The Harry Potter Reread would like a fan, please. Not an electric one, but a hand fan, so it can hide behind something pretty and wink at people in a conspiratorial way. This is how great heists come into being.
This week we’re going to have a weird holiday and then learn about a very useful form of magic. It’s chapters 23 and 24 of The Order of the Phoenix–Christmas on the Closed Ward and Occlumency.
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 23–Christmas on the Closed Ward
Harry understandably panics at the idea of having Voldemort in his brain, and decides that he must be the weapon that Voldemort is looking for. With that in mind, he thinks that he should run back to the Dursleys to prevent anyone else from getting hurt, but on returning to Grimmauld Place, he is told by Phineas’ portrait that Dumbledore wants him to stay put. (He won’t say why.) Harry gets into a fight with Phineas before deciding that he will heed the headmaster, falling asleep. He doesn’t go down to dinner, not wanting to inflict his presence on anyone else.
Lucky for all, Hermione shows up (she didn’t really enjoy the ski trip with her parents, though she instructs Harry not to tell Ron about that) and calls Harry down to his room where Ginny and Ron are waiting. She asks Harry how he’s feeling, since she knows he’s been hiding away from everyone and what they heard in the hospital. Harry gets riled at that, claiming he didn’t want to talk to anyone, which is when Ginny informs him that he’s a git–because she has been possessed by Voldemort and can tell him what it feels like. After some back and forth, Harry realizes that he is likely not the weapon since he’s never blacked out the way Ginny did. The world feels much brighter. Sirius decorates the house in earnest, elated to have company for the holidays.
On Christmas morning, Harry wakes up to a pile of presents. The twins Apparate into the room and advise them not to go downstairs; Percy sent back his Christmas sweater and hasn’t asked after their father since his attack. Lupin is comforting Molly. The kids eventually make their way downstairs, bumping into Hermione, who has made a quilt for Kreacher’s den (in a cupboard with the boiler). When they reach it, he’s nowhere to be found. Sirius hasn’t seen him since Harry and the Weasleys arrived, and Harry warns that Dobby left the Malfoy’s in his second year, so it’s not impossible. Sirius seems unnerved by that. The kids all head to the hospital to visit Arthur in a car that Mundungus stole. Arthur quickly get into trouble with Molly for letting one of the trainee Healers try Muggle medicine on him (specifically stitches, which don’t work).
The trio plus Ginny and walking up to the tea room when they get to the fourth floor (for Spell Damage) and come across Gilderoy Lockhart. He insists on giving them autographs and a Healer comes out of the ward and assumes that they have come to see him. They end up in a closed ward with permanent patients suffering from spell damage. As they’re begin handed autographs, Neville and his grandmother comes down the aisle–they’ve been visiting Neville’s parents. His gran realizes who the other children are, and is angry with Neville when she finds that none of them (save Harry, who can’t tell Neville he knew since he found out through Dumbledore’s Pensieve) know about what befell his parents. Alice Longbottom comes down the ward and hands Neville a gum wrapper. Neville’s gran tells him to bin it since he has so many from her. Harry is sure he sees Neville pocket it anyway. As they leave, Harry explains what happened to Neville’s parents in the first war against Voldemort.
….and as is predictable, Harry proceeds to go into full panic mode following last chapter’s revelation, thinking to run away, getting unhelpful instructions to stay put from Dumbledore (via Phineas, who’s naturally a jerk about it), falling into a sleep-of-death, and then avoiding everyone in remote parts of the Black household.
There’s a disturbing thread of violation here in the narration that you would normally associate with crimes like rape, particularly in how many times Harry thinks of himself as “dirty” or “unclean,” and it breaks my heart. It’s not surprising, certainly, as there’s a parallel in losing autonomy and control over your own body, and there’s a lot to be said about those particular allegories in science fiction and fantasy. In this case, I’d say it’s a useful way of examining those emotions without having to be quite so gruesome in your storytelling, and that it might be helpful for kids to consider these emotions in relation to trauma.
Hermione leaves her family for Christmas because her friends need her and also because skiing isn’t her thing. Hermione admitting that skiing kind of isn’t her thing is pretty much the best, and reminds me of the many summer vacations I spent trying to read while my mother screamed at me to please go to the beach and get sun and play in the water. You just can’t make people like Hermione enjoy skiing–they were never going to enjoy skiing.
One place where Ron tends to fall down in his BFF duties is his inability to just barge in on Harry and be all “talk about your feelings, dude,” which is why it’s great that Hermione comes back, better that she forces Harry out of hiding, and better-est that Ginny is also there in the room to give him a piece of her mind:
“I didn’t want anyone to talk to me,” said Harry, who was feeling more and more nettled.
“Well, that was stupid of you,” said Ginny angrily, “seeing as you don’t know anyone but me who’s been possessed by You-Know-Who, and I can tell you how it feels.”
Harry remained quite still as the impact of these words hit him. Then he wheeled around.
“I forgot,” he said.
“Lucky you,” said Ginny coolly.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said, and he meant it.
Aside from the fact that this passage is killer, I distinctly remember this being the point where I was suddenly and forever in awe of Ginny Weasley. On my first read of the series, it took time for me to really get how much punch that girl packed in her tiny frame, and this was the oh-shit moment. And that’s not even considering the other reasons why this passage is important from a purely feminist perspective; the way that fictional narratives tend to prioritize male pain over female pain, and Rowling just plows through it and goes ‘nuh-uh, you do not get to forget what Ginny Weasley has been through just because Harry is having a rough time right now. And neither does he.’ And that little addition after the apology, the acknowledgement that Harry means it, that he knows he was wrong to forget her trauma is SO DAMNED IMPORTANT. It’s a small thing that says so much.
And they’re all correct, of course. If Harry had bothered to talk to them, he could have worked through these terrible suspicions sooner, recognized that he wasn’t being possessed and couldn’t be held responsible for Arthur’s injuries. He is lucky to be surrounded by wonderful people who have the emotional intelligence to engage him when he needs it. Even Ron (who might have secretly worried that Harry was turning a bit evil because he tends to go Worst Case Scenario ahead of everyone) is worried for the right reasons, and is clearly hoping that Hermione can reach him.
The Christmas presents this year are particularly hilarious (aside from Percy! Obviously not Percy!) with Hermione’s terrible rhyming homework planners and Ron trying to get Hermione perfume that she clearly doesn’t like. (If it’s “interesting” it’s not good, of course.) Aw, Ron. Keep trying. Though I really get the sense that you’ll be just as clueless when you’re married and Hermione will be talking to your daughter like: “Oh Rose, your father got me such a nice pair of earrings, but they completely disappear behind my hair, and also I don’t have pierced ears–but he’s trying!”
Everyone goes to visit Arthur, which is where we find out that he’s let a junior Healer try Muggle stitches on him, and Molly’s predictably furious reaction and the scattering of her children is funny as all get out. But then, it’s sort of mitigated for me by the sadness of Remus deciding to visit the werewolf on Arthur’s ward since there’s no one there to see him for Christmas. (Which might be because the guy doesn’t have anyone, but could just as easily be due to the stigma of lycanthropy and the people in his life abandoning him.)
And then it’s the Gilderoy Lockhart Mid-book Special! But seriously, that’s what it should be called, and there should be a fold-out section with illustrations and a tear-out autographed picture. Several of them. I find it hilarious that the Healer from the ward insists that the kids are there to visit him, but then goes through the trouble of telling them that he used to be famous, thereby making it clear that she assumes they don’t really know him–she’s probably just glad that someone else will be occupying him for a few minutes, since you know he’s probably demanding her attention constantly. I do not envy her job.
Again the comedy of the moment is countered with ways that the holidays aren’t so kind to everyone; Neville and his grandmother are in the closed ward too, visiting his parents. Harry wants to spare Neville this encounter, which is thoughtful of him, but they come face to face with the pair anyway. And wow, I have a lot of things to say about Neville’s grandmother, and none of them are particularly friendly. First off, they clearly haven’t been there that long because the Healer is surprised that they’re leaving already, so it seems that Mrs. Longbottom doesn’t like to let them linger when they visit. Then she guilts Neville in front of his friends for not telling them all about his parents, claiming that he’s ashamed of them, and how the hell could you be that ignorant as a guardian and not understand that Neville is perfectly justified in not wanting to tell his fellow students about his tragic family background. His grandmother only cares about her personal emotions regarding her son and his wife, and thinks that Neville should reflect them exactly instead of managing the grief in his own way. Her manner is an intensely prideful way of handling loss that speaks to everything that can be crappy about the Gryffindor personality.
Neville’s mother wanders down the aisle to give him a gum wrapper (which is something that she clearly does all the time when they come to visit), and while we know that she’s not in her right mind, I can’t help but wonder if her desire to go to Neville comes from subconsciously recognizing the stress being placed on him in that moment. She clearly gives him these wrappers as a point of connection, which says enough in itself, and the fact that Neville keeps them in spite of his grandmother’s direction is so painful. And again showcases how she exerts her will over Neville’s need to connect with his parents in his own way. The part of this that stings the most for me is that I’m certain the main reason she’s so harsh on Neville is that she’s wishes he were more like his father, more “heroic,” and that fills me with a rage that makes me wants to break china. (I actually started typing particularly violently in these last couple paragraphs, I noticed.) Ugh. Sorry, I really do not like Neville’s grandmother at all. I like her less this time around.
Sirius finds Kreacher in the attic, though Harry isn’t sure that’s where he’s been the whole time since the house-elf seems brighter than usual. He decides not to mention it to Sirius, who is slipping quickly back into depression as the holiday comes to a close. Harry isn’t really looking forward to going back to school, as D.A. is really the only thing he has to be excited about. Then right before the end of holiday, he is called down to the kitchen to see Snape. Sirius insists on being present for the meeting as well, much to Snape’s chagrin, and the Potion’s Master informs Harry that he will be studying Occlumency with him weekly, to help prevent Voldemort from getting into his mind. As he’s leaving, Sirius tells Snape to be good to Harry or he’ll have to deal with him, leading Snape to call Sirius a coward, leading the two of them to nearly start dueling in the kitchen before the Weasley family (thankfully) shows up with a healed Arthur. Snape leaves, and they eat dinner, with Sirius’ mood worsening. Harry keeps wanting to tell Sirius to be safe before they leave, but he never gets the chance and feels uneasy about it. Sirius gives him a package containing something that will allow Harry to contact him from school if Snape is being a jerk.
The kids take the Knight Bus back to Hogwarts (and it’s a rough ride). Stan Shunpike enjoys staring at Harry most of the way, not caring if the papers claims he’s crazy because he’s famous. As they get off the bus, Lupin tells Harry that everyone wants him to work hard at Occlumency, even if Snape is terrible. He has to tell everyone that he’s taking Remedial Potions instead of Occlumency, which is awkward. Cho approaches Harry about the upcoming Hogsmeade trip on Valentine’s Day and it takes Harry a bit too long to realize that she’s hoping he’ll ask her to go with him. Once he does, she says yes. Later that day, he heads down to his first private lesson with Snape.
What Harry learns is that Occlumency is a type of magic meant to protect you against Legilimency, whereby another wizard can basically interpret your thoughts and emotions. Voldemort does this often to tell if people are lying to him, but you usually have to be staring into the eyes of the person who’s mind you’re invading. The assumption is that he can do this to Harry due to their strange connection. It was assumed that Voldemort did not know about this connection between them, but that he learned of it after that attack on Arthur. (Voldemort was possessing the snake that attacked him.) Before starting the lesson, Snape removes some memories and drops them into a Pensieve. Then he starts in on Harry, invading his mind and telling Harry to shove him off without giving any advice as to how. Harry doesn’t do well with this approach (surprise) and finds it very hard to divorce himself from his emotions, which Snape tells Harry is weakness.
One thing Harry does figure out is that the corridor he’s been dreaming about in all these vision is a place he passed by at the Ministry–the Department of Mysteries. That’s where Voldemort has been trying to break into. When he brings this up to Snape, the man is unimpressed and won’t tell him anything about it. He sends Harry away, telling him to return on Wednesday, practice in the meantime, and empty his mind of emotion before bed. Harry find Ron and Hermione in the library and tells them what he’s deduced. They realize that’s what Arthur was guarding, though they can’t figure out why Sturgis Podmore was trying to break in there if he was a member of the Order. They get back to the common room to find the twins premiering their Headless Hats. Harry decides to go up to bed and collapses upon reaching the room: he can tell that Voldemort is the happiest he’s been in years, that something wonderful happened for him. Ron pulls him out of it, telling him that his defenses might be weak right now from the lessons, but that it should help in the long run. Harry isn’t so sure.
Second set of clues that maybe Kreacher has gone and done something terrible, and this time it’s more unnerving because Harry points out that Kreacher could leave the house if he really, really wanted to. And there’s nothing to really distract us from that possibility. It’s not a good feeling.
The dramatic swing of Sirius’ moods put him squarely in the depression box, so much so that Harry is entirely cognizant of it at this point. Snape (unsurprisingly) contributes to Sirius’ feeling of worthlessness, calling him a coward (which is pretty much The Insult for your average Gryffindor, right?) and pressing buttons until they’re both raring to have a go at each other. And while it’s disheartening that it’s left to Harry to try and push them apart, I’m glad that Sirius insisted on being there for the conversation with Snape because it’s bullshit that Harry needed to have this talk with him alone. Sirius’ instincts as a guardian are in the right place–like the helpful defense books he and Remus got Harry for Christmas–they just keep getting waylaid by the situation he’s been forced into.
By the time they leave the house, Harry is thinking over and over that he wants to tell Sirius to stay safe, to not do anything rash, but he never gets the chance. My guess is that the impulse to say something is there to give Harry one more thing to feel guilty over in Sirius’ death, because I highly doubt that the plea would have reached Sirius by this point. He’s too far gone. He’s clearly only happy when he has other people to focus on, and he doesn’t have that frequently enough to make any difference. I mean, at this point he’s been cooped up in that house for about six months. He’s had to come to terms with the fact that he lives here now. In this house that he fled from. And he can never leave it.
We get a cute reprieve with a nauseating Knight Bus trip, and then the kids are back to the pressure cooker (also known as school). Oh, and Sirius gives Harry and special secret something to help keep in contact, which we’ll hear more about later. Harry has to tell people that he’s taking Remedial Potions because… I dunno, I’d have made something else up in his position. Then there’s the bit with Cho, and I’m just so pleased that Harry does not manage to smoothly ask someone out on the first go because it’s terrible for everyone, and he should know our pain.
Okay, look, it makes perfect sense for Harry to learn Occlumency, and even to learn it from Snape since the guy is real good at it and has fooled Voldemort for years. It’s a bit disturbing, given that this is the point where the Order/Dumbledore are clearly beginning to use Harry like a solider rather than a boy and student, but they have to, so I get it. What utterly baffles me here is the fact that these lessons are alone. Snape and Harry hate each other, and it’s not a mild, placid sort of hate. Snape takes great pleasure in belittling Harry, something Dumbledore knows quite well. Legilimency is incredibly invasive, and abusing it is all too easy. (Whatever you can say for Sirius’ temper toward Snape at Grimmauld Place, he’s completely right in being protective over Harry in this instance because he knows Snape is a vindictive S.O.B., and that he can’t be trusted to remain detached and professional.)
So… what about having McGonagall in the room with them? If this is so damned important, don’t you think it’s best for Harry to have a relatively not-damaging teaching experience here? Just someone to sit in and be like, hey, Snape, your grudge is not the topic of this lesson, get on with it. Someone who makes Harry feel safe enough to focus on the task at hand. Also, if Snape gets to put certain memories in the Pensieve to protect them from being seen by Harry, then Harry should get the same courtesy. There’s no reason that Snape should be allowed access to Harry’s most private thoughts for the sake of a lesson. Snape is afforded every protection in this, and Harry is offered none. And I don’t care if Voldemort has access to the same, you don’t teach someone by making them feel attacked on all sides. It’s a poor method–which is why Harry never learns Occlumency very well.
Moreover, Rowling has stated that one of the things that makes you good at Occlumency is being able to separate yourself from your emotions. (Hence, Draco ends up being pretty flipping good at it.) Snape is just screaming at Harry for not being able to do that… when what would really help instead would be to start these lessons by teaching Harry that he can attempt to divorce himself in such a way. I’m not saying he’d ever be great at it–he’s a Gryffindor for a reason–but he could have improved, as he has before in the series when given time and ample practice. So again, Snape is proven to be a terrible teacher. But then again, it’s not as though he was aiming to be a good teacher here. Because Severus Snape is selfish, childish, and superior in everything.
Super great note to end on! See everybody next week for the most awkward date ever.