Monday, October 31, 2011

The vanishing cabinet appears

More evidence that maybe J.K. was planning the whole series right from the start: in the second book, The Chamber of Secrets, Peeves saves Harry from Filch's clutches by dropping a massive object onto the floor above the caretaker's office.

The object? A vanishing cabinet.

As we all know, it was with the help of that same vanishing cabinet that Draco Malfoy managed to sneak Death Eaters into Hogwarts to help him kill Dumbledore in The Half-blood Prince, the second to last book.

I realise that much more careful readers than me have noticed this little detail a long time ago but it jumped out at me this morning as I read the second novel over breakfast. Peeves drops a vanishing cabinet! Amazing.

So either Rowling had it all planned, and took care to describe the dropped furniture as a "vanishing" cabinet rather than just a "cabinet", or she got to the sixth book and thought, "hmm, how should Draco do this? Didn't I mention an interesting piece of furniture in one of the first books that might help me out now?"

As always, I'm a little bit in awe of both her writing and her planning/memory.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In search of decent used copies

I have come to the conclusion that I am going to have to start replacing my paperback copies of the Harry Potter novels, especially the early books. They are simply becoming too battered and the spines on a couple of them are starting to release the pages from their grip.

My plan is to purchase two sets of the seven novels: paperbacks as working copies and hard cover versions for display and careful reading purposes. I'd like to do it on a budget since this plan could easily cost me upwards of $300. So I'm looking to find used copies in good condition wherever I can.

My complaint? Every time I pull a promising-looking volume from the shelf in my local used book store, I come away disappointed. The other day, a hard-cover version of The Half-Blood Prince turned out to have writing all over it and it looked like somebody had dumped a glass of Kool-Aid over the cover. Today, I found The Prisoner Of Azkaban in hard cover, only to discover that it's got sticky brown stuff all over it (don't worry, I managed to avoid much touching and I washed my hands thoroughly afterwards but I hope to goodness that was chocolate!).

I know, I know. These are kids' books. I should expect to find kids' kinds of damage to them. Still, it would be nice to find a pristine copy or two for my collection.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Raised to be evil, grown to resist it

Is Draco evil? Or just a product of his upbringing?

I've often wondered about this question, not just in the context of Harry Potter but also as it might apply to children in the real world too.

Draco Malfoy is raised in a family where allegiance to the Dark Lord is a way of life, where brutality to house elves is normal behaviour, where intense malevolence toward people who are not of pure blood families is commonplace. Should we then see Draco as evil simply for following the beliefs with which he was raised?

Especially when he is still a young kid, perhaps too young to question those beliefs?

This is why I find the movie portrayal of Draco Malfoy to be so interesting, almost more so than the original literary character. In the films, it becomes very clear that Draco, at 16 and 17, is starting to question his parents' behaviours and beliefs that were so much a part of his upbringing.

He can't bring himself to kill an unarmed Dumbledore, even though he knows he will be punished for his failure. He refuses to identify Harry to Bellatrix when Harry is dragged to Malfoy Manor by the Snatchers. He weeps over the death of his friend in the all-consuming Fiendfyre in the Room of Requirement.

And, when push comes to shove in the final battle of Hogwarts, he and his parents walk away from Voldemort and his army.

As I've written before, Draco is redeemed by his own refusal to commit the most egregious acts of evil that are demanded of him as he approaches adulthood.

In an interesting parallel, Dudley Dursley also gets a brief moment of redemption, at least in the book version of The Deathly Hallows, when he says he doesn't feel that Harry is a waste of space and actually comes over to say a proper goodbye to his cousin. Dudley, raised in a household where Harry-hating is an accepted form of behaviour, actually comes to recognise some value in his cousin. As he grows up, he is able to set aside the prejudices his parents have fed him for his entire life and redeem himself. (Oddly, this scene was shot for the film but left on the cutting room floor. You can see it as part of the "Deleted Scenes" section of the DVD/Blu Ray).

My point is that, although J.K. presents both Dudley and Draco as the epitome of evil to the young Harry in the early novels, she recognises that, as they grow up, they gain the ability to question the beliefs among which they have been raised. They are only truly evil if, once they reach an age of awareness, discernment and decision, they choose to embrace their parents' evil teachings.

And both choose a different path in the end.

And I think the filmmakers go even further to bring that point home in the case of Draco Malfoy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Harry Potter and the "broken" family

Harry Potter lives with his aunt and uncle (just like Luke Skywalker, by the way, but that's another issue).

Neville Longbottom lives with his grandmother.

Albus and Aberforth Dumbledore's father died in prison when they were in their early teens and their mother died in an accident just a couple of years later.

Rubeus Hagrid was raised from a child by his father after his mother left them. His father then died while he was still young.

Sirius Black ran away from home at 16 to live with the Potters.

Tom Riddle was raised in an orphanage, his mother dead and his father having rejected him.

There sure are a lot of boys in J.K. Rowling's world with non-traditional family structures, aren't there?

What does that fact say about the author and her experience with, and understanding of, family? And what does it say about the four major characters who have been raised in what is often called a "traditional" family: Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Dudley Dursley and Draco Malfoy?

To her credit, Rowling doesn't seem to associate a "broken" home with the development of an evil or damaged character. In fact, only Riddle went astray among the boys from the non-traditional families. The others are all on the side of good.

And, also to her credit, Rowling doesn't simply assume that a strong "traditional" family background guarantees the child will turn out to be good: while Ron and Hermione certainly turned out okay, Draco Malfoy and Dudley Dursley are both rather nasty creatures, at least until they redeem themselves, at least partially, in the seventh book.

Also of interest to me is the fact that, aside from the Weasleys and the Dumbledores, every family we see in the Potter novels has only one or two children. Harry is the only child of James and Lily. Neville is his parents' only offspring. Hermione, Hagrid, Tom Riddle and Draco are "only" children too. Sirius has a brother but left him when he moved to live with the Potters. And Dudley is an only child, but for the presence of his cousin, Harry, in his home.

And it's interesting that J.K. seems to present the Weasleys (the one really "big" family) as the ideal family: close, loving, supportive. Percy's decision to abandon his family is shocking and it seems almost inevitable, in the context of these books, that he will be reconciled with them before the end. And he is.

What does this mean? I'm not sure. I'll have to think about it. But it's interesting. And it's something I'll be thinking (and writing) about more in the future. Add it to the list.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nagging thoughts and Free Elves

Two things:

First, in re-reading The Philospher's Stone this weekend, I came across a funny bit of dialogue between Ron and Hermione that gains some resonance when we know they're bound to get married. When Hermione reminds Ron how to cast the Leg Locker spell ("Locomotor Mortis") prior to Harry's second Quidditch match, Ron says to her: "I know... Don't nag." Hmmmmm... a taste of things to come for Ron?

Second, after making a reasoned argument in my last post about why the hero trio can't call on Dobby to help them more often in The Deathly Hallows (he's a Free Elf so they can't simply summon him; he's able to come to them only once he's heard from Aberforth where Harry is and that he needs help), I watched the film version of Part 1 on TV. In the movie, Harry simply pulls out Sirius' mirror, sees Aberforth's eye and says, "Help us." Then Dobby appears.

In the movie world, Dobby apparently can apparate to Harry even when he does not know where Harry is. So why doesn't he do it sooner?

Every time I turn around, I find another piece of evidence that the magical world of the books is very different from the magical world of the films. Different rules apply in each and they are not consistent. Too bad.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Solving the House Elf mystery

A couple of days ago, I posted some thoughts on House Elves. In particular, I wondered why our hero trio didn't summon Kreacher or perhaps Dobby while they were on the run in The Deathly Hallows.

Special thanks to reader WilliamBurr who pointed me in the right direction for the answer and confirmed my own thought that, somewhere in the book, J.K. had given explanation for their failure to use the House Elves to help them more.

WB has helped me locate a useful passage in Chapter 15 ("The Thief") of the seventh book. Harry, Hermione and Ron have just escaped the Ministry with the locket but, in getting rid of Yaxley, they've been forced to abandon Grimmauld Place and flee to the wilderness. In the process, Ron has gotten splinched.

J.K. writes: Harry "and Hermione had already decided against trying to summon [Kreacher]; what if someone from the Ministry came too? They could not count on elfish Apparition being free from the same flaw that had taken Yaxley to Grimmauld Place on the hem of Hermione's sleeve."

A helpful passage, to be sure, and yet more proof that Rowling really thought things through and covered all her bases when she planned and wrote these books. But is it a complete answer to my question?

I think it answers the question with regard to Kreacher for certain. They didn't summon him because to do so would risk bringing trouble directly to them. But what about Dobby? He was safe in Hogwarts' kitchen. Surely he was safe.

Here's my answer to that question: they couldn't summon Dobby because Dobby is a free Elf. Harry doesn't own him so he can't summon him.

The connection between House Elf and Master is such that it makes summoning possible: the Master simply says the name of the Elf and the Elf then apparates directly to the Master, no matter where he or she is and even if the Elf doesn't know where the Master is.

We see this happen at the start of Book Six when Dumbledore decides to find out if ownership of Grimmauld Place has truly passed to Harry by telling Harry to summon Kreacher. Harry says Kreacher's name and Kreacher appears, apparently against his own will.

So, for Harry to call Dobby, he would have to have some way to communicate with him directly and to tell Dobby where Harry is. When Harry, trapped in the cellar of Malfoy Manor, sees Aberforth's blue eye in Sirius' mirror, Harry tells Aberforth that he's in the cellar at Malfoy Manor. Aberforth communicates this information to Dobby and Dobby then apparates to Harry.

I think, based on this reasoning, that we have a complete answer to my question. Harry and Hermione decide it's too risky to summon Kreacher and they can't summon Dobby because Harry doesn't own him. It's only when Harry can communicate (through Aberforth) to Dobby his own location that Dobby can come to help him.

Cool. I like resolving mysteries. And thanks WB!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

17 Sickles equal a Galleon (and an ounce of Dragon liver)

Okay, small thing. Really nit-picky. But J.K. left so few strings untied that it's neat to find one every now and then, isn't it? And this one is even smaller than most.

I'm re-reading The Philosopher's Stone, luxuriating in every word. It's such a fun book, filled with wonder and excitement: wonder at this fabulous new world Harry is discovering, with us readers in tow; excitement because Harry no sooner starts to feel comfortable in this wonderful new world but finds himself caught up in a rather frightening mystery.

So I'm in Chapter Five, "Diagon Alley", getting my first look at a real magical community and, like Harry, wishing I had "about eight more eyes", and we pass a "plump woman outside an Apothecary" who mumbles: "Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they're mad...". It's clear that Rowling is using this and every other little detail she describes to show us how different, how foreign everything in the Alley is to Harry.

But that's not my point. Two pages later, Griphook has escorted Harry and Hagrid to the Potter vault and Harry has discovered his parents have left him well cared for. Hagrid then explains to Harry the magical money system: "Seventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle." Simple enough.

So, here's my point. If seventeen Sickles equals a Gold Galleon, why wouldn't the plump woman outside the Apothecary be complaining that the price of dragon liver had risen to a full Galleon per ounce? I mean, if something I was used to paying 75 cents for suddenly cost me a dollar, I wouldn't complain, "Coca Cola, a hundred cents a can, they're mad..." I'd say: "Coca Cola, a buck a can, they're mad.."

Wouldn't I?

As I said, a very very very small point but fun nonetheless. Goodness knows I've made enough mistakes like that in my writing: a character sits down in a chair and stands up from a sofa; she puts on a scarf when she leaves her home and takes off a hat when she arrives at the restaurant; she's reading a magazine as she waits for a table but puts a book back in her bag when the waiter comes to seat her.

But it's interesting to see J.K. work things out as she goes along. Clearly, when she wrote the sentence describing the woman outside the Apothecary, she hadn't yet worked out the magical money system. And then, once she did set it as 17 Sickles to a Galleon, she forgot to go back and change the woman's line of dialogue!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fredngeorge: So far, they're a single character

I'm starting my review of the seven novels to see how J.K. has depicted Fred and George Weasley: as two different individuals or as a single character with two names?

With the review of The Philosopher's Stone almost completed, here are my initial thoughts on the subject: as she wrote the first novel, Rowling didn't plan to portray these guys as two distinct characters.

Their first introduction comes in King's Cross Station as Harry searches desperately for a way to reach Platform 9 3/4. He spots this family of redheads with an owl (!!!) on their trunk and thinks, "Aha! They must be heading to Hogwarts train too. I'll follow them."

Two things jump out at me from this scene.

First, Molly Weasley actually asks her kids what Platform the train is on. Isn't that bizarre? Throughout the rest of the novels, the fact that the Hogwarts Express leaves Platform 9 3/4 at 11 a.m. on September 1 is one of those great accepted constants in the world. Everybody knows it. Everybody banks on it. Furthermore, Molly Weasley has probably been delivering kids to the train on Platform 9 3/4 every year for the past decade or more. And yet she has to ask her kids in this first book which platform. Wow.

Second, the first thing we learn about Fred and George is that everyone, even their own mother, can't tell them apart. Throughout this scene and the following scenes on the train, we learn their names but we get no indication from the author of any difference between them.

As the book progresses, J.K. even goes so far as to skip identifying which of the twins delivers which line of dialogue. She presents conversations involving Fred and George as if they are a single person: when Harry, for example, talks to the twins, the twins' side of the conversation is never attributed to either George or Fred.

Weird. Neat. But does it change?

My expectation is that I will, indeed, find differences between Fred and George written into the later books. But I may find them indistinguishable until we get to The Goblet of Fire at least.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thinking about House Elves

I've been thinking about house elves lately, for some crazy reason. If my memory serves, we've met four of them directly in the Harry Potter novels: Dobby, Winky, Kreacher and Hokey (the House Elf owned by Hepzibah Smith, the woman who introduced Tom Riddle to Hufflepuff's Cup). We met several others in the kitchens of Hogwarts when Harry, Ron and Hermione went down to visit to see Dobby but they play little or no part in the stories.

And we've seen some of their powers:
1. they have magical powers that they can use without a wand;
2. those magical powers include the ability to apparate, even in places where witches and wizards cannot (such as Hogwarts, Voldermort's cave, and Malfoy Manor);
3. when they apparate, they can take a number of other people with them;
4. they are able to disarm witches and wizards at short distances;
5. they can hear their masters calling to them no matter where they are and immediately go to their masters;
6. they appear to be good at tracking people and are remarkably strong for their size.

Although it has never been directly discussed, I believe, however, that the magical powers of the House Elf are limited in many ways. They certainly have never been able to escape the servitude to wand carriers in which they have been placed. Although they seem to be able to combat wand carriers fairly effectively in brief encounters, it does not appear that they could openly revolt against them. They do not carry wands and do not appear to have made any attempt to expand their powers to include wand use or to rival the powers of the wand carriers.

Okay so far, right? So my question is this: if a House Elf's powers are limited but still very useful (note, Harry has Kreacher track down Mundungus, Regulus Black uses Kreacher to help steal the locket from Voldemort's cave, the hero trio certainly do owe their lives to Dobby, who saved them from Malfoy Manor), why does Harry not make more use of Dobby and Kreacher in Book Seven?

I will have to research the question because I think Harry makes some mention of the possibility of using the House Elves somewhere in the middle of The Deathly Hallows but I'm not sure. I would think, however, that they could at least have solved their hunger problems by having Dobby bring them food every day from Hogwarts.

I must be missing something.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Two vexing questions: the Weasley twins and Sirius' mirror

I've run myself aground on two questions and they're paralysing me. They're stopping me from my usual free-flow of thinking around the Harry Potter books and films and, therefore, blocking me from posting to this blog.

The two questions are:

1. Did J.K. write the characters of Fred and George Weasley in such a way that she's made them clearly different individuals or was she content simply to present them as one person in two bodies?

2. Why didn't Harry use Sirius' mirror to contact him at the end of The Order of the Phoenix, rather than allowing himself to be lured into the trap at the Ministry?

I've talked a little bit about the first question in earlier posts and it still vexes me. I will have to find the time to review all seven books, chart the descriptions and dialogue for each of the twins and see what I come up with. I can't think of any other way to answer the question. The problem is finding the time.

With regard to the second question, my colleague who is currently reading the books for the first time raised it recently as we were talking about how different the fifth book is from the fifth film. She said it really bothered her that Harry didn't just use the mirror to check on Sirius -- after all, Sirius must have had it with him when he was caring for Buckbeak and not available to Harry through the fireplace.

I have to admit: that issue never bothered me because, in the numerous times I read the novel, I never really registered the mirror and its importance when Sirius first gave it to Harry. It wasn't in my mind as I read the remainder of the book.

But my colleague saw all the films several times before reading the novels so the mirror, which is so vividly depicted in the film versions of the seventh novel, remains strongly in her memory as she reads.

I write all this here for two reasons: in hopes that, by writing about these two questions that have been othering me, I'll clear them from my mind and allow myself to think of other Potter-related things and in order to spur myself into action to pursue both questions on the coming long weekend.

What are your thoughts? Do you think of Fred and George as seperate entities or just two names for a single character? Does it bother you that Harry failed to use the mirror to check on Sirius?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Are Fred and George really different people?

Which do you prefer: Fred or George? One lost an ear, the other lost his life. Other than that, the Weasley twins appear identical, not just in appearance but in every other way.

I'm sure someone somewhere has conducted a study to see if J.K. made any effort to write them even slightly differently throughout the course of the seven novels. You know: does Fred have a habitual turn of phrase? does George focus more on feelings than Fred does? is one more prone to act first and ask questions later? That kind of thing.

In the novel Lord of the Flies, the twin brothers Sam and Eric are so indistinguishable that the author, William Golding, actually reduces them to a single entity which he calls "Samneric". In the play Hamlet, Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are inseparable and indistinguishable too. They're not twins but they, together, fill a single role in the play.

Are Fred and George portrayed in such a similar way that they are little more than a single character in two bodies?

Even Mrs. Weasley has trouble telling them apart. Can we?

Certainly in my incomplete Rowling-world novel, The Way Forward, which follows the lives of George Weasley, Aberforth Dumbledore and Miverva McGonagall after Voldemort's downfall, I am forced to imagine George as an independent person, dealing with the loss of his twin brother, but did Rowling make any attempt to make them different in her books?

I may just have to do some looking to figure this out.

You can find that incomplete novel, by the way, here: