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?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling

The first Harry Potter cover, by Thomas Taylor

Like Narnia, Oz, and Xanth (with which it also shares the idea of magically-talented people living hidden from un-magical Muggles/Mundanes), J K Rowling’s wizarding world is what I think of as a “cornucopia fantasy”: one that borrows liberally from all traditions of myth, folklore, and fantasy, resulting in a story-world that’s rich in wonder, jokes and imaginative archetype, an adventure playground of familiar-but-remade-as-new things, but that doesn’t feel as consistent and realistic as, say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

It’s undoubtedly story that’s the series’ strong point. It’s certainly what brought me back to it, thinking I’d get a better appreciation of Rowling’s more subtle touches of storyish richness a second time round. So, what story is she telling? With fantasy, I usually look to the fantastical elements to see how they spell out a theme — Tolkien’s One Ring embodying the addictive lure of power, for instance, or Peake’s Gormenghast encapsulating the labyrinths of human oddity that wreathe us in gloom and isolation — but with Rowling’s world, I was at first tempted to say the magic exists simply to serve the story, sometimes for a single book, sometimes for a single moment. Rowling plainly ignores Rule One of all those How to Write Fantasy & SF books I used to read: in every one, you’re told to create rules for your magic, and stick to them, or you’ll lose your readers.

Ha.

eBook cover, by Olly Moss.

In the Harry Potter books, individual spells may have rules (often completely arbitrary ones) such as you can’t apparate in Hogwarts, or that polyjuice potion requires certain hard-to-find ingredients, but those rules are just there to provide the props and constraints of the story, not because they derive from some deeply-thought-out system. You have to get the pronunciation of “wingardium leviosa” exactly right to levitate a feather, but point your wand at a schoolfellow and shout “Eat slugs!” and one of you will soon be eating slugs. That’s not because Rowling has finely-reasoned special cases for her magic system, it’s because she’d rather tell a joke.

I think, though, that with the Harry Potter books the meaning of the fantastic element is in the sheer ability to use magic. Because magic equals power, and (as I said in my Game of Thrones post), so much of fantasy is about power: its use, its misuse, its consequences on others, its effect on oneself. The closest Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gets to Game of Thrones is when Professor Quirrell says, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” And in Game of Thrones, that’s true, but it’s not true in Harry Potter. I feel that, in the Harry Potter books (and perhaps in life, as well), power is neutral, neither good nor evil, but as soon as you start thinking of it that way, you’ve taken your first steps on the road to evil.

2014 edition, art by Jonny Duddle

And evil is another of the series’ grand themes. That could be said of a lot of fantasy, but I think Rowling handles it better than the crude sort of good-versus-evil, and they’re-evil-because-they’re-born-that-way you might expect from a book with such a gleefully pulpish title as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There’s really only one pure example of either good or evil in the Harry Potter books, and that’s Voldemort. And although we later learn that this evil was once embodied in a human boy called Tom Riddle, in this book we encounter that evil presence in a far more appropriate form:

“See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapour … I have form only when I can share another’s body … but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds …”

Pure evil rarely takes a human form, but it needs to be brought into the world through people. Evil only has the power and agency we lend to it.

In this first book, Harry, Hermione and Ron are all young enough to think in strict good and evil terms, but by the end of Philosopher’s Stone this has proved to be a weakness. Just because Professor Snape is a bully, they assume he’s evil, and so think he’s trying to get the Philosopher’s Stone to bring back Voldemort. But they’re wrong. Snape is a bully, but he’s also got an incredible loyalty to those (few) people who win him over, and fortunately that loyalty has been won by Dumbledore and Lily Potter.

US cover by Brian Selznick

As the series goes on, virtually every good is compromised or fallible, and every evil is humanised, at least partly. The wizarding world itself, at first, seems “good” compared to the ignorant dullness of the Roald Dahl-ish Dursleys, but in the books to come we find it’s riddled with all sorts of petty evils: prejudice, slavery, complacency, and an exploitation of rare magical creatures that puts Chinese medicine to shame. We’ll come to learn of dark sides and fallibilities to many of the “good” characters — Dumbledore, benevolently-bearded Aslan of a headmaster that he is, is all too often absent when he’s needed, puts Harry in considerable danger, doesn’t tell him key bits of information, and is a little too slick with end-of-book wisdom. (“After all, to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Which sounds very nice, but I don’t think being organised is at the core of facing up to death.) And can’t you feel a little bit of sympathy for nasty little Malfoy when, in a later book, he machismo’s himself onto the path of utter evil?

For me, the most unsettling characters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone aren’t Voldemort or Quirrell, but the strictly neutral characters. Ollivander the wand-vendor, for instance, who says:

“He Who Must Not Be Named did great things — terrible, yes, but great.”

Which is perhaps the first truly chilling moment in the series. And then there’s the Sorting Hat (which must have, at some point, sat on a young Voldemort’s head), telling Harry:

“You could be great, you know, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness…”

“Greatness” is what you win with power. Dumbledore is also called great, but it’s most fittingly said by Hagrid:

“…Dumbledore let me stay on as game-keeper. Great man, Dumbledore.”

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

Another thing the Harry Potter books are about — and this first one in particular — is friendship and family, “finding your tribe.” The wizarding world reminds me of the Seerkind in Clive Barker’s Weaveworld: a bunch of creative misfits, talented in strange, wild ways, but fay, and just different enough that the Dursleys of the world want to persecute them, so they hide away.

Harry’s story, aside from being about facing up to the rise of evil, is also about truth. “You’re too nosy to live, Potter,” Quirrell says, while Dumbledore warns Harry away from one of the many misuses of magical power — escapism — in the short-story-like chapter, “The Mirror of Erised”, with the admonition:

“However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth.”

Harry’s story is all about seeking the truth — he is, after all, a born Seeker, in search of the Golden Snitch (“snitch” being a word for one who tells a truth). He seeks the truth about who he is, what happened to his parents and why, who Voldemort is and how he gained so many followers. As his own story about the return of Voldemort moves steadily forward, so does the revelation of its roots in the deeds and misdeeds of the past. This struck me as one of the more powerful aspects of the series, how it tells a tale about the very complex means by which evil can gain a foothold, even in a world that thinks itself well prepared against such a thing.

US Anniversary edition, art by Mary GrandPré

One puzzling aspect of the series I still don’t feel I’ve got a hold on is the theme of fame that runs through it from the start. Harry is famous because he “defeated” Voldemort, and everything he does receives an exaggerated approbation or blame because of this. There’s a peculiar air of everything happening in public that was never a part of fantasies of the past. (Unless you go all the way back to Le Morte Darthur, whose knights were so concerned with “worship”, as they called fame.) I’m not sure how intrinsic this thread is to the series, or whether it’s just a modern touch from our celebrity-obsessed world. Hopefully I’ll make more sense of it as I re-read the series.

Fun as the first book is, I know the Harry Potter books really get into gear later on, but only when enough of the world is established for those story-roots to set in. I’m planning on writing my way through them in future Mewsings.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.