Revisiting Harry Potter: Not your most flattering side

I was not disappointed in Chamber of Secrets when I read it, but that’s only because I didn’t know the glory that was awaiting me in Prisoner of Azkaban. I remember finishing up the first Harry Potter book and feeling like someone had bashed me over the head with an awesome stick, and I demanded my mother take me to Books-a-Million so I could buy the second book the next day. I called ahead to reserve a copy, which made me feel very adult, and when I got to the help desk at the store, the guy was like, “Huh? I think we’re sold out of that, I don’t see any back here,” and I died a thousand deaths until he managed to find my copy. And once I had it, I embraced it rapturously and sang a little song that was like, “My book my book my brand new book!”

I bought it in hardcover with my own money, which was sort of a big deal back then. That’s sort of a big deal now, to be honest. Because I am poor. The copy I bought at the time now has a severely cracked spine and is sort of difficult to read because I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Which should tell you something about my true level of affection for this book, despite the gripes I am about to gripe.

This is my least favorite book in the series by like, a lot. As I started writing this post, I realized that the reason for my dislike is that nobody shows to best advantage in it. All these characters I love with my whole heart — and y’all have to know I all the way love these people — kind of act like morons. Let’s do a rundown, shall we?

Ron – Come on. Not cool to make fun of Squibs. Also, what the hell with the car? And the slugs thing is gross, although it’s nice of you to defend Hermione’s honor, and very brave to go into the Forbidden Forest looking for spiders.

Harry – WHAT THE HELL WITH THE CAR HARRY. YOU HAVE AN OWL. Other than this I guess I have no complaints. God knows I like it when Harry’s so m.f. cool with Tom Riddle and he’s totally about to die but he’s still all,

“[You’re] not the greatest sorcerer in the world,” said Harry, breathing fast. “Sorry to disappoint you and all that, but the greatest wizard in the world is Albus Dumbledore. Everyone says so. Even when you were strong, you didn’t dare try and take over at Hogwarts.”

That is pretty great. Not as great as when Harry defends Dumbledore in the sixth book, but pretty great. Good job, Harry.

Hermione – I don’t like to see my girl Hermione with a crush on Gilderoy Lockhart. (Please infuse my saying of his name with as much disdain as you are able to hold in your head at one time.) I don’t need Hermione to be nonstop perfect and brave (for an example of Hermione being teenagery in a way that I like, see the time Snape makes fun of her teeth OH I WILL HAVE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THAT in book four), but I have been a smart twelve-year-old without having a crush on someone dopey. Hermione could have done that too. She’s the total MVP of this book in terms of getting shit done when Harry and Ron are dithering, and I want to gag every time she’s doing her crush-on-Lockhart moves.

(Facts: When I was twelve and everyone else had a crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I had a crush on Carl Anderson, the guy who plays Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He was my first love. God he’s so hot. Whenever I try to make light of my crush on Carl Anderson, I watch part of Jesus Christ Superstar and am swamped anew with teenagery crush love.)

Hagrid – I don’t know why I continue to love Hagrid, y’all. He is nearly always part of the subplot I hate the most in any given book. Yet whenever things would look grim for Hagrid throughout the series, I’ll be right there screaming NOOOOO at the top of my lungs. Anyway, this is not a good book for Hagrid. I hate that he goes to Azkaban, and Cornelius Fudge is a jackass, and this marks the moment at which I decided to loathe Cornelius Fudge for all of eternity because no way did Hagrid deserve to go to Azkaban. However, it was very not cool of Hagrid to raise a huge deadly spider in the school (also WHOA I just realized Hagrid never talks about knowing Tom Riddle in school, which like, wouldn’t it make sense for Harry to ask him at some point? Hagrid’s right there and knew Tom Riddle in school). It was even not cooler for him to send Harry and Ron to hang out with Aragog. They’re twelve. Hagrid, they are twelve. Twelve years old. They do not even know the Stunning spell yet. Come on.

Dobby – Just. I just don’t. This book is the reason I hated Dobby. He is the worst at helping Harry. Until he becomes free, and then he is suddenly awesome at helping Harry, which obviously I’m in favor of. But he is so aggravating in this book, and I mean aggravating in its etymologically accurate sense, of adding weight and turmoil to Harry’s already tumultuous life.

Colin Creevey – See everything I said before about Dobby. Except that Colin Creevey never becomes lovable. He’s basically a low-rent version of two characters — Dobby and Neville — who between them can do pretty much anything Colin Creevey does, but are much more fleshed-out, awesome, and lovable over the course of the series. The books would have been fine without Colin Creevey. He adds nothing to anything. He just irritates me.

Gilderoy m.f. Lockhart – This man. Is the worst. (Not the actual worst. That is still Snape.) Everything about him is awful, and I wish he had died in the cave-in. I am not sure I even want to get started on Gilderoy Lockhart because of how relentlessly awful he is. The only reason I do not shriek that J.K. Rowling should have left him out of the series is that without him we wouldn’t have had that wrenching moment in the fifth book where the kids run into Neville at St. Mungo’s. As a hardcore Neville fan I am willing to make some compromises to have that moment. But Gilderoy Lockhart is awful, and in addition to being awful, he’s not quite as funny (except when he’s Kenneth Branagh) as J.K. Rowling thinks he is. Too one-note. I get bored of him very quickly.

Ginny – GINNY. GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER WOMAN. I have saved Ginny for last because Ginny was a very, very hard sell for me, and there was no real reason it had to be that way. I spent the whole of the first four books complaining about the inevitability of a Harry-Ginny pairing. Ginny spends way too long in this series being overawed by Harry, and that’s even more frustrating to me in retrospect because I now know that Ginny is tough and brave and awesome, and because this is J.K. Rowling and J.K. Rowling always knew everything about everyone, Ginny always was tough and brave and awesome. And I’m cross we didn’t get to see her being tough and brave and awesome all along. I’m not mad at her for getting fooled by Voldemort, but I’m mad at her for sending Harry that valentine. Ginny, you are better than this.

Just basically there are a lot of characters I love who act a fool in this book, and some characters I never love taking up too much book space. I actually think this is one of the better mysteries in the series, from a purely plot perspective. The monster is quite frightening, and the diary is a cool way to let Harry defeat Voldemort again without its being a rerun of the first book’s climax. I love that the whole plot hinges on something as petty as defeating a bill in the Ministry. The red herrings with Hagrid and Percy are elegantly executed. The stakes are high and Rowling keeps escalating them. The confrontation at the end is chilling, that moment when Harry realizes that something isn’t right with Riddle? Eeeeeek.

It’s all nicely set up, and if I read this by itself, I probably wouldn’t have any complaints. It’s only by comparison with how great almost all of these characters are capable of being that I mind how lame they are.  The problem is that the third book features an even better mystery in which all the characters are displaying to absolute best advantage.

Oh, also, to the question of the books’ increasing darkness over the course of the series: The first three books are supposedly lighter than the later ones, which I guess is because nobody dies in them and things turn out okay for everyone in the end. But there are definitely hints at how dark things can get. When Tom Riddle kidnaps Ginny and writes “Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever,” that’s the first moment in the series, for me, that was legitimately high-stakes scary. Hermione was always going to get un-Petrified because mandrakes, and Harry was always going to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, and yeah, I was pretty sure Ginny was going to get rescued, but this is the first point in the series where I could see matters playing out a whole other way.

These are the scariest moments to me in the books, all the times where J.K. Rowling makes you pay attention to how little control the good characters really have over the fates of their loved ones. They are vulnerable from so many directions, you know? Ron and Harry are completely on the case with Hermione being Petrified and then BAM just when you think all the jeopardy has been jeoparded on the best friend flank, here’s an attack on the baby sister flank! You weren’t expecting that, were you? Were you? And seriously. She could have died. That’s a thing that could have happened. Voldemort doesn’t even care.


46 thoughts on “Revisiting Harry Potter: Not your most flattering side

  1. I would have to re-read this to answer your comments, since it’s one of the series for which I don’t have much residual fondness (Azkaban is definitely the best of the whole series, IMO). But I agree with you that Hermione is way too sensible to crush on Lockhart – he’s so obviously a big fake, that she should have been the first person to see through him.

  2. I just re-read HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and I noticed that thing about Hagrid and Tom Riddle IMMEDIATELY. He acts like Voldemort is some kind of a mythological character, but he KNEW him. He interacted with him! he got expelled because of him! Also, I totally agree with you about Ginny: some hint of her iron core should have showed in this book, but instead she was a complete wimp. I forgive Hermione for her crush though. The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

    • I know! I get that JK Rowling couldn’t bring it up in the first book because she needed it to play out this way in the second book, but surely Harry could have asked Hagrid about it later. If Rowling didn’t want to address it, she could have had Hagrid say he didn’t want to talk about it. That would have been fine. But surely Harry would have ASKED.

  3. FUN!! Will you do this analysis for ALL the books? Do I need to hurry up and read 6&7 before you tell me your thoughts on the oddness of Umbridge or should I let it go?

  4. What was Hagrid hoping would happen by having Harry and Ron meet Aragog? I just don’t know about you, Hagrid. Yet still, I love him and was so sad when he was taken away.

    • Hagrid is trusting to a fault, and sees the best in everything, even monsters. It’s his strongest and weakest quality. He’s almost child-like, which maybe has something to do with the absurdity of his parentage and being unfairly kicked out of school.

      • But what was Hagrid hoping Aragog would tell Ron and Harry? He sent them out there for a reason and he obviously didn’t want Harry and Ron to be hurt, but I’m not quite sure what he wanted to happen.

  5. I think this is the best book analysis I’ve seen in this readalong. So good! And for the largest of parts, I agree with you. I was nodding along, especially about Lockhart/Branagh, Ron, and Hagrid. I’m sorry, but from here on out, Ron has very few redeeming points for me. Considering that his parents are loving and supportive and not anti-muggle like the Malfoys, he really does exhibit almost as many kinds of pureblood prejudice as Draco does. And nobody every seems to pay attention to those nasty Ron-bits. I get that he’s insecure, but if GInny can get over her Voldy-soul posession, then Ron can bloody well get over his insecurity.

    I digress.

    Hermione: I can forgive her crush on Lockhart for the first couple of months of school: he’s charming and handsome and he’s written all of those books, and if he’d written all of those books then he *must* be competent, right? Because the Headmaster would never hire someone so totally useless as a teacher, right? …but I’d expect Hermione to be able to see through his ruse after a while, and *that* is where it starts to bother me.

    • /blush Thank you! As to Ron — don’t you think the way he feels about the Muggles is rather similar to how people in the Northeast (I don’t know about other regions of the country) feel about the South? That sort of low-level casual contempt? It’s not that Ron would wish ill on Muggles, but he’s been accustomed to think of his lifestyle as being better, and he doesn’t really have a reason to change his thinking on that. It sucks, I agree. I wish the books had had some opportunity for Muggles to shine a little bit.

  6. I haven’t read this recently enough, but I think it’s important to remember that they are kids. Kids are dumb. Real dumb. Yep, Hermione should have seen right through Lockhart—but how many of us have had crushes where the subject of our affection was a not cool person but we talked ourselves out of their faults?

    • Yes, okay, many of us have, but Lockhart makes their lives difficult and annoying DAY AFTER DAY, and Hermione continues to ignore it. I don’t know. I just love her so much and hate Lockhart so much and I want her to have a crush on someone worth of her. WHICH SHE NEVER EVER DOES.

  7. I am right there with you about Hagrid. He does so many stupid, obnoxious things but I just love him so much! And also, Harry doesn’t ask anybody about anybody. He is surrounded by adults who knew his parents (Hagrid, McGonogall, Dumbledore, soon-to-be Lupin, even Snape) and asks them almost nothing. You think he’d want to know all sorts of stuff but he asks nothing and then periodically gets mad that nobody every tells him anything. I agree that Colin is kind of useless but it still makes me super-sad in the last book when – well, you know. Because he loves Harry until the very end! Or maybe freedom. But you know. But GINNY. She is awesome and not a woman but a scared little girl who’s trying to figure shit out and doesn’t know how to socialize because I’m pretty sure she never left the Burrow before this. And she has a CRUSH and wrote a poem that I sometimes sing to myself when I’m not doing anything HP-related, and YOU BE NICE TO HER, MISS!

    I may be getting overexcited. It’s a possibility.

    • You’re right about Harry but isn’t it also true that some of the stuff he doesn’t ask, a person wouldn’t naturally think to ask? He ASKS why Snape hates him/his father, and the adults around him give him rather evasive answers. He doesn’t ask, like, who betrayed my parents to Voldemort?, but neither would I have. I’d just have assumed (well, I did assume!) that Voldemort was evil and he wanted to kill good people and that’s what was up.

      I LOVE GINNY. I am mad at her because I love her! At age eleven, Hermione and Harry and Ron — also scared little kids trying to figure shit out — do a ton of awesome and brave stuff. I don’t mind that Ginny didn’t stop Voldemort or whatever. I’d just have liked to see her displaying some of the awesomeness that WE KNOW IS IN THERE.

  8. I never thought about how Harry could ask Hagrid about Voldemort as a teenager– this would have been especially helpful in books 6 and 7.

    Harry really does waste a lot of opportunities to learn about things (like how he almost never asks his parents’ friends about what his parents were like — WHAT IS THAT??). This is why I wish Hermione had had some POV chapters, because they would be so, so interesting and educational. She would be making observations left and right and telling us the history of Hogwarts and all about the conflicts between the magical and muggle worlds… Oh man, this is sad to think about.

    • Oh, yeah, it’s crazy to me that he never asks anybody what his parents were like. That’s all I’d have been asking. I ask everyone what my parents’ EXES were like, and I care about that, like, way less than Harry presumably cares about what his OWN PARENTS were like.

  9. I actually liked the next book the least, and most of that was because Harry was so whiny and mean most of the time. I know, I know, hormones and all, but still. Harry was mean TO RON! I actually don’t remember a lot about these books, but it all comes back to me after reading your reviews, so please keep doing them!!

    • Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. He wasn’t mean to Ron! He was upset about things, and his loyalties were divided because his friends were fighting and he wasn’t mean to Ron! He wasn’t!

  10. PRISONER OF AZKABAN. BRING IT. – Yep. My favorite.

    I’m willing to forgive Ginny because, well, it happens at the age. And Hermione too. I’m sure if there were real people they would cringe at those thoughts.

    Hagrid is a good guy but you’re right, the whole spider thing is a debacle. Kids to entertain a spider, really?! Also, for the record, I hate spiders just as much as Ron.

    Looking forward to Azkaban!

  11. I look back at these books and I don’t know how a line like the skeleton in chambers one didn’t terrify me. Or maybe it did and I’ve just forgotten how scared/upset I was back then. *shrugs*

    I always had an issue with Hermione’s crush on Lockhart. She doesn’t seem the kind to blindly believe everything she reads in a book, so why was she *so* sucked in to it all? let her fall for an awesome teacher, Lupin or McGonagall would be best.

  12. So Z and I are totally going slow on Azkaban because I was sick and couldn’t read to him for a week. We just got done with the first feast but already he’s like “WHO IS THIS LUPIN?” and he totally wants to know what’s going on. And then Dumbledore is like “we have a new Care of Magical Creatures teacher” and Z yells “Hagrid!!!!” because he loves Hagrid in the cutest way. It’s just the most fun to read these with him. 🙂

    • Awwwwwww. That sounds wonderful! I’m glad he’s enjoying them so much. Please keep me posted on Z’s reaction to finding out that Sirius and James were best friends.

  13. I love this post!
    “They do not even know the Stunning spell yet. Come on.”

    I totally agree about Colin. What’s the point? Just cut him.
    And Ginny…EXACTLY! Thank you. I have always felt like the superstar crush she had on Harry went so far as to almost cheapen their later relationship. Like it was just a fantasy she wanted so bad but I actually love them together so I get so mad when I think of it that way. Come on Ginny, suck it up be the bad ass we know you are!

    • YES! It totally did cheapen their eventual relationship! It was soooo over-the-top when she was eleven, and I hated to think about the possibility that she’d bee nin love with him all along. Boo.

  14. Fabulous post! Totally agree re Azkaban being the best.

    When you’re 13 you’re allowed to have a crush on someone silly and Potterland doesn’t seem to have many pin-ups, admittedly Branagh-Lockhart is slightly better than the book one.

    • #skepticalface

      You are allowed to have crushes on silly people when you’re 13. I’m just saying that when I myself was that age, I had a totally reasonable crush that holds up to ALL THE SCRUTINY. And I am not as smart as Hermione. So.

  15. It’s tough seeing their unflattering sides when you love these characters so much – and good point that this book sees the vast majority of them looking crappy simultaneously. But hey, no one’s on point all the time. Everyone makes bad decisions, and as someone else commented above, they are just kids. But it’s frustrating when you want to see them be as awesome as you know they are. And Ginny! I love her so. I wish we could see more of the badassery we know is there.

  16. Heh. You know, The Chamber of Secrets has always been my least favourite Harry Potter. I always blame the basilisk. Yes, snakes in drainage pipes will do that to me. I remember reading this while on holiday in France, right after reading the first book. Knowing how my parents would always tell me the story of how a snake had gotten into a tent they were on holiday with, I believe I had quite a few nightmares. After the holidays, seeing as it was my first time in highschool which was a larger than I was used to building with lots of pipes.. yes, I kept thinking back to this book. Definitely my least favourite. But now, thanks to your post, I have more sophisticated arguments to give than the simple “I think snakes are scary”. (I know, a basilisk is not a snake, but yeah..).

    • Aw, poor you! That’s a really frightening story from your parents. I quite like snakes but I’m confident I never would have if I’d had a scary story like that from my parents when I was a kid. I am permanently frightened of escalators because of a story my mother told me.

  17. Yep, this is my least favorite too. And Hermione is SO much better than her silly Lockhart crush. And Lockhart is THE WORST. And why, oh why, did anyone think flying a car to school would be a good idea? For that matter, HOW does a 12-year-old even know how to drive a car, let alone a flying one?? So many questions. So much agreement with all of your above. So much excitement for #3!

    • I know! I couldn’t have driven a car to save my life when I was twelve! I could barely change the gears when my father was driving, which he occasionally let me do except then I’d mess up and he’d ask me to stop.

  18. SPOILER ALERT. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ AZKABAN. Right after reading this post, I started reading the three(!)-volume Folk Tales of Britain, by Katherine M. Briggs, and the very first section is a collection of legends about Black Dogs, and it turns out that Sirius Black has a serious literary history (apart from the dog star reference). There is a whole ambivalent body of legend concerning black dogs, who sometimes appear as guardians and sometimes as a menace and a threat (so far, so consistent with the mysterious black dog/the Grim/the godfather role). AND one of its names is Padfoot, though more commonly known as Barguest. Hope this adds to your appreciation of the book. It did to mine!

  19. God, I just love this series so much! It is so fun to read your thoughts on it and now I’m kicking myself for not grabbing the audio when I was at the library. Because I feel the NEED to reread these too 🙂 This isn’t my favorite book of the series either but I admit that I love it because it is Harry Potter. And that is enough for me 🙂

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