Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Reread Review (Mario)

The scope of the Harry Potter series explodes with the fourth novel. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is physically a big book. It doesn’t rival the individual novel sizes of large epic fantasy series by the likes of Robert Jordan or Terry Brooks, but it’s still a very big book, especially considering that Harry Potter is often categorized as young adult fiction. I’m hesitant to enforce a strong comparison between Rowling and someone like Jordan because, unlike Jordan, the size of Rowling’s books actually matters. The Goblet of Fire isn’t a bloated version of The Chamber of Secrets. The world hidden away inside its pages is representative of the overall size of the physical book. In short, more pages translate to more Harry and more wizarding world. That’s a great thing for me as a reader, but it’s a difficult thing for me as someone who is writing an appreciation of the novel. There is a lot going on and the best way for me to deal with it is to break it down by categories, while trying to tie them all together into some sort of cohesive whole. Sure, that sounds like an obvious thing to do while writing a review, and it is, but I’ve always found it difficult to organize my thoughts when I’m blown away by a great book and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, despite its problems, is a great book.

Building a Better Wizarding World and the Harry Potter Formula:
HP4 is very much the book that bridges the first half of the Harry Potter story to the second half. She’s putting the pieces into place. In the first half the threat of the dark lord of magic is present but it’s weak and it’s struggling. In the second, half Voldemort’s strength and followers are on the rise. The Goblet of Fire fees like a transition from one phase of the story to the second in terms of world building, introduction of characters, and setting up the plot for future books. Part of why the fourth book is one of my least favourite is because of that transitional aspect. I understand its necessity, because without the setup that happens in this book, the series wouldn’t have the impressive scope of the later books. Rowling takes advantage of this transitional period, she makes it matter by trying to break away from the formula of the earlier books, expanding her fictional world, and introducing more characters and developing old ones.

You know that the fourth book bridges both halves of the series together because, during Voldemort’s rebirth, he recounts the series so far from his point of view to his Death Eaters. I remember loving the end when I was young. I still do. Voldemort’s resurrection is a spectacular way to end a book and Rowling does it really well because she’s set it up so carefully since the beginning of the series. She provides enough resolution for the fourth book to make it feel like a complete work from start to finish. She also prepares several plot threads that will only come into fruition in later books. It’s a bit difficult for me to criticize Rowling’s plotting for the fourth book considering the importance of the events in this book in relation to the series as a whole. You could also consider this to be the series’ biggest weakness; the fourth book is arguably the most important because it’s where the series shifted considerably towards it’s mature half, but it’s also the book with the weakest plotting.

I can get over the idea that the plotting isn’t solid because there are so many other things going on in the book that make it work. It was a big leap for Rowling; she partially broke out of her formula and expanded the world of Harry Potter beyond my imagining. Pulling the focus away from Hogwarts was a great thing for the series and it’s in full force in the fourth book. It begins right out of the gate with the first chapter which normally takes place at the Dursleys, but this time it has Voldemort in it. I like that the book starts and ends with Voldemort. He’s as much part of Harry’s story as Harry is. It’s a new part that wasn’t previously in the formula. I think it’s very effective here because it makes Voldemort an actual character as opposed to some vague dark force that everybody is frightened of. Rowling makes me understand why the Wizarding World is so scared of Voldemort. She convinces me based on the way her characters react to the news of his resurrection. Rowling’s no longer having her characters tell us that he’s super evil and we should all go into shock at the mention of his name. She shows us instead, at first with Voldemort himself and then by having the characters actually be scared as opposed to telling us how scared they are. The “show, don’t tell” rule really comes into play with this book. It’s an effective storytelling technique to have Voldemort’s presence in the book increase simultaneously with his return to power.

With book four you see the real beginning of recurring flashbacks presenting the reader, and some of the characters, specific and relevant glimpses of the past. It’s something Rowling began in the second book but she really brings it to the forefront in The Goblet of Fire with the Pensieve. I really like learning about the First Wizarding War. Throughout the course of the series we discover that many characters and some events run parallel between the First Wizarding War and the events that take place during Harry’s time. It’s frightening to know that events that happened less than twenty years ago are intentionally forgotten, misremembered or poorly documented. How can the terror of one man be so incredible as to render people in such a state of panic? It seemed like overkill in book one to call him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named but after learning more about the First Wizarding War, it starts to make more sense. Flashbacks, in all their various forms, settle comfortably in Rowling’s Harry Potter formula.

Swedish cover.
Rowling doesn’t just try and expand her formula; she also greatly expands the world in which the series takes place. The dealings of the Ministry of Magic have become an integral part of Harry Potter by the fourth book. Snippets of conversation between people who work at the Ministry include a ban on magic carpets in Britain because carpets are considered Muggle items. These snippets can serve many different purposes from funny embellishments of the fictional world to important plot information to world building and foreshadowing. It’s an indicator of Rowling’s talent as a writer that the reader understands the meaning and the sense (or sometimes lack of) in the Ministry’s dealings. The more the reader understands the world of Harry Potter the more we feel we’re part of that world. Not only is the world bigger but characters from outside of Hogwarts have become increasingly important to the story. Characters and events that take place outside of Hogwarts have become an integral part of the series and its importance is reinforced by our greater understanding of the Wizarding World. When Harry first reads the Daily Prophet in the first books, everything sounds so foreign and strange, but by the time we reach the fourth book, we understand who and what the articles are about and how it relates to the rest of the world. Ron’s role as Wizarding World expert decreases slightly as the series progresses because Harry and Hermione’s knowledge of the world they’ve been a part of since their acceptance letters is as familiar to them as the Muggle world. The scope of the series is so big that the movie adaptations past the first three feel rushed and have an erratic pace that makes for a somewhat unpleasant viewing because of how incomplete the story feels. The movies didn’t trim the fat; they cut away a lot of the magic that makes the books so great.

There are so many great new additions to the world of Harry Potter within the fourth book, but there are also a handful of additions that are difficult to digest. Things like Veritaserum and all of the inane decisions made by some of the characters that allowed Voldemort and Barty Crouch Jr.'s incredibly convoluted plans to succeed. I sometimes get the feeling that the world of Harry Potter was growing at such a fast pace that Rowling could barely contain the flow of ideas. The Goblet of Fire is by no means a bad book. It's actually very good but it feels unpolished and it's a bit too long. After reading the last few chapters you realize just how many scenes where in the book simply for the sake of Voldemort's machinations and what was required to bring them to fruition. The most frustrating thing is that I'm glad his plan worked, I'm glad he got his body back because it adds weight to the series. It makes the rest of the series what it is, not only the story of Harry Potter the boy and the school for wizards he attends but a series about Harry potter and the world he lives in. Few multi-book series that I've read actually grow and mature after each succeeding book. That's one of the reasons I love Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Problems with Plotting:
I often refer to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as one of my least favourite Harry Potter novels and the reason why is clear. The fourth book has the worst plotting of all the books in the series. In my commentary for the first three novels, I praised Rowling’s carefully crafted stories. She’s figured out a type of story she works well with, mystery stories, and made it work to her advantage in order to create compelling narratives and develop interesting characters. With each new novel she continued to use the same techniques to greater effect by increasing the size or number of mysteries along with the size of her fictional world and the number of characters that inhabit it. With The Goblet of Fire Rowling continues to push herself but she runs into the unfortunate problem of her story being too large and complex to benefit from her storytelling method. In other words, Harry Potter has outgrown its humble roots and the effect is a book that, while still being very good, doesn’t work as well as the previous volumes.

World building and interesting characters are usually enough to make a good book, but to make a great book, you also need to have a good plot. So far Rowling’s been using mysteries as her main way of controlling the plot but that method doesn’t work for The Goblet of Fire and the result is weak plotting. The mysteries aren’t clear enough: what Voldemort is up to is too vague and who put Harry’s name in the cup is overpowered by all the other stuff going on, mainly Harry’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament. The only saving grace of the many mysteries, and the plan Voldemort and his followers executed, is that when everything is revealed, the reader is so shocked to find out what really happened everything seems to work. And for my young teenage self it worked but it doesn’t stand up once you start to think of it. The strange overly complicated plan Voldemort puts together simply shouldn’t work. Perhaps it’s a sign of Voldemort’s increasing desperation to regain a body, but most of his plans in previous books were relatively simple, but were hampered by useless conspirers and servants.

It’s challenging to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in regards to Voldemort’s plans because you could easily write several pages on the subject. Instead, I’ll quickly recap what the plans were and which parts don’t work for me. Due to the chance encounter with a chatty employee of the Ministry of Magic, Voldemort learns about the revival of the Triwizard Tournament. For some reason, he decides that the tournament is the best chance he has of capturing Harry and transporting him to a secret and deserted location which will enable him to be used as part of the magic potion that gives Voldemort a new body. The largest and most obvious weak link is the Triwizard Tournament. It has too many variables involved which make it an unstable element to use as the foundation of your plans. The solution: send in an impostor to work for an entire school year under Dumbledore’s nose and hope he doesn’t attract any unnecessary attention or give reason for suspicious behaviour. The real problem with the plotting then becomes Mad-Eye Moody and not the tournament itself.  

The Mad-Eye Moody impersonator shouldn’t have worked. How can someone seamlessly take on the appearance and the life of that person without having any of the people who know him discover the charade? Both Voldemort and Rowling put too much demand on Moody’s impersonator for the success of the plot. There could have been easier or at least simpler solutions to getting things done. The problem, of course, is that Harry has to be a part of the Triwizard Tournament, or else the tournament could easily have become far less interesting to the reader, and without the Triwizard plot, Voldemort’s part of the story could have been much different and much shorter. Short and simple isn’t something that I would say is synonymous with Harry Potter. I get the feeling that Rowling got caught up in her own excitement and the result is a book that lacks the tightly constructed elegance of the mysteries in the second and third books.

I need to be clear that I like the Triwizard Tournament, but I dislike that the Voldemort mystery is tacked onto it. But I do like how Voldemort, even in his weakened state, can hijack such an important invent in the Wizarding World and use it as a means to an end. It’s only when I look at the novel in its entirety that I see its significant flaws in plotting and as a mystery. Even though the plot is bad, The Goblet of Fire works, if you’re not looking at the big picture and how everything fits together. There are a lot of smaller elements that the reader can easily digest and enjoy. Smaller character moments like the Weasley twins trying to cross Dumbledore’s Age Line around the Goblet of Fire or Hagrid’s infatuation with Madame Maxime. Overall, my lack of enjoyment for the plot is undermined by my enjoyment of the rest of the book.

The Triwizard Tournament:
You can’t talk about the fourth book without mentioning the Triwizard Tournament. There is one thing Rowling does in The Goblet of Fire that she does better than in previous books, which is to give the reader a sense of an international wizard community. Tied in to that is also the awareness of international relationships of the Wizarding World and the maddening bureaucracy involved in hiding witches and wizards from Muggles. Her approach to this is interesting and it basically boils down to having characters who work for the Ministry talk about the difficulties of their work, such as the complications and headaches associated with trying to have other countries sign an International Ban on Duelling or talking about writing reports on the thickness of cauldron bottoms.

Rowling gives us two fine examples of events that will make all wizards collaborate to a certain degree in order to make certain gatherings happen. One of those events is the Quidditch World Cup and the other is the Triwizard Tournament. I like the idea of an activity that exists with the intent of promoting better wizarding relations. It harkens to some of our real world sporting competitions like the World Cup or the Olympics. It’s interesting that the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament both make their first appearance in the same book. Rowling’s clearly working on expanding her world beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. Both competitions seem to enforce that intent.

I quite like the idea of the tournament but it’s not perfect. It’s kind of barbaric. Are you seriously sending students to fight dragons head on? At least give the champions some sort of special training or classes on weekends to help them prepare for the challenges. As much as Hogwarts is a school for wizards, the majority of classes and subjects do not prepare students to become well rounded duellists or tamers of magical beasts. I also think it’s ridiculous that once you name comes out of the Goblet of Fire, you have to participate. This no backsies rule is scary. I can easily picture a number of students who would toss their names in the cup blinded by visions of glory and riches only to crap their pants at the thought of swimming in the lake amongst the merpeople without a scuba suit for an hour. Maybe witches and wizards are made of stronger stuff, but I bet the Triwizard Tournament is more enjoyable as a spectator than anything else. Why would you want to participate and risk your life? The prize is being forced to face the meanest wizard in all history and dragging the dead body of a fellow student to an adoring crown. Oh, that wasn’t supposed to happen? Still, I’ll never throw my name in the cup, thanks very much. I understand that the Goblet of Fire chooses the top candidate from each school but the tasks they're set out to accomplish are very difficult and extremely dangerous. It's not surprising that each candidate has people helping them to win.

The Goblet of Fire: good or great?
The fourth book gets very dark. It’s not the first time something rather sinister is present in the series (see my post for book two) but shit, the stuff we learn about the first war with Voldemort is enough to give me the chills. It’s crazy how cruel some of these people can be and, we’ll see more of it later on, it’s incredible how some people will keep the best interests of others at heart even in the most difficult and dangerous situations. Its tremendous good luck for Harry to have been selected a one of the Triwizard champions because that, more than anything else at this point, has played a significant role in preparing him for Voldemort. We’ll find out in book five that Harry Potter’s life is closely tied to a prophecy Professor Trelawney had and like most prophecies, this one is self-fulfilling. The more Voldemort attempts to rid the world of Harry, the more he’s contributing to Harry’s development as the ultimate force for good. In addition to this, Harry’s repeated selflessness is inspirational. He might be a whiny bitch but he’s brave (recklessly so) and that’s the kind of thing people can respect when it’s being done for the good of others.

I loved The Goblet of Fire when I first read it and I loved it all the way through my teenage years. Part of this reread project was to rediscover the series after not having read it for several years. I was worried I would find so many faults with Harry Potter that I wouldn’t be able to love it in the same way. I’m past the halfway point and I have to say, if anything, I love it more than I did before. My reading experience hasn’t changed much. I still think Harry is regularly annoying. Hermione is the best and Ron is still a great dude even though he can turn into a pretty big drama queen at least once a year but it’s ok because his street smarts make up for it. More importantly, I can clearly see just what Rowling did with her books and I appreciate it more than ever. There are two books I was worried about while starting the reread: the fourth and seventh book. I remember loving this one but I also remember how even as a young teen I realized how convoluted Voldemort’s plan was. I was worried I would think it’s even worse now and instead of being a great book like the rest of the series it would merely be a good one. I shouldn’t have worried so much. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is an excellent book. It’s not perfect but the sheer explosiveness of Rowling’s world building and the sporadic manifestation of her imagination overcomes the shortcomings of certain shaky plot elements. Rowling continues to push herself as a writer during the series. Her characters become more complex, her world more detailed, and her plotting continues to push the limits she initially placed on herself. Enough blabbing, on to book five, the Second Wizarding War is here!

Random Thoughts:
-Rita Skeeter, what a bitch. Enough said. Props to Hermione for figuring everything out, but it seems a bit uncharacteristic of her to take justice into her own hands. Also, unregistered animagus are all over the place!

-There are aspects of the Wizarding World that interest me more than others. One of those parts is the social structure which I sometimes find frustrating because of how narrow-minded it is. The Wizarding World has a pretty rigid social structure which Rowling first deals with in the second book but she’s continued to add to it in the following volumes. This time she illustrate the point with House Elves and Hermione's campaign to prove that they're treated as slaves and then try to get them similar rights as those of witches and wizards. It's interesting because Rowling, through Hermione, is saying that non-human sentient beings have rights which makes sense to me, but seems like a very controversial idea in the Wizarding World. We've seen non-humans sentient characters in the books before like Firenze, for example. He and many other centaurs live in the Forbidden Forest and they've got some sort of social or communal structure. They don't appear to live entirely independently. But, unlike the House Elves, they're not being intentionally mistreated for the benefit of wizard kind. Why not? What's the difference between wizard relationship with Centaurs and House Elves? Why are House Elves so easily and continuously victimized? I have a feeling I’ll have to hit up Pottermore to find out.

-Throughout the books, Rowling drops little hints at larger elements of the Wizarding World and while some just pass me by, others catch my attention. In the fourth book she mentions the Floo Regulation Panel which is in charge of all things Floo Powder. Its presence in the book just makes me want to know more about Floo Power. Who makes it? Who connects and disconnects fireplaces from the Floo Network? Sounds like an interesting job, like a highway traffic controller but for Floo Power. I’ll have to check out the Harry Potter wiki for more information.

-Rowling plans out her books and it shows as much in the big plot points as it does in the smaller stuff. One example is Mrs. Weasley’s use of Accio, the summoning charm, early on in the book just to have the same spell pop up again later, but being used by Harry. It’s not a spell we’ve seen before in the series and Rowling could easily have introduced it just before Harry needed to use it but by inserting it earlier on in the book, its appearance later seems more natural. Magic can easily become a deus ex machina but careful playing by Rowling helps to keep the sense of disbelief at bay. She also strikes a nice balance between little swishes of wands resulting in small things and other stronger spells that actually require incantations, potions or other careful preparations. She doesn’t have a carefully detained magic system like some epic fantasy series have, but she nonetheless does a good job with the magic. 

-Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Fred and George are great. That is all.

-Rowling's dragons are boring compared to Ursula K. Le Guin's but that's okay because she fills the rest of the book with interesting characters and magic.

-Veritaserum, a magical potion that compels an individual to speak the truth, is introduced in this book. It thought it was a bit problematic. If it’s a powerful truth serum why wasn’t it used on the suspects after the First Wizard War? I did a quick search online and it seems that it’s unreliable as there are ways to counter it and the truths aren’t the absolute truths but what an individual perceives as the truth. Nice damage control, Rowling.

-So we learn that Hagrid is a half-giant. No surprise there, but how adorable is the image of a young Hagrid putting his tiny dad on top of a dresser to leave him alone? It’s a good thing Hagrid’s got such a big heart otherwise he’d be a force to be reckoned with (which he still is, but he’s also a big softy so it doesn’t show often).

-I love that Dumbledore has been planning for Voldemort’s return because it proves that despite his aloofness, he’s very aware of his surroundings and the events taking place in the world. He’s paying attention to the forthcoming evil and he’s preparing the defences. His greatest strength is that he believes in people’s abilities to defend themselves and help each other. He’s just helping them realize their potential by inspiring them to action.  

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