The Harry Potter Reread wishes that masked balls were still a thing that people did with some frequency. It would be so fun to go to a masked ball once a year or so.
This week we’re going to have another interesting altercation with centaurs and make an ill-advised trip outside the school. It’s chapters 33 and 34—Fight and Flight and The Department of Mysteries.
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 33—Fight and Flight
Hermione leads Harry and Umbridge out of the school and into the forest. But Harry quickly becomes confused; she’s not leading them toward Grawp, as he suspects. Instead, she’s talking very loudly as she walks them further into the trees—and only Umbridge has a wand. Harry tries to voice his concerns and Hermione mutters back that she wants them heard. Her plan works and they find themselves surrounded by a herd of centaurs. Umbridge immediately calls them half-breeds and insists that they cannot harm her as a Ministry official; as beings that are considered “near-human” in their intelligence, they would be held accountable for their actions. The centaurs—surprisingly—do not take well to this and cart her off as she screams. Harry and Hermione are held by two more centaurs, and Hermione makes the mistake of telling them that she’d hoped that they would get Umbridge away. The centaurs decide to punish them as well for thinking that they could make the herd do their bidding.
Lucky for them, Grawp crashes through the forest at that moment. He is calling “Hagger” into the crowd, which Hermione realizes means Hagrid. He sees the two of them, and asks her where Hagrid is—but of course, Hermione can’t tell him. When he reaches for the two of them, the centaurs open fire, causing Grawp to scramble, the centaurs to retreat, and the giant to run after them in a rage. Harry is upset; they’re even further from rescuing Sirius than they were at the start of all this, and he doesn’t have his wand. Suddenly, Ron, Ginny, Neville, and Luna emerge; they fought off the Inquisitorial Squad once Harry and Hermione left with Umbridge, and followed them into the woods. They are trying to figure out how they might get to London when Luna suggests that they fly….
Harry doesn’t see how that will work as Ron’s the only one with a broom. Ginny protests that she has one, but Ron insists she can’t come. When she tries to fight him on it, Harry tries to tell her she’s too young, and she immediately points out that she’s older than Harry was when he went after the Philosopher’s Stone. Neville says that they all went into the D.A. together, to have a chance to fight. Harry isn’t pleased that these are the members of the D.A. that are here to join the fight, and points out their lack of transit still being an issue. But Luna points out the two thestrals that have showed up. Harry insists that he and Ron go ahead on the first two, and another argument breaks out. More thestrals show up in earnest—Harry and Hermione are covered in Grawp’s blood, which is drawing them. Harry has no choice but to let all five of their party join in.
So… that all happened.
This is one of those chapters where you sort of cover your eyes with your hands and then peek through for fingers for the duration. Everything is so very wrong, most of all Umbridge and all the words she says. Like using the term “half-breeds” for centaurs because unlike Hagrid—who shouldn’t be referred to in such a derogatory manner, but at least is the product of two different species—centaurs are not half and half of anything, they are their own species. Just because they look “half human” to dear Dolores doesn’t mean that they are. So that’s great.
Then there’s the issue of Ministry classification. We talked in the last book about these categories, and I mentioned that centaurs are in the “Beast” category rather than the “Being” one—but that was their own choice. The centaurs were offered “Being” status by the Ministry in 1811 when the current Minister of Magic decided that “any creature that has sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community and to bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws” should be granted that status. (For “laws of the magical community” read: “the human magical community.”) But centaurs resented the idea that they would be put in the same category as vampires and hags, so they declined. (So did merpeople.)
Yet, despite the decision to decline participation in the system, Umbridge makes it clear that the centaurs can be punished according to wizarding laws due to their intelligence. So centaurs are capable of being punished by laws they took no part in creating. Like, you know, when a dog bites a human, and it’s up to the state to decide whether or not that dog gets put down. And when you lump that in with the fact that the Ministry gets to decide what lands a herd has rights to, this is pretty much the grossest thing I’ve ever heard. I know that the centaurs react in a violent, frightening manner here, but I can hardly fault them given Umbridge’s threats and clear bid for superiority.
Hermione doesn’t fair much better for all that we know she isn’t the monster that Umbridge is. It occurs to me that maybe this is why we get that weird reaction from her in the earlier chapter about Firenze where she makes the comment about not liking horses. Perhaps Rowling was sort of planting the seed that Hermione wasn’t interested in centaurs to make up for her knowing so little about them when she comes face to face, since it’s rare for her to be so ill-informed. If she had known her stuff, she would have simply apologized for being in their forest and asked to leave immediately. Instead, she makes it clear that she was hoping that they would push Umbridge off, making the centaurs feel used.
Grawp’s entry here is heartbreaking, and it seems pretty likely to me that the impetus behind his breaking free of the ropes was hearing Hagrid being attacked the previous night. And then he gets shot full of arrows, to the point where Harry and Hermione are covered in his blood, and the narration makes a point of saying that Grawp just pulls out the arrowshafts and the heads are embedded in his skin as he runs off after the centaurs, and I’M REALLY UPSET NOW, I NEED A HUG.
We get our let’s-love-everybody moment when the rest of the crew just show up in the forest and are like “yeah, we pushed off the Slytherins with all those cool learnings we got this year at our D.A. meetings, no big deal, how are you guys.” And it occurs to me that most of the flak that Harry gets in this book for being an emo woobie pain in the butt is really all down to this section, where he fails to care about the accomplishments his friends have made all year and tries to go the lonely road like some terrible Green Day song. (I say that as a former emo woobie teenager who listened to her fair share of Green Day, so I know what I’m talking about here.) Most of Harry’s outbursts in this book are totally understandable. His extreme lack of confidence in his friends here is just disappointing. Particularly disheartening is the point where he thinks that if he could have members of the D.A. come fight with them, Ginny, Neville, and Luna would basically be his last picks. Boo.
But it makes no difference because Luna is too busy being a genius and suggesting that they ride on thestrals to the Ministry. So, take that emo!Harry.
Chapter 34—The Department of Mysteries
Harry, Neville, and Luna get on their thestrals, but Hermione, Ron and Ginny can’t see them, so Luna helps out. Once everyone’s got a mount, Harry asks his thestral to take them to the visitor’s entrance of the Ministry, and the group takes off in a rush. They hurry the crew to London and drop them off at the visitor’s entrance as asked. All six teens cram into the phone box at the entrance, and Harry tells the automated voice that they’re there to rescue someone. They get their badges and enter the Ministry. No one is at the security desk, so the kids get into the elevator and take it down to the Department of Mysteries. Harry suggests that a couple people stand guard, but Ginny points out that they couldn’t warn them if they needed to, so the whole group goes together.
They enter the first room, which is all black with a dozen handle-less doors. The room rotates to prevent them from knowing which door they came in from. It’s different from Harry’s dream. He decides they have to try doors until he sees the glittering room he remembers from it. The first room has a bunch of brains in a tank of green water, so they leave it. Hermione thinks to mark the doors that they try so they don’t get confused. The next room shows tiers of stone and benches descending down below, and at the bottom, a stone archway on a dais with a black curtain hanging from it. Harry clambers down and calls for Sirius, then edges around the archway, but there’s nothing, though he feels as though someone is standing behind it. Hermione calls him back, and she sounds scared even though Harry finds himself strangely drawn to the veil. He thinks he can hear people in it, and so does Luna. Hermione draws Harry away, reminding him of Sirius. She thinks the arch is dangerous, and the six leave the room.
The next door they try turns out to be locked. Hermione tries alohomora, but it doesn’t take. Harry uses Sirus’ knife, and the door melts the blade, so they leave the room be. The next door is the right one. The glittering in the room turns out to be clocks all over the place, and the bright light comes from a crystal bell jar. They keep moving through the room, and find that in the bell jar is a jewel-like egg that births a hummingbird, which then turns old and becomes an egg again in a never-ending cycle. They continue on through the door beyond it, and find the room full of glowing orbs that Harry saw in his dream. They move to row ninety-seven, and Harry insists that they have to go to the end of the row because they wouldn’t be able to see Sirius properly from the aisle. But they move down past shelves of the glowing orbs and Sirius is nowhere to be found.
But Ron finds an orb with Harry’s name affixed below it.
Hermione and Neville tell Harry not to touch it, but Harry insists that the orb has his name on it. He feels reckless and grabs it—nothing happens. But a few moments later, a voice tells Harry to hand the orb over.
This chapters starts perfectly, once Harry gets on his thestral:
Neville had heaved himself over the back of the next thestral and was now attempting to swing one short leg over the creature’s back. Luna was already in place, sitting sidesaddle and adjusting her robes as though she did this every day.
Luna is riding sidesaddle, and literally nothing else in this world matters.
They kick off and Harry thinks that the thestrals are the fastest thing he’s ever ridden, which means that they’re faster than his Firebolt. We see this frequently in the Potterverse, this idea that no matter how good wizarding innovation is, it still pails to “natural” forms of magic. Hence, this creature born to fly will always be faster than a broom. This runs along the lines of the lack of magical progress that we’ve discussed, and gives more fire to the theory that the wizarding world requires the ability to look outside itself for new ideas and solutions.
But how fast are they really going, though? It sound insane considering the fact that they are flying from Scotland all the way down to London. I mean, the drive from Glasgow to London alone would normally take over six hours if traffic isn’t terrible? And it’s suggested that Hogwarts is actually somewhere in the Highlands, I think, so that tacks on a couple more driving hours. You’re talking about a 500+ mile trip, so if they manage it in even three hours (and it sort of seems like it might be faster), you’re approaching 200 miles an hour—about 320 kilometers an hour for peoples who don’t use miles. And they’re in open air. I’m just gonna chalk this one up to “they’re magic kids, so they’re fine” because I’m pretty sure they’d freeze and blow off no matter what as a normal human. Someone lend me a math person to do some velocity calculations.
They get to the visitor’s entrance, and I’d forgotten that one of my favorite parts of series happens here, and I’m so pissed that this doesn’t make it into the movie because it’s the best possible kind of funny in the middle of all this suspense:
“Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger,” Harry said very quickly, “Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood… We’re here to save someone, unless your Ministry can do it first!”
“Thank you,” said the cool female voice. “Visitors, please take the badges and attach them to the front of your robes.”
Half a dozen badges slid out of the metal chute where returned coins usually appeared. Hermione scooped them up and handed them mutely to Harry over Ginny’s head; he glanced at the topmost one.
Here’s a question that I’m not sure is ever answered properly… does the Ministry have specified visiting hours? Is it past them? If it is, shouldn’t the automated voice know that? Harry thinks that everything must be very wrong indeed because there’s no guard at the front, but I get the impression that they arrived incredibly late, so I’m not sure if that’s actually wrong? It’s just weird.
They get to the Department of Mysteries, and it occurs to me that Rowling could probably do a whole awesome series on the “Unspeakables” who work there. Because the DoM is interesting and we see so little of it here, and I’d love to know more. I mean, The Unspeakables is already a delightful television show name, it writes itself, doesn’t it? Kind of like what Warehouse 13 was trying to be, but more like Potter, so better? (No offense to anyone who liked Warehouse 13.)
I’d forgotten enitrely that they go into the first room with the tank and the brains, which meant that when I read it this time, I gave a hearty snort and shouted IT’S A THINK TANK, I GET IT, THAT’S A GOOD ONE, to the zero people in the room.
In fact, I’d forgotten a lot about this finale, as evidenced by the fact that I completely forgot that they saw the veil room beforehand. It makes sense because the reader has to know that there’s something uneasy-making about the veil before its use, and there’s no time to do that once we see it later. And there’s a terrible foreshadowing of Harry immediately calling for Sirius after seeing the veil, which is just the most painful thing to read, in that how-do-i-reach-through-the-page-and-grab-everyone-by-the-collar-and-pull-them-out-of-there sort of way.
Harry is drawn to the veil, and so is Luna, who can both hear voices because of that “we’ve seen death” thing. But interestingly, both Neville and Ginny are mesmerized as well. Neville has also seen death (but he isn’t as keen to approach the veil it seems), but Ginny hasn’t, which means that maybe part of the allure could be bound up in dark magic, as we known Ginny has been touched by it. Only Hermione pegs that it’s dangerous, which makes me think that the dark magic angle on it is probably part of the draw to everyone but she and Ron.
They keep moving, and for all that Harry still wants to complain about the group he has, they work together incredibly well as a unit. We get that weird hummingbird-egg thing that Ginny almost gets caught by, and I find myself wishing that this part had been a bit more involved. It has all the hallmarks of Rowling’s earlier puzzle-y endings—the path to the Philosopher’s Stone, the maze at the end of the Triwizard Tournament—but it feels less thought-out, more of a means to an end. Obviously, we’re all on pins and needles to find out if Sirius truly is being tortured, but it feels as though their path to the prophecy room is too easy. The Department of Mysteries only feels like being slightly mysterious that night.
They get to the prophecy room, and it’s easy to forget how fraught this was the first time you read it, before you knew what all those orbs were. You were like okay, clearly these orbs are important, but I don’t know what it means, why this room, oh, why is Harry’s name on one, let me figure out what those initials are, oh no Harry, don’t pick it up, that’s bad, that’s very not—
—thaaat’s Lucius Malfoy. Crap.
And everything’s about to get ugly from here.