I have to admit that I’d fallen behind on my reading because of work and planning for a cross-country move (yay!), so I spent most of this past Wednesday binge reading Chamber of Secrets so I could be all caught up and prepared for this entry right here. Perhaps it was the atypically stormy weather—wind and rain lashing deliciously against my bedroom window—or perhaps it was the contemplative melancholy that I’d carried around with me for most of that day, but as I was reading it struck me that even this early on in young Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts there’s an indication that things are going to get scarily dark really fast.
Which is impressive, for a series intended for children. Since I don’t own personal copies of the Harry Potter novels (which I need to remedy; my dad has the family set hoarded away in a box in the garage somewhere, and oh goodness the new paperback editions look so wonderful and are so tempting every time I walk into a Barnes & Noble!), I’ve been utilizing my local library, and with the exception of the sixth and seventh books, which live in the more appropriate Young Adult section, they’ve all been located in Juvenile Fiction. I know I talked about this a little in my last entry, but this series as a whole is tonally so dark and now as an adult who’s cared for (albeit other’s) children, it’s surprising going back and rediscovering the material and themes explored in these early novels. And coming from parents who were zealously overprotective of my exposure to other media, it’s really incredible, the shit I was able to get away with reading when I was 11.
So let’s talk about some of this, yeah?
CHAPTER ONE: OWL POST
Growing up, on my countless readings and rereadings of the first four books while waiting for the rest to come out, Prisoner of Azkaban was always my least favorite, and I’m not entirely sure why that was the case. It looks like young, pretentious Harry Potter fan Cassandra is going to be proven wrong this time, though, because these first two chapters are not only thoroughly enjoyable, but way more interesting to me than the majority of Chamber?
Granted, there is still a lot of set-up and explaining that Rowling eventually dispenses of in the latter novels that I find kind of tedious; though I understand the inclusion of it, and if you’re coming to the books after a long while in between, it’s nice to have that reminder. But I think it hinders the progression of the narrative a little bit, though at this time she’s still learning and growing as a writer, which is more than fine by me.
This first chapter is so lovely and sentimental, and there’s a wonderful cyclical feel to it, which is also foretelling of the novel as a whole (just take a look at the names of the first and last chapters, and you’ll see what I mean). And considering the climax of the novel, this is such a great touch to me. Hooray for thematic clues in the text right off the bat!
I say this chapter is cyclical because of the first and last lines especially, which both make my heart swell and break at the same time. She starts off calling Harry “a highly unusual boy in many ways” and, after all of the good things that happen in the chapter, it ends with:
Extremely unusual though he was, at that moment Harry Potter felt just like everyone else—glad, for the first time in his life, that it was his birthday.
Oh my god, kill me. No, seriously. This makes me so emotional.
I love that as Harry’s growing up, entering his teens, he’s finally starting to find his way and his place in his world. It’s so great! And I’m reminded of the fact why these make such good children’s books—and really, books in general—because it is, at its core, a coming of age story. And coming of age stories are one of the great touchstones of humanity, in that everyone in essentially every culture the world over can relate to them.
But aside from all of this, this chapter just makes me so warm and fuzzy. Harry sneaking around in the dead of night doing homework because he’s actually genuinely interested in it (and what a good message to send to young readers!), the unexpected presents, the first ever birthday cards. I’m getting all teary-eyed just thinking about it. Finally, even though he’s away from Hogwarts, he has a sort of presence of the family he’s built for himself, and it’s just so wonderful. Stories about characters choosing family have a soft spot in my heart because of my own angst-ridden background, so I can relate to Harry’s longing to be away and not enjoying his summer holidays at all, even though he is technically with his blood relations. This chapter is a small, quiet moment before the storm, but it’s just so happy, and Harry’s so happy, and I revel in it. I love the little snippets we get of how Ron and Hermione’s summers are progressing too, how these little glimpses of their own families contribute to Harry’s sense of his own. It’s beautiful.
Now that I think about it a little bit more, this whole book is very much about family, discovering your roots, healing old wounds and all of that, and I like that we can get a strong sense of that from the opening pages. I can tell just from this how much Rowling’s writing is becoming more cohesive, and she has a stronger sense of style, theme, the story that she wants to tell and the best way to go about telling it.
Gosh, I’m going to have so much fun rereading this book, I can already tell.
CHAPTER TWO: AUNT MARGE’S BIG MISTAKE
A pun! My favorite!!
As a quick aside, I’ve always really loved it when book chapters or soundtrack titles for movie scores are ridiculously cheesy and include puns like this every once in a while, just because they’re so fun and I adore pointless wordplay. Shut up, okay. I like puns a lot.
So if the first chapter is a reminder of Harry’s awesome family at Hogwarts, this chapter is a reminder of how awful the Dursleys are, because it’s not a Harry Potter book without that happening at least once. Best birthday ever? Nah, son. Here comes your aunt, who makes the Dursleys look almost humane in their treatment of you.
Something I’ve noticed this time around is Harry’s development of a fighting mechanism when it comes to the Dursleys. He’s so much sassier in this chapter than he has been in books previous, and it’s really refreshing to see. It’s also a good indication that he is, in fact, growing up and developing a sense of independence and that good ol’ teenage rebellion. I love it when Uncle Vernon is busy laying out the guidelines for when Marge is visiting and Harry’s retorting and keeping up with him the entire time. And how he chooses to use his behavior during the dreaded visit as leverage to get his Hogsmeade form signed? What a manipulative little shit. I adore it.
Granted, it all backfires by the end of this chapter, but it’s a good effort, Harry. A+.
To me, the titular occurrence of this chapter is what really underscores Harry’s sense of family and his fighting spirit, when Aunt Marge is baiting Harry and saying all these awful, hurtful things about his parents, and he just can’t take anymore and stands up for himself. Regretfully, because of all that raw anger and emotion that he hasn’t learned how to control yet, he ends up using magic on accident and inflating his aunt, but the fact that he says anything at all and then chooses to remove himself from the situation is important.
Hand in hand with that, the thing I find most notable and upsetting about these chapters is just how increasingly terrible they are to Harry. I know it’s supposed to be exaggerated, but there is a spark of truth in these interactions with the Dursleys that makes my stomach churn, talking about beating children because they’re “troubled” or won’t conform to the impossible ways in which you want them to. This is one of those things that originally made me question why this is technically a children’s book, but then I realized that, as a child, I didn’t bat an eye at this sort of thing; while exaggerated, this was normal for me. It was silly and ludicrous because it was so over the top, and I knew that it was awful, but I didn’t question it. I mostly figured that if Harry could get through it, then so could I.
The topic of abuse (physical, emotional, and verbal, all of which are at play here) is so sensitive, and going back and looking at these books, knowing now that this sort of treatment is completely unacceptable, it’s just so jarring to see it included here, what with Uncle Vernon’s threats and Aunt Marge’s casual observations that “they clearly aren’t hitting you hard enough” as well as just the general way they talk to Harry. I’m glad that Harry is finally realizing that he really doesn’t have to just stand there and take it, that he does have some agency and he’s getting some self-respect and courage in that regard, and acting in such a way that demonstrates that. It’s a really encouraging and important message to send to your audience, that yes, this is terrible, and you can choose to remove yourself from it.
Yikes, that got a lot more serious and personal than I was intending.
Though I guess that ultimately goes in line with my thoughts about just how mature these books can get at times. Thinking about it, however, I think it’s good that discussions of death, and good and evil, and the awful things that can happen to people in the world are included in works like this. It’s ignorant to think that children are completely oblivious to the existence of such things, and refusing to address such topics gives said awful things more power through fear and the inability to talk about them freely. (Much like Voldemort still holds some sway in his absence from the wizarding world, as nearly everyone is still terrified to call him by his name, though he is but a fraction of what he used to be. How ‘bout that?)
I see what you did there, Rowling. I see what you did there.