Thu
Jun 16 2011 10:56am

Murderous Trees & Flying Cars Are a Good Start: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

After you’ve defeated a Dark Lord, come home and found life goes on as normal, how do you return to faerieland? How do you get back to Narnia? How do you make something feel even more magical and wondrous than when it was brand new?

Well, a flying car and a murderous tree is a pretty good way to start.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the very first “what happens after” books I’d read. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was a great adventure book in which the boy turns out to be a wizard, a celebrity, a hero, and then defeats the Dark Lord all over again. But Chamber of Secrets shows what happens next and that fascinated me.

And then there was the psychology of a budding Dark Lord, an ambiguous, strange elf-creature, a truly fabulous dueling club, the history and redemption of Harry’s first friend and, of course, Lockhart.

I read the first Harry Potter book when I was about 12, after the first couple had come out and while I was attending an English public (private for Americans) school, so I connected with them pretty strongly from the beginning. (I still have those, now very beat up, paperbacks.) The first one was a really fun romp, but the second grabbed me, if possible, even more. It was darker, smarter and a really intricate mystery for a twelve year old (Harry and myself) to solve.

From the beginning, it seems like Harry’s charmed life is taking some heavy knocks, with Dobby attacking him, missing the train, the whomping willow attacking, and then being punished for being late before the school year had really begun. It made him much more like a real boy—who screws up plenty—but also places him in a precarious situation from the get-go. There is no triumphant return with trumpets lining his path to Hogwarts, but instead Harry has to start out fighting.

Then we learn Harry can talk to snakes. The Parseltongue, and particularly Harry’s connected-to-Voldemort dreams, are Rowling’s genius in this book, as we’re left unsure who to trust and whether Harry could, possibly, be in some way connected to the attacks on the students. It’s a neat trick in that it makes us have exactly the same questions and insecurities that Harry faces throughout this book as people turn away from him, adulation becomes notoriety and distrust, and he becomes so much more alienated from the rest of his class. Just as the first book has Harry asking questions about the magical world for our edification, in this one, his own uncertainty about the attacks on fellow students and whether he’s responsible, leads us down the same questioning path.

One of the hardest things in many children’s books is the betrayal of the adults; when they are neglectful, abusive or even downright evil. Snape is, throughout the earlier books, a child’s villain—he is obviously significantly more complex, but seen through our hero’s eyes, he’s cruel and mean in very black and white ways—whereas, Lockhart, here, is a grown-up who lies, endangers people, and wants to use Harry for his own, incredibly selfish ends. With adults like these on other side, and the “good” ones—like Dumbledore and McGonagall—punishing him at the very beginning of the year, on the other, Harry begins to feel like he can only rely on the students, and particularly the Trio. It’s quite a subtle—for what is still a middle-grade book at this point—maneuvering and drawing of the battle lines that doesn’t really surface until much later in the series.

Plus, as we learn towards the end of the book (or earlier, if you’re better at whodunit mysteries than I was at 12), Lucius is pretty much out and out evil. It’s one thing to have this interesting fight between a young not-yet-Dark Lord version of Tom Riddle and Harry, when they’re about the same age, and it was a lovely, classic, way to do it without time travel, or to have Lucius and Arthur fighting, but to have Draco’s father attack another man’s daughter like that felt huge. For a grown man to deliberately set out to destroy a small girl is a dark, big thing for a narrative that’s only just growing beyond an adventure story. Consequently I cheered hugely when Harry releases Dobby from Lucius’ service; not only because I wanted Dobby to be free, but because any way to lash out at Lucius seemed like a victory to me—almost more so than defeating Tom, who was at least Harry and Ginny’s peer in some fashion.

And then there’s Hagrid. Part grown-up, part child, part magical creature himself; he’s Harry’s saviour in many ways and certainly his first friend, so his redemption as Harry discovers that he didn’t open the Chamber of Secrets and he certainly didn’t kill Moaning Myrtle is a big relief. But not an untempered one, as we meet Aragog and find that Hagrid really can’t be entirely trusted, though at least in his case it’s unthinking, rather than cunning or evil. Hagrid just doesn’t understand how the magical creatures he loves so much could be dangerous and awful, which made me really question whether, perhaps, his long-ago punishment wasn’t quite unmerited. I loved Hagrid and I was certainly sad that he was expelled and barred from magic, even though I discovered it retroactively, but while he didn’t kill Myrtle, Aragog certainly could kill someone and his unconcern on that score was kind of terrifying. And I don’t even have Ron’s fear of spiders!

While I’m talking about magical creatures, briefly, I want to jump ahead and say that I’ve mourned the fate of the basilisk for years. I recognise how problematic a creature that kills with its eyes can be, but it totally wasn’t the snake’s fault. Why couldn’t Harry have killed evilyounger!Tom and told the basilisk just not to kill people anymore? (Yes, I recognise my faulty logic here. Mourning anyway.) In addition to the brilliance of the entire set-up with the Parseltongue, the snake—and how it moved through the walls—and the attacks, I loved Rowling’s inventive and careful use of mythology. I remember, after this book, discovering that basilisks were, well if not “real” then at least “existing outside of Harry Potter” and it was so exciting. It sent me on quite a quest to read more about Medusas and Basilisks, though it seems to generally end poorly for them, sadly for me.

While all this adventure and intricate world-building is going on, Rowling also, subtly, delves into themes of prejudice—against Hagrid, against elves and even against girls (though this last is severely problematically handled) and definitely against Harry, the minute he shows non-Gryffindor characteristics—and distrust of the establishment, which is the foundation of the rest of the books.

And there are absolutely problems with the girls in this book. Hermione is petrified, essentially because she is smart and curious. Ginny is sucked into an abusive relationship with the diary—and Riddle—because she wants someone to listen to her—she wants a voice. And poor, poor Myrtle is killed, ridiculed and still not taken seriously long after her death. But for all their lack of agency at points, this book gave me a triumvirate of smart, powerful women who want things and strive for things so intensely that they have to be noticed. They are, in some ways at least, rewarded for their struggle to prove themselves—if only with attention—and it inspired twelve-year old me to want more and push harder to get ahead. And that is what draws me back to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets time and again.


Nina Lourie has totally, while in bed at night, waved her hand and said “Nox” instead of flicking the light switch. But whether it worked is a secret.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
16 comments
Lindsay Ribar
1. Lindsay Ribar
I love what you say here about the adults, and how their incompetence (Hagrid), fairness-to-a-fault (McGonagall), and/or evilness (Lucius, etc.) forces Harry to rely only on his closest friends. For me, though, the adults have always been at the center of how I read these books. Maybe it's because I didn't start reading them until I was 18 (so I didn't get to grow up with Harry), but while I was rooting for Harry and his friends all the way, the adults' stories were what gave these books depth for me.

I'm fond of saying that this started in book three, but you highlight here that it begins MUCH earlier than that -- hell, the opening scene of the first book is a conversation between McGonagall and Dumbledore! But the other thing I never explicitly noticed is this: I don't think the adults' stories would be as potent, at least for me, if we didn't get to see them through the eyes of the kids.

As Sirius famously (and ironically) says in book four, "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." He's talking here about social classes, but the same sentiment is easily applied to the adults-vs.-children dynamic that permeates the series. Rowling has a full-to-bursting cast of adults, all with their own twisted histories and prejudices and secrets -- but she presents each of them through the lens of their interactions with the kids. Snape is the most gray-area character ever, but we're asked to start out with a strong prejudice against him, because he's a dick to Harry. Lupin is a weather-worn individual, battered by his condition and the way other wizards have treated him, but we're asked to side with him because he connects with Harry on a personal level and treats him with respect. And on, and on, and on. If you really want to know the measure of the adult characters, take a look at how they treat the kids.
Lindsay Ribar
2. Susan Sipal
Love your analysis of a book that sometimes seems to get lost in Potterdom! Like in Mari Ness' post, you mention JKR's use of myth. I felt that really came to play in this book even stronger than the first. Did you notice how the underground room of the Chamber of Secrets seemed to resemble a temple? With its snake-entwined towering pillars that made me think of a caduceus. And the statue of Slytherin was monkeyish. Seemed to me to be a nod at an ancient Egyptian temple to Thoth. Maybe I'm seeing too much, but that's what JKR inspired so many of us to do -- look below the surface!

Love this Potterpalooza!
Nina Lourie
3. supertailz
@Lindsay Ribar I think you're right! It's fascinating on how my emotions about some of the characters changed as the children grew up and viewed them differently. I think it was book five that really broke my heart, and childhood worship of Dumbledore.

Lupin, however, will always be my fantasy professor. Snape is possibly my favourite character - at least adult character - because he's smart and outsiderish and prickly and complex and mean, but Lupin just made me feel like I wanted him to be my father. And a lot of that comes - as you say - from Harry's initial impressions of him. It took me a long time, even with my like of Snape, to become ok with Snape outing him and forcing him out of Hogwarts. And I think it's mostly because he was raggedy and gave Harry chocolate.
Nina Lourie
4. supertailz
@Susan Sipal I think you're absolutely right! And I'm impressed with your eye to detail. By that point in the book I'm always SO on edge about what's happening with the plot, that I don't think I ever paid quite enough attention to the setting. I obviously need to reread AGAIN. (Such a hardship! :) )

I think it's fascinating though, the way JK really interweaves and borrows from so many different traditions of mythology. There's obviously Greek and Egyptian at first glance, in this book, but are there others? Is the Whomping Willow a reference to the Tree of Life/World Tree? Or is it kind of an Indian mythology thing?

I've read that a lot of her magical beasts are based on Greek Mythology, but some are also British or Scandanavian, but I think you're right that it extends beyond just the beasts themselves.
Lindsay Ribar
5. ladysugarquill
Great analysis! This book has a great mystery, and Rowling's hand on writing whodunits is amazing. But I don't agree with the final thought about the girls.

Hermione was petrified because Harry has to be alone at the end (just like PS, where first Ron and then Hermione are left behind), and it worked better than having both trapped behind the falling ceiling later. It gives Harry, and specially Ron, a personal motivation AND some character development (see Ron facing his arachnophobia to help her), and shows the first time Voldemort attacks someone Harry loves to get at him.

Moaning Myrtle is just a secondary character, and in a way she's ridiculed just as much as the other ghosts, or Neville.

And Ginny is shown here (and specially in hindsight after DH) to be EXTREMELY STRONG. She was tricked by Voldemort (like many people before her), but she was smart enough to distrust it -her friend- and strong enough to try and resist the hold of a *Horcrux* even after many months.

I don't understand what the problem is. Writers shouldn't have bad things happening to girls in fiction, ever?

Though I may be biased, because I love Ron, but it seems everyone (starting with Kloves) hates him while worshiping Hermione, and Ginny gets many mean comments as well :(
Nina Lourie
6. supertailz
@ladysugarquill Thank you SO much for this. I never wanted to denigrate any of the characters (except Lockhart:) and particularly not Ron, Hermy or Ginny, but I think you make an important point anyway that I don't want getting lost.

And I think you're right that it's VERY hard to draw the line between "female characters getting the shorter end of the stick" and "not ever having anything happen to them". Absolutely EVERYONE in the series gets awfulcake served to them frequently, and it's not like Ron getting trapped is any great shakes either. But for me, it was Ginny and Hermione and Myrtle's stories that really stuck out for me. Because they all wanted to be recognised, noticed, attention paid (to misquote Arthur Miller:) and the lengths they strove to for that were inspiring.

But yes, I also think they got slapped down hard at times for precisely that striving. Ginny was absolutely strong and awesome for trying to fight against the diary, but the fact that she was targeted by Riddle and Lucius in the first place was unsettling. The fact that no one paid attention to her situation - which is part of what compounded the situation - was worrying. That Hermione's brain was used but then she was left, frozen and unable to be active in any way, was saddening to me.

But mostly, I worry about your comment that Hermione's frozenness was good motivation for Harry and Ron. It's one of those unfortunate tropes of so much fiction that the damsel needing to be rescued is the motivation for the strong hero. And I think JK does it SO MUCH LESS than other writers and she really tries to make awesome, strong women who kick butt themselves, but I did want to point out the ways in which it flirts with that trope despite all her strong work. Because I do think it's worth noting that this is something our culture still does, so much of the time and that it is still something we must strive to overcome. Women *are* more than a plot point.

(Now of course, JK does this with many other characters down the road too. The Triwizard Tournament has many good examples of people being used for motivation or plot points, without agency of their own. I'm not saying that she's in *any* way anti-women. I was just trying to analyse this particular book.)

Anyway, I hope that elucidates what I was trying to get at, but also acknowledges your points, because I think you make really good points here.
Nina Lourie
7. supertailz
@ladysugarquill Thank you SO much for this. I never wanted to denigrate any of the characters (except Lockhart:) and particularly not Ron, Hermy or Ginny, but I think you make an important point anyway that I don't want getting lost.

And I think you're right that it's VERY hard to draw the line between "female characters getting the shorter end of the stick" and "not ever having anything happen to them". Absolutely EVERYONE in the series gets awfulcake served to them frequently, and it's not like Ron getting trapped is any great shakes either. But for me, it was Ginny and Hermione and Myrtle's stories that really stuck out for me. Because they all wanted to be recognised, noticed, attention paid (to misquote Arthur Miller:) and the lengths they strove to for that were inspiring.

But yes, I also think they got slapped down hard at times for precisely that striving. Ginny was absolutely strong and awesome for trying to fight against the diary, but the fact that she was targeted by Riddle and Lucius in the first place was unsettling. The fact that no one paid attention to her situation - which is part of what compounded the situation - was worrying. That Hermione's brain was used but then she was left, frozen and unable to be active in any way, was saddening to me.

But mostly, I worry about your comment that Hermione's frozenness was good motivation for Harry and Ron. It's one of those unfortunate tropes of so much fiction that the damsel needing to be rescued is the motivation for the strong hero. And I think JK does it SO MUCH LESS than other writers and she really tries to make awesome, strong women who kick butt themselves, but I did want to point out the ways in which it flirts with that trope despite all her strong work. Because I do think it's worth noting that this is something our culture still does, so much of the time and that it is still something we must strive to overcome. Women *are* more than a plot point.

(Now of course, JK does this with many other characters down the road too. The Triwizard Tournament has many good examples of people being used for motivation or plot points, without agency of their own. I'm not saying that she's in *any* way anti-women. I was just trying to analyse this particular book.)

Anyway, I hope that elucidates what I was trying to get at, but also acknowledges your points, because I think you make really good points here.
Susan Sipal
9. SusanSipal
Thanks, Nina. And I agree with you - I always thought the Whomping Willow was a Tree of Life with its entrance to the "underworld" of the Shrieking Shack. And I didn't pick up on the Egyptian references in a first read-through either, but once I noticed them, started hunting them out.

I think alchemy was her primary metaphor and the Egyptian myths were brought in through that because Thoth was supposed to be the father of alchemy.

I can't wait until JKR releases the encylopedia (and maybe that's what Pottermore is!) because I'm hoping she will address some of these mythological inspirations for her stories. To me, these layers of subtext, plus her ability to span mysteries across several books, were what inspired her fans to such passionate heights.
Lindsay Ribar
10. ladysugarquill
Hehe Lockhart is made to be bashed. Not even the other characters can stand him XD

Well, although Hermione had to be rescued, I don't think that's a bad thing! It wasn't that trope in my opinion.

If it was a trope, it was It's Personal: so far, the Heir had been targeting random students, and Harry still wanted to stop him, but it was not the same as when he attacked, not "a girl", but "one of my best friends". And Riddle didn't target her because she's a girl either - I'm sure he was stalking Ron the same way, and Hermione was just the first one he found in a corridor without Harry or a teacher around (after all, he wants to meet Harry and he can't do that if the basilisk kills him).

Maybe it's because I don't see a problem in the "Damsel in Distress" trope unless it's overused, nor I think "hero saves the girl" it's better or worse than a heroine saving the boy, or children, or a best friend, or their pet dog. And I find kinda more worrying the idea that a character can't be rescued or it's "weak".

And in Ginny's case, being a girl, or wanting to be heard, was also a coincidence. Lucius targeted her because she was one of Arthur's children. He needed to get rid of the diary, and wanted to discredit Arthur to ruin the Muggles Protection Act he was pushing. It could have ended up in Ron's hands just as well.

The fact that no one paid attention to her situation - which is part of what compounded the situation - was worrying.
Someone did: Percy knew from the start something was wrong, and tried to help, but he thought it was because of Mrs. Norris, Colin, or the flu. Harry and Ron also noticed something at the end, but Harry at least didn't have much to compare it since Ginny wouldn't talk in front of him (even before the diary), and Ron's kinda thick XD

That Hermione's brain was used but then she was left, frozen and unable to be active in any way, was saddening to me.
But this is EXACTLY what happens to Ron on PS. He wins the chess match and is unconscious for the rest of the book. It's just the classic "leave the friends out of combat one by one" - it creates tension and adds drama. This time it was Hermione first, but in the previous book she was last, and even more in the next one.

It is sad, because she had just solved the puzzle and she gets petrified, but it gives us good scenes, and gives Harry a Ron a chance to prove they can solve mysteries on their own just as well. (Again, this is me being a bit bitter some people think Hermione is the only one who can think in these books).
Lindsay Ribar
11. ladysugarquill
Oh, my, that TL;DR. O_o

Sorry! I write too much XD
Nina Lourie
12. supertailz
@ladysugarquill #11 No you don't! Especially not when it's interesting and thought-provoking like this! I will respond to the actual comment later, but for now, just thanks! I must have thinky times now.
Maiane Bakroeva
13. Isilel
Hm, I really disliked the ending of CoS. I mean, Lockhart may have been a liar, but how does it justify Harry and Ron intending to use him as a meat-shield against a deadly monster? That was genuinely evil - from what we have seen to this point, Lockhart didn't deserve death.

And why did he go along with the boys, when they don't know any lethal spells? He had no reason to fear them more than the basilisk!

What is more, OK, Lockhart turned out to be a fraud (which they really knew in advance too, so huh?) - why didn't they approach other teachers, who they know aren't ? Going by themselves was just stupid and vainglorious.

Not to mention that the whole car thing should have had greater reprecussions if secrecy is really that important and Arthur being a genuinely corrupt official isn't a laughing matter either. Ron looks amazingly dumb too, because really, unlike Harry he should have known that his parents would be able to bring them to Hogwarts.

Nor enamored of "Harry has to be alone in the end" either. He is more believably heroic when he is not alone.
Lindsay Ribar
14. Lisamarie N
I definitely don't buy that there is a problem with girls in this story. When Hermione is attacked, it is important not because she is a 'damsel in distress', but because she is a friend. And I hate the idea that when a character needs help it's 'weak' (regardless of gender). Tropes are not automatically bad and I think it is wrong to expect things never to happen because it looks like a certain trope that has been executed poorly in other works.

And as for Ginny needing to be recognized, heard - that is hardly unique to the girls. To be honest I see that trait very prominently in Ron, who often feels overlooked and in the shadow of his brothers and Harry. I suppose JKR could have had the diary be given to one of the Weasley brothers, but I don't think it is as believable that a more experienced student would have fallen for it since they presumably know enough not to trust something like that. Ron might have been, vulnerable to the diary's interest, actually - but we see that in the last book where he succumbs to the affect of the Horcrux. Plus, from an authorial point of view, she's also using it to set up the feelings Ginny has for Harry.
Rajan Khanna
15. rajanyk
I loved the Parseltongue. I thought it was so great that the "chosen one" had a trait that so reflected his enemy. And I agree that Harry's discovery of it, and where that led him psychologically, was a great part of the book. I've always loved the Potter books for their basic mystery structures and Rowling is great at throwing out red herrings. I was actually a bit disappointed later on when she explains why Harry speaks Parseltongue.

I also think a lot of the magical creatures in the series get a bad rap. Unicorns, centaurs, basilisks, dragons, gryphons, and so on...
Lindsay Ribar
16. blinkers
There are absolutely no more problems with the females in this book than the males. Similar to Hermione, Colin Creevey is also petrified, for nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time (he actually would have been killed without the camera). Similar to Myrtle, Nearly Headless Nick was killed and has been discriminated against long after his death and was even zotched by the basilisk as well. And Lisamarie N above sums up my thoughts on Ginny's problem in the book having anything to do with her being a girl.

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