Back to Hogwarts – Part the Fourth

Writing these pieces, I try to keep notes as I read, so that my observations are fairly fresh. If you needed any indication as to how huge a book we encounter this time around, know that my finished notes are fully 5 pages long and that for some chapters I didn’t write anything down. Damn, Rowling. I mean, really all the indication you need is that this paperback is over 700 pages long, compared to the much-smaller page counts of the first three books. And I think my first observation upon actually picking up the physical book (“Holy hell this is a huge book.”) is an indication of my overall reaction to it. I think it’s a little too full. There’s a little too much going on and we could have stood to lose a little of it.

Just about the first quarter of the book is taken up with the Quidditch World Cup. I’m not saying get rid of it entirely, the event does serve multiple purposes in the story. Mainly it introduces us, and Harry, to characters and ideas we didn’t know about previously. We meet characters that will be important later for various reasons, learn what a portkey is and how it works, and get a real sense of how the Death Eaters affect wizarding society. It’s just so much. In order to introduce all this information in this way, it’s necessary to get Harry from the Durselys to the Burrow and then to the QWC and also set up what the QWC is and how it works. This portion of the book might have benefited from starting us off further along in that process and assuming some things as already understood (or quickly explained) rather than explaining every single step of the journey, since we have such a long way to go. It is worth pointing out that this is the first time Rowling starts the book with a scene featuring unfamiliar characters and doesn’t bring in Harry until the last lines of the first chapter. It’s a more advanced literary technique than we’ve seen before in these books and a good indicator to the reader right off the bat that this is going to be a different kind of story. That part, I do believe, is worth persevering.

When we finally get to Hogwarts, there’s not really a lot of mention of lessons, other than particular ones being the settings of important story events, and that’s ok; there’s already not enough room in this book. What we do see is a look inside the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. It’s interesting to look at this staffing choice from Dumbledore’s perspective. The fourth-years clearly state that a lot of the subject matter in their class is usually reserved for older students, but Moody replies that Dumbledore “thinks [they’re] ready.” He knows what’s coming and he is taking steps to prepare the people he can, his students, in the best way available to him without tipping off the other side. I feel the character of Moody is really well done here. I’ve already read these books a handful of times and there were still times I’d read scenes with him in them and forget for a moment what his true nature was. I do find the use of the Unforgivable Curses a little tricky. On the one hand,  the effect of their introduction on Neville is telling with just the right amount of subtlety. On the other, I’m still puzzled about why Moody was so insistent in training Harry to resist the Imperius Curse, since this skill ends up being key in his escape at the end of the story. Maybe some of the real Moody forcing its way through the Polyjuice Potion? To not have this explained, when so many other things are explained so well, bugs me a little.

Poor, brave, heroic Neville
Poor, brave, heroic Neville

Speaking of bugs, (do you see the extremely clever thing I’m about to do here?) Rita. Freaking. Skeeter. I hate this character. Everyone hates this character. By the time I got to the end of the book, I was thinking “you know if we got rid of her entirely, the book would be a lot shorter.” Unfortunately, when you look back over the important story events that are influenced by her involvement, there’s just no way to do that. She’s a necessary evil. I still think the book could do with a bit less of her, or perhaps a more audience-satisfying conclusion for her than being trapped in a jar and made to promise to be nice. On the other hand, a plot line that I think most people can agree could be chucked? The bloody house-elves. Don’t get rid of them entirely; Dobby and Winky do end up being key to the plot. But the political campaign for elf rights? Toss it right out the window. Yes, it makes sense that Hermione, not having been raised in a wizarding family, would be outraged on their behalf from an outside perspective. But either you’re going to have enslaved magical creatures in your universe or you’re not and all your characters need to pretty much get on board with that decision and not hijack what is already a plot-overfull book with an agenda that pretty much ends up getting dropped halfway through the book.

One thing Rowling has always gotten very right (sometimes painfully so) is preserving the authenticity of her characters’ ages. They’re generally written right on target, neither dumbed down nor aged up for convenience. In GoF, this equates to the introduction of a key, age-specific factor that has a profound effect on some important story events: HORMONES. What I really appreciate is how Rowling does not focus on the fact that her characters’ feelings are changing in ways that feel beyond their control, we just see the effects of it. The introduction of this new factor provides some great storytelling opportunities. Ron’s jealousy and subsequent fight with Harry provides a shift in the dynamic of the trio, causing Hermione to be the one who’s around for Harry for a change. Although Rowling only separates Ron & Harry for a couple chapters, it feels longer. Ron’s feeling inferior to his friend is a running theme, but Harry needs Ron, however useless Ron may feel he is. Everyone needs that friend they can tell anything to, even if the friend has nothing to offer. It’s the telling that’s the important part. Also, the way Ron comes back is a good way to show readers that when something makes you realize that you have been wrong, you need to go make it right ASAP. The arrival of hormones also herald the proper beginning of the Ron/Hermione ‘ship without ever having it properly pointed out. Hermione’s reaction to foolishness revolving around who’s going to take her to the Yule Ball is absolutely perfect. I cannot wait to read these scenes to my daughter as a golden example of how not to be treated like an object by idiot boys and I am forever indebted to Rowling for writing them.

These two in the middle? Idiots.
These two in the middle? Idiots.

The Triwizard Tournament is meant to be the main plot element of this book and yet is not introduced until Chapter 12 and does not fully get going until Chapters 15-16. I hear your arguments against cutting stuff elsewhere in the book, but it’s almost halfway through before we really get going with What’s Going To Happen and that’s just too far in for me. The events of the tournament almost seem minor at times, in comparison to all the other plot elements happening in the book. I’m not 100% clear on who designs the tasks, how, or what exactly they’re meant to test, but I have my own theories based on what we learn about Harry through his performance. The apparent test of the first task is his resourcefulness, but when the element of cheating is introduced, it also becomes a test of his honor. And by removing his best friend from his preparations for this task, it also becomes a test of his self-reliance. He has Hermione and Sirius for support, but without that friend with whom he can share everything, he proves how much he can achieve relying only on himself. During the second task, we see how serious Harry can be about fair play. To wit, the champions are meant to figure out the clues on their own. He accepts Cedric’s help since that squares the two of them, but does not, as Barty Crouch Jr. later reveals, resort to the desperate measures of asking anyone and everyone for help. His adherence to what he believes the consequences of the second task will be demonstrate his admirable value system: winning is not worth the cost of lives.

So, one way that I feel this book suffers by being so overfull, is that it has to rely so heavily on exposition to get information to the reader. Sometimes this is successful, sometimes it’s just painful. On principle, I don’t really object to the use of Harry’s Invisibility Cloak as a means to reveal to him, and the reader, information about the teachers we wouldn’t otherwise know, when Harry gets trapped in the trick stair the night he figures out the egg clue. However, we’ve seen this before. Even the fact that Moody is aware of his presence doesn’t add anything new, we’ve seen Dumbledore work this situation to his advantage in previous books. The only bit of freshness added to this encounter is the fact that, at this point, we’re unaware of Moody’s true motivations. Later, we see the trio in the cave with Sirius and he brings forth a lot of exposition about the Crouch family. If this were the only instance, perhaps it would be fine. After all, Sirius’s motivations are well-understood and he has been unable to converse for so long, this much backstory-vomit from him makes sense. But alas, it’s the first of several monologues in the book that make me a little tired. What Harry overhears outside Dumbledore’s office when he goes to tell him about the dream. Voldemort’s classic supervillain monologuing following his resurrection. The similar speech from Barty Crouch Jr. before he is caught by Dumbledore and Co. His subsequent confession under the influence of Veritaserum. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Ouch. Rowling is usually better than this and it’s disappointing to see so many long, explanatory speeches. The one scene where I do feel the exposition worked really well though, was in the Penseive. That was information that was not going to get to the audience or Harry any other way and it was presented through a fresh new device that felt organic to the story. More like this, please.

Much as I love David Tennant, we needed a better scene than him going on and on and on...
Much as I love David Tennant, we needed a better scene than him going on and on and on…

Now, the problem with packing so much story into this book is that its ending is SO important to the series as a whole. The series is about Harry’s journey over his 7 years at Hogwarts, but it is also about a struggle between good and evil and the end of book four marks the return of the main antagonist of that struggle to the story. In my opinion, the impact his return has is lessened a little, by having to compete with so many other story elements. It’s still a very strong, affecting moment, but I was a little exhausted by the time I got there. The writing of the resurrection itself is very strong. The whole chapter feels written from Harry’s perspective, even though it is told from the omniscient narrator’s standpoint. The narrator focuses on how the scene appears to and affects Harry. Infusing it with his terror and confusion make the scene all the more chilling. Voldemort’s previously-mentioned monologuing makes him a little cartoonish when we do finally get to the duel. It is fitting that, with the old magic protecting Harry via his mother’s sacrifice erased, he should find a similar way to defeat Voldemort, with the magic that prevents brother wands from acting against each other. I did wish for a bit more in this scene, as I couldn’t understand what made Harry able to force the Priori Incantatem reaction in Voldemort’s direction. I just accepted that he did it upon first reading, but now I want to know why. Once Harry is returned to safety, the same perspective of an omniscient narrator focused mainly on Harry’s experience reemerges. I particularly enjoyed his newfound perception of Dumbledore and McGonagall as total badasses when they save him from Crouch-as-Moody. Once Harry is rescued, the sequencing of events feels a little off. In the midst of setting up events and key players for the next book, Harry is given a sleeping potion to allow him some relief. However, the potion wears off quickly, allowing us to witness the beginning of the rift between Fudge and Dumbledore. While I agree this is an important element of the denouement, it does feel a bit odd that it wouldn’t be lumped in with the other important moments in the last chapters, followed by Harry being allowed some peace at last. 

Harry's chilling confrontation with Wormtail
Harry’s chilling confrontation with Wormtail

Overall, I have some issues with the structural integrity of the book. Much as I enjoy all the things that happen (except for SPEW) and feel it has some really extraordinary writing within it, I’m not completely happy with how it was all put together in the end. It feels a bit like the Burrow, just a huge structure with lots of bits stuck on that somehow make a whole even though the whole thing seems like it should just fall down at any moment.  I’m not sure how I would fix it either. I’d be too afraid that pulling away one part would collapse the whole work and perhaps that’s how we ended up with the book we did. After finishing the it, I recently rewatched the movie, to refresh my memory of how they condensed the book and I don’t recommend this strategy; in a side-by-side comparison, it’s a mess. So I’m not saying I know how to fix it, I just know something that needs fixing when I see it. Don’t worry, y’all, I still love JKR and all the Harry books. I’m already deep into Order of the Phoenix and it feels much more cohesive, so I imagine I’ll have more positive things to say about that. Come back next time and find out!

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