Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling

Kazu Kibuishi cover

Coming back to J K Rowling’s second Harry Potter book (published in 1998), I was expecting it to feel (as the film does), pretty much a re-run of the first. So, we have Harry’s magic-fuelled rescue from the repressive Dursleys; an early meeting with yet another (dangerously inadequate) Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher; the unknowing acquisition of an object that’s the cause of the rest of the book’s plot at Diagon Alley; a spectacular entry to Hogwarts (in the first book it’s spectacular because your first entry to Hogwarts can’t help being spectacular, in the second book it’s because Harry and Ron drive a flying car into an angry tree); an encounter with a magical creature in a bathroom (a troll, a ghost); the lead trio’s assuming another character (Snape, Malfoy) is the cause of all the evil just because they’re a bully; a trip into the Forbidden Forest to gain a final clue then flee a malevolent being; a chamber deep underground where the evil is faced — an evil which first of all provides an explanation of all the plot points Harry (and the reader) might have missed; then a rabbit-from-the-hat (literally from a hat, here) acquisition of a powerful magical artefact that saves the day. (And it’s odd how important a role items of clothing — a pocket, a cloak, a battered hat, a slimy sock — have had in these books.)

Mary DuPré cover

All this highlights how certain locations have already, in this second book, acquired specific functions. The Dursleys’ is a place of comic scenes about the Oliver Twist-levels of awfulness with which Harry’s treated just for being different, and which can only be escaped with spectacular irruptions of magic. The Weasleys’ is the opposite. In the first book we didn’t see their home, but their mere presence at King’s Cross Station as a bustle of kids round the ultimate good-enough mother, Mrs Weasley, was enough; now we get to see their actual home, the Burrow (a name that can’t help but summon associations with hobbits, rabbits, and Borrowers), which Harry calls “the best house I’ve ever been in”, but by which he really means the best home. Diagon Alley and the Forbidden Forest, meanwhile, share a role as dangerously neutral places, of the Wizarding World, but outside the safety of Hogwarts. This is less the case with Diagon Alley, though it allows glimpses of how the Wizarding World includes the Dark Arts as well as the light (in its sinister twin, Knockturn Alley, for instance), but which is basically civilised. The creatures met in the Forbidden Forest, on the other hand, are neither good nor evil; they may help Harry, but they’re suspicious of, and antagonistic towards, humans, and their neutrality is an even more extreme variety of that unreliable sort I mentioned in my entry on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (in relation to Ollivander and the Sorting Hat, who are impressed by “greatness” — power — rather than goodness).

Brian Selznick cover

And then there’s bathrooms… Bathrooms, two books into the series, have already acquired a weirdly specific role. They’re places where characters — generally female characters, though I’m sure Malfoy joins the list in a later book — can go to be alone and miserable, and where doing so opens them up to supernatural attack. In the first book, Hermione retreats to a bathroom after being rejected by Ron and Harry, only to have to be rescued from a troll. Moaning Myrtle, when she was still alive, was hiding in the bathroom, crying after being bullied, when she found herself abruptly shunted into her present ghosthood. (She feels, now, like the presiding spirit of misery Rowling seems to associate with school bathrooms.) We don’t see Ginny Weasley retreat to a girls’ bathroom in the same way, but she has a similar air of vulnerable unhappiness and a need to unburden herself (which she does in the secret diary, rather than a toilet cubicle), but which ends in the same way, as the Chamber of Secrets, reached through a girls’ bathroom, becomes the most girls-bathroom of all girls’ bathrooms, the ultimate in lonely hideaways where misery has left her helplessly at the mercy of supernatural danger.

Which leads me to wonder about the possible metaphorical meanings of this second Harry Potter book’s title. What is The Chamber of Secrets? Is it a hidden and “best-forgotten” repository of the darker aspects of Hogwarts’ past (such as the fact that one of its founders, Salazar Slytherin, was a pure-blood extremist)? Or is it, perhaps, an eleven-year-old girl’s heart, whose deepest, most vulnerable feelings have been deposited in a secret diary? (“I suppose the real reason Ginny Weasley’s like this is because she opened her heart and spilled all her secrets to an invisible stranger.”)

Olly Moss ebook cover

Because there are two types of secrets, here. The first sort — the “best-forgotten” aspects of a darker past that are in fact best not forgotten — are secret because they’re morally shameful, and no one wants to remember them, but they really need to be remembered, otherwise they’ll come back and repeat the horrors of former days. The second sort — those hidden in Ginny’s heart, and briefly expressed in a supposed-to-be-anonymous Valentine’s card — are secret because they reveal one’s human vulnerability, and are really best kept hidden, at least from those one can’t fully trust. The first type are a society’s guilty secrets, the second a blameless individual’s. (Harry’s hiding away under his Cloak of Invisibility to visit the Mirror of Erised in Philosopher’s Stone has a similar feel to Ginny’s dangerous relationship with Tom Riddle’s diary. Both are about the risks of dwelling on one’s unhappiness alone. But Ginny’s are all the more dangerous because she’s not really alone.)

I said in my look at the first book how the Harry Potter series’ main fantasy element was the existence of magic, and how that led to a major theme being the use and misuse of power. But with this second book I’m starting to suspect some aspects of magic are more thematically rich than others. Those relating to memory, for instance, which comes to prominence as a theme in The Chamber of Secrets.

Professor Lockhart manipulates others’ memories through his misuse of magical power, making them forget their most heroic stories so he can claim them as his own. This may not be an explicit evil, but is as close to it as selfishness always is.

Cliff Wright UK PB cover

And Lockhart reveals something important about memory in the Harry Potter series as a whole. By stealing others’ stories and claiming them as his own, he’s not just altering personal memories, but rewriting a collective memory, the story the Wizarding World tells itself about itself. (In this case, that heroic deeds are done by handsome wizards, not warty-faced witches.) Lockhart’s might seem a minor “evil” — we might compare it to the Dursleys’ non-magical tampering with Harry’s memories (or lack of them), by lying about what happened to his parents. The Dursleys, like Lockhart, manipulate the truth in small ways to their own ends, not caring about the damage they cause to the individuals involved.

But Tom Riddle, and the Chamber of Secrets, show how dangerous the manipulation of memory (and, really, history) can be. Because everyone has done their best to forget about the last opening of the Chamber of Secrets, no one’s prepared to deal with it when it opens again. Some even do their best to dismiss it as a myth until they’re well past the danger-point. And because the Chamber’s secret was never properly unearthed in the past (Tom Riddle made it so Hagrid got the blame, and Hagrid is of course blamed again when the Chamber re-opens, allowing it to claim yet more victims), so Hogwarts is just as vulnerable and unprepared this time round — both for the Chamber of Secrets in this book, and Voldemort’s rise in the whole series.

Jonny Duddle cover

Tom Riddle not only manipulates memory. When Harry asks if he’s a ghost, he claims to actually be a memory. Evil lives on in hidden memories, is enabled by our attempts to forget the darkness of the past, and gains its ability to operate without interference from the manipulating of history. (“Dumbledore’s been driven out of this castle by the mere memory of me!”) Rowling’s use of characters being able to experience others’ memories (here, through the diary; later, through Dumbledore’s pensieve) is not just a way of spicing up what would otherwise be exposition by telling it as “live” story, but allows those memories to be flawed — incomplete, blurred, elided, manipulated. Voldemort’s return to power, ultimately, is enabled because people forget how it happened the last time, and deny for too long it’s happening again. That, in large part, is what the Harry Potter series is about — and why Harry, being a truth-Seeker, aided in his task by wisdom (Dumbledore), knowledge (Hermione), and down-to-earthness (Ron), is the focal character the series needs.

After Chamber of Secrets, my own memory of the Harry Potter books increasingly blends into one narrative. Which means, I think, that the deeper story starts to really take hold with the next book, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, what role do bathrooms play in that one?

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