Harry Potter Book Club: Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 10-12

Hello, witches and wizards! We'll need the password to the Slytherin dungeons this week: "pure-blood". Gosh, it would be hard to be a Slytherin and a good person during Harry's day at Hogwarts, wouldn't it? You'd feel like a racist every time you tried to get into your dorms.


I'm a Hufflepuff, so all I have to have to get into my common room is rhythm. But here's to all the good Slytherins, and all the things you suffer, including having to share dorm space with a bunch of skeleton decorations and Draco Malfoy.

Before we go searching out Malfoy on purpose for the first time in Harry and Ron's young lives, here's last week's recap:

Christie posted first with conversation about English schools, mandrakes, and the meaning of words:
It raises a question in Harry Potter, not for the first time, of the meaningfulness of words.  Perhaps I should say meaning-ness.  How much does a word mean itself?  If the hearer of the word is ignorant of its meaning, is it still offensive?  Is meaning inherent?  Or does it depend on the intention of the speaker?  Mudblood, since it is a made up racial slur, is ideal to study when asking these questions, as we have none of the cultural or chronological biases.  I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, now and going forward in our reading.
We could also study witch, of course, since the original force of the Christian protest against Harry Potter is against the use of that word. My sister (who still read and enjoyed the books, and loved Snape) argues—if I understood her accurately—that the inherent meaning of witch is so inescapably tied to the powers of hell that Rowling's use of it opens her work to being used by said powers, even if the portrayal of her witches is carefully distinguished from real-world witchcraft. She comes closer to having a point than anyone else I've heard try to make an argument out of that word. For myself, I'm just not convinced that a) words are so strictly tied to particular definitions and connotations, or b) that the powers of hell work that way. Or that way more than any other, at least. Not to be flippant, but they seem to have such a penchant for good ideas and intentions.

Masha responded with talk about potions and Rowling's relationship to agendas and telling lies:
When Harry finds the Kwikspell Course (I hope it's advertised as The Kwikspell Kourse and sold for five payments of $19.99 - with a 'kwik' response getting you an additional 'spell-boosting wand extender' and three extra-potent toadstools) on Filch's desk, we see more of the habitual lying the students of Hogwarts are noteworthy for (in my reading anyway). Harry lies to Filch, Hermione to Myrtle at the dullest party imaginable, Harry lies to Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore's ghost at Nearly Headless Nick's request, and of course Nick himself is awash in socially-acceptable party lies.... all of this is very casual, expected behavior. It's a small thing, I know, but one that grates on me while reading. Perhaps because I'm learning just how much I do value honesty; or perhaps because most of the lies are so careless.
This is one of those points where, in a secular boarding school, portrayal may be a matter of realism—or it may be a plot device. I couldn't quite say. Of all the characters, Dumbledore seems to make the greatest point of being truthful, and yet he, too, will be shown to sacrifice truth—or openness, at least—for the sake of protecting certain SPOILERY SECRETS.

Reading about moral breaches committed by fictional characters is an inescapable part of the experience of reading novels, so take this next part with that in mind: Reading with discernment entails noting where a sympathetic character does something that goes against your conscience or his, especially if it's done sympathetically. People are too prone to thinking that because story portrays truth, every sympathetic emotion experienced by a sympathetic character is not only valid, but morally acceptable. The careless lying in Harry Potter is probably one of the top five valid moral criticisms to be made of the story, and it would definitely be one of my biggest reasons for making a careful judgment call on what age and maturity level I'd give the books to my own hypothetical children to read.

I would give the books to my hypothetical children, incidentally, upon their reaching that appropriate age and maturity level. Without hesitation.

In other news, Masha's making Pepperup potion, Christie's talking treacle fudge, and I feel like cooking fun things again now that I occasionally have two minutes to rub together. I'm not sure what, though. We'll see if I can come up with something in the next week or two. Egg nog? Plum cake? Scottish porridge? Any preferences? I'll have to do pumpkin juice eventually, but that's got to wait for my pumpkins to finish ripening. :)

Three of them from a few weeks back.
It's too rainy to take pictures today.

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This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapters 10-12

Potential Discussion Points:

Art by cippow25
1. Hermione breaking rules. This would be out of character, except that Hermione is the kind of person who does what needs to be done, and here she's faced with the potential murder of classmates. She never points out that as a Muggle-born, she herself could be targeted, but she's too smart not to have realized it. I can't go any further on that topic without SPOILERS.

2. Harry, the physical hero. Let the Bludger chase me, Fred and George, we have to win. Oliver Wood, of course, allows it. Harry saves the Quidditch match thereby, and he's so comfortable with a little bodily risk that I'm sure he would have considered the pain and fainting a worthwhile sacrifice. The humiliation he's immediately subjected to by Lockhart and Colin Creevey, maybe not.

3. More house-elf difficulties. Here Dobby points out that, bad as things are for house-elves now, they were worse under Voldemort's reign. Interesting that horror spreads so easily, that—presumably—private families would behave more cruelly to their slaves when their own lives are ruled by tyranny.

Art by Lumosita
4. The hospital wing in such a dangerous school. I love it that Madam Pomfrey never asks too many questions. She'd have to be too jaded to bother after a few years in that role. In these chapters alone, we have Lockhart slamming Harry into the floor during a classroom reenactment (though Harry doesn't seem to be hurt enough to go see the nurse), a Quidditch injury and the ever-inept Lockhart's removing all the bones from Harry's arm, dueling lessons and the fallout therefrom, an exploded swelling potion (though Snape takes care of that one), and Hermione turning herself halfway into a cat. And that's what I can recall off the top of my head. Just an ordinary term at Hogwarts...

5. Fred and George's cheering-up tactics. Oh, sister's upset at the Petrifying of a classmate? Let's cover ourselves in fur and boils and jump out at her from behind statues. Oh, Harry's accused of trying to murder all the Muggle-borns? Let's follow him around, yelling "Make way for the Heir of Slytherin!" Whatever the sickness, those two will try and cure it with humor. This fails miserably on Ginny, not so much because they're mistaken in her temperament as because they're mistaken in [SPOILER REDACTED], but it works well for Harry.

6. Harry's a Parselmouth. In honor of our introduction of this term, here's a song by The Parselmouths. About being in Slytherin, of course.

Also, you can use this site to translate words into Parseltongue. You know, next time you want to free a boa constrictor from the zoo.

Art by StressedJenny
Rowling has answered the question of where the word Parselmouth comes from, in an interview with Stephen Fry at the Royal Albert Hall:
Stephen Fry: "...is a Parselmouth a real thing or did you make that up?"
JK Rowling: "Parselmouth is an old word for someone who has a problem with the mouth, like a hare lip."
In the case of its new meaning, we now know how the captive boa constrictor told Harry that it had never seen Brazil. And we know that Harry has therefore got an unwanted, unexpected connection to the bad guys. Parseltongue, in the HP universe, is something you either know or you don't—you can't learn it—and it's a rare gift, thought to be the province of dark wizards. Snakes, you know.
Art by gryffindor-girl

7. Gryffindor or Slytherin and the question of identity. Like the rest of us, Harry has a deep internal need to know himself. He needs, particularly, to know that he's good. I identify more with that need than with anything else about his character. He is afraid of few things and I am afraid of many, but we are both desperately afraid of being evil.

8. Harry doesn't confide in Dumbledore. Considering how little Harry really knows Dumbledore yet, and the sort of secrets he has going on, this is perhaps understandable. I'm rather curious what Dumbledore is asking about, here. He knows Harry isn't doing the actual attacking, but I wonder if he thinks Harry may be opening the Chamber. Unfortunately, I can't talk about that without SPOILERS.

9. Fawkes. Dumbledore's office is fantastic—I have this bright, airy, azure vision of the circular room at the top of the spiral staircase, all the silvery devices whirring with magic—but the pinnacle of it is the red-and-gold bird that bursts into a fireball and resurrects from the ashes. Named for Guy Fawkes, the Catholic zealot who nearly blew up King James and Parliament several hundred years ago and has been burned in effigy on the fifth of November ever since, the phoenix is one of the coolest pets in all of Harry Potter. There are few more powerful resurrection symbols in the entire series; here, we're just meeting him, but I feel like Rowling used this little side event as a way of pointing directly to her story's core theme: the search for true power over death.
Dumbledore and Fawkes. Art by Neal R. Haney

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank

10. Polyjuice Potion. Ingredients list includes, but is not limited to (thanks to the Harry Potter Lexicon for the summary):
The links go to the HPL's entries on the various creatures. Their explanations are not always in depth, however; Wikipedia has more on the bicorn, which "has the reputation of devouring kind-hearted and devoted husbands, and is thus plump and well fed. His counterpart is the Chichevache, which devours only obedient wives and is therefore thin and starving" (hey now, that's low...) and its article on the boomslang (currently) includes a picture:

Green is for Slytherin.
Now how do you say that in Parseltongue?
Photo by William Warby.


  1. We could also study witch, of course, since the original force of the Christian protest against Harry Potter is against the use of that word. My sister (who still read and enjoyed the books, and loved Snape) argues—if I understood her accurately—that the inherent meaning of witch is so inescapably tied to the powers of hell that Rowling's use of it opens her work to being used by said powers, even if the portrayal of her witches is carefully distinguished from real-world witchcraft. She comes closer to having a point than anyone else I've heard try to make an argument out of that word. For myself, I'm just not convinced that a) words are so strictly tied to particular definitions and connotations, or b) that the powers of hell work that way. Or that way more than any other, at least. Not to be flippant, but they seem to have such a penchant for good ideas and intentions.

    That's a really interesting argument regarding the term Witch. And while I don't agree..I think that I'm kind of incapable of arguing effectively against it, I think I'm biased in favor of the work and all the fantastic and morally problematic meanings that I link to it..So maybe she's right and I just kid myself pretending it's not eternally linked to the wicked sorts of witches..because honestly, if I have a child as attracted to witchcraft as I am, and was, I think I might keep an eye on them reading Harry. I don't know..of course, if they're growing up watching me everyday, I can't really blame Rowling for an attraction to magic, right ;)

    1. ;)

      Well, if I had a child with that level of interest in the occult, it might be a different story. Level of ability to discern between reality and fiction would come into play there. And it wouldn't be just Harry, but a large swath of fantasy that I'd be concerned about. And less because of the word witch than because of things like societies hidden from the rest of the world, creepy mysterious things, etc.

    2. Exactly!!!

      but at the same time I wouldn't want to keep in from the child, like a sort of forbidden fruit..because that's just insulting to the child..I think I'd have to (sigh) read it alongside and actually converse..My goodness life is hard :( But maybe my children will have no predilection for sin whatsoever and I'll be able to leave them free to read without any effort on my part, right?? ;) And yeah, much less because of the word witch and more because of the attraction to magical power, mysterious books, and the creepily beautiful.

    3. I have a feeling (only) that your children, having grown up fat and well-fed on God-magic, won't be too tempted by the gaudy allure of witchcraft. It's the ones who have that sucked out of their life that are the most in danger of it out of hunger for Mystery.

  2. I'm fascinated with this topic! Your sister makes a good argument. I think words do, to a certain extent, have power. The Bible shows us as much, and the belief survives in the Jewish tradition of never speaking God's name aloud except once a year, by a priest, in the temple. I think there is some significance of Adam's naming the animals in the Book of Genesis. And names were important enough to God to strike Zecharia dumb until he consented to name his son John--remember, it was a big deal to the others because he had no ancestor or relative named that. And in the Church, it has always been preferred to give children Christian names, i.e. names of saints, at least a middle name. We're also given jurisdiction of demons by using the name of Christ, and told our words can influence reality, can curse as well as bless.

    But there is also a certain amount of changeability to a name, as we have seen in the example of racial slurs. A word can go from normal to offensive, and vice versa, so that would suggest that the inherent meaning of the word was not unalterable.

    To me, it is growing more convincing that Rowling meant her portrayal of wizards and witches to be a spoof, the way people imagine Merrie Olde Elgland and pastoral times of peace and grazing lambs and poor and lovely sheperdesses, not an a historical or religious representation. Hence the mashing together of all the cliches: the haunted castle, cauldrons, the typical animal familiars (notice no dogs or hamsters, that's not the stereotype), the conical hats, broomsticks, and of course--Halloween!

    1. Many beautiful points here! I had some half-formulated thoughts in response to the commentary about words and names, but Seth said them beautifully below--I don't think I have anything to add there.

      I totally agree with you on the spoof thing! And not a spoof of a dark reality so much as of the fantasy/Disney version young Westerners are prone to having in their heads.

  3. Language becomes a little tricky when you start trying to peg down actual and real morality to individual words. Yes, "witch" has some horrific connotations, but if it is an evil word in and of itself what do you do with variations? What if you find someone's eyes "bewitching"? Or what about casual reference to political persecution as a "witch hunt"? Once the word becomes further removed from it's source it won't necessarily retain it's original stigma.

    Christie has a good point about the importance of names and I would wholeheartedly agree, but names are different from words in that they are more integrated into the person they belong to. To say God's name is dangerous, to refer to Him as "Creator" or "Lover" is not.

    And on a totally different but related topic - Jenna, do you know WHY Rowling named the phoenix after Guy Fawkes? I feel like it should be important, considering her attention to names and characters, but I don't get it. His personality doesn't seem to fit either the symbolism of a phoenix in general, or the character of Fawkes in particular. Am I missing something?
    -The Neglected Husband

    1. (And I feel the need to share that my "captcha" image for posting that comment was "810 hawitch ".)
      -The Neglected Husband

    2. I love your point about the word witch! And the apropos Captcha. I had some of the same thoughts about the difference between names and words myself, but hadn't gotten around to fully forming or posting them yet. Thanks for taking that off my to-do list. ;)

      For years I've wondered about Fawkes' name. Rowling isn't Catholic, and Dumbledore isn't a revolutionary--at least, [SPOILER]--and therefore it doesn't seem to be a case of naming in honor of. My guess is that it's just because Fawkes is regularly burned in effigy, giving him a sort of common experience with the phoenix.

    3. Okay, that's about as far as I got too. I feel like I could go off on how burning in effigy and burning in rebirth are, I dunno, slightly different in tone but I think I'll just let it go... *sigh*
      -The Neglected Husband

    4. Ahhhhhhhh, that makes sense, proper names vs. improper names.

      Plus, I can't believe that my son's cute little Halloween book about a witch cathcing ghosts in a haunted house, washing them, hanigng them on the line to dry, and then using them as curtains and tableclothes is a True Channel of Evil. :P

    5. P.S. Does Hogwarts celebrate Bonfire night?

    6. Hah, Seth, yes. I agree. But it seems very unlikely that Dumbledore is a Guy Fawkes fan, so I'm guessing he's just making a sort of pun.

      Christie, there's no remark of Hogwarts celebrating Bonfire night, but Hogwarts is a Scottish school attended by a lot of English kids, so it wouldn't be surprising if they did. And that book sounds adorable. ;)


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