Saturday, October 26, 2013

Enemies of Quidditch Beware...

Does it make you laugh too that, even as a crowd of Hogwarts teachers is gathered around a Petrified Mrs. Norris trying to figure out what happened to her in The Chamber of Secrets, Snape's first thought is how to use the situation to help Slytherin win at Quidditch?

I laugh out loud every time I read the scene.

Here they are, facing what is to that point one of the most significant, scariest threats ever to face Hogwarts and Professor Snape's only worry is how to gain an advantage for his Q-team. He suggests to Dumbledore, in his silkiest of voices, that Harry should be suspended from playing Quidditch until the mystery is resolved.

Love it.

Even better is the fact that Professor McGonagall, Deputy Head Mistress, immediately jumps to her team's defence.

Love it love it love it.

Further to the question, does it seem fair to you that 1) McGonagall was allowed to purchase the latest racing broom for her team's new Seeker in Book One, making it all but assured that Gryffindor's quidditch fortunes would improve significantly by giving its team a HUGE advantage over everyone else and 2) that Mr. Malfoy would be allowed to buy the entire Slytherin team even better brooms the following year?

I have to admit, I think it's kind of poetic justice that McGonagall's cheating is so effectively and overwhelming countered by the Malfoys in book two. If glorious, honourable Gryffindor can cheat, then certainly Slytherin can cheat too and do an even better job of it.

The Vanishing Cabinets appear...

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I'm quite interested in attempting to find objective evidence, in the texts themselves, of the extent to which J.K. Rowling had planned the seven-book Harry Potter story arc when she was writing the early novels.

My suspicion is that, while she may have had some vague notion that she would try to write a novel for every year Harry was at Hogwarts and while she recognized from the outset that the underlying story would be the Harry-vs-Voldemort plot, she had not really started to plan things in detail until the fourth or even fifth book.

Then I run smack into the Vanishing Cabinets.

As you all know, the Vanishing Cabinets play an extremely important role in the pivotal events of The Half-Blood Prince. Draco Malfoy uses the connection between the Cabinet that he finds at Bourgin & Burkes and the one that exists in the Room of Requirement to sneak Death Eaters into Hogwarts on the fateful night when Dumbledore meets his end.

What's amazing to me (and a clear suggestion that J.K.'s planning was much more extensive than I tend to give her credit for) is the fact that Rowling shows us both Vanishing Cabinets early in Book 2, The Chamber of Secrets. Even as she wrote her second Harry Potter novel, it appears clear that Rowling had at the very least an inkling that she would use these cabinets again.

Even more importantly, she introduces us to the idea that one of the cabinets, which she does not yet identify as a Vanishing Cabinet, is in Borgin & Burkes and the other one is already in Hogwarts.


When Harry's first attempt at travelling via Floo Powder goes awry, he ends up in the creepy shop on Knockturn Alley. When Draco and his father walk into the shop seconds later, Harry hides himself in what Rowling describes as "a large black cabinet".

Not long thereafter, when Nearly Headless Nick wishes to save Harry from Flitch's clutches, he persuades Peeves to drop a very heavy piece of furniture on the floor directly above the caretaker's office. That piece of furniture? A "large black and gold cabinet", which after Peeves is through with it is badly damaged and in need of repair.

Repair that would come four books later at the hands of Draco Malfoy.

Now, it's possible that J.K. wasn't planning anything when she wrote these scenes for the second novel and that it was only when she came to book six that she realized she might be able to use them to help her plot along at that point in time.

But I'm more apt to think that Rowling had a plan, even as early as The Chamber of Secrets. She purposely introduced us to these two cabinets and she purposely placed one in the Dark-Arts store and one in Hogwarts.


One question, however. I have always thought of Hogwarts as being a huge stone castle. If the floor between the classroom and Filtch's office is stone, would it have transmitted the crash of the dropping  Vanishing Cabinet down to the occupants of the office below?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Reflections on the Mirror of Erised

I have a quick question about the Mirror of Erised. You know, the magical mirror that Harry encounters in The Philosopher's Stone and that Dumbledore uses, later in that same book, to create an extremely clever protection for the Stone itself?

First, I should say that I think the Mirror is an amazing creation that J.K. uses rather brilliantly to give us a peek into the deepest secrets of two of the central young characters in the series. Through the use of the Mirror, Rowling very quickly lets us know that, for Harry, the lack of a real family, a loving family, exists as a hole in the centre of his soul. His greatest wish, we learn through this surprisingly simple technique, is to be a part of a family. This would become a driving force for Harry throughout the books.

Further, Rowling uses the Mirror to help her with the much more difficult challenge of showing us some of the issues that stand at the centre of Ron's psyche. Why is this a "much more difficult challenge" for Rowling? Because she uses a third-person limited narrator to tell her story: her narrator describes what happens in the stories from an objective position (the narrator does not actually take part in the action) but, for the most part, she limits her narrator to being able to see into the mind of one single character. Harry.

We know what Harry is thinking from scene to scene but rarely do we ever get to know what other characters are thinking.

So it is not so difficult for Rowling to help her reader to understand Harry because we are privy to his thoughts and reactions in relation to every incident that occurs. We learn about him by knowing his thoughts and feelings.

It is much more difficult for J.K. to help us understand the other characters whose minds are, for the most part, closed to us. We learn about them only from what they say and do, not from what they think.

The Mirror gives her a unique opportunity to let us into the mind of another character: Ron. When Ron stands in front of the Mirror, he describes what he sees and it is himself earning all kinds of different awards and accolades. This ties in with something he said to Harry earlier in the book: that he arrives at Hogwarts already knowing that he won't live up to the standards and expectations set by his older brothers.

So, from the Mirror, we learn that Ron yearns to stand out on his own, to emerge from the long shadows cast by Bill, Charlie, Percy, Fred and George.

As an interesting aside regarding Rowling's narrative technique, note that the reader "sees" what Harry sees in the Mirror (the narrator describes his family to us) while the reader only learns about what Ron sees in the Mirror from what Ron says to Harry about it. It's as if, like Harry, the narrator cannot see what Ron sees in the Mirror.

Okay, that's all a set up for this question about the Mirror:

Does the Mirror show Harry his family as it actually existed or does it show him his family as he imagines it to be?

The narrator tells us that Harry sees a large family, some members having eyes like his and his mother, others having knobbly knees like Harry. It is through these similarities that Harry realises that this is his family he is seeing and, in fact, that these are his parents in the middle of the group.

That suggests to me that the Mirror is not drawing these images from Harry's mind or imagination because, if it were, he would recognise them right away. J.K. would have written something like "Harry saw the family he had always imagined he had".

But, instead, Rowling makes it clear that, for Harry, this is the first moment in his life when he feels a part of a larger, loving family. He does not recognise them at first; the recognition comes slowly as he examines them.

So then we must conclude that the Mirror, after reading Harry's soul and realising that his greatest wish is to know his family, was able to find, somehow, images of his actual ancestors to show him.

A small point, sure, but that's what this blog is about: finding and considering small and large points about the Harry Potter world.

I find it interesting that, in the film version of the first book, the producers/directors choose to include only Harry's parents in the Mirror, to amend Harry's psyche from wishing to be part of a large family (which then ties him even closer to the Weasleys in the books) to wishing to know his parents (which makes it a much more personal thing).

It also makes the argument that the Mirror is only showing Harry that which it draws from his own mind because Harry's memory likely still retained images of his parents from his infancy.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

If only memory charms were real...

I am reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone again. I can't even guess how many times this makes (10, 20, 50) but I still get something out of it every time.

And, in some ways, it makes me kind of sad. Why? Because I really wish I could be reading it again but for the first time.

Does that make sense?

A friend of mine is a big fan of the TV show "Breaking Bad" which, as many of you know, just came to an end with a big, much anticipated finale. This friend told me that the finale was "perfect".

Now, I have only seen one episode of this hit show and, to be honest, I didn't much care for it. I noticed, however, that several of the early seasons of "Breaking Bad" are now available on Netflix so I told her that, since she loves it so much and I respect her taste, it is my intention to give it another try. I plan to watch the entire first season of "Breaking Bad" and then decide whether to continue or not.

To my surprise, her response to this declaration was not one of delight, as I expected it to be, but instead it was simply a groan. I asked her about it: she said, "Oh, you are so lucky. I wish I could go back and watch it all over again for the first time."

We talked a little bit about this idea and both agreed that, often when you first read a book or watch a TV show that becomes hugely important in your life, you don't really understand how great it is and how important it will become. You don't savour it and, in fact, you don't savour your own experience of reading or watching it.

Weird, eh? But true, I think.

To be honest, I can't even remember clearly reading the first Harry Potter book for the first time. I do know that I read it while visiting my partner in England where she was going to school. I remember that I had heard great things about this Harry Potter book and that, in order to enjoy it together, I would often read it aloud to her.

But I can't bring back how I felt while reading it that first time, how it impacted me or even if I realised while reading that Harry Potter would become such a fun, important part of my life.

And then I think about my response to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. How I spent an entire year waiting for the book to be published. I was working at a University in Ontario and there was a group of us who were all Potter fans. We'd sit on our lunch hour or our breaks and talk endlessly about the first six books and what we expected to happen in the seventh.

And then, when Deathly Hallows finally came out, we all bought and read it in a single day. I remember being so caught up in finding out what happens that I completely neglected to enjoy the journey from page one to the end.

I remember reading the last 200 pages so quickly that, when I reached the end, dealt with the intense emotions it elicited, then caught my breath, I had to go back and read them again. And again.

But I worry now that I didn't really savour that first reading.

So, yes, as illogical as it may sound, I do now wish that I could go back and wipe it all out of my memory and read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone again for the first time.

I want to feel again the wonder of discovering Harry's new magical world, the delight at the fullness of Rowling's vision of Hogwarts and its society, the intensity of the suspense as he, Ron and Hermione investigate the mystery of the Philosopher's Stone.

To be honest, I think I cheated myself the first time around. Oh well, you can't go back. We don't have memory charms that would allow me to erase the last 16 years and start all over again, fresh and new.

I guess I'll just have to do my best to enjoy the 20th (or 50th reading) instead.