Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"The Riddle House" opens the fourth book with a bang

I'm just getting back to reading HP, after spending the past six weeks doing my Christmas reading, and it's The Goblet of Fire that's next on the list.

Although this is not my all-time favourite Harry Potter novel, it does feature one of my favourite beginnings. "The Riddle House" is almost like a short story unto itself, focusing on the events in Little Hangleton exclusively, with the narrator positioned for once far away from Harry himself.

It's a neat little chapter. Through first the town's people and then Frank Bryce, the gardener, we get our first chance to experience Voldemort from a more objective, Muggle point of view. And it's interesting to see that Frank is not at first terrified of the intruders he finds in the Riddle House. It is only when Nagini slithers past that he begins to feel any real fear.

I think it's a beautifully written passage, one that contains a great deal of information that will be very important later on, both in the book itself and throughout the rest of the series. We learn, even if we are not fully aware of it, about Tom Riddle's past, about how he murdered his parents and how he allowed an innocent person to take the blame. It's a pattern he would use often in his life.

I particularly like the portrayal of Frank Bryce himself. Rowling introduces him first as the suspect in the murders and she uses both Bryce's own odd behaviours and the responses of the townspeople to the news that he has been arrested to attempt to convince us that he is indeed guilty. It is a common trope in literature to use a physical disability as a sign of an interior, moral defect and Rowling uses that trope to good effect here.

Bryce must be guilty because, well, he's strange and he has a physical disability and he was never right since he returned from the war.

And, even though the police find themselves forced to release him without pressing charges, we still want to believe, as the villagers believe, that he is in fact guilty anyway.

It's another example of one of Rowling's greatest strengths as a writer: the ability to manipulate how we, as readers, read, react and respond to her characters in a very subtle way, to get us convinced in our impressions only then to undermine those impressions in equally subtle ways.

We believe Frank Bryce must be guilty. Or, rather, if we did not know that we were dealing with a world filled with dark, dark magic, we would believe that Frank Bryce must be guilty.

And, in the course of "The Riddle House", we almost forget that this is, indeed, a world filled with magic and that these are, in fact, Voldemort's father and grandparents who are discovered dead in their dining room. We start to believe in the guilt of Frank Bryce.

And then J.K. shows us Frank in action. She lets us in on his thought processes as he stands in the hallway, listening to Voldemort and Peter Pettigrew discuss, in an almost offhand way, the capture, torture and murder of Bertha Jorkins.

Frank Bryce, the person the village was convinced murdered three people years before, stands in the hallway absolutely appalled that Voldemort and Pettigrew could discuss committing a murder in such a casual manner, almost with amusement.

And just when we begin to respect Frank Bryce and his morality, his courage, when we begin to like him...

Voldemort turns and kills him.

And then, at the end of this wonderful little vignette, Rowling picks up the threat that leads us back to Harry Potter and the central story.

It's wonderful writing. It's Rowling at her best. And it's an early sign that J.K.'s writing talents extend beyond her amazing Harry Potter stories.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Who's right for Hermione? Don't ask Rowling

If we ever needed proof that author J.K. Rowling has lost track of her own Harry Potter books and gotten caught up, instead, in the often mediocre movies that have been made of them, her recent interview with actress Emma Watson provides it.

Rowling told Watson that, upon further reflection, she now realises that Hermione should have married Harry, not Ron. The announcement has sent the entire Potter fandom into a collective tizzy.

To state it bluntly, Rowling appears to be losing her mind. Or at least her grip on the books she wrote and that we all love.

That is not to say that I ever really liked the idea that Hermione ended up married to Ron. As far as I'm concerned, Hermione, brilliant, hard-working and moral, was too good for any of the young male characters she met at Hogwarts.

Ron, intellectually limited, lacking in simple courage and morally questionable, certainly didn't deserve her.

In fact, I still believe that Hermione's destiny was either to become a renowned magical researcher, developing new spells and potions, exploring the limits of magic, or to teach at Hogwarts (probably while conducting the research I mention above). If she eventually settled down into a relationship, it would be with a person we have never yet met in the books, someone as smart and moral as she is.

Marrying and settling down into a traditional family unit just doesn't seem right for her.

That being said, if Hermione were to marry and have children, I don't buy Harry as a better choice than Ron. Harry is not particularly bright and, as he explains in The Order of the Phoenix, most of his successes were based on luck, timing and the help of others.

All of that aside, however, I am more troubled by the fact that Rowling seems to be so caught up in the Harry Potter movies that she has lost track of her own books.

Her suggestion that Hermione should have ended up with Harry ignores so much textual evidence from the books that I can't even start to explain it here. It appears to be based almost entirely on the belief that Harry and Hermione, as they are portrayed in the films, look well together.

Daniel Ratcliffe and Emma Watson were wonderful choices to play the roles of Harry and Hermione but, as Rowling herself has already admitted, they turned out to be much more attractive than the characters they were chosen to portray. So, if they look well together on screen, that has no meaning when it comes to their fitness as potential life partners.

It is also true that the movies expunged most of the back-story for the Harry-Hermione friendship, making it possible to read much more into their relationship than is actually there in the stories.

Anyway, my simple point is that the suggestion that Hermione should have married Harry instead of Ron holds a lot more water if you are thinking about the movies alone than if you consider the books themselves.

It amazes me that J.K. Rowling, of all people, lost sight of that fact