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.
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