Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is Draco a better wizard than Harry? It seems so

It is made very clear throughout the Harry Potter novels just how clever Hermione Granger is. From brewing Polyjuice Potion in second year, to answers all the questions in every lesson, to figuring out before anyone else that Lupin is a Werewolf, to mastering spells and charms before any other student,  to earning "Outstanding" in every one of her OWL courses (and, remember, she took more courses than anyone else) except one (where she accepted an "Exceeds Expectations" in Defence Against the Dark Arts), to successfully performing a Protean Charm in fifth year, Hermione proves time and again that she is the brightest student at Hogwarts.

But what about Draco Malfoy?

We rarely, if ever, get even a hint of how clever he is. And yet, from the small hints that appear every now and again throughout the seven novels, it would appear that Draco is a pretty smart kid. Probably smarter, and a better wizard, than Harry himself.


Five pieces of evidence spring to mind:

1. Draco did well enough on his OWL examinations to appear in NEWT classes with Harry, Hermoine and Ron -- note, it would appear that Crabbe and Goyle were not so successful;

2. Draco is clever enough to figure out, from Montague's adventure in the Vanishing Cabinet, that there is a mate for the Hogwarts cabinet at Borgin and Burkes and that they form a passage between the school and shop, sufficient to allow Draco to introduce Death Eaters to the castle in Book Six -- note, not even Dumbledore appears to have figured this out, although he might not have heard Montague's full story;

3. Draco is clever enough to mend the broken cabinet in the Room of Requirement;

4. Draco holds his own in his duel with Harry in the bathroom on The Half-Blood Prince -- Harry, with all of his experience battling dark forces, teaches a big group of students (including older students) in the DA and yet Draco is able to trade hexes with him for several minutes, including blocking Harry quite adeptly with nonverbal spells; and

5. Draco performs a Protean Charm in sixth year to mimic Hermione's trick with the Galleons for passing messages. As Terry Boot says weakly after Hermione mentions having performed her own Protean Charm a year earlier, 'But that's... that's NEWT standard, that is". When Draco performs the same charm the following year, he is only beginning his NEWT studies so his feat is almost as impressive as Hermione's was.

So, although we don't have his OWL results, we have some pretty strong evidence that Draco Malfoy is one heckuva a smart young wizard, with capabilities that rival, if not outstrip, Harry's.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Adrenaline? or swimming lessons?

When did Harry learn to swim?

In the fabulous cave scene at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, Harry swims through treacherous sea waters, from the rock onto which he and Dumbledore had just apparated, across a narrow stretch of water and into a fissure that eventually leads to a set of steps onto a rocky shore in the middle of a cave.

Rowling says that Harry was weighed down by his waterlogged clothes as he swam, that he "struck out" to follow Dumbledore (who, quite charmingly, was doing "a perfect breaststroke" with his wand held between his teeth), that he "continued to swim" in the "icy" water with "benumbed fingers" before seeing Dumbledore "rising out of the water ahead" and then following him.

What with the dangerous, icy water, the weight of his clothes, and the fact that Dumbledore is able to get quite far ahead of him, this sounds like quite a challenging swim.

Even more impressive, on the way back, Harry must carry the weight of a weak, faint Head Master as he swims back from the cave to the rock before apparating back to Hogsmeade.

It's an excellent, exciting part of the novel and leads directly into the incredible climax involving Death Eaters in Hogwarts.

But when did Harry learn to swim?

In book four, The Goblet of Fire, Rowling writes the following passage to describe Harry's reaction upon deducing that the second task in the Tri-Wizard Tournament would involve swimming into the lake on the grounds of Hogwarts:
But [Harry] suddenly realized what he was saying, and he felt the excitement drain out of him as though someone had just pulled a plug in his stomach. He wasn't a very good swimmer; he'd never had much practice. Dudley had had lessons in their youth, but Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, no doubt hoping that Harry would drown one day, hadn't bothered to give him any. A couple of lengths of this bath was all very well, but that lake was very large, and very deep...
In two years, Harry has gone from someone whose stomach drops at the thought of being required to swim any distance to someone who can swim a fair distance through frigid, dangerous waters, carrying the weight of a fully-grown adult who is incapable of swimming on his own.

I guess you could argue that, when the need is that great, adrenaline would permit Harry to swim that distance, carrying Dumbledore... but it seems our beloved author missed something between these two stories, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The little details should have given Snape away

What was I thinking? How did I miss this? How did I fail to ask questions?

In the long passage in The Half-Blood Prince in which Dumbledore and Harry discuss the implications of the full Slughorn memory and the fact that Voldemort appears to be planning to make no fewer than six Horcruxes, the Head Master makes several comments that should, in my numerous earlier readings of the book, have made me stop and ask questions.

"When Voldemort discovered that the diary had been mutilated and robbed of all its powers, I am told that his anger was terrible to behold," Voldemort tells Harry at one point in the conversation.

Wait a minute, I should have said. Hold on there, Dumbledore. Who told you how Voldemort reacted to the news that Lucius Malfoy had permitted the diary to be destroyed? Who was there to "behold" Voldemort's terrible anger and then tell you about it?

But I didn't. I missed it. I failed to see the hint that J.K. Rowling laid down so subtly that, no matter what I saw and heard in Chapter Two, Severus Snape was actually still working for Dumbledore.

Who else could have given Dumbledore this tidbit of information from the inner sanctum of the Dark Lord? Who else could possibly have been there to behold the incident and then report it back to the Hogwarts Head Master?

Later in the same scene, Dumbledore drops another clue: "I understand that Voldemort had told him [Lucius Malfoy] the diary would cause the Chamber of Secrets to reopen, because it was cleverly enchanted."

'You understand from whom?' I should have asked. 'That's pretty specific knowledge of the details of what the Dark Lord said to one of this closest companions about one of his most important possessions. You couldn't become acquainted with that level of detail from a simple rumour, from third-hand reports.'

Remarkable. It's one of the most amazing things about Rowling as a writer of suspense: she has this uncanny knack of dropping little hints, tiny clues, minuscule details innocuously into seemingly much more important passages so that the reader does not pick up on them on first, second or third read, yet might some day (like today) realize just how important those hints, clues and details are to the story.

She makes her stories so exciting that it is impossible to slow yourself down and pay attention to the minute details yet she rewards such attention to detail with clear indications of what is really going on.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Out of Order in the fifth film

I don't know enough about film making to know whom to blame: the director, the editor or the continuity person. But I've just watched the movie version of The Order of the Phoenix again and, let me tell you, that film is seriously flawed.

And I'm not just talking about the numerous poor decisions the screen writer made in revising J.K. Rowling's long novel into a relatively short film. I'm talking about easy to avoid flaws that suggest that the film makers were just plain sloppy when they made this one.

Take, for example, the opening scene in the play park in Little Whinging in which Harry confronts Dudley and his gang. The editing in this scene is amateurish at best and the continuity just doesn't work. Dudley makes a joke and we're treated to a quick shot of him looking left and right at members of his laughing gang. Harry is nowhere in the shot, still seated on the swings.

Then Dudley teases Harry about his nightmares and Harry gets up, pulls his wand and rushes at his cousin. Cut to that same footage of Dudley laughing, looking side to side, with no sign of Harry in the shot. Then cut back to a close up of Harry jabbing his wand into Dudley's neck and Dudley looking terrified. Sloppy sloppy work.

The storm-clouds set in and we get an aerial shot of the play park. The gang members are still ranged behind Dudley but he appears to be standing side by side with Harry, with some space between them. Cut back to the closeup of Harry with his wand at Dudley's throat. Awful.

Or how about the scenes in the Room of Requirement as the DA practices, just before Umbridge crashes the party. I won't try to describe it all but, suffice it to say, from shot to shot, characters dance all over the place. No continuity. Amateurish, jumpy editing.

While we're on the DA training, how is that so many characters are able to produce corporeal Patronuses on their first try? From what I saw, Ginny, Hermione and Luna all had bright white animals shoot out of their wands on their first attempt at this most difficult charm. How is that possible?

And was that Levicorpus I heard Harry teaching the gang in the DA? Levicorpus, a spell he doesn't learn until he reads it in the Half-Blood Prince's potions text book in the six novel? To compound the problem, the film makers then have James Potter use a different spell on Snape in the Potion Master's memory, rather than Levicorpus. And further, they have Luna use Levicorpus inside the Hall of Prophesy against a Death Eater.

Huh? Why? Why introduce it at this point at all? It's not necessary and people like me are just going to be upset by the change from the original.

And finally, back on the issue of continuity problems, think about the battle scene in the Ministry, where members of the Order of the Phoenix come to the rescue of our six favourite kids.

First, try to ignore the ridiculous fact that the filmmakers decided that witches and wizards should be able to fly without the aid of brooms, thestrals or other instruments of flight (which still bothers me greatly), and the fact that the filmic Sirius Black arrives and, with Lucius Malfoy at his utter mercy, chooses to punch him, rather than stunning or even killing him. This inexplicable choice permits Malfoy to continue in the battle.

Sorry, I can't. I simply can't ignore that stuff. It drives me absolutely nuts.

Anyway, back to continuity. After the punch, Harry and Sirius get involved in a serious wand battle with Malfoy and another Death Eater. Sirius manages to stun the DE and Harry, taking advantage of the distraction, hits Malfoy with a quick disarming spell and we see Malfoy's wand go spinning out of his hand.

"Nice one James," cries Sirius. But when Sirius fires another spell at Malfoy, Malfoy deflects it with the wand that a split second ago we saw flying away from him. Another battle ensues, which distracts Sirius enough to permit Bellatrix to kill him with the killing curse.

How did Malfoy get his wand back?

This film is so poorly made that I can't help but wonder if the filmmakers chose to cut as many corners as possible, knowing that Harry Potter fans around the world would flock to the film anyway.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The ultimate misdirection in Spinner's End

J.K. Rowling continues to display her prowess as a writer in Chapter Two of The Half-Blood Prince: 'Spinner's End'.

At this point in her writing, Rowling knows that one of the key questions that still dominates the minds of her avid readership is which master Severus Snape truly serves: Albus Dumbledore or the Dark Lord.

And she knows that her readers are beginning to question how Snape could possibly be anything but a good guy, despite his loathing of Harry Potter -- he's just had too many opportunities to commit truly evil acts and failed to do so. He's had Harry at his mercy several times and failed to take advantage; he's been in a position to help Voldemort accomplish his plans on numerous occasions and hasn't done so; he has earned Dumbledore's trust and that trust is apparently unshakeable. As Lupin says, if we trust Dumbledore (and we absolutely do), then we have to trust Snape as well.

So she gives us 'Spinner's End', a chapter that is carefully crafted to address our doubts through a beautifully written confrontation between Snape and Bellatrix Lestrange. In this scene, Rowling has Bellatrix speak all of our doubts, all of our questions, and requires Snape to answer them.

Why didn't you kill Harry Potter on any one of the hundreds of occasions that you were alone with him at Hogwarts over the years?

Why did you help to thwart the Dark Lord's plans with regard to the Philosopher's Stone, the diary, the Goblet of Fire, the Order of the Phoenix?

Why didn't you fly to Voldemort when he called his Death Eaters to him in the graveyard, when he needed help to obtain the prophesy at the Ministry?

Why are you not providing better information on Dumbledore and the Order?

And many more.

We are thinking these questions. Bellatrix demands answers to them.

It's a brilliant strategy from Rowling. Even though we despise Bella, we find ourselves nodding as she fires question after question at Snape. We have had these doubts too! We wonder about Snape's allegiances as well.

And it's fundamentally necessary, critical in fact, to the effectiveness of the seventh and final book that we never suspect the truth about Severus Snape. We must believe he is a Voldemort disciple for much of the suspense in The Deathly Hallows to work, for the surprise at the end to be effective.

So it is crucial that the explanations Rowling places in Snape's mouth be convincing.

And they are. Snape is witty, and sarcastic, and... honest (we think) both in admitting to his mistakes and asserting his successes. He repeats, over and over again, that Voldemort asked the same questions of him and that Voldemort is satisfied with his answers.

In a wonderful twist on Lupin's we-trust-Dumbledore-so-we-must-trust-Snape motto, Snape himself challenges Bellatrix to say that she believes Voldemort to be mistaken in choosing to accept Snape's answers. Bellatrix, of course, refuses to do so.

In essence, Snape says, 'if you trust Voldemort, you trust me'.

And then, to seal the deal in this amazing chapter, Snape submits to entering into the Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa, a submission that Bellatrix never expected, an action that finally convinces Bellatrix and, in doing so, convinces us.

Rowling has effectively dealt with our doubts about Snape and prepared the way for her own seventh novel: Snape is a Death Eater, Voldemort's most ardent supporter. He has Dumbledore hoodwinked and, when he kills Dumbledore at the end of the sixth book, that final act simply confirms the belief that has been created in this epic second chapter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A clever opening scene

The first chapter of The Half-Blood Prince is, for me, more evidence of the kind of clever, thoughtful writer J.K. Rowling really is.

Coming off what turned out to be the longest novel in the series, she sat down to write THBP facing the challenge of getting across a great deal of information to her reader while not falling into the trap of providing a long, drawn out expository passage with little action to open the novel.

So she created something entirely new, something that very cleverly incorporates small pieces of plot that she had dropped into earlier novels and that her readers probably didn't even notice the first time around.

Rowling created the relationship between the Muggle Prime Minister and the "Other Minister", the Minister of Magic. Drawing most directly from the mention in The Prisoner of Azkaban that the Muggle Prime Minister had been alerted of Sirius Black's escape from the wizard prison, she introduced the sixth book with a fun and funny, but also informative, scene wherein Fudge visits the Prime Minister to explain what has been going on and to introduce, at the end of it, Rufus Scrimgeour, Fudge's replacement as Minister of Magic.

The scene is expressed as a combination of flashback (a clever way for Rowling to recap some of the most significant events of the earlier novels) and conversation, in which a bewildered Muggle Minister tries to figure out his bizarre new guests. It is significant to note that this chapter is told entirely from the point of view of the Muggle -- this gives Rowling the chance to show us clearly how the non-magical world understands (or fails to understand or even acknowledge) the magical world.

Earlier, we encountered Voldemort, Wormtail and Nagini from the point of view of Muggle Frank Bryce in The Goblet of Fire; this scene at the start of THBP is, to my recollection at least, only the second time in which Rowling writes for an extended period from the Muggle point of view.

In 17 short, lively pages, Rowling manages to provide her reader with a great deal of information about all that has taken place since the end of The Order of the Phoenix, including the escape and subsequent recapture of the Death Eaters, the re-emergence of Voldemort, the murder of Amelia Bones and Emmeline Vance, the possible presence of one or more giants in England, the revolt of the Dementors and the attempts by Voldemort to take over the Ministry.

She also makes it clear that the relationship between Dumbledore and Scrimgeour is not particularly comfortable.

It's an awesomely creative scene. It explains both what has happened since the last book ended and how the relationship works between the two governments: muggle and magical. It introduces us to Scrimgeour and tells us that the levels of violence and murder in the books are to rise once again.

And it delivers all of that in a very fast-paced, interesting fashion.

It's a great piece of writing.

And it's followed very quickly by a second great piece of writing: chapter two of THBP, "Spinner's End". More on that in my next entry.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

In praise of the Dale audiobooks

I know I have been quite critical of the Jim Dale audiobooks of the Harry Potter novels. It is usually much easier (and more popular) to find fault in things than it is to praise them and I all too often fall victim to the lure of being critical.

I am now in the middle of book five -- The Order of the Phoenix -- and, despite the faults with Dale's delivery that I have documented in earlier posts to this blog, I am thoroughly enjoying the experience.  He is, overall, an excellent reader and brings the stories to vivid life for me.

During the course of listening to the first four and a half books, I have laughed out loud often and gasped in surprise several times. I have been so enthralled that I have been unable to shut off the CD player, even when I was supposed to be starting my work day and I have found myself taking every opportunity to get back to the story throughout the day.

I find it something of a miracle that, in the two months I have possessed this 124-disc collection, comprising about 153 hours of reading, I have already managed to listen to more than 80 of the discs (representing more than 100 hours). That's just amazing!

One of my favourite aspects of Jim Dale's reading, believe it or not, is the way he vocalises Dobby saying the name "Harry Potter". I cannot even begin to describe it but I think it is absolutely perfect. It makes me smile every time it comes up.

Another aspect of the audiobooks that I particularly like has nothing to do with the recordings themselves -- it's the artwork that decorates the CD cartons. I have not yet been able to discover who the artist or artists is/are but the little drawings are fantastic. They are wonderful visual representations of the characters from the stories that, in my opinion, capture the essence of the Potter books much better than do the films.

I'm not sure if I am allowed to reproduce them for you on this blog but I will try to find them somewhere online for you. They really are pretty wonderful.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Should we call her "Moaning Michaud"?

In my last post, I wrote about how certain names and words have, for me, come to be associated so closely with the Harry Potter books that I cannot encounter them without thinking immediately of my favourite wizard.

What I discovered, again, last night is that there are also certain voices that have a similar effect: when I hear them, I think immediately of the Harry Potter films.

Take the 2013 film, In Secret, for example. I watched it last night on Netflix, drawn I have to admit by the fact that it features Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) as well as Jessica Lange, one of my favourite stars from the 1980s.

Despite the fact that the 19th century costumes in the film reminded me strongly of the Potter world, Felton plays as un-Draco a character as you could possibly find -- a bright, happy, optimistic, somewhat simplistic young man who is remarkably oblivious to the way he is being used and manipulated by just about everyone in his life -- and does an excellent job of it.

But the shock for me came about a half hour into the movie, in a parlour scene in which a large group of people gather to play dominoes (it is a period drama, after all). A nice little interplay develops between a police detective and his wife -- he makes a seemingly banal comment about the game or life or anything and his disgruntled partner responds with a derisive snort or a sharp retort -- and I knew in an instant that the wife, a character by the name of Suzanne Michaud, is played by the same actor who played Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films.

The voice is absolutely distinctive.

A little research online proved me right: Shirley Henderson, Moaning Myrtle from several of the Harry Potter movies, also plays Suzanne Michaud in the later film, In Secret.

I find it quite amazing, actually, that my memory for some of these Potterworld voices is so vivid that I can pick them out of other movies and TV series, even when I don't recognize the actors' faces.

Shirley Henderson, by the way, seems to be quite a talented person, with significant film and television credits as well as contributions to productions in a variety of other ways. I shall watch for her from now on... or perhaps "listen" for her is more accurate!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Discovering another diadem

"Beneath her fingernails, the frost makes billions of tiny diadems and coronas on the slats of the bench, a lattice of dumbfounding complexity."

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, 2014 Scribner

One funny way that Joanne Rowling and the Harry Potter books have affected me is in introducing me to words and names in the English language, words and names of which I had never before heard nor read, words and names that now jump at me from the page when I encounter them in my daily life.

It's quite wonderful, really, for me. I already had a decent education in English Literature and the history of Western Europe and North America, through university and into grad school, and my career as a journalist and then a lawyer had exposed me to all kinds of different areas of study, of expertise, of knowledge. So my vocabulary was already pretty good.

That's why it is such a thrill for me to find an author who can expand my knowledge base even further, who can introduce me to names and words and phrases that I had never before encountered.

Rowling is one of those people. And so is Anthony Doerr.

"Diadem" was completely new to me when I first read of the Diadem of Ravenclaw in the Harry Potter books. I had to look it up in a dictionary to find out what it meant.

The second context in which I have found that word, lying like a gleaming jewel in the grass, is in Doerr's novel All The Light We Cannot See. And, amazingly enough, it is from the point of view of a blind character, Marie-Laure, that Doerr presents the word which, for me, has come to convey a sense of dazzling beauty.

"Hermione" is another such word, a name of which I had never heard until a buck-toothed, frizzy-haired little brainiac walked into my life in The Philosopher's Stone. I have already written about my later encounter with another Hermione in another context.

I wonder how long this will continue to happen to me. When I am 90, will I stumble across "diadem" in yet another book and be immediately transported into Rowling's magical world yet again?

For me, some words and names are Rowling's property -- she introduced me to them, she made me cherish them. Anyone else who uses them is merely borrowing them from Harry Potter.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Just what does "a few" mean?

A little thing. A little, tiny, nit-picky little question about a scene in The Goblet of Fire that turns on how we might interpret the word "few".

About three-quarters of the way through the book, in a chapter called "The Egg and the Eye", Harry attempts to return to the Gryffindor Common Room after a late-night visit to the Prefects' Bathroom when he becomes trapped on a staircase, his leg caught in the trick step that often catches Neville. He drops the slippery Tri-Wizard Egg, which promptly tumbles down the stairs and breaks open, its loud wail attracting the attention first of Filch, then of Snape and finally of Crouch/Moody.

Harry is hidden beneath his invisibility cloak but still is in real danger of being caught out of bed.

I've already written some time ago about Harry's surprising failure to use the summoning charm "Accio" to recover the egg as soon as he lost his hold on it. After all, he had so recently learned "Accio" and used it to such great effect in the first task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament.

That aside, there seems to be a little bit of a miscalculation of distances on the part of the author in this scene. A miscalculation the editors missed as well.

Remember the scene: Harry is half-way down the stair case, invisible but trapped. He has dropped the egg, which tumbled down to the corridor below and broken open. He has also dropped the Marauders' Map, still active, and it too has floated down the stairs.

1. Rowling tells us, in fact, that the Map "slid down six stairs" from where Harry stood, trapped.

2. When Filch arrives, he finds the egg and immediately starts to climb the stairs toward the invisible but trapped Harry. Rowling tells us that "Filch stopped a few steps below Harry" when Snape arrived.

3. Despite the fact that Filch is only "a few" steps away from Harry, he does not see the Map, which we know is six stairs below Harry. Apparently, for Rowling, "a few" is more than "six".

I'll stop right there for a second. I don't agree that "a few" means more than "six". When I read the phrase "a few", I think three to five. A few is more than "a couple" which is, by definition, two. But "a few" is also intended to suggest, in my opinion, "not many". You don't use "a few" when you mean "many". And more than six is "many".

4. Snape arrives and he too climbs the stairs, stopping beside Filch and, therefore, "a few" steps from Harry. He does not see the Map either. I think this is significant. Okay, it might be dark on the staircase so the Map could be only "a few" steps above Filch and Snape and they would not see it.

5. When Moody arrives, he remains at the foot of the stairs. Even from there, however, he is able to see the Map lying on the stair. He points it out to Snape and Filch. Snape and Filch turn and see it behind them. Snape has to reach out for it, leaving enough time for Moody to recognize Harry's warning and summon the Map to himself.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if the Map is six steps below Harry and neither Filch nor Snape see it before Moody arrives, then Filch and Snape must be at least seven and probably more like 10 to 15 steps away from Harry. That's not, in my opinion, just "a few" steps away.

Just after Moody points out the Map, Rowling writes, "Snape stretched out his hands like a blind man, and began to move up the stairs... Harry leant backwards, trying to avoid Snape's fingertips, but any moment now --"

By my calculations, for Snape to get close enough to Harry to force Harry to lean back to avoid Snape's fingertips, Snape must get to within say three steps of Harry. So he must climb at least four steps and probably between 10 and 12 steps to get within striking distance of the boy before Moody stops him.

I've gotten myself quite confused as I write this but my point is, I think the editors missed something when they reviewed this scene. The use of the term "a few" is misleading and confusing. Rowling uses it to increase tension -- the bad guys are very close to our hero -- but it creates problems for the rest of the scene.

And, yes, this entire entry is proof positive that I have read the Harry Potter books way too many times and have started to focus on details that are, truly, much too trivial to worry about.