Monday, December 10, 2012

Eagle owls and subtlety in writing

Let's talk about eagle owls for a moment.

I think we all know that the Malfoy family owns an eagle owl. We see it delivering packages of sweets to Draco early in the series and from time to time thereafter.

We also know that, in that pivotal vision that harry has in The Goblet of Fire of Voldemort, Wormtail and Nagini just before the third task, Harry arrives at the Riddle Manor House riding upon the back of an eagle owl.

But did you notice that J.K. mentions an eagle owl one other time, earlier in that same novel?

Having grown tired of Ron and Hermione's squabbling over the plight of house elves, Harry decides to go to the Owlery by himself to send a package of food to Sirius. After seeing Pigwidgeon and a couple of school owls off, he stands, looking out over the school grounds, the Durmstrang ship and the Forbidden Dorest, thinking.

Harry sees Hagrid busily digging a patch of ground outside his home and he also sees something else: an eagle owl that flies through the coil of smoke rising from Hagrid's house.

It's a beautifully written, calming scene, like a landscape painting that draws your eye into the world it depicts.

But it's also a clue. One I had not noticed in all of my previous readings of this novel.

The eagle owl is bringing messages back and forth between Barty Crouch Jr. at Hogwarts and Voldemort at the Riddle Manor House. It has to be. It's the Malfoy eagle and it's being used as part of the plot against Harry.

Harry's subconscious mind recognises it as a clue and inserts the eagle owl into his vision. Instead of a message, the owl brings Harry to Voldemort.

When I finally noticed it, I couldn't help but to be impressed, once again, with Rowling's skills as a writer and the very carefully thought and planning she put into every novel.

I've always been amazed at how subtly she inserted a bug into every scene of this book where Rita Skeeter (whom we later discover to be an animagus) eavesdrops on conversations; I never noticed this lovely and subtle clue which should have told me, at least given me a clue as to who was plotting against Harry at Hogwarts.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On children's stories and house elves

I know. It's been a long time since I posted a new entry to this blog, hasn't it? Don't worry, though: it's not because I've abandoned Harry Potter. Not in the least. In fact, I'm currently luxuriating in the wonder that is The Goblet of Fire, enjoying every word of it.

But more on that below. The really exciting news is that I am about to release my own book for young people. Yes indeed! No, I'm not going to claim it's on the same level as J.K.'s books, don't worry. But I am very proud of the writing and of the work my sister has done to design and layout the book, as well as provide original illustrations for it.

The book is the first in a series of three planned volumes of short stories entitled Abigail Massey at McAdam Station. They will be self-published through an online printer ( and available for sale through any outlet we can find, mostly in my home province of New Brunswick in Canada.

The books are a fund raiser to support the restoration and preservation of the beautiful and historic Railway Station and Hotel in McAdam, New Brunswick. This tiny village of 1,300 people is working hard to restore this national architectural treasure, even though the cost of restoration has been pegged as high as $10-million. As the press release I've drafted for the release of the book says, "How does a village of 1,300 raise more than $10-million to preserve a historic building for the benefit of 30-million Canadians? It gets creative."

The stories are set in 1941, when the McAdam Railway Station was the gateway to the East Coast for Canada's war effort. They feature a group of teenage girls, led by Abigail Massey herself, who live and work at the Station, I've tried for a Nancy-Drew-like feel to the writing so they're very innocent but also, I hope, quite exciting. Several of the stories involve events or personalities drawn from the history of the Station, including the Canadian Prime Minister of the time and famed skater Barbara Ann Scott.

If you want more information, please visit the project website at

OK, enough with the advertisement. On with the Potter discussion. Let's talk a minute about Hermione's efforts to emancipate the House Elves: S.P.E.W.

I'm interested in this project for a number of reasons, most importantly because it raises the discussion of slavery and self-determination. Are the House Elves enslaved, as Hermione seems to suggest? Is it appropriate for her to attempt to force them into a more "emancipated" state?

Is the decision to remain enslaved an acceptable decision?

What is J.K. trying to say with this whole subplot?

The way I'm reading it, the House Elves are in fact enslaved (they cannot decide of their own volition to leave their masters) and, as a result, they can be treated quite brutally. But, even when they are given the choice (as Dobby and Winky are), they appear to wish to choose to remain in their enslaved position rather than be free.

Should not that decision be respected? Is Hermione not wrong to try to convince them to be unhappy with their lot?

It's an interesting question.

On one side, we could argue that, even though the House Elves themselves appear to argue in favour of their own continued enslavement, to claim that they like it, they wish it, it's in their natures to be enslaved, their decision is in fact coerced both by their own history (they have never known what it is like to be free and therefore fear it; their parents and grandparents always served a master so it appears to be the natural, appropriate state for them) and their legitimate fear (as proven by Dobby's own experience when he attempted to find paying employment) that they will be rejected by society if they don't continue their enslavement.

On the other side, we could find numerous examples in our own society where individuals (or even groups of individuals) subsume their own personal needs and personal fulfillment (at least as most of society would define those terms) to the needs of another person, group or cause in an almost slave-like manner. Does the fact that one receives wages and some time off really make that much of a difference for a person in a low paying job who absolutely has to keep the job to feed herself and her family? Is that kind of a situation that far from slavery?

Does that person really have a choice? Can she really, honestly choose to quit her job, if the town or city where she lives has high unemployment and no open positions?

I know... deep deep subjects. My problem is, I'm not sure I agree with Hermione in this case. I think she completely misreads the situation and projects her own "stuff" (the social and cultural beliefs that she's learned from her middle class Muggle parents) onto a race of beings she doesn't seem to wish to take the time to understand. Or even listen to.

In attempting to fight for their right to self-determination, Hermione herself makes the massive error of thinking she has the right to speak for the House Elves, to determine what is best for them without taking into consideration their opinions on the issues.

In fighting for their rights, she seems to me to be trampling them herself.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Relishing a return to Rowling's humour

I've spent the past three weeks or so working my way through Stephenie Meyer's final three books in the twilight series: new moon, eclipse and breaking dawn. And, through a book sale at work, I managed to pick up all four of Meyer's novels in their French translations, which should help with my continuing effort to learn to read and speak that language.

Hooray for me.

This morning, however, I finally got the chance to get back to Harry Potter. More specifically, I picked up on The Goblet of Fire where I had left it off to start up with Bella, Edward and the twilight gang. I was delighted to find myself laughing out loud almost as soon as I began to read J.K.'s prose: the first scene I read was the one at the camp-site before the Quidditch World Cup, when Hermione, Ron and Harry return to their tent to find Mr. Weasley struggling to light a fire the Muggle way: with matches.

I just loved this line: "'Oops!' he said, as he managed to light a match, and promptly dropped it in surprise." I can just picture it happening: the scratch of the match, the flare of the flame, the surprise on Mr. Weasley's face and then his wrist flicking the burning match away from himself.

And that's yet another aspect of the Harry Potter novels that I think sets them apart from so much of the other Young Adult fiction out there: Rowling's sense of humour.

I found the twilight novels to be almost completely without humour, rolling along in a single consistently somber mood. I'm not sure The Hunger Games trilogy was any better.

But Rowling manages to find ways to brighten the tone of even her most challenging, frightening or intense scenes, often with a single turn of phrase or surprising observation. Her writing is quite Shakespearean in that way.

I shall keep an eye out for more examples that just this one as I continue to read and try to point out my favourites in future blogs.

Meanwhile, my friend Miranda chose to go out for Hallowe'en this year as Bellatrix Lestrange, putting together a convincingly evil costume and just the right sneer on her face. I'm told she encountered only on "Harry Potter" on her walk through the neighbourhood; fortunately, no duel ensued and both parties walked away unscathed.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Rowling eclipses Meyer

First, an admission, then some thoughts.

The admission: despite the fact that I swore I would stop reading the twilight books after number two, new moon, I found myself in the Owl's Nest in Fredericton last week dropping five bucks on a used copy of eclipse, which of course is book three. I guess I'm a little bit hooked. And, surprisingly, it seems to have been the movies that did it, not the books themselves. I was impressed with the first two film adaptations and then felt I had to read books three and four before watching the films made of them.

Some thoughts: One of the great advantages that I think the J.K. Rowling series has over the Stephenie Meyer series is that Rowling adapts her style of writing to her maturing audience with each new book in the series. Meyers' books are all written for the same, young teen audience.

I can understand why Meyer would choose to do this, to be consistent in her style so that her readers would know what they're getting.

But I have a huge admiration for Rowling's realisation that her readers are themselves maturing in the interim period between the publication of her books. A reader who was thirteen when The Philosopher's Stone first came out would be 14 or so when The Chamber of Secrets was released, 15 to 16 when The Prisoner of Azkaban was published, and so on.

Rowling clearly understood that fact and made sure that the level and sophistication of each new book matched the level and sophistication of her reader. It's quite brilliant in its conception and really impressive in its execution.

Even now, I can enjoy the differing charms and attractions of each novel in the series. With Meyer, I find myself bemoaning the fact that each book offers the same tone, the same level of diction, the same sophistication of characterization and plot.

For example, the Bella Swan who works so well in twilight as a 16-year-old is less convincing in new moon as a 17-year-old and, as I'm finding out now, comes across almost embarrassingly infantile as an 18-year-old in eclipse. And the writing style doesn't mature either.

All of that being said, Meyer must be doing something right because I'm still reading.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

new moon takes things too far

I haven't posted in a while, mainly because I've had other reading obligations drawing my attention away from Harry and the gang.

The latest novel on my list, however, is the second entry in the twilight series, new moon. I'm not liking it half so much as I did twilight itself and that got me to thinking about why that might be.

I think I've figured it out. And I think it shines some light on a question faced by all writers of these kinds of books, including J.K. Rowling when she sat down to start writing Harry Potter.

The question is this: how closely do I plan to align the invented, magical parts of my novel's world with the "real" parts of that world? If I don't wish to write novels of pure fantasy but to maintain some level of connection between my stories and the real world of the reader, how do I balance the novel's "real" world with its magical counterpart?

It appears to me that writers have to decide either to create some barrier between to the two worlds, which allows the magical world to grow and develop, or to integrate the two worlds together, which requries that the magical aspects remain limited in depth and scope.

J.K Rowling decided to go the former route: using Diagon Alley as the doorway and the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy as the wall, she has created two seperate worlds that exist in parallel, rarely if ever meeting directly. She asks the readers to accept that Harry and Hermione, for example, can be born and raised in the real world, then invited to join the magical world when they reach age 11. In order to enjoy her novels, we must suspend our disbelief and accept that the magical world could possibly co-exist with our own. The limited interaction between the two and the efforts made by the wizards and witches to erase any trace of such interactions make it easier for us to go along with the fiction.

C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, the Peter Pan stories, the Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are all examples of authors who took similar approaches. They all involve a magical world that exists in parallel with our own, connected only by a single doorway through which the human characters travel.

Stephenie Meyer's twilight series, on the other hand, takes the other route: instead of creating a completely independent magical world, Meyer asks us to accept that vampies walk among us, that they have their own society, culture and history that exists in our own reality. There is no doorway between the worlds because there is only one world: the world the reader lives in.

In order for this approach to be effective, the writer must be very careful not to ask us to accept too much and I think that's where Meyer goes off the rails in new moon. I was able to accept that vampires exist and that a star-struck romance like that between Edward, the vampire, and Bella, the human, was possible. So I enjoyed twilight. But I'm having a lot more trouble now accepting the expansion of that magical world to include werewolves in new moon, and further that our unfortunate Bella could possibly end up with two perfect, wonderful star struck lovers, one a vampire, the other a werewolf and each the mortal enemy of the other.

Meyer appears to wish to "have her cake and eat it too" in that she wants her readers to accept that her books take place entirely in the real world and yet she wants to be allowed to add layer upon layer to the magical world she develops.

At some point, she has stretched reality so far that it actually breaks. And I think that happens in new moon.

Because she wants to set her stories in the real world, she can only add so many magical elements and expect her reader to accept them.

And,a t this point, I can't.

I would compare the effect to the horror genre. In order to be truly scary, a horror novel or movie must be based in the real world. We are not going to be afraid unless we identify the the character who is in danger or we fear that the scary stuff could happen to us. Either way, the characters and their world must be close enough to us and our world to make the story effective.

When the horror story strays too far from reality, it loses its effect. Sure, there's an entire branch of horror (the British call it "Hammer horror") that prides itself on being so ridiculous as to be funny but the really good horror movies and books are scary because they don't stray too far from reality.

In new moon, Meyer is starting to stray a little too far. And she doesn't have the protection of the seperate-world trope that makes Rowling's books so good.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In praise of The Prisoner but with questions

I love The Prisoner of Azkaban. The more often I read the Harry Potter novels, the more I come to recognise how clearly this novel rises above the others in my estimation.

I think J.K. has been quoted as saying that it was the easiest of the books for her to write and I think that shows too, in the quality of the narrative, in the smooth flow of the writing, in the intensity of the experience for the reader. It reads like a spectacular roller coaster ride, a smooth but terrifying journey.

I'm about a fifth of the way through Azkaban again and, as usual, enjoying it very much. I enjoy our first meeting with Stan Shunpike as much on this, my 20th or so reading, as I did on my first reading. I am impressed with the way Rowling, truly one of the most clever writers I've ever read, is able to focus the attention of the story on Ron's rat, Scabbers, in the early part of the book without giving the reader the slightest inkling that the rat is, truly, the central character in the novel.

Rowling simply inserts Scabbers (and his conflict with Hermione's new cat, Crookshanks) as a constantly arising point of conflict between Ron and Hermione and allows her reader to focus on the conflict without recognising that she is putting Scabbers squarely into our field of vision on a regular basis.

I have a couple of questions, though, on issues which I think might be engendered by the speed with which Rowling wrote this book:

1. Why does no one mention, either to Harry or otherwise, that Sirius Black was a member of the Order of the Phoenix in this novel? Shunpike, for example, states in a matter-of-fact way that Black was one of Voldemort's key supporters. Was he? We learn later that he was a member of the Order, the group actually fighting Voldemort. Could his apparent betrayal of James and Lily and his purported murder of 13 people be sufficient to make everyone forget his role with the Order? I would think they would be talking more about his betrayal, in the end, rather than his place with Voldemort.

2. Why does Lupin have "Professor R. J. Lupin"  stamped "in peeling letters" on his case at the start of the book? He wasn't a professor before this year and he doesn't continue to teach afterwards. We get no indication throughout the rest of the novels that he is a trained educator: his position teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts in Harry's third year appears to be a "one of" for him, welcomed employment thanks to Dumbledore. So why would he own a battered old case with "Professor R. J. Lupin" stamped on it in peeling letters?

3. Why do the Weasley's choose to take a holiday in Egypt as their "special treat" with the winnings from the Daily Prophet Grand Prize Galleon Draw? Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had gone to Egypt just the previous Christmas, a trip that their children were apparently welcome to enjoy with them but had chosen not to do so (see The Chamber of Secrets). Wouldn't they have chosen some other place for their celebratory holiday, a place they hadn't just visited?

4. What happens to Crookshanks in the rest of the books? He plays such a big role here and certainly Sirius says later in the book that Crookshanks is "the most intelligent of his kind I've ever met". Yet he doesn't really do much for the rest of the series of novels. Why not?

Picky points, I know. As readers of this blog know, I just love to find these little questions, to point out these minor issues in Rowling's incredible books. I hope I'm not offending any one; I just find it fun to do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Similarities tie Fifty Shades to twilight

Not really a Harry Potter post, to be honest.

In fact, not even really related to Harry Potter but perhaps still of interest to those readers who enjoy YA fiction and keep track, as I do, of the recent cycles of massively popular books that appear to build upon each other.

I know that this is a bit simplistic but I can't help but think of the Harry Potter series as having inspired twilight and twilight as having inspired The Hunger Games. Perhaps not directly in terms of the writing but certainly indirectly in terms of the promotion and popularity of each series.

Each is a series of YA novels involving a likeable, lonely young protagonist finding her/himself lifted out of her/his difficult life to face significantly greater excitement and challenges in a strange, often supernatural, world.

So imagine my surprise when, last night as my partner was describing to me her experience of reading the first 100 pages or so of the new adult megahit Fifty Shades of Grey, I couldn't stop thinking about and comparing that story to twilight, the first novel in that series.

The parallels between the two stories are remarkable. So much so that I can't help but thinking the author of Fifty Shades owes Stephenie Meyer a real debt of gratitude.

Now remember, I have not read Fifty Shades and am basing my impression on my partner's description of the start of that novel, but consider these similarities:

1. Both are told in the first person, through a sweet, innocent, self-doubting young woman thrust into a new and unknown social situation;
2. Both involve that protagonist meeting an intoxicating, irresistable man and both include long descriptions of his incredible beauty, with a focus (believe it or not) on his scent;
3. Both males are masterful, powerful and worldly; both are older and more experienced than the female protagonist and enjoy a great deal more social and physical power;
4. Both stories are told as romances with a background of fear and terror;
5. In both stories, the sexual relationship between the two main characters involves significant danger of physical harm to the woman.

According to my partner, Fifty Shades is terribly written with no literary merit whatsoever. I'm glad to say that twilight is at least well-written and interesting.

After thinking this all through, I did a quick search of the relationship between the two novels on the internet. My reading suggests that Fifty Shades might actually have begun its life as fan fiction related to twilight. Wow. I thought there was a relationship there.

Too bad it didn't begin AND END its life as fan fiction. From what my partner told me, Fifty Shades does not deserve to see the light.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Hermione would never tear a page from a book!

Sometimes I worry I'm too picky when I'm spotting problems in the Harry Potter novels, especially the early ones. I mean, no writer is perfect and, especially in novels aimed at children, we shouldn't expect the story to make perfect sense to an adult every step of they way.

So I try to tell myself to back off, give J.K. a break, the benefit of the doubt.

But I still can't get past the fact that, in The Chamber of Secrets, Rowling has Hermione tear part of a page out of an old library book and carry the scrap around with her. It bothered me the first time I read the book - I remember saying to myself, "Wait a minute, the Hermione I know would never damage a valuable old book like that!" - and it still bothers me now.

The Hermione I know loves books so much that she would never purposely damage one, not to mention an old and valuable one owned by her school. Remember how scandalised Hermione was in The Half-Blood Prince when she saw Harry tearing apart his new potions text? She was outraged.

And yet we're supposed to believe that, just over three years earlier, that same young woman would have gone into the Library, taken an ancient reference book down from the shelf and ripped a part of a page out of it? No way. Our Hermione would have copied the short section she wanted onto her own piece of parchment, noted the title, author and publication date of the book from which the information came, and returned the book carefully to its place on the shelf.

I think, to be honest, that this little issue is an example of how, in the early novels, Rowling didn't quite have as clear and settled an understanding of her characters as she would have when she wrote the later novels.

And it's also an interesting demonstration of how sometimes the readers of a series of novels feel they've gotten to know the characters very well very quickly, so much so that they are willing to challenge the actions of those characters in the novels when such actions don't match their understanding of the character.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Understanding Hermione at an early point in their friendship

One of the things that impresses me most about J.K.'s writing is how good she is at having her characters develop self-awareness realistically.

O.K. That was a bit of a complicated sentence to go with the complex thought.

Let me start again. I am impressed with the way J.K. shows her characters learning about themselves and about each other. She does it in such a realistic way and it adds a great deal to our enjoyment, as readers, of her books.

Yes, that seems a simpler way of expressing the thought.

Here's an example of what I mean:

Late in The Chamber of Secrets, as the hero trio makes their way to a quidditch match against Hufflepuff, Harry hears the Basilisk's voice for the first time in several months. He jumps but Hermione and Ron hear nothing. This leads to an epiphany for Hermione.

"I think I've just understood something," she exclaims. "I've got to go to the library!"

And she sprints away without explaining further.

A great moment. A classic Hermione moment. We as readers register it as just that: a classic Hermione moment. And, thanks to Rowling's creativity as a writer, so do Ron and Harry.

Harry asks, "What does she understand?" and Ron replies, "Loads more than I do."

It's a laugh out loud moment. But it's so true. Even though we are only about a book and three quarters into the story, we know that Hermione understands loads more than do Harry or Ron.

In her genius, however, Rowling doesn't just leave it there. She follows up with the self-awareness piece-de-resistance. Harry says to Ron, "By why's she got to go to the library?"; Ron's response captures the essence of the character of their friend:

"Because that's what Hermione does," he says. "When in doubt, go to the library."

Wonderful. True. And oh so real. It would become a running joke of the novels that Hermione turns to her books or to the Hogwarts library whenever a question arises that she cannot answer instantly.

And I think it's absolutely fitting that, in this particular moment of The Chamber of Secrets, Ron would voice this understanding of Hermione's character out loud.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Wondering about Mr. Weasley's wonderful Ford Anglia

What ever happened to Mr. Weasley's car?

 If I recall correctly (and I haven't quite gotten there in my re-reading of The Chamber of Secrets), the enchanted Ford Anglia that carried Harry and Ron to Hogwarts and rescued them from Aragog's family disappears into the Forbidden Forest late in that novel.

But what happens to it then?

I have to admit, I'm quite surprised that J.K. didn't find some way to bring it back one more time in one of the later novels, at least to give us some hint of how things turn out for this memorable vehicle.

I loved that car. It starts off all innocent as simply a vehicle magically bewitched to fly. Then we find out it is remarkably spacious inside. Then it flies all the way to Hogarts on a single tank of gas (gas?). Finally, its full personality comes out when it flings the boys and their belongings out and escapes the Whomping Willow on its own.

We shouldn't be surprised when this gritty little car comes back to save Harry and Ron from the kingdom of the spiders. That's one feisty automobile.

I wonder what became of it. Certainly Voldemort didn't tame it when he and his Death Eaters took over the Forest in Book Seven. It makes no appearance as a slave to the Dark Lord.

I like to think it took off to the seaside, found a nice garage and lived out its life in peace. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What does George know about the Basilisk?

Does George Weasley have some extra sense that no one else shares? Does he have some understanding of  the dark arts that everyone else lacks?

Stupid questions?

Maybe. But consider this.

There's a point about two-thirds of the way through The Chamber of Secrets, when Harry is feared to be the Heir of Slytherin and no one, not Albus Dumbledore nor even Hermione Granger herself, has figured out what creature dwells within the fabled Chamber. Fred and George have decided to have fun with everyone's fear of Harry by loudly telling people to get out of his way as he makes his way through the halls of the school.

Percy attempts to intervene but George tells him to to get out of Harry's way because Harry is "nipping off to the Chamber of Secrets for a cup of tea with his fanged servant."

Hmmm... "fanged servant", eh?

As you will recall, the creature in the Chamber was, in fact, a Basilisk, a massive snake with long, curving fangs, deathly poison and a killer glance. But, at the time of George's comment, the only thing anybody knew about the creature was that it had petrified a number of people.

Nobody had been bitten; no blood had been spilt.

So help me to understand why George would refer to the creature as Harry's "fanged servant".

A good guess, probably. Merely a coincidence.

Or did George know something more?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Matching wits with a Harry Potter expert

There's nothing nicer in the world than a visit from another avid Harry Potter fan. One who knows the books and movies every bit as well as I do and probably even better.

For the past two weeks, we've been enjoying the company of our friends Sue, Louise, Nikita, Miranda and Tate from Ontario. While all five of these wonderful women have a working knowledge of the Rowling world, Miranda is the resident expert in Harry Potter among the group.

And she's pretty sharp with the trivia. We got into a quick game of "Stump the Other Expert" yesterday and the battle ended in a draw, with Miranda catching me unable to name the spell Ollivander uses to test Fleur's wand before the Tri-Wizards Tournament (it was "Orchideous") while I stumped her with the question: What is the name of Bellatrix Lestrange's husband ("Rudolphus").

Outside of those two tough ones, it was a pretty good duel. And it turns out that Miranda and I have exactly the opposite feelings about the eighth film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: as anyone who reads this blog knows very well, I hate the last film but Miranda has a much more positive feeling about it.

I plan to ask her to send me a written defense of this film so that I can share it with you. I am still amazed that someone who loves Harry Potter so much and knows the Rowling world at least as well as I do could possibly love that last movie!

Anyway, a group of us will be watching one of the HP movies together later this evening. After much discussion, we agreed we'd view the third film, the wonderfully dark and challenging Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Although one member of our party argued against watching that particular film because it is "too scary", everyone agreed that it's one of the best, if not the best, of the Harry Potter movies.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Separating the wheat from the Harry Potter chaff

I think I'm going to have to accept the fact that, while I'm still revelling in the world of Harry Potter, many other people have now moved on to other stories, other interests.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, my sister-in-law and her three kinds came out to visit. I was excited at the thought of talking Harry Potter with my 12-year-old nephew and nine-year-old niece. Unlike so many other people in my world, I thought, they'd still have Potter fever.

"Harry Potter sucks," my nephew told me when I first raised the subject. He then mentioned three other writers and their series of novels and told me that each of them is "way better than Harry Potter."

My niece, while more polite, seemed to be of the same opinion: Harry Potter is now old news and there are a lot of other, more exciting books out there for them to read.

My heart sank. Is this what the world is coming to? I myself have also started to read other books (I'm delving into adult science fiction at this point) but, even so, I haven't turned my back on the wonderful works of J.K. I still have at least one HP book on the go at any given time and watch the movies from time to time.

I try to keep an open mind. I read The Hunger Games trilogy a couple of times, for example, but it just didn't grip me, it didn't have the breadth and depth of Harry Potter to keep  me interested. I'm having to accept that the passage of time tends to distill just about anything down to its basic elements and that goes for Harry Potter fandom too. As long as new books and movies were coming out from time to time, casual fans stayed tuned. But once the stream of new material came to an end, those fans slowly faded away, finding other things to interest them.

Until only the truly hard-core people were left. Like you and me.

It's sad, I guess, but predictable too. I can't say I like it when former Potter fans who have found something new feel they have to declare that "Harry Potter sucks" but I understand that some people will drift away over the years.

Not me, of course. I'm dyed in the wool. I'll keep reading, watching and writing about Harry Potter until I have to make the ultimate decision: stay on earth as a ghost or "move on".

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The mysterious disappearance of the wizarding robes

Where are their robes?

It's just occurred to me. The filmmakers have virtually done away with the wearing of robes, so prevalent in the novels, in Part 2 of The Deathly Hallows.


We see the Hogwarts students in their school robes first as they march into the castle under Headmaster Snape's watchful eye early in the film and then again in the school assembly scene where Harry finally confronts Snape. But, other than those two scenes, the wearing of robes seems to have disappeared completely.

Harry, Hermione and Ron remain in Muggle clothes throughout the entire film, except for Harry's decision to don (someone's) robes to slip into the school assembly scene. The members of the Order, the Death Eaters, everyone else seems content to wear anything other than the traditional garb of witches and wizards as so clearly established in the books.

Now, let's think about this for a moment. J.K. presents to us a wizarding world where the wearing of robes is as natural to the magical people as wearing jeans and tops is to many of us Muggles. Wizards and witches would feel comfortable, normal in robes and would find wearing anything else strange.

Yet, by the eighth film, suddenly they're all taking the first opportunity to dump their robes and put on slacks and sweaters. It doesn't make sense.

Rowling describes very carefully how Harry makes sure to tuck his Invisibility Cloak and his wand away in his robes when he goes into the Forbidden Forest to die at Voldemort's hand in the seventh book. In the movie version of this scene, Harry's in Muggle clothing.

Why? Well, I know why. It's cheaper, it's easier and it helps viewers identify with the good guys in the final battle. They're just like us. The Death Eaters, while not in robes per se, wear strange dark outfits that set them apart. The good guys dress like we, the audience members do.

I get that. But I don't like it. It's a cop out. And it's not right.

One last question: where do all the robes go between the school assembly scene (where all the Hogwarts students are in their robes) and the battle scenes that follow? There's no temporal break between McGonagall's duel with Snape and the Death Eaters' attack on Hogwarts and yet somehow all of the robes disappear.

That must be some closet they've got there in the Great Hall to hold all those robes.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Revisiting the disappointment of the last movie

Every time I watch the last movie in the Harry Potter series, I feel like I need to take a long, hot shower to clean the ickiness off me.

I don't even know why I try to watch it anymore.

I made the mistake of giving it another shot yesterday, when an extremely hot, humid Sunday afternoon drove me into the coolness of our basement rec room. I watched Part 1 first (not bad, great in some places, a little yucky in others) and then, encouraged, slid Part 2 into the Blu-Ray disc player.

My my, what a mistake.

And what upsets me the most is that, because they made this monstrosity, there is no way anyone is going to come along anytime soon to remake Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a film.And, even if they do, the stars of these movies (Radcliffe, Watson, Grint et al) will be be too old to play their roles and, to be honest, those three have become the hero trio for most of us around the world.

It's such a huge loss, in my opinion, because I think that Rowling's seventh novel would make a great movie (or series of movies) if done properly.

What do I hate most about the eighth movie as it currently exists? Good question:

1. I hate the fact that the screenwriter and director decided they were entitled to rewrite the story completely, keeping only brief signposts and glimpses of J.K.'s fantastic book;
2. I hate the fact that they removed Harry's internal debate between pursuing the Hallows and destroying the Horcruxes that plays such a key motivational role in the book;
3. I hate that they changed the circumstances and motivations for the first kiss between Ron and Hermione;
4. I hate that they felt compelled to change the balance of the final battle so that it became Harry and a small band of Hogwarts people against Voldemort's massive army rather than a pitched battle, the tide of which turned when the people of Hogsmeade and the rest of the magical community, the Centaurs and the House Elves all united to help the Hogwarts people defeat the Death Eaters;
5. I hate the fact that they made the final two very public duels (Molly Weasley versus Bellatrix Lestrange and Harry versus Voldemort) take place in relative obscurity;
6. I hate the fact that they have Voldemort mock Neville rather than attempt to recruit him into his army;
7. I hate that Hagrid's half-brother Grawp has no role in the final scenes;
8. I hate that the film version has significant internal inconsistencies: how does Luna end up back at Hogwarts   as a student after the hero trio helps her escape from Malfoy Manor, why are the Hogwarts students who are hidden in the Room of Requirement when Harry, Hermione and Ron arrive safe to join the rest of the students at Snape's school meeting?;
9. I hate the fact that it wasn't good enough for the filmmakers to have Tom Riddle simply fall down dead at the end;
10. I hate the fact that Harry doesn't mend his own wand with the Elder Wand before breaking it and that he doesn't return to the headmaster's office to explain to Dumbledore's portrait what he's done with the Hallows.

I could go on.

Sure, there are some really good parts of this last film that I'd like to save. I like the escape from Gringott's, which was very well done. I think they did a nice job with the actual duel between Molly and Bellatrix (I just don't like the way they placed it in the greater scene). I thought the scene were Harry brings back his loved ones using the Resurrection Stone was very good as was the scene with Dumbledore in the mystical King's Cross Station after Harry appears to have been killed by Voldemort in the Forest.

So it's not a total loss. But I still think that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is such a stinging disappointment that I have to limit my exposure to it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Quibbling about Quaffles

I think we're missing some important information about Quidditch.Particularly about the scoring ball, the Quaffle.

I've been thinking about this for some time. I've tried to pay special attention whenever I read a passage in one of the novels where J.K. explains the game or describes people playing it. There's something that I don't get.

We know that the Chasers carry the Quaffle, pass it back and forth between them, and attempt to score goals (worth 10 points each) with it when they get down to the other team's end, right? We also read descriptions of the action in the various matches and find that the Chasers quite often lose control of the Quaffle when they are harassed, hit or otherwise hindered by either players from the opposite team or one of the Bludgers. Still with me?

My question is this: why do they lose control of the Quaffle so often?

The descriptions of this particular ball do not suggest that it is very large, nor very heavy, nor that it vibrates or jerks around on its own or attempts to escape anyone who holds it. And, when it is presented in the films, the Quaffle appears to me to be no larger and no more active than your average softball.

So why do the Chasers drop it so often?

Think about North-American-style football. In that game, the players carry a decent-sized ball and get hit, hard, often by several powerful players, on each play. And quite often the players from the other team actively try to pry the football from the ballcarrier's control. And yet fumbles are quite rare.

In Rowling's descriptions of Quidditch matches, whether played by the Hogwarts students or world-class pros, the Chasers are constantly dropping the Quaffle, sometimes even when a player from the other team does nothing more than nudge them.


I personally think the Quaffle must have some kind of energy of its own. It reacts when the player carrying it comes into contact with a player from the other team or a Bludger, making itself very hard to hold. That would explain all the fumbles, I think.

Maybe J.K. simply forgot to tell us about this special feature of the scoring ball in the sport of Quidditch.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Early perceptions of Arthur Weasley and the family's poverty

I like Arthur Weasley, Ron's father. I really do. I think he is an admirable character with mostly the right motives. It turns out that he's fun and he's kind and, despite his mild manner, extremely brave.

And I think it's interesting the way J.K. uses the relative poverty of his family to create tension, especially when it comes to Ron's misbehaviours in school. Just about every time Ron gets into trouble, the issue of his father losing his job comes up with the ruin of the family looming behind it.

But there's a scene involving Arthur Weasley early in The Chamber of Secrets that makes me uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Every time I read it, I cringe.

Rowling includes a number of scenarios in the first fifty pages of the book to show just how poor the Weasleys are, from Fred and George worrying about how their parents will be able to afford all the expensive books on their school reading lists to descriptions of the Burrow that focus on its shabbiness to the fact that they will have to buy most of Ginny's school things second-hand for her first year at Hogwarts.

Things come to a head (for the reader and for Harry) when they all arrive at Gringotts. Rowling reports that Harry "felt dreadful, far worse than he had in Knockturn Alley, when [the Weasleys' vault] was opened. There was a very small pile of silver Sickles inside and just one gold Galleon. Mrs Weasley felt right into the corners before sweeping the whole lot into her bag."

It is very clear that the Weasleys are poor and that every Knut they have will be spent buying school supplies for their five children who are still at Hogwarts. It's even clearer that, despite committing every Knut, they will still be forced to buy most things second hand, resulting, for example, in Ginny heading off for her first year at school with "a very old, very battered copy of A Beginners' Guide to Transfiguration."

And there's nothing wrong with that. Most families have to economise in some ways and we can all respect that the Weasleys, including their children, are content to spend what money they have on important things (like helping Harry, supporting each other, etc.) even at the sacrifice of their own interests.

What bothers me is this: moments after Molly sweeps every last Knut they can lay claim to into her bag to buy second-hand supplies for her kids, Arthur Weasley feels no compunction about "taking the Grangers [Hermione's parents] off to the Leaky Cauldron for a drink" so that he can satisfy his curiosity about Muggles. He's ready to spend some of that desperately needed money at the pub even as his wife works very hard to see to the needs of their children with what's left.

Maybe it's because of my own background but I find this decision by Arthur very distasteful. He's basically putting his own personal interests ahead of those of the rest of his family. I know, most readers probably read through that section without any concerns but it just hit me as a problem the first time I read it and has stood out for me ever since.

Of course, it probably had a greater impact on me the first time I read The Chamber of Secrets because, at that point, I was just meeting Arthur for the first time. If you take this incident and add it to the other early hints that Arthur is not necessarily as supportive of his wife and family as he could be (hiding Muggle relics in the shed, putting spells on them at the risk of his own job, failing to recognise that the boys' decision to take the car and rescue Harry could have a serious impact on the entire family so that their behaviour should be the subject of discipline rather than interest and delight), you start with a decidedly negative view of this man and his commitment to his family.

Thankfully, of course, we learn as we finish reading the second book and continue into the later novels that Arthur Weasley is a thoroughly likable, honourable and committed character. But, for me at least, these first glimpses are not particularly positive.

A couple of other thought pop into mind as we read these early descriptions of the Weasley family's financial challenges:
1. Why would they buy Ginny a used copy of a textbook that Ron, Fred, George, Percy and likely the two older brothers have all had to buy as well? Why not just pass their copies down to her?
2. Where did they get the money for Ginny's wand? We know that Ron's is a hand-me-down but we get no explanation as to where Ginny's wand comes from. We learned from Harry's trip to Ollivanders in Book One that a new wand can cost seven gold Galleons so how could the Weasleys afford a new one for Ginny?
3. I find it very believable, but also very tragic, that Harry at twelve is incapable of doing anything but feel shame when he compares his own loaded bank vault with the empty one of the Weasleys. If he were older and more mature, he probably could have found ways to deal with his shame by contributing to their family economy, perhaps by paying board for the times he stayed with them or purchasing a load of groceries or something. It becomes less of an issue as the novels progress, of course. I would guess that, as Charlie and Bill develop their careers, they begin to send money back to their parents to alleviate their financial stresses.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Jedusor explained and questions on House Elf magic

First, if you haven't read the excellent comment just posted on my blog entry, "Tom Jedusor, give me a break" (posted August 31, 2011), please go back and read it. It's chalk full of really helpful information on the French translation of Voldemort's original name. Thanks so much, Ananse, for sharing this with us.

Second, I've been thinking a little bit about House Elf magic. I'm starting to read The Chamber of Secrets again, the book which introduces not only Dobby, our favourite house Elf, but also House Elves in general. Harry has certainly never heard of them before Dobby appears in his bedroom and, as this novel progresses, we learn more and more about them. Our understanding of House Elves is even further developed in later novels, culminating in Dobby's death and Kreacher's emergence as an ally in Book Seven.

We learn in The Chamber of Secrets that House Elves have a set of magical capabilities that are very powerful and greatly different from those of wizards and witches. In later books, we learn that House Elves, for example, can apparate in and out of Hogwarts, something no wand carrier can do. Further, we see that Kreacher is capable of escaping the Inferi in the lake in Voldemort's cave, an eventuality not even the Dark Lord himself had anticipated.

And Dobby holds his own in a battle against such powerful witches and wizards as Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy and Draco himself.

So my question at this point is this. As fascinating and different as the magic of House Elves seems to be, how is it that the Ministry of Magic mistakes Dobby's hover charm in the Dursley kitchen for an act of magic performed by Harry. As you will recall, Harry receives a letter of warning from the Ministry for performing an illegal charm outside of school.

We learn later, of course, that the Ministry's ability to sense illegal magical acts performed by underage students is quite limited, that a child can probably get away with performing magic outside of school if he is surrounded by adult witches and wizards at the time he casts his spell because the Ministry will naturally assume that one of the adults cast the spell.

So, when a hover charm is used in the Dursley kitchen, and the only wand carrier in the vicinity is an underage wizard, the Ministry assumes that the magic was performed by that underage wizard.

I get all that. But wouldn't House Elf magic be different enough for the Ministry to recognise that no wizard could have performed that particular charm? Or are there some spells and charms that are shared by both races such that they are indistinguishable to the Ministry?

Here's what I'm getting at: Dobby must have performed at least one other act of magic to get into Harry's bedroom in the first place (an apparition, perhaps) but the Ministry doesn't notice or address that. The hover charm, however, is noticed by the Ministry and attributed to Harry. How did they miss Dobby's apparition?

In order for this all to make sense, I guess, the following must be true:
1. House Elves enjoy completely different magical powers than do wand carriers, such that the Ministry does not track them;
2. Despite that, however, House Elves and wand carriers do share some spells and charms and, when such spells and charms are performed by a House Elf, the Ministry is unable to tell that an Elf, not a wand carrier, performed that bit of magic;
3. Either apparition is not a trackable magical act under normal circumstances (though the Ministry proves later that it can control the use of apparition as a means of travel) or, more likely, the form of apparition performed by House Elves is fundamentally different from a wand carrier's apparition.

What do you think? And, if all of this is true, how do you explain the fact that, in Book Seven, Kreacher leads the House Elves out of the Hogwarts kitchens to fight the Death Eaters with knives, rather than employing their own very powerful form of magic against the evil doers?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Comparing Challenges: Saving the Stone versus Hunting the Horcrux

I read the ending of The Philosopher’s Stone the other day (again). And I was reminded, again, about how J.K. so effectively tailored her stories to the level of sophistication of her target audience.

As we all know, one of the most impressive things about Rowling’s seven-book series is that the maturity of each successive novel increases as her readers mature: the first novel is, in essence, a children’s book; the middle novels are designed for teens and young adults; and the final book, especially, is a complex, mature adult work.

There’s an easy way to see the difference between the simplicity of the early novels and the relative complexity of the later novels. Just look at how Rowling deals with two extremely similar situations near the ends of the first novel, The Philosopher’s Stone, and of the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince.

When we get to the climax of The Philosopher’s Stone, we find our hero trio testing themselves against the various protections that have been put in place to defend the philosopher’s stone itself. They face Fluffy, Devil’s Snare, the flying keys, the Mountain Troll, the chess game, the bottle puzzle and finally the Mirror of Erised. After that, of course, Harry must take on Quirrell and Voldemort but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Now this is a children’s book, remember, so none of the challenges can be too scary or too difficult. The tension must exist but it cannot be terrifying and, even more important, the protections they must get past have to be beatable. By them. As 12-year-olds.

In fact, since they are so new to magic as a whole, Rowling ensures that the solution to each protection is available to them, even if it is completely unrealistic that the people who put the protections in place would make them so easily overcome.

So Fluffy goes to sleep if you play him a bit of music. Devil’s Snare retracts from heat and light. Flitwick kindly leaves a set of broomsticks nearby to help them catch the needed key. The troll is already out cold. The chess game is winnable and the bottle puzzle provides sufficient information for a smart-enough witch or wizard to figure out how to move on safely.

Think about all of that for a moment. The professors of Hogwarts have taken on the task of ensuring the most powerful dark wizard in history, Voldemort, cannot steal the philosopher’s stone and use it to come back to full power. And yet they have designed each of their protections in such a way that it can be beaten. By children.

It makes no sense from a dramatic point of view, until you remember that this is a children’s book.

Okay, now fast forward to book six, The Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore and Harry set out to steal the locket Horcrux from the cave. In this case, it is Voldemort who has set up a series of protections to keep intruders away from his precious possession. Does he set up his protections so that they can easily be beaten? Does he provide hints, clues or aids to help people get past his protections? No way.

First, he chooses a hiding place that no one should know about or suspect. It is only the fact that Dumbledore learned of the orphanage’s annual trips to the coast when he first visited the young Tom Riddle that allows Dumbledore to find out the general location of the cave.

Second, even though an intruder must know where to look and have the wherewithal to swim through turbulent seas to get into the cliffside cave, Voldemort hides the entrance to the inner cave using strong magic. As Dumbledore points out, only someone capable of seeing the minute traces left by a magical spell has any chance of finding that entrance. Once found, the intruder must then puzzle out how to make the entrance appear and open up, with no clues provided. If an intruder manages to get into the inner cave, he faces the lake, the inferi, the hidden boat, the killer potion, the inferi again, etc. etc. etc. etc.

Voldemort makes nothing easy. The only reason it is at all possible to get to the locket is because Voldemort himself may need to retrieve it at some point in the future. And I’m willing to wager that only a wizard as powerful and capable as Dumbledore, who does his homework and prepares meticulously for the task, could be successful at stealing the locket.

The first novel is a children’s book, so the challenges are manageable and even fun. The sixth novel is for mature teens and adults, so the challenges are extreme and terrifying.

Two very similar situations; two very different approaches.

I sometimes get frustrated with The Philospher’s Stone when I am faced, once again, with the fact that the protectors of the stone actually designed their protections to be defeatable. I have to remind myself that Rowling was writing for kids at that point and that her decisions in this regard are completely defensible.

When she was writing for adults, she treats the scenario in a much more realistic manner. It is clear that only Dumbledore is capable of breaching Voldemort’s defenses and, in fact, that he ends up dying in the attempt.

Again, wow. Great writing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ron starts Hogwarts at a significant disadvantage

I'm wondering if maybe Ron Weasley was at a bit of an unfair disadvantage in his first couple of years at Hogwarts. Even more so than is at first obvious.

Why? Because of his wand.

As he admits to Harry in their important first meeting on the Hogwarts Express, Ron is using "Charlie's old wand". Rowling later describes it as "a very battered looking wand. It was chipped in places and something white was glinting at the end." That something white, Ron explains, is the unicorn-hair core poking out.

Two reasons this might be a problem for Ron: first, because it is clear that this wand did not choose Ron as its master; and, second, because of the damage this wand has suffered even before it is broken at the start of The Chamber of Secrets (when the flying car is attacked by the Whomping Willow, Ron's wand is one of the casualties).

Remember what Ollivander said to Harry when our hero bought his own wand? "And of course, you will never get such good results with another wizard's wand." As we learn later, this simple rule is not entirely accurate; in fact, the full rule is that you will never get such good results with another wizard's wand, unless you win its loyalty by defeating its owner.

But Ron is using a borrowed wand from the day he starts at Hogwarts. His magical power is already inhibited by the fact that his wand did not choose him, that he is using "another wizard's wand."

Charlie, at some point, bought (and was chosen by) a new wand and Ron is left with his sloppy seconds. I doubt Ron "defeated" Charlie at any point, although it is possible that the Weasley's knew enough to have a pre-Hogwarts Ron disarm Charlie so that the wand transferred its allegiance to the little boy.

That's an interesting thought, to be honest. Hmmm...

The second factor, the damage, is not so easily dismissed. There is evidence throughout the novels that a damaged wand will not function as well as one in good condition. Recall the horror Ollivander displays when he realises that Hagrid might be attempting to use his own broken wand (and Hagrid's own inept spellcasting with the damaged wand). Remember how much worse Ron's own wand performs after it is further damaged by the Whomping Willow.

And think about the scene in The Goblet of Fire when the four Tri-Wizard Champions present their wands for inspection prior to the beginning of the competition. Dumbledore explains that Ollivander will examine their wands "to ensure that they are in good condition before the Tournament." The implication is that, if a wand has been damaged in any way, it might not perform properly and would, therefore, be a danger to its owner.

Ron's wand is already rather badly damaged ("battered" is the term J.K. uses to describe it) when he arrives at Hogwarts. In its battered state, it probably can't perform as well for Ron as a new wand that had chosen him would.

It's no wonder Ron struggles in his first two years at Hogwarts. It's only after his parents buy him a new wand in the summer before his third year that he has an instrument through which his magical power can be properly channeled: a new wand, in perfect condition, that has chosen him.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Petunia's on the Platform for an "Aha!" Moment

I love those “Aha!” moments. The kind of moments that only come because you know the books so well that you've got the seventh novel running in the back of your brain as you read the first one again.

Not that I want to be aggressively critical of J.K. Rowling. In fact, I think it's because she makes so few “continuity errors” over the course of these seven incredibly complex books that I actually feel joy when I find one. The fact that it's taken me about 20 readings of the novels to spot this one makes it even more amazing.

Take the following passages from Chapter 6 of The Philosopher's Stone:

    [Harry] pulled the ticket Hagrid had given him out of his pocket.
    “I just take the train from platform nine and three quarters at eleven o'clock,” he read.
    His aunt and uncle stared.
    “Platform what?”
    “Nine and three quarters.”
    “Don't talk rubbish,” said Uncle Vernon, “there's no platform nine and three quarters.”
    “It's on my ticket.”
    “Barking,” said Uncle Vernon, “howling mad, the lot of them. You'll see. You just wait.”

And later...

    “Well, there you are, boy. Platform nine – platform ten. Your platform should be somewhere in the middle, but they don't seem to have built it yet, do they?”
    He was quite right, of course. There was a big plastic number nine over one platform and a big plastic number ten over the one next to it, and in the middle, nothing at all.
    “Have a good term,” said Uncle Vernon with an even nastier smile. He left without another word. Harry turned and saw the Dursleys drive away. All three of them were laughing.

 Reading those two sections, you would believe that Aunt Petunia is as incredulous over Harry's claim that there is actually a platform nine and three quarters at King's Cross Station as Uncle Vernon is. No, Petunia doesn't actually say anything but she does first “stare” at Harry when he first introduces the idea of platform nine and three quarters and then joins in the derisive laughter when the Dursley family drives away, leaving Harry lost and stranded at King's Cross.

So we are given to believe that Petunia has never heard of platform nine and three quarters and is as skeptical as her husband regarding the possibility of its existence.

Now read this passage from Snape's memory montage in Chapter 33 of The Deathly Hallows:

    And the scene reformed. Harry looked around: he was on platform nine and three quarters., and Snape stood beside him, slightly hunched, next to a thin, sallow faced, sour-looking woman who greatly resembled him. Snape was staring at a family of four a short distance away. The two girls stood a little apart form their parents. Lily seemed to be pleading with her sister; Harry moved closer to listen.
    “...I'm sorry, Tuney, I'm sorry! Listen -” She caught her sister's hand and held tight to it, even though Petunia tried to pull away.

What's this? Aunt Petunia actually visited platform nine and three quarters with Harry's mother? She's been there and knows it exists? So why is she acting like the idea of a platform called nine and three quarters is ridiculous twenty or so years later?

My colleague suggests that Aunt Petunia might just be acting in The Philosopher's Stone, that she remembers platform nine and three quarters but has trained herself to act like she knows nothing of the magical world, especially when she's around her husband.

Maybe. But I don't think so. I'd be more ready to believe it if Rowling described Aunt Petunia as looking down, glancing away, looking solemn or something like that. But in both cases where Petunia is described in these passages, she is responding exactly the same way Vernon is: first staring, then laughing. When Rowling wrote The Philosopher's Stone, she intended to convey that both Harry's Aunt and Harry's Uncle thought the idea of a platform nine and three quarters at King's Cross was absolutely ridiculous.

And then forgot that when she came to write The Deathly Hallows.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

"Diagon Alley' is a breathtaking introduction to so many important things

Having taken a brief break to read some Jane Austen (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way), I am back to Harry Potter again and reading Book 1, The Philosopher's Stone, for the umteenth time.

I love coming back to this book after some time away from the whole Harry Potter world. It's so fresh and lively and exciting. I even find myself getting a slight taste of how it felt to read it for the very first time, when everything was completely new, but in some ways re-reading is an even more satisfying experience.

Chapter Five, 'Diagon Alley', is a particular gem in this book, especially when the reader knows what's to come in the entire series of novels. That's not to say that this first glimpse of the magical world wasn't enthralling on first reading! I felt just like Harry way back then: I wished I had eight extra eyes to take it all in.

Now that I know the rest of the books so well, however, I can appreciate how important this first visit to the Leaky Cauldron and the world beyond it is to the development not just of this first novel but of the entire Harry Potter saga.

Any number of characters who would play ongoing and even important roles are introduced in this chapter: Tom, the barman, Dedalus Diggle, Ollivander, Madam Malkin and, of course, Draco Malfoy all make their first appearances as Harry discovers his own magical world and his importance to its people.

Interestingly, we don't learn Draco's name until later, just as we have to wait to find out what Harry plans to call his new snowy owl, a birthday gift from Hagrid.

J.K. also uses this chapter to lay down several important (and perhaps not so important) rules for the magical world, rules which would have particular resonance in later books and particularly in Book Seven, The Deathly Hallows:

  • from Hagrid, Harry learns that toads are no longer considered to be cool pets by the students at Hogwarts, which later gives us a very quick insight into the character and circumstances of Neville Longbottom, owner of the infamous toad Trevor;
  • from our visit to Gringott's bank, we learn how dangerous it would be to attempt to break in, something Hagrid reinforces on several occasions in the chapter; isn't it ironic that, as the saga comes to a close, Harry and his friends actually do try to break into Gringott's and, with a little help from a freedom-seeking dragon, actually survive to tell the tale; and
  • from Ollivander, we learn four important lessons which will play key roles in later novels: first, that the wand chooses the wizard; second, that a borrowed wand will never perform so well as a wizard's own wand; third, that the holly wand that chooses Harry has, as its core, a tail feather from the same Phoenix that provided the tail feather inside Voldemort's wand; and fourth, that the Phoenix in question (which turns out to be Fawkes, Dumbledore's own bird) gave up only those two tail feathers.
And, as I've mentioned before on this blog, we get a wonderfully written opportunity to understand a little bit more about the characters of Harry Potter and the pale, pointed face boy he encounters in Madam Malkin's robe shop. The unnamed Draco introduces us to the division within the wizarding community over the issue of pure blood versus "Mudblood", while displaying a conceited, haughty character that immediately turns Harry off.

In just 17 short pages, 'Diagon Alley' sets the stage for what is to come, both in the novel itself and across the entire series. It's no wonder we readers almost fail to notice that Rowling has also introduced us, and Harry, to the villain of that first book, Professor Quirrell, who comes across merely as another Harry Potter fan in the Leaky Cauldron.

I found this chapter so impressive that I had to stop and read it again. Great writing. Fabulous introduction to so many important things!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New insights into Harry's lonely walk

I have long admired the chapter in The Deathly Hallows where Harry, having learned the truth about his role in Dumbledore's plans, takes his solemn walk into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort and, ultimately, his own death.

In my opinion, J.K. captures this moment, these events perfectly and depicts Harry as responding to this situation precisely as I would have expected him to: with fear, with sadness, but with an unwavering resolve to face his own end with dignity, to sacrifice himself so that others may live.

I thought, to be honest, that I had read and digested fully this wonderful chapter such that I had plumbed fully its depths, understood every nuance, recognised every aspect of its achievement.

And then my boss walked into my cubicle the other day and showed me how wrong I was in my self-satisfaction.

"Do you think," she said in her quiet, self-effacing way, "that the descriptions of Harry's heart beating so hard that it seemed to wish to escape his chest in that scene are intended to hint to us that there is actually a bit of Voldemort's soul in there instead? That it is that last, unrecognised Horcrux inside Harry that is, in fact, pounding so hard as it recognises that it faces its own death?"

I was dumbfounded. Amazed. Awed. So simple, so perfect and, once it was pointed out to me, so obviously true.

J.K. writes the following at the start of the chapter, "The Forest Again": "He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. How strange it was that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive. But it would have to stop, and soon. Its beats were numbered. How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the Forest?"

How could I have missed this? While Rowling suggests that it is, in fact, Harry's heart that is rebelling, it seems quite obvious now that it is, in fact, the Horcrux that is fighting for its life.

Later, Rowling writes: "His heart was leaping against his ribs like a frantic bird. Perhaps it knew it had little time left, perhaps it was determined to fulfil a lifetime's beats before the end."

Now that I read them from this perspective, these passages remind me of the descriptions of the locket Horcrux just before Ron destroys it with the Sword of Gryffindor: "The locket was twitching slightly. Harry knew that the thing inside it was agitated again. It had sensed the presence of the sword..."

Or, even earlier, when Harry and Hermione encounter the animate remains of Bathilda Bagshot: "Harry became aware of the locket against his skin; the thing inside it that sometimes ticked or beat had woken; he could feel it pulsing through the cold gold. Did it know, could it sense, that the thing that would destroy it was near?"

A prophetic question, as it turns out.

If my supervisor is right, and I think she is, then this earlier passage suggesting that a Horcrux can sense when it is approaching its own death serves to prepare us to recognise what J.K. is doing in "The Forest Again": using her usual sort of misdirection, she is telling us that there is a Horcrux inside Harry that senses its own impending destruction while misleading us to believe that it is, instead, Harry's own heart that is pounding in his chest as he approaches the Forbidden Forest.

Once again, brilliant writing. J.K. at her best, giving us information that is key while ensuring that we do not recognise it for what it is.

And proof that, no matter how many times you read and re-read Rowling's books, you will never really fully understand them unless you share and discuss them with others, add the insights of other Harry Potter fans to your own.

I'm learning a lot about these novels from my boss who is bringing a fresh, intelligent, thoughtful mind to them, who is reading them and understanding them in ways that I never could. I can only hope that I am providing similar insights to her and to anyone who reads this blog. And it explains why I treasure the comments people leave with regard to this blog, showing me the kindness of sharing their thoughts and insights with me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

J.K., meet Ann Killion and Randy Moss

There’s nothing I like better (well, except actually settling in to read a Harry Potter novel) than stumbling across a reference to J.K.’s magical world in places where I least expect it. These kinds of surprising discoveries remind me forcefully just how much of an impact Ms. Rowling’s works have had on the world and how many people are out there who, like you and me, see the world through a Harry Potter lens.

Today, my happy surprise came in the form of a column on the National Football League (NFL) written by Ann Killion, one of my fave sports/football writers, for Sports Illustrated’s website ( Ms. Killion writes of the return of one of the NFL’s all-time great (and most diva-like) wide receivers, Randy Moss, to the league after a brief retirement.

Ms. K. begins her “Inside the NFL” column today with this:

Randy Moss arrived in the Bay Area in 2005 with sirens blaring and a police escort.

Seven years later he's come back with an invisibility cloak.

“Did she just say ‘an invisibility cloak’?” I wonder to myself. “Could that possibly be a RowlingRef” (as I call all references to Harry Potter and his world)? “No,” I decide. “Not possible. Not in a football column. Must be a reference to the more general idea of a cloak that makes a person unseeable.”

So I read on. After a well-written para or two explaining what Randy Moss is up to now, Killion then writes this:

The 49ers -- whose lack of standout wide receivers may have been the difference between a good season and a trip to the Super Bowl -- signed Moss to a non-risky one-year deal and have been raving about him ever since.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has made him sound like a cross between Hermione Granger and Vince Lombardi.

By this time, I’m howling with glee. And moving Ms. K. up even higher in my pantheon of great sports writers. I mean, she’s smart, she’s eloquent and she apparently has at least some level of Harry Potter knowledge.

Cool. Cool cool cool cool.

Randy Moss as Hermione Granger. Perfect. And perfectly funny. Not that Hermione ever displayed even the least interest in sports. I mean, her antipathy for Quidditch is the stuff of legend. But she does pack a mean punch. And Mr. Moss could no doubt learn a thing or two from her about how to manipulate and control the media.

To read Ms. Killion’s column in full, head here:

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Fleur by any other name

I was thinking the other day about The Half-Blood Prince.  More specifically, I was thinking of the scene near the end of the book when the Wesley family gathers around Bill's hospital bed, shocked at the damage Frenrir Greyback has inflicted to Bill's face.

Remember the response Fleur Delacour gives when she feels Molly Weasley is suggesting that the wedding will now be called off?

"What do I care how 'e looks?" Fleur seethes. "I am good-looking enough for both of us, I theenk!"

How did you respond when you first read this reaction? Did you think Fleur was over-the-top vain about her own beauty? That she was a conceited, self-centered snippet?


Neither did I. And, until recently, I've accepted my non-reaction to this proclamation as being absolutely normal. But is it?

If this were any other person, we would think very little of her and her vanity. But J.K. Rowling has done such a nice job of convincing us first of the magical beauty of the Veela race and second of Fleur's own individual loveliness that we never question Fleur when she makes this declaration. It's not tasteless bragging -- it's the truth, and we accept it as such.

Instead of thinking the worse of her for this statement, we (like the Weasley family) accept it as proof of her deep love for Bill and we admire her for it.

Imagine if any other character had made so outrageous a statement as this? How would we have reacted if, for example, Ginny had proclaimed that it doesn't matter that Harry is not so great looking, wears funny spectacles and is marred by an ugly scar on his forehead since she is so beautiful she makes up for his shortcomings?

I don't think we'd be too impressed, would we?

But, for Fleur, the statements seems natural and appropriate. Interesting.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

HP LEGO, a new passion to indulge

Okay. So I'm in the LEGO store in Sherway Gardens Mall, west Toronto, and I see that they have a pretty cool selection of Harry Potter kits. Uh oh, I think I'm hooked. I just have to start my Harry Potter LEGO collection. Maybe I'll start simple, with the Forbidden Forest kit. Apparently, it comes with a figure of HP himself. And a tree.

But do I really have to build it myself?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hubris and the act of filmmaking

A colleague of mine here at work has told me that his 14-year-old daughter is becoming a huge Harry Potter fan. After getting over the fact that she is just now becoming a fan, I asked him if she read the books first, saw the movies first, or kind of combined them.

He laughed and told me that, although she received the complete eight DVD set of the movies for Christmas this year, she has refused to watch any of them until she's finished reading the seven novels.

Great call, I told him. And then I warned him that, while she might really enjoy the first three or four films once she finally watches them, I expect her to be increasingly disappointed in the movies as she gets into the fifth, six and so on. He asked me why.

I was a bit caught off guard. It's not an easy question to answer, especially for someone who doesn't know Harry Potter at all and isn't a student of book-to-film transformations as I believe myself to be. I copped out and chose the easy route, telling him that the later films are merely "highlight reels" of the best action sequences from the books and that they didn't really tell the story at all.

He seemed satisfied with my answer but, the more I think about it, the less I'm happy with what I said.

Why do I so strongly prefer the books to the films? Why do I see the first three, perhaps four films to be much better adaptations of their corresponding novels than the last four movies?

Some of it has to do with length, no doubt. The shorter the book, the easier it is to adapt it faithfully into the film form. I have often said that feature films are really short stories, not novels, so it is a much simpler task to take a 200-page children's novel and bring it to the screen than it is to do the same for a 600-page book.

But I think there are other significant problems as well. To be honest, I think most of those problems stem from the possibility that the movie makers (especially the screenwriter and the director) started to get too comfortable with material in the later films, saw the successs of the flm franchise and started to lose track of the fact that it was J.K. Rowling's story telling, her creativity, her fantastic plots and intersting characters that were responsible for the success of the books and films and thought, instead, that they, themselves, deserved that credit.

As a result, they felt entitled to change Rowling's original works beyond what was necessary to change them from literature into film: they felt they could create new scenes of their own, change characters and their motivations, rewrite the plots completely. This hubris comes to full bloom in the eighth and final book where the filmmakers rewrote the last half of The Deathly Hallows almost completely, in ways that undermined everything that Rowling was tryng to do.

I've written extensively on this blog about how unhappy I am with that eighth film so I won't go into the details but I think it's important to recognise how big a factor the egos of some of the filmmakers could have been in the disappointment of that last film.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Where is all the liquid luck in the Battle For Hogwarts?

Here's a question that has been bothering me for quite some time now: why did no one involved in the Battle of Hotwarts at the end of The Deathly Hallows take a nice dose of Felix Felicis before the fight started? Seriously.

Professor Slughorn introduces us to this wacky substance in the Half-Blood Prince. As you will recall, Harry gave his stash of Felix Felicis to Ron, Hermione and Ginny just before heading off with Dumbledore to Voldermort's cave to attempt to retrieve the locket Horcrux. They later credit the potion for saving their lives throughout the fight with the Death Eaters who invade Hogwarts that night.

Sure, it takes six months to brew. And sure, it is devilishly tricky to make and a disaster if it goes wrong. But Slughorn has proven himself capable and surely Snape himself should be able to brew the potion so why aren't at least some people on either side of the final battle flying on liquid luck when the fighting starts?

It's possible some are, in fact, under the influence of Felix Felicis at that time and J.K. simply decides not to tell us readers. Or, perhaps, she conveniently forgot about the potion when she wrote the seventh book because, let's face it, liquid luck would kind of undermine the drama of the final book, wouldn't it?

And that is, of course, the problem with narrative short cuts like this. Rowling needed a convincing, magical way for Harry to weedle the Horcrux memory out of Slughorn in Book Six and decided to create Felix Feilcis to accomplish that task. It sounded good at the time and even produced some fun moments. But, once she'd created the a potion that brings luck to those who drink it, she kind of found herself in a bit of a pickle in the seventh book.

Now that they know about Felix Felicis, why would Harry, Hermione and Ron not brew a batch while they're holed up at Grimmauld Place, then take a little dose of it each time they go into a particularly dangerous situation: like the Ministry, Gringott's or Hogwarts? Or, for that matter, why wouldn't one of the adults in their lives have brweed some Felix Felicis and delivered it to Harry? After all, he is their best hope for defeating Voldemort.

Yes, overuse of the potion can lead to ill effects but we have it on good authority (from J.K. herself) that Slughorn had used it twice in his lifetime with no problems and, further, that Dumbledore had used it too in his youth, though only for recreational purposes of course. So what's the issue?

This question bothers me a lot. It undermines the tension of the final book and makes me wonder why Felix Felicis isn't used more often by more witches and wizards. My personal opinion is that Rowling would have been better off finding some other way to get Harry together with Slughorn in Book Six and to let Harry's natural charms and kindness work on him rather than creating a potion that would prove so inconvenient, so counter-productive to the creation of tension in the seventh book.

I find I have to forget about the existence of Felix Felicis in order to enjoy to its fulleset the seventh book. And that's not a good sign.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Why do you read these kids' books?" asks the Bully

So what do you do with the people who tell you that the Harry Potter books are just for kids?

People who just don't get how an adult like you can enjoy the books (and movies, perhaps) so much that you read them over and over again, you talk about them with anyone who will listen, you write (heavens forbid!) a blog about the books, movies and their characters?

I've been dealing with a little bit of that at work lately. I don't want to call it Bullying but it has some of the same nastiness to it. This person just can't understand why J.K. Rowling's books appeal to me so much. He wants to attribute my love of all things Potter to some defect in my character, my maturity, my intellectual development.

And he just won't listen to any explanation I try to give him.

I've decided to put his behaviour down to his own insecurities. He can't allow himself to enjoy anything that might be considered "different" by the men he hangs out with because he's not secure enough in himself to stand up to them.

I know. I know. I'm beginning to sound like a bad episode of Frasier, aren't I?

If this guy would actually listen to me, this is what I would say:

1. I enjoy Harry Potter because the books are extremely well written, the characters are interesting and the stories exciting;

2. I read thebooks over and over again because I get something new out of them every time I read a book, some new nuance to the story or the characters, some insight into J.K.'s philosophy, or some new appreciation for the writing;

3. I read the books because they explore interesting themes and ideas in fascinating ways, they use this invented world of magic to examine our own world in a different light; and

4. I read the books because the characters feel like family and the settings are like a place to escape from the trials of my own life.

Do you think these responses would make sense to him? Satisfy him even?

How would you answer his questions?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

How real is Harry's response to his impending death?

A friend at work recently read The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows for the first time. I know: amazing to think that anyone out there hasn't already read all of J.K.'s novels!

This friend is a highly intelligent, quite thoughtful man who has an interesting way of seeing the world and whose opinions I respect. Thus, when he made an offhand comment that he felt that Harry seemed a little too mature in the way he faced his death in the final novel, I felt I had to take this comment seriously

I asked him to explain what he meant. He pointed out that Harry, at that point, is merely 17 years old and, despite his rather event-filled life, it seemed hard to believe Harry would be able to 1) accept the fact that Dumbledore had been planning for him to die right from the start and 2) face his death with such seeming equanimity. It's an interesting point.

But also one with which, having considered it seriously for several days now, I find myself having to disagree. I don't think Harry's behaviour at that point belied his tender age; I think it spoke volumes about the depth (and depths) of his experience. Harry might be 17 at that point but, by then, he had suffered more in his life than most people do over their 80 years on earth.

I won't recite here all the challenges he's faced (anyone who would spend time reading a Harry Potter blog is already fully familiar with Harry's life-time of tribulations and suffering) but I can't imagine that the Harry Potter I know so well after reading his exploits in those seven books responding to the situation he is presented with at the end of Book Seven in any way but the way he does.

Harry is not entirely without emotion in these scenes; in fact, he mentions numerous times how difficult he was finding it to drag himself away from this friends and the fight. But he finds his strength with the Resurrection Stone and the four people who have been together for so long, first supporting each other, then him since they met at Hogwarts years before.

I actually find J.K.'s depiction of Harry's mental state at that crucial moment to be entirely convincing. It is absolutely real for me, right down to the maturity with which he faces his impending death. It is true to the soul of this young man that he would choose to walk into the woods and face his death once he realises that he must die to protect his friends and loved ones from further harm. I still respect my friend and his opinions; I just disagree with him on this point. Very strongly disagree, in fact.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Excitement and J.K.'s new Encyclopedia

Now comes news that not only is J.K. completing her first post-Potter novel for publication but she is also starting work on a Harry Potter Encyclopedia.

That is very exciting indeed. I have been working on my own HP Concordance, which catalogues all information provided in the seven novels about each character, place, magical spell or charm, institution, etc. and it is an incredibly challenging but interesting task. To be honest, I haven't looked at it in several months but, if memory serves, I had worked my way through the first three novels and had started on the fourth, The Goblet of Fire.

Rowling's Encyclopedia will, of course, supersede anything that I would have done and I'm interested to see the approach she will take and the breadth of the sources she will use: will she limit herself to information included in the novels themselves? will she include information from her own journals in planning the books so that we will learn more about our beloved characters, places and institutions? and how will she address conflicts between the information presented in the books and information presented in the film versions?

I am also absolutely certain that the eventual publication of the Harry Potter Encyclopedia, written by J.K. Rowling, will spark a cottage industry for fans like me in trying to find her errors. I have already found comments in Rowling's auxiliary books (specifically Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) tht I find to be of questionable accuracy when compared to information provided in the original novels so I have no doubt that we'll find any number of issues in the new Encyclopedia.

That's not intended to be a criticism of J.K.: I actually love these little issues and inconsistencies that make things even more interesting and exciting.

I haven't found a timeline for when we can expect this new tome from Rowling but I am already starting to feel the rise of excitement at the thought of having something new and authoritative to read on Harry Potter. Come on, J.K., please make this book a priority! We're all chomping at the bit to have the Harry Potter Encyclopedia in our hands!