Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling

Giles Greenfield’s cover for the UK hardback

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.

Art by Kazu Kibuishi

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…”

Art by Brian Selznick

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.

Art by Jonny Duddle

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.

eBook cover art, by Olly Moss.

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.

Art by Jim Kay

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.

Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts

First UK edition

Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.

Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.

Badbury Rings

In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.

It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:

“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”

The Little Review, Jan-Mar 1921, where the first instalment of Ashe of Rings appeared

Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.

The Little Review, Sep 1921, with the second instalment of Ashe of Rings

Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).

On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:

“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”

But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:

“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”

I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:

“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”

Mary Butts in 1919

Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.

In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.

It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

My cover to the Bookship hardback

David Lindsay’s first novel, which he called Nightspore in Tormance but his publishers renamed to the slightly more comprehensible (if bland) A Voyage to Arcturus, came out one hundred years ago this month. I first heard of it thanks to Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, which I’d bought because I’d grown dissatisfied with the sort of genre fare I was finding in my local bookshops, and was wondering if I shouldn’t give up reading fantasy altogether. I decided if I couldn’t find something in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s list to re-enthuse me, I’d look for a different genre to read.

Their summary of A Voyage to Arcturus left me somewhat mystified as to what the book was actually about, and certainly didn’t sell it to me:

Arcturus itself is not an ingratiating work; the shelf it occupies is a short one, reserved for titles more often to be found in lists than in reader’s pockets. The message it spells out is no comforting one.”

I’d probably never have read it had I not found it in a secondhand bookshop with that lovely Bob Pepper cover and thought “Might as well.” Even then, it sat on my shelf for a while before I actually picked it up and gave it a go.

Bob Pepper’s artwork for the Ballantine paperback of A Voyage to Arcturus

At first, I continued to be nonplussed. It seemed a little old-fashioned in style, and along with the freedom of imagination you often find in novels written before their genre conventions gel, it had that quaint lack of scientific or logical consistency that comes from somebody building a world before the idea of world-building set in. It was a strange book, yet not with the poetic strangeness of Clark Ashton Smith, or the uncanny strangeness of Lovecraft. If anything it seemed, stylistically, to be doing its best not to seem strange, but rather to present all its odd characters, sights, and events in as matter-of-fact a manner as any mundane travelogue:

Before many minutes he was able to distinguish the shapes and colours of the flying monsters. They were not birds, but creatures with long, snake-like bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were of bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow. They were flying, without haste, but in a somewhat ominous fashion, straight towards them. He could make out a long, thin spike projecting from each of the heads.

“They are shrowks,” explained Oceaxe at last. “If you want to know their intention, I’ll tell you. To make a meal of us. First of all their spikes will pierce us, and then their mouths, which are really suckers, will drain us dry of blood. . . . pretty thoroughly too; there are no half-measures with shrowks. They are toothless beasts, so don’t eat flesh.”

But then something happened. Pushing on through the book (more for the sake of finishing it than anything else), I became aware that some inner part of me, some second, more discerning reader — my inner Nightspore to the outer Maskull — was really caught up in it. It seemed to be saying: Something is going on in this book, and I have no idea what! I finished it in a rush, because I’d suddenly realised I hadn’t been paying it the attention it deserved, and I needed to start reading it again, this time making notes.

Various covers, art by (clockwise from top left): Peter A Jones, Ron Miller, …, Florence Magnin, Karl Stephan, Kato Naoyuki, Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Jean Delville (design by John Coulthart)

In a sense, I’m still doing that. I’ve re-read Arcturus countless times, and each time I feel the need to read it again, paying still closer attention — or I feel the need to plough through the rest of Lindsay’s novels in succession, to try and grasp them all as one thing in my head and this time work it out. (I’ve even wondered if it’s not part of some “Lindsay effect”, a trick of that matter-of-fact literary style that leaves you constantly feeling you’ve almost-but-not-quite grasped something utterly intriguing.)

Soon after I first got on the internet, I started a website dedicated to Lindsay, mostly because I’d managed to acquire Colin Wilson, J B Pick, and E H Visiak’s book, The Strange Genius of David Lindsay — for £3! — and, feeling privileged to have got it, wanted to share the information inside it, feeling there had to be other people out there as hungry for information on Lindsay as I was. At first I added my own commentaries about the books, but soon removed those sections, feeling that the more I read Lindsay’s work, the less I knew about it. I kept The Violet Apple site (named after a posthumously published Lindsay novel which was the first book I bought online — thanks to Blackwell’s rare book search service, in fact) strictly factual for a while, apart from one article (“Four Approaches to A Voyage to Arcturus”), which was more about how the book defied any single interpretation than an attempt at offering an understanding of it.

(Another thing that has shifted in my view of the book, and Lindsay’s work as a whole, is its darkness. Initially encountering Lindsay and Arcturus, you can get caught up in that darkness — after all, it’s a novel about world-rejection, where only Pain can redeem you from all the terrible pleasures of life; and meanwhile Lindsay himself, after a lack of success as an author, died quite unpleasantly from self-neglect. But the more I’ve read it, the more I’ve seen that actually it’s a book shot through with a vitality that defies the darkness, and seeks something better. With Arcturus, the darkness is not the end point, but the beginning, and the impulse behind it is one of uncompromisingly seeking something better.)

Ad from The Times, September 1920

I like how open to interpretation A Voyage to Arcturus is, even while it has an evident meaning. Yes, it’s a gnostic text, but also it’s an exploration of a certain sort of psychological state that (in my view) is more fundamental than any religious or philosophical outlook: if you are not your authentic self (if you are Maskull, as opposed to Nightspore), then the world will seem like Crystalman’s prison, and it will be hard, dangerous work trying to untangle yourself from it. (Lindsay’s friend, E H Visiak, read the book in completely Christian terms; Colin Wilson read it as an allegory of consciousness; J B Pick saw it as vision.)

Most recently, I’ve come to see A Voyage to Arcturus as an incredibly rich archetype of the quest for truth. (And I think it’s in the book’s archetypal, or mythical, structure that its power lies — it certainly wasn’t its ideas that grabbed me on that first read, but something far more instinctual, mythical, musical even.)

Romanian edition

The protagonist Maskull begins the book not really invested in any search for truth as such, but once he gets caught up in it, he goes through all the possible stages of being deceived, wrong-footed, sidetracked, aggrandised, defeated, converted, bamboozled, disillusioned and overwhelmed, before finally, worn out through a series of breakneck back-and-forths, he snaps, and finds the simplicity and truth he was seeking all along — a simplicity that transforms him from Maskull to Nightspore, and turns the world from benighted deception into one lit by a beacon of pure truth (Muspel-fire).

I still find Lindsay himself something of a mystery. The power of his first novel was never quite equalled — except in snatches — in his subsequent books, though I have found all of them more and more interesting the more I read them. But the question I’m still undecided on is how in command of his material Lindsay was. Did he know what he was doing? I don’t think any creative artist of any real power does entirely, but there’s still the question of how much they know what they’re doing. A Voyage to Arcturus’s utter strangeness could be down to a certain naivety on Lindsay’s part, a beginner’s luck approach of letting his wild imagination go utterly free before the self-consciousness of post-publication hit him with how he ought to write. But hints in his letters — a reference to the mystical German writer Jakob Böhme for instance — make it clear he wasn’t an entirely innocent wanderer in fairyland, either.

Lindsay from the cover of Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay

“Only a very few people will ever read Arcturus,” he reportedly once said to Victor Gollancz, “but as long as even two or three people will listen to Beethoven, two or three people will read it.” A Voyage to Arcturus now seems to have found an established place on many lists of classics of SF, fantasy, and imaginative literature, as well as Scottish novels, and even early 20th century fiction generally, and every few days I get a Google Alert telling me that someone, somewhere, on Twitter or some obscure internet forum, is recommending it as one of the strangest and most compelling books they’ve read. (Or, more rarely, saying it’s the most boring or incomprehensible book they’ve ever read.)

In a way, then, Lindsay has been proved right. Beethoven is certainly in no danger of not being listened to; now, I hope, A Voyage to Arcturus is in no danger of ever not being read, even if just by a few.