Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

half 1Onward with the script catch-up on Harry Potter from the Really Like This Book podcasts! Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, begins with Dumbledore coming to fetch Harry from the Dursleys, and seeing for himself how awful Harry’s life is there. We see that Dumbledore’s opinions are the standard for normal human relations: he remarks on the Dursleys’ failure in normal social courtesies, and his influence on Dudley – the last time Harry sees his cousin – is remarkable. It opens the door for the what-might-have-been of their relationship, so I’m now wondering what happened afterwards, when the series ended. Did Dudley and Harry ever have to have anything to do with each other again?

So, off Dumbledore and Harry go, to visit the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Horace Slughorn. Slughorn represents networking oneupmanship and namedropping. His little parties and gatherings for favoured students are a rather sad imitation of the brief meetings that Lupin used to have with Harry, or with Hermione and Ron at Hagrid’s hut. They show the students learning to negotiate adult entrapments of flattery – rather like what Rita Skeeter tried on Harry – by being encouraged to use their less admirable characteristics. And we also see that not being selected by Slughorn breeds jealousy, which makes sense coming from a Slytherin teacher. Slughorn’s parties are an excellent lesson in how deviousness can manipulate human nature. I do like it that Slughorn is not a bad person, he’s just … Slytherin, a beautifully nuanced character that shows what proper straightforward Slytherin should be, unlike Snape.

half 2The teenage hormones are still going strong at Hogwarts, and this is the novel in which Harry finally, FINALLY realises that Ginny is The One. She’s a tremendous character in this novel, all fire and accurate determination, and not a drip, like Cho. I was very happy that Tonks finally made Lupin see sense about him not being too old and too much of a werewolf to marry her. He’s far too noble, and far too crushed by being an outcast, so he really needed to be told to snap out of it.  Heaven knows we need some cheerfulness in this novel, so much dark stuff is coming up. The tensions around Bill and Fleur’s impending wedding are very enjoyable, and made me wonder – as did the funeral at the end – how Rowling managed to do away with the human need for religion in these novels. There is no god of any kind, since magic is not a religion. There is no paganism, no nature-worship, no sense that a supernatural being or beings are interfering with human affairs. In The Half-Blood Prince Hermione and Ron occasionally say ‘oh my God’, but these outbursts are very rare. They make sense coming from Hermione, but not from thoroughly wizarding Ron, unless he’s borrowing Dean Thomas’s vocabulary. So without religion, what does the wizarding world have as a deity replacement? When we visit Godric’s Hollow in the Deathly Hallows we see that wizards live in a Muggle village that has a church, and Christmas carols are known to wizards as much as they are to Muggles: Sirius was singing them in the Order of the Phoenix, and Christmas happens to wizards all the way through the series. So are wizards Christian? Or Muslim? Was Viktor Krum, a Bulgarian, Russian Orthodox? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be, in the novels, but very wisely Rowling doesn’t even go there, because the answer doesn’t affect the story.

half 3The elephant in the room for this novel is – and please do stop reading now if you really don’t want a spoiler – that Dumbledore is killed by Snape. We don’t see it coming, although in hindsight of course we do, but when it happens, it is, oddly reassuringly, a planned operation: Dumbledore wants Snape to do it. And of course we are all going ‘WHAT? Why did Dumbledore want him to do it?’ This need to understand takes away the grief some readers might feel, since Dumbledore, though a bit less perfect by now than he was at the beginning of the series, is a much-loved character. The suggestion that his killing was a plan, it was meant, also suggests that it might not be real, that he might come back. And of course he does, in the way that all Headmasters don’t ever go away. But the effect of Dumbledore’s death on Harry is to set him free from being told what to do, and to force him to think for himself and work out the torturous clues that have been planted throughout this novel, and in some of the earlier ones. The Half-Blood Prince is the first time we begin to see the results of the colossal planning that Rowling did to structure her series, an immense job of joined-up plotting.

half 4However, there are some wobbly bits. The business with the cave and the locket and the zombie-Inferi in the water, all that seems rather pointless. The importance of this episode is pointed out several times in this novel and in the Deathly Hallows, so obviously it’s a crucial moment, but somehow its positioning in this novel, or the way it’s told, does not produce a bang. It feels like a distraction.

Similarly, the Draco Malfoy subplot, and his mission from Voldemort, is under-handled. Rowling’s purpose in making Malfoy a Death-Eater is important for what he and his family do and are at the end of the Deathly Hallows, so it’s necessary to lay the trail heavily here. Malfoy, who may be good at magic but is otherwise a cowardly and unimpressive individual, is taken on by Voldemort, not as one of his seriously powerful dark wizard henchpersons, but as the kind of expendable victim that he gets through so fast. Malfoy was his disposable tool, since he is worthless in most other ways, and is needed to keep Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy more closely bound to Voldemort’s cause. That would make sense for Rowling’s plot purposes, but not for Voldemort’s plan for world domination. At the end of the Deathly Hallows, the next and last novel, the Malfoys represent the power of love being present even in the most horrible of personalities, so, in The Half-Blood Prince, we need to have the situation established that will prove their love. It must also show how vile Voldemort is that he will manipulate them and exploit them for that love. Draco is a tool to be corrupted, but the problem at this point in the series is that we simply don’t understand how he could have been accepted by Voldemort, and so his mission seems implausible, in terms of how people behave.

half 5The episode in which Snape agrees to make the Unbreakable Vow for Narcissa, on the other hand, is a genius bit of plotting, which we only understand at the very end of the Deathly Hallows. Here is the logic: (1) making the Vow to Narcissa, that he will take over Draco’s task if Draco can’t do it, doesn’t put Snape in any danger, since he has already agreed with Dumbledore that he will kill him before the cursed ring has its effect. So he doesn’t lose anything by making the Vow. (2) The act of making the Vow reinforces his commitment to the Death-Eaters as far as Bellatrix is concerned, and possibly also for Voldemort. (3) It puts Narcissa and Lucius in his debt – always a useful thing. (4) I think the most important thing about the Vow is that it shows the reader that Narcissa, although not at all a sympathetic character heretofore, is a mother who loves her son, and I mean really loves him. She doesn’t love him for the chances she will gain through him, or for the glory he will achieve, which you might expect from a Slytherin. She love Draco for himself and for his safety, and that is a remarkable bit of character writing.

half 7I was horribly confused by the Horcruxes. Rowling’s plotting went into overdrive here, because – again – she really needed the whole principle of the Horcruxes to be understood by the readers in this novel, in preparation for the Deathly Hallows. Harry works so hard at these puzzles, but, I have to say, he is not the wizarding world’s most deep thinker. He is superb on intuition, and good at making connections out of nowhere, but he is rubbish at deduction, perseverance, logic, and avoiding distraction. I do like Harry very much, he’s a very engaging character and a pleasure to follow through these adventures, but he doesn’t THINK as much as FEEL. He is a brilliant empath, and so we all love him, but my goodness he is irritating when he doesn’t understand how to work out complicated puzzles set up by the most brilliant wizards of the century. Watching his struggles makes us feel for him even more: another fine piece of readerly manipulation by J K Rowling.

Next time, book 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Order 1Like The Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is gigantic. It’s also deeply troubled, a novel of so many things going wrong. It’s a novel in which fantasies about the struggle for the universe taking place in your school – the stuff of so many films – begin to come true, where classrooms and corridors become a battlefield. The infiltration of evil has of course begun in the Ministry of Magic, in the person of the thoroughly horrible Dolores Umbridge (another good name; ‘Dolores’ has connotations of misery). She was present at Harry’s trial for performing magic in the holidays, she admitted that she sent the Dementors to attack him, she tortures students for pleasure with her lines-writing pen, she performed the Cruciatus Curse on Neville –  I really don’t understand why she wasn’t arrested for that – and she is a trivial meddler and power-grabbing nonentity, a malicious and vicious little person, and a bigot to boot. It’s hard to think of any character deficiency or moral failing that Umbridge has not got. We are not supposed to like her one little bit, so she is a cartoon monster representing injustice, a monstrous failure inside the Ministry of Magic, a symbol of the rot that is sitting there at its heart. It’s a little unfortunate that she also represents schools inspection, a perfectly reasonable and necessary process that all schools need to make sure they’re doing their job and teaching what the children need. Deciding what education needs is one thing, inspecting and observing is another: they ought not to be combined, so Umbridge is an example of power gone mad in this respect.

Order 2Another thing that isn’t going well is Dumbledore’s total failure to communicate to Harry. He tells all at the end of the novel, and at the end of the series, so we will know why in time, but I think this novel has the highest number of episodes in which Harry needs to know something crucial, but he isn’t told or can’t find out (or doesn’t ask), and so something bad happens. The worst thing of all is Sirius dying, but also pretty bad are seeing Sirius’s pent-up energies going bad in dangerous recklessness. Harry not knowing Kreacher’s unspoken orders and information is frustrating. Harry not knowing that Snape is doing what he’s doing is because he is supporting Dumbledore, as well as because of his deeply hidden backstory, makes a huge difference to how Harry’s loathing of Snape causes him to make dangerous assumptions. It’s all very dark.

Order 3The novel begins with an overload of terror, injustice, attempted murder and total incomprehension. One of the early bright spots is the night-time flight with Harry’s protectors in the Order of the Phoenix, an escape from the Dursleys to a rather grubby and noisy sanctuary, but one so full of weird magic that we haven’t encountered yet that it’s like a second whole new world.  I can understand why Harry spends a lot of time shouting at people for not letting him know what is going on, but you’d think he could be interested in the here and now of Grimmauld Place rather than erupting with ego and hormones. This novel’s Harry is not my favourite Harry: he’s too aggressive (with good reason), too impatient, doesn’t take care of the details, and makes too many mistakes.

Order 6Another bright spot is Aunt Petunia admitting that she knows more about the magical world than she has ever admitted, so that finally Harry is not totally misunderstood in Little Whinging, just totally resented. In The Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series, we find out that Petunia actually applied to go to Hogwarts herself but wasn’t allowed, which explains everything about her attitude to magic, and her furious refusal to have anything to do with a world that won’t let her play. The dots are beginning to join up.  It’s also pretty heartening in The Order of the Phoenix that Harry is answering back to the Dursleys more, standing up for himself more than he did as a younger, more ignorant boy. Then there is the revelation of Mrs Figg being a Squib, a secret observer in Harry’s neighbourhood about whom the Ministry know nothing. I love the Thestrals, invisible flying horses that only those who have seen death can see, and I really like Luna Lovegood, a character with real strength and purpose, and unbreakable self-esteem.

Order 4
the Danish cover design: a pretty good one

So what is this novel about? As well as communication, it’s also about accepting responsibility. Umbridge grabbed all the responsibility she could find, and made a total mess of it. Most of the teachers have all the responsibility they need, and manage it perfectly well, because they restrict their activities to their natural and proper sphere. The most unexpected new responsibility Dumbledore has is to be Harry’s lawyer. It’s the effect of the Ministry: as soon as they dislike something, they pass a law, so Dumbledore needs to keep up with the changing regulations and be in the right place to defend Harry when he’d needed. It’s very important to have a good lawyer if you’re perpetually in trouble with the authorities.

Harry is presented with vast responsibilities that he manages to cope with, some much more impressively than others. I really cannot be bothered with his infatuation with Cho, she’s in as much of an emotional mess as he is, so she was never going to be any good for him. He needs someone who will stand up to him reliably, not be a needy puddle of tears. Taking on the responsibility for training his friends in Defence against the Dark Arts is an excellent way to show how much Harry knows, what a good teacher he is, and how he can pass on the spells that his friends can work with. Teaching what he knows also calms the hotheads down, gives them something to use that will stop them feeling scared, and might make them feel effective. It’s a great confidence booster, but it is still a responsibility: the teacher has to acknowledge the mistakes he makes in class and has to live with their results.

The more I see f these drippy pastel covers, the less I like them. Inappropriately light for the content.
The more I see of these drippy pastel covers, the less I like them. Inappropriately light for the content.

There is a great deal to enjoy in the Order of the Phoenix. Fred and George do some stupendously good magic, and there are many, many jokes to take you by surprise. There is a lot of satisfaction: Harry doing a quite good Potions exam, for instance, which shows how important bullying and vindictiveness are in preventing people learn, or perform. Fred and George’s gift of an indoor swamp to the school is very pleasing, and Hagrid’s expectation that Harry and Hermione will be able to teach a young giant English and look after his food and entertainment is so jaw-droppingly outrageous that it just makes you laugh – a perfectly timed release of tension in a very tense part of the novel. Apropos of the heroes’ reaction to this tearful request of Hagrid’s, and what Ron said about it later, I do think Rowling did an excellent job of keeping the dialogue slang-free, in all the novels. Almost none of the dialogue in these books has dated, over fifteen years later.

Harry and Sirius’s joy at being together – when they’re not shouting at other people or each other – is rich and warm and very cockle-warming. It’s the father-son relationship neither of them ever had, which makes the novel doubly tragic when Sirius falls behind the curtain. The way Rowling writes about Harry’s grief, the blank wall of loss that won’t shift, and his fury and misery, are all perfectly true. Like seeing a Thestral, you know how well grief is written if you’ve already been bereaved. There is so much turbulence in this novel, so many emotions and screaming furious capital letters on so many pages: it’s a sign of the perfect control Rowling had over her writing, and over the development of the series, that she was able to manage the emotional temperature of this novel – the fifth one, two to go –  so well as part of a series, as well as a novel in its own right. Her techniques are sometimes obvious, like the regular fuelling of the emotional temperature, and the narrative pattern of tension and release, and sometimes they are not obvious at all. It’s so interesting that she has no identifiable style, no look-at-me literary twirls and curtsies that will distinguish her writing from any other novelist in this line of work, because the bigger picture, the whole Harry Potter series, is what we remember, not how the story is told.

[This is the fifth Harry Potter post, tarted up from a podcast formerly known as Really Like This Book: search on this site for the other four, and the remaining two will be coming along in the next two weeks.]

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

CharnockAnne Charnock must have been SO ANNOYED when Ali Smith’s prize-winning, multiply lauded novel How to be both hit the bookshelves in 2014. This is because her own novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, published on 1 December, shares the same central, unusual conceit, of a medieval Italian artist who has to struggle against the rules about women to succeed and be fulfilled as a painter.  Smith’s novel also shares Charnock’s idea of telling the story through parallel narratives set in the present-day and in historical mode: oh, the irritation … This past twelve months, while Charnock completed her novel, had it accepted, and saw it through production, must have required sustained self-confidence in her right to tell the story she had first thought of, even though someone else had had the same idea just a little bit earlier. I’m impressed also that 47North, her publisher, had the confidence in Charnock as a writer to keep going with Plan A and not demand that she rewrote the story with aliens or a Palaeolithic setting. (47North is an imprint for science fiction, acquired by Amazon in 2011.)

Now that we’ve ushered the elephant out of the room, let’s talk about Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. It’s very good, no question. I’ve not read Charnock’s first novel, A Calculated Life, which was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for a debut novel in speculative fiction, but now I really want to (shame on you, Forbidden Planet, for not having it in stock when I looked last week). However, I don’t think Sleeping Embers is going to be shortlisted for many prizes because it combines science fiction and historical fiction in a way that will probably not be acceptable to the bookselling and prize-winning niches that we are expected to adhere to in our reading tastes. She uses three parallel strands of narrative to tell the story of women and men who slip out of memory, and how their memory is maintained. One is in fifteenth-century Italy, where the great artist Uccello finds a way to let his most talented child Antonia remain an artist in a society in which women must get married, to a man or to Christ. The second is in the present day, in which the teenage Toni is layering memories and new experiences in embroidery and art history to stop remembering her mother’s death. The third is set in the 22nd century where art historian Toniah is finding ways to make her own life by leaving her institutionalised job and her parthogenetic household.

Antonia Uccello, by Paolo Uccello
Antonia Uccello, by Paolo Uccello

The three names are similar, but they don’t connect: there is no link between these characters in blood, only in the ideas they have, and by Toni and Toniah finding out about Antonia Uccello’s forgotten and hidden life and art. The connections between the three narratives are linked by the theme of unfinished or untold lives. Antonia slips out of her family into a convent’s seclusion, and nearly kills herself painting. Toni and her father find the wartime grave of her forgotten great-great uncle whom her mother never knew. Toniah and her sister Poppy track down their mother’s oldest friend to ask about the small boy in the photo on their mother’s lap. He is another dead uncle, and another life only traceable because someone took his picture.

The strongest aspect of Sleeping Embers is how it uses art to give people’s lives meaning and justification, as well as to connect them to the families which have lost them. Sleeping Embers is really three intertwining novellas with a lot to say about what we leave behind us. The few science-fiction details in Toniah’s story are beautifully handled: parthogenesis as an expensive, new but socially acceptable way of having children; old people in rest homes can buy avatars to replay their memories to keep them company; and email arrives retinally. They are details that lift the story into the future very effectively. Likewise, Antonia’s story is a work of delicate and detailed historical imagination, beautifully done, compellingly told. If I’d been Charnock’s editor, I’d have suggested keeping those two strong and indelible narratives and ditching Toni’s story, which is rather too much of a lesson on how to read paintings, and not as compellingly relevant to the theme of missing lives. I want to know much more about Toniah’s backstory and future, and why her century isn’t over-crowded or apocalyptic. I also want to read more about Antonia’s manically paint-spattered room and how she fitted into the convent, and for how long. Charnock is an expert novelist, in both genres. I admire her combining the two in Sleeping Embers, and can see the patterns that she wants us to notice. It will be fascinating to see which directions she turns to next.

Anne Charnock, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind (2015, 47North), ISBN 978-1503950436, available in paperback as well as e-book versions.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Goblet 1The first thing to be said about The Goblet of Fire is that it is gigantic. It must be three times as long as the earlier novels, and is very heavy to hold, a book that really depends on good binding. The second thing to be said from this podcast script formerly known as Really Like This Book turned blogpost is that the raging teenage torments I mentioned in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are here in full measure. Puberty, hormones, crushes, great sweeping dives in the pit of one’s stomach: Harry has them all. Ron and Hermione do too, only we don’t get to hear about them so much. The way the boys approach the ordeal of the Yule Ball is a perfectly-observed masterpiece of understanding how teenage boys think, and how gormless they are in facing their first serious mating ritual.  This increased attention for the interior emotions of the leading characters has the effect of reducing even more – for there was hardly any attention paid before –the existence of the older and younger year groups in the school. Individuals swim into and out focus, when they become important, but otherwise the fourth year students at Hogwarts may as well be there on their own.

Goblet 2The passion for Quidditch is part of this, of course: gladiatorial contests between school champions have a lot to do with the sublimation of the emotions, and with freeing up inarticulate feelings. Proving yourself in public in sport reinforces the person’s identity, and demonstrates skills and competences that, as we see, do not look so good in other settings, or when being disgraced by angry teachers. The Triwizard Contest is just a bigger and more exclusive series of character tests through strategic planning and physical action. I found the involvement of the adults in this contest a bit strange – Charlie and colleagues bringing over dragons and so on – because it’s just an inter-school contest, after all. The importance that the adult characters place on things happening to teenagers at school seems extraordinary,  but if we read these events as having adult impact and implications, well, that’s all right then. But it’s a children’s story, I’m forgetting. Or perhaps now, in book 4, it’s a Young Adult novel. Ron’s jealousy is impressively unsettling because it shows how the tight friendship of Harry, Hermione and Ron is not exactly unravelling, but under attack by external forces. Ron’s touchiness because his needs are becoming more important to him than Harry’s safety, and Harry getting grumpy under the stress of being a Goblet of Fire champion, are a beautifully plotted complication.

Goblet 4The mechanics of the story of the Goblet of Fire are outrageously complex, far more than in The Prisoner of Azkaban. I think they’re too complicated, because they creak as they are shoved into position, and some things don’t join up. Why does Mad-Eye Moody suggest to Harry that he might think about becoming an auror – the first piece of sensible advice Harry has been given about life after Hogwarts – if the person actually saying this is an evil Death-Eater liable to be hunted down and captured by aurors? The sheer elaborateness of the fake Moody plot is a waste of time, since if Crouch senior is running the competition, he too could have been in place in the school to set up the Portkey. Bertha Jorkins is a similarly creaking piece of plot, laboriously signposted and warned about so many times, when the reader has known since the first chapter what happened to her and what Voldemort learned from her. This novel needs more editing. I wonder if, at this stage in Rowling’s writing, she was being bogged down with film involvement, dealing with the tidal waves of fan interest, not to mention managing her business affairs and her personal life; being made so busy, in effect, that she did not have the time to focus on this novel as clearly as she could have done. Her publishers also have some responsibility, but it would take a brave editor to slow things down with requests for just one more rewrite, with publication dates set in stone that a world of fans were demanding.

Goblet 5Bertha Jorkins, yes. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot while reading the whole of the Harry Potter series is that Rowling’s choice of names is very considered. They’re very British, for a start. I don’t know if any were translated into more American-sounding names for the US edition, but they were certainly translated for some non-English editions. In Dutch, for example, Harry and Voldemort keep their names, but Ron is Ron Wemel, and Hermione is Hermelien Griffel. I wonder if these alternatives also convey the deliberate tweeness, the sense of a 1950s postwar society, a bit Wallace and Gromit, handknitted and suburbanly small-scale? Rowling does it beautifully in English: very few of the personal names are ones you would encounter now in real life, except the Patil twins, whose names are ordinary and timeless. The average names at an ordinary British school today would not be Neville, Ernie, or Percy. Colin, Dennis, Ron, Harry: maybe. Hermione, Lavender, Pansy? Not at all. These are cartoon names, from the Beano comic strips of the 1970s which I expect Rowling read along with all our generation, names from an era where life was less open to international influences, and identities and norms were much more assured and predictable. The more magical names are also very interesting because they also seem to have fashions: Remus, Sirius, Minerva, Lucius, Severus: nobody in the younger generation at Hogwarts (except Draco) has an elegantly classical and timelessly romantic name like that, they are much more mundane.

Goblet 8Something mundane that hasn’t dated is the bigotry and terrorism that The Goblet of Fire presents. It starts with the Muggle-baiting at the Quidditch World Cup, which to older readers is straight out of vampire films and stories about Frankenstein: the attack by the mob against a weaker enemy, at night, with torches. It also has deliberate overtones of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, but the much earlier and more medieval practice of witch-hunting comes to mind just as forcefully. Rowling is showing that the Death-Eaters, just like the Nazis, just like witch-hunters, and in our own time, just like ISIS, are a mob of violent bullies with more power than their targets, so they can do what they want with violence.

Muggle-baiting has another side, which is Muggle-teasing, laughing at Muggles because of how they do things. Arthur Weasley’s fascination for Muggle artefacts is a very early aspect of this perspective, but while he does not think that Muggles are automatically inferior, or at least peculiar, everyone else in the wizarding world seems to have this attitude. Which is very odd, considering how much care the Ministry of Magic take to keep Muggles from even noticing the wizards and witches among them. There’s something emerging there from that equation about the balance of power between the worlds that shows, very quietly for those who aren’t dazzled by the magical elements, that the Death-Eaters’ ultimate aim is to take over the Muggle world too, and exterminate it. This gives readers a much more personal reason for going boo-hiss at the Death-Eaters, and Voldemort.

Goblet 7The most important thing to happen in the Goblet of Fire is that Cedric Diggory dies. The death of a hero character, or at least a leading protagonist, simply does not happen in the British tradition of children’s fiction (I cannot think of an example: add one in the Comments if you can, please), especially to a walking, talking character who’s had a role in the previous novel, and seems like an all-round good bloke. The irritating boastfulness of Mr Diggory, and Cho’s besottedness for Cedric rather than for Harry, complicate his role in the story. Rowling does not make him an obvious victim. She makes it clear he will be missed, at the same time that we see that his removal is actually good for Harry. She really piles on the opportunities for us to feel guilty. His death forces the plot to change gear, and justifies the adult involvement in the competition. Adult wizards and witches with roles and responsibilities in the adult wizarding world all need to be there to hear that Voldemort is back. The horrified moments after Cedric’s death are very adult: there is passionate grief, there is vindication and blame, there is a further attempt to nobble Harry again, and then there is the business with Moody in the trunk that almost ruins the crescendo of deep emotion that Cedric’s death and the horror of Voldemort have produced. This novel is a masterful orchestration of emotion and fear. Onto Book Five!


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Azkaban 1The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite of the Harry Potter novels, because it isn’t overgrown, and has a strong balance of the trivial against the impending doom-laden elements that dominate the later novels. It’s a more satisfying and less nerve-wracking read. It’s also got my favourite adult character, Lupin the werewolf, and a proper appreciation of chocolate. In this catch-up from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts, things are getting darker.

The story starts with another use of the now familiar pattern of a magical crisis at the Dursleys that releases Harry into the magical world. And, once again, he’s a little bit older, he can handle a little bit more knowledge and experience. But he is only just turning 13, and there is so much he doesn’t and can’t know about the wizarding world. When he’s run away from the Dursleys’ home with his trunk and wand after making Aunt Marge float like a ball bouncing on the ceiling, and is starting to think that the black shadow in the alleyway might be looking for him, and the Knight Bus comes: that has to be my all-time favourite moment in the books, and I am trying very hard not to be influenced by the marvellous film version. It’s about maturity, stepping into the real world on one’s own, and finding, shakily, that one can cope after all. For this bit, at least. And there is the romance of long-distance travel at night.

Azkaban 2I like the Knight Bus so much because, as a teenager in Scotland, the night bus was the only affordable way to get down to London, the centre of the universe, so I am a veteran of sitting upright on the 12-hour bus journey eating biscuits all night, listening to my Walkman, and getting out at an ungodly hour for chips somewhere near Manchester. Travelling at night when most people are asleep is the stuff of romance, because you’re heading off into the dark alone. Travelling in a bus that leaps about all over the UK, with witches and wizards being delivered wherever they want to go, is such an intelligent development of the experience of seeing fellow travellers come and go. Adding the magic that you want when you’re in a hurry is simply logical: to get past the cars in the way, to dodge past obstacles and road regulations, to get wherever you want as fast as you can. However, making this an uncomfortable and queasy ride reminds us that doing magic has penalties. Nothing comes from nothing.

Azkaban 3I also like Stan Shunpike, the bus conductor, because he prompts the question: where do British wizarding children go to school if they don’t go to Hogwarts? Hogwarts is a very small school, taking only about 40 children in each year, which means no more than 300 children in the whole school at any one time. That’s not enough places to cope with the entire school-age wizarding population, so where are the other magical schools? Are there wizarding primary schools? I’m sure this has all been asked before, and dealt with, in the fanfic sites, on online fora, and in Pottermore. But I am still interested in the question as a response to the reading experience: is this wizarding world only worked out in patches of detail for plot purposes? Does it have to be fully worked out, in all possible details, to satisfy as a reading experience?

The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces us to the bigoted and self-serving careerist Cornelius Fudge. This is another aspect of Rowling’s writing that I enjoy: introducing slightly archaic vocabulary in small illustrated doses to readers (children) who might not have had the extensive background in classic children’s literature that Rowling has. To fudge something means to make a mess of it, try to ignore it, and so the Minister for Magic is a fine satirical carrier of that name. That he is in Her Majesty’s Government is a glorious invention for adult readers, because every world has to be administrated, even the magical world, so to introduce the idea of a Minister for Magic periodically visiting new British Prime Ministers is a great, complex joke. Was Mrs Thatcher instrumental in Voldemort’s rise? What would Churchill have said?

Azkaban 4The Ministry’s interest in Harry is due to his vulnerability to attack by Voldemort, but naturally they don’t tell him this because he’s only 13. Harry the focalising character reads as a lot older than 13, but we have to keep being reminded that his knowledge and skills are limited, and that he knows hardly anything about the wizarding world.  The great fuss that the Ministry, and the Weasleys, make about his safety, and the special treatment he gets from Fudge about using magic in the holidays: these send the message that adults in official posts of power tell lies routinely, and keep information hidden when they ought to be open and truthful. The confusion of adolescence is compounded by irritation at obvious stupidity in older people.

In the train to Hogwarts, just as Harry has had enough of being kept in cottonwool, we encounter the most horrible magical creature yet, a Dementor, which makes all the fuss seem meaningful, at last. This is real Dark magic. Professor Lupin appears as this novel’s surrogate father, protecting the children, feeding them chocolate, but most importantly, he knows what’s going on and he can fix it. Like Dumbledore, Lupin is a great man. Such a pity he’s a werewolf, but that is good storytelling: not only is no man perfect, but a really great man can overcome apparently impossible impairments. We could read being a werewolf as having a physical or psychological condition that can’t be got away from and that has to be managed. Epilepsy seems a good analogy, since the physical effects of an attack are similar, and fear of an epileptic fit by people who don’t know anything about it seems a reasonable reflection of what happens to Lupin. Unlike a person with epilepsy, Lupin is a very dangerous creature at the wrong time of the month.

Azkaban 5It seems extraordinary that a school full of nearly 300 children are to be guarded by Dementors, and that they will be taught by a werewolf, but these different standards of safety and security appeared in the last novel, and match the tone of the plot. The Prisoner of Azkaban is a twisting story of betrayal in the past, a deranged need for revenge, terrified hidings in animal form, and involuntarily dangerous actions, set in a children’s world in which happiness is achieved through Quidditch and magical sweets. This tension between the mundane and the limited and the world-encompassingly important and scary is something all children’s authors have to get right, because it comes with the territory: the small grappling with the big. Rowling avoids falling into traps of being self-important or bathetic (too close to Monty Python territory) by using metaphors and symbols. Spells, for instance, are life lessons and skills that need to be learned, and here they deal with the real fears of adolescents. How to dispel fear of the person who frightens you most? Think of them in a silly costume. How to throw off the misery of depression? (because I think that’s what the Dementors represent) Think happy thoughts, really powerful needy happy thoughts that you cannot live without.

Azkaban 6And then, there’s Sirius Black. Everyone who comes into contact with him has a different idea of what happened when James and Lily Potter died, so the reader has to tackle a vast amount of contradictory information, as well as work out what is believable from the little we’ve been told about Azkaban. When the wizards’ prison was first mentioned in The Chamber of Secrets, it didn’t receive the terror treatment it gets in this novel: did Rowling decide to give it the more important role it has in the series, and in the wizarding world, after she had finished the second novel? Or is the increase in terror just an indication of what Harry, and Ron and Hermione, can understand and appreciate? The combination of how she delivers emotional impact and complex information is impressively thorough. Rowling is particularly good at writing tension in this novel, because she combines the necessary exposition with very tense episodes: Harry under his cloak in Hogsmeade hearing the teachers discuss Sirius; the three children in the Shrieking Shack hearing Sirius, and Lupin, confront Wormtail to get the story straight, and then Snape bursts in to give his side of James Potter’s character. Hermione and Harry listening to Buckbeak’s execution, which, though it might not seem a moment of exposition, is such an important episode that we have to flip back and reread it, much later in the novel, when we have to rethink what happened at a crucial moment. And finally, the Patronus at night that saved Harry and Hermione from death while Lupin was rampaging in the forest: so much detail, and every word counts. That episode needs to be read slowly out loud, to get it all right, and to fully appreciate what is going on.

Azkaban 7The Marauders’s Map is a thought-provoking gadget: deeply useful and ingenious, so practical for evading discovery and entrapment, but also in (as we will see in later novels) hunting down the people you’re looking for. It also places a lot of responsibility on its users: what will they use it for, good or bad, cleverness or mischief, wickedness or meddling? Since the Map’s creators were only schoolboys, mischief is the obvious intention, but the Map is a tool that can cause a lot of trouble in the wrong hands, such as in Snape’s hands, or in any other enemy’s possession.

These are many serious thoughts in The Prisoner of Azkaban, making the tone of this novel much older and darker than that of The Philosopher’s Stone, only two books earlier. This is the first of the grown-up Harry Potter novels, in which he takes responsibility, saves more lives, and stops being a child. Teenage agonies lie in wait.