We’ve slightly changed the way we go about creating these posts. You guys shouldn’t notice a difference but it’ll be easier for us behind the scenes. I’d like to say faster, but clearly we’re completely unreliable in that regard.
Let’s press on. No interesting picture this time, just a spoilery scribble of a car in a tree.
Chapter Five: The Whomping Willow
Harry doesn’t want the summer holidays to end, even though he’s looking forward to going back to school. I don’t know why he’s looking forward to going back to the place where people constantly gaslighted him and/or tried to kill him when he already has a houseful of people worshipping him right here. He even tells us the past month at the Burrow has been the best of his life.
Of course, this won’t come up again. For the rest of the series, Hogwarts will feel like home, he won’t ever want to leave, etc.
[In a better book I’d wonder if this was a belated admission that the previous year at Hogwarts wasn’t as good as Harry’d thought at the time, and that it only seemed so in contrast to his previous life. Or that returning to an abusive household for the summer overshadowed that to the point that escape felt new again, something like that. There could potentially be some interesting psychological dynamics to explore there, if only Harry were an actual character with some actual internal existence.]
He tells us it’s difficult not to feel jealous of Ron, having such a great family while he’s stuck with the Dursleys. (Being a caring friend, Harry hasn’t noticed the fact that Ron actually doesn’t have a great time at home – the twins pick on him, his older brothers overshadow him and make him feel inferior, and his parents mainly seem to ignore him.) Sadly, Harry manages to resist this temptation and doesn’t ever feel jealous of his lowly sidekick, because mutual jealousy might have provided an interesting dynamic and we can’t have that.
‘On their last evening, Mrs Weasley conjured up a sumptuous dinner which included all of Harry’s favourite things.’
I hope everyone likes the same things Harry likes. It’s not as if this is also her and Arthur’s last evening with all the children that still live at home, the last evening she will have any of her children at home with her until June, the start of the only time she’s been without any of her children in about twenty years. Clearly Harry is the only thing worth commemorating here and she doesn’t see a reason to make anyone else’s favourite food. Harry also tells us how much he loves treacle pudding, which will be harped on occasionally for the entire series – as a doomed attempt to give him any personality whatsoever, it works better when you don’t know it’s the only one.
[Strictly speaking, I guess it doesn’t say one way or another whether she made everyone else’s favourites, just specifically calls out Harry’s, so she could have done and Harry/narrator just didn’t notice or care to comment. But I don’t think that’s an obvious reading here, goes against some prior characterisation (like last book when Molly never remembers Ron hates corned beef) and raises questions about their finances. Then again, everything about the Weasleys raises questions about their finances.]
The treacle pudding thing raises an interesting question. How does he know? If we take his upbringing as it’s presented in the books, he’s unlikely to ever have had desserts (or a lot of other things; he should honestly be at least intolerant if not downright allergic to several food groups, maybe straight up malnourished). Did nobody at school think it was weird that he had to keep asking them what such-and-such a food was because he’d never tasted it before?
[In fairness, we’re expected to believe that the Dursleys made a point of eating nice things in front of him and denying them to him, so he might know what a lot of things are even if he hasn’t gotten to taste them. But that would’ve been some good characterisation to show at Hogwarts, as part of the culture shock – ‘There’s nobody here to stop me eating this! I wonder what it tastes like. Oh, wow, that’s good.’ or something like that. Though Loten’s point is still good that this is something people around him should have noticed, and regardless, you can’t really justify anything with this kind of explanation when none of it was on the page.]
Fred and George host an impromptu fireworks show after dinner. Indoors. This is about par for the course, they haven’t shown much in the way of intelligence so far. Though I have to ask how they lit the fireworks – in book four the Weasleys have never used matches before, and the twins aren’t allowed to do magic until they get back to school. Admittedly, they’ve been making unspecified exploding things in their room all summer, so either Molly doesn’t care about rules any more than the rest of her family, or she just gave up trying to enforce it (as the children of purebloods they’re not bound by the Trace, we’ll be told later in the series). I’m not going to add this to the spell count because we can’t be sure they used magic to do it.
Then they have some hot chocolate – in August – and go to bed because this really is an Enid Blyton story.
Everything mentioned above could have been cut, incidentally. In the next paragraph (what’s a scene break?) we jump to the next morning and everyone trying to get ready for the trip to catch the train, which would have been a perfectly acceptable way of starting the chapter.
You may find this post useful to refer back to throughout this entry, when we ranted at length about the stupidity of the train. I’ve tried not to repeat myself too much, but it’s difficult to avoid.
In a tired cliché straight out of hundreds of sitcoms, everyone is running around chaotically getting in one another’s way. Apparently in the two decades and seven children’s worth of doing this every year Molly has never worked out that it’s a good idea for everyone to pack everything a day or two beforehand. (Incidentally, in another few books Tonks will demonstrate it’s perfectly possible to pack by magic in a few seconds.) Arthur also apparently nearly breaks his neck tripping over a chicken while manually carrying trunks to the car, which has been magically enlarged inside to carry two adults, six children, six trunks, at least four brooms and two owls. He was bright enough to do that but not bright enough to levitate the luggage?
Why are they taking the car in the first place? We’ve already discussed how many alternative travel methods exist, and in fact in the previous chapter we saw that the Weasleys routinely travel en masse by Floo. They obviously don’t use the car for family outings, since Molly seems unaware that regular cars aren’t the size of the Tardis inside and seems not to have been in one before. I would imagine that King’s Cross would have a Floo access somewhere, but even if it doesn’t, Diagon Alley opens onto Charing Cross Road which is only a couple of miles away.
We thought of a few potential explanations – maybe you can’t take luggage with you through the Floo, or live owls. Maybe since the car seems fairly recent Arthur’s just desperate to show it off to his wife and has talked her into it. Maybe after the fiasco of last chapter they realised Harry can’t be trusted to use the Floo and have picked a safer mode of transport – Rowling hasn’t invented the Knight Bus yet but it’s not a stretch to assume they must have access to some form of public transport; maybe not, and this car is somehow their only alternative. Though Apparition has been mentioned by this point, and Side-Along multiple times is surely quicker and safer (though perhaps she hadn’t decided that was possible yet).
How do other pureblood families travel to the station? We’ll never know, of course. We don’t know how the Weasleys travelled last year, or how they’ll travel when Harry’s not with them. Harry himself doesn’t notice that it’s weird that his awesome wizard friends are suddenly playing Muggle, of course, because he seldom notices anything.
Anyway, eventually everyone piles into the car and they drive off. And then come back to pick up something someone forgot. Three times. Even though they’re running late and Molly can just post it to them later via magic owls. [Also, there are summoning spells, they’re kind of an important plot point in a later book. Though obviously she hadn’t thought of those yet either.]
I don’t know how they know they’re running late, either. How does Arthur know how long it takes to drive to London? Or which roads to take? He’s not been revealed as totally incompetent yet, so he could probably manage to read a map, but he wouldn’t know where to buy a road atlas.
They’re running late enough that Arthur suggests they fly the car. Molly refuses, even though Arthur beats us over the head with foreshadowing by pointing out a button that somehow activates an invisibility field (which Potterverse magic really can’t do) that would cover their takeoff before they fly the rest of the way above the clouds. Assuming it’s cloudy over the entire south of England on the first of September.
He claims the car can fly all the way to London in ten minutes. No. I will grudgingly accept that he got the car to fly. I will even grudgingly accept he somehow made a temporary invisibility shield. I do not believe he got the car to fly faster than the speed of sound. For reference, aeroplanes take about an hour to cover that distance (there is an airport in Devon, Exeter Airport, and there are flights to London once a day).
[Also, breaking the sound barrier is loud, and considering what a huge deal is made of the importance of staying undetected later you’d think that would be a problem. Of course if Arthur’s just bullshitting, we can brush that off as something he wouldn’t know to mention.]
Molly still refuses, clearly able to tell when her husband is lying, and they somehow get to King’s Cross at a quarter to eleven. It’s not clear exactly what time they left, but it’s around four hours by road in a modern car with no traffic around. In an overloaded old car at the end of the summer vacation it could easily be double that. They all scramble into the station and up to the barrier with five minutes to go (insert usual argument that you have to go through the Muggle ticket barrier to get to the platforms here) and Molly starts filtering her family through.
Why doesn’t Hogwarts have an official on duty here to make sure nobody gets noticed by the Muggles? Everyone’s going to be arriving at more or less the same time, and see previous rants about how incredibly noticeable that is even before they start walking into walls. In an ideal world the official would also be checking people off to make sure everyone’s arrived [or collecting those tickets the students are sometimes inexplicably issued], and explaining things to Muggleborn first years so they don’t have to derp around eavesdropping like Harry did last year, but I have very low expectations of the wizarding world.
You would think there would be some Muggle families hanging around the pillar too, having just sent their children through the wall they can’t follow through. Chances are at least a few of them won’t want to actually leave until the train has gone even though they can’t see it. Likewise there ought to be a few wizarding families who either don’t have time to watch the train leave or don’t care since they’ve already said goodbye to their kids, coming back through the other way. And I find it hard to believe nobody else is running late.
Nonetheless, the Weasleys are the only magical folk around, so what happens next will somehow have no non-Muggle witnesses. Molly sends Percy through, then Arthur and the twins, then takes Ginny through, conveniently leaving our protagonist and his sidekick until last. Even though this is not remotely in character and she would absolutely make sure all the kids went through before she did.
Harry and Ron charge at the pillar, which doesn’t let them through. They crash and dump their stuff all over the floor, attracting a hell of a lot of attention and upsetting Hedwig, who by now must be heartily sick of her human. (We never did find out when she made it to the Burrow.)
Why were the boys running? Molly told Harry in the first book you should do that if you’re nervous. You don’t actually need to. And the book makes a point of telling us that Harry’s perfectly okay with the magic wall because it’s less terrible than Floo powder. None of the others ran through the wall – which would draw a lot more attention than calmly walking through it.
They stand there and panic for a bit. Despite having been surrounded by a crowd drawn by Hedwig shrieking, including several guards who were annoyed at the disruption, suddenly everyone has disappeared and nobody tries to work out what the hell just happened. Then the clock strikes eleven, and the train leaves without them.
We know who’s actually locked the barrier here, so let’s talk a bit about what Dobby’s just done.
Firstly, of course, how on earth did he do it? We don’t know how this barrier works in the first place, which means a random house-elf isn’t likely to know either. Somehow we have a wall that is only a wall if you’re not magical. If you’re a witch or wizard it’s either the illusion of a wall, or more plausibly it’s a teleportation gate to wherever the Hogwarts Express actually is (see the post I linked earlier for a refresher on why the school train cannot possibly be occupying its own platform and own line in the middle of London). We’ll see shortly that the latter explanation isn’t true, though, because this world is nonsense. And whichever one it is, it’s set into a pillar, not on a flat wall. What’s on the other side? Do you have to walk through a certain face of the pillar, or will all four of them work? Who set it up in the first place and does anyone try to maintain it or just assume it’ll keep working forever? So many questions.
After some discussion, we decided not to add a point to the spell count for this. We gave him one for the levitating cake because that was either a wizard spell or close enough to one to trigger the Trace, but this is probably elf magic rather than wizard magic, since it seems to take a while for anyone to undo it (or they have to wait for him to undo it himself, we’re never told).
Anyway, how did Dobby do this? Presumably he can’t have actually broken or locked the barrier itself, since he couldn’t possibly know how and nobody ever mentions there having been a problem with it later. I suppose he must have just created an invisible wall in front of it to stop the boys reaching it. While keeping himself invisible somewhere in this very crowded station where nobody can knock into him. While stopping himself from freaking out, because I doubt he’s ever been anywhere in the Muggle world except Harry’s house before and now he’s in one of the busiest and most chaotically crowded places in Britain and we’ve already seen that he is mentally and emotionally unstable.
At least he could plausibly be away from home without his absence being noticed this time, since Lucius and Narcissa are presumably on the platform watching their son leave.
[Unless they brought Dobby with for some reason, maybe to make him carry the luggage or something? Lucius has Dobby inexplicably with him at the end of the book, to give Harry the opportunity to free him, maybe we’re expected to believe he just brings him everywhere. Though that raises other questions, obviously…] Questions like why he wasn’t at the bookstore when everyone was fighting, for a start.
What was his backup plan? What would he have done if Dumb and Dumber conveniently weren’t the last ones through? Obviously locking the whole family out wouldn’t have achieved anything, because the rest of them are a lot brighter than our heroes and would have got themselves to Hogwarts easily enough. If it comes to that, why did Dobby think this would work at all? He serves a family of very smart wizards, he worships the ground Harry walks on and he’s never met Ron. He had no way of knowing the boys were incredibly stupid. How was this supposed to stop them getting to school? At best it would have delayed them a bit, as it in fact did. What was the point?
Mitchell likes this scene on a technical level, at least. After the previous book and the first part of this scene, Rowling’s established an expectation of how the barrier works, so she can subvert it here by having it behave like an actual barrier. It’s a fair point, but of all the things to try and make interesting through subversion, a literal wall wouldn’t be my first choice.
Back with Harry and Ron, the boys are at a total loss. It’s relatively realistic, though I’d have expected a little more panic. Ron asks what will happen if Molly and Arthur can’t get back through to them, which I will charitably count as panic because if they can’t they will Apparate. [Though it’s worth pointing out that the books will never actually bother to say how getting back from the plaform works, if there’s a corresponding gateway somewhere or whatever.] Or if for some reason they can’t they will walk down the tracks for a few seconds to get out in the open and cross back into the Muggle station on foot. It’s not like they’re on a different continent.
Ron seems to think they could be stranded here forever, though, since he follows up by asking if Harry has any Muggle money. Seriously, what do you think you’re going to need money for?
‘Harry gave a hollow laugh. ‘The Dursleys haven’t given me pocket money for about six years.’ ‘
Harry has just turned twelve. He got pocket money from his ‘abusive’ guardians when he was five? Also, we note he is not confused by this question from Ron. Harry, you somehow got from London to Surrey on your own last book after Hagrid ditched you, you’ll be fine.
Ron asks what they’re going to do, he can’t hear anything through the wall and he doesn’t know how long it’ll take his parents to come back. So you stay and wait for them. You’re inside, you’re safe enough, there are toilets and a café and they know where you are.
Harry suggests going to wait by the car so they won’t attract any more attention, because Hedwig is still screaming. Maybe look at her to find out why she’s screaming, in case she got hurt, or at least talk to her to calm her down, since post owls are super-intelligent. Or just keep ignoring her, that’s fine too. Despite him being a terrible person who shouldn’t have pets, waiting by the car is also a valid and not completely stupid suggestion, though not as smart as just staying where they are would be.
I like to think Hedwig’s screeching is translating to, ‘How stupid are you? I’m right here yelling and flapping my wings. Pay attention. Give me a note to take to someone. I can fly over the freaking station to the platform. Hello? Earth to idiot?’
I’m sure everyone saw the inevitable plan coming on their first readthrough, though, right? Ron remembers the car and suggests they fly it to Scotland. This is not a valid and not-stupid suggestion. Hedwig gives up in frustration.
‘We’re stuck, right? And we’ve got to get to school, haven’t we? And even underage wizards are allowed to use magic if it’s a real emergency, section nineteen or something of the Restriction of Thingy …’
You have just mentioned – twice – that your parents will be trying to get back through. Along with a hundred or so other parents, incidentally. (Why has nobody broken whatever Dobby did yet? At this point we don’t know that house elf magic is super-special deus-ex-machina magic.) All you have to do is wait. Naturally, Harry thinks this is a fantastic idea, though.
I am aware that them waiting for someone to fix it is far less dramatic than them stealing an illegally modified flying car and zipping off across the country. But if we had actual intelligent characters, they could talk things through (and then an adult could take them directly to the train and they could meet up with some of the others) and could realise that something suspicious is going on, this isn’t an accident. That would change the tone of much of the rest of the book for the better, in my opinion, which is surely worth cutting out some of the stupidest scenes.
Though I’m not going to argue too much, because this stupidity does directly lead to one of my favourite moments in the entire series, as we’ll see shortly.
‘And they marched off through the crowd of curious Muggles, out of the station and back into the side road where the old Ford Anglia was parked’.
Wait wait wait wait wait.
If this link works, this is King’s Cross Station as shown on Google Maps. If the link doesn’t work, try looking it up yourself, because I really cannot make this point emphatically enough. I’m also attempting a screenshot here which will hopefully not be too squashed.
You really cannot park anywhere in Central London that is not in a designated car park unless you have a resident’s permit. And this particular area of London is pretty much a shopping centre. And there is no need for this anyway because King’s Cross has a large car park that it shares with the neighbouring St Pancras station.
I will grudgingly admit that there were probably fewer stores and such back in 1992. But the buildings were all still there. I assume they were maybe offices or something.
[It does amuse me that Platform 9 3/4 is now apparently on Google Maps. Presumably this is the prop-landmark-thing for people to visit, but even so.] Yeah, there’s a tiny little gift shop there as well. Good job the wizarding secrecy obsession never had to compete with Google Earth…
Arthur could have used magic to hide the car, I suppose, but surely he would have got into trouble for repelling that many Muggles so nobody walked into it or drove into it. I’m reluctant to provide a handwave for this because it’s stupid and Rowling may be the only British-born, British-raised author whose works are in dire need of Britpicking.
[If I wanted to be charitable, I’d probably guess that her mental image of “train station” was set by smaller village ones or something. I’ve definitely been to small town train stations where you can get right up to the platforms without tickets because they collect them on the train after it’s already moving, there are side streets to park on, etc. She just happened to pick a supermassive one in central London that doesn’t work like that and couldn’t be bothered to check.]
Moving on, we abandon logic, reason and the law entirely as Ron casually draws his wand and uses magic twice, once to unlock the car and once to start it. (What spell do you even use to start a car engine anyway, and why does Ron know it?) It took the Ministry maybe twenty minutes to get an owl to Harry scolding him earlier this book, but naturally they’ll never catch up to our heroes here.
Current spell count: Ron, 2. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
I’m ignoring him telling Harry to make sure nobody’s watching and Harry reporting that their entire street is empty. I think I’ve made my point.
Ron presses a magic button on the dashboard and the car vanishes. They take off, somehow failing to hit any of the many, many very tall towering buildings in the middle of London. The car reappears because oh no! the implausible invisibility button doesn’t work properly! isn’t this dramatic?
Can you tell this scene annoys me? I’m trying to remind myself it’s meant to be easy to imagine and visually appealing for younger readers. It does not have to make sense. And if there were a narrative reason for the whole car trip, I’d be a lot more forgiving, but there really isn’t. It doesn’t add anything that we really need to know – we’ll learn more about the tree later in the series, and the car reappearing later is mildly amusing but really not important. This entire chapter exists because Rowling thought a single image was cool and needed to justify it. In my opinion, it’s not worth it, though I suspect most of the fandom will rabidly disagree because flying car!
[I’m also wondering if this is another ‘let’s put a magical twist on a trope’ thing, though I can’t actually remember how many stories aimed at children have characters stealing their parents’ car keys to go joyriding or something. I know I’ve run across it in places but I don’t think it’s as common as, say, going to boarding school by train. And it’s probably not in a lot of those same stories because, as far as I know, Blyton et al predate family cars being a universal thing…]
Apart from anything else, if Arthur’s good enough to make the thing fly in the first place I’m sure he’s good enough to make the invisibility thing work properly.
The boys fly up into the clouds, where they can’t see anything. Including skyscrapers and aeroplanes. I know I’ve mentioned that there are six international airports and a bunch of smaller airfields in and around London. They dip back down long enough to see the train, and Ron makes a point of checking the compass on the dashboard (I don’t think a classic car has enough space on the dashboard for all these extra gadgets) and tells us that the train is heading north. Ron, if you need a compass to figure out that a train going from London to Scotland is going north, you are beyond help. He says they need to check on it every half an hour or so. Given that the car apparently flies at sonic speeds, I don’t think that will help, since if Arthur’s right they’ll be in Scotland in half an hour.
[I want to know how they found the train at all. I know we’ve emphasised this before, but I cannot keep myself from ranting about the weird geometry here so I’m going to do so again. I honestly think Platform 9 3/4 and its subsequent issues have to be so non-Euclidean as to put Lovecraft to shame. There are a few distinct possibilities for how the gateway works, but none of them make the slightest bit of sense. Is the train platform like Diagon Alley or Grimmauld Place, where it’s physically there but Muggles just can’t see it? Then how do they not stumble in, and/or why did they not try to build other parts of the station over it? How does an undetectable part of the train station (and tracks) not play havoc with the scheduling and/or lead to collisions? How far away would it be undetectable from, and how do those spells interact with seeing it from aerial view – if the boys can see it, why can’t Muggles in planes? If it’s instead a teleportation gateway to someplace else, how are the boys able to find the train and follow it, since it wouldn’t actually be leaving from King’s Cross at all? If it’s some kind of weird pocket dimension, how does that then transition to actual reality such that the boys can find the train from outside of it, and the train somehow ends up on a physical track in this world? And so on, and so forth. Can you tell this really bothers me? I know it probably feels nitpicky but this makes absolutely no sense and I don’t get the impression Rowling either noticed or cared.]
They then proceed to fly up above the cloud layer and travel at that altitude. There is some lovely description here, in fairness, but if they’re flying this high they are going to die from lack of oxygen. It’s also apparently really hot, which is not how that works.
Ron does mention they need to watch for aeroplanes. I’m not sure how he knows that, but it sends him and Harry into hysterics.
‘This, thought Harry, was surely the only way to travel: past swirls and turrets of snowy cloud, in a car full of hot, bright sunlight, with a fat pack of toffees in the glove compartment, and the prospect of seeing Fred and George’s jealous faces when they landed smoothly and spectacularly on the sweeping lawn in front of Hogwarts castle.’
At least the book is very briefly honest about why the boys are doing this. That won’t last.
Several hours later, Harry’s getting bored, the poor baby. Nothing’s happening. They’re really thirsty and don’t have anything to drink, and they’re both sweating buckets because it’s still implausibly hot. If they were still in the clouds it would be relatively warm compared to the open air above, though not excessively so, but the sky temperature is literally just above freezing. They should also be dealing with high winds, increased UV radiation, and the lack of oxygen I mentioned earlier. Also if the humans are really so hot and dehydrated, Scabbers and Hedwig have likely been dead for hours, since they’re much less able to cope and have a much smaller store of water.
I’m giving serious consideration to starting a death count to go with our spell count. Would anyone like me to track the times characters really ought to have died but somehow didn’t?
A few hours past that, they dip down to check on the train again – from the sound of it, they’re almost there, since there are mountains around, and the sun is setting. As they climb upwards once more, the engine starts making a whining noise. Of course it has to conveniently start to break down with just enough time to get them to their destination, that’s absolutely how cars work. Why is it breaking down anyway? It’s not as if the engine is doing anything right now – however this car flies, it’s not using any sort of machinery. (Good job the car somehow isn’t using fuel any more and that Ron somehow knew that.)
Luckily, they spot the castle at this point and can start to descend. The car is shuddering and wobbling, there’s steam (or smoke) coming from under the bonnet and the engine is making groaning noises, before finally it cuts out completely.
I’m no expert on cars but this sounds pretty similar to what happened when my first car blew a gasket and the complete moron working for the breakdown company told me it was a much less serious problem and that the car was absolutely fine to drive home. Spoiler, it was not fine to drive home. The entire engine burnt out, almost catching fire in the process before I found somewhere to stop safely, and it cost honestly more than the car was worth to sort out.
The thing is, as we’ve already discussed, the car is not being powered by the engine. There’s no reason for the engine to even be on. It’s running on magic and there’s really no scenario where this can happen. [I guess if Arthur (or whoever actually modified it if not him) did a slipshod job and just had the engine keep running uselessly while the car flew, this could be the result? Presumably overheating large chunks of rotating metal are still dangerous even if they’re not doing anything to benefit the car…]
Anyway, Ron manages to avoid crashing them into a wall and they fly dramatically around over the greenhouses and lawns as they gradually go lower. For the car to have enough forward momentum to keep them in the air for the page or so of dramatic descriptions, they’ve been flying at the speed of sound again, so how did it take them so long to get here? What would actually happen is that they would drop very sharply and it would take only a few seconds to get to ground level, crushing them both in the process.
If I do go ahead with a death counter it’s going to rack up quite a few notches here.
Ron panics, lets go of the steering wheel, draws his wand and starts yelling ‘Stop!’ while vaguely hitting bits of the car with it. Astonishingly, this does not work. Though we’re about to see that this car is semi-sentient, so it ought to stop of its own accord and negotiate its own landing. (Why isn’t he using the brakes?) Harry realises that not steering the crashing car is probably bad, too late, and they slam into the trunk of a tree and drop to the ground.
The description here isn’t bad, honestly. It’s just such a stupid scene that describing it well doesn’t help.
And we’re back to fun with head injuries! Harry now has a ‘golf-ball-sized lump‘ on his head from hitting the windscreen. If he hit the windscreen, he was not wearing a seat belt, and in fact what happened is that he went straight through the windscreen and is now lying in a mangled heap. (This car is almost certainly too old to have airbags.) Also, my, that lump has come up very quickly, unless he blacked out for a while and the book just didn’t mention it.
[I’d completely forgotten the golf-ball-sized lump was in here until we got there. This reminded me I have a story about this (I’d actually forgotten until this scene jogged my memory). When I was in the first grade, I guess I’d have been six years old, I ended up having a mishap in gym class at school and collided head-on with another boy, forehead to forehead, during what was supposed to be a running exercise (he was going the wrong way for some reason). He was twice my size so you can imagine what happened – he didn’t move much, while I rebounded off and went flying then hit my head again on the ground. I was unconscious before even hitting the ground and came to with, to make this relevant, a golf-ball sized lump on my head, as everyone described it (I definitely remember the one in front, but there might have been an equally sized one on the back of my head also). Thankfully I wasn’t as badly hurt as I could have been, nothing was fractured or anything and clearly my brain still works, but it was not a minor injury and it was taken very seriously. It took quite a while to go down, too; I don’t really remember how long but it must have been weeks. Point being, this really isn’t the kind of injury you can just throw in for narrative colour; Harry should be concussed and at risk of losing consciousness here if he didn’t already, and adults who see him like this should be frantic to get him medical attention.]
Harry being permanently concussed might explain a few things, honestly. Death counter is up to three in this chapter alone.
We’ll find out later that Ron is injured as well, but at the moment he’s more preoccupied with his wand, which has snapped almost in half. I find this unlikely – surely he would have dropped it at the moment of impact, and it’s light enough to bounce around; it’s also quite difficult to break a thin stick almost but not quite in two so part is just barely hanging on. But this is actually a semi-decent plot point later, albeit a slightly too convenient one, so it gets a pass for now.
Then the tree they’ve just hit starts attacking them.
‘Ron gasped, staring through the windscreen, and Harry looked around just in time to see a branch as thick as a python smash into it. The tree they had hit was attacking them. Its trunk was bent almost double, and its gnarled boughs were pummelling every inch of the car it could reach.’
This is a little ridiculous, but it’s the good kind of ridiculous. It’s a magic school, of course it has sentient trees. And a car has just crashed into it, so of course it’s upset enough to start smacking them around a bit. The many problems with the tree will not be apparent for some time yet. I’m quite disappointed that something as neat as a fighting tree only gets a couple of paragraphs of screentime.
Though ‘a branch as thick as a python‘ is a really weird phrase. I know Rowling’s trying to use as many snake-based analogies as she can cram in, because FORESHADOWING, but this one really doesn’t make sense. You don’t use snakes to measure width. Because snakes aren’t very wide. Also what species of python, and has it fed or not? This tells us nothing whatsoever about the size of this branch.
The tree is really smashing the hell out of this car, incidentally, meaning that what happens next should not be possible for even more reasons than the obvious one. The car decides to come to life. It starts its own engine, reverses away from the tree, unlocks its doors, physically kicks both boys out, throws their luggage out after them, and drives itself off into the Forbidden Forest.
I want to criticise this, because it’s obviously just insane and utterly impossible, but I also find it pretty funny. These boys are so annoyingly stupid that machines develop sentience just to get away from them. [Honestly, I like this bit a lot too, from the pugilistic tree to the car fleeing in disgust. It’s utterly absurd and kind of stupid, but in a way that’s fun; this is the sort of thing I’d expect to see more of from a silly children’s series about magic.]
Hedwig’s also had enough of this.
‘Hedwig’s cage flew through the air and burst open; she rose out of it with a loud, angry screech and sped off towards the castle without a backwards look.’
My new headcanon is that Hedwig actually hates Harry and is forced to be his pet because that’s just how magic owls work. I’m going to be interested to see how they interact for the rest of the series, because so far he’s shown himself to be a terrible owner and she has suffered from being around him.
Our heroes stand and pout for a moment before deciding they should get inside before anything else goes wrong.
‘It wasn’t at all the triumphant arrival they had pictured. Stiff, cold and bruised, they seized the ends of their trunks and began dragging them up the grassy slope, towards the great oak front doors.’
Doesn’t your heart just bleed for them? I’m surprised the book is still being upfront about the fact that they were doing this for attention and that it was a really dumb thing to do.
Once they reach the building they can hear that the feast has already started. They were keeping pace with the train the entire time, and the crash only took a couple of minutes, but somehow everyone had time to get to the castle and start the Sorting before they could walk across a lawn? They really must have blacked out from head injuries. Nice of the willow to wait until they came around before smacking the hell out of them.
They peer through a window to watch the end of the Sorting. Somehow. I don’t think the Great Hall even has windows, but once again, this is a castle. It’s certainly not going to have easily accessible windows at such a low height. [Are they watching through arrow slits or something? But even then, those generally wouldn’t be in your banquet halls, I don’t think they generally put that kind of room right next to the exterior walls…] They’d be a few floors up anyway. Harry provides a paragraph of exposition about the Sorting for the benefit of anyone who slept through the last book; needless to say, it’s almost entirely Slytherin-bashing. Then he looks at the staff table and notices that Snape is missing (I’m surprised he didn’t look for Draco first) and tells us that Snape is ‘cruel, sarcastic and disliked by everybody except the students from his own house‘.
So actually one in four people like him just fine. [And, at that, it’s the quarter of the student body who interact with him the most.] Also, please explain to the audience what he did last book that was so cruel? He took less than half a dozen house points, called a couple of the kids stupid, and saved Harry’s life. This seems rather less cruel than, for example, trying to kill them, sending them into a forest full of monsters for the crime of being attacked by something, or planting dangerously addictive magical objects in their path.
Harry and Ron discuss why Snape isn’t there:
‘Maybe he’s ill!’ said Ron hopefully.
‘Maybe he’s left,’ said Harry, ‘because he missed out on the Defence Against the Dark Arts job again!’
‘Or he might have been sacked!’ said Ron enthusiastically. ‘I mean, everyone hates him –’
‘Or maybe,’ said a very cold voice right behind them, ‘he’s waiting to hear why you two didn’t arrive on the school train.’
Oh, Severus, you magnificent bastard. This is one of the best moments in the whole series. I will never, ever forgive anyone involved in the films for not including this scene. I’m inclined to overlook a lot of the stupidity I’ve been ranting about purely because it led to this. It’s just beautiful.
He leads the boys to his office and points out that they clearly just wanted to make a dramatic entrance: they deny this but the book’s already confirmed it multiple times. Snape then freaks them both out by asking what they’ve done with the car (more heavy-handed foreshadowing as Harry reminds us everyone says Snape can read minds!) before demonstrating how he knows by holding up the evening edition of the Daily Prophet. The headline reads ‘FLYING FORD ANGLIA MYSTIFIES MUGGLES‘.
This is the first we’ve heard of the Prophet having multiple editions per day, and it will be the last. How on earth did the paper get hold of this story, and so quickly? Assuming that half a dozen unrelated Muggles did all report seeing a flying car, the police wouldn’t take it remotely seriously and would be unlikely to even bother recording it, let alone investigate it. It would be dismissed as a hoax, and this is before the golden age of social media; it would take days if not weeks for it to reach even the odd conspiracy-theory magazines, and I doubt the mainstream news would ever cover it at all. So how did the wizarding news pick it up? (Also how is everyone so sure it was a Ford Anglia? They’re not especially distinctive cars. How low were the boys flying?)
It’s possible Snape was sufficiently bored enough to create a fake newspaper just to screw with the boys, I suppose. There’s never any official repercussions from this, nobody outside Hogwarts gives a damn. And one of the statements says they were sighted in Norfolk, which is quite a way east of the route they ought to have taken. I don’t think he needed to bother, and I imagine that he’s been busy sorting things out for all his new and returning students, but there aren’t many reasonable explanations. [I’ll admit I sort of prefer this interpretation; if he’s accurately identified their attention-seeking behaviour, getting precisely the wrong sort of attention could be quite a good punishment.]
He points out, accurately, that this makes Arthur look really bad. A guy working for the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts office, and his son breaks a dozen laws with an illegal car. We’re not told how Ron reacts but it’s apparently the first time this has occurred to Harry, who feels bad about it for maybe a second or two.
Snape adds that they damaged a ‘very valuable Whomping Willow‘. This is true, but also demonstrates how good he is at acting, because as we’ll learn in the next book he would likely be perfectly happy to see the tree burned. Pointing out that they’re not his students, he leaves them to panic and goes to fetch other teachers – reading between the lines, it seems likely he’s already well aware that they’re not actually going to be punished. (I’ve seen fan theories that letting him scare the shit out of them is intended to be a punishment in itself. Nice thought, but I doubt it.)
‘If Snape had gone to fetch Professor McGonagall, head of Gryffindor house, they were hardly any better off. She might be fairer than Snape, but she was still extremely strict.’
Hahahahahaha McGonagall is fairer than Snape hahahahahaha good one Harry.
‘She raised her wand the moment she entered. Harry and Ron both flinched.’
They are literally frightened that she’s going to attack them. How the hell do they hate Snape and love her? They weren’t worried about him using violence!
Let’s pause for a moment to discuss Harry’s characterisation. He’s feeling physically sick at this point and assumes they’re going to be expelled. He’s just flinched in the expectation of physical (magical) punishment. He’s now worried about Arthur getting into legal trouble. In the previous book he assumed he was going to be whipped for flying without permission. Given all this, there is no scenario anywhere where he would go along with the ‘stealing the illegal car’ plan. Once again we have two Harrys – the abused child worrying about consequences, and the stupid arrogant showoff who never thinks before he acts. They’re both valid and plausible characters, but they cannot both exist within the same person.
Anyway, McGonagall just wanted to light the fire unnecessarily dramatically before telling them to explain.
Current spell count: Ron, 2. McGonagall, 1. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
McGonagall doesn’t seem remotely surprised by the story. And we’re never going to hear anything about anyone investigating what was happening with the barrier. Nobody seems at all concerned that someone locked it. It’s quite possible they think the boys are lying to justify their dumb stunt, but that just makes the lack of punishment even worse.
Once they’re done, the first thing McGonagall says is to ask Harry why, since he owns an owl, he didn’t send a message to Hogwarts. Harry gapes at her and stammers that he didn’t think of it. In the distance, presumably Hedwig is quietly banging her head against the wall of the Owlery.
Dumbledore shows up to join the party and makes them repeat their explanation. There’s really no reason for him to be in this scene except to guilt-trip Harry, who will as usual get over it extremely quickly anyway; all he does is say they’re not going to be expelled.
Snape points out that they’ve broken several laws and committed vandalism. We’re told he looks as though Christmas has been cancelled, but he doesn’t sound angry or even particularly disappointed. It’s also a weird phrase to use, since we saw last book that Harry doesn’t care about Christmas and it’s unlikely Snape does either. [In fairness, I think it’s an expression that people do sometimes use, though I admit it’s a weird choice here. Then again, it’s very children’s book really – ‘I need an expression for someone being really upset! What’s the worst thing a child can imagine happening? Let’s say it’s like that.’.] Dumbledore says it’s McGonagall’s problem and leaves with Snape.
It shouldn’t be McGonagall’s decision at all, of course. This isn’t a school matter, it’s a Ministry matter, and Dumbledore is technically in loco parentis as the headmaster and would have to deal with the legal fallout. Even if we were only dealing with school rules, it’s the headmaster’s decision whether or not to expel or otherwise punish students, not the head of house. Why is Dumbledore here? Why is he in the bloody school at all when he refuses any and all responsibility associated with his job?
McGonagall tells us that Ron is bleeding, and he wipes blood from above his eye. I don’t know exactly how much time has passed since the crash, but I’d guess a good hour by this point. If he’s still bleeding from the head, that’s really serious. Harry too is visibly wounded, as we’ve discussed earlier. Yet all McGonagall does is tell Ron to go to the hospital wing, and when he says he’s fine she lets it drop because she really does not care about her students’ wellbeing at all and why on earth is she so popular. There’s a good chance one or both of them has a concussion, and a fairly decent chance that one or both of them won’t wake up in the morning if they don’t get medical treatment. [The tone here makes ‘being sent to the hospital wing’ sound like a form of punishment they managed to get out of, which is just an utterly fantastic lesson to teach children. No. Do not do this thing, authors. Even if children might realistically think that – because they’re children and don’t know better – don’t have the adult characters in your narrative endorse that idea.]
We’re told that Ginny got sorted into Gryffindor, as if there was ever any chance of anything else and as if anyone cares given that she’s not a character at this point and her only contribution thus far has been to squeak when Harry’s onscreen.
Harry’s already over his fear of punishment, having realised nothing’s going to happen and there will be no consequences, and interrupts McGonagall to tell her that since they weren’t in school when all this happened they shouldn’t lose any house points. Naturally, instead of rebuking him, she attempts to hide a smile and says of course they won’t but they’ll both get one token detention. (This one won’t even involve monsters.)
Then she conjures food for them, in defiance of explicit magical rules we’ll be told about in later books, and tells them to eat and then go to bed. Before walking off and leaving them, unsupervised, in Snape’s office. I bet he’s thrilled.
Current spell count: Ron, 2. McGonagall, 2. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
The boys have a brief conversation, but there’s nothing important in it. It’s bad luck they got spotted when nobody ever saw Fred and George illegally joyriding around, they don’t know why they couldn’t get through the barrier, they should be careful from now on (hahahahahahahaha) and it’s not fair that McGonagall wouldn’t let them go and join everyone publicly in the Great Hall.
They get to Gryffindor Tower and don’t know the new password to get in. Hermione’s been waiting for them, because she inexplicably seems to care about them even though they clearly don’t give a shit about her. This is driven home when she asks what happened, where were they, there have been all sorts of crazy rumours about them being expelled for crashing a flying car. Harry tells her they weren’t expelled, she asks if the flying car thing is true and Ron tells her to shut the fuck up.
‘Skip the lecture,’ said Ron impatiently, ‘and tell us the new password.’
They then ignore her completely for the rest of the chapter, because as soon as they get into the common room the entire house is there cheering and applauding and it’s utterly obnoxious. Hermione’s just told us nobody really knows what happened, but apparently everyone does know. How? It was dark outside and the Willow isn’t close to the building. More to the point, why do they all care? I can see some kids being impressed, but it’s literally the whole of Gryffindor (except Hermione and Percy). Complete strangers Harry doesn’t even know the name of are congratulating them and patting them on the back. It’s so, so stupid.
Spotting that Percy doesn’t look pleased, Harry decides he wants to tell them off because he’s mean and he and Ron run away to their dormitory, where the other second years congratulate them again (Neville really ought to be on the tree’s side). It’s more likely that Percy’s actually concerned that his little brother is visibly bleeding from the head, though nobody else notices or cares about this.
The chapter ends with Ron and Harry going to bed grinning and enjoying themselves. Ugh.
We’ve got a fair bit to talk about here. Namely, that 90% of this chapter just should not exist. This entire chapter has been written solely to justify Rowling writing about the boys stealing the flying car; the thing is, we saw them stealing the flying car two chapters ago. She could have expanded that if she wanted to describe it so badly. We didn’t need it to be repeated. And her justification just straight up does not work. This could not have happened.
Even as inconsistently written as they are, Harry and Ron would not have gone through with this plan. The leap from ‘huh, we can’t get to the train’ to ‘we must clearly get ourselves to school by any means necessary in the next few hours or else’ is just too big. They would certainly have thought of it, and then they would have realised that it’s a stupid idea and far too risky and the consequences would be far too severe. Being late for school is not a life-and-death emergency that justifies illegally using magic, and they should both know this.
The timing doesn’t work either. Molly and Arthur would have realised something was wrong. It is just about possible that nobody realised Harry and Ron weren’t there – everyone’s in a rush and we know the platform is chaotic and crowded. The other children would have each assumed they were with someone else when they can’t find them on the train. Hermione would have assumed they were avoiding her, since that’s pretty much par for the course. Since nobody takes any kind of register at the other end, and Hagrid would be busy with the new first years, it might not be until arriving at the castle that anyone knew for sure that they were missing. But this is pretty unlikely, and even if it were the case, Molly and Arthur would be leaving the platform only a minute or two later, since they got there less than five minutes before the train left. Even if the barrier was still locked, they’d realise there was a problem and get to the main station by some other means. They would either see Harry and Ron still discussing what to do or see them walking away; they have a screaming owl with them, they’re pretty conspicuous.
Even if we dismiss that and follow the book, Molly and Arthur would reach the place where the car was and see that it’s gone. It’s obvious at that point that the boys probably took it. Their immediate first action is going to be to contact Hogwarts. The school has easily seven or eight hours of warning that Harry and Ron are missing and probably doing something illegal and very visible. Wizards can fly. Someone would have intercepted them. It simply doesn’t make sense for everyone to completely ignore it and just wait to see if they make it to Scotland alive.
I can believe that Hogwarts would ignore regular students, but Harry is (inexplicably) important. It’s not completely out of the question that someone kidnapped him, and even assuming that he did steal the car of his own accord, they would still want to make sure he survives the experience.
And then there’s the glaring problem of why this is a school issue. The Ministry does nothing. There is no fallout whatsoever. Arthur never gets into trouble for the completely illegal car and the boys never get into trouble for breaking the law. This isn’t about school rules; they broke the law. Harry was threatened with legal trouble for doing just this on a much smaller scale three chapters ago, so how is it possible that they’re ignoring it now? Ron’s not under the Trace and Harry still hasn’t used magic at all since the series began, so they would have missed the actual starting the car, but if Muggle sightings have made it into the newspaper before the boys even get to school then the Ministry must know about it.
In conclusion, the boys are not in character and this whole scenario cannot possibly unfold the way it does.
And as with so many of the issues in these books, it’s not difficult to fix. Let me show you.
The boys are unable to get through the barrier. They panic, understandably, because this makes no sense and now they’ve missed the train and how are they going to get to school? While they’re talking about it, Dobby’s achieved his goal and his master is going to show up any minute, so he undoes whatever it was he did and runs away. Parents and relatives start leaving the platform, giving Harry and Ron funny looks because why are they still there? Molly and Arthur show up and immediately contact Hogwarts, or more plausibly drag the boys off somewhere quiet and out of the way before contacting Hogwarts.
Rowling is obviously desperate to keep the damned car, so okay. Arthur suggests using the car to catch up with the train, which will be stopping just outside London when someone from Hogwarts tells them to, and Dumbledore agrees. The invisibility thing is not broken because that’s stupid. They take the car and go catch the train, complete with descriptions of how awesome flying cars are. Nobody on the train knows how they did it. We do not need any more people fanboying and fangirling over Harry. The boys remember that they’re actually friends with Hermione rather than arseholes, and spend the rest of the journey talking to her about what’s happened; the three of them discuss what’s going on, how weird and suspicious it is that the barrier just happened to fail when Harry tried to go through it. Harry is not a complete idiot and remembers that the mad house-elf told him he mustn’t go back to Hogwarts and tried to get him expelled, because it was only a few weeks ago and fairly memorable. We don’t need to know the Willow exists yet, and the car doesn’t need to be at Hogwarts.
Hey, look, I fixed it. Sheesh.
[I thought of another rewrite option that could work, if Rowling was really desperate to keep aspects of this scene. What if she merged it with the previous flying car escape scene, when they’re rescuing Harry from the Dursleys? The Terrible Twins would be along then, but that actually might help, because it would be a great opportunity to emphasise their recklessness and thrill-seeking and show them having an influence on Harry and Ron (character interactions? what a novelty!). They’d have more reason to actually expect praise for a triumphant return, since they can claim they were doing it to help Harry. Then we can just transplant the Willow to the Weasleys’ property or say they have one too (that could work just as well for foreshadowing the later things she decided to use it for), they live on a farm so it’s not completely ludicrous, and have them crash there. It even gives more reason for the stereotypical angry parent dynamics with Molly and Arthur there – ‘wait until your father gets home and sees what you did to his favourite toy’ is a lot more reasonable than what we got. Obviously this would require more changes later on, it would affect the dynamics of Harry’s stay at the Burrow somewhat and sadly it gets rid of the Snape scene which we actually like… but it’s something to think about, anyway, and it’s what I’d probably suggest if I were her editor. (And now I think about it, while we love Snape’s comic timing in letting them disparage him out loud before revealing he was there to hear, the rest of the scene is him trying to do his job properly and his colleagues refusing to let him and mocking him for it, so I’m not sure it would be that much of a loss.)]
Current spell count: Ron, 2. McGonagall, 2. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
Do people want me to start a death count?