Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizarding International Relations * 2000
I believe we’ve reached the point of the series where it’s unreasonable to think someone would just bop in and start fresh. I can envision a world where people could start with Prisoner of Azkaban, even if those people are depriving themselves of quality world-building and an otherwise good time. But I can’t imagine anyone would take a look at a seven-book series and think to themselves that “yes, the fourth book seems like a good place to start.” So I’ll proceed as if you’ve read the first three books and have every intention of reading this book. If you’ve come this far, you’re into it. Now, as I’m re-reading these books for the first time in years, I’m reminded that they’re getting better as the go. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a step above Azkaban, and it only gets more intense as we go. Now, I can see the perspective that misses the more light-hearted whimsy of the first few books – it’s like when people complain about Adventure Time not being “about adventures anymore” but is actually just getting better at depth and storytelling– but insofar as quality is concerned, it’s hard to argue that the later books aren’t simply better. Anyway, if you’re familiar with the books but maybe haven’t read them in a while, this is the one with the Triwizard Tournament, the Quidditch World Cup, the Dark Mark, Mad-Eye Moody, Unforgivable Curses, Rita Skeeter, the Pensive, and Death Eaters. Shit gets real.
As we’ve seen in the previous couple of books, J.K. Rowling adds depth to the world with each successive novel in the series, and Goblet of Fire is no exception. This novel marks the first time the wizarding world really opens up beyond the United Kingdom, and while there’s some playful stereotyping happening here, we at least get a small glimpse into a world that is expanded beyond a single European island. Appropriately for a novel that is about international cooperation, Goblet of Fire’s first big scene is the Quidditch World Cup. Since there are fewer wizards than Muggles, it’s a smaller event than the proper World Cup – although we can presume that this particular match between Bulgaria and Ireland (shout out to two countries whose soccer teams will never win an actual World Cup) is only the final match at the end of a longer tournament. That said, it’s still a mob scene. Harry and the Weasly’s get a rare taste of elitedom and get to rock the Top Box with high-profile Ministry of Magic officials, and everyone has a good time. Suddenly there’s this vast wide world beyond Hogwarts and school-age wizards out there.
Of course, as much fun as the game is (and of course Ireland wins), it ends in an act of soft terrorism. “Soft” in that nobody dies or is even seriously injured, but are nonetheless terrified. Some Death Eaters crash the after-party and cause a ruckus before someone shoots a Dark Mark into the sky. Ministry officials show up and immediately fuck up the crime scene (just sloppy, sloppy police work, seriously these fools just need to turn on Muggle TV and watch some CSI or something) and Barty Crouch, the hardline Ministry guy, tries to blame Harry because he’s a zealous idiot. Crouch’s counterpart, Ludo Bagman, is also present and presents another face of the Ministry, one which is enthusiastic and dumb. The critique of government hits its peak in the next book, but these two gomers foreshadow the depiction of the Ministry of Magic we can expect going forward.
The World Cup is doing triple-duty right out of the gate. It’s describing a much wider world than we’ve been exposed to, it’s setting up a particular viewpoint concerning the role of government in its depiction of the Ministry of Magic, and is most importantly setting the tone of the novel. In conjunction with the first chapter (which in itself is unusual because it’s the first time Rowling has written a viewpoint away from Harry), we are made immediately aware that the world has changed. Voldemort is still mostly powerless, but has since been reunited with noted coward and all-around fuckface Peter Pettigrew and is therefore a greater threat. When the first real action of a book is a straight up murder, you know things are going to get worse going forward. Between this and the Dark Mark, we know that Goblet of Fire is about to stray from the path we’re used to in a Harry Potter novel. Yet the first few chapters still contain plenty of the whimsy and fun that drew people in to begin with, but the tonal shift that kicks all the way in for the rest of the series begins now.
The plot of Goblet of Fire is a massive gear change to the previous structure of the series which by this point has become almost predictable. Since each novel represents a year at Hogwarts, this structure makes a good deal of sense because one of the effects of going to school is becoming well acquainted with rigid structure and routine. Therefore we get used to Quidditch and House Cups and whatnot being integral to the proceedings, because these are things are very important to the characters. However this time all that gets tossed right out the window in an effort to expand the world-building further than before. Instead of more Quidditch, we get to read about the Triwizard Tournament, which is happening at Hogwarts in an effort to boost international relations. In this event, of-age wizards (17 and up) compete in three tasks meant to test their skill as a wizard. These teen athletes hail from the three major European schools of magic. Hogwarts, naturally, the French girl’s school Beauxbatons, and the vaguely Eastern-European school Durmstrang.
While the inclusion of schools that are not Hogwarts, and are therefore not British, are an opportunity to kick around easy stereotypes, they also allow for an expansion of the wizarding world in general. There’s a point where Harry admits to not even conceiving of other wizarding schools, and it’s possible that most readers never really thought about it much either. Of course, the fact that French school is uptight and aristocratic in nature while Durmstrang is a post-Soviet, disciplinarian situation, seems like a missed opportunity for a better characterization of these places, but whatever. I mean, when your post-Soviet schoolmaster is also an ex-Death Eater you’re not exactly being subtle. The outlier, to a point, would be Viktor Krum, who apparently has a heart of gold, but Rowling is still using a wide brush here, which is unfortunate.
It’s good then that the vast majority of the novel is about teenagers, and as we’ve seen (and will continue to see) that Rowling has no peer when it comes to depicting this mysterious creature. Teens are, and always have been, and always will be, the actual worst. If not handled carefully, this viewpoint could quickly become unbearable. Yet Rowling has a singular talent in being able to accurately convey how much it sucks being 14 (or especially 15) without making the character unbearable. We do begin to get a sense of Harry’s major character flaws in Goblet of Fire, however. He has a short tempter. He is often self-righteous and stubborn. These things start to bubble up here, although to be entirely fair Harry has to put up with a bunch of heinous bullshit that no one else even knows about. Of course these things only intensify as the series progresses.
Meanwhile the poor bastard has to deal with the challenge of the Triwizard Tournament (more like Quadwizard Tournament, but whatever) while at a distinct disadvantage, and also put up with a corrupt FAKE NEWS press and plummeting popular opinion. Harry pulls it all off, of course, not only because his name is on the cover, but also because he was set up. Harry still had to execute, still actually had to do the thing, but he had a good deal of help. In the end, though, Harry ends up where he was intended to end up all along, and that’s face-to-face with a reconstituted Voldemort. Heading into this moment, Harry has had help. Not only unlooked for “assistance” from Barty Crouch, Jr., but from his usual cast of allies. In the end, though, it’s Harry alone facing his much more powerful, imposing nemesis. Cedric Diggory, sexy young hunk and superior older wizard, is killed as an afterthought. Harry, of course, escapes with his life, thanks in part to the ghosts who emerge from Voldemort’s wand. That said, this initial face-off with a restored Voldemort is the turning point in the series. Harry stands and faces what he thinks is certain death, at 14 years of age. That alone is enough to mark him for the rest of his life.
Goblet of Fire is a massive book, and so much happens that it’s impossible to talk about in depth without going on for ages. I’m pretty sure there’s a good paper to be written about Hermione, the House Elf Liberation Front and labor politics, for instance. There’s a depth and richness to this novel that is absent from the first three, but becomes the hallmark of the series from this point forward. The series never strays too far from its whimsical roots, but the darkness that is present at the end of this book permeates the rest of the series. And that final scene is harrowing. Cedric’s causal murder, Harry’s bravery in what he thinks will be his last act, his narrow escape and the knowledge that everything is going to get worse, and of course Harry bringing Cedric’s body back to Hogwarts. It’s rough, and the knowledge that nothing is going to get any easier or better is a perfect metaphor for the ultimate loss of innocence we all experience, even if it’s not quite as traumatic as what Harry has to deal with.
A Note on the Movie
From this point forward, the filmmakers have their work cut out for them. As mentioned, Goblet of Fire has a lot going on. Even a long movie is going to miss some things, so it’s up to the screenwriters and the director to figure out how to best streamline the plot in such a way that the basic story still makes sense. Mike Newell, another one-off director for the series, does a decent enough job. The look of Hogwarts and the wizarding world in general is still solid, and already the films are steering toward a more austere look to match the tone. The casting continues to be great; Mad Eye Moody in particular is spot on. The depiction of the Yule Ball is perfect. There are a few missteps, of course. My favorite is the weirdly aggressive Dumbledore. I like when he damn near chokes Harry out when asking him if he put his name in the Goblet of Fire, but I especially like at the end when he’s confronting Barty Crouch, Jr. and he’s all like “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” Fuckin’ gangsta, even if it’s out of character. Speaking of Barty Crouch, Jr. though… seriously, what the everlasting fuck is up with this performance? My wife assures me that David Tennant is a fine actor, but the whole tongue thing is out of control. It cracks me up every time, and I’m guessing that’s not the intended effect. It’s also a shame, because Crouch’s big scenery-munching moment happens right after the most affecting scene to date. Harry’s return to Hogwarts with Diggory’s body is done perfectly, and it’s heartbreaking.