Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hermione comes of age

I'm not sure I have much to say in this entry other than I really like the way J.K. Rowling writes Hermione's "coming out party" in the form of the Yule Ball in The Goblet of Fire.

In the first three books, the descriptions of the young Ms. Granger were not particularly flattering. In fact, the first time we meet Hermione (aboard the Hogwarts Express in The Philosopher's Stone), she is described as follows: "She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth."

The words "bossy", "bushy" and "large" used in this context do not make a for a very positive first impression.

And Rowling is very consistent throughout the first three books on these points: even though she becomes best friends with Harry and Ron, Hermione continues to be described as a bookish girl with bottlebrush hair and big teeth.

Things begin to change, however, in The Goblet of Fire. First, Rita Skeeter describes Hermione as "a stunningly pretty Muggle-born girl" in the Prophet article on Harry as a Triwizard Champion. Now, we have no evidence at that point that Skeeter had ever laid eyes on Hermione and Pansy Parkinson later undermines the description by shrieking "Stunningly pretty? Her?... What was she judging against -- a chipmunk?" so perhaps we shouldn't put a lot of stock in Skeeter's words but her article does represent the first time there is even a suggestion that Hermione might be growing into her looks.

Then comes the Yule Ball and the desperate search for dates. It is at this point that Rowling lets us in on a little secret: she had very cleverly used an earlier wand duel between Harry and Draco Malfoy as a mechanism to allow Hermione to "fix" her teeth.

As Ron points out, since Hermione returned from having Madame Pomfrey undo the damage Malfoy's curse had done, Hermione's teeth had become "straight and -- normal sized". Harry confirms this by commenting that Hermione's smile had indeed changed: "it was a very different smile to the one he remembered."

That's all great stuff and clever writing. But what I love most is the way Rowling sets up Hermione's grand coming out. First, she reminds us of how little romantic attention Hermione had been getting from anyone by having a very funny exchange where Ron and Harry have to admit that even they had failed to recognize that Hermione is, you know, a girl...

Then she establishes that someone has asked Hermione to the Yule Ball but no one, other than the couple itself, knows who her date will be. J.K. allows that mystery to deepen as Ron, in particular, obsesses about finding out who Hermione will be accompanying to the Ball.

Then Rowling has Hermione remove herself from the scene "to get ready for the ball" while the boys are still involved in a snow-ball fight. "What, you need three hours?" Ron gasps.

And finally, as the excitement builds and students gather in the Entrance Hall to wait for the Ball to begin, Hermione is nowhere to be seen. Where is Hermione? people wonder.

Then comes Rowling's topper: she has Hermione walk right into the Entrance Hall, on the arm of perhaps the second most famous student in attendance, and no one recognizes her.

"Krum was at the front of the party," Rowling writes, "accompanied by a pretty girl in blue robes Harry didn't know."


Even better, when Harry looks again over at Krum moments later, his jaw drops.

The "pretty girl" with the Durmstrang champion is none other than Hermione.

"But she didn't look like Hermione at all," Rowling writes. No kidding.

And the reactions of the other students are absolutely precious: Parvati gazes at her with "unflattering disbelief", Pansy Parkinson "gaped at her" and Ron "walked right past Hermione without even noticing her."

It's a wonderful moment for Hermione and for Rowling. Beautifully written and entirely within character.

I have to admit, I did look up the timing of the writing of The Goblet of Fire in comparison to the filming of the Harry Potter movies to see if Rowling's decision to create a coming out party for Hermione in the fourth book was in any way related to the development into a lovely young woman of actor Emma Watson, who played the role of Hermione for the films.

Nope. There doesn't seem to be a connection. Rowling published The Goblet in 2000, the same year casting for the first Harry Potter movie was carried out. At that point in time, Emma Watson was still and awkward little girl, a perfect match for the Hermione of the early books.

Okay, maybe I did have a lot to say....

Monday, April 21, 2014

Wondering about the Durmstrang Headmaster

Whatever happened to Karkaroff? You remember him, the head of Durmstrang in The Goblet of Fire? What ever happened to him after that book?

He's an interesting character. We find out from Sirius that he was a big Death Eater but that, once imprisoned in Azkaban, he sold out other Voldemort's supporters in exchange for his release from prison. One of those he sold out was... Barty Crouch Jr.

But, unless I'm mistaken, after he disappears at the end of the Triwizard Tournament, Karkaroff never appears in the Harry Potter books again.

Is that right? Karkaroff simply disappears? Or am I missing something?

It's a great story line from Rowling but it makes you wonder how Crouch Jr., in Hogwarts in the guise of Mad-Eye Moody, doesn't succumb to the temptation to do exact vengeance on the man who sent him to Azkaban in the first place.

In all my readings of the Rowling books, I have never paid much attention to Karkaroff and his fate. I will have to be more attentive in the future. I have a feeling Rowling does drop a line into a later book that says what happens to the sinister Durmstrang headmaster but I cannot remember it now.

In The Goblet, Karkaroff serves many purposes, including giving J.K. a ready-made villain to throw at us as an easy explanation for the peril in which Harry finds himself. Who put my name in the Goblet, Harry wonders. Karkaroff, Sirius tells him. Who is trying to kill me? Karkaroff. Who is the biggest threat to me here? Karkaroff.

It's just like Rowling to use this kind of misdirection, to keep our attention on one possible threat while the real villain does a tap-dance right in front of us.

Interesting too that, other than coming to the conclusion that Karkaroff is the enemy rather than Mad-Eye Crouch Jr., Sirius has got most of the Voldemort's recent activities just about right. Sirius has connected Bertha Jorkin's disappearance in Albania with the Death-Eater activities at the World Cup with the other recent developments and come up, quite correctly, with Voldemort.

Again, it's just like J.K. to tell us exactly what's going on in such a way that we almost refuse to believe it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Powerful dialogue, weak adverbs...

"Does he still think I entered myself?"
"Well ... no, I don't think so ... not really," said Hermione awkwardly.
"What's that supposed to mean, not really?"
"Oh, Harry, isn't it obvious?" Hermione said despairingly. "He's jealous!"
"Jealous?" Harry said incredulously...
"Look," Hermione said patiently...
"Great," Harry said bitterly...
"I'm not telling him anything," Hermione said shortly...

From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (underlining added)

The first thing I would point out from the above-quoted passage is that J.K. writes wonderful, natural dialogue. Not only does the interaction between the characters come alive thanks to the things she has them say, Rowling also creates subtle differences in the cadence and diction for each character so that we would probably know who was speaking even if she didn't include the "tags" that identifying the character.

For all her skill as a writer of dialogue, however, I am surprised at how much she seems to rely on the adverbs that describe how her character delivers a particular line. Surprised and, to be honest, a little bit irritated. There are days, like when I read the passage above from The Goblet, that I just want to go right through her books with a black marker and stroke out every such adverb.

Some friends have suggested that this over-use of adverbs is a "British" thing, something that J.K. would have learned early and never questioned.

Sure, maybe. But I wish she could have accepted that, when you write dialogue with the strength, creativity and realism that she does, when you use the words within the quotation marks (as well as the italics, ellipsises and other tools) so effectively to bring the speaking voice to life, you don't need to explain to your reader the emotion behind the line of dialogue: you don't need the adverbs.

It is not necessary, once you've had Hermione say "Oh, Harry, isn't it obvious?", to reinforce that Hermione delivers this line with despair in her voice. The despair is already there, in the "Oh," and the "Harry", and the question that follows.

It's funny. When I look back at the passage, presented in an abbreviated form as above, I realize that Rowling often delivers the emotion of the particular piece of dialogue with the first word the character speaks: "Well..." speaks of awkwardness; "Oh, Harry" speaks of despair; "Jealous?", which is a repetition of the last word Hermione said but with a strong question mark after it, fairly reeks of incredulity; "Look" captures a character trying to regroup, to exhibit patience; and "Great" in the context evokes bitterness.

The adverbs are unnecessary. They add nothing, except a faint odour of distrust, either of the reader's ability to understand what she is conveying or of the author's power to deliver effective dialogue.

I just wish that, by her fourth book, J.K. had learned to trust her reader ... and her self.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rowling spills a Goblet full of beans... and we miss it

As anyone who reads this blog at all will know, I am impressed with J.K. Rowling's skill as a writer. In particular, I am impressed with her ability to provide clues in her books so subtly that even a very careful reader will miss them.

I don't know how many times I've re-read one of the Harry Potter books and suddenly recognized that she has told us what will eventually happen, or given us clear indications of the true loyalties of a character, very early in the book and that I had missed it.

One of the best examples occurs in The Goblet of Fire. Right after Harry's name comes out of the Goblet, J.K. has her villain stand in front of us (and a whole host of characters in the book) and tell us not only what he had done but how and why he had done it.

And we were so caught up in Rowling's misdirections that we miss it completely.

In the course of the very fraught argument that follows the selection of the four Triwizard Tournament champions by the Goblet of Fire, "Mad-Eye Moody" tells everyone:

1. That he used an "exceptionally strong Confudus Charm to bamboozle that goblet into forgetting that only three schools compete in the Tournament";
2. That he "submitted Potter's name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category";
3. That he did so "hoping Potter is going to die"; and
4. That he knew Potter would have to compete if his name came out of the Goblet because it represents a binding magical contract.

I won't go into the legalities of how it's not possible for Harry to be bound to a contract to which he never agreed but...

We find out later that "Moody" is, in fact, Barty Crouch, Jr., and that he is working on behalf of Voldemort to make sure that Harry is entered into the Tournament, that he wins the Tournament, and that he is transported via Portkey to the graveyard in Little Hangleton where Voldemort waits for him, first to use him to complete his regeneration potion and then to kill him.

We find out later that J.K. told us exactly what had happened and what was going to happen as early as one-third of the way through the novel. And we completely missed it.

That's a brilliant writer at work!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Character introductions show J.K.'s mastery

One of the many things that stands out for me as I read The Goblet of Fire is the mastery with which J.K introduces us to new characters. Using carefully chosen adjectives to describe each one when they first appear, she guides (and often manipulates) our reaction to them.

Her skill is most noticeable when she introduces two characters in close proximity to whom she wants us to react very differently, like Ludo Bagman and Barty Crouch Sr. early in the book and then Professor Karkaroff and Madame Maxime later on.

Bagman receives a very kind, rather lengthy description when he first arrives, concluding with, "His nose was squashed (probably broken by a stray Bludger, Harry thought), but his round eyes, short blond hair and rosy complexion made him look like a very overgrown schoolboy." The man is immediately likeable from this description and his happy-go-lucky, boyish personality only adds to his attraction, both for us as readers and for the other characters in the book.

Three pages later, Rowling introduces Barty Crouch as a "contrast with Ludo Bagman": "Barty Crouch was a stiff, upright, elderly man, dressed in an impeccably crisp suit and tied. The parting in his short gray hair was almost unnaturally straight and his narrow toothbrush moustache looked as though he trimmed it using a slide-rule." Just look at some of the adjectives she uses in this description (stiff, crisp, unnatural, narrow); every one of them is intended to make a young reader dislike this man. I won't even go into the "slide-rule" description of his moustache: how many members of Rowling's target audience would even know what a "slide rule" is?

Ironic, isn't it, that Bagman turns out to be a bit of con-man, ripping off Fred and George after their winning bet and fleeing from Goblins trying to collect on a debt, while Crouch, though always stiff and unapproachable, ends up being a staunch, utterly trustworthy opponent of the Dark Arts who dies at the hands of his evil son?

Rowling carefully controls how we first react to these characters, only to completely undermine our impressions later in the book.

Later, J.K. introduces us to the two headmasters of Europe's magical schools: Madame Maxime and Professor Karkaroff. In this case, she plays it straight. The initial descriptions of the characters turn out to be accurate predictors of their behaviour.

Madam Maxime is described as "unnaturally large", with "a handsome, olive-skinned face, large, black, liquid looking eyes and a rather beaky nose. Her hair was drawn back in a shining knob at the base of her neck. She was dressed from head to foot in black satin, and many magnificent opals gleamed at her throat and on her thick fingers." She is later described as having a "gracious smile".

Okay, so it's not the most attractive description. I'm not sure the words "unnaturally", "liquid looking" or "beaky" are particularly favourable. But that is balanced out by the words "handsome", "magnificent" and "gracious", suggesting that Madame Maxime will prove a different sort of person, perhaps a difficult sort of person, but not without her positive qualities.

Now compare that to the first description J.K. gives us of the head of Durmstrang: "Karkaroff had a fruity, unctuous voice; when he stepped into the light pouring from the front doors of the castle, they saw that he was tall and thin like Dumbledore, but his white hair was short, his goatee (finishing with a slight curl) did not entirely hide his rather weak chin." She continues the description several lines later with this "his teeth were rather yellow, and Harry noticed that his smile did not extend to his eyes, which remained cold and shrewd."

I will leave out the objectionable use of the term "fruity", a rare bit of potentially homophobic nastiness Rowling unfortunately indulges in from time to time.

Beyond that, we get a very negative impression of this man. From the "weak chin" to the yellow teeth to the cold, shrewd eyes, Karkaroff is described in a way that makes us wary of him from the outset. He "hides" things and smiles false smiles. He cannot be trusted.

To my mind, these descriptions are further examples of Rowling's brilliance as a writer. It is clear that she is in complete command of her craft, masterfully guiding our reactions to her new characters. As it turns out, of course, we learn quickly that J.K. is just as likely to use her powers to mislead us (and therefore make future plot developments more effective) as she is to use them to guide us down the proper path with regard to a particular character.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why don't the Weasleys have a House Elf?

Let's talk about House Elves for a moment. I'm currently re-reading The Goblet of Fire which, of course, has a distinct HE subplot, and it's gotten me thinking.

The main question that keeps popping into my mind is this one: Why don't the Weasleys have a House Elf?

There is a second question, which is also floating around in my mind, but perhaps I'll deal with that another time. The second question? If House Elves are generally solitary creatures (one per household -- both the Malfoys and the Crouches appear to have only one House Elf each, despite their great wealth), how do House Elves have children?

I mean, from what we've learned, House Elves can do nothing without first getting permission from their Masters. Further, House Elves appear to come in two biological sexes (male and female, Dobby and Winky) which would lead one to imagine (perhaps incorrectly) that it takes one House Elf of each sex to create a child.

So, if House Elves are generally allocated one per great house, and you need to have two House Elves (one of each sex) to make a baby House Elf, does a House Elf approach her Master and say, "Master, may I go visit the nearby great house to visit my partner House Elf for the purposes of making a baby House Elf so you have someone to replace me when I die?"

And, if that's the way it works, to which great house is the resulting baby Elf attached?

But more on that another time (perhaps).

My first question is, why don't the Weasleys, with all those children, have a House Elf?

Part of the answer appears to be provided in my consideration of the second question above: on several occasions in the early books, J.K. Rowling suggests that House Elves are attached to great houses, like those owned by the Malfoys and the Crouches, and the families that inhabit them.

We could argue that a House Elf can only live in a manor or other great building (such as Hogwarts). That would certainly help to explain why the Weasleys don't have an Elf -- the Burrow is simply not grand enough to host such a creature.

When you read that, did your mind go where mine went? But but but but... the Black family does not own a glorious manor house and they have enjoyed the services of Kreacher and his family for generations. The Blacks live in a row house in London, not tiny nor inexpensive by any means, but not a manor house.

So perhaps you don't have to own a magnificent home (or building) to have a House Elf.

Could it be that House Elves only serve great wizarding families with long, glorious histories? No matter where they live at the moment?

That's possible, but it doesn't explain why the Weasleys (or the Gaunts for that matter) don't have an Elf. The Weasleys are well-established as a pure-blood wizarding family and the Gaunts, for certain, are pure-blood with a glorious past.

My best explanation is that House Elves formed relationships with wizarding families long ago in the distant past. They naturally gravitated to families with large homes and lots of money. Once the bond was formed, it continued throughout history, no matter what happened to the wizarding family and its fortunes.

It could be broken only by three events:

1. The wizards freed the Elf for whatever reason;
2. The last Elf in its family died, without children, leaving the wizarding family without an Elf; or
3. The wizarding family died out completely, leaving the Elf in search of a new place.

In the case of 1 or 3, the Elf would either try to find a new family or end up at a place (like Hogwarts) where it could find work and a new role in life.

In the case of 2, the family either had to live without an Elf or find a new Elf that is looking for a new place.

Think about Dobby and Winky, who find themselves, by the middle of TGOF, without a place. Dobby has been accidentally freed by the Malfoys while Winky was let go by Barty Crouch Sr. Dobby goes out looking for work at other houses but ends up at Hogwarts while Winky falls into alcoholism as a result of her shame of being a House Elf without a proper place.

If those two stories are typical of what happens when an Elf becomes free, it is surprising to me that the Weasleys were never able to pick up a House Elf at any point in their history.

It can't be their poverty that stopped them: remember, House Elves normally don't want to be paid. So what was the problem? What happened?