Old School Wednesdays presents an epic reread of The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. THIS MONTH ON THE RE-READ: we take it up a notch to book 2, wherein Harry Potter comes face to face with the past in the Chamber of Secrets.
Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
This time, on our Old School Wednesday journey, we continue our OSW feature for the first half (ok, two-thirds) of 2016–The Epic Harry Potter Re-Read with our joint review of the first book!
Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Publisher: Bloomsbury (UK) / Scholastic (US)
Publication Date: First published 1998
Hardcover: 341 Pages
All Harry Potter wants is to get away from the Dursleys and go back to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he’s packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature named Dobby – who says that if Harry Potter returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.
And strike it does. For in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor, Gilderoy Lockheart, a spirit named Moaning Myrtle who haunts the girls’ bathroom, and the unwanted attentions of Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny.
But each of these seem minor annoyances when the real trouble begins, and someone–or something–starts turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects… Harry Potter himself.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Harry Potter series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Previously on the Epic Harry Potter Re-read:
**All reviews/discussions on this re-readalong will contain inevitable spoilers–if you don’t want to be spoiled, best look away. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.**
I have always thought of The Chamber of Secrets as my least favorite of all of the Harry Potter books (and films).
This isn’t necessarily a failing of the book or the film–it’s just that of all of the stories in this impressive, amazing universe, book 2 is just a little less good. In the grand scheme of things, outside of the Harry Potter canon, The Chamber of Secrets is still pretty damn impressive.
As with The Sorcerer’s Stone, re-reading this second novel was… an experience. It was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed because of the things that I remembered, but even more so because of the things that I had forgotten.
As with book 1, I remain continually amazed at just how well J.K. Rowling managed to seed her future books in these early installments–in this particular volume, the Womping Willow (into which the Weasley’s illegal flying car crashes), the mention of werewolves in the Forbidden Forest, the importance of spiders and Aragog in particular come to mind. The allusions to Azkaban and the horribleness of the conditions there as Hagrid is sent away also stand out as well-drawn moments in my mind, plus everything to do with the Lord Voldemort/Tom Marvolo Riddle setup. There are also the many allusions to Ron and Hermione’s later relationship, and Ginny’s predisposition towards Harry. This is to say nothing of the importance of spells and potions such as polyjuice potion (which will come up so many times later over the series–as well as why polyjuice cannot be used to transmorgify humans into animals), and the all-important and eventually lifesaving spell, Expelliarmus.
For every wonderful thing I remembered about The Chamber of Secrets, however, there were an equal number of things that I had forgotten. Take Percy Weasley, for example–a character who is represented in the films (which I confess I re-watch on much more regular a basis than I re-read the books), but who hardly gets the same nuance and screen time as other members of the Weasley family. In this second novel, Percy is revealed to be a sympathetic, ambitious character who is trying to live up to the expectations of his family and the legacy of his over-achieving brothers (which will of course come to disastrous ends later in the series arc). Other forgotten characters include the whole host of ghosts who are so vital to Hogwarts and to the overall story–including Sir Nicolas (and his invitation of Harry and friends to his death day ball on Halloween to show up those jerks who didn’t include him on the headless hunt), and most especially Peeves! I had pretty much completely forgotten about Peeves–the smiling, mischievous poltergeist who stirs things up amongst the ghosts and humans at Hogwarts–but he plays a big role in this novel. Of course, there’s Moaning Myrtle and her backstory, which somehow I glossed over and thought of as cutesy/comedic in the films, but is actually incredibly sad when one stops to think about it in these books. (VOLDEMORT’S FIRST VICTIM! Poor Myrtle.)
I had forgotten about photography-obsessed (and Harry-obsessed) Collin, and, more importantly, the thin blade of celebrity Harry walks in the Wizarding World–he is the Boy Who Lived who is celebrated for his mere existence… But he’s also the first one people accuse of being Salazar Slytherin’s heir. He’s celebrated by fellow Griffyndors because he wins his house valuable quidditch matches, but he is immediately ostracized as fame-obsessed and a bad friend because he is a parselmouth. Harry’s young life–from the time he is just a baby and is left with the monstrous Dursley family because of Dumbledore’s unilateral decision-making–is one of injustices and forced choices.
Which brings me to the thing I admire so much about Harry Potter as a character, and these books as a whole.
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Harry faces a huge internal struggle in this book–he starts to think that he has been placed in the wrong house because the Sorting Hat told him he would do great things as a Slytherin. He is a parselmouth, which is a uniquely Slytherin trait. He fears that somehow he is responsible for all the horrible things that are happening, and at the core of everything he fears his friends will not be around forever and he will be expelled and forced back to Privet Drive to a life of being locked in and left alone forever. Worst of all, Harry feels a connection to Tom Riddle/Voldemort–they are both orphans, both half-bloods, and both abandoned by the world and those who were meant to watch over them. Harry begins to fear that these parallels make him more and more like the dark wizard who has been a shadow in his life since birth.
But Harry learns in The Chamber of Secrets that he has the ability to choose. And he learns that it is his choices that separate him from Tom Marvolo Riddle–that will continue to separate him from Voldemort’s dark, twisted path throughout the series. He chooses to try to save Ginny, even when the outlook is grim. He chooses to fight, even though he knows he’ll likely die. Hell, we know he chooses to die willingly later… but I’m getting head of myself. Choices, for good or for ill, define this series and this particular, extraordinary character.
Choices also define authority figures, and my complete disillusionment with them in The Chamber of Secrets.
On that note, let’s talk Dumbledore, shall we? Actually, let me rephrase that: let’s talk about authority figures in the Harry Potter universe and how incredibly polarized they are–focusing on Dumbledore. As with the first novel, Dumbledore is sent away before the crux of the action takes place, and by magically-induced physical barriers, Harry is forced to face Voldemort alone again. This time, Harry is given a few hints before he has to face the great and terrible monster within the Chamber–Dumbledore cryptically tells an invisible Harry and Ron that he’s never really gone from Hogwarts and help is there to those who ask. But the thing that kills me is Dumbledore’s help–in the form of Fawkes and the old sorting hat–is completely contingent on Harry being unwaveringly loyal to Dumbledore! That’s kind of sinister and makes me even more pissed off at Dumbledore than I was in book 1–because at this point, Dumbledore KNOWS that there are multiple horcruxes from Voldemort’s reign, yet he still makes Harry face these nearly indestructible evil relics alone. Furthermore, Dumbledore MUST realize or deeply suspect that Harry himself is a horcrux at this point in the story (the whole “I have long suspected Voldemort transferred some of his powers to you that night”). Meanwhile, Harry is still being tested, forced to face one of the most heinous black wizards ever alone as an twelve-year-old, and blindly trusts in an authority figure who frankly DOESN’T deserve Harry’s trust or allegiance.
NOT COOL, DUMBLEDORE.
Other authority figures are severely wanting in this book as well–Gilderoy Lockhart is much more insidious in the book versus the toned down version in the film (though Kenneth Brannaugh’s performance is spot on, per usual). This version of Lockhart is far more conniving and crass in his moves to dissuade Harry from letting fame get to his head, or capitalizing on opportunities to insert himself into dangerous situations that could actually end in children getting seriously hurt or killed. (On that note–AGAIN, NOT COOL, DUMBLEDORE. WHY WOULD YOU HIRE THIS MAN, EVER?)
Two last things before I stop rambling: First, The Chamber of Secrets is much more sinister and scary than I remembered it to be (again, this is an unfair memory from the movie version)–the climactic scenes with Harry and the Basilisk and the memory of Tom Riddle are actually really terrifying.
OH, DOBBY. The entire slavery system with House Elves is explored much further in other books, but our first understanding that things aren’t all well in wizard world is in Chamber of Secrets with both the divide between “pure bloods” and “mudbloods”, and with wizards actually owning and enslaving entire races of magical creatures (and being ok with that). Dobby fights against his orders to try to protect Harry, and by book’s end is given a smelly sock and his freedom. Oh, Dobby, how I love you.
Oh, how I love this book. It still might be my least favorite of the series, but it’s still a fantastic, fully awesome read–especially in that it sets up all that is to come next.
Well, what Thea said. Pretty much all of it.
The most immediate response I had to re-reading Chamber of Secrets for the first time since it came out was realising the wide difference between my memory of reading it and the reality of it – with the added memorised reality of having watched the movie multiple times. Add to that the fact that I too, have always thought of Chamber of Secrets as the least of the Harry Potter books and you have a whole scenario in which re-reading it was bound to be an experience.
And in many ways it was a great experience. One that led me to find new things in the story; to look at it in a different way; and to re-learn to love it.
Finding new things in the story:
These are the things I ether didn’t remember or did not realise until this re-read. The most important one being: wow, Dumbledore is really not as much as a presence in the story at all. His whole persona – the “best wizard of all time”, the “let’s be royal to Dumbledore” is much more a case of Good Marketing i.e. OTHER characters representing him as awesome rather than him BEING awesome if that makes sense. The only moment that truly presented him like that was when he protects Hagrid against the Minister of Magic and Mr Malfoy. So in way, it’s hard to believe that Harry Potter is so loyal to Dumbledore – there is no textual reason for it. Not to the extent that the ending needs – yes, they spent some time together in the first book but…
Re-reading this also makes it clear how much control over the story J.K. Rowling appears to have. Here we find so many little snippets of things to come that include but are not limited to Azkaban, Werewolves, and the sowing of future threads like the Horcruxes, Ginny and Harry, and so much more. It’s pretty nifty.
Looking at it in a different way:
I found myself having a whole more sympathy for Mr Filch and the treatment of characters without magical powers and less so for Snape. I don’t remember exactly at which point I tuned into believing that Snape Was Good Along (probably around book five) but from that moment on I was totally onboard the Snape Train. The problem is when I boarded that train I completely erased all those little, horrible, moments when he flat-out bullies students at Hogwarts. It is awful.
The unfortunate Fat Shaming continues with this book. Anyone who appears to be overweight is mocked or described in less than positive ways. Not cool.
Re-learning to love it:
Fawkes! Fred and George! Peeves! Dobby (sob) and the House Elves storyline (which was sadly not present in the movies at all)! Little Colin Cleever (more sob).
One thing that I had a faint recollection of but which was so clear to me this time around: the warmth and comfort of the Weasleys as a close-knit family and the way they embrace Harry is absolutely wonderful.
Although it is likely that this book will remain my least favourite there is still so much to love about it! But I can’t wait for the next one – which is I am HOPING will stand the test of time and still be my favourite book of the series. Bring on Askaban.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 Basilisk Fangs out of 10
About the Epic Harry Potter Re-Read:
Extending through August, we will be re-reading each book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. (We’ll also be re-watching all of the movies, but we won’t be reviewing those.) Why are we doing such a thing? Because we are nostalgic for these books that we basically grew up with; because we’ve had so much fun with re-reads over the past year, especially for Old School Wednesdays (see Percy Jackson and The Dark Tower); and most of all, because this August, we Book Smugglers are going to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London. AAAAAA!!!!
Are you also a Harry Potter fan? Are you new to the books? Do you want to join our re-read fun? Well you’re in some serious luck (and you don’t even need Felix Felicis) because here’s the full schedule.
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets – February 24
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban – March 23
Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire – April 27
Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix – May 25
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince – June 22
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – July 27
Join us, won’t you?