Saturday, July 1, 2006

CHAMBER OF SECRETS, Chapters 1 through 3

I haven't updated here lately, as I've been involved in forum discussions at Leaky Lounge and at Hogwarts Professor. It's been hard to keep up with all the interesting side discussions. At Leaky, I'm in the Lily and Stag Inn Corner Cafe reading group, so I thought I'd put my comments here as well.


Chapter One: The Worst Birthday

Allegory has been mentioned and someone at the Corner Café (Leaky Lounge forum) said that HP is not allegorical. From my understanding, that's entirely correct. I even looked it up in my dictionary, in one of my Hermione-ish moods, and found this definition:

from Greek: "description of one thing under the image of another"

For something to be allegory, whatever the person or thing is that is standing in for the real person or thing, it must always be the same throughout the story. So if an author uses a donkey to represent a judge, then every time we see the donkey, we know that it is the judge we are reading about. The problem with allegory is that it is very limiting. And JKR doesn't seem to limit herself in that way.

Rather, she uses people and places and creatures to get across an idea about different types of people in the world and how they relate to one another. I'm thinking here, in the first part of COS of Harry meeting Dobby. Harry, a wizard, trapped in the muggle world for each summer, is suddenly face to face with a creature that is only from the wizarding world. All of the rules are new to Harry, as he has no experience with house elves. But that really is Chapter 2, not Chapter 1, so I'll stop there.

Back to allegory, though--some people refer to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as allegory, but in a preface in the book that I have that he wrote when it was re-printed in the 1960s, he very definitely states that he was not writing allegory. He uses a lot of symbolism, but the story stands on its own merit, rather than having stand-in characters and places and events for real-life ones. (i.e., he was not writing about World War II and Hitler, because he had written much of the story before WW II, and put it aside, then finished it later)

I think what we see with Rowling is that she uses symbols a lot, and most are consistent with their traditional use in literature and fairy tales; some are clearly her own take on them. The unicorns are pure and good, snakes represent evil and sneakiness, dragons are powerful and destructive and scary--but house elves don't fit with my view of what elves are like, from fairy tales or from LOTR. As with many of her other creatures, she may have found something somewhere that she uses for her basis of what house elves are like. But none of that is allegory--it is, however, symbolism. We won't really know what her intent is in using certain symbols until we read the last book or until she just flat out tells us. All we can do at this point (even with 6 books in our hands), is guess. However, from the first book, JKR did a lot of set-up for the use of Alchemy with the whole Nicholas Flamel and Philosopher's Stone story line, and since book 6 had at least 3 references back to the Stone and to Alchemy, I don't think it's so far fetched that she is intentionally using Alchemy as a means of telling her story.

She has a background of traditional English literature, and you don't have to go very far to find that much of it was based on a Christian tradition. The whole use of Alchemy in literature is a means of showing the hero's journey, from an imperfect person to an enlightened one, through the use of Alchemical symbolism. Arianhrod's essay (at The Leaky Cauldron) goes into Alchemy in great detail, so I won't. If you want some examples of why I think JKR is following this tradition, re-read some 19th century English literature, particularly Jane Austen (any of her books, really) and Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities". In some of her early interviews, JKR named these as some of her favorites. There is much in Dickens that seems to relate to Snape, in particular. It's interesting that in her more recent interviews, she has been naming other authors--my guess is that she's afraid if we pay too much attention to what she said first about Harry Potter we would get too close to the truth of what she is writing and she is now trying to misdirect us, to protect the ending of the books.

As for Chapter One, we see Harry unhappy, isolated, unsure of himself or his standing with his friends, still mistreated (abused) by his Aunt and Uncle, taunted by Dudley. But we also see the first sign of Harry striking back at Dudley and the Dursleys--he hints at doing magic to torment Dudley. Kind of disturbing, really--the oppressed becoming the oppressor? Rowling has a lot to say in all her books about how we treat one another, and this is but one example of what can happen when one person or group bullies another.

It's also interesting to see that when Vernon is going through what everyone's part in the dinner party is, Harry's is to be in his room, pretending that he is not there. Which is exactly what he really would want--to be "not there", but Vernon means it very literally--he wishes that Harry was "not there", and actually that Harry just didn't exist at all.

Harry is treated much as a house elf would be treated--forced to do all the work (that's a lot for one afternoon), eating food that sounds like something out of an old prison story, then disappearing to his room, much as the house elves later do the work, but are never seen.

Peering through the hedge made me think of Harry and Ron peering through the bushes at the Yule Ball, when they overhear Hagrid talking to Madame Maxime. Also there are the garden gnomes at the Weasleys that come back to the hedge after they've been kicked out of the garden--do they peer through it? Other than that, I can't think of any other hedge-peering that has any significance

Chapter Two: Dobby’s Warning

To me, the most interesting thing in this chapter is all the information we get about magic, through all the things that Dobby does. We see him Apparate and disapparate, he does wandless magic and non-verbal magic. All of those are important later. At this point we don’t have names for any of them, nor do we have the information that these are things that wizards can also do—it just seems to be something that house elves do.

This is jumping ahead a bit, but relates to why Dobby has ended up coming to warn Harry. I don’t think Lucius said anything to Draco—as others have pointed out, Draco doesn’t seem to know anything about it either. And I don’t think that Lucius is plotting to do something with the Horcrux—he doesn’t have that information; he just has a diary that Lord Voldemort gave him for safe-keeping, he thinks LV is gone, but sees this as a way to discredit Arthur, by slipping the diary into the possession of one of the Weasley children. Arthur has been making his life uncomfortable at the moment, with all his raids. I do think that Dobby overheard Lucius talking to one of the other Death Eaters—and as Crabbe and Goyle don’t seem much brighter than their sons, it’s more likely that he was talking to Theodore Nott’s father, but the scene was cut by Rowling. It doesn’t really matter how Dobby overheard it; it’s more important that he did and that he decided to act on the information.

Along with all the magic that is to come, we get a lot of information about how house elves are viewed and treated in the wizarding world. They are inconsequential because they are enslaved to their masters, forbidden to reveal the master’s secrets, forbidden to leave the house. But with Dobby we see what we see in real life in groups of people who are enslaved or oppressed; there is always someone who still thinks independently and who will strive to do what is right, rather than just blindly follow along because that’s what they are told to do. Dobby knows that he is breaking the rules, and punishes himself for it (and says that he’s been punished often, so this rebellious behavior is not new for Dobby), but still he thinks that any punishment is worth trying to do the right thing in protecting Harry Potter. One more example of Dumbledore’s constant reminder that doing the right thing is often not the easy way round.

Harry’s dreams drive me slightly nuts. I think some are definitely foreshadowing, while others are there as red herrings, seeming to mean something important when they are really just a dream, born of what has happened in our real lives and what is happening while we are sleeping. I’ve dreamt of being out in a snow storm with no coat when I’ve only just thrown off the covers in my sleep and I’m cold. That’s how I see this particular dream of Harry being in the zoo. It’s more that he feels trapped, abandoned with no friends to help him, and the rattling of the bars of the cage turns out to fit in with Ron really rattling the bars on his window.

Is this chapter suspenseful? Absolutely. And something we haven’t talked about—even when there is a lot of danger and suspense, Rowling manages to throw in enough humor to keep the story from being constantly scary—especially with Vernon’s reaction and with Dobby continually trying to punish himself, with the pudding dropping and with the owls arriving.

Speaking of which, it’s rather creepy to think how much the Ministry of Magic are watching and how quickly they can react. Even Dumbledore does the same in Order of the Phoenix. And later he says that he has watched Harry more closely than Harry knows. How they all do that, we’ve no clue—and it might just be one of those things that we have to take as “that’s the way it is in the wizarding world”.

I was listening to Chapter Two the other day (Stephen Fry), and I noticed a couple of things about Dobby. One is the phrase that some people at the Lily and Stag Inn Corner Café brought up—that he knew of Harry’s greatness, but not his goodness; it made me think of what Ollivander says about Voldemort doing great things—terrible, but great. Now, I’d never thought of the word “great” in connection to “terrible” until I read COS. To me, “great” always had a positive connotation. Dobby makes that distinction for us when he talks about Harry’s greatness, as in his fame, and his goodness, as in the way he treats others.

The other thing I wondered about. Just how did Dobby intercept all of Harry’s mail? Dobby was supposed to be at the Malfoy’s, yet he somehow has all of Harry’s letters. How did that happen? Just how powerful are house elves? I don’t think we really have any idea yet. And how did Dobby know where to find Harry? Is he that easy to find? I always had the idea that none of the wizarding world knew where Harry Potter was and that’s why they are all so surprised when he turns up at the Leaky Cauldron, in Diagon Alley, on the train and then at Hogwarts. If Dobby can get in and out of Privet Drive, then why doesn’t Voldemort just send a house elf there to either kidnap Harry or to kill him?

Like I said, those are just a couple of things that stood out to me on this re-read of COS.

Chapter Three: The Burrow
This chapter is great fun because we finally get to see how a wizard family lives along with Harry. It’s also nice to see all the chaos that goes with having so many children in the house, something that only child Harry living with only child Dudley has never experienced. Harry doesn’t have any friends at the Dursleys that he could go visit so that he could see how other families live and treat one another—yet another reason it’s so unusual that Harry is basically a nice person.

Getting to meet the Weasleys in their home shows us more of who they really are: Molly, the caring, loving, but strict mother, Arthur, head of the house, but not the disciplinarian and more like one of his sons as far as rule breaking goes when he want to know how the flying car was, the twins, joking even more and doing something odd in their room (we find out later just how odd it was), Percy is even more stuck up and separate from the rest of the family, and Ginny. We think we know what she is like, but we really have no clue, as she is so enamored with Harry that she doesn’t act at all like herself.

We also see the garden gnomes and Molly’s reliance on anything that Gilderoy Lockhart has to say. It sets us up to accept him as an expert, even though the twins don’t want to bother. The de-gnoming process, though funny, is somewhat disturbing. They are living creatures after all, yet they are treated as one would a weed that is spoiling the garden. A little worse thought of than a house elf, both dismissed as not worthy of any respect or consideration.

At the very end of the chapter, when Harry sees Ron’s room and thinks it’s marvelous along with the Burrow, we once again see that Ron is self-conscious about his family’s lack of wealth when he makes disparaging remarks about his room not being as good as the one that Harry had at the Dursleys. It’s nice to see how quickly and genuinely Harry responds with “This is the best house I’ve ever been in.”