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.

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.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

Art by Jonny Duddle

…So, maybe bathrooms aren’t that important in the Harry Potter series, as they don’t feature at all in the third book. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) feels different in a number of ways from the first two books. The basic elements of a Harry Potter story are here — the eruption of magic into the Dursley’s ultra-mundane lives at the start, leading to a spectacular magical-form-of-transport escape (this time the Knight Bus), a visit to Diagon Alley (the Harry Potter equivalent of James Bond’s visits to Q before a mission), a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher first encountered outside of Hogwarts, Quidditch, Quidditch, and more damned Quidditch (too much Quidditch in this one), a dark character assumed to be the cause of the main evil but who turns out not to be (previously Snape, then Malfoy, now Sirius Black), an underground chamber (or at least one reached by an underground tunnel) where we get a long exposition before a showdown with the actual evil… But some of the other elements I listed as part of the Harry Potter “formula” in my entry on The Chamber of Secrets are getting a lot more tenuous. The magical item unknowingly acquired in Diagon Alley that turns out to drive the rest of the plot, here, is Ron’s rat. He’s been around for a lot longer, of course, but his oddity (his long-livedness) gets highlighted in Diagon Alley for the first time. Ron and Harry don’t, as they do in the last two books, venture into the Forbidden Forest to meet a dangerous-but-neutral magical creature and gain a vital clue, but Sirius Black has been living in the Forbidden Forest for most of the novel; he just comes out to meet them. And the usual resolution, where Harry pulls a magical object out of an item of clothing — a pocket, a hat — might in this case be fulfilled by Peter Pettigrew, who emerges from Ron’s pocket.

Cliff Wright cover

Perhaps most different to the previous two books is that this is the first in the series (the only one, I think) not to feature a personal appearance by Voldemort (or even a fragment of him). This easily might not have worked — normally, you’d expect each book in a series to up the stakes each time — but actually it allows for a much more satisfying and complex resolution, as it can’t all be explained away as the actions of pure evil, but of human beings in all their complexity of flaws, failures, and virtues. By not featuring Voldemort, the third Harry Potter book actually takes the series up a notch in terms of moral and emotional complexity.

I do think that this book — which is half again as long as either of the previous two — feels a bit baggy in the middle, with a lot less focus, and a few scenes on the soap-opera-ish side that add a little colour to the characters but nothing to the plot. Plus, it’s particularly Quidditchy, and Quidditch — whose matches are, in a way, echoes of the main story’s Eucatastrophic endings, with Harry snatching the Snitch out of nowhere to win the game, just as he pulls a Philosopher’s Stone from his pocket, or the Sword of Gryffindor from a hat — feel a bit manipulative in story terms, as it’s all about Harry feeling bad (when his team loses) or good (when he wins), but without gaining any knowledge or interesting experience en route. (Except for the usual mid-match attempts on his life, I suppose.)

But the ending, as I say, is the best so far — helped no end by being a double ending, as the final events are replayed by Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner, giving them a much-needed nudge towards another (but not wholly) happy ending. That’s satisfying on a plot level (and it’s done even better in the film, where they have a lot more fun with it), but there’s also deeper emotional satisfaction in Harry’s finding he’s gained a godfather and thinking at one point he’s seen his father.

Brian Selznick cover

There’s a lot more of a personal connection between Harry and the past events that drive this book, too. There’s always the connection of Harry wanting to get his own back on Voldemort for killing his parents, of course, but here we learn a lot more about Harry’s father and his friends at school, and how one of them betrayed him, and how another took the blame. We also learn that Harry’s father and his friends weren’t entirely “good”, as they played a prank on a young Severus Snape (who, in this book, is at his most venomous and mean) that could have killed him. For added poignance, we get to witness a moment whose significance it’s easy to miss, as it’s not underlined in the text, as Harry finds himself in a position very similar to that of Voldemort on the fateful night when his parents died. Voldemort wanted to kill baby Harry, but Lily Potter stood in the way; now, we see Harry wanting to kill Sirius Black (who he thinks is responsible for his parents’ death), only to have Crookshanks the cat leap in the way. It’s like a test of how different Harry is from Voldemort — or, maybe, it’s a living flashback. And Harry’s been having plenty of those, thanks to the Dementors bringing back in vivid detail his mother’s screams on the night she died.

Olly Moss ebook cover

I said in my entry about The Chamber of Secrets that memory and memory-related magic were important to the series, and it’s even more true in this book. Rowling finds all sorts of ways of bringing the past alive as a living force. It can be in characters who were thought to be dead coming back to life (Peter Pettigrew), Harry’s Dementor-driven flashbacks (traumatic memory as a source of weakness), or the counter to them, where positive memories can power a Patronus (memory as a source of strength). Harry and Hermione’s use of the Time-Turner to revisit their own close past and make a few changes is like another version of the series’ use of relived memories (the Mirror of Erised in Stone, Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber, and Dumbledore’s Pensieve later on). Meanwhile, the malleability of memories and stories about the past are highlighted by Peter Pettigrew’s faking his own death to frame Sirius, but also perhaps in this book’s other memory-themed thread, Divination, where prophecies are a sort of memory of the future, and just as deceptive as memories of the past. (And just as powerful in their ability to reshape the world, too, as comes clear in a later book, where we learn Voldemort’s motive in seeking Harry that night — and thus bringing about his own demise — was down to his believing one particular prophecy.)

Recovering — and correcting — memories and stories of the past, in this book, are part of Harry’s role as a truth-seeker, which can lead not just to a sense of the truth revealed but to a righting of wrongs. Given the chance to kill Pettigrew, the man who brought about his parents’ death, Harry decides to hand him over so his story can be told, meaning not only will Pettigrew get his proper punishment, but Sirius Black can be absolved. As Dumbledore says, in one of his wise summings up at the end of the book:

“Didn’t make any difference?” said Dumbledore quietly. “It made all the difference in the world, Harry. You helped uncover the truth. You saved an innocent man from a terrible fate.”

Kazu Kibuishi cover

And it’s no surprise that a book with such a title as The Prisoner of Azkaban is full of prisons both literal and metaphorical, as well as escapes from them. There’s Harry’s escape from the Dursleys in a burst of magic (and a certain amount of wild-talent psychokinesis, too, which makes this now-teen resemble Stephen King’s Carrie, in a way — both get locked in cupboards by their parent/guardians, after all). There’s Sirius’s escape from Azkaban. There’s Harry’s being told to stay at the Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley till he’s released by the arrival of the Weasley clan. There’s Buckbeak’s escape from a sentence of death. There’s Pettigrew’s escape from a self-imposed imprisonment as Ron’s rat. Hogwarts becomes a sort of prison for Harry when he doesn’t have the signed form to let him visit Hogsmeade — until he escapes with the aid of his sneaky magical possessions, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Marauder’s Map. Hermione gets herself trapped in a self-imposed prison of too much schoolwork, till she sets herself free by admitting how much she’s expecting of herself (which is also part of the theme of mental illness that runs through the book, including Lupin’s self-injuring when he struggles with his wolf-side, Harry’s traumatic flashbacks, Sirius Black’s purported “madness”, and Hagrid’s despair at Buckbeak’s fate). Harry learns to escape a little from his own past, too, by learning to counter the traumatic memories the Dementors bring out in him. (And I can’t help likening Harry’s fainting fits before the dark-hooded Dementors to a wounded Frodo’s wooziness before the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings.)

Along with this theme of imprisonment and freedom is one of punishment and retribution. As usual, it’s introduced in comic form in the Dursley section, with Harry having to pretend he goes to school at “St Brutus’s Secure Centre for Incurably Criminal Boys”, which leads Aunt Marge to ask if he’s “beaten often”. Uncle Vernon, meanwhile, on hearing the Muggle-friendly version of Sirius Black’s supposed atrocities, asks:

“When will they learn,” said Uncle Vernon, pounding the table with his large purple fist, “that hanging’s the only way to deal with these people?”

Back cover of UK paperback, art by Cliff Wright

While the series has had dark moments from the start, they become less comic and more oppressive in The Prisoner of Azkaban, with its decidedly Gothic tinges of trauma, betrayal, depression, and madness. This is all part of the series’, and its main characters’, growing up. (Their entry into adolescence — the start of their transformation from childhood to adulthood — is perhaps heralded by the four key figures from the past, Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs, all being animagi, wizards who can transform themselves.) Harry is more outspoken against the Dursleys, and experiences a killing hatred in this book, something I don’t feel would fit in the previous two. Perhaps the ultimate sign of his growing up is that he at one point mistakes himself for his own father. Hermione, meanwhile, learns not to expect so much of herself, and indulges in a little uncharacteristic rule-breaking. Ron, um… Well, Ron learns to get over the loss of his rat.

(And it’s nice to see that, as Harry’s Patronus is a stag, he’s joining other YA protagonists covered on this blog — Stag Boy, A Monster Calls — in allying with the horned god Cernunnos.)