Saturday, April 20, 2024

Messed up Tournaments, messed up Teachers, messed up Relationships

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Presented by “Harry Potter and the Reread Project”

Two weeks ago, I ended my reread post on the first ten chapters of Goblet of Fire pointing to the foreboding sense of danger that JKR created in them, by, among other things, first sort of revealing what happened to Bertha Jorkins to the reader, but making Harry forget about it again, and then, repeatedly, making characters talk about investigating what happened to her. I didn’t mention it then, but there is another thing that characters like Ludo Bagman or the older Weasleys consistently talk about and hint at during the first ten chapters of the book that creates a sense of foreboding. I am, of course, talking about the Triwizard Tournament which Dumbledore reveals will take place in Hogwarts at the start of term feast.

The messed up Tournament

To be honest, I love the idea of a Tournament to strengthen bonds with wizards and witches from other countries in theory. After all, the idea behind the Olympics is essentially the same, isn’t it? But I am again a bit disappointed that JKR chose to make the other two Wizarding schools that participated European as well, just like she chose to make the finalists of the Quidditch World Cup European countries. Of course, one could argue that JKR had to use Bulgaria to be able to include Victor Krum (who, in book seven, provided the important info about the symbol that lead the Golden Trio to the discovery of the Deathly Hallows) as both the Quidditch star and the champion of Durmstrang, but even then, she could have easily used any other country from all over the world as either the other finalist or the other competing school.

Then again, considering how badly JKR messed up the schools in non-European countries by, for example, pretending that only one prestigious Wizarding school exists for all of Africa (a giant continent where 1,250 to 2,100 languages are spoken according to Wikipedia!), it’s maybe better that she did focus on Europe instead of including potentially offensive and racist portrayals of non-European wizards.

art by pokieart

Still, even JKR’s portrayal of Beuaxbatons and Durmstrang isn’t all that awesome either. The Beauxbatons students are literally nothing but walking stereotypes about the French, with a side of general uppity bitchiness thrown in for Fleur Delacour specifically, and Durmstrang is just all over the place, as Barbara already pointed out in her “My Fave is Problematic” post about Harry Potter.

This gets worse when you consider what JKR tells us about Durmstrang before the school is actually properly introduced: that it doesn’t allow Muggleborns to study there and that it actually teaches the Dark Arts. As lovely as the idea of building and strengthening international Wizarding relations is, that does get kind of tainted if the Magical equivalent of a “whites only” school is included in said relations while seemingly no one cares about the “no Muggleborns allowed” policy is… well, kind of gross to me. It’s another thing that JKR didn’t think through completely, in my opinion.

And as much as I love the idea of the Triwizard Tournament, I can’t help but be simultaneously weirded out that someone really thought “Hey, let’s bring back this magical tournament for students that we discontinued because so many people died during it”. Then again, wizards seem generally weirdly not worried about the potential of serious bodily harm and death, like what we see with Quidditch. But as Mytly pointed out in a comment on “The Faults in the Wizarding World Part I” that it’s actually quite logical that wizards aren’t as worried about injuries as Muggles are as they can heal most major injuries that don’t lead to instant death fairly easily.

I also loved the idea of the Goblet of Fire, even if JKR explains literally nothing about how it works. The idea of a magical object that had enough of its own sentience and consciousness to choose champions for the three schools, be tricked via Confundus Charm into choosing Harry as the champion for a fourth school and to turn itself off and on only when a Triwizard Tournament takes place is something that really fascinates me. However, the way the choosing of a champion for Hogwarts was portrayed as fueling the rivalry between the houses really saddened me.

Messed up Teachers

Apart from the two new Wizarding schools, Goblet of Fire also introduces a host of new characters, among them, some very interesting ones. The most obviously interesting one is of course Allastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, who becomes the DADA teacher at Hogwarts, but about whom we hear before that because his dustbins attack something that he thinks is an intruder, a nasty affair that Arthus Weasley has to clear up.

Moody is instantly set up as someone simultaneously legendarily brave and, well, completely mad. That impression is only underscored by his entrance into the Great Hall during a thunderstorm, one of the most atmospheric scenes JKR has written in my opinion:

“I have great pleasure in announcing that this year at Hogwarts – ”
But at that moment, there was a deafening rumble of thunder, and the doors of the Great Hall banged open.
A man stood in the doorway, leaning upon a long staff, shrouded in a black travelling cloak. Every head in the Great Hall swivelled towards the stranger, suddenly brightly illuminated by a fork of lighting that flashed across the ceiling. He lowered his hood, shook out a mane of grizzled, dark grey hair, then began to walk up towards the teachers’ table.[…] Another flash of lighting crossed the ceiling. Hermione gasped.
The lighting had thrown the man’s face into sharp relief, and it was a face unlike Harry had ever seen. It looked as if it has been carved out of weathered wood by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what human faces where supposed to look like, and was none to skilled with a chisel. Every inch of skin seemed to be scarred. The mouth looked like a diagonal gash, and a large chunk of the nose was missing.

And this impression is only underscored by his later appearances, especially the one where he turns Draco Malfoy into a ferret and essentially throws him around the castle’s Great Hall.

art by audreybenjaminsen

Interestingly enough, that’s a scene that caused the same emotional reaction with me as the one where Fred gives Dudley the Ton-Tongue Toffee. While I feel like the method was ultimately immoral and more than a bit too harsh, I also feel like it’s a scene in which a horrible, unlikeable bully character gets the comeuppance he sort of deserves.

That scene also sets up Moody as someone who doesn’t care about the rules, even though he does care about fairness. (Don’t forget, he turned Malfoy into a ferret because Malfoy tried to attack Harry when he had his back turned to Malfoy.) That lack of care is again shown when Moody not only shows the Unforgivable Curses to his students despite the fact that they are officially way too young to learn about them, but then proceeds to use one of these curses on his students.

To be honest, Moody is maybe the best example for the sort of genuinely messed up stuff that teachers can do to their students at get away with at Hogwarts. The fact that there seem to be no consequences for turning a student into a ferret and bouncing him off of walls is bad enough, but Moody literally performs an Unforgivable Dark Magic on his students. Multiple times. And either Dumbledore doesn’t know about it, which would make him a criminally negligent headmaster, or he knows about it and is a-okay with it, which would be really… well, messed up.

Of course, one could argue that because Moody is doing so in an effort to teach them how to shake off the Imperius Curse and that that makes the usage of the Imperius Curse permissible. However, there’s still the fact that Moody transformed a student and used magic to bounce him around. It’s a really scary, really abusive sort of corporal punishment, in my opinion, and the fact that Moody doesn’t get punished for it speaks volumes to the sort of culture at Hogwarts where teachers can get away with almost anything. That scene is, in my opinion, another scene where JKR doesn’t manage to differentiate between depiction and endorsement, in my opinion, and it’s also a scene where something that is definitely not okay is not portrayed as being not okay because it was done by a character that is supposed to be good.

I mean, contrast the way Snape’s bullying of Neville and other students is constantly shown to be something shitty in the narrative, mostly through other characters talking about what an asshole Snape is for treating his students the abusive way he treats them with the way Moody turning Malfoy into a ferret is talked about. Characters constantly and rightfully complain about Snape”s unfair treatment of them.

However, Harry and Ron are both unendingly amused about Moody turning Malfoy into a ferret. Ron even gripes at Hermione for saying that it was good that McGonnagall stopped it as Malfoy could have been seriously hurt otherwise. About a dozen lines later, Hermione leaves the table and the Weasley twins and Lee Jordan appear. They then spend the next circa twenty lines rhapsodising about how awesome the teacher who just used transfiguration as a corporal punishment on another student is. That is, in my opinion, a bit worse than Snape’s continuous verbal abuse of his students, mostly Neville and Hermione, but because we, the readers, are supposed to like Moody and dislike Draco Malfoy; it’s not actually criticized within the narrative.

Messed up Relationships

What is criticized within the narrative, again and again, though, is the treatment of house elves by Wizarding society, mostly by Hermione. I think this is one of the few points where JKR actually manages to portray the Wizarding World as genuinely not a great place in the text. She achieves this by having most of the characters that grew up in the Wizarding World either be disinterested in Hermione’s criticism of the treatment of house elves as slaves or actively defend with arguments like “but they like it!”.

At the same time, Hermione’s way of going about changing the situation of house elves is anything but ideal from the very beginning. She mostly bullies her own friends into joining S.P.E.W. and uses weird arguments that completely ignore the actual being that she’s fighting for. Of course, this only gets worse over the course of the novel, something that I will take a more detailed look at in one of the latter posts.

What also gets worse, especially in comparison to the other novels, is the low-key fighting between Ron and Hermione. Of course, most of the time it isn’t even outright fighting and more both of them trying to bite each other’s head of. It’s only logical that they’re not in each other’s good books for large parts of Prisoner of Azkaban, considering the situation with Crookshanks and Scabbers, but the fact that they’re consistently taking swipes at each other in Harry’s presence is something that I don’t find especially pleasant.

art by emmilinne
art by emmilinne

In contrast to that, I do find the tension that begins to brew between Harry and Ron once Harry is chosen as the fourth Champion at the Triwizard Tournament at the end of the chapter “The Four Champions”, the last chapter I read, to be interesting and even sort of refreshing, even if JKR manages to set it up in a truly heartbreaking way. Harry consistently thinks about how at least Ron and Hermione will believe that he didn’t put his name in the Goblet of Fire, only to find out that Ron doesn’t actually believe him at all once he comes into his dormitory and actually holds it against Harry that he was chosen to compete in the Tournament, as Ron believes Harry entered his name himself and simple didn’t tell Ron how to do it.

I already praised JKR for the realistic portrayal of a family living in poverty that she shows us readers while Harry stays with the Weasleys after the Quidditch World Cup. I think she also manages to portray the effect that living in this poverty as well as living in the shadows of all his older brothers and his younger sister and his best friends, the famous Harry Potter and the brilliant Hermione Granger, had on Ron’s personality.

Ron has a giant inferiority complex which of course makes the idea of finding a way to break the rules and become the Hogwarts champion massively attractive to him. The idea that his already admired best friend did not just find a way to break said rules, but did not tell him and isn’t even getting punished for it naturally pisses him off. So while I think Harry is absolutely right to be hurt and angered by Ron’s behavior, I also do understand where Ron is coming from.

This is something that I genuinely think JKR does really well: portray the complexity of human relationships and human inner lives, including the messy parts of it. The Golden Trio are probably the the best example of this and, after three and a third of the fourth book, I can say that that’s also what absolutely always entices me about the Harry Potter series.

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