Saturday, March 24, 2012

Peruvian Darkness Powder could've helped Harry in Book Seven

So what happened to the Peruvian Instant Darkness powder?

Harry and the gang learn about it in Book Six: they see it in Fred and George's shop and then encounter it when Draco uses it to escape the Room of Requirement with the Death Eaters near the end of the novel.

Why don't they take a supply of it along with them in Book Seven? I would think it would have come in very handy on several occasions: in the cafe just after they escape the wedding; at the Ministry; during the break-in at Gringott's; in the woods when they are being grabbed by the snatchers; even at Malfoy Manor.

Isn't it odd that they don't take some with them? Even more odd because the Weasley twins give Harry a large box of their products for his birthday at the start of The Deathly Hallows (which might have included some of this useful powder) and Rowling even goes so far as to tell us Hermione packs Harry's presents before they leave the Burrow.

I've also often wondered why a great many more people aren't seen in the final book wearing the Weasley's shield clothing, which Fred and George show to Harry on his tour of their shop in The Half-Blood Prince. Remember? They even tell Harry that the Ministry of Magic has placed a massive order for the hats, gloves and other pieces of clothing that have been charmed to repel minor spells?

I know, I know. We can't expect J.K. to be perfect but...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Coming home to Hogwarts in The Half-Blood Prince

Now I know that I’ve probably been horribly inconsistent in this blog, especially on the subject of which Harry Potter novels I like and which I don’t, which are my favourites and which I detest.

I’ve always been that way. I find that I can hate something one moment and then, when I come back to it some time later, absolutely love it. And the other way around. I’m simply an inconsistent person.

I raise this now because I am half-way through a re-reading of The Half-Blood Prince and, much to my surprise, I’m really thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve always considered THBP to be the weakest of the seven novels and my least favourite. For some reason, however, this time around I’m completely enamoured with it.

It must have something to do with my own current situation. I’m tired, I’m not feeling well and I’m a little bored with all the snow and cold weather. So THBP is suiting my mood perfectly. It’s a quiet, introspective, character-driven book which lacks the same high-speed plotting that is featured in all of the others.

I’m enjoying spending time in the Gryffindor Common Room with Harry, Hermione, Ron and Ginny. I’m interested in the development of each of their characters but also of their relationships with each other. Ginny is bubbling forth as a feisty young woman and I’m enjoying Harry’s battles with his own feelings for her.

I am also quite interested in the trips into the Penseive Harry has been making with Dumbledore, exploring Voldemort’s past. I think Rowling is doing a great job of presenting this biographical information in an interesting, well-thought-out way. It’s great writing.

I wonder as well if I’m enjoying the book so much because I started reading it almost immediately after closing the cover on The Order of the Phoenix, a much more claustrophobic novel with a galloping plot. In THBP, we find ourselves returning to Dumbledore’s Hogwarts, with Hagrid and Buckbeak back on the scene and classes returning to their normal pattern.

It’s something of a comfort book, I guess. A brief, introspective pause before we launch into the fast-paced drama of the final novel.

So, if I have stated in earlier posts that I don’t like Rowling’s sixth novel, I apologise. It seems the perfect complement to my mood right now and I’m really enjoying reading it again.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Christmas at St. Mungo's: A view into Neville's life

I often wonder if J.K. has favourite scenes in the books. You know, sections that she feels particularly proud of, that she was surprised by when she re-read a book years later, that she felt really worked.

Of course, that raises a second question: does J.K. even go back and re-read her own novels at all? You and I read and re-read them constantly but does she?

As you all know, I have any number of favourite scenes in Harry Potter, both in the books and in the films. And, every time I read a novel again, I find a new passage to appreciate.

I am just finishing a re-read of The Order of the Phoenix, a book that I find very difficult. Harry just endures so much in this novel that I find it hard to read.

But I have to marvel at how beautifully Rowling portrays the scene at Christmas in the Closed Ward of St. Mungo's, the one where Harry, Hermione and Ron encounter Neville and his grandmother and then, heart-rendingly, Neville's mother.

There is so much going on in this scene:

- Harry, who has known about Neville's parents for some time, trying to make the encounter as harmless as possible for Neville;
- Ron showing his genuine pleasure at seeing Neville, not understanding at first why Neville finds the meeting quite upsetting;
- Hermione catching on to Neville's discomfort very quickly but also having to deal with her own surprise and anxiety that Neville's grandmother knows all about her;
- Neville's Gran, pleased to meet his friends, attempting to remain strong in the face of the terrible damage done to her son and daughter-in-law, proud of who they were and what they fought for, and attempting to address Neville's mixed emotions about his parents and their current state;
- and finally Neville, himself, embarassed, anxious, feeling inadequate, yet still loyal and committed to his parents and wishing to prove himself worthy of being their son.

The entire scene lasts all of two pages in the book and yet Rowling succeeds in communicating so much about each character in that brief period.

All of which is beautifully brought to a conclusion with Gran telling Neville to throw away the candy wrapper his mother has given him and Neville, quietly and without fanfare, slipping the gift instead into his pocket, a treasured memento from his mom.

I think J.K. has reason to be really proud of this short passage with Neville and his grandmother. I wonder if she is able to read her books and recognise these little gems as well.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Butterbeer, Firewhisky and age of majority at Hogwarts

Let's talk Butterbeer and the approach to alcohol consumption in J.K. Rowling's magical world. I'm not saying I have a real problem with it; I'm just saying I find it interesting.

As we all know, the children who attend Hogwarts drink Butterbeer almost from the day they first arrive at the school. Butterbeer is a staple at all student celebrations described in the novels, be it a Quidditch victory, a Triwizard tournament success or whatever.

When students go to Hogsmeade, they all seem to make a beeline for Madame Rosmerta's establishment for a cold one.

As a result, I guess I just assumed that Butterbeer, like the root beer enjoyed by Muggles, did not contain alcohol.

How wrong I was. My colleague and I are both reading The Order of the Phoenix again and she pointed out the passage in that novel where the hero trio visit Dobby in the Hogwarts kitchens and encounter a drunk Winky. She's gotten hammered on Butterbeer, we're told.

Maybe, I thought, House Elves were susceptible to some other ingredient in Butterbeer. But then there's Ron, telling me that, even though Butterbeer isn't very strong, it does contain alcohol.

Stopped me in my tracks. Kids from age 11 are drinking alcohol at Hogwarts. No, they're not drinking Firewhisky or any of the other stronger alcoholic beverages we see the adults consuming but they are drinking Butterbeer.

Interesting. Also interesting is the fact that Rowling takes pains to show us that Harry, Hermione and Ron DO NOT consume the stronger beverages, except in very particular circumstances.

When the hero trio arrives at the Hog's Head for the organising meeting of Dumbledore's Army, for example, Ron announces that he's going to order a Firewhisky, since the disreputable barman would likely serve it to him, despite his age. Hermione has to remind him that he's a Prefect and should be setting a better example.

And, in The Deathly Hallows, Harry has a particularly strong reaction to the Firewhisky he drinks in the group's solemn toast to the recently killed Mad-Eye.

So the rule seems to be: Butterbeer, with its low alcoholic content, is okay for kids but you have to be much older, and under the supervision of adults, to drink anything stronger.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rowling sets a clear path at the end of Book Four

As anyone who has been reading this blog will now, I'm very interested in the question of how much of the seven-novel story arc J.K. had planned from the beginning and how much sort of fell into place as the writing progressed.

As a writer myself, I'm fascinated by the writing process. As a writer myself, I'm in awe of Rowling's accomplishment with this fantastic series of books.

But I'm not convinced that she had anything but a vague idea of what the future novels might hold while she was writing the first book. I think she had in mind a seven-year cycle (one book for each year Harry was at Hogwarts) and she knew that the Potter-Voldemort story would form the backbone of the narrative as the books progressed.

I just don't believe that, beyond those basic principles, Rowling had much more of the story planned as she wrote the first, second and even third novels in the series.

Then we come to Book Four, The Goblet of Fire. This is where she started pulling things together and developing a clear plan of how the last three books would play out. I've just finished reading this fourth novel and I found the final scenes in the hospital wing to lay out an absolute route map for the final three books.

It is clear to me from these scenes that Rowling, by this point, had figured out the major events of the rest of her story.

In these hospital scenes, she carefully plants the seeds for the rift that develops between Fudge and Dumbledore in the following novel, the slow coming together of the armies of good and evil, the interference of the Ministry at Hogwarts and the challenges Harry faces at school in the coming years.

I think it is interesting as well that Snape is, at the end of the fourth book, so clearly on the side of Dumbledore that we should, if we as readers were thinking clearly, never doubt his allegiance again.

Faced with a disbelieving Minister for Magic and a dead Barty Crouch Jr., Snape rolls up his sleeve and shows Fudge his Dark Mark, explains what it is and what it means, and tries desperately to convince Fudge that Harry and Dumbledore are right in saying Voldemort has returned.

How can we ever doubt Snape again? And yet we do. And that's the brilliance of Rowling's writing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I gave Rowling too little credit (and the filmmakers too much)

Well that solves one mystery. When the filmmakers were trying to figure out a simpler way to give Harry information about Gillyweed for the second task of the Triwizard Tournament, where did they get such a good idea from?

From J.K. herself.

In an earlier post, I had attempted to give the movie guys some credit for coming up with an inventive way for providing Harry this life-saving information: by having Neville learn about Gillyweed from a book given to him by Crouch/Moody and then tell Harry about it.

I thought: that's much better than Rowling's answer, which was to have Dobby provide the information at the last minute. Rowling's approach made Crouch/Moody's gift of the book on herbology to Neville appear to be gratuitous kindness, I argued.

I should have had more faith in J.K. And I should have remembered Crouch/Moody's rant to Harry at the end of the book better.

It turns out that Rowling makes it clear, during that rant, that Crouch/Moody did give Neville the book precisely so that he would tell Harry about Gillyweed. Except his plan was foiled because Harry was too proud to ask his friends, outside of Hermione and Ron, for help.

So, in the novel, Crouch/Moody had to come up with another idea.

The filmmakers shortened the whole process by having Harry finally ask Neville how he could survive for an hour under water. Neville then provides the information and Crouch/Moody's plan was effected.

So this is my mea culpa. I gave the filmmakers too much credit and Rowling too little. I won't make that mistake again.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Introducing Bellatrix Lestrange

I just love the way J.K. introduces us to Bellatrix Lestrange, a Death Eater who would go on to become one of the key (and most memorable) new characters of the final three novels.

Rowling draws our attention to Ms. Lestrange slowly, gently, almost soothingly. She gives us significant information about the character but, in each instance, only in passing. Rowling introduces Bellatrix to us in such subtle ways that we almost miss the introduction.

And an important introduction it is.

First, we hear only the last name, and plural. The Lestranges. Mentioned in passing as being among the Death Eaters locked up in Azkaban. No first names, no descriptions. Just another name in a list.

Then comes Harry's visit to the Pensieve in Dumbldore's office, wherein he witnesses a series of hearings of the Wizard Court, trials of accused Death Eaters that took place in the months after Voldemort's fall.

I believe it is the third such trial. The Dementors escort four people into the court room to be tried and all our attention is focused, by virtue of our interest in Barty Crouch and his family, on the last of them: the boy.

Here is how Rowling describes the four:

"There was a thickset man who stared blankly up at Crouch, a thinner more nervous-looking man, whose eyes darted around the crowd, a woman, with thick, shining dark hair, and heavily hooded eyes, who was sitting in the chained chair as though it were a throne, and a boy in his late teens..."

It's a wonderfully simple, yet vivid description of the woman we will later come to know well: Bellatrix Lestrange, with her thick, shining dark hair, her heavily hooded eyes and her pride and certainty in her absolute devotion to the Dark Lord and his purposes.

The focus remains, however, on young Barty Crouch, interrupted only briefly by Bellatrix's defiant declaration of her devotion to Voldemort when the Dementors come to escort them all to Azkaban.

In that scene, we learn that the four are accused of torturing Neville's parents into incoherence using the Cruciatus curse. That means that Rudolphus Lestrange, Bellatrix's husband, must be one of the other two people in the group -- either the thickset man with the blank look or the thinner, more nervous man -- and yet we learn very little further about him throughout the final three novels. Bellatrix outshines him in this scene just as she will do the rest of the way.

And then, finally, we hear about the Lestranges from the Dark Lord himself. In the graveyard, as he surveys the Death Eaters who have returned to him, he encounters a gap in the circle.

"The Lestranges should stand here," he says, "But they are entombed in Azkaban. They were faithful. They went to Azkaban rather than renounce me... when Azkaban is broken open, the Lestranges will be honoured beyond their dreams."

But Voldemort has more on his mind at that point. His comments on the Lestranges are lost amid his interactions with all the other Death Eaters and, more especially, his ensuing duel with Harry Potter.

Such a quiet introduction. Such a slow build up. So masterfully written so that, every time Bellatrix makes an appearance, she is overshadowed by other characters or other events. Our attention as readers is drawn elsewhere so that we don't recognise just how important, how evil this character will become.