I can qualify as a proud member of Hufflepuff, rather than a muggle. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was a fun enough read, although it felt a bit derivative. It is easy to see significant plot parallels to the first book: the torment with the Dursleys, a visit to Diagon Alley, the trip to Hogwarts, conflict with Draco Malfoy, Quidditch, a nefarious threat hidden under Hogwarts, a visit to the forest, and so on. In that sense, it felt formulaic.

On the other hand, there were some really great characters and moments. I am very sad that Gilderoy Lockhart had to leave Hogwarts, as he was thoroughly hilarious. (And all too realistic when it comes to narcissistic celebrities.) And all those alliterative book titles.

The use of the diary was also creative, and made for a fun puzzle. In general, I thought the ideas were intriguing and made for an interesting story.

It was nice to meet the Weasley family in this book. They are, in contrast to the Dursleys, a fundamentally decent family. Relatively poor, and decidedly “lower class” in the conventional sense (despite being pureblood wizards), they reject both the bourgeois social climbing of the Dursleys and the aristocratic snobbery of the Malfoys. In a sense, this is Harry’s first experience of true family.

I also liked Rowling’s choice to tackle racism head on in this book. Whether it is in the form of slavery (house elves) or casual exclusion (ghosts) or obsession with “blood purity” in the case of the Malfoys, this book takes a hard look at it. Harry, as the good guy, gets a reputation as someone who treats outsiders with kindness. Even though Dobby is annoying and ends up hurting Harry in his efforts to “protect” him, Harry nevertheless treats him well, and is rewarded in the end. Harry skips the feast to attend Nearly Headless Nick’s deathday party. He continues his friendship with Hagrid, even after he is led to believe that it was Hagrid who opened the chamber. And, of course, Harry stands up for the “mudbloods” at the school, including Hermione.

Things got quite interesting at the end, when Dumbledore has to break a promise. After making it clear that he would expel Harry and Ron if they broke any more rules, he decided that there were...exceptions. Given my own background, this is, of course, rank heresy. An authority figure was expected to always follow through on threats, no matter what, or risk losing the respect of the underlings. (Not that my parents exactly hewed to this.) But in real life, as Dumbledore realizes, the rules are less important than the truly important things. Saving Ginny was definitely a greater priority than following certain rules.

Also quite interesting was Dumbledore’s insistence that identity is formed by what we do, not by our birth. In Harry’s case, his choice to reject Slytherin and choose Gryffindor is what truly makes him a Gryffindor. In the same way, the fact that his background is quite similar to that of Tom Riddle doesn’t mean that he is destined to become another Voldemort. Our choices become our character.  

I think that both of these philosophical ideas contributed to the suspicion that Fundamentalist/Evangelical sorts had to the books. After all, the books are pretty subversive of authority and rules. The characters often have too choose to do the moral thing, rather than the correct thing. Authority is often incompetent or malevolent - and just plain wrong. And, as it turns out, our character isn’t really determined by how orthodox our beliefs or how carefully we follow the rules. It goes beyond that to the choices we make and how we choose to act toward others.

I do have one geeky quibble with the book. Rowling makes extensive use of classical mythology, and is generally reasonably accurate. In her creation of the basilisk, she makes a key error, which bothers me. I understand her choice to make the basilisk far larger than the classical version. Artistic license and all, I suppose. But the real error is in the description of how a basilisk comes to be. According to the book, a basilisk is hatched from a cockerell egg incubated by a toad.

No, no, NO! That’s backwards. A cockerell egg incubated by a toad gives you a cockatrice! For a basilisk, you need a snake or toad egg incubated by a cockerell. (To be fair, the two creatures have been confused before - including in past translations of the Bible, where obscure Hebrew words were “translated” to mean various mythological beings. But still.) Yes, I know this is a seriously nerdy complaint, but there you have it.

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