The word “fire” in the title of the fourth Harry Potter book (published in 2000) immediately makes me think of tests and trials, the idea of something passing through flames and emerging proved and tempered. Books about youngsters who learn they have magical powers are often stories of initiation, as with The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (recently dramatised on CBBC). But Harry learned he had magical powers in book one, and this is book four, so why is this theme of initiation being highlighted now?
In a way, this is a point conceded by Goblet of Fire as, instead of providing a new task of initiation, it gives us a summary of the previous three books. Harry’s name is, unbeknownst to him, put in for the Triwizard Championship, and he finds himself thrust into the limelight — just as he was when he first arrived at Hogwarts, and found everyone knew his name because of his role in the downfall of Voldemort. As a result, he’s put through three tasks, which could be reminders of the three previous books, and so of tasks he’s already faced. First, he has to get a golden egg guarded by a dragon — just as, in the first book, he had to acquire the Philosopher’s Stone before Voldemort could use it. Second, he has to rescue “what you’ll sorely miss” from the depths — in this case, his best friend Ron Weasley from the depths of Hogwarts Lake, but in the second book it was his future wife Ginny Weasley from the depths of the Chamber of Secrets. In the third task he has to get through a dangerous maze — and a maze being a sort of prison, this recalls the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, not just metaphorically, but also because the maze contains, for Harry, a Dementor, or a Boggart-appearing-as-a-Dementor, both of which featured in that third book.
So what does The Goblet of Fire add to the mix, rather than just being a reminder of how far Harry has come? An important part of initiations isn’t just the trials you go through, but the fact that they’re acknowledged by the community as a whole. Initiation in whatever form — into adulthood, into an organisation — is a public announcement as much as it’s an inner transformation, and here we get a couple of acknowledgements (aside from his very publicly winning the Triwizard Championship) that Harry has made the grade. Dumbledore says to Harry:
“You have shouldered a grown wizard’s burden and found yourself equal to it…”
And this comes after, earlier in the book, Harry allowed himself his most open admission of his child-state so far:
“What he really wanted (and it felt almost shameful to admit it to himself) was someone like – someone like a parent: an adult wizard whose advice he could ask without feeling stupid, someone who cared about him, who had had experience of Dark Magic…”
The second acknowledgement comes from Dumbledore’s opposite, Voldemort, when he and Harry square off in a graveyard:
“And now you face me, like a man… straight backed and proud, the way your father died…”
Tales of initiation often have a presiding Magus figure to lead the protagonist through the process and arrange the tests and trials. There’s Prospero testing Ferdinand in The Tempest, and Sarastro in a similar role in The Magic Flute; the “Valerie” section in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is one of the most powerful examples, for me, with V himself as the puppetmaster; and later, we get a more ambiguous version in John Fowles’s The Magus. Who is the figure presiding over Harry’s initiation? It ought to be Dumbledore, but it isn’t, because one point about Harry’s initiation in this book is that it comes too early. He’s too young to enter the Triwizard Championship, and he’s too young to face the very real dangers his initiation leads him into — but so much of the series is about Harry being thrust into situations too dangerous or testing for one so young, first of which is Harry’s parents being killed by Voldemort when he was still a baby. No, the presiding figure for Harry’s initiation is Voldemort, and if there’s a dark figure presiding over an initiation, any actual initiation that occurs is a by-product of the process, not an intention. Voldemort, after all, doesn’t want Harry to come into his powers; he wants to kill him. Harry’s successful initiation is a side-effect of Voldemort’s failure.
(And anyway, there’s another necessary element that makes for a full initiation, so it’s still not complete. That’s left for the next book, The Order of the Phoenix.)
It’s an interesting theme of the series, how evil and good can’t help being intertwined. The link between Harry and Voldemort — in the way Harry’s scar hurts when He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named is doing, or thinking about doing, something particularly evil, and the way Harry dreams about what is actually happening to Voldemort — recalls, for me, Mina Murray’s link with Dracula in the second half of Bram Stoker’s novel. Both Mina and Harry are unfinished victims, and this unfinishedness has unintended consequences, giving them insights into their victimisers that leave their enemies just slightly vulnerable. Evil, which thinks only about itself, discovers its weakness in the fact that it can’t help being linked to others.
But, with all this talk about initiation, does Harry “come into his powers” at all? Is Harry any good as a wizard? It’s clear that Hermione is the most capable wizard. Ron is the most klutzy. Harry generally tends towards the Ron end of the scale, except in two ways. One is that, when faced with the darker extremes of magic, he tends to come through. He might not be able to levitate a pillow to its intended location, but when he’s in desperate straits — and when his anger, determination, or sense of what is right is activated — he can pull off some pretty advanced magic. He might not be able to mend his own glasses, but he can repel a horde of Dementors.
The other factor in Harry’s ability as a wizard comes not from his own powers, but the power of others. Time and time again Harry gets through a task or solves a problem by getting help from others. And this might seem, if you’re viewing him as the traditional type of man-alone hero like James Bond or Conan, as a weakness, but it’s quite obviously a tremendous strength. Voldemort is the loner, the one who’d rather kill other people than have to rely on them; Harry is constantly winning loyalties and friendships, all of which pay off. And at the end of this book, it’s precisely because Voldemort has killed so many people and Harry has killed none that Harry escapes with his life.
The theme of memory magic which I mentioned in my Mewsings on the second book as being important in the series is less so here — even though this is the book that introduces the most important aspect of memory magic, Dumbledore’s pensieve, with its ability to store and share memories — but the wider theme of how a community’s “memory”, its history, and even the way it interprets the present, can be skewed, starts to become a lot more prevalent in The Goblet of Fire. First we have Rita Skeeter, who wilfully twists everything that’s going on into a tabloidese version so removed from the truth it sounds unbelievable, only people do believe it (even Mrs Weasley gets turned against Hermione because of it). And then we have Cornelius Fudge, head of the Ministry of Magic, who we see actively recasting the rebirth of Voldemort into something more acceptable: the actions of a single madman, and therefore nothing to worry about.
Previously in the series I’ve highlighted dangerously neutral characters like Ollivander the Wand Vendor who seem to revere power over goodness. (And here we get Crouch Senior, who despite being vehemently opposed to Voldemort, is “as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark side”, and who allowed the use of Unforgivable Curses on those merely suspected of being Death Eaters.) With Cornelius Fudge, though, we see someone with power (he’s Minister for Magic, after all), who’s unwilling to use it, as doing so would upset the status quo. He’s the archetypal “good man who does nothing”, a passive neutral whose passivity empowers those who are prepared to actually use their power.
Goblet of Fire, despite being the longest book in the series so far, is also the most tightly and satisfyingly plotted. And it features the darkest turn yet, with the moment Harry and Cedric appear in the graveyard feeling like a real switch into bleakness and evil. The book’s big revelation — that all of this was plotted by Voldemort — feels like it’s saying that, despite Harry’s getting through the previous three books and defeating Voldemort each time, it was all for nothing, because Voldemort won this time. All of Harry’s previous victories, then, can seem to have been falsified in this book, as can all the time we’ve spent with the wonderfully battered and cranky “Mad Eye” Moody, who would be my favourite character in the book, if only it hadn’t turned out not to have been “Mad Eye” Moody at all.
What happens after an initiation, a passage through fire? After initiation, one is a member of a group; after passing through fire, one is reborn. Both aspects are acknowledged, I like to think, in the title of the next book, The Order of the Phoenix.