Just revisited: 'Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets'

Just read is a blog where I blog about something I just read. Here are all of the entries. And here are all of the entries that are specifically about books (i.e. IRL books, not like comic books, you know?). I'll put all the Harry Potter-related entries over here moving forward.

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Only one book into the series, I've totally gone off the rails. Most of my everyday internal thoughts are imagined in the voice of Harry Potter audiobook narrator Jim Dale, whose Wikipedia page I looked up and learned that he was a pop star in the 1960s; this man is an 82-year-old living legend. The original plan to follow along with Binge Mode's Harry Potter podcast releases is shot, too -- I've finished The Chamber of Secrets before they've even released one episode on this installment of the series. Alas.

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Having your mind inhabit the Harry Potter wizarding world is extremely good for the soul and brain. It's made me hungry not just to continue my Potter journey, but to start reading even more than I already have been this year -- I've been on a pretty good pace in 2018, by my own lackadaisical reading speed standards -- and I'm now thinking I'll get through at least 25ish books this year, which would be a real personal accomplishment for me. Three years ago, if you told me I'd ever be reading two books per months, I would have asked you how you managed to secure me a Time Turner. My soul is filled with joy when I'm in this world, and my brain is filled with the relaxed contentment of spending time in a fictional place, flexing the creative and imaginative muscles that much too regularly go unused for significant periods of time in the daily activities of working and living.

My overall sentiment for Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone was joy. Today's sentiment, for Chamber of Secrets, is duty. As I listened to Dale masterfully narrate me through Harry, Ron and Hermione’s inevitable path down through the sink and into the Chamber of Secrets, it became clear on this revisitation that these three second-year Hogwarts students never stood a chance. Not that they never stood a chance to solve the mystery of what lies within or how to gain entry into the Chamber, but that they never had a chance to not take on this dangerous voyage. It was, beyond any doubt, their duty to do this thing, otherwise Hogwarts would close and the Ministry of Magic would never find another qualified Auror candidate.

This sense of predetermined destiny does cast a shadow over the story, however. It felt to me on this go-around that Harry doesn't have quite the same level of explicit drive to push him toward his confrontation with Tom Marvolo Riddle in the Chamber when compared to the endgames of most other books in the series -- at least until one pivotal and masterful moment in Chamber's plot. In Stone, Harry is driven not only by his desire to be brave and do the right thing, but by his subconscious desire to make a name for himself on his own terms. We see this in action on a more innocent level when Harry is thrilled to learn how innately great he is at Quidditch, and he even thinks to himself about how wonderful it is that he's able to attach this to his name -- controlling the way people consider him by something he did himself, physically and presently, rather than by having his name associated with an act of violence inflicted upon him when he was just an infant.

In later books, we see Harry with a superb drive to get things done. In the next chapter of this story, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is motivated by the potential of preserving a relationship with the only adult in his life who he can really consider family. By the time we get to The Goblet of Fire and move on from there, the stakes are so high that any sense of predetermined destiny can fall by the wayside -- a war is happening, and Harry's an important soldier in that war. But for most of Chamber, Harry's primary motivation is simply learning more about himself. The frightening realization that he speaks Parseltongue is a good example; Harry doesn't think much of it to begin, but learning how rare the gift is and that it's been associated with dark wizards in the past certainly marks it as something that bears further investigation. Beyond that, Harry's pursual of the disembodied voice slithering around the castle can feel somewhat vague, making stretches of this admittedly short book feel low-stakes. Of course he feels the need to help identify the person or thing that's petrifying his peers, but it can feel like forced heroism at certain points.

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This starts to change as the story progresses; Riddle's diary shows Harry that Hagrid may have been involved in opening the Chamber of Secrets when it was last active 50 years ago, and this involvement of one of the people closest to Harry ups our ante significantly. And when Hermione is petrified by the basilisk, the story really picks up steam. A primary character in Harry's life is involved now, and from there on, his and Ron's engagement and fervor in solving this mystery feels natural, expected, and essential. J.K. Rowling's decision to physically remove Hermione from the eventual entrance into the Chamber of Secrets is a piece of masterful plotting -- not only does Hermione still help Harry and Ron discover the monster that lies within the Chamber even while she's petrified on a bed in the hospital wing, via a crumpled piece of paper in her hands, but her incapacitated state gives the other two an even greater sense of urgency and purpose. Her absence weighs heavily on the reader's mind, providing needed gravity to the situation, and forces Harry and Ron to explore new ways of problem-solving since they don't have their smartest friend at their side.

All of this ties into my overall sentiment -- duty. Even when Harry should only be tangentially invested in the goings-on of the Chamber, he wants to be all in. He wants to do all he can to help, even though his actions go far beyond what anyone should expect from a student -- let alone a second-year with such minimal magical training. His role once Dumbledore is removed from Hogwarts looms large, and foreshadows the role he will fill in this story after Dumbledore's death -- if Harry's not going to do something about it, who will? Whether it's predetermined destiny or sheer force of will, something exists within Harry, Ron and Hermione throughout these first two installments of the Potter franchise that they'll never shake: The need to step up, to help, to feel accountable and responsible for the fates of many.

Now, a pull quote that stuck out to me on this re-read:

"[The Sorting Hat] only put my in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, because I asked not to go in Slytherin." "Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

At the end of Stone and Chamber, Rowling uses Dumbledore to help put a nice bow on her stories, wrapping everything up nice and tidy. A dangerous adventure for Harry here, and a delicate imparting of wisdom for Harry on the other side. As in Stone, Dumbledore delivers a delicious nugget at the conclusion of Chamber: "It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." This will ring true for Harry on countless more instances in the future, though it's applicable to the past two years of his life as well. It's also true for Dumbledore on a much more sober level; Dumbledore's insistence on protecting Harry to the point of keeping him in the dark on the true nature of the evil and danger that surrounds him will frustrate both Harry and the readers in the near future. It also may be the driving force that necessitates Dumbledore's ultimate sacrifice of his own life, many pages down the road.

In Hollywood's version of the wizarding world, The Chamber of Secrets film enjoys and suffers many of the same pluses and minuses of The Sorcerer's Stone. The casting is once again superb -- Gilderoy Lockhart's casting is especially on the nose -- but this film crams perhaps a bit too much action into its two and a half hours. It would have been nice to spend a bit more time on Harry, Ron and Hermione's on-screen relationship development here. But the three main characters all grow significantly in this film installment, both literally and metaphorically. They each look older and feel more comfortable in the roles that will define their careers. 

All in all, I think Chamber may be my least favorite Potter book. I'll have to reevaluate once I've revisited The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix, which aren't so fresh in my mind right now. But I've always loved the way Rowling masterfully turns the tide in Goblet with Cedric Diggory's death -- I've always pointed to that as the moment when shit gets super real -- and I love several chunks of Order, even if it is a bit overdrawn. For the moment, I'll take a small break from the Potterverse and allow for Binge Mode to catch up with me before going to meet Sirius Black in The Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets is available on Amazon in e-book, hardcover, and paperback editions, as well as in a hardcover illustrated edition. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.