Being as I’ve had limited time and HP I’ve been racing ahead on this re-read and going from halfway through Order of the Phoenix and having to whiplash right back into the Second Task and watch Harry’s biggest worry being swimming is nothing short of jarring as hell. Funny too because man are the tones of these two books impossibly different. I challenge you to go from Harry being the snake and biting Mr. Weasley and then go back and read this pair of chapters again. You’ll pull something.
Also. Hello. Good to see you all again. I have missed you terribly. Apologies there are no pretty pictures and gifs. I’m under the gun for this one. And now to business.
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: THE SECOND TASK
In which Harry, Ron, and Hermione do clean-up on the mysteries of the last chapter, and then panic properly about how Harry is ever going to live underwater for an hour. And then Harry figures it out, gets all noble, does the Second Task, chills with mermaids, and then ends up rescuing everyone because The Triwizard Tournament is bloody serious, y’all.
Okay. I’ll be perfectly honest. I think The Second Task is rubbish.
Now, I’m not talking about the chapter. I mean this actual task. Of the three (four?) tasks, it is easily the weakest. I mean. It’s a little dull watching Harry swim through murky darkness for a while, but when he gets to the Mervillage it’s all good. And then he manages to swim back to the surface. So more swimming. And he emerges. Yay.
Really, I think my problem here is how awful it would be to be a Hogwarts student and spectator watching this task. I mean, no one is privy to anything that’s going on down under the surface of the lake. It’s not like there’s Diamond Vision or a Jumbotron for anyone to watch while the Champions travel around underground. It’s not like Ludo Bagman has any idea what’s going on and can effectively comment (Dumbledore has to ask the MerChieftaness what happened in order to figure it out). We just see the Champions sink beneath the lake and that’s it for a bloody hour. So… what? Does someone dance on the lake? Does Ludo Bagman tell a joke and try out a standup routine? If I were a spectator I’d probably just leave because it’s not even warm and nothing’s happening. We’re watching water move for like an hour and what’s even the point of that.
That’s my problem, really. It’s clear Rowling came up with something truly spectacular and wonderful for the First Task. DRAGONS. That’s neaters. Second task: watch water move for an hour and probably more because Harry is noble. Boresville, Hogwarts.
And Rowling knows this is a problem. She doesn’t give Harry the solution until the last second, and by that point it’s SO late in the game and Harry’s adrenaline is pumping SO much that he doesn’t question the elements going into this adventure. Of course Dumbledore wouldn’t let the hostages all die. Of course. Harry is being a bit moronic because he’s under such a time crunch and he’s so worried about succeeding that he doesn’t have time to question what’s up. It’s only because of Fake-Moody and Dobby that he manages to even do the task at all. And even then, eleven minutes before the Second Task he was asleep on the floor of the library. And all this because they fell into what I call “The Nicholas Flamel Trap”, in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione are looking in all the wrong places. Surviving underwater is not a problem solved by “outlandish and weird situations”. It probably happens all the time, and two of the four champions do the Bubblehead Charm (which seems a simple enough charm to know about). So, I must admit, it’s a bit of false stakes that in no way lives up the First Task. Or comes even anywhere near close at all, really.
Now. All that said…
There’s a lot I like here. And I mean a lot. First off is Gillyweed, which is a truly brilliant and genius bit of Herbology. I find that the more I learn about the Wizarding World the more I gravitate towards its weirdness. Spellcasting is fun and exciting but ultimately very flash in the panny. I find myself more intrigued by her creation of magical creatures (Dementors and Thestrals come to immediate mind) and her potions (Felix Felicis anyone?) and her use of plants and Herbology. Everytime she dips in and creates a new fold into the world, my mind explodes with possibility. And Gillyweed is just COOL. It turns you into a fish for like an hour and a half. What isn’t to love about it? And seeing Harry grow gills is utterly brilliant. This is a thing as exists in this world. This is a thing that you can just eat and it’ll do this to you. I’m a Muggle and this is a thing I could do! How exciting1 If I ate some I would win at so many water game things.
But the other thing I love about this chapter is how much it reflections one of the main concerns of this book. As this is the bridge book towards the rest of the series, this novel is concerned with putting bits and pieces into place before knocking everything over in the next book. Now, to spoil my personal take on Order (which I do admit is my favourite Harry Potter book so you can all stop reading every opinion I’ve ever had about this series now I guess), what’s fascinating about Order is it’s about unity and togetherness. It’s a novel about how a House divided cannot stand. We can’t stand against Voldemort if Dumbledore and Fudge are not aligned, we can’t stand against Umbridge if we do not unite to take her down, etc. But she’s getting into that curiosity here. So much of this novel’s endgame revolves around Barty Crouch Sr., who is the head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation. And that comes in a novel that is very much concerned with “otherness” in the sense of threats from beyond the borders of Britain (as Voldemort returns from Albania, so come Beauxbaton and Durmstrang from their respective countries).
The argument, then, is that Cooperation is the most important thing of this juncture. It is designed to foster communication and to educate all the students to the world outside of their small influence. And the Triwizard Champion is the one who will best exemplify this.
And so what we have is Harry Potter, choosing to save all the champions’ hostages to make sure everyone else gets out alive. But it’s not just because he’s being foolish and thinking that this is some real danger. It’s also that he cares about all the people in this situation because he’s tied to all of them. Krum is romantically interested in his best friend. He’s crushing on the girlfriend of Cedric Diggory. The only person he doesn’t know is Fleur’s sister, and she’s the one he’d have left behind were it not for the fact that everyone else was saved by the time he chose to leave the Mervillage. Harry is tied to these people, he is their Champion. Krum doesn’t really care about Ron or Cho. Cedric cares not for Hermione or Ron. But Harry does, because he finds himself at the center of wheels and with many webs of friendship branching out into the wizarding community.
Hogwarts Champion? More like Triwizard Champion.
Some quick hits.
- Harry, Ron, and Hermione sussing out the bit with the Crouches at the beginning of the chapter only gets richer the more I read it. Also telling because Rowling adds the bit about the cushion and uses it to underline who is and is not correct in situations. Ron (thinking Snape to be untrustworthy) always misses, while Hermione (focusing on Mr. Crouch) always hits her cushion in exactly the right place.
- When does the Merchoir practice? Are there discussions about how to get offbook or debates of whether or not there should be a Merpiano to accompany the a capella singing? How good are their harmonies? What key are they singing in? Is there anyone horribly off Merkey that all the rest of the Merchoir Merwince at when they hear him Mersing?
- And on a seriouser note: there’s something offputting about watching the Merpeople recoil to seeing Harry draw out his wand. As hinted at when we get Umbridge next book, Wizard/Merpeople relations is based around wizard superiority, and seeing them react aversely to it is a bit upsetting. Wizards never seem to realize the power they wield over other creatures and Muggles, and I love that.
- Finally, was Dumbledore seriously going to let Harry drown? The hostages were fine, but look at the way everyone reacts to Harry coming out of the water. They all thought he was dead. Jesus, Dumbledore. What is wrong with you?
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: PADFOOT RETURNS
In which Rita Skeeta writes a piece about Hermione Granger and unwittingly makes the biggest mistake she could have ever made, Karkaroff shows his Death Eater tattoo to Snape, and Sirius returns and helps Harry, Ron, and Hermione suss out the plot so far and gets us this close to solving the whole thing.
What I love about this chapter is what happens next.
To be honest, I found this read of Goblet of Fire tremendously frustrating. I’ve always had a tremendous and healthy respect for this book. It’s a book I read over and over again in the wait for Order of the Phoenix and I know it intimately well. And yet, I find that the more I look at it, the more I see Rowling as a writer who’s teaching herself how to write a longer novel. Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets ultimately suffered from behind as short as they are, and now that she’d had hundreds and hundreds of more pages to play with in this book, I find those pages, in many ways, squandered. The run of chapters from Mayhem At The Ministry to The Four Champions are painfully slow and dull. Think about the pulsing energy of “The Dark Mark” and how nothing in the chapters since them have come anywhere close to living up to that expectation. There’s been good chapters, sure. I really love “The Unexpected Task” and “The Yule Ball”, but mostly because they made me excited for Half Blood Prince. “The Egg and The Eye” is a tension-and-intrigue-filled amazing-fest. But other than that…?
And the chapter after this one “The Madness of Mr. Crouch” is one of my favourites in the entire book.
But first we have to do some house keeping.
Once Mr. Crouch shows up in the forest in the next chapter, the book roller coasters into his final, fateful act. Things happen very quickly and with a lot of intensity, but that means there’s not a lot of time to suss out what’s been going on. And so we have the re-appearance of Sirius, who has returned (like Batman!) to help put back some of the pieces and let us know what we should be paying attention to.
I’ve made it no secret that in reading these books again I’m quite fascinated in Rowling’s ability to weave together a mystery, and of the mysteries she sets afoot in the first four books this is easily the most complex and most compelling for me. This chapter tells us everything we need to know about Barty Crouch and what it’s like to live in his mind. Few things are more thrilling than the mythology porn of Sirius telling the trio what it was like to live in the world of the First War. Habeas Corpus is suspended. Everyone’s scared. Crouch is ruling the Wizarding World with an iron fist and rallying people to his support. It’s a hell of a thing to witness and hear about, because it paints this picture of the Wizarding World at war time, which is much, much different than the war we get in, say, Deathly Hallows (which is predicated on the premise of the Death Eaters claiming victory off screen eight chapters in).
But I digress. What I love about this chapter is the way it underlines and reiterates the important pieces. “Don’t forget that Bertha Jorkins is missing” (and please don’t forget that we know that Lord Voldemort murdered her). “Don’t forget that Harry’s wand was stolen at the Quidditch World Cup.” “Don’t forget that Winky was blamed for the Dark Mark.” All of these things are fascinating to look at from a plot standpoint because Rowling has this amazingly well-constructed mystery all presented and laid out before us.
Unfortunately, at the current moment, it is practically unsolvable. This is the first mention of Barty Crouch Jr., and we don’t know enough about him to figure it out, I think. It’s too much of a stretch. But it is telling that this is where he’s first introduced. Why here? Because he’s important to this plot. And Sirius is bringing the pieces to the table and sorting through them and collecting and organizing our thoughts.
Bur did you catch the other bit here that’s really good? The bit where we should figure out that someone in Hogwarts is stealing Polyjuice Potion? It’s glazed over, but Snape saying that ingredients to Polyjuice Potion were stolen on the night that Harry was out of bed? And who would have stole them? Sounds like Barty Crouch to me. But if only we knew that was the name of his son! Oh! Alas! What a hell of a mystery, and what a misdirect with Rowling throwing out that Harry doesn’t realize that Snape is talking about a recent theft, and not one from two years ago. Rowling is exceptional at the misdirect. Ugh. So exceptional.
And now that Padfoot hath returned… let’s descend into madness…
Some Quick Hits:
- Karkaroff showing Snape his Death Eater tattoo is a bold move. Learn discretion, you filthy turncoat!
- I must admit to being disappointed with Sirius in this book. He’s around, sure, but mostly to suss out plot and help Harry figure things out. When he’s in the fire and when he’s here he’s not so much a character as a plot device. She fixes this in the next novel (see his appearances in the Gryffindor fire for reference), but here it’s particularly egregious and a waste of a character we all know an love.
- “I don’t know. If he thought we were really standing in the way of his career… Percy’s really ambitious, you know.” Oh Ron. Truer words…