I was wrong. This isn’t Matilda: The Fantasy YA Series. It’s Rugrats: The Fantasy YA Series.
Think about it.
Tommy Pickles may not be another Boy Who Lived, but he sure is The Boy With Neglectful Parents; whenever the parents in the neighborhood bring their babies together for playdates, he’s free to go on hijinks that threaten equally to destroy the world and to unravel its conspiracies (stuff like “what is that scary clown toy Dad bought, really?”).
Marginally more seriously, Rugrats, like Harry Potter, is a story where you come for the babies, stay for the parents. You’re here for the kid with the lightning scar and/or zero hair, but really it’s the ones with histories behind them, like Dumbledore and Snape, that you’ve got your eyes on. The babies are still relatable, engaging, and great characters in their own right — they have to be, or you’d quit reading — but if the parents didn’t have that charisma and mystery, would you really come back to Pottrats?
Now let me talk about the book proper. Somebody get me a copy of it.
In Praise of Chamber of Secrets
This book is mad great. Talk about a sequel that gives you everything you could possibly want. From about “The Deathday Party” on, I was locked in — this is a thrill ride. It turns out that Stocrosposher’s Stone was just a baby mystery. Well, guess what? It’s a new year at Hogwarts. Those babies you thought you knew so well? Starting to grow up a little bit.
That’s right — it’s toddler time.
The film adaptation, from what I remember, felt so small. Not just that, but bright. With the book, you can throw both those impressions out the window — Hogwarts is not just sprawling, but dank and dark with conspiracy. They really overhauled this for the film. Maybe I’ll do, like…a watchstravaganza of it sometime……..
(the movie Dobby looks like Freddie FRICKING Freaker) (I have no clue if these chapter illustrations are in the British editions, by the way, but they are good)
This is a mystery where most things, even little incidents, have a purpose. It’s firmly on the rails. All the same, its episodic nature feels so freeing (same goes for the last book). A poster for Dueling Club appears on the with no forewarning, and all the students are excited about something I’ve never heard of. Yet I accept it because that episodic-ness sweeps me up in it and puts me over Harry’s shoulder.
Even today, it feels daring to me to make the crux of a magic kid book about fairies and wizards racism — not just racism between you and your classmates, not even just between students and the sheltering headmasters of a benevolent school, but between them and the world and Hogwarts, which is, it turns out, sitting on a bunch of pondscum. The very foundation of the school may in fact be pondscum. Last book was all in the palm of Dumbledore’s hand. Where is it this time? Last book, Harry didn’t actually save the day; this time Hogwarts needs those new faces more than it can admit.
Characters! (with Some Mixed Feelings)
Well, there goes Neville. Drifting off into the depths of our ocean of characters. Last time he had to have been Draco-tier. This time he’s like Seamus-tier. Come on, get up there! You can do it! You too can be one of Harry’s true companions!
I’m not really sore about that. But I am a little sore about Snape, and I’m very very sore about Lockhart. Let’s get to a couple of the characters that really matter: the parents.
First Snape, because nobody really cares about Gilderoy F R I C K I N G Lockhart.
In Harry Potter and the Philodendron, if you’ll recall (spoilers in this paragraph if you’ll still holding off on reading it), Snape was the big bad guy, but really he wasn’t. Dumbledore told Harry he was really not so bad, and in fact felt indebted to Harry. The trouble is, he’s such a shitty person that it is impossible for him to show affection, and he’s such a pretentious badass — as in “you better get that little badass kid off my lawn before I slap him” — that he won’t follow the advice, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So we know he’s got a secret heart of gold. I’m aware that none of those character traits go out the window with Chamber of Secrets. I mean, it’s not like Snape apologized to anyone or admitted he was a total dungus.
Going into Chamber of Secrets, I was happy to see him. I thought, “Oh, that old scalawag. On Harry’s case again, is he?” Who doesn’t love the stupid pretentious villain who can’t admit his soft side? But…but he’s changed, hasn’t he? Is it just me, or did he get 500% more sarcastic and quippy in this book? Did we need that? We already have Draco Malfoy doing that, and he’s a soddin’ kid.
This also suggests to me that for the rest of the series, we’re getting on the “Will We Or Won’t We Hate Snape” see-saw. It kinda makes me lose interest in him.
Now Lockhart, who nobody F R I C K I N G cares about. I know, that’s one of his big jokes. His other big joke, though, is that he’s a blowhard. Who wants to read about a blowhard praising himself, over and over again?
Don’t get me wrong. He’s got moments. His first day of class is worth a cackle, and his comeuppance was pretty good. He’s also a decent idea worldbuilding wise; he and Colin Creevey (who, it turns out, is more of a Neville-tier character, so his existence doesn’t bother me so much) give us a silly satirical look at Harry’s awkward celebrity status. But I’m not joking when I say his whole existence took the book down a peg for me. Rowling shows appropriate restraint for the Dursleys and their approved level of Harry-torment, particularly because they (so far) are little more than the first boss of every Potter book. But this guy hogs the spotlight just as much as he says he does. Can we just…can we get a little less of that? Please.
Critter Abuse: Isn’t It…Weird?
I praised the touch of imagination in Rowling’s choice to include ENDLESS GHOSTS in Source of hers Bone, and believe me, I could not be happier with the sheer amount of ghosts comin’ out of Hogwarts’ toilets this time around. I also esteemed Scabbers highly, and he’s a rat who exists solely to be thrown and despised.
But even I, even I think that Rowling’s dark humor’s gone off the edge. Did we…did we give her too much free rein?
The Weasleys don’t just have an old rat they like to throw around, but also an old owl, whose death we likely just witnessed. That’s a good thing, considering your typical wizard family condones casual gnome abuse. “You gotta throw the gnomes to keep them in line, it won’t hurt them” — that’s so much bullshit, isn’t it, Ron?
The self-abusing Dobby stuff doesn’t even bother me. Well…not in the same way. Dobby also seems like a weird critter-abuse joke gone too far, pounding his head with books and going “bad Dobby” when he goes over the line. But at least Dobby’s abuse successfully makes you uncomfortable without trying to make that same abuse charming (as I feel the gnome stuff does) or a larf riot (the DEATH of Errol). Or…wait…was it supposed to make me laugh?
Why are we laughing at gnome-flingery and owl-dyery in a book that celebrates Hagrid, foolhardy lover of all living creatures, who values even a kitchen pest? The book is set on embracing all wizards regardless of lineage, and makes a point of showing wizard-animal communication, but we’re not accepting gnomes as tiny people, or making the leap to view animals as people in their own right?
Another little thing that bothers me: Gringott’s is a bank run by goblins. All we know about goblins at this point is that they run a bank. Not just any bank…THE bank. When you have a single-job race in fiction, it’s remarkably easy not just to stereotype them, but to compare them to racial, ethnic, etc. groups in the real world. It also gives the impression that only humans have real power of choice — they, as demonstrated well by the branches of the Weasley family, can work with the bank or with dragons or with Muggles or become lousy prefects who do nothing but sit in their rooms polishing their “P” badges, but goblins can aspire to nothing but running this bank. It’s just weird.
I’m comparing Harry Potter and the Gringott’s goblins to young Anakin Skywalker and Watto, is what I’m saying.
Slytherin Suspicions and My Continuing Harry-Must-Become-Slytherin Theory
I know — thanks to looking it up — that Salazar is a Spanish name, so my hunch here was in that sense unfounded, but when I read the names of school founders Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin, the first thing I thought was, “Why’s Slytherin got the Middle Eastern-flavor name?” It’s a cool name, don’t get me wrong. I think it blows Rowena and Helga out of the water. You can also argue that Godric is the odd duck of the lineup, since it sounds so obviously old. But him being the founder of Slytherin (or, as I like to call it, House Evil) doesn’t do our moral about not fearing, distrusting, or crushing The Other any favors.
I’m still nursing a theory that Harry will need to become Slytherin in some way as time goes by. Yes, I did read this book through to the end and I’m still nursing it. Maybe the dream he had last time wasn’t as malevolent as I thought. Surely he can understand the Evil Other better once he learns about some Slytherins that aren’t just stock bullies or villains.
Maybe when I finish the series I’ll eat my words?
SPOILERS BEGIN and the Hogwarts Is Awful (And Not Just Because Of Racism) Theory
Like I said, this was an amazing rollercoaster book for me. Everything but a murder mystery, blood on the walls, and great cliffhangers, and a satisfying resolution that brought it all home.
I’m not certain how much Hogwarts staff knew. There are five hundred thousand fans who know better than I. I may have even read stuff that contradicts what I’m about to say — maybe I forgot it.
Whose idea was it to block the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets with an “Out of Order” sign?
“Oh, it’s fine. Not even our local experts in the Dark Arts can figure out where the Chamber might be. We suspect it can be opened by another Parseltongue, but those don’t exist. I mean, two existed, but nobody else could possibly have that power except Harry Potter. Oh, I know there’s a suspicious snake-shaped spigot that he might be able to talk to in this whimsical world of wizardry, but like…it’s in the out-of-order bathroom. Somebody with a fraction of Voldemort’s powers and spunk would never be intrepid enough to go there. I mean, he may have just broken into Hogwarts campus by way of illegal flying car, but it…it’s a girl’s bathroom. He’s never going in there! Now, who wants to go elf bowling?” – Dumbledore
Hogwarts doesn’t even keep tabs on all its various specters. They treat Moaning Myrtle, at absolute best, the way Ron treats Ginny, i.e. with cursory check-ins saying, “I think she’s alright…” Look, I know today’s child-psych-hotline world can’t be compared to 90’s wizard school culture, but if any school needs counselors, including ghost counselors, it’s Hogwarts. Clearly they’re too poor to invest in a ghost-channeler wizard who can talk about Myrtle’s feelings in a productive way, though. That investment, mind you, would’ve saved them some obvious money, because she’s the reason that place is busted.
It’s a good thing we got that note about Eton being a more prestigious magical school. Can you imagine if Hogwarts, hoggy warty Hogwarts, was the greatest place around? I’d eat my Sorting Hat. Speaking of which, I think the Sorting Hat gave them all tapeworms.
The staff also left an illegal flying car in the middle of the woods and it became sentient.
The Formula Is Showing Seams
To accept the mystery of The Chamber of Secrets, therefore, you have to accept that Hogwarts is significantly run-down and possibly also a little a tiny bit inept. That I can do. I’m glad to do it, too, because the story’s so dang good besides. I don’t think it bodes well for the series to come, though. Neither does Voldemort’s status as a cocky villain. More and more I’m going to catch myself asking, “Why is this villain so stupid? Why wasn’t Hogwarts staff more watchful? Why didn’t they think to use this spell or this magical object?” I just know it. We can’t keep explaining Voldemort’s cocky behavior with “it’s tied to the themes of the book” — not when the stakes get raised and Voldemort gets propped up, as he inevitably will, as a chessmaster.
Remember when Dobby said that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had nothing to do with the rising danger at school, when it turned out he so obviously did? How that made such a great hook for the rest of the book, but turned out to be a backslap, and his excuse was “well he was named TOM RIDDLE, not VOLDEMORT! OH HO HO! DOBBY’S GOT HIS FREEDOM, LADS!” ? Remember that? I do. Quite well. In fact, I read that line three times in disbelief. He just pulled an Obi-Wan, and I’m not gonna take it.
I’m also not sold on how Ron and Harry yanked Lockhart out of his room when they were storming the Chamber. They were really about the business, too. I imagined their Lockhart-shoving to the tune of “BOOM, Bitch, Get Out the Way.” It feels to me like Rowling put that in because there was no more natural way to resolve Lockhart’s story. They downplayed him for the movie, right? Good. Good.
Yeah, Like I Said, It’s A Good Book
I’d still recommend this book wholeheartedly!
Favorite scene: The entirety of the Deathday chapter. Even though it felt like the book kept getting better and better from there, ratcheting up the stakes each chapter, this one was probably everything I loved. I even loved Peeves DUNKING on an innocent DEAD girl who did NOTHING TO HIM
Favorite character/s: This is a tough one. Hagrid?
Book ranking: Stone > Chamber
Is there anything I should add to the list of favorites up there? You can let me know in the comments!
Looks like after this, it’s time to get dark, see some bodies actually hit the floor (I mean, I hope so), and start brooding. It’s Prisoner of Azkaban, the All Grown Up of Harry Potter.
Pt. 3 is over here. Get Hyped!