Friday, May 30, 2014

In real life, the Dursleys would be considered child abusers

A scary story appeared today on the CBC News website ( on May 30, 2014 under the headline: 

London, Ont., couple charged after boy, 10, found locked in 'squalid' house

Boy's aunt and uncle face charges of forcible confinement

For fans of Harry Potter, the story sounds eerily familiar:

A couple in London, Ont., face charges of forcible confinement and failing to provide the necessaries of life after their 10-year-old nephew was found malnourished and locked in a bedroom of a house that police describe as "filthy" and "squalid." Police said they found the boy locked in a bedroom that has an ensuite bathroom. Police believe the boy had been confined there for 18 months to two years. The boy, who police say was underweight and suffering from malnutrition, was taken to hospital. He has since been released from hospital and is in the care of the Children's Aid Society. The couple facing charges have a biological child who was also living in the house at the time. That child, whose age and gender have not been released, is also now in the care of the CAS. Police said there is no evidence that the couple's biological child was confined inside the house.

How often was Harry left locked in his tiny bedroom by his uncle and aunt, with only short breaks to go to the bathroom and with only the most basic of meals provided through a flap in the door, while his cousin Dudley enjoyed complete freedom?

Now, granted, Harry was only confined for a couple of days at a time, not for 18-24 months like the poor child in the news story but, when you think about it, locking a child in a bedroom for any extended period of time is abuse and a pretty serious offense.

It's a wonder none of the neighbours in Little Whinging ever called the authorities on Vernon and Petunia Dursley!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lauding Watson's commitment to education...

A momentary change of focus to this blog.

I just want to send out my personal congratulations to actress Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the film versions of J.K.'s precious books, on the occasion of her graduating Brown University with a degree in English Literature.

I know, what's the big deal? Lots of people graduate from universities and many of them have earned more advanced, more difficult degrees than a BA in English Lit.

True. Very true.

But Emma Watson continued to pursue her education despite the fact that she is already set for life financially. I can't imagine, after eight Harry Potter movies and several other successful films since (including "The Perks of Being A Wallflower", in which I think Watson was fantastic), that Watson needed to earn a degree in order to make a living or improve her professional standing.

She could easily have skipped post-secondary education entirely and lived a very full and successful life.

So I can only imagine that she pursued her degree either simply because she understands the on-going value of education in her life, or because she recognised that the college experience itself is of real value to a person, or both.

Frankly, I think that's great. I also think it's great that she managed to earn her degree despite the extra, day-to-day, often intrusive scrutiny she was probably under while she attended Brown.

Harry Potter often acknowledged how difficult he found it to attend school as a person of fame. I'm sure Emma Watson discovered the same kinds of challenges at Brown (even if she didn't have an evil wizard plotting to kill her).

So I congratulate her on valuing education, on her commitment to pursuing that education, on her ability to focus on her studies despite the many distractions her fame likely threw her way and on recognising how much the experience of college can mean to her life.

Well done, Emma.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What a wonderful thing an animagus is...

Let's talk for a moment about animaguses. (Or are they "animagi"?)

We learn some things about animagi throughout the course of J.K.'s seven-book adventure but, to be honest, not a whole lot.

We know, for example, that Minerva McGonagall is an animagi and her animal form is a cat. We know that, for the most part, animagi are born not created but we also learn that James Potter (stag), Sirius Black (dog) and Peter Pettigrew (rat) somehow managed to transform themselves into animagi while at Hogwarts.

We learn from Hermione's research that, for some reason, animagi are required to register themselves with the Ministry of Magic, complete with a description of their animal forms. It would appear that failing to register oneself is an offence, subject to some pretty hefty punishment.

Finally, we know that Rita Skeeter is also an unregistered animagus who takes the form of a beetle.And that Skeeter is so afraid of being turned in to the Ministry that she is willing to give up her career and fall into destitution rather than face the punishment for being an unregistered animagus.

Interestingly, like McGonagall, Skeeter's "animal" form has markings on it that represent her glasses. I have to admit, I find that strange since, if McGonagall and Skeeter were born animagi, why would their animal form have markings representing human-made devices that they acquire some time after their birth?

There are a lot of other questions about animagi that I have as well.

As I am now reading The Goblet of Fire, however, the one that currently stands out in my mind is what determines the animal form any particular animagus might take.

And what relationship does that animal form have to your true nature?

Okay, so I have two questions that stand out.

The questions are both, obviously, related. And here is my proposal as to the answers.

First, I believe that the animal form of a natural born animagus is innate within that person. I mean, they're too young to make any kind of decision anyway so it must come from somewhere, right? The fact that the annoying, buzzing Rita Skeeter is a beetle seems to bear this out, doesn't it? You could argue further that McGonagall has cat-like tendencies.

This suggests the answer to the second question: the animal form is clearly related to, and a commentary on, the person's character.

But what about the created animagi? I believe Sirius tells Harry, Hermione and Ron during their pivotal confrontation in the Shrieking Shack in The Prisoner of Azkaban that he and James chose animal forms that were big and strong enough to be safe in the presence of Remus Lupin when he was a werewolf. So it was a choice, plain and simple.

It was natural for James to become a stag in his animal form since it is both big and strong and it matches the form of his corporeal patronus. So that might mean that Sirius' patronus would take the form of a dog but I don't think we ever see it, do we?

And what do we make of Peter Pettigrew? Would he really consciously have chosen to be a rat? I mean, a rat is a rat, after all. It's considered vermin by most people and likely to be killed on sight in many situations. Further, it doesn't have much of an ability to defend itself physically from attack, nor would it be safe in the presence of a werewolf.

Pettigrew's animal form seems more of a match for his treacherous character than the result of a sound, conscious decision. Yet, if the above analysis is true, Peter chose to be a rat. Hmmm... maybe he was already aware, while hanging out at Hogwarts with James, Sirius and Remus, that he would someday need to hide.

I have to admit, I don't think I'd be very happy if I were Rita Skeeter either. I mean, how safe is it to be a beetle out there in the world. There you are, flying up to the top of the tower to listen in on Harry's Divination class and suddenly a swallow darts out of nowhere and chomps you down in a single bite!

Scary. It's a wonderful she lasted so long.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A brutal, brutal experience

I'm in the middle of reading The Order of the Phoenix. I find this one of the most difficult books to read that I have ever encountered.

J.K. had gotten us well-hooked by the time she wrote this, the fifth book in the series, and we have learned to care very deeply for her characters, especially Harry, Hermione and Ron.

So it's really tough to read a book where Harry in particular is so battered and abused, so isolated and alone, as this one. And J.K. pulls no punches. Not only does Harry suffer so badly in The Order of the  Phoenix, she also makes sure he is very well aware of the unfairness of it all.

In North American football, we'd call it "piling on".

First, there are the Dursleys. Not only is Harry stuck in Little Whinging, alone with the a family of the worst kind of Muggles, he is also completely isolated from a wizarding world that he knows must be changing as a result of the return of Lord Voldemort.

And yet, for some reason, no one from that wizarding world is bothering to contact Harry or keep him informed.

Then come the Dementors, the revelation that Dumbledore has arranged to have Harry watched (without telling Harry about it), Harry's expulsion from and later re-instatement to Hogwarts and finally his rescue from Privet Drive. But he's not taken to his beloved second home, The Burrow; he's taken instead to a dingy row house in London that is completely foreign and unwelcoming.

Things don't get any easier. Harry finds out he has been undermined and attacked by the Ministry and the Daily Prophet, that he has been deliberately kept in the dark on what's going on with Voldemort, that his god-father is desperate and lonely and potentially no longer trustworthy to have Harry's best interests in mind, and that his mentor is completely avoiding him.

Things will be better when I get to Hogwarts, Harry tells himself.

Not so fast, young man. At Hogwarts, he comes face to face with the fact that known Death Eaters who are actively supporting Voldemort are still at large, their kids have been put into positions of authority over him at school, and the Ministry itself has installed its own operative into the school, seemingly for the sole purpose of torturing him both physically and psychologically.

Plus school work piles up, Hagrid is nowhere to be found and Snape is even more vile toward him than usual.

Yikes and yikes.

I'm nearly three-hundred pages in and I don't think Harry has gotten a single break yet. Even his Quidditch captain is furious with him for receiving unjust detentions and missing practices and now he has to worry about his friend Ron falling to pieces as Gryffindor's new keeper.

It's like Rowling sat down to write this book and thought: My characters, and my readers, are now old  enough to deal with reality. In fact, they're old enough to deal with a world that is much more rotten than some people's reality.

And she doles misery out in massive proportions, especially to Harry.

It makes for a very, very difficult read. We suffer through every page with Harry and his friends. We experience the injuries and the injustices right along with him and we suffer with and for him.

It's an interesting choice by J.K., to be sure, to make us and her character suffer so. But, once the choice had been made, she certainly committed herself completely to it and wrote this book with an intensity that one rarely experiences in literature.

I find that I read The Order of the Phoenix very quickly, whenever I return to it, simply because I want to help Harry find a way out of all of this suffering as soon as possible.

It's a testament to Rowling's effectiveness as a writer, I think, and to her uncompromising dedication to making these books memorable.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Problems with Priori Incantatem and the wand that killed Cedric

Here's where it all started:  Harry's dream/vision in Divination class in the middle of The Goblet of Fire.

Although I have always believed that these "visions" of Harry's, in which he was able to see what Voldemort was up to, were real, I realized that J.K. was about to give me absolute proof of the fact when I got to the end of the book.

When Harry's wand, you see, forces Voldemort's wand into Priori Incantatem in their duel in the graveyard, the Dark Lord's wand "regurgitate[s] spells it has performed -- in reverse. The most recent first... and then those which preceded it". That's how Dumbledore explains the effect.

So I knew, if Harry's vision of Voldemort's using the Cruciatus curse on Wormtail was actually true, we should see that spell emerge from Voldemort's wand in the graveyard.

And if the Cruciatus curse did not emerge from the wand, then either Harry's visions were not real or... Rowling simply forgot to include the torture curse when she wrote the scene.

I was very pleased, then, when my test worked and confirmed that Harry's visions were real. The first curse to emerge from Voldemort's wand was described as "screams of pain", which would be the Cruciatus Curse the Dark Lord had just used on Harry, then Wormtail's new hand, then "more shouts of pain" (Voldemort's torture of Wormtail to test his wand), then Cedric, and then more screams of pain (which would likely be the curse I was watching for: Voldemort's punishment of Wormtail that was depicted in Harry's Divination-Class vision).

Cool. So the visions were real. I already believed that they were but this confirmation was nice to have.

Unfortunately, I discovered several new problems through my careful examination of the Priori Incantatem effect on Voldemort's wand.

First and most importantly, Voldemort's wand did not apparently cast the curse that killed Cedric Diggory. As you will recall, just after Harry and Cedric arrive in the graveyard, Wormtail approaches carrying a terrifying bundle. Before the two boys even understand what's happening, "a high, cold voice" says "Kill the spare".

The cold, high voice is Voldemort, still barely alive, giving orders from inside the bundle. And then, "A swishing noise and a second voice, which screeched the words to the night: 'Avada Kedavra!'"

That second voice is Wormtail's -- he casts the spell that kills Cedric Diggory.

Perhaps Wormtail was using Voldemort's wand at that point, you suggest.

Perhaps. But there are three arguments against that:

First, Rowling makes no suggestion that Wormtail changes wands before he performs several other feats of magic soon after killing Cedric, including the Lumos charm, the spell that creates the cords that bind Harry to the gravestone and the several bits of magic involved in preparing the cauldron for Voldemort. Yet none of those spells emerge from Voldemort's wand under the Priori Incantatem effect.

Second, it is very clearly established in The Deathly Hallows that Voldemort is protective of his own wand. He even mocks Lucius Malfoy when Lucius dares to believe that the Dark Lord might trade his own wand for Lucius', rather than simply taking it.

Third, and most compelling, when Voldemort recovers his full, adult body in the graveyard, Rowling indulges in a very careful, very detailed description of that recovery. She tells us that Wormtail gives the Dark Lord a robe from the bundle he had used to carry Voldemort into the graveyard. She describes Voldemort's careful examination of his recovered body in great detail.

And then... she says, "Voldemort slipped one of those unnaturally long-fingered hands into a deep pocket, and drew out a wand."

Until that point in time, the Dark Lord's wand had been hidden deep inside the bundle of robes.

So, I think we can agree, Voldemort's wand did not kill Cedric Diggory. So Cedric should not have emerged from the wand under the Priori Incantatem effect. And Cedric never should have been in a position to ask Harry to take his body back to his parents.

It was a lovely scene, no doubt, but it makes no sense at all in the context.

That's not all. There appears to be another inconsistency in the Priori Incantatem scene.

I believe that it is well established that, when the Dark Lord came to Godric's Hollow to kill Harry in the very beginning of the entire tale, Voldemort first killed Harry's father and then offered Harry's mother the chance to live if she would simply step aside and allow Voldemort to kill the baby.

Lily Potter refuses and dies attempting to protect Harry. This selfless act provides Harry with the ancient magic that allows him to survive Voldemort's curse.

I honestly cannot recall where the passages are found in the seven books that confirm this version of the events but certainly the films present this version very clearly.

So why, if Priori Incantatem effect causes a wand to "regurgitate spells it has performed -- in reverse. The most recent first... and then those which preceded it", does James Potter emerge from Voldemort's wand before Lily does?

Lily died last and, according to Dumbledore's explanation of the effect, should have emerged first. This is not so bit a problem as the whose-wand-killed-Cedric-Diggory conundrum above but it is still an error in the writing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Accio, Harry, Accio...

"Harry pulled out his wand and struggled to touch the Marauder's Map, to wipe it blank, but it was too far away to reach."

Did anybody else read this passage from the middle of The Goblet of Fire and think, "Accio, Harry, Accio"?

Harry is on his way back from the Prefects' Bath in the middle of the night. He's solved the egg clue for the second task of the Triwizard Tournament but managed to get himself trapped by the trick step in the hidden stairway, dropping both the Map and the egg in the process.

Even though he's still hidden under his Invisibility Cloak, Harry is in danger of being caught out of bed late at night, with Mr. Filch and Mrs. Norris arriving on the scene. Maybe it's too late for him to summon the egg but the Map... well, he still has time if he keeps his wits about him.

Harry spent much of the first part of the book perfecting the Summoning Charm (Accio) for the purposes of the first task in the Triwizard Tournament. He used it effectively while facing an angry dragon to summon his Firebolt and ace that first task.

So why wouldn't he use it again here? Surely he can't have forgotten it. And I can't believe he is feeling more panicked facing Mr. Filch than he did facing the Hungarian Horntail in the first task.

He had his wand in his hand and time on his side. Is it really believable that Harry would forget the Summoning Charm under such circumstances?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A buzz outside the window....

I no sooner post my last entry and I come across the scene with Harry's nightmare in Divination class.

Clue number four: the insect buzzing outside the window as Harry falls asleep.

How did I miss all these hints????

Subtle clues should have had us buzzing...

Ahh, J.K., how you do toy with us, your faithful readers!

Here we are, working hard alongside Hermione, trying to figure out how Rita Skeeter managed to listen in on so many private conversations at Hogwarts during the Triwizard Tournament, and you keep dropping subtle little hints all over the place.

It's only when we re-read The Goblet of Fire -- or re-re-re-re-re-re-read The Goblet of Fire -- that we finally start to notice the bread-crumb hints you've been so kindly leaving for us.

First, at the Yule Ball, you have Percy Weasley complain about how hard a life his boss, Mr. Crouch, has had of late at the Ministry: "...And then we had the Tournament to arrange, and the aftermath of the Cup to deal with -- that revolting Skeeter woman buzzing around -- no, poor man, he's having a well earned, quiet Christmas."

Good one, Joanne, very good. Long before Hermione figures out Skeeter is an unregistered animagus who can turn herself into an insect, you have Percy describe her quite innocently as "buzzing around" the way an insect would.

Neat. And, of course, it didn't register with us, your readers. We just thought it was an apt description for the behaviour of the annoying reporter.

Then you have Harry try to distract himself from Hagrid's revealing conversation with Madame Maxime by watching a nearby beetle. Seems innocent enough. Harry doesn't want to listen, so he watches a beetle. The fact that this is one of the first insects you have mentioned in the entire series of books doesn't bother us, doesn't make us wonder why you choose that moment and that insect: nope, you slide it in subtly by giving us another legitimate reason for Harry to notice the bug

So maybe it's okay that we didn't clue in there. You were very subtle.

But we have no excuse for not catching on when, at the end of the second task, you actually have Victor Krum say to Hermione, "You haff a water-beetle in your hair..." That's a dead give away. Two mentions of bugs in the same book when you rarely if ever mentioned bugs before. In fact, two mentions of "beetles" plus the "buzzing" comment. How can we miss it?

Of course, you did explain away Krum's comments as well. You guide our attention skillfully away from the clue you've just dropped by having Harry wonder about Krum's motivation in making the comment, rather than the fact of the beetle itself.


You drop three major clues -- hints that should stand out for a careful reader like neon signs on a dark night -- and we miss them completely. You plant the clue, then steer us immediately in another direction. Very nice.