Sunday, August 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – More of the same

Having read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I dove into Book 2, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets anxious to see where J. K. Rowling was going to take the story. I also wanted to see if my criticisms of the first book would stand up or get flattened as the story progressed.

Well, as for the story line, it really wasn’t a whole lot different from the first book. A mystery is introduced: the Chamber of Secrets has been opened by the mysterious Heir of Slytherin and whatever was locked in the Chamber has been attacking, but not killing, certain students who are not of pure magical blood. Harry and his friends sleuth around to figure out the mystery, breaking a myriad of school rules in the process and nearly (of course) getting expelled. When Hermione is attacked, Hogwarts is on the point of shutting down for good. It’s up to Harry, Ron, and the famous but useless Professor Gilderoy Lockhart to discover where the Chamber of Secrets is located and defeat the evil that lurks within.

I have to say I enjoyed reading this installment in the series quite a bit less than the previous book. The character of the self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart, while resonating with the publisher in me, was too overdone to be funny--like a Monty Python skit that is shown over and over again until all the humor is thoroughly beaten out of it. Also in this category was the scene with Ron vomiting up slugs. Several pages of such imagery is more than enough for even the most scatologically-inclined juvenile reader.

On the other hand, I did like the character of Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister. In fact, I think that a lot of homeschool families would find the Weasleys very sympathetic. They've got seven kids--six boys and a girl. They're poor, so they're forced to make due with hand-me-down robes and second-hand wands. And they're ridiculed by their social "betters" for their financial straits. That Ron and his brothers are quick to resort to fisticuffs rather than hear their family demeaned may also resonate with some.

One thing that particularly irritated me about The Chamber of Secrets was the introduction of some alternate history taken directly from wicca 101. "Hogwarts was founded over a thousand years ago by the four greatest witches and wizards of the time," the ghost of Professor Binns lectures. "They built this castle together, far from prying Muggle eyes, for it was an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution" (pg. 150). I've heard similar nonsense bandied about by real, modern, historically-challenged wiccans, so when I saw this, I just shook my head. Not good. To my eye, this looked like a seed planted by Rowling and it seemed to substantiate Amy Welborn's observation:
"There's only one reason the Harry Potter books are in the least bit controversial. Just one. Wicca. That's it. If we didn't have this ridiculous little "religion" bustling around, forming "covens" in dorm rooms and getting army chaplains, I doubt one parent in a million would even think to waste even a minute being concerned about these books."
But it is a concern. For the record, there is an excellent article in the Catholic Encyclopedia that gives a capsule scholarly history of witchcraft from the Catholic perspective and it is very effective in debunking wicca and its ridiculous alternate history. I hope that the future books in the series do not contain other such seeds--I'll certainly be looking for them.

The Chamber of Secrets also elaborates upon the differences between the magically inclined and those poor benighted creatures known as Muggles--that is, anyone who is "normal" and non-magical. In Rowling's world, there are those among the magical who despise the "Mudbloods"--anyone who is magical but from a Muggle family--and those good magic-users who are tolerant of Muggles, no matter how awful and nasty they may be. There seems to be an obvious intent on Rowling's part to make this a lesson in tolerance somehow, but it seems peculiarly elitist to me. Even the magical beings who tolerate the Muggles still, for them most part, look down on them as curious and generally pathetic creatures in need of study. One could easily imagine a book of poetry in the Hogwart's library containing "The Magical Man's Burden." I'm curious to see where this tangent ends up in the future books.

The climax of the book was also subpar. The horrible creature in the Chamber of Secrets is fairly inept. It kills no one (and the reasons given for this are ludicrous) and is eventually destroyed almost by accident. Though Harry is the hero, he seems to survive his deadly encounters almost completely by luck and the intervention of an "eye-in-the-sky"--all of which makes you wonder why the "eye-in-the-sky" didn't just deal with the problem in the first place.

I've heard it said that Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the Potter books. Having read only the previous one, I can't comment on that, yet. However, it was certainly weaker than Sorcerer's Stone. The book also did little to quell my criticisms of the original book. Indeed, it enhanced them and added a few new ones. We'll see where all this leads in book three.


Anonymous said...

I found CoS the weakest book for many reasons. But I also loved the Weasley's and liked the fact that unlike many modern books- a large family is shown to be of value, and more kids at the expense of less money is a good thing.

I didn't pick up on any wiccan stuff, but I'm not versed in that, so it's not something I would notice.
However, I am aware of witch trials and such and it's quite possible the author was inventing a 'history' for her magic world based on such things, without any connection to wicca at all (I had something similar in a story I once wrote back in college and I have no knoweldge of what wiccans think on the matter). As Welborn says (in her overall defense of the books) the problem with Harry Potter is the time we live in, and the new age and neo pagan world around us- even if the author intended no connection, people will make them, when 50 years ago they would never have done so.

But I refuse to let the neopagans redefine fairy tale (anymore than I'll let them take Halloween from the Christians with their revised history- that day is OURS). And I've not let fears of possible neopagan interpretations of Harry Potter mar my enjoyment of the books, or their promotion of some wonderful values that are so missing from our modern world, especially about the value of family, parents, children, over money, power, and worldly prestige. The books are not perfect, and have some problematic sections (though the new age aspect is not what i find a problem, as I think folks can read neopaganism into Lord of the Rings, too, and I do not think that the author was promoting it).

But they also have moral questions that are worth raising and discussing, a clear line between good and evil, and a promotion of family values that is so sorely missing from popular culture.

As far as this particular book, my problem was it seemed a weaker version of the first story- same villain, but not nearly as scarey. Keep reading, though- the importance of this book and how it unfolded will make more sense later. I did not appreciate this one until I read the last one (though I still think it's the weakest book, and i think your crit of a few 'overdone' sections is on target.. although dang, I loved the slugs. :)).

Jeff Miller said...

Here is an very good article on the so-called witch hunts by Church historian Sandra Miesel:

I doubt that Rowlng intended her narrative to follow the Wiccan Narrative, but what they have in common is that they are both fiction.

Florentius said...


I'm less concerned with neo-pagan interpretations of the books than I am with seeds planted to make younger readers curious about the history (or alternate history) of witchcraft in the real world. Having only read the first two books in the series, I don't know where Rowling is going with this yet, or if she's going anywhere with it. Having debated with wiccans before, that passage just made my antennae go up.

Florentius said...


Here's a better link:

Great Witch Hunt: What Really Happened?

And this article makes an important point--magic/sorcery has been a abhorred and its practitioners liable to capital punishment since ancient times. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and others condemned it in their laws in no uncertain terms. Even among the Eastern Woodland Native American tribes, sorcerers were liable to be killed for any reason and no reason, with the killer suffering no punishment.