Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J. K. Rowling
With midsummer fast approaching, and the next Potter volume just about half-read, now seems as good a time as any to see what our favorite wizard has gotten himself up to. I may come to regret that decision. The reading has slowed down and August has five Sundays this year.
None of which matters to Harry and his two best friends. This installment, year four in the series, stands out in a couple of ways. One is length. This is the first of the ‘big books,’ clocking in at more than 700 pages. The second is tenor. Our heroes are now 14 and the issues of adolescence loom almost as large as saving the wizarding world from the evil mastermind still intent on taking control of the whole shebang.
In the prior volume, Lord Voldemort was a mere spectral presence, a lurking malevolence whose servants served as surrogates. I’d noted that I found that book transitional in a lot of ways. Here we are definitely on the far side of something and most of the pages in the present tome exist to help us understand that fact. By the time the dust settles, indelible lines have been drawn.
A prof I knew used to say that once we labeled a popular culture product as just entertainment we’d already lost the game. I think a similar risk exists in treating this series as just kid’s books. The setting may be high school. The main actors may be tweens turned teens. But the issues they’re dealing with–absolute evil, personal integrity, loyalty, duty–these are as old as the hills and appear repeatedly in the world’s literature.
You’d think then that it would be easy for the author to get going with such grave matters to address. Yet the first 116 pages are devoted to getting Harry, Hermione and almost the entire Weasley clan to the Quidditch World Cup and the ensuing match between Ireland and Bulgaria.
You could argue that it’s necessary background. You could note that best-selling authors have no incentive to not grow prolix, seeing as how they’re paid by the book and books are priced in large part by page count. But maybe Rowling just needed to get going while the FIFA World Cup was dominating the airwaves across much of the globe.
The Quidditch WC has much the same effect. And just like a marketer looking to make a splash at an event with an abundance of eyeballs (e.g., the 1984 commercial), Voldemort–or at least the symbol by which he summons his followers–puts in an appearance. Confusion reigns and a feeling of terror begins to rise.
But our heroes have a school year to tackle. And this will be no ordinary one. The Tri-Wizard Tournament, an event that hasn’t happened in decades if not a century–has been resurrected and Hogwarts is playing host. Two other European wizarding schools, Beauxbatons Academy(presumably French) and the Durmstrang Institute (German?) will participate.
Once again it’s time for fun with names. These schools, unlike Hogwarts, are not co-ed. So the French team, all females, hail from a school whose name quite literally means beautiful sticks, as if all French beauty resembles china dolls and never wholesome farm girls. Their headmaster, a giantess, is Madam Maxime, which does not, I think, require additional explanation. And though Durmstrang isn’t actually German, it’s close enough visually and sonically to suggest it’s the type of cod German you might encounter in, say, a Monty Python sketch.
In all fairness, Durmstrang’s roots are the less defined of the two. Their star is Viktor Krum and you don’t need much in the way of Germanic or Slavic language knowledge to recognize the intended oxymoron. Krum played for the losing Bulgarian team in the QWC. The school’s headmaster is Karkaroff, a vaguely Russophonic man with a questionable past. Questionable, at least, when it comes to choosing sides in epic battles.
Besides these visitors, there is, yet again, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Alastor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody, an auror. That’s the term for a wizard whose job is it to ferret out bad apples among them. Moody is an extreme case, maybe on the job a bit long and prone to extreme reactions when his antennae are pricked. In many ways, he’s the most hands-on teacher of this subject there’s ever been. His interactions with other actors in the story are so complex that even Dumbledore needs to use a tool, a pensieve (isn’t that great wordplay?), to sort out his thoughts on the subject.
That’s important but the Tournament overshadows all. Each school contributes one champion but something goes awry and the Goblet of Fire, which selects the contestants, throws out a fourth name, Harry Potter. You didn’t think he’d be a mere spectator, did you? He also gets a new tormentor, Rita Skeeter, a special correspondent for the Daily Prophet who embodies the worst of tabloid journalism.
The contests (there are three over the course of the full term) are, like the Quidditch World Cup, almost secondary, except for the last. That’s a race through an enchanted living maze to find the Tri-Wizard cup. It’s shaping up to be another example of Harry choosing to repeatedly do the right thing when he insists his schoolmate and competitor, Cedric Diggory, share in the glory of capturing the cup. Suddenly, he and Cedric are teleported to a churchyard where Voldemort awaits.
What occurs after this is critical to the future of the series and too much like revealing a killer’s identity to relate. Voldemort has plans and they require both the blood and life of Harry Potter. There being three more books in the series I think I can safely say he only gets one of them without giving too much away. By the end of their pas de deux Voldemort is wholly back in body with his supporters beginning to recoalesce about him.
While I came late to this series, I did read the back nine as they were released. For my kids, the excitement is seeing what happens next. But they know on the last page that, like putting the third Jumanji movie in the DVD player, more familiar fun awaits with the next installment.
The generation of kids that aged in place with these books had a different experience. Especially the ones that grew up along with the characters. The turmoil of growing up, which is currently underway in my own home, isn’t easy for anyone. One of the great things Rowling has done is show that as our heroes age they suffer the same things all kids do. And they learn they can and will survive, often quite literally.
Is that all a bit too didactic? Perhaps. But it’s also an after the fact observation, more properly, interpretation. More likely Rowling had a rollicking good tale to tell. So we can accept the tale serves a purpose without diminishing the fun.
And it isn’t worth it if it isn’t fun. I promise you, this is.