The Harry Potter Reread has passed through what Americans call a “sophomore year,” which is a useless word, in that it is designed to make it seem as though something was accomplished instead of just saying oh, good work on that second year. Seriously, it means nothing, but it sounds terribly important. (Also, it’s Harry and Rowling’s birthday today, so… cake? Do we have a cake? We should get some cake.)
Which does not detract from the fact that we’ve reached the end of the second book! I knew the first two went by faster than the rest, but this has been a total blur. I’m just sort of stunned and wobbly. Like a newly-freed house-elf? We’ve got two chapters left of The Chamber of Secrets—The Heir of Slytherin and Dobby’s Reward.
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.
Chapter 17—The Heir of Slytherin
Harry finds Ginny inside the Chamber, but she won’t wake up. Also there is a sort of blurry version of Tom Riddle. Harry entreats him to help, but Tom seems eerily unmoved by his pleas. He proceeds to unravel the whole plot; Ginny is responsible for opening the Chamber of Secrets, for unleashing the basilisk, for killing roosters and writing notes on the walls. She did it because she was being used by Riddle, who opened the Chamber 50 years prior. Riddle is the Heir of Slytherin. And he has another secret as well, spelling out his name, and rearranging the letters to spell the words:
I AM LORD VOLDEMORT.
Tom Riddle is the sixteen-year-old version of the Dark Lord, trapped as a powerful memory (indeed, as a piece of his soul, which we will later come to know) in the pages of his school diary. Ginny wrote to him all year and he wrote back as a sympathetic friend, all the while draining life force from her as he became stronger. Soon Ginny will wither away and he will be properly corporeal. But Harry is the one that he’s been desperately seeking out, eager to know how an infant could have possibly defeated him in the future. Harry explains the powerful imprint left by his mother’s love, and Riddle decides that Harry is not particularly gifted or important (though he acknowledges their similarities: both half-bloods, both orphans, both Parselmouths).
But Harry insists that Dumbledore is special and important, and he’s not really gone from Hogwarts. That brings Fawkes the phoenix to his aid, who drops the Sorting Hat at Harry’s feet. Riddle sets the basilisk on Harry, but Fawkes pecks out its eyes. Still, the snake can sense him, and Riddle has Harry’s wand, leaving him nothing to defend himself with. He puts the Sorting Hat on in desperation, and the Hat bequeaths him (by dropping it on his head) a sword with giant rubies encrusted in the hilt. When the basilisk comes at Harry again, he stabs it through the roof of its mouth, killing it. He also ends up with a fang in his arm, and the snake’s poison is making quick work of him.
Riddle laughs at Harry and Fawkes; the bird is crying for him. But Harry begins to feel better, and remembers what Dumbledore told him—phoenix tears have healing powers. When Riddle cottons on, he decides to go up against Harry on his own, but Harry, without thinking twice, slams the basilisk fang into Riddle’s diary, destroying his spectra and saving Ginny. She tearfully confesses everything to him, and he walks her out of the Chamber as she panics about impending expulsion. Ron is still dutifully moving rocks, and has shifted enough for them to get back through. Lockhart is useless; his Memory Charm backfired and he cannot remember who he is. Fawkes gives everyone a ride out of the Chamber and directs them to McGonagall’s office.
I would like to draw everyone’s attention to one of my favorite Tumblr graphics:
See, it is said in the books that whenever Voldemort makes a horcrux, he splits his soul in half. Which means that whenever he makes a new one, he’s leaving less of his soul behind than he did before. It means that Voldemort actually possesses the smallest piece of his soul on the planet (along with Nagini), and that the diary has a whole half of it. So every time Harry cries over his scar hurting, and freaks out that he’s got some evil soul in him? Let’s remember that Ginny Weasley had access to an entire half of Voldemort’s soul, at a horrifically tender age, and she came out a professional Quidditch player and mega-time badass extraordinaire.
This might be why I am slightly fiercely protective of—DON’T YOU DARE SAY A BAD WORD AGAINST GINNY WEASLEY, I SWEAR, I HAVE NO PATIENCE.
We do get callbacks to this later in the series, such as her crowning moment-of-sass in Order of the Phoenix, when she tells Harry off for acting like he’s all alone in the world, when she’s totally been in the same boat. What she doesn’t say (since she doesn’t actually know it) is that she was exposed to far more and still came out the other end. Ginny Weasley is the boss. I will accept no other argument on this front. Ginny Weasley for President.
I love the encounter with Riddle because it’s so clear how early on Rowling had him figured. So much of his hubris is on display here. And more importantly, we see how frighteningly self-aware he is. He is a Level One Psychopath in the clinical sense; charming, seemingly-affable, intensely manipulative, carefully pruning his image so he comes off correctly to play on people’s sympathies. Here is how he describes himself opposite Hagrid, and his frame-up job with the Chamber:
“It was my word against Hagrid’s, Harry. Well, you can imagine how it looked to old Armando Dippet. On the one hand, Tom Riddle, poor but brilliant, parentless but so brave, school prefect, model student… on the other hand, big, blundering Hagrid, in trouble every other week, trying to raise werewolf cubs under his bed, sneaking off to the Forbidden Forest to wrestle trolls….”
What Riddle is talking about is the image he crafted for himself, and he knows he played the part well. He says that Dumbledore is the only one who ever seemed to see through the act, and that I find particularly relevant. Of course, Dumbledore is proven again and again to have a keen sense of intuition, but intuition is at least partially (mostly) derived from prior experience. And here, I think Albus saw a lot of Grindelwald in Riddle. Right from the beginning. The same charisma, the same swagger, the same grandiose plans and desires. The ability to come off so genuine. It must have chilled him, watching that boy.
Harry’s blind decision to just go ahead and stab that basilisk through the head may be one of the most baller moves a twelve-year-old has ever enacted in fiction. I just… Harry, I’m proud of you, baby. It’s sort of a fun mythological fix to get in before magic becomes the primary means of doing harm in the series. Harry, with a big ol’ sword, fighting a big ol’ monster, getting all mortally wounded like a grown up person. *sniff*
I have to admire Ron for actually making headway with the cave-in. Shifting boulders without causing an extra cave-in is seriously difficult work. Good job, Ron. And then, of course, we come to Lockhart’s recompense, which gives us the best dose of schadenfreude one could ever ask for.
Chapter 18—Dobby’s Reward
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are in the office along with McGonagall and Dumbledore. The Weasleys are overwhelmed seeing their daughter alive, and everyone demands the story from Harry. He tells it without mentioning the diary or incriminating Ginny, worried that she will get in trouble if they can’t prove her innocence with the diary destroyed. Luckily, Dumbledore indicates that he knows (or at least suspects) she has been possessed by Voldemort, giving Harry leave to explain how it happened. Mr. Weasley is dismayed that his daughter would use such a sketchy magical artifact, but Dumbledore insists that she has been through enough and sends her to the Hospital Wing with her parents. He also requests a nighttime feast for the whole school, which he has McGonagall engineer.
Then he briefly fakes out Ron and Harry before informing them that they will receive school awards and lots of Gryffindor points. Then he dismisses Ron with Lockhart, so he may talk to Harry. He thanks the boy for his loyalty, for only that would have called Fawkes down to the Chamber. Harry voices his concerns about Riddle comparing them, pointing out how alike they are. Dumbledore then explains that Harry can speak Parseltongue because Voldemort could, that some of the Dark Lord’s abilities were passed to Harry when he tried to kill him. Harry deflates—he belonged in Slytherin after all.
But Dumbledore points out the reason why Harry ended up in Gryffindor—because he asked not to be placed in Slytherin. Then he directs Harry to the sword he pulled from the Sorting Hat. The name Godric Gryffindor is emblazoned on the side. There is no doubt where he belongs.
Lucius Malfoy barges in, and Dobby is trailing at his heels. He is a Malfoy family house-elf, turns out. Lucius starts throwing his weight around about Dumbledore being back, which is quickly diffused when Albus explains that the entire governor’s board asked him back after informing him that Malfoy had threatened to curse their families if they hadn’t deposed him in the first place. After some signaling from Dobby, Harry realizes and speaks up—Lucius is the one who gave Ginny the diary during the little scuffle at Flourish and Blotts. Malfoy beats a hasty retreat before anyone incriminates him further.
Harry thinks a moment, then asks if he can give the diary back to Lucius, which Dumbledore agrees to. Then Harry hands Malfoy the diary with his dirty sock on top of it, which the man then throws in Dobby’s direction. The elf catches it, and is freed! Malfoy makes to harm Harry for losing him a servant, but Dobby stops him, forcing Lucius to leave defeated. The school gets a lovely feast, Gryffindor gets the House Cup, everyone who is petrified is restored, Hagrid comes back from Azkaban, and Ginny tells her brothers Percy’s secret—he’s got a girlfriend, Penelope Clearwater.
The crew says their goodbyes as another summer looms ahead. Harry gives Ron and Hermione his phone number, and tells them to call him while he’s stuck back at the Dursleys.
I honestly love the convenience of everyone just being where they are needed when they get back to McGonagall’s office. Thinking of it from the perspective of the adults is particularly rewarding. Arthur and Molly are there being comforted by Dumbledore and McGonagall, who ensure them that they are going to do everything they can to get their daughter back… and the door opens, and in trod all the kids, safe and sound, clearly having saved the day. Dumbledore is so unspeakably proud, and it makes me all wibbly.
The choice for the feast is particularly amusing because I’m so pleased at the idea of the kids being woken from their beds because it’s time to dine, children! Why? Just ’cause! Hey, you’re all alive, that’s something, right?
Dumbledore is obviously enjoying Gilderoy’s fate so much, he can’t even pretend to hide it. We get the same slew of awards at the end of the year, though I believe this is the last time anyone bothers with house points, or the like. Which makes sense, because this is basically the last year that these simple rewards will have much meaning to the kids. They’re fast outgrowing the stage when House Cups and point systems mean anything. They’re fighting Evil, after all.
And then we get the talk between Harry and Dumbledore, which gets to the heart of the book’s theme and leads to one of the most quotable lines in the whole series:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
That… is a really excellent moral for a children’s story. And it’s particularly important for Harry to learn at this point in time; the understanding that the past cannot dictate his person is essential in these formative years. There’s so much history weighing on Harry, coming from all directions, and he’s learning it all now—realizing that he is not beholden to anyone else’s previous choices gives him leave to make his decisions and forge his own path. It’s real power Dumbledore hands over with that single sentence. Despite the fact that destiny is a big part of the Potter narrative, I believe that here is where we see the seeds of Harry’s independence being sown. This is what gives him the right to change the play book when he doesn’t like it, simply knowing that he can.
Seeing Lucius get properly trounced is a big win here, and we never see him reach the same heights after this book. As soon as Voldemort is back, his power is virtually nil. Ah well, Lucius. You were fun while you lasted.
And then after all Harry has been through this evening, he still gets it together for one more act of humanity—he tricks Malfoy into freeing Dobby. Because he’s that sly, when the occasion calls for it. I do wonder if there is precedent for this; Lucius didn’t really intend to present Dobby with clothes. I wonder if Dobby’s taking it as a sign for freedom is really just particular to him, seeing as he’s so miserable in his position. I want more information on house-elfs, dammit, this is important stuff.
Then, of course, Harry tells Dobby never to save his life again, and this time you know where that leads and it’s just TEARS OF ENDLESS SADDITUDE.
The book winds down quite simply, with a great deal of exposition, which is a bit more jarring to me this time around. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just a surprising choice on a reread. And then it’s back to the cold Muggle light of day, and Harry has one more summer to contend with at the mercy of his family.
Overall, I’d argue that this book is more tightly woven than the first, with Rowling hitting stride on pace, humor, and plotting. So many little hints of what’s to come, so many excellent set ups. The choice to have Harry fretting over where he belongs at Hogwarts is appropriate to his age and the events of the book, and highlights his development flawlessly.
The continuing build of characters is practically effortless here, and it’s the foundation in these first two books that make everything so effective down the line, as the plotting gets more complicated. The mystery in this one is particularly impressive in that it builds on the mythology of the first story, but it’s in no way a copy of the last book’s climax. I think that always really stood out in Potter books—they never ended similarly, which would have been an easy trap to fall into in a lesser author’s hands.
Of course, the next book is when all this groundwork pays off, and the universe comes to life in a way that way that it arguably hasn’t before. I’m going to start straight off by admitting that Prisoner of Azkaban is probably my favorite Potter book, and I’m desperately looking forward to starting on it with all of you.
But first… the Chamber of Secrets film. Next week!