The Harry Potter Reread likens itself to the tightrope walker in the traveling circus… but it is probably more of a clown who spins plates on poles. Also a noble profession, but picking a clown face is far more difficult than picking a spangly catsuit. Alas, these are the trials of life.
This week, we’ve got more spiders than Emily will ever be comfortable with (the number she is comfortable with resting firmly at zero), and a reveal of everything wrong the this year’s Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher. It’s chapters 15 and 16 of The Chamber of Secrets—Aragog and The Chamber of Secrets.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
None of the students are allowed to visit the petrified victims any longer, for fear that they might get finished off. Draco is crowing about the loss of Dumbledore and hopeful that the next student to get attacked will die. Ernie Macmillan tells Harry that he knows he never would have hurt Hermione, and apologizes for his suspicions before, suggesting now that the Heir might be Draco. Harry shrugs him off, knowing it’s not true. It’s then that he realizes there are spiders leaving the greenhouse and heading toward the Forbidden Forest in a rather orderly fashion. He and Ron will have to follow them for answers, but not before they have an infuriating Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson—Lockhart is insistent that everything is safe now, decreeing Hagrid the culprit.
Ron and Harry use the Invisibility Cloak to leave for Hagrid’s hut after hours. They take Fang with them into the forest and follow the spiders for some time. Eventually, they are found by the Weasleys’ car, which has gone feral in the woods. Without warning, Harry, Ron and Fang are snatched up by giant spiders and taken to a clearing. There they meet Hagrid’s old pet from Riddle’s memory, an elephant-sized spider named Aragog. The old spider explains that he never killed any human according to Hagrid’s wishes, and that Hagrid never opened the Chamber of Secrets. Aragog does know what monsters lies in the Chamber, but his kind do not speak its name. He says that he never left the cupboard where Hagrid raised him until leaving the school entirely, and that the student murdered was found in bathroom.
Harry and Ron make to leave, but Aragog claims he cannot deny his children food, even if he won’t harm them directly. The spiders are descending when the Weasley family car saves the day, rampaging through the horde and opening its doors to the boys and Fang. They get safely out of the woods, Ron is sick, and Harry worries that all they’ve learned is that Hagrid did not open the Chamber of Secrets. That is, until he’s trying to fall asleep that night and realizes—the student who died in the bathroom was most likely Moaning Myrtle.
Again with Draco maybe needing to shut up about murder all the time. Look, I know he’s got a complex from his dad, but it’s amazing that Lucius didn’t manage to teach him a little self-control; Malfoy senior so good at playing their family down, but doesn’t seem to realize that his son spends his days at school being all, “Purebloods are awesome! Everyone else should die! Aren’t I handsome? Isn’t Granger the ugliest? Isn’t it great that we don’t prevent hate speak at Hogwarts?”
Speaking of which… why don’t they? I mean, I’m sure Draco is more careful about what he says around professors like McGonagall, but I find it a bit hard to believe that he’s not regularly caught and punished for things like that.
I love both Harry and Ron’s reactions to Ernie’s apology. Harry, ridiculously good kid that he is, recognizes that the apology is genuine and takes it as such. He’s also not interested in hate mongering; Ernie’s new suggestion that the Heir might be Draco is immediately shot down. Harry has no interest in spreading useless rumors, even if Draco happens to be his least favorite person in the world. Ron, on the other hand, is not so willing to accept Ernie’s contrition, getting smartly sarcastic as soon as Ernie shifts his attention to Malfoy. Honestly, as much as I’d hope to be as fair as Harry… I know I’d be more Ron in a similar situation. Of course, Ron’s got a slightly different angle here as well, which informs his distrust; it’s not just that Ernie was wrong, but that he was wrong about his best friend. I doubt Ron would have been quite as peeved if Ernie had done something similar to him—this is about defending Harry.
This is also the point at which any mirth that you might derive from Lockhart’s character falls by the wayside. As soon as he starts insisting that Hagrid is guilty and spreading those rumors, he’s effectively dead to the audience in terms of how badly we care for his well-being. It’s possible that certain readers hated him outright from the beginning, but for anyone who found him a passing amusement? This is the narrative point where you’re expected to let go. He’s a lot of nasty words that don’t really need writing down. You don’t get to talk about Hagrid like that and get away with it.
So… Aragog is terrifying.
I’m not sure there’s much more to say on him than that. Again I’m feeling for Ron; not only is this his first trip into the Forbidden Forest, but he goes in there only to precisely encounter what he fears most. It’s just not fair. The fact that he keeps it together as well as he does is something of a miracle. The fact that Harry can manage enough calm to actually talk to Aragog is similarly unreal. Good thing the car came after them, because I do not want to imagine what might have occurred had Hagrid found out that his directions were responsible for their being eaten by Aragog’s kids.
The car is precious, of course. It’s funnier because it was so keen to get rid of them at the start of the year. Maybe it’s happy to see familiar faces? It has vestigial traces of loyalty to the Weasleys? It’s gone wild enough that it’s glad to be on another adventure? No matter the reason, it’s so good. It’s also a sort of window into childlike perception; as a kid, I always had a sense that our cars were alive somehow. There was a yellow station wagon in particular, which I was practically certain was sentient. Interestingly, I viewed that car as having a similar protective streak to the Ford Anglia.
It takes Harry a little time, but of course, that perfectly positioned anvil finally falls. As a reader you’re forced to remember that there’s no way we would have spent so much time with Myrtle in this story were she not essential to the mystery somehow. She’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time.
Chapter 16—The Chamber of Secrets
Harry and Ron are intent on questioning Myrtle as soon as possible, though they still have time to be dismayed that the school will have exams at the end of the year. Luckily, the Mandrakes are almost ready for brewing, and McGonagall is hopeful that they will discover whoever is responsible for the attacks as soon as the petrified students are revived. (Though it may not have been her best idea to announce that to a room full of potential Heirs of Slytherin? Just saying.) Ginny has something to tell Harry and Ron, but is interrupted by Percy, who insists it’s a secret of his that she’d promised not to tell.
Lockhart is tired of babysitting his students so carefully, so Harry and Ron convince him to let the Gryffindors make their way to History of Magic unescorted, as a cover for slipping away to talk to Myrtle. They quickly caught by McGonagall, and Harry lies his way out of the situation, telling her that they want to go see Hermione. A tearful McGonagall allows it, which turns out to be much more useful than the boys anticipated, because they discover a piece of crumpled paper in Hermione’s hand, taken from an old library book. The text describes a monster know as a basilisk, a king of serpents. It’s stare is lethal, it is harmed by the crow of the rooster, and spiders are its sworn enemy. Harry realizes that this is the monster in the Chamber. The reason no one has died is because no one looked directly at the thing; Colin saw it through his camera, Justin saw it through Nearly-Headless Nick, Mrs. Norris saw it reflected in the pool of water that leaked from the bathroom, and Hermione and Penelope were peeking around corners with mirrors because Hermione had figured the whole thing out. The basilisk has been moving around using the pipes and plumbing, and Harry can hear it because he’s a Parselmouth.
They want to tell McGonagall this information and head to the staff room to wait for her, but she doesn’t come at the expected time. Instead, Harry and Ron hear an announcement directing all students to their dorms, and all staff to meet. The boys decide to hide in a cupboard and hear what has happened. Professor McGonagall informs the staff the Ginny Weasley has been taken into the Chamber and the school must be closed. Gilderoy Lockhart shows up late and the staff insist he try to take on the Chamber and its monster, considering how knowledgable he had claimed to be about the whole thing. He flees the room, and the staff is glad to have him out of their hair so they can make preparations.
Ron reasons that Ginny was taken because she really did know something about the Chamber or the Heir. The boys decide to tell Lockhart what they’ve discovered in hope that the information might be useful, but find him packing to leave. He admits that he has accomplished none of the feats in his books; instead, he hunts down the people who have done those incredible feats, takes down their stories, then erases their memories so they don’t remember what they’ve done. He’s about to do the same to Ron and Harry, but the boys disarm him, and force him to join their spree at wand point.
They ask Myrtle about her death, and all she can tell them is that she heard a boy saying strange words she didn’t recognize by the sink, and all she saw were a pair of big yellow eyes. Harry goes to the sinks and finds a snake engraved on one. He tries to imagine it’s alive, speaks in Parseltongue, and the wall opens to reveal a pipe slide of sorts. Ron and Harry have Lockhart slide down first, and the three end up far below the school. Lockhart feigns a trip and tackles Ron for his wand, but when he tries to use it, the wand backfires and explodes, causing a cave-in. Harry is separated, the only one capable of going forward, so he tells Ron he’s going to try, hoping to get to Ginny in time. He walks down many corridors before reaching the Chamber doors, opening them with more Parseltongue….
But seriously, though, McGonagall? “Hey, kids! We’ve almost got a cure ready for those petrified people, and they will be able to tell us everything. Whoever is responsible PLEASE DON’T GO FINISH THE JOB, WE’VE ALMOST CAUGHT YOU.”
I’m sorry. It’s just… really not a thing I would have announced school-wide.
Also, Percy, you are the worst, your timing is worst, your self-important face is the worst. He goes on to his brothers about being sensitive to what Ginny thinks throughout the book, when he is the most dismissive of her; no, she couldn’t possibly have her own problems that she’s dealing with, this is clearly about my secret petrified girlfriend! Did I mention that I have such hard work to do as a Prefect? Did I mention that I have absolutely no interest in the problems of you petty children despite the fact that you saved the entire school and probably also the world last year? Pass the bread rolls. I’m a Prefect.
*incoherent rage noises*
McGonagall’s tearful reaction to Harry’s lie about Hermione might be one of my favorite parts of the book. For starters, I just love it when Harry so effortlessly BSes his way out of bad situations. (Especially since he spends plenty of time getting caught for things that aren’t actually his fault.) It might not be a popular trait among some readers, but I’m sorry—kids lie to adults. They lie to them all the time, in incredibly manipulative ways. It’s a key to navigating childhood, and most of the time it’s not wrong or harmful to anyone, it is just how kids keep some space for themselves. In this case, ultimately not harmful. Also, every time we get a window into what a softy McGonagall is, my heart breaks a little. Rowling is smart in only letting it slip rarely, so when it happens, it’s like a gift.
Okay, so it’s great that Hermione had the basilisk figured out, and I can maybe suspend my disbelief to think that the teachers were so shocked that no one noticed the paper crumpled up in her fist. But this is some shaky footing we get onto here. The idea that no one thinks of a basilisk, even if you only find mention of them in older library books… it just seems that with all the expertise in the wizarding world, someone should have some idea. A wizard historian or mythology scholar, the current Care of Magical Creatures professor, heck, if Hagrid loves scary monsters so much, he should know everything about basilisks. The complaint is commonly leveled at Dumbledore, but honestly, if we’re going to say that no one else had any idea, then I find his ignorance the least disconcerting of all. He’s powerful, not all-knowing. There should be someone else in the world who could piece this together. Especially considering that SLYTHERIN’S SYMBOL WAS A SNAKE. HIS NAME SOUNDS LIKE HOW A SNAKE MOVES. Maybe wizards have an aversion to learning about serpents because of Slytherin’s affinity for them? That might make some sense of this huge knowledge gap. Just a cultural distrust, passed down from Salazar’s bad influence.
The piecing together of the narrative is still delightful, though, down to a reason for the rooster slaughter. And Harry and Ron get so close to doing the sensible thing, and telling McGonagall the whole story, but then it all goes overboard once they find out that Ginny has been taken. The moment where all the professors gang up on Lockhart together is another one of my favorite parts of the book, easily. Obviously, this group won’t always see eye to eye throughout the year, but when they all work together—when even Snape wants to join in on the fun—that unification is the sweetest treat imaginable.
I have to admit that this is not Harry and Ron’s best reasoning, though. They know that the professors did this to get Lockhart out of their way; going to him with information is not likely to prove useful. They know how ineffective the guy is. It would have made more sense to simply head to Myrtle right then and there, if they’re convinced that McGonagall can no longer be of help. But if they don’t go to Lockhart, we never get the reveal of his epic cowardice and charlatanism. It’s a pretty clever ploy overall, though one has to wonder if any of the villagers in those faraway towns ever notice that the local hero has suddenly lost their memory. It stands to reason that eventually, he would have been caught.
With that in mind, it’s either a mark of how utterly incompetent the man is, or a mark of how dangerous any magic person can be with the wand, that Harry and Ron are able to pressgang him so easily. (Both? Probably both.) Also, the slide down to the Chamber is pretty disgusting—I wonder if there’s another way in? Otherwise, Slytherin was pretty darn dedicated, being willing to go through questionable piping every time he wanted access to the place.
And Ron’s wand finally makes itself useful! Well, not useful in that Harry’s separated from his buddy, but useful in that they both still have their memories intact? Yet again, Rowling has to put Harry’s crew out of commission for the final confrontation; a tactic that she abandons in many of the future books as the threats get more pronounced, and the finales get more complicated.