Monday, September 28, 2015

Those are some pipes!

Question: How big are the pipes that inhabit the walls of Hogwarts Castle?

Seriously, what is their diameter?

I'm currently re-reading The Chamber of Secrets (in French) and it has occurred to me that I have always simply taken it for granted that the Basilisk that lives in the Chamber makes its way around the school through the pipes, as Hermione deduces.

But think about it. That great big snake is described in the climactic scene of the novel as being massive. Fawkes, a fairly good-sized bird, flies around its head in an effort to blind it. Harry battles it with the Sword of Gryffindor, a pretty fair sized weapon in its own right, and kills it by thrusting this sword into the Basilisk's head.

That means that the pipes through which it travels must be fairly large themselves. Huge, in fact.

Does that make sense? Don't pipes need to be large enough to perform their function but small enough to fit within walls and floors, to keep the water that passes through them under enough pressure to be useful?

I don't know what the answer is. Maybe the Basilisk can make itself very long and thin. Or maybe the pipes really are ridiculously large.

But it seems strange to me, that's all.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Getting to know Jo

A Preface to this Entry: I read over some of my recent posts and realized that, if you just read those entries, you might come away feeling like I have a problem with J.K. Rowling. I spend an awful lot of time trying to find mistakes in her work, contradictions in her public statements. I must really hate her. I wrote this latest entry, at least in part, to refute that impression. Jo herself admits in an early interview that, while she didn't expect the Harry Potter books to become so massively popular, she did have hopes when she sent the first novel to the publisher that a small group of nerds would fall in love with and marvel in the incredible detail in the books. Well, Jo, I'm one of those nerds. And I love the detail. So much so that I glory in both its triumphs and its failures.

All of that said, on with my latest blog entry.

I've been watching a lot of video lately. Video of J.K. Rowling... of "Jo Rowling", as she is constantly reminding people... and I have to say: I've come away very impressed.

Sure, we all know what a wonderful and talented writer she is. After all, I'm writing and you are reading this blog because we love a certain seven-book series Jo wrote about a young orphan wizard named Harry Potter.

But, as I watched interview after interview in my quest to understand the whole Voldemort pronunciation question, I became more and more impressed with Jo Rowling as a person. I watched dozen of interviews spanning the decade and a half between the publication of The Philosopher's Stone and the release of the final film and there were a number of things about how she came across in her dealings with the media that left me rather in awe.

First, she is invariably polite and diplomatic while still standing her ground. Wait, when I read that sentence again, I realize I have named three somewhat different qualities so I will deal with each of them in order.

First, Jo is polite. She listens to the question being posed, she treats it and the person asking it with respect and she does her best to answer the question honestly, even when the question is stupid, invasive, inappropriate. She must have been asked the same questions hundreds of times and yet she answers them each time as if they were new and interesting. When she faces interviewers who seem to be in love with their own voices, she lets them prattle on rather than interrupting.

Second, she is diplomatic. I have seen interviewers try to tie her up in knots, upset her, catch her out and, in every case, she responds calmly and with a level of diplomacy that would do well in world politics. I have witnessed numerous journalists ask her blunt questions about her wealth -- questions which I consider to be horridly inappropriate and somewhat tasteless -- and she invariably provides an interesting, often funny answer that manages to point out the impropriety of the question without directly insulting the interviewer.

Third, she stands her ground. This ties in with "Fifth" below. Jo Rowling proves again and again that, when presented with a situation that she feels is problematic (especially when it involves children) she will speak out. Diplomatically, of course, but still strongly. One striking example of this came when she was speaking at the NY Press Club (I think that's when it was) and the moderator was reading to her questions from children in the audience. The moderator made some disparaging remark about one question and Rowling immediately challenged him on it and obtained an apology. In another interview, she was talking about the "begging" letters she receives from people and she made it very clear 1) that she cannot respond to such all or even many of such requests and 2) that some of them are completely ridiculous, like the woman who asked Jo to pay her a regular stipend so that she and her husband could attend the theatre.

Fourth, she clearly delights in being among children, whom she respects and admires as much as, if not more than, most adults. She appears to have infinite patience for young people and never shies away from nor disrespects their questions. In fact, she says on more than one occasion that children ask the best questions and she takes great care to respond honestly and openly to them. I was struck in particular by how often she remembers details about children whom she's encountered (in person or through the mail) in her promotional tours.

Fifth, she has a strong moral core. She is clear as to what she believes is right and wrong. As I said, this ties in with standing her ground. She is also very clear as to how much she loves her creation and how hard she will work to protect her characters and their world.

Sixth, she is humble. This is a person who has sold more books than anyone, who is famous around the world and who is as rich as rich can be, yet she doesn't seem to have allowed it all to go to her head. She recognizes that, when it comes down to it, she wrote a book. She wrote it well and she believed in it. But then outside forces took over. I didn't see a single instance where it appeared she was suggesting that she is a better writer than everyone else, or that she's smarter or harder working or more capable. She simply does her best and accepts (sometimes with awe) the results.

Seventh, she is smart. Her intelligence comes through in every interview. Not forcefully, not in an obnoxious, aggressive, I'm-smarter-than-you way. But it is clear, when you watch and listen to her, that Jo Rowling is a very well-educated, thoughtful and intelligent person. And that intelligence informs everything she says and does.

As I said, I've come away impressed. Sure, her wealth and fame have had an impact on her -- it would be ridiculous to think they wouldn't. But these basic aspects of her character appear to remain unchanged by her success. And that's something I can really respect.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jo, you really should watch yourself (or at least listen)

If you have had enough of the Voldemort pronunciation issue, you may want to move on. Because I'm talking about it again.

The whole question arose, according to CNN, when one tweeter tweeted “the "t" is silent in Voldemort, according to @jk_rowling” and Jo tweeted back “but I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who pronounces it that way.”

One clever responder immediately pointed out that actor Jim Dale also pronounced Voldermort without the "t" in the audio books of the first two novels. Then, of course, he saw the movies and immediately starting saying "Vole-de-morte".

Since, however, I am a bit of a detail nerd, I decided to check to see if Jo Rowling really has always pronounced Voldemort with a silent "t". I headed to the internet and started watching as many of the interviews with the author as I could find.

The first thing that struck me, to be honest, was how seldom (if ever) she actually says the name at all. I watched interview after interview and, while she mentions Harry, Hermione, and Ron quite often, I still haven't found an interview in which she mentions the Dark Lord by his chosen name.

Is it possible that even J.K. Rowling has "fear of the name"?

That being said, I then decided a better approach might be to review videos of Rowling reading from the books themselves. Even if she avoids saying "Voldemort" when she is just chatting, there was no way she would bleep out his name when reading from a novel.

That's when I came across this video on Youtube. It's Jo reading the first chapter of The Deathly Hallows on the evening of the book's release. She is at the British Museum, reading to a huge crowd of children.

It's the perfect passage to test our question. After all, the entire first chapter of seventh novel involves Voldemort and his most trusted Death Eaters discussing plans to ambush Harry Potter.

And, as she reads her way through Chapter 1, Rowling says "Voldemort" with a very distinct "t" sound on the end. "Vole - de - morte".

Hmmm..... The person who claims to be the only person who pronounces Voldemort with a silent "t" actually pronounces the name with quite a strong "t" sound at the end. At least on this particular occasion.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fly from Death? Steal from Death?

I am still brooding over the question of how to pronounce the Dark Lord's chosen name: Voldemort.

I will accept as a basic assumption J.K. Rowling's assertion that the name should be pronounced as a French word with no "t" sound at the end.

That makes sense to me. I can't say I was smart enough to catch it when I first read the books -- I have called him "Vole-de-morte" in my head from the beginning -- but it makes sense to me now.

But, as I asked several posts ago, now that we have the pronunciation of the last syllable of the name correct, how do we pronounce the first syllable?

I pointed out that there seem to be two options for that first syllable (and that each option has been used in the films by different characters): "Vole", with a long "o" sound, and "Vol", with an "a" sound to rhyme with "ball" or "tall" or "call".

I prefer the former, personally, but which is correct?

Jo says it's a French word and should be pronounced as a French person would.

So I spoke to a colleague of mine who is both a native French speaker (born and raised in France) and a big Harry Potter fan.

Interesting conversation.

First, she said that, because she is French, she pronounces the name "Vole-de-more".

Perfect. Question answered. Proper pronunciation established.

Then she said she had never noticed that, in the movies, the name's last syllable was always pronounced "morte" and its first syllable was sometimes pronounced "Vall" and sometimes "Vole". She simply heard it pronounced the way she would say it herself.


We then talked about what the name means in French. If you break it down into its three syllables, you will find that it is made up of three French words:

"vol", which can mean either to "steal" or to "fly";
"de", which means "from" or "of"; and
"mort", which means to "die" or "death".

Wow. My friend had never thought that through. "She's brilliant, isn't she?" she said with a smile, thinking of how carefully J.K. had developed the name.

I would have to agree. The Dark Lord's chosen name means either "fly from death" or "steal from death".

And that's exactly what he has attempted to do throughout his entire life: to escape death, to cheat death, to steal from death.

And that's exactly what the Deathly Hallows are about, aren't they:

The Cloak is meant to allow its bearer to escape Death;
The Stone is meant to allow its bearer to steal from Death (by bringing people back); and
The Wand is meant to allow its bearer to defeat/cheat Death.

Cool cool cool. So cool, it's almost scary.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mispronunciation mortification

How do you pronounce the Dark Lord's adopted name?

Do you say Vole-de-morte (with the "t" pronounced)?

Or Vole-de-more (no "t")?

Apparently, J.K. Rowling has now announced that the proper pronunciation is the latter: more, not morte.

She has also said that she might be the only one on earth who actually gets it right but, to be honest, I expect that every French speaking person in the world pronounces "mort" as we English speakers would pronounce "more".

And, of course, Jim Dale uses the no "t" pronunciation in his readings of at least the first two novels in the audiobook versions. It would seem that, after the first couple of movies came out, which probably make the hard "t" version popular, Dale felt compelled to follow the crowd and say "morte".

I hate to admit it (especially now that Jo has said it's wrong) but I tend to say "Vole-de-morte" when I mention his name (or, in my head, when I read it). Oh well, I can't be right all the time.

And I am quite tempted to call up every video interview with J.K. that's available online to see if she really does (or did) use the no "t" pronunciation.

With the "more"/"morte" pronunciation question finally clarified, I have to ask: Do you pronounce the first syllable with a long or short "o" sound: Vole or Vol?

Maybe it's questions like these that are the real reason we should call him "You Know Who" or "He Who Must Not Be Named" or "the Dark Lord"! Because nobody really knows how to say his adopted name!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Personal sacrifice, personal loss: Who suffered most?

A friend, who is also a bit of a Harry Potter fan, sent me this captioned picture today and it got me thinking: of all the characters in the Rowling world who themselves survived the entire situation, which one would you say suffered most as a result of the Voldemort's rise to power and the war to defeat him?

The caption would suggest that Hermione made the greatest sacrifice and I might be willing consider this possibility (that Hermione made the greatest sacrifice of all by erasing herself from her parents’ memories) if it weren’t reversible.

But she can reverse it.

What cannot be reversed are the Weasley family’s losses (one son dead, two sons injured), nor the losses suffered by Mrs. Tonks (her husband [Ted Tonks], daughter [Nymphadora Tonks], son-in-law [Remus Lupin] and sister [Bellatrix Lestrange] were all killed, leaving her alone with a half-werewolf grandson). 

And you have to figure that Hermione and Ron set out for Australia fairly soon after the war ended with Voldemort’s death to track down her parents, reverse the obliviate spells she cast on them and remind them who she is!

Note, in Chapter five (the last chapter I’ve finished) of The Way Forward, my fan fiction post-Deathly Hallows novel, I make it clear that Hermione and Ron go to Australia to retrieve her parents!

I will have to take some more time to think about this question as I am sure there are a whole cast of characters, minor or major, who suffered great losses as a result of the events of the Rowling books.

The "club-house leader" is Mrs. Tonks, by the way. But is there someone out there who sacrificed more?

Explanations and Rowling's writing prowess

I have been re-reading the first Harry Potter novel in French. As I think I've mentioned on several occasions in the past, I have found that reading the books in French or listening to them in their audiobook format really helps me notice things that I miss when I read them in English.

Well, it's happened again.

As I read the confrontation between Harry and Quirrell/Voldemort at the climax of Harry Potter a l'ecole des sorciers, I was struck by how expertly J.K. Rowling handles a common problem faced by writers of mysteries and thrillers: how do you provide the reader with greatly needed background information and explanations as to certain plot points while keeping the action moving and suspense building?

The challenge is all too common. As an author, you lead your reader through a complex, fast-paced plot, filled with twists and turns, and then you arrive at the moment of discovery, the instant where all things hidden come to light. How do you explain to your reader how the resolution fits in with all of the various twists and turns from earlier in the novel without losing the sense of urgency required to carry the novel to its completion?

And, in some cases, how do you make it realistic that the villain, now discovered, will be willing to divulge all this information to the protagonist?

Anyone who has read mysteries and thrillers, or who has even watched these genres on television, has probably experienced dozens of examples where this explanation challenge defeats the writer. How many times have you encountered a climactic scene where the hero says something like, "But, how did you...?" and the villain says, "Well, since you are about to die, I'll tell you..." or "Since I am now caught and have nothing to lose, I'll explain everything to you."

If you watch "Foyle's War" at all, you've seen numerous episodes that end with the bad guy willingly explaining to our favourite Deputy Chief Superintendent what he did and how he did it, once it's clear that he has been caught. It's one of the few true flaws in what is otherwise an excellent and entertaining show. The writers got lazy.

In other cases, the writer simply has the hero explain everything to a minor character in the denouement:

Watson: "But Holmes, I don't understand how Moriarity managed to accomplish this!"

Holmes: "Elementary, my dear Watson. He bought a ticket on the 8 o'clock train but stowed away on the 7 o'clock train so that he could arrive an hour earlier and commit the crime at 7:30, with his alibi tucked safely in his pocket."

Watson: "But that doesn't explain how he got his hands on the poor victim's letter opener!"

Holmes: "I think you'll find that there were two identical letter openers at play here..."

Etc. etc.

In simple terms, it is a key component of mysteries and thrillers that things happen throughout the plot that go unexplained but either provide clues to the identity of the villain or serve to obscure his identity. In order for the story to be satisfying to the reader/viewer, these unexplained things must finally be explained in a manner that supports the resolution of the mystery.

Yes, that's a very long lead up to what I want to say about Jo and her first novel. Sorry. But I did enjoy writing it, to be honest.

What I find so impressive about Rowling is the fact that, in her very first novel, she found an interesting and exciting way to explain the unexplained that actually serves to heighten rather than undermine the tension of the climactic scene.

How does she do it?

By making the explanations a part of the suspense. Harry is trapped in the room with Quirrell/Voldemort and the Mirror of Erised, desperate to keep Q/V distracted so that they cannot find the Philosopher's Stone before help arrives to save the day. So Harry asks for explanations. He asks point for point about every key event in the story about which he (and the reader) needs more information.

Isn't it Snape who is trying to get the Stone? Why did Snape try to kill me in the Quidditch match? Why did Snape want to referee the second match? Who let in the troll at Hallowe'en? Why was Snape on the third floor rather than helping to deal with the troll? Why was Snape threatening you in the forest? Weren't you talking to Snape in the classroom when you finally gave in?

And he got his answers. Delivered by a Q/V in an offhand way as he tried to figure out how to get the Stone out of the Mirror.

We, the reader, were caught up in the suspense and fully engaged with Harry in his attempt to keep Q/V from working out how to get the Stone. The questions and answers not only did not undermine the tension of the scene: they were actually part of the build up of suspense.


I have often said that book seven is my favourite of the Harry Potter novels, with book three close behind.

But, when I think about which book is the greatest accomplishment for Rowling as a writer, I have to say it must be Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Despite the fact that it represents the first novel she ever wrote, it is a virtual masterpiece of writing. In it, she handles with seeming ease challenges that have defeated much more experienced writers.

Including the problem of providing explanations without undermining suspense.