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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Guest Review: Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire by J.K. Rowling (reviewed by Achala Upendran)

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Every hero reaches a watershed moment in his development. Whether it was Achilles losing Patroclus in Homer’s Iliad, Frodo deciding to carry the Ring to Mordor or Arthur drawing out the Sword in the Stone, something happens that sets them on a journey that will result, ultimately, in their being celebrated and placed among their fellows in the halls of legend. For Harry Potter, that moment comes in his fourth year at Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is, thus far into the series, the most widespread of the books. It moves out of Hogwarts far more than its predecessors, with nearly one fifth of the book’s action taking place before Harry even reaches school. What looks like Harry’s dream summer rapidly devolves into a nightmarish adventure; a trip to the Quidditch World Cup final sees not just terrorist activity in the form of Muggle torture, but Voldemort’s mark appears for the first time in thirteen years. Once back at Hogwarts, the excitement shows no signs of abating. The Triwizard Tournament, a competition held between three wizarding schools, is set to take place here, and someone has entered Harry’s name as Champion for Hogwarts. The dangerous nature of the Tournament’s three tasks would seem to indicate that whoever did put him down did not do so entirely out of a desire to see him shine.

Meanwhile, dark things continue to take place outside the school walls. Harry’s dreams have also taken a curious turn, showing him glimpses of a large, sprawling house in a little village in the countryside, a house where a certain Dark Lord may just be residing, planning his (in inimitable Dark Lord style) return.

In Goblet of Fire, Rowling really works the concept of a ‘wizarding world’. We meet wizards from across the continent: students of France’s Beauxbatons, Slavic-appearing Durmstrang and are also treated to a brief cameo by the Bulgarian Minister for Magic. Granted, Rowling doesn’t step beyond Europe even in these jaunts (something I really wish she’d done, if only because it might have been interesting to see how other, predominantly ‘non-white’ cultures used magic and whether Latin is the universal language of spellcraft), but this is better than nothing.

However, it must be noted that the foreign wizards, to a great extent, remain stereotypically ‘French’ or Eastern European. The Beauxbatons students are represented by Fleur Delacour who is not only part-Veela (a sort of alluring, siren-like creature), but amazingly attractive as well as rather emotionally intense. Viktor Krum, the Durmstrang champion, is a silent, brooding presence, characterized by a slouching gait and surly expression. The movie version of the book capitalized on this sort of cultural stereotyping, turning the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang into single sex schools: for girls and boys respectively, thus hyping the ‘femininity’ of French culture and the aggressive masculinity that simplistic popular culture representations accord, more often than not, to the Baltic and Slavic states.

My quibbles with Rowling’s cultural representations aside, what is perhaps most compelling about Goblet as a story is the manner in which it weaves together the almost mythic nature of the contest being staged in Hogwarts and the political and social changes taking place outside of it. The outside world has never been more intrinsically involved in the school, its greatest representative being Rita Skeeter, a reporter for the wizarding newspaper, The Daily Prophet. Rita is a particularly repellent character, and functions as Rowling’s brilliant spoof of the tabloid journalist. Constantly poking around Hogwarts for scandalous scoops on Harry and his friends, Rita depicts the very real manner in which the media can and is used to shape political and personal opinion. She also succeeds in highlighting another aspect of the racial tensions that riddle the wizarding world. Not only are people discriminated against on the basis of their wizarding genealogy or lack thereof, but also whether and to what degree they harbour ‘non-human’ blood. Harry’s world certainly does have a lot of issues that are not visible at first glance.

Finally, Goblet marks a transition moment not only for Harry, but also for his best friends, particularly Ron. For the first time, we see serious fissures in the trio. Certainly Ron and Hermione have had fights and fall-outs earlier in the series, and even Harry has had occasion to be more than a little upset with her, but now we see him have a very serious disagreement with Ron. Until this point, Ron has functioned as a source of unquestioning support for Harry, ever faithful and strong at his side (Hermione has shown much more tendency to disapprove and think independently). Finally tired of being ‘second best’, Ron’s insecurity boils over, resulting in a break between the two. The intensity of their friendship is well evidenced in the complete bafflement and anger that Harry manifests at this point; Rowling even describes him as ‘hating’ Ron – a strong emotion that has never reared its head until this point, and certainly never during his spats with Hermione.

Of course, being teenagers, the two make up soon enough, but this break sets an important precedent in Ron’s character arc. Readers can no longer dismiss him as ‘Man Friday’, as naught more than a faithful sidekick. Honestly, which fourteen-year-old boy wouldn’t be jealous of his famous best friend? Rowling thus adds more than a dash of realism to her fantastic world, making her characters extremely relatable and explaining, perhaps, the books’ enduring popularity.

CONCLUSION: If Goblet marks the start of something new for Harry, it is also the beginning to something new for his creator. With this book, Rowling steps firmly into the epic fantasy terrain, no longer content to play in the kiddie pool of boarding school/mystery narrative. Her hero is more insecure, his friends less than fully supportive and the outside world no longer content to remain on the ‘outside’. It’s time for Harry to let go of childhood and take on more than his fair share. Dark Lords, after all, do not remain out of action for long.


GUEST REVIEWER INFO: Achala Upendran is a freelance editor and writer based in India. She blogs about fantasy literature, with a special focus on the Harry Potter series, at Where the Dog Star rages. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AchalaUpendran

Achala will be reviewing all of the seven Harry Potter books, so enjoy her thoughts as she brings a special focus on the series, characters and world that have enchanted so many of us.


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