Sunday, April 21, 2024

Merpeople and Mysteries

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Series”

Roughly two months ago – in the second to last post in this series – we left Harry, Ron and Hermione after the Yule Ball, with Harry still having to crack the Golden Egg to be able to prepare for the second task. We also learned that Hagrid is a half-giant due to Ron and Harry overhearing his conversation with Madame Maxine, and saw both Ron and Harry making their first experiences with jealousy, as their designated love interests went out with other boys, leading to Ron having a massive fight with Hermione. Naturally, most of these topics carry over into the following chapters, even as their focus shifts onto the second task and what I like to call the Crouch mystery, something that has only been hinted at so far with Crouch Sr. failing to show up to the Yule Ball.

Depictions and Endorsements

I already expressed unhappiness about JKR’s portrayal of how Ron and Harry treated their dates and Hermione over the course of the Yule Ball, but even though I’m probably repeating myself here, I’m going to complain about this again. I originally wrote that

“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.”

But I have to take part of this back because Harry does actually realise that he should have paid more attention to Parvati during the Yule Ball when she’s rather cold to him afterwards. However, said realisation isn’t followed by an apology, it’s followed by Harry essentially being like “well,

art by beastlyworlds

she had fun anyway and now she’s dating some guy from Beauxbatons so it doesn’t matter that much that I hurt her feelings”. It’s an acknowledgement of shitty behaviour but then excusing said shitty behaviour for weird and insubstantial reasons.

I know I’m holding Harry Potter to seemingly weirdly high standards when it comes to the depiction and condemnation of shitty behaviour. I think I have a good reason for that, though. After all, these books were largely marketed towards children and young adults with the main characters presented as people that said child to young adult audience was supposed to take as role models. It worries me that these characters then narratively get away with behaviour that ranges from “hurtful and kind of shitty” to “outright immoral”.

Another example of this is Ron’s treatment of Hermione due to her going out with Krum. He’s jealous and petty and essentially ruins her night because of it, something that Hermione calls him out for and that Harry agrees with, even though he doesn’t speak his mind about it. Later on, however, it’s described as an argument that Ron and Hermione just decide to burry, as if they were both in the wrong. They weren’t, though – Ron treated Hermione like shit for no good reason, even though the narrative doesn’t really frame it that way.

At the same time, Goblet of Fire is definitely moving away from being children’s literature and into Young Adult territory. After all, it ends with murder and the leader of the Wizarding equivalent of a fascist movement coming back to life. So I wonder if I’m not underestimating the readers’ intellect and own moral compass by insisting that it should have been acknowledged more how shitty Ron and Harry were behaving in this instance.

Rita Skeeter’s Evilness

In any case, Harry and Ron’s shitty behaviour is overshadowed by someone else’s far shittier behaviour, namely Rita Skeeter. After the Yule Ball, she publishes an article about Hagrid’s mother being a giant, essentially pushing for him to be fired by spreading common stereotypes about giants and half-giants as bloodthirsty and dangerous.

I still think that making Hagrid a teacher was a mistake in the first place considering that he seemingly never finished his own education and has fairly terrible judgement when it comes to magical creatures and how dangerous they are. Unfortunately, people who are unfit to be teachers being hired at Hogwarts is quite a common theme over the course of the series. Hagrid is neither the worst nor an isolated case at Hogwarts, though he is genuinely unfit to be a teacher. That doesn’t change the fact that Skeeter blaming Hagrid’s lack of teaching skills on inherting his mother’s violent nature is simply morally wrong, though. It’s an essentialist and prejudiced idea.

art by bevsi
art by bevsi

At the same time, I still think Rita Skeeter’s character was a clever invention.  She’s utterly deplorable and gives you plenty of good reasons to hate her, but her deplorability doesn’t feel like it’s too over the top to be realistic. It’s also never excused by some sort of tragic backstory. If anything, Rita seems like a caricature of British tabloid culture a la The Sun or The Daily Mail.

Originally I thought that the hate mail Hermione got sent for supposedly toying with Harry’s heart was a bit over the top, but considering how regularly people are chased off of Twitter, for example, I changed my mind about that. What bothers me is that Hermione gets physically harmed because of Skeeter’s actions and then understandably wants to get back at her for it, but Ron continuously pushes her to just let it go instead of supporting her. But Ron and Hermione’s relationship in Goblet of Fire is something I’m generally quite uncomfortable with, as they seem to be semi-constantly bickering with each other, with the incentive for the bickering often coming from Ron.

The Second Task

What I quite liked was Harry’s jealousy of Cedric originally making him mistrust his advice, but Harry then realising that that was childish, partially because of Hagrid’s unwavering belief in him was really sweet. It’s also another example of JKR’s masterful crafting of plots, in my opinion: Hagrid’s background being exposed seems mainly seems like backstory that fluffs up the world building and acts as a bit of filler, but it is intimately related to multiple other plot strands like Harry cracking the Golden Egg and essentially kicks off the later Rita Skeeter plotline.

I also liked the dramatic irony of Harry planning carefully how to get to the Prefect’s bathroom to follow Cedric’s advice to avoid anything going wrong, but everything going wrong in the end anyway just because he was distracted and got stuck in a fake step. The riddle itself is quite nice as well, as is its solution, in my opinion, and watching Harry figure it out is quite enjoyable.

On the other hand, the sequence with Moaning Myrtle in the Prefect’s bathroom was incredibly uncomfortable even in the books. It also raises some concerning questions about the nature of ghosts, mainly about whether ghosts mentally remain the age that they were when they died or continue to mentally age but physically stay the same. I really hope for JKR that the first is the case –Moaning Myrtle creeping on the students in the bathroom is uncomfortable enough without her actually being around 60.

The second task is in itself quite nice as well, especially because JKR again writes some incredibly awesome atmospheric descriptions of the underwater world of the merpeople. I also like how completely different the second task is from the first one, at least theoretically, because it demands such different

art by beastlyworlds
art by beastlyworlds

skills, just like the third task is again very different from the two previous ones.

At the same time, it again shows how completely wrong it is that Harry even participates in this tournament because he simply hasn’t learned enough to actually comfortably be able to deal with the tasks. It makes the fact that Harry’s friends are mocking him for staying around to make sure the other people are safe and then saving Fleur’s sister even sadder, in my opinion.

Additionally, I think the whole second tasks reveals a fairly concerning mindset about non-human magical creatures that seem to be prevalent in the Wizarding World. After all, it relies massively on a negative perception of merpeople as thieving and generally dangerous to motivate the champions to go into the lake. The fact that the merpeople are then actually portrayed as actively antagonistic and threatening towards Harry doesn’t make the situation any better.

Of course the treatment of both giants and werewolves is an even better example for the kind of prejudice against non-human magical creatures that JKR writes as being rampant in the Wizarding World. At the same time, I think JKR seriously messed up there: she simultaneously tries to make it clear that the prejudices against werewolves and giants are wrong by introducing Remus and Hagrid but then portrays essentially all other werewolves and giants as violent, dangerous and supporters of Voldemort, low key implying that the distrust and marginalisation they experience is justified. It’s similarly confusing as her portrayal of the enslavement of house elves and the justifications for it as wrong but then simultaneously making the house elves actually be completely content with it. I honestly can’t make sense of it.

Crouch’s Disappaerances and other Mysteries

It’s quite fortunate that JKR turns her attention away from non-human magical beings and back to mysteries and personal drama fairly quickly after the second task, even if she doesn’t spare us readers an incredibly uncomfortable scene of the Trio visiting the kitchen to interrogate and essentially bully a drunk and depressed Winky about her former master.

The Crouch mystery is one of my favourite parts of Goblet of Fire because it’s so incredibly tragic but also really well constructed and thus massively captivating. Don’t get me wrong, Crouch is the perfect example of “just because they are anti-Voldemort doesn’t mean they’re a good person” and quite a scary example of the “ends justify the means” mindset, but his odd behaviour at the Quidditch World Cup paired with his disappearance and then reappearance only to be followed by an even odder disappearance is quite intriguing. It’s also a really nice example of JKR hinting at what actually happened while simultaneously misleading the characters and readers. I also always enjoy the Trio doing detective work and Sirius Black’s presence never fails to make me happy.

At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with Sirius essentially stating that Crouch Sr. didn’t try to help his son because he was too ambitious to do so and didn’t want to risk his career. It’s explicitly stated that Crouch Sr. hated Death Eaters and worked incredibly hard to fight them. Barty Crouch Jr. was caught in the company of the Death Eaters who had tortured Neville’s parents into insanity. He got a fair trial – unlike others suspected to be involved with the Death Eaters – and was found guilty and then, as fitting and correct, punished for his actions. The implication that that shouldn’t have happened because Crouch

art by upthehillart
art by upthehillart

should have protected him and only failed to do so because of his ambition is just bad and, quite frankly, another case of JKR pointlessly demonising ambitious people. It’s even weirder that Sirius Black, someone who comes from a family of pureblood supremacist himself and intensely hates Death Eaters and those doing dark magic, says this. After all, he of all people would understand cutting all familial ties with someone involved with the Death Eaters because that’s partially what he himself did.

On the other hand, I do like the theory that Barty Crouch Jr. was actually innocent, the evidence for his involvement in the torture of the Longbottoms unreliable and his imprisonment another case of the messed up-ness of the WIzarding World’s justice system. It opens up the possibility that it was actually his wrongful imprisonment in something that can only be described as a hellhole and then subsequent abuse at the hands of his father that turned him into a fully-fledged Death Eater. Unfortunately, later developments essentially disprove it, meaning that he had indeed deserved punishment for his actions.

I continue to be torn about the form that that punishment took, though. Azakaban is continuous psychological torture that drives its inhabitants to suicide through self-starvation. A friend of mine described it as “everything that’s wrong with the prison system on magical crack”. I don’t really think anyone deserves that, even if they’re the equivalents of genocidal crypto-fascists who I do think do deserve some form of punishment.

But I like the way that JKR uses the Crouch mystery, especially the conversation that the Trio has with Sirius in his cave and the trials Harry sees in Dumbledore’s Pensieve, as a way to give the readers and characters more details about how bad the situation in the Wizarding World was during the first Wizaring War. I think it’s fitting to give this information at this point in the narrative, framed by multiple characters that have been set up to be trustworthy in their analysis of the situation worrying about Voldemort becoming stronger.

In the next piece, Harry tries to get through a maze full of dangers only to face an ever greater danger in the end.

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