As I was taking notes to write this piece, it occurred to me that what I’m doing here amounts to literary analysis. I’m taking those dusty college-acquired skills and applying them to a series of books I love and it’s making them all the more enjoyable. And then I’m writing out my results like some kind of crackpot thesis paper. See kids? School is important! Even if you think you’ll never use a particular school skill at work or in your home life, you could still end up using them to enhance your hobbies. And speaking of school, let’s get back to Hogwarts! (I also learned about segues in school.)
Overall, my impression of the second book in the series is that it really shows what a talented writer JK Rowling is. I mean, yes, her success as an author is well-proven, as the Harry Potter books are some of the best-selling books of all time. But it’s also worth noting that the woman knows what she is doing when it comes to crafting a story. Every plot development is carefully set up and planned out chapters, or sometimes whole books, in advance.
The first example we see of this is Harry’s mistaken trip into Knockturn Alley. It makes sense that Harry would bungle his first attempt to travel by Floo powder and conveniently lands him in a setting that we’d otherwise never see, leading him to observe some details that lend credibility to his obsession that Malfoy must be the Heir of Slytherin. Dobby’s use of the rogue bludger during the Gryffindor vs. Slytherin quidditch match also helps strengthen Harry’s belief that Draco is behind everything. These details allow the reveal of the true villain to remain surprising to both the audience and to Harry. Later in the series, we can all agree “of course it’s Voldemort again, GET ON WITH IT,” but at this point it makes sense that Harry still suspects his school rival for most of the book.
Another element of the story that’s really well set up, but not completely obvious from the jump is Ginny’s involvement with the Heir of Slytherin. Every time another petrified victim turns up, her extreme reactions are always indicated and explained through either some connection she might have to the victim; it’s a great misdirect by Rowling to keep first-time readers in the dark about why she is actually upset. And, on the subject of Ginny, can I just point out that OF COURSE things end up with Harry and Ginny the way they do by the end of the series? As if her crush weren’t palpable enough to begin with, her first year at Hogwarts ends when he SAVES HER LIFE. Now I kind of want to read the whole series rewritten from her perspective, or maybe an abridged version in diary form of her 6 years at Hogwarts…*makes note to write fanfic*
So, speaking of Rowling’s awesome strong female characters (written in an era before the rest of the world woke up and realized we need more figures like this in fiction), let’s talk about Hermione for a second. For a start, her principles are exemplary. We are introduced to her in the first book as a rule-following goody two shoes, but come to see her as a real person and embrace how her respect for the rules prevents Harry and Ron from completely getting expelled; its her crucial role in the trio. In HPatCoS, another dimension is added to her character when, after Harry is attacked by a rogue bludger during a Quidditch match, she decides to brew up a complicated potion that will require a lot of rule-breaking to achieve. In a stand-up-and-cheer moment, she proves that her need to protect the student body from further attacks outranks her respect for the rules. Hermione is so awesome, that it often seems like she gets shuffled to the background through contrivance to allow the story to unfold on Harry’s terms. Left to her own devices, she’d figure out the clues it takes Harry and Ron several chapters to unravel, so it’s off to the hospital wing with her for a good chunk of the book, because it’s not her story.
On the opposite side of the awesome spectrum, we have Gilderoy Lockhart. Upon this reading of HPatCoS, it immediately struck me: why the hell did Dumbledore even bother with this dude? On the surface, he’s a good bit of comedy, but from a realistic perspective, Dumbledore is way too smart to fall for his bullshit. We do get a justification when the trio visits Hagrid who explains how hard the Defense Against the Dark Arts post has been to fill since Voldemort’s surprise return. It’s a great example of one of those instances we all encounter as adults, where we have to choose the best we can get from a field of not-great options (see also: the 2016 presidential election). To borrow from my other obsession, Hamilton, it’s “the art of the compromise/hold your nose and close your eyes.” In this case, what starts out as comic relief turns out to be a fairly catastrophic choice when, in a shocking turn of events, Harry and Ron decide to tell a teacher what’s going on instead of trying to handle it themselves, hallelujah. Lockhart’s response is first to attempt to bolt when asked to DO HIS JOB and face the Heir of Slytherin and then to ATTACK CHILDREN with a memory charm. Thank God for Ron’s backfiring wand or I’d be really pissed at this whole plotline.
Harry’s second year at Hogwarts shows the very important beginnings of his relationship with Dumbledore. I think Dumbledore has known since the night he met Harry that he will be an important factor in defeating Voldemort and knows that, absent any magical family ties, he will need to play a big role in Harry’s life in order to help prepare him for this. In his first year, the headmaster sat back and observed Harry’s choices and decided to introduce himself at the end, once Harry had proven himself a worthy champion. This year, Dumbledore takes tentative steps toward setting himself up in that mentor role. First, he allows Harry the opportunity to confess his Parseltongue abilities and the voice only he has heard in the halls. It’s said over and over that nothing happens in Hogwarts without Albus Dumbledore knowing about it, so this scene is not about getting information from Harry, but about showing him trust without holding his hand. Later, Dumbledore demonstrates his trust again, announcing key information in Hagrid’s cabin when Harry and Ron are concealed by the invisibility cloak. It’s his way of showing Harry that he always knows what’s going on no matter what, that he sees Harry as a special case, and that he trusts him with important tasks and information. Obviously, this information is key to resolving the main plot of the story, but the way it’s delivered speaks volumes on Dumbledore’s opinion of Harry.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat achieved in this book is the way Rowling deftly includes adult issues in a kids story in an unforced and comprehensible way. The issue of discrimination against nonmagic people is an excellent and safe way for a YA author to approach a delicate topic. Ron’s reaction when Malfoy uses a slur against Hermione helps young readers understand the seriousness of the issue, which is subsequently very gently handled in the haven of Hagrid’s cabin. (It’s also an indicator of just how early on Rowling shipped Ron and Hermione. Looking back, it’s almost embarrassing that I didn’t see it coming from this far back in the series.) Encounters with Lucius Malfoy throughout the book allow young readers a window into what’s going on with the adults in the series. Without him, there’s no reason for the students, and therefore the reader, to know what’s going on in the politics of the adult wizarding world. While his early scene in Knockturn Alley gives insight into Draco’s character as well as plot points, his later scenes in Hagrid’s cabin and at the end tell us a little more about what’s going on outside the school, and how the Ministry of Magic and the school’s board of governors are reacting. It’s a clever way to add depth to a story and it doesn’t stick out enough to be noticeable. Younger readers might not understand it all at first, but it definitely adds something for older readers who do and those younger readers will be glad that stuff is there when they grow up and reread. It makes me jealous of Rowling’s talent.
So, the second installment in this series continues to demonstrate what an achievement the series as a whole is. All the pieces that get set up throughout the story pay off nicely in the end in a well-crafted, multi-dimensional story that appeals to both kids and adults. I’d love to hear what some of my fellow adult Potter fans think about this book, so feel free to hit me up in the comments or on social media. See you all next month for Year 3 and the Prisoner of Azkaban!