Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Did Voldy grow mouldy in the Potter home?

I will admit it: I have not done my research on this so the answer to my question might be set out clearly somewhere in the seven Harry Potter novels. But the question jumped out at me this morning as I listened to Jim Dale reading the duel scene from late in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and I just have to ask it:

Voldemort says that, when his own curse rebounded off the infant Harry and hit him instead, it "ripped me from my body" and he fled. So what happened to his body at that point in time?

Was it left behind in the blasted Potter home? If so, what was done with it afterwards? Was it buried? burned? placed in a museum somewhere? Why wasn't it mentioned anywhere?

Or was it blown to bits by the curse such that there was nothing left of it to recognize, collect, bury even?

My guess is that, since, as Hagrid says in The Philosopher's Stone, some people believed that Voldemort died on that pivotal day but many others believed that he survived in a greatly reduced state, there must not have been any recognizable body left behind in the Potter home.

If there had been a body, after all, I would guess most people would have accepted that as proof the Voldemort was dead and gone for good.

What do you think?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Percy Weasley and the capacity to joke (or recognise one)

"Percy wouldn't recognise a joke if it danced naked in front of him wearing Dobbie's tea-cosy." Ron Weasley, The Goblet of Fire.

"You're joking, Perce... You actually are joking, Perce... I don't think I've heard you joking since you were..." Fred Weasley, The Deathly Hallows.

One of the joys in listening to the Harry Potter audio books is that I am forced to work my way through the unabridged novels at a set rate of speed. Since I cannot rush through the slow parts, or skim sections I believe I remember, or get so caught up in the action that I speed-read through entire chapters, I am catching little details that I have missed in my many past readings of the books.

Like the line from Ron as he, Harry and Hermione leave the kitchens of Hogwarts after visiting Dobbie and Winky, the free house elves.

Talk about consistency. Rowling gives Ron this throw-away line in book four, making fun of his elder brother for his lack of a sense of humour, and then, three full books (and about 2,500 pages later), she circles back, picks up this thread and stitches it into a key moment in the climax of the entire series.

It's really quite awesome.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Misdirection and manipulation from the fireplace

In my last post, I examined the passage in The Goblet of Fire wherein Barty Crouch, Jr., disguised as Mad-Eye Moody, explains in detail how he, himself, put Harry's name into the Goblet and why.

Today, I'd like to look at another brilliant conceived passage from the fourth book as an example of Rowling's skill, her cunning, as a writer.

I am talking about the scene where Harry consults with Sirius Black through the magic of fire-place communications. It's a beautifully written scene and it offers a great deal of information but, as usual, with a Rowling twist.

Sirius first tells Harry to be careful of Professor Karkaroff, the Durmstrang headmaster. He was, apparently, a Death Eater who then sold out many of his former mates in order to gain release from Azkaban. Without actually saying it, Sirius suggests to Harry that it must have been Karkaroff who put Harry's name in the Goblet.

It's a brilliant ruse, dropped in at this point to confuse us. Rowling trots out the perfect antagonist, one she has very carefully developed in our minds as being untrustworthy and rather nasty. It comes from a character we have come to trust and it points the finger of blame on a person we are absolutely ready to hate.

Next, Sirius tells Harry that he shouldn't simply accept that the attack on Mad-Eye Moody that took place the night before he came to Hogwarts, the attack to which Mr. Weasley had to respond, was a false attack, a creation of Moody's paranoia.

"I think someone tried stop him from getting to Hogwarts," Sirius tells Harry. "I think someone knew their jobs would be a lot more difficult with him around."

Another brilliant strategic move on the part of the author. Why? Because Sirius is absolutely right. The attack on Moody was real. The goal of the attack was to remove Moody from the picture entirely and make it easier for the perpetrator, Barty Crouch Jr., to get at Harry.

And yet, in one important detail, Sirius misses the mark. He assumes that the attack, while real, failed. We believe him, because we have been trained to believe him, because we have been manipulated to want to believe him. We believe that the attack was real but a failure.

So we emerge from this encounter with Sirius believing, as Harry does, that Moody is a good guy and that someone else, probably Karkaroff, is after Harry.

Rowling is a master of this kind of misdirection, of manipulation. She gives us so much information in such a subtle way that we don't see it for what it really is but for what she has carefully designed it to seem.

Brilliant. Wonderful. Wicked.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Moody, Crouch and the impact of the truth

"Maybe someone's hoping Potter is going to die for it... It was a skilled witch or wizard who put the boy's name in that Goblet... they hoodwinked a very powerful magical object. It would have needed an exceptionally strong Confundus Charm to bamboozle that Goblet into forgetting that only three schools compete in the Tournament... I'm guessing they submitted Potter's name under a fourth school, to make sure he was the only one in his category..."
These are the words of a person who is held out to be Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody in the wake of the Goblet of Fire's dramatic declaration that there would be, in fact, four students competing in the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Book Four.

And these words demonstrate, in my humble opinion, just how great a writer J.K. Rowling really is.

Just think about the first time you read that passage. What did you think? You thought, of course, that Moody was on the side of angels, that he was, as he later declares, trained to think as dark wizards do, and that he is probably absolutely right about how Harry's name ended up in the Goblet in the first place.

And now, when you read it again, knowing what you know about this particular version of Moody -- that he is, in fact, Barty Crouch Jr., impersonating the ex-Auror using the Polyjuice Potion and neck deep in implementing Lord Voldemort's intricate plot to transport Harry via portkey to the graveyard in Little Hangleton at the end of the Tournament -- what do you think of the passage?

Is there one false note in it?

It's brilliant. Crouch, as Moody, stands in front of all the people who might wish to stop him from succeeding in implementing Voldemort's evil plan, and tells them, point for point, exactly how he managed to get Harry's name into the Goblet and why he did it.

He behaves exactly as Moody would and should had he been there. He exposes his own plot.

And no one calls him on it. No one even remotely suspects him. Because he is, in fact, an ex-Auror with a reputation for paranoia, they in fact dismiss his explanation entirely. Absolutely brilliant.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A subtle subplot about the perils of power

One of my favourite subplots in The Goblet of Fire is the one involving Ludo Bagman, a group of Goblins and finally Fred and George Weasley. It doesn't get much air time in the novel (it doesn't even appear in the film) but it is yet another example of how thoroughly well planned these books are and the depth of detail Rowling goes into to make the stories come alive and to make her characters real.

Early in the novel, we get a glimpse of the problems F&G face in trying to launch their business: Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Sorry. Did I say "problems" plural? I mean "problem" singular since the only problem the twins seem to face in making their business a success comes in the form of their mother: Molly Weasley.

And, to be honest, I don't get what her complaint is. Sure, the boys didn't do as well on their O.W.L. exams as she hoped they would but does that really mean she has to block their efforts to start a business and make some money over the summer holiday?

That aside, the Bagman-Goblin-Weasley plot begins in earnest when the jolly ol' beater shows up at the Quidditch World Cup and tries to convince Mr. Weasley to venture "a flutter on the match". Disappointed that the elder Weasley is only willing to wager a single Galleon on a straight out Ireland-to-win bet, Bagman comes alive when F&G show up with a brilliant fake wand and a complicated bet: "that Ireland win -- but Viktor Krum gets the snitch".

Although Bagman says that there is "no chance" that their prediction will come true, he is so delighted by their wager that he promises "excellent odds" and adds five Galleons to their original 37-Galleon-plus bet.

An Aside
What kind of odds do you think Bagman would give F&G on their bet?

As we all know, it is highly unlikely that a Seeker would capture the snitch when his/her team is trailing by more than 150 points. There is just no sense in it. The Seeker would probably bide his/her time, try to keep the opposing seeker from capturing the snitch while hoping that his/her team will score some goals and fight back into the game.

It would take a rare set of circumstances that would convince a Seeker to catch the snitch, knowing that, in doing so, he/she was losing the game for the team.

Circumstances such as actually took place that year in the Quidditch World Cup: Ireland was so much superior to Bulgaria on the goal-scoring side of the game that Bulgaria's only real hope of winning came if its superb Seeker, Viktor Krum, could capture the snitch before Ireland built up too much of a lead. Once Ireland was in front by more than 150 points and there was no hope of Bulgaria fighting back, Krum chose to catch the snitch and thus limit the number of points by which his team lost the match.

So... what odds did Bagman give F&G on their wager? 5 to 1 seems too low. I would say that Bulgaria was probably a 5 to 1 underdog just to win the match. 10 to 1 doesn't seem enough either: remember, F&G bet on an extremely unlikely scenario, one that Bagman himself admits has little chance of coming true.

20 to 1? That's more like it but, to be honest, I would say the bet is more of a 50 to 1 longshot. So F&G stood to win at least 840 Galleons (at 20 to 1) and perhaps 2100 Galleons (at 50 to 1).

Wow. That's a big bag of gold!

No wonder F&G don't want to let it go. And no wonder Bagman doesn't seem to be in a position to pay.

Jo Rowling does a wonderful job of stitching this minor subplot into the fabric of the book. She shows F&G approaching Bagman, hands out for their payment, as soon as the World Cup has ended.
Is it possible, however, that Bagman, while doing the announcing of the game, was able to collect up between 800 and 2100 Galleons of Leprechaun gold? How could F&G carry all that money as they walked back to their tents?

Rowling later has the kids stumble across "a group of Goblins, who were cackling over a sack of gold they had undoubtedly won betting on the match" with Bagman, no doubt. The Goblins are delighted but, like F&G, will soon find out that Bagman has paid them off in Leprechaun gold, which is worthless. That puts Bagman in a very bad place, because you don't want to get on the bad side of a bunch of Goblins.

Rowling then has Harry, Hermione and Ron encounter Bagman again, this time in the wood. They can see "that a great change had come over Bagman. He no longer looked bouffant and rosy-faced; there was no more spring in his step. He looked very white and strained."

Bagman is clearly under stress, stress we find out later caused by the fact that he has over-extended himself and will soon be found out to be a fraud and a criminal. Worse, he will have the Goblins after him.

Rowling inserts of all these little scenes, these little hints, subtly and without fanfare into the larger narrative. They literally get lost in the drama caused by the appearance of the Dark Mark.

Again, it's a sign of her strength as a writer and her careful planning of the novel. Very early on, she plants the seeds that are required to set the stage for F&G's ongoing efforts, and ultimate failure, to get Ludo Bagman to pay them what he owes them on the bet. Not only do they not gain the winnings they are owed, they also lose their life savings in the process.

And, with those life savings, they lose any hope of opening their joke shop and finding their destiny.

Throughout the rest of the novel, we will see the twins growing increasingly desperate in their pursuit of Bagman and increasingly frustrated by their failures. It's beautifully written and, when thought through carefully by the reader, a remarkably troubling subplot, the story of a powerful public figure taking advantage of two impoverished young people and of the powerlessness of those young people to obtain justice.

There is no way out for Fred and George. I don't think they ever collect from Bagman and it is only because Harry gives them his Tri-Wizard Tournament winnings that they are able to continue to pursue their dreams.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The great leap that is The Goblet of Fire

What happened in Jo Rowling's life between the time she finished book 3 and began book 4?

As I have said before, I LOVE The Prisoner of Azkaban. It is my favourite of the seven Harry Potter novels (though The Deathly Hallows comes a close second). It is deep and dark and beautifully told, with a tightly drawn plot and an amazingly suspenseful climax and conclusion.

But there is something about the opening chapters of The Goblet of Fire that suggests, to me at least, that Rowling started writing the fourth novel in a fit of joyous confidence, in complete control of her craft, finding delight in the mere application of pen to paper.

For the first time in the series, Rowling spends an extended period of time away from Harry Potter at the start of the fourth book. She takes us to Little Hangleton, the mystery of the Riddle house and the plight of poor Frank Bryce. She flexes her authorial muscles in moving her writing up a level, into a more adult narrative voice and approach, creating scenes that seem to leave behind the childlike innocence of the first three novels.

The story of the Weasley's visit to 4 Privet Drive and Harry's time at the Burrow is told with unbridled joy, bringing with it laugh-out-loud moments and crystal clear characterizations.

Then, almost as if she were arriving at a party that she had been eagerly anticipating for several years, Rowling bursts into creative delight with the scenes at the Quidditch World Cup. This is Rowling at her best, as if she had been waiting all her life to write about this event.

This is also where she first begins to show us the depth and detail of the magical world she has created and her absolute mastery of it. She demonstrates her ability to control much more complex plots and much larger casts of characters, creating spellbinding scenes which, we find out later, are literally littered with little, seemingly throwaway details, that will become very important as the stories develop through the fourth, fifth and following novels.

My guess is that, after book two succeeded beyond her wildest dreams and book three also showed the same promise, Rowling sat down to write The Goblet of Fire with a new sense of confidence that she would be able to carry out her planned seven-book journey. Whether she felt more relaxed, because the pressure to prove herself was now off, or more tense, because she suddenly had the expectations of the entire world placed upon her, Rowling seems to have hit her stride at the start of Book Four, to have committed herself to her exquisitely detailed overall plot, to have given herself permission to explore more thoroughly her characters and themes, to have learned to trust herself and her instincts as she moved forward.

It's a pretty awesome thing to witness, even now as I read the books again for perhaps the 20th time.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why is Hermione upset when she misses Charms?

A couple of months ago, I wrote in this space about the trap that is time travel. It seems at first like a pretty fun and clever device: create a way for your characters to travel back and forth in time and then watch the fun ensue.

But, if you look at the concept too closely, if you explore the possible consequences of time travel on your narrative, you really might want to think twice before you employ it.

As much as I love The Prisoner of Azkaban -- it is, in fact, my favourite of both the books and the films -- I still believe that the introduction of the possibility of time travel to the Harry Potter universe  in this third novel is an strategic and dramatic error on the part of author.

The following passage from about two-thirds through the book jumped out at me recently as I listened to the Jim Dale audiobook version of The Prisoner:
Hermione was sitting at a table, fast asleep, her head resting on an open Arithmancy book. They [Ron and Harry] went to sit down on either side of her. Harry prodded her awake. 
'Wh-what?' said Hermione, waking with a start, and staring wildly around. 'Is it time to go? W-which lesson have we got now?' 
'Divination, but it's not for another twenty minutes,' said Harry. 'Hermione, why didn't you come to Charms?' 
'What? Oh no!' Hermione squeaked. 'I forgot to go to Charms!'
Hermione laments this mistake for some time, to the point where she brings it up later, having found out that Cheering Charms might just be on the exam.

"So what?" you ask. "It's a fun scene. It's neat to see Hermione not quite in control for once!"

And yes, it is an interestingly little scene, intended both to show Hermione in a more vulnerable situation and to pique our interest: just what is up with our favourite witch?

But think about it a little more deeply. We learn later that Hermione is in possession of a time turner, which permits her to travel back in time to attend several classes that are scheduled at the same time. She has been using it all year. As we learn at the start of term, she uses it on one day each week so that she can attend Divination at 9 a.m., then go back in time to attend Muggle Studies at 9 a.m., then travel back in time again to attend Arithmancy, again at 9 a.m.

Once she learns she has missed Charms class in this scene, why doesn't she just excuse herself, travel back in time and attend the class? Rather than freaking out and feeling unprepared for the exam, why not use the time turner, as she has done all year, to travel back and go to Charms?

And then you have to ask yourself: why is Hermione so tired? With the time turner, she could easily travel back in time once she's finished her homework each evening in order to go to bed at an appropriate hour so that she is well rested for the next day.

Say she studies until 3 a.m.. Fine. At 3 a.m., she spins the time turner six times, goes back to 9 p.m., and goes to bed. A good night's sleep follows and all is well!

Of course, if Hermione were to go just that, if she were to re-live an average of eight hours every day in order to keep up with her classes, her homework and her sleep, she would end up significantly older (about four months older) than the others at the end of the school year. Would that make a difference in their lives? Would the others notice?

I'm not sure but, because of the introduction of time travel, these are questions that have to be asked.

And they are just minor questions, raised by the brief scene reproduced above. As I've mentioned before, why doesn't Hermione go back in time far enough to stop Voldemort in the first place? Or at least to the point where Peter Pettigrew/Scabbers is easy to catch?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The wonders of chocolate

We need to take a moment here to thank Joanne Rowling for one more thing and I think it is a really important thing:

She has given us one more reason to love chocolate.

According to Rowling, chocolate is an absolute must for a person who has suffered an encounter with a Dementor. In fact, chocolate is not just considered a nice thing to eat to make you feel better after you've been colded by a Dementor; it is the appropriate medical response to such an encounter. Even Madame Pomfrey confirms this fact.

I won't go so far as to suggest that Rowling, who has described the Dementors as her attempt to create a physical embodiment of Depression, thinks of chocolate as a form of anti-Depressant but she certainly does endorse it as a contributor to ongoing happiness and warmth in our lives.

So, the next time someone accuses you of enjoying too much chocolate, remind them of its benefits for health and happiness... and for recovery from Dementor encounters!

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Harry Potter and Me" offers insights

In a 2001 interview with the BBC, Jo Rowling tells the story of how, after the publication of The Chamber of Secrets, she received a stern letter from a parent who basically told her the violent and scary ending of the second book was unacceptable and that the parent expected better from Rowling in the upcoming third novel.

Rowling's reaction is wonderful. She becomes very angry, even though several years had passed between the incident and her recounting of it to the BBC.

"I'm not taking dictation here," she says after a moment. "Do I care about my readers? Profoundly and deeply. But do I ultimately think they should dictate a single word of what I write? No. I am the only one who should be in control of that."

This is a pretty important statement for me as a Potter fan. It tells me that Rowling committed herself, early on, to remaining true to her own plans for the Harry Potter books and to avoid being influenced, dictated to even, by outside forces, be they her readers, her editors or even the films made of her books.

Two other highlights from this BBC interview, filmed between the publication of the fourth and fifth books:

1. Jo Rowling makes it clear that the film version of her books were, at least to that point, entirely outside her control. No matter how carefully she kept control over the writing of the books to herself, she was clearly willing to turn over complete control over the film versions to others.

She says, "The closer the viewing [of the film version of The Philosopher's Stone, the first novel] came, the more frightened I became, to the point where, where I actually sat down to watch the film, I was terrified because I thought 'oh, please don't do anything that's not in the book; please don't take horrible liberties with the plot'."

She concludes by saying of the first film: "I liked it, which was a relief, as you can imagine."

This may just mean that I can absolve Jo Rowling of any blame for the ridiculous liberties the film makers took with the plots of the later books, the devastation they wrought on The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows especially. I can't imagine Rowling emerging from any of the last three films thinking that they had stayed true to her original books.

2. By that point at least, Rowling had written the Epilogue for Book Seven. She actually holds up the file folder for the camera, calls it the Epilogue and says, "In the Epilogue, I basically say what happens to everyone after they leave the school, those who survive."

That doesn't prove conclusively that she had the final plot completely figured out but it does indicate quite clearly that she spent a lot of time early on planning out where the novels would go.

On Dale's reading and Rowling's writing

The awesome Hogwarts Model on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour
An excerpt from my Writer's Blog entry for today:

I have spent all of my available spare time over the past couple of weeks listening to the audiobook versions of the Harry Potter novels. I have already listened to The Philosopher's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets and the first part of The Prisoner of Azkaban and I am very much enjoying the experience.

Yes, there are some things about the Jim Dale version of the audiobooks that are not so great: I hate the fact that Scholastic Books "Americanized" some of the language in the books; I find that Dale tends to make the younger female characters (especially Hermione and Ginny) sound much too whiney; and I find that, although Rowling often overuses adverbs to describe dialogue, Dale often ignores her descriptions when he reads.

For example, as I have noted in my Harry Potter blog, one of J.K. Rowling's few weaknesses as a writer is that she seems to lack confidence in the quality of her dialogue, not trusting what a character says to indicate the manner in which they say it. When a character says, "I'm frightened,", Rowling has a tendency to add the tag "he said fearfully". The adverb "fearfully" is not required. There are entire passages of dialogue where Rowling includes unnecessary adverbs as part of every tag and it drives me a bit mad.

Even more frustrating is when Dale, in his reading of the passage, ignores the adverbs and the content of the dialogue in his vocalization: ""I'm fine", Harry muttered darkly," Rowling might write and then Dale reads the "I'm fine" in a bright, cheery voice, capturing neither the fact that Harry is described as muttering nor that he said the line "darkly".

Putting that aside, however, I am finding the experience of listening to someone else reading these much loved books an eyeopening one. I have come to the realization that I read the Harry Potter books much too quickly when I read them for myself: I get so caught up in the plots that I skim entire passages and miss many many subtleties in the writing. It might take me about four hours to read the first Harry Potter novel myself; with the audiobook, I spend almost eight and half hours listening to the story being read to me.

Dale's reading is clear, well-paced and entertaining. And, because it's him reading, I can't skim anything. I am "forced" to hear every detail, every nuance, every word. And it's been something of a voyage of discovery for me. I am becoming even more aware of Rowling's skills as a writer, the care she put into planting seeds early that don't flower until later, the subtlety of her development of her characters and her plots.

I'm loving every minute of it. Sure, I get teased at work for carrying around an ancient CD Walkman but the opportunity to listen to these audiobooks has made my daily walks to and a from work a very enjoyable experience. And my appreciation for J.K. Rowling's skill as a writer continues to grow.