Apr 10, 2011

Harry Plotter: Book 2

As always, Spoilers Ahead (the book came out 12-13 years ago, so, really, come on!).

"Ack! My wand broke! What a convenient and hilarious plot point!"
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published in 1998 (1999 in the United States) and follows Harry Potter and his angst-ridden band of miscreants as they embark on their second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The plot of the book revolves around The Heir of Slytherin, the final descendent of Salazar Slytherin. This heir opens the mythical “Chamber of Secrets” and unleashes a terrible evil on Hogwarts to rid the school of impure wizards, or wizards with non-magical parents.  The suspects are many, including
loveable caretaker Rubeus Hagrid - rumored to be the last opener of the Chamber - and the not-so-loveable Draco Malfoy, who spends the book being generally sniveling and smarmy.  Perhaps the person who is most-assumed to be the heir of Slytherin is our protagonist himself, Harry James Potter. Harry is a perfect candidate: he has a mysterious path, he talks to snakes (a known gift of Slytherin), he comes from a long line of wizards, and he has his own fears that he really belongs in the Slytherin house.  However, the real heir is someone that nobody expected!

If we were supposed to take this book seriously, the first victim probably shouldn't have been a cat
Before we explore the weaknesses of this book, let’s look at what it does well. It's real strength lies in bringing to the forefront the strong, underlying thread of racism that was mentioned briefly in the first book. The world of wizardry is one of fierce inbreeding to maintain purity of bloodline, which apparently manifests as paleness (evidence: the entire Slytherin House, the Weasleys). While some embrace the diversity of non-magical bloodlines moving into the wizarding world (as Ron Weasley points out, the wizards would have died out if they didn’t shack up with non-wizards). The derogatory term for non-magical-family wizards is Mudblood, a word which carries vitriol and force that is present even in print. When Hermione Granger is called it by Draco Malfoy, slug-spewing seems appropriate. And this racism pervades the entire book, as Muggle-born wizards are Petrified by a mysterious being. The first victim is Mrs. Norris, Mr. Filch’s cat (the line of reasoning is a little hard to follow, but basically Mr. Filch is a Squib, a person from a wizarding family with no magical abilities), and continues with Colin Creevey, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Nearly-Headless Nick, Penelope Clearwater, and Hermione Granger. Before and during all of this petrifaction, though, there is a lot of finger-waving, and the book gets a little annoying.

Oh, Hermione, so so smart!
Really, the problem with the book is that the characters in it don’t really spend much time trying to solve the mystery of who is opening the Chamber. A lot of it is actually spent trying to prove that the heir is Draco Malfoy, who definitely seems like a villain but doesn’t actually become a credible one for a few more books.  Hermione, Harry, and Ron spend time brewing a Polyjuice Potion, which turns them into other people for an indeterminate amount of time (but it’s basically about an hour).  They do this to infiltrate the Slytherin Commons and ask questions to Draco, but this endeavor is ultimately fruitless. However, it does introduce them to awesome character Moaning Myrtle, a ghost who haunts an abandoned restroom and who becomes the lynchpin of the story.

Just three people, hanging out in the loo with a ghost
When the gang discovers that Draco isn’t the suspect, they don’t really try to find out who the real heir is.  Instead, they just sort of mull about. When the villain is revealed to be Voldemort by way of Ginny Weasley, it is surprising, but not really a surprise that feels satisfying and deserved. Ginny is barely in the book, and her occasional mentions of being tired or pale may seem like some sort of foreshadowing, but it almost seems like something added in after the fact to make the plot plausible. It’s a bit boring. Really, if they had explored anyone (including definite should-be suspect Percy Weasley), the ending would seem more earned.

In the end, the book is fine, and it pairs well with the first book (really, the series can be broken up into the first two novels, which are geared for a much younger audience, the second two novels, which transition into a much darker tone, and the darker final three books).  It just doesn’t match the magical intensity and wonder of the first book, and doesn’t have the maturity of the later books. Nobody even dies in the book, and the manners in which they become Petrified become increasingly ridiculous. It seems that at this point, Rowling was afraid to kill characters in the present, and left most murder for flashback. It’s a fun read, and being the shortest book means that it’s relatively easy to get through it, but the plotting is so strange and single-minded that the book never really becomes interesting.

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Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher: Professor Gilderoy Lockhart
How he’s dispatched: Uses Ron’s broken wand to erase Harry and Ron’s memories, but the wand backfires and erases his own memory! He becomes completely unaware of who he is or where he is, yet (miraculously!) maintains the gifts of speech and goofiness.

Good ol' Dueling Club
Villain: Tom Marvolo Riddle, a chunk of Voldemort’s soul, preserved in a diary for many years but released by Ginny Weasley and, to a lesser extent, Harry.
Crimes: In the book, not a lot. He sets his Basilisk (really big snake) loose on the school, which manages to petrify - but not kill - a bunch of people. In the flashbacks and exposition, he is also shown getting Hagrid expelled and sent to Azkaban, and he kills Myrtle while she’s on the toilet.

Important Facts Brought Up in Passing (and when those facts become important):
  • Harry visites Borgin and Burkes and sees an opal necklace and what he assumes to be a wardrobe, which he hides in (Book 6)
  • Harry is a Parselmouth who speaks Parseltongue [previously mentioned in Book 1] (Book 4, 6, and 7)
  • The Whomping Willow, first mentioned in Book 1, gets a more starring role (Book 3)
  • Harry uses the sword of Godric Gryffindor to defeat the Basilisk, and the sword becomes imbued with Basilisk venom (Book 7)
  • Ginny has a crush on Harry (Book 3-7) 
Characters Introduced:
  • Tom Riddle - Previously seen as Lord Voldemort, Tom Riddle, and his sad, sketchy past are introduced. Though a tad ineffectual in the second book, he eventually becomes both more evil and paradoxically more well-rounded as the series goes on.
  • Ginny Weasley - Technically introduced in the first book, she definitely has more to do in this book and, by the end of the series, is the most important second-tier character.
  • Colin Creevey - Annoying, unnecessary, and a huge part of the book series that is tied to the fun, simple first two books.
  • Dobby the House Elf - We'll get to him later
  • Lucius Malfoy - Way more fun and evil than Draco
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