Teasing the dragon

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J K Rowling.
Ted Smart / Bloomsbury Publishing 1998

“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore

A reread of this, the second instalment in the Harry Potter book sequence (following Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), impresses on a number of fronts: the continued fleshing out of the main characters which made them so appealing in the first place; the masterful plotting and juggling of elements, even more evident in a third read; and of course its emphasis on compassion, friendship and loyalty, all of which gain more relevancy during a time of pandemic and political upheaval.*

Harry Potter’s birthday on the last day of July — not insignificantly the same as the author’s — sees him chafing under the vindictiveness of his adoptive family. Escaping from virtual imprisonment he is then mysteriously stopped from catching the Hogwarts Express to school, and so begins a series of incidents that leads not just to the secret of the Chamber of the title but also further revelations about how and why Harry survived the attack by He Who Must Not Be Named.

As the book ends with Harry and Hermione walking “back through the gateway to the Muggle world” we readers with hindsight know that Harry’s current victory will prove just a temporary respite in the wizarding war that has only just begun.

Basilisk image collected by Felix Platter (1564-1614) for his ‘Historiae animalium’

I confess that I was first drawn to the books by the bullying theme which runs throughout, particularly the interminable bullying by the Dursleys which really amounts to child abuse. There’s also the intimidation wrought by the Malfoys who, true to the ‘bad faith’ indicated by their family surname, continually undermine Harry’s position at Hogwarts for reasons which gradually become clearer. Then there’s bystander bullying, the behaviour of fellow pupils who prove fickle when unfounded rumours and tittle-tattle plague Harry’s actions and motivations.

Bullying, contrary to common belief, doesn’t really make you stronger: it saps you physically and mentally, erodes self-belief, isolates you; only with support from true friends and trained advisers can one start to rebuild confidence and self-esteem, and then not always. So Harry’s constant setbacks are kept in check by Hermione and Ron and by sympathetic adults, giving him the chance to find strength as he slowly discovers the truth about his origins and the role he appears fated to play.

But, on a more cheerful level, I really enjoyed the fun the author takes with names, legends and folkloric tropes: the inclusion of fantastic beasts, such as basilisk and phoenix, which had a spin-off book of their own and, later, a film franchise; also the borrowings from Latin and French for names and spells, the first appearance of a Horcrux (though not as yet named) and the comic possibilities of using a toilet as entrance to an Underworld.

It’s that mixing of comic and tragic that, I think, makes the Potter books most appealing: from Lockhart the poseur and Dobby’s acts of contrition Rowling seesaws towards the dangers of death for innocents and Dumbledore’s wise admonitions in the face of genuine perils. But first we have to have sympathy for the protagonists, especially the trio of Gryffindor students but also their immediate circle, and that is what the author manages so adroitly.

The Hogwarts version of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ — the dog Latin motto ‘never teased should a sleeping dragon be’ — tells the students not to rock the boat; luckily Rowling ignores her own advice!

* As we collectively struggle to acknowledge the everyday realities of coronavirus, the struggle to maintain normal activities such as schooling, and the wait for vaccines, I’m reminded of this novel’s prescient fictional parallels: the baleful stare of the basilisk, the Hogwarts staff’s fated attempts to continue teaching and administer exams, and the delay while the mandrakes mature enough to be used as antidotes to petrification.

5/21 TBR Books in 2021

16 thoughts on “Teasing the dragon

  1. I’m glad you highlighted the bullying theme that the book explores, because somehow in the fantasy and magical elements, and the good versus evil (Harry versus Voldemort) battles, it is sometimes lost or at least sidelined. Harry and the Durseleys, and Dobby and the Malfoys are in fact worse as you say, pretty much amounting to abuse. That also led me to think, poor Harry doesn’t really have any real escape does he–in the ‘human’ world there are the Durseleys to contend with and in the wizard world, Vodemort and his endless plots.

    I in fact have a Japanese translated book on my TBR Lonely Castle in the Mirror which deals with the topic of bullying and escape–hoping to get to it soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Harry Potter books took off while my partner was doing her PhD on appearance and bullying so we had a particular interest in the psychology surrounding Harry’s hounding by the Dursleys and the Malfoys; and subsequent public discussion about bullying in the workplace, domestic abuse and the practice of gaslighting has made us all more aware of the pernicious prevalence of victimisation in our society.

      Your mention of the Dursleys reminds me how much Rowling drew on her own upbringing in these novels. She was brought up and educated in a South Gloucestershire village not many miles north of Bristol (where I myself grew up) so her inclusion of localities familiar to me in her stories — the Forest of Dean and the Gloucestershire town of Dursley, Hagrid on his flying motorcycle about Bristol, even the name Potter borrowed from brothers in the village primary school she attended — all made the stories especially relevant to us.

      Lonely Castle in the Mirror is an intriguing title, Mallika, I’ll go and look that up presently, I think! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your comments have reminded me of the effect the earlier books in the series had on young readers in my care in the school library. There is a life lesson contained in the story, dealing with bullying with the support of friendship. Children often recognised some aspect of themselves in Harry too and that contributes to the popularity I think. Also, as you so rightly say, the combination of humour and tragedy.
    I love the Dumbledore quote you’ve selected too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Dumbledore quote is one of the best known but rings true for all time, I think.

      Also, so many kids feel confused when they’re picked on that Harry’s own bewilderment over his victimisation is one that they instinctively recognise and empathise with.

      So many critics are sniffy about the Potter books but without real cause, because Rowling’s emphasis on compassion, family, friendship, loyalty and honesty is at the heart of what we as humans should pursue and which all the best literature tends to be about. That steadfast core is one of the strengths of the series and one we should unreservedly prize.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. It’s interesting to me that you were drawn to Harry’s bullying by the Dursleys. I’ve always disliked it — it seemed to me like Rowling was trying for the tone Roald Dahl often used, where the bullying is so over the top that it turns into a bizarre fantasy of dark humor. Instead I find the Dursleys to be both improbable and not in the least darkly humorous. The bullying at Hogwarts seems much more grounded to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m interested you picked up on this, Jean. The interest my partner and I had in bullying was personal as well as professional: a family member and her children were at the time bullied by her partner; but also I as a teacher was bullied by management, saw it happening with students too; and my partner’s doctorate was in not only identifying the forms bullying took for kids but also in devising ways for victims to develop social resilience in the face of it.

      So, yes, Harry’s bullying at school as well as at home was grotesque — and yes, Dahlesque even — but I think we must have recognised the fairytale aspects that Rowling must have drawn from; no less devastating than in everyday life of course but being in a fairytale tradition offering an eventual outcome where such intimidation could be successfully overcome.

      No, I don’t find the Dursley darkly humorous either, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I’m interested as I work through the books again to see if the Dursley have any mitigating facets or whether they really were the absolute shockers that they seemed.


      1. Oh, no, I didn’t get the impression that you found the Dursleys funny — I just mean it always felt to me like that was what JKR was going for, and I didn’t think she succeeded at it. I don’t recall them having any redeeming features — certainly not the dad. Mrs. Dursley, having turned her envy of her sister’s luck into awfulness, is a bit more understandable but not (IMO) mitigated; more an Awful Warning. And Dudley repents some towards the end.

        I like your fairy tale analysis; I’ll have to think about that. I was bullied quite a bit as a kid, so I have the same personal interest.


        1. A lot of narratives, and particularly fantasy but also romance, follow a familiar fairytale pattern (tvtropes.org lists oh-so-many examples) in having what Tolkien called eucatastrophe—in other words, the happy ending. That’s certainly the case with Harry Potter, with the Dursley family being the equivalent of the Ugly Sisters in Harry’s story arc.

          (It’s interesting that Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13, which some think helped inspire the Potter stories, has the equally unpleasant Throttles who try to stop the hero achieving his destiny: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-3S6)


  4. I finished re-reading the HP series just after New Year, and as you note, it really is the perfect antidote to this unsettled and uncertain period we’re all living though at the moment… Despite how dark the series gets it never loses that feeling of hope and faith in Harry’s ability to overcome adversity that is so clear in the early books, such as Chamber of Secrets.

    The bullying aspect is one I never thought too much about, I must admit, and reading your comments on it was eye-opening. Reading the series as a child I never thought all that much about the way Harry is treated by the Dursleys; as you mentioned in your comment above this kind of treatment occurs frequently in children’s fiction (Roald Dahl’s Matilda jumps immediately to my mind!) and of course given the authority that adults possess in children’s minds of course reading this as a child you have no trouble believing that the Dursleys (and Snape, and Filch, and all the other unpleasant characters in the books) can treat children with such wanton cruelty without anybody batting an eyelid. If child characters such as Harry are a model for young readers, perhaps adult readers have much to learn from the way that the positive adult characters in the series behave? Prof. McGonagall was the first to pop into my head – she’s strict but fair, and dedicated to her students’ welfare above all else… the anti-Aunt Petunia, perhaps 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Sara, I hope you’re surviving as well as might be hoped in, I assume, Croatia.

      I’ve read so many comments about the Potter series, both for and against, and while there are quite a few things about the books that are problematical (twenty years on some of them more so) it’s easy to forget how much they were somehow what was needed at the time, and that they remain entertaining nevertheless.

      I wonder if the bullying aspects were an aspect of children’s fiction which was very much a given then, a staple especially in the school stories of previous generations. There’s a whole family tree about teasing and worse in school in the writings of British writers such as Thomas Hughes (Tom Brown’s Schooldays), Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, through to Eleanor Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton and numerous others, not forgetting weekly comics for girls and boys throughout the 20th century which seemed to include at least one comic strip about schools.

      It’s this British literary tradition of bullying in both private and state schools, particularly in England, that Rowling followed, and it came at a time when I think there was a revival of nostalgia for what may’ve been imagined as the benign social aspects of boarding schools. Now, with a decade of UK being governed by cabinets packed with ex Etonian schoolboys maybe the magic has worn off a bit as we see how privilege encourages entitlement more than compassion.

      Sorry, this has turned into more of a mini-essay than I intended! It’s your fault for setting me off… 😁


      1. I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to this before, somehow I completely missed your comment way back in February 🤦‍♀️ Apparently not updating your WordPress app for months on end messes with notifications, who knew? It definitely seems there’s a rich (and depressing) history of books about bullying in English literature, Bronte and Dickens being the authors I’m most familiar with here. It’s interesting that there seems to be a nostalgia for the Good Old Days of boarding schools, although I’m mostly judging based on the experiences of friends and acquaintances who went through the system and don’t have too many kind words to say about it. Rowling seems to fit into the tradition in the sense that she doesn’t really question the fact that bullying can and will occur, and as readers we never really question it either, we just expect Harry to come up with the solutions to deal with it himself.


        1. No problem, Sara, I wasn’t expecting a reply but thank you! Yes, bullying is never going to go away, but I suppose the fairytale tradition — with wicked stepmothers or evil magicians, for example — and indeed a lot of literary fiction, is based on bullying and worse, with the protagonist having to come to terms with it before there’s a resolution. It’s just that in the case of Harry nobody other than his friends seem to either take the bullying seriously or defend him effectively. But at least we get to see the range of bullies, from Snape to the Dursleys, the Malfoys, and of course Voldemort, with the moral being that love wins in the end.


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