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!