January 5, 2006

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)

by J.K. Rowling

It’s been a busy time and the prospect of scrounging up some thoughts about this book hasn’t been particularly appealing. But I’ve got to either give up on my project of writing about everything I encounter, or just spit something out and move on. Since I don’t think I should be allowed to do the former until I’ve caught up doing the latter, here’s the latter.

This is a sequel that reads like a sequel. It reads like a sequel written by someone uncomfortable with the problem of writing a sequel. In the commentary track on the Back to the Future Part II DVD – a fine start to a sentence if ever there was one – Robert Zemeckis (or more likely, the other guy) sums up the no-win quandary of sequels: people want a sequel both to be the same as the original and to be different from it. If the sequel is too much the same, it feels like a weak retread. If it’s too different, it feels like a betrayal. Bob Gale or maybe Zemeckis then says that they tried to address the problem head-on with a playful “meta” approach. Nope, people didn’t like that either.*

So it’s not surprising that poor Joanne Kensington-Moames Rowling comes off more than a bit timid and uncomfortable in her second Harry Potter book.** Rather than expanding or exploring any of her existing characters, she just shuffles them around and “makes them talk,” like a kid improvising a new campaign for his army men. The major new additions to the cast are mostly clownish distractions – Dobby the whimpering idiot elf is the worst kind of non-amusing miscalculation, and Moaning Myrtle the whiny pathetic ghost is another shot in the same wrong direction. Though the ridiculously self-centered “Gilderoy Lockhart” has a great name and gets the best material in the book, he doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot and feels like a stowaway who is clinging desperately to one side of the story, trying unsuccessfully to liven things up.

The plot is based on a lot of oddly unsavory “pure bloodline” talk. I don’t actually care in a serious way about the racial implications, because clearly J.K. doesn’t, but there’s something strange going on in these books, and this one brings it to the foreground. Hitler Youth-style bully Draco Malfoy slurs wizards from non-magical families as “mudbloods,” and the book shouts him down as a bigot. But then all of Harry’s exciting claims to greatness turn out to be based on his line of descent – ’cause that’s exciting and magicky, when it happens to good guys. That’s in fact how he comes by the snake-talking talent that allows him to enter the Chamber of Secrets, a sort of temple to bigotry. The school’s four houses, which conveniently correspond to the character of their students (heroes, villains, thinkers, laborers) turn out, at the end, to be tied, via bloodline logic, to the four founders of the school. Why are the bad guys so bad? Because they have the pure blood of the founding bad guy in their veins.

I’m not saying either the racist or the anti-racist model is inappropriate for a children’s book; just that it’s odd to see them butt heads in one place and that the one sours the other.

Rowling’s prose is, if anything, clunkier than before. Or maybe it just seems that way because there’s less entertaining content to distract us. In talking about the first book I said that her strong suit was making up stuff and her, um, weak suit was choosing words to convey it. In this installment it was as though the inelegance of the prose had spread to infect the plot and even, worst of all, the stuff.

We’re on to book three now – almost done, in fact – and it’s much better than this one. So it’s not just me. This one was just no good.

* Although, actually, I think the Back to the Future sequels get a bad rap. Part II and Part III might only hold up as riffs on the original rather than equals to it, but since the premise of the whole thing is nerdy time-travel gamesmanship, I don’t think that’s so wrong. Last year we rewatched Part II and had a good time with it. People who tell me I’m too negative and sour in my posts here, to you I say: you, sir, are too negative and sour, in your cranky dismissal of Back to the Future Part II and perhaps also Back to the Future Part III. Now let’s return to my cranky dismissal of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

** Kathleen.


  1. “But then all of Harry’s exciting claims to greatness turn out to be based on his line of descent – ’cause that’s exciting and magicky, when it happens to good guys.”

    Well, not precisely, right? I mean, Harry’s mother — the one who invested him with the ancient magic that gives him strength against Voldemort — was herself of non-magical birth. And the book (I think this book) makes it clear that the Sorting Hat originally wanted to put Harry in Slytherin, not Gryffindor. Point being, her approach to the problem of race/ancestry is complicated. (As you, of course, acknowledge.)

    Posted by Adam on |
  2. What I meant to say was just that on one page, Rowling wants us to cluck our tongues at the hateful eugenics inherent in the very notion of “half-bloods” – and then on the next page she endorses the notion by wanting us to marvel at the Lincoln-Kennedy significance of the fact that Voldemort and Harry are both half-bloods. Certainly the books subscribe to the idea that for the most part, wizard-ness (and quality of wizard-ness) is indeed an inherited trait, even if there are exceptions. If Harry were to turn out to have the blood of Godric Gryffindor in his veins (as is more or less implied at the end of this book), Rowling would undoubtedly endorse that as being of extraordinary significance. More generally, she has written a world where the phrase “has the blood of X in his veins” is genuinely meaningful. Hasn’t she?

    Overall, it would seem that her attitude is that Malfoyan eugenics are mistaken but only because they’re too simplistic. Bloodline mythologies are (probably) real, but arrogance and prejudice are wrong.

    That’s a distinction that could conceivably be defended in the real world as morally viable. But in these books, where the matter never gets any actual discussion, it just comes off as a half-baked hypocrisy. To me.

    Posted by broomlet on |
  3. I don’t know what a mudblood or a gryffindorf or any of that nonsense is, but Back to the Future is a great movie, as are its sequels. Three cheers to you.

    Posted by Mary on |

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