Friday, May 17, 2024

Dragons, Disasters, and Dancing

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

In my last Harry Potter reread post I stated that I understood why Ron was angry at and hurtful towards Harry after Harry was chosen to as the fourth Champion to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. Ron has a giant inferiority complex and sort of seriously wanted to enter the Tournament to finally earn his hour in the spotlight and he never even considered the possibility of Harry entering without telling him how to do it, so when it seemed like that was what had happened, Ron was intensely hurt. However, now after reading some more chapters, I have to admit that my stance on this has changed slightly.

Don’t get me wrong: I still absolutely understand Ron’s initial reaction to Harry being chosen as a Champion being hurt and anger. I just genuinely don’t understand why Ron continued to not believe that Harry hadn’t entered the Triwizard Tournament himself until Harry was almost killed by a dragon.

Of course, part of my lack of understanding may simply be due to the fact that the Harry Potter books are largely from Harry’s point of view so we as readers don’t actually find out what Ron thinks or feels about this and can only guess and extrapolate from what other characters – like Hermione – tell us about how Ron feels and thinks. However, I think the fact that I was on the other hand privy to just show shitty the situation of being chosen as a champion actually was for Harry also made me less sympathetic to Ron, as part of what made a shitty situation even shittier for Harry was the fact that he was fighting with Ron.

At the same time, Harry and Ron fighting made me love Hermione even more, as she was simultaneously having Harry’s back without ever doubting him and trying to get him and Ron to talk to each other again without making Harry feel like she wasn’t on his side and helping Harry prepare for the first task.

Dragons. Seriously. Dragons.

The first task, as you might remember, was getting past a dragon to obtain a golden egg. However, champions were not supposed to know about this beforehand and thus be unable to prepare themselves, meaning that the first task was mostly meant to test how well the champions would deal with spontaneous dangerous situations.

art by dasstark
art by dasstark

I think I’ve said before that bringing back a tournament that was discontinued because too many people died seems… well, like a weird idea to me, even if there are more precautions to make sure that no one dies and even though I theoretically like the idea of the Triwizard Tournament. Making students face nesting dragons from whom they have to steal an egg without letting them know this beforehand so they can prepare for it seems like an even weirder idea to me – especially considering that this is the supposedly safer version of the Triwizard Tournament. What the hell were champions of old supposed to do to complete tasks?

My continuous disbelief that anyone in the Wizarding World really thought this was a good idea is probably also the reason that I don’t really have a problem with the students being told about the dragons beforehand, even if it is technically cheating.

I also don’t really have a problem with Ludo Bagman offering to help Harry. I mean, Harry is only 14, he’s three years younger than any of the other champions, and thus missing three years of magical education that are supposedly crucial to be able to deal with the tasks of the Tournament. His age and comparable lack of education mean that Harry is seriously disadvantaged in comparison to the other champions. If a teacher had actually helped him, it would have only evened the playing field for him, in my opinion.

But as much as I see the first task with a certain amount of skepticism, I loved the description of the the dragons as well as reading JKR describe the actual task itself. I’m also really happy that she found a different way for each champion to deal with their dragon: Cedric transfigured a rock into a dog, Fleur tried to bewitch the dragon to fall asleep, Victor Krum blinded the dragon and Harry flew past it. I also loved that she made Harry utilize one of his greatest strengths – flying – to get past the dragon, but simultaneously made him struggle with the Summoning Charm and then made that the key hex to allow him to get past it.

art by upthehillart

Another thing that I really liked about the chapters leading up to the first task was the scene in Moody’s office in which Moody advises Harry how to get past the dragon. On the one hand, the atmosphere in the office is beautifully creepy and strengthens the idea that Moody is a bit off kilter and overly paranoid and on the other hand, it’s a cute scene when you read it the first time because Moody seems so genuinely supportive of Harry which becomes incredibly creepy if you reread it and are aware of the fact that this is not actually Moody but rather a Death Eater manipulating Harry to get him killed. It’s amazing how many different layers a scene can have.

The SPEW Disaster

SPEW and the treatment of house elves is another thing that has a lot of layers. To be honest, I can’t really make heads and tails out of it: I can’t tell what JKR was trying to achieve with it and I can’t tell if she succeeded or failed with it.

Most of the characters, especially those that grew up in the Wizarding World, like the Weasley twins, not only don’t care about the fact that they are complicit in slavery, they make fun of people like Hermione who are genuinely bothered by it. Additionally, these characters justify the enslavement of house elves with some genuinely gross rhetoric, mostly by talking about how the house elves are actually happy about being enslaved and wouldn’t even know what to do with themselves if they weren’t. In my opinion, it could have been a really good exploration of how being in a privileged position in society influences your view of those who aren’t in the same privileged position and how people justify their complicity in oppression to themselves.

art by bevsi

The problem with this is, though, that when Harry and the readers meet some of the house elves that live and work at Hogwarts they really actually are happy about their lot in life. House elves don’t want to be paid, they don’t want to have free time, they really just want to work and they think that asking to be treated as anything other than slaves is disgraceful. The fact that the house elves really are happy with their situation makes whatever analogy this was supposed to be fall apart.

This isn’t made better by the fact that we know very little about how house elves bond with their masters actually work. Most house elf families seem to be tied to Wizarding families in some way, meaning that the child of a house elf continues to serve the family that their mother or father served. House elves also can’t divulge the secrets of their family or speak badly about them without feeling the need to hurt themselves.

But it isn’t actually clear if this is due to something magical or more of a psychological bond and it also isn’t entirely clear when it starts or stops: Winky, for example, has been dismissed by Mr. Crouch but she still refuses to speak badly about him. Dobby, however, has been dismissed by the Malfoys as well and he wants to speak badly about them and even give up their secrets, but when he calls the Malfoys “bad dark wizards” he immediately tries to hurt himself as a punishment for it.

And as admirable as Hermione’s outrage over the way the house elves are treated is, it is more than a bit troublesome that she doesn’t seem to make a genuine effort to actually understand house elves. She does for example try to comfort Winky, which is a better way of dealing with her than simply ignoring her unhappiness, but Hermione is still very dismissive of Winky’s feelings and situation. Of course, this dismissive treatment of house elves only get worse later on.

Issues surrounding the Yule Ball

Rereading Goblet of Fire and especially the part about the Yule Ball also reminded me how easy it would have been to include same gender couples in the Harry Potter series, especially in the chapters surrounding the Ball. For example, instead of going with Seamus Finnigan and thus not being available to accompany Ron to the Yule Dance, Lavender could have had a girlfriend from Ravenclaw who she was bringing.

Or, if one wants to include a same gender couple and put it a bit more in the foreground than that, Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan could have gotten into a fight because Seamus had originally wanted to bring Dean but Dean wasn’t ready to be open about being in a relationship with Seamus yet. The two of them could have separated and gotten back together in Half Blood Prince after Ginny and Dean broke up. Or when Harry and Ron where walking around the rose garden that had been set up for the ball just outside the entrance hall, they could have stumbled over a girl/girl or a boy/boy couple making out in the rose bushes or sitting on a bench and not just over Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies as well as Madame Maxime and Hagrid.

art by lilabeanz

Then again, I really enjoyed the description of the Hogwarts decorations for the Yule Ball, the dresses and the Yule Ball itself. I also loved the way JKR included subplots in Goblet of Fire that didn’t have anything to do with the overarching Voldemort – plot, like the romance subplots, the thing with Fred, George and Ludo Bagman and the Rita Skeeter subplot. And, unlike in the previous books, the overall structure of the plot is also different: in the previous books, there was a mystery that the Golden Trio was investigating, mostly being misled while thinking they were solving it. This isn’t true in Goblet of Fire, instead there are multiple bigger plot hurdles that the characters have to get past as well as the underlying mystery of “who put Harry’s name in the Goblet of Fire” that the Trio however isn’t really focusing on.

What I really really did not enjoy, however, and what still causes a really bitter taste in my mouth was the way many female characters and their treatment by Harry and Ron were portrayed in the chapters previous to and about the Yule Ball.

Of course, it’s more a low key annoyance than an outright serious issue, but it really did bother me that JKR consistently portrayed girls that aren’t Hermione as only moving in giggling groups of silliness. While it is entirely possible that this is just how 14 year old boys genuinely see and think about girls, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that this is something JKR does over the course of all seven books.

Additionally, Harry and Ron behave genuinely horrible towards a number of girls over the course of the chapters focused on the Yule Ball. Ron especially talks about girls in a really misogynistic way, stating that he doesn’t actually care about whether the girl is nice or not as long as she’s a looker, but he does get called out for this by Hermione. And then there is, of course, Hermione herself who Harry and Ron genuinely don’t notice as a girl until it becomes convenient for them and who is then treated horrifically by Ron when she goes to the Ball with Victor Krum instead of with him or Harry. It is, however, fairly clear that we are not supposed to think that Ron’s treatment of Hermione is okay based on what Harry thinks about it, among other things.

The two boys also treat their actual dates to the ball quite horribly, ignoring them for most of the time and then dropping them like a sack of hot potatoes the first change they get. As bad as that is in itself, it’s made worse by the fact that Parvati Patil spends quite a bit of time at the ball making sure that Harry doesn’t embarrass himself by steering him in the right direction at the right time more than once. But unlike Ron’s misogynistic statements and gross treatment of Hermione, the fact that Harry and Ron ignore the Patil twins for most of the Yule Ball isn’t actually criticized or framed as being bad and neither Harry nor Ron ever so much as think about how this was a shitty way to behave or even apologize – just like Ron never actually apologizes to Hermione either.

To a certain extent, I even get Harry and Ron’s behaviour: Harry is involuntarily in the spotlight and Ron is embarrassed and uncomfortable in an ugly dress robe and jealous because the girl he has a low key crush on is with another guy and school dances are not actually a thing that 14 year old boys enjoy, but it’s still uncomfortable to reread just how badly the two main characters treat girls and realising that it’s not necessarily framed like a bad thing in the books. And as much fun as reading about the Yule Ball was, this did leave me with a rather bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

Coming soon: Harry cracking open an egg.

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