Hi. My name’s Matt and I’m a massive Harry Potter fan, and I’ve been one since… golly. I was ten? I really had the first two books at my disposal when my friend Jordan got me into them. And then when I’d finished with them I made my mother order me the British version from Amazon UK so I could read it two months before all my other friends could. I grew up with these characters and have TONS of stories from reading Half-Blood Prince ’til six in the morning in a hotel room in Spain to writing a massive fanfiction about the life and times of Cedric Diggory so my high school crush would make out with me.
Apparently that works, by the way.
But yes. Chamber of Secrets. Thank goodness we’re talking about the book and not the movie. Let’s talk about it.
CHAPTER 4: AT FLOURISH AND BLOTTS
In which Harry gets used to life at The Burrow, tries out Floo Powder, winds up in Borgin and Burkes, stumbles drunkenly around Knockturn Alley, bombs around Diagon Alley with Ron and Hermione, goes to Flourish and Blotts, meets Gilderoy Lockhart, gets a stack of free literature, watches Arthur Weasley fight Lucius Malfoy, and then returns to The Burrow completely wiped out because lol wouldn’t you be?
What’s most interesting to me about these two chapters is how they mirror their corresponding chapters in Philosopher’s Stone, only it’s a bit more magical, isn’t it? And I don’t mean that in a way that says that Diagon Alley wasn’t magical the first time, but it was slowly magical, wasn’t it? Harry enters a magic pub, he walks through a magic brick archway, he takes in the various sights in turn (books, school supplies, robes, owl, wand), and then he leaves. Here, Harry is older and wiser. Clearly. He has a year of magical experience under his belt, but his sense of wonder (and at times his lack of it) makes this much more enthralling than before. Now that he’s gotten the basics down we can delve into esotera, and world building is made by the little details. It’s not enought that we’re introduced to Floo Powder, it’s that the Weasleys keep it in a flower pot and they have to periodically go out and buy more from a shoppe that specializes in floo powder.
It only makes sense that Rowling introduces floo powder here. It is, after all, a much more magical means of travel than tapping a brick on a wall in an alley. We’ve gone from Speakeasy to Mary Poppins shit, flying up chimneys and spinning around in green flames. It connects the magical world in a way the magical world had only been connected via owls before (and brooms, but brooms are really just the bicycles of the magical world). Sure, by this point we’re books away from discussing “The Floo Network,” but the magical world is finally at Harry’s fingertips. He’s here. He has arrived. He can go to ANY fireplace that’s connected. That’s a lot of power.
And yes, it takes him to Borgin & Burke’s and that helps with the sense of scope of this novel, where we get more hints at the darkness Rowling secretly sees and desires to dig into in later novels, but more interestingly (to me, anyways) it takes him to Flourish & Blotts and the waiting arms of one Gilderoy Lockhart.
Okay. First off, Lockhart is a total d-bag. Yeah. We know that. We know he’s a showboater and a mind-wiper extraordinaire. And we know he’s obsessed with celebrity. But I’ll be honest, I think Lockhart is arguably the first truly repugnant Harry Potter character Rowling creates and the base template model she uses for Dolores Umbridge in just three books’ time. Rowling excels at these characters. The level to which she can make you hate someone is staggering, and the second Gilderoy Lockhart reveals himself in this book is the sorta thing that makes my teeth stand on edge. Look at how he acts here. He loves the attention, sure, but that’s easy. What he REALLY does is turn a nonstory into a news story. He’s been hired as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, but he hasn’t told anyone yet. And really, it’s a nonstory. Who cares? It’s a school. It’s not like anyone besides Dumbledore is famous at Hogwarts. It’s not like the wizarding world at large really cares who the hell are teaching their students (unless something really bad happens like Muggle Borns getting attacked only lol they’re just Muggle Borns, right, and even then that’s not really a teaching concern).
And yet, Lockhart uses this to his advantage. Every moment is an opportunity for a press release, and lo and behold he makes the announcement at a book signing and piggy backs off the fame of someone else (Harry) to take full advantage of the opportunity. And it WORKS. People applaud. He sells more books (one copy of basically every book of his to every student at Hogwarts; now THAT’s how you sell). Not only does he have a Daily Prophet photographer there to cover the signing, but he also manages to get good press out of it. Was he going to announce his tenure at Hogwarts that day? Who knows? Probably not. But he does it because it’s the single best opportunity he’s going to get.
Which gets to the heart of the problem. The reason we hate Lockhart so much is not that he does despicable things for his own gain. It’s that he does despicable things for his own gain and they WORK. He’s GOOD at this. He’s built a career off of this. He’s not untalented. And that’s what makes us hate him. It’s why we’re going to hate Umbridge. Because as bad and sick and gross as Lockhart and Umbridge are, the fact remains that they’re the best at the game they’re playing. The only difference is Lockhart is a wildly comedic character (because everyone at Hogwarts hates him and clearly hates him) whereas Umbridge is arguably the worst villain in the entire series.
But that makes sense, because we’re still firmly in the children’s literature part of Harry Potter. It’s why we get out of Borgin & Burke’s and Knockturn Alley so quickly. Yes, it’s here, but there’ll be time for more darkness as Rowling goes farther into the series and deeper into the dark corners of her imagination.
Some quick hits.
- Lucius Malfoy using the fight as cover so he can slip Ginny the diary is one of those extremely well done plot points that Rowling is so good at in this book. Chamber of Secrets is constructed as a mystery around who is responsible for opening the titular Chamber of Secrets, and her use of Ginny in this novel is some of the best mystery plotting in the entire series in that she makes it OBVIOUS it’s Ginny when you re-read it.
- The cabinet in Borgin & Burke’s becomes a major plot point for Half-Blood Prince, but it’s the sorta thing Rowling unwittingly plants and retcons in later when she realizes she needs it. This is hardly the plant Sirius Black was.
- Knockturn Alley is one of those ideas that seems great on the surface but really becomes sketchy the more you think about it. Shouldn’t Arthur Weasley be raiding this place monthly? It’s basically a crime alley black market. Do they have paperwork and permits for the things they sell there? Surely it can’t be THAT dark.
- Watching Rowling learn how to write is one of the great pleasures of the early books. This chapter is still skipping swaths of moments because she has so much ground to cover, but she’s much stronger here than she is in the previous book. Her chapters in the last book felt very much like Cliff Notes versions of all the events that are going down, but here she makes sure to streamline and tighten the focus of Diagon Alley and it’s stronger for it.
CHAPTER 5: THE WHOMPING WILLOW
In which a family is running late to catch a train. They barely make it, but the two twelve year olds in the family don’t, so the two twelve year olds steal a flying car, fly it across a damn country, crash it into a tree that can jack you in the face, arrive at school, somehow aren’t expelled, and then become mini-celebrities for the night. Oh. And Ron breaks his wand.
“People’ll be talking about that one for years”.
When I mentioned that I was re-reading Chamber of Secrets, two people I know and trust came down hard on it. One even said it was her “least favourite everything”. It struck me as odd. I’m quite fond of this book. Sure it’s not my personal favourite (Order, Prince, and Hallows have those titles locked down for me, and Prisoner is easily the best of the initial three novels) but it made me question why I like this book so much. “It’s because it’s a mystery,” I thought. It’s always been a mystery with a bunch of great red herrings (Percy stands out in particular, because if you date Percy he apparently starts acting like an axe murderer), but I’m not talking about that today, and besides. That’s not enough. What is it that Rowling is doing in this book to explore that I find so interesting? Why does THIS book speak to me in a way the previous one never REALLY did?
The answer, of course, is this is a book about fame, celebrity, and legacy.
It’s no mistake that Rowling chooses Lockhart as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for this novel. The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher always speaks to an anxiety at the core of the book. In Prisoner it’s Lupin, representing Harry’s family and past; In Order it’s Umbridge, representing the oppressive thumb of the Ministry, which is in direct opposition to Dumbledore and Harry. But why Lockhart? Why Lockhart in a book that at the end of the day climaxes on a giant snake and a sociopathic House Elf?
As it turns out, J.K. Rowling is fascinated by fame. I don’t know why. I couldn’t tell you. It’s not an ingrained issue the way Rowling has concerns about class and haves versus have-nots. Those concerns are present from the beginning of the series and go pretty much all the way through the end. But for some reason, in this book she’s obsessed with fame and celebrity in ways she isn’t later. Our Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher is a d-bag celebrity who can’t turn off the fame tap in his brain. It’s in this chapter that we get our first glimpse of Colin Creevey (who is obsessed with Harry’s status as living celebrity). Hell, even the climax of this book features a piece of Voldemort’s soul that’s obsessed with everyone knowing about Voldemort’s accomplishments when he was at Hogwarts. It’s even a diary, an object that we use to record our accomplishments, failures, and life’s story.
What makes this chapter work, then (and I’m also not convinced it does, but I’m not supposed to talk about that, so I’ll talk about this) is that this is Harry and Ron going for glory and succeeding wildly. Deciding to load up the Ford Anglia and flying to school is impossibly foolish, especially at the age of twelve (and thank god Rowling calls them on it through McGonagall and Dumbledore at the end of this chapter), but it ends up working out for them doesn’t it? I mean, mostly. They make the front page of the Evening Prophet, they don’t lose any points for Gryffindor, they don’t die, and on top of ALL that SOMEHOW the ENTIRE school finds out before they’ve even left the dungeon (and they haven’t even talked to anyone yet) and they are greeted like returning heroes. “People’ll be talking about that one for years”. And Harry likes it. He loves the attention. Ron too. Of course they do. People love being celebrated if it’s for something that turned out fantastic.
Only it’s all rather fleeting isn’t it? Despite the fact that Lee Jordan says they’ll be talking about it for years it’s pretty much forgotten in later years, only passed off as a “remember that one time we weren’t on the train second year?” story. It’s hardly the legendary thing you imagine it being.
But that’s all that fame is, isn’t it? Fame is based on “that one thing that one time” and then it fades like candles receding into darkened rooms. Fame doesn’t create legacy, which is the point of fame. Even the Howler that Mrs. Weasley sends Ron in the next chapter is the sorta thing that everyone’s more or less forgotten by dinner time (or at the very latest, the weekend). The legacy of the crash into the Whomping Willow is ACTUALLY Ron’s broken wand that ends up torturing him through the rest of the book.
And it’s why Harry is Rowling’s chosen hero. He’s the ultimate “that one thing that one time” but he isn’t a fame hound. He doesn’t like being called a celebrity. He is modest and unassuming even in the face of being famous.
Fame, as it turns out, is about “that one thing that one time” constantly. It’s why Lindsay Lohan is famous. She did so much “that one thing that one time” that it has become her living legacy. It’s why Lockhart keeps pushing the fame button every chance he gets. You gotta hustle to stay on top of the fame train and hope that something will stick. He even says (when his secrets come out at the end), “It’s hard work.” You have to dedicate your life to it. He ripped out of a piece of his soul and put it in the fame machine, that maybe he might have a legacy.
And it really just ends up blowing up in his face.
Some quick hits:
- Wizard magic is amazing. It can make things (like the Ford Anglia) dimensionally transcendental (that is to say, bigger on the inside).
- Wizard magic is also impossibly horrifying. Did anyone else think of the implications of using magic to give birth to an inanimate object? Realizing that Mr. Weasley’s magic turned it into a living, thinking object when it hadn’t been is really just the nightmare of robotics, isn’t it? Despite being stuck in the Dark Ages, how long until the Wizarding World gets its own Cylon Apocalypse in the form of Magic rebelling against its Wizards of its own free will? Or did I just ruin the best Harry Potter pitch that’s ever been?
- So is The Evening Prophet ever mentioned again? I get that they want an evening edition, but it’s weird that it’s a thing that’s here and not really ever again.
- I’m also impossibly charmed how much the Hogwarts House Cup matters in these early books. Points from Gryffindor is really Harry’s only and sole focus at this point and it’s charming. Ah, youth. How youthful you are.