Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Racists Suck * 1999
As we saw with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling spends a good deal of time in these early novels building the world up so she can basically tear it down over the course of the series. That first novel was mostly about cementing Hogwarts and the wizarding world at large as a realized place. Most of the principal characters were also introduced, however in deference to Harry’s age, most of the character depth found in this series comes gradually. As I progress through the series, it’s almost appalling how subtle and effective Rowling is with building not only the world but the people in it and how they interact with each other. These first two books, which are generally told from the perspective of extremely inexperienced preteens, present things much more broadly than the later books do. In the first book, Snape was the big bad red herring. In this book, Draco Malfoy takes over that role. The Slytherins are all just bad people, Malfoy is basically a caricature at this juncture, and anyone in Gryffindor are clearly the Good Guys.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is very close in structure to the first novel, and it has a similar tone, especially compared with later entries in the series. However, Chamber of Secrets isn’t a retread (although I’ve heard that criticism before). What Rowling is doing with this book is layering her world, and creating expectations of how things work so that they can be subverted later on as the principal characters grow and learn. For instance, these first two novels place a lot of emphasis on the inter-house competitions and Quidditch. As the series progresses, the importance of these things fall by the wayside as real world events become paramount and Harry and his posse grow up. Those losses wouldn’t have the same impact later on, however, if Rowling didn’t put the work in here.
The main characters in Chamber of Secrets are all twelve, and they have twelve-year-old priorities. One of the things that Rowling does so well is adapt each book to the age of the protagonists, Harry especially, which is why the tone of the novels is constantly changing. I’ll mention this probably five more times as we work through the series, but Harry’s coming of age is the crux of these books, and Rowling does it better than I’ve ever seen.
All of that is in the future though, because now we’re still in Year Two and life is nothin’ but a good time. Actually, that’s not true, even though Harry doesn’t have to kill a guy in this one. In case you’ve forgotten, or have not checked out this series, this is the one where Dobby shows up and starts fucking with Harry, it’s the one with the flying car, it’s the one with Gilderoy Lockheart and Moaning Myrtle, and it’s the one where everyone starts getting petrified. Already, the tone is a shade darker than the first novel, because of the creeping terror surrounding the opening of the Chamber of Secrets. This is an aspect of the second book that’s another layer on an already well-realized world, thematically speaking. The first book was mostly concerned with the realities of the wizarding world – oh ha ha, there’s jelly beans that taste like earwax. However, beginning with this book and definitely moving forward, we become more aware that wizards and witches are, at heart, just people. And a lot of times people suck.
If you’re going to pick a single theme out of Chamber of Secrets, it’s that some people are racists and racists always fucking suck. Now, there’s an idealized nature to the world of Harry Potter. From what I can tell, there’s no actual racism, or sexism, or any kind of LGBT-phobia. Witches and wizards appear to have equal footing in society, and race is only ever mentioned in context of what a person looks like or where they are from. Criticism can (and has) been levied at these books for not being more explicitly diverse, and from a certain perspective that’s valid. Yet there’s still no getting around the fact that thematically, Harry Potter books are about acceptance and equality. Instead of using real world problems and prejudices, however, the ingrained social bias in the wizarding world has to do with the family history of magic ability.
There’s a point midway through Chamber of Secrets where the Gryffindors are practicing their sick Quidditch moves when the no-good Slytherins show up and start trouble like they always do. Of course the two teams start sniping at one another, especially once Draco Malfoy pipes up about Slytherin’s new brooms and how poor people are inherently inferior – typical Draco shit, in other words. However, Hermione gets a good one in, and points out that Malfoy was only able to buy his way on the team because he, in fact, sucks flobberworm ass (pretty sure that’s what she said). His immediate response is “No one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.” Everyone flips out. The Weasly twins jump at him while the rest of the Gryffindors are riotous. Ron tries to curse him but it backfires, and eventually the trio make their way to Hagrid’s cabin where Harry and Hermione are at a loss as to why everyone freaked out. Hagrid makes clear what we’ve already figured out: Draco just dropped the wizarding equivalent of the n-word on Hermione.
From this point onward, the slur “Mudblood” gets tossed around liberally, usually uttered by Slytherins at Muggle-born witches and wizards like Hermione. Later in the series, the derision of “pure-blood” wizards is extended to wizarding families like the Weaslys, who are referred to as “blood-traitors,” and if all this sounds familiar that’s because the further along we get in the series the more clear the parallels between Voldemort’s followers and Nazis become. Thematically, this doesn’t become truly paramount until book five, which holy shit, but here in Chamber of Secrets is where this unsavory aspect of the wizarding world is introduced. The whole point of this book is, after all, to bring about the “Heir of Slytherin,” who is of course Voldemort. As it happens, the O.G. Slytherin was a wizard racist too. This book adds another layer to the description of his house as “cunning,” which would be “pureblood.”
I have a question. Why were the other founders of Hogwarts friends with Slytherin if he was such a piece of shit? This deceptive motherfucker exploited the trust of the other three dudes, hid a secret weapon meant to dispatch mixed-blood wizards, and was otherwise a total douche. Maybe they didn’t know at the time, but after a few hundred years of bad wizards only coming out of one House maybe they should figure it out? Anyway, whatever, Harry goes down there and saves the day again. Not from actual Voldemort but from the weird ghost-teen version of himself that possessed poor Ginny and tried to murder Harry with a giant death-snake. That’s cool and all, but the book actually ends with a scene that’s more important in the long run, which is when Harry contrives to free Dobby from his servitude to the Malfoys. We’ve learned over the course of this book that not all wizards are cool. Lucius Malfoy, elitist aristocrat, is the actual villain here, although the whole house-elf-slavery thing will come back up in later novels. All is not necessarily well in the wider wizarding world, and they have as problematic history as the rest of humanity.
A Note on the Movie
The adaptation of Chamber of Secrets is a companion film to the first, as it has the same director and aesthetic and actors. It’s fine. If I remember correctly, this is the last of the films that doesn’t make drastic cuts to the source material. You see everything you expect to see, and the tone is lighthearted and whimsical. Nothing really jumps out at me, other than the principal actors are all babies and that makes me feel ancient, like the Grand Canyon. I will say this about the Columbus films though: as films meant to encapsulate the tone of the first two books, I think he does an admirable job. Going forward, as the series gets darker, the right choices were made in moving on at director.