“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
It’s Tournament of Books time! If you’ve never heard of the ToB and you like books, can I suggest you go check it out immediately? It’s possibly the most exciting internet event I have yet come across, and it introduced me to readable literary criticism, and if that isn’t a good enough recommendation then I don’t know what is.
With that excitement over with: let’s get cracking, dear reader.
I’m re-reading Harry Potter this year because the Book Smugglers are doing so, and it seemed like a good idea to get back in contact with the texts themselves, rather than this shared cultural idea we all have about what is now more an entertainment franchise than anything else.
I reviewed Philosopher a couple of years ago on the blog, and I didn’t really feel I had too much to say about it this time around, so here we are with Chamber of Secrets.
A brief plot summary for those of you who have miraculously escaped the Potterverse. All is not well at Hogwarts School, as a spate of strange attacks attributed to the mysterious and dreadful bogey the Heir of Slytherin terrorises the students and staff, and Harry Potter, boy wizard, hears disembodied voices in the wall. Who is the Heir of Slytherin? What is it that is muttering imprecations of violence in the walls? And can Harry and his friends solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets before the school is closed?
Chamber of Secrets is at its heart a tale about prejudice (and, by analogy, racism). Salazar Slytherin, the founder of one of the school’s four houses, was a notorious proponent of the idea that only pure-blood witches and wizards should be able to attend the school, and that so-called Muggle-borns (witches and wizards born to non-magical parents) should be shunned. The attacks at the school are all on Muggle-borns or Squibs (pure-blood witches and wizards who can’t do magic), and the book explores in some detail the various systems of prejudice in place throughout the wizarding world.
One of the things that I forgot about the novel was just how menacing it is: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the Heir, beware.” Written in blood (well, actually, red paint, but we don’t know that yet) on the wall above a comatose cat. That’s horror-film stuff right there. It’s a very effective way of registering the horror of prejudice, I think: it turns the heimlich unheimlich, the familiar strange and awful, working from within to attack (because it’s always already latent in) the structures of regularity and order and Civilised Behaviour we construct around us. (The Chamber of Secrets, centuries old, is said to have been constructed in the castle right at its very beginnings.) In Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts, Harry’s escape from the abuse he suffers at the hands of his Muggle aunt and uncle, turns upon itself, its own miraculous and homely architecture generating monsters and buried secrets, its own student body attacking itself. As the attacks against Muggle-borns worsen and increase, the society within the castle begins to freeze up: students lose much of their freedom, shepherded between classes by teachers, and hysteria breaks out, youngsters flinging accusations back and forth. It’s a particularly well-judged piece of symbolism that those attacked by the Heir of Slytherin are Petrified: literally, frozen, made voiceless, their agency stolen away; made irrelevant by prejudice.
Unfortunately, this subtle piece of allegorisation clashes with Rowling’s elaboration of the book’s moral message, which is that individuals should be judged by their choices, not by what is innate to them (be that their parentage, their ability to talk to snakes, their social status, etc.). Abstractly, of course, this is a theme which meshes perfectly with a tale about prejudice and racism; but Rowling embodies it as Harry’s inward struggle against what he thinks of as his innate Slytherin-ness, a struggle brought to a head by his encounter with Tom Riddle, the ghost of the series’ Dark Lord, Voldemort. Like Harry, Tom is an orphan who hates the Muggle world; like Harry, Tom speaks Parselmouth, the language of snakes. Tom functions, effectively, as Harry’s double, the point supposedly being that Tom is what Harry might have become. (I’m not going to go into the fact that it’s practically impossible to see Harry choosing to side with the person who killed his parents.) This metaplot essentially dramatises the hero’s struggle with the Dark Side of his personality.
Again, this is a perfectly fine literary strategy, if a little hackneyed by now, except that its very interiority sets up interference patterns with the social focus of the book’s discussion of racism. What it means in practice is that the culminating confrontation between hero and villain, the confrontation which saves all the victims and potential victims of the prejudice that Tom has unleashed upon the school, occurs not between perpetrator and victim, between prejudiced and prejudicee, but between privileged-and-prejudiced-person and privileged-and-unprejudiced person. Harry is pure-blood; the Muggle-borns aren’t allowed to fight for themselves (the book is particularly hard on Hermione, Harry’s best friend, who is both Muggle-born and, being female, a member of an actual real-life minority; she does all the intellectual hard work before literally being fridged so that Harry can go on and save her), which makes Harry’s defeat of Tom, prejudice incarnate, uncomfortably reminiscent of Sherlock’s realisation that perhaps feminists have a point in The Abominable Bride. To put it another way: while the racism storyline is predicated on difference, the inner struggle storyline is predicated on sameness, and the two sit uneasily beside each other.
I still think Chamber of Secrets is a hugely enjoyable book: I’d genuinely forgotten how good Rowling is at plotting and pacing, and how saturated the books are in authentic detail without feeling over-determined. I just think – well, a lot of fans proffer the books’ depiction of racism as evidence of its literary worth, and, actually, when you look hard at this book, at least, it’s not wholly unproblematic.