Been a while, hasn’t it?
The chapter illustration purports to show a mandrake. We’re going to be talking about those later. For now let’s jump into what turned out to be a pretty tedious chapter that was almost entirely padding. Try not to step in the foreshadowing.
Chapter Six: Gilderoy Lockhart
Harry and Ron both survive their respective head injuries and wake up the next morning, and Harry treats us to some rambling food porn about what breakfast at Hogwarts is like. The mention of kippers immediately sent us off at a tangent, since those are rather old-fashioned as a breakfast food (admittedly that’s in keeping with the wizarding world) and children reading along are unlikely to identify with their hero eating fish for breakfast. Mostly we wondered where Hogwarts sources them – for those who aren’t familiar with them, kippers are smoked herring, and a major Scottish export.
I think at this point we have to conclude that Hogwarts has an entire army of Muggleborn administrators and so on, behind the scenes, who deal with things like ordering food from Muggle wholesalers. I certainly can’t imagine a wizarding fishing fleet.
[I think we focus so much on the economics of food in this series because it’s a thing Rowling keeps drawing attention to in ways that make absolutely no sense. If she’d just been content to leave it in the background, then fine, we’d assume the food came from the same places anyone else gets food. Instead we get some combination of these facts: the vast majority of wizards avoid interacting with muggles as much as possible and have no idea how to do so, they have no understanding of muggle technology, yet they are always eating foods produced by muggle technology that they have no idea how to make themselves. And food can’t be created by magic, we’ll be told that explicitly (though things are somewhat more ambivalent over whether food can be cloned by magic… but then we’d need to get into issues of conservation of energy). Long story short, Rowling has raised just enough questions for us to be infuriated at the lack of answers to them, when had she not raised them in the first place we’d probably have been content with a shrug.]
Our hero decides that Hermione’s still being very mean in not worshipping the boys for their Grand Theft Auto stunt, based on the way she says good morning. Since she’s reading at the time they’re lucky she didn’t kill them for interrupting her, but maybe she secretly welcomed it since she’s reading a Lockhart book.
[This is yet another case of tonal mismatch undermining the narrative. Clearly it wants the reader to view Hermione as a moralistic scold for daring to disapprove of our heroes’ adventurousness or whatever, which would be a reasonable character moment if it were over something minor, except instead of stealing a piece of candy or whatnot they’ve committed a rather serious theft, destroyed valuable property and nearly gotten themselves killed in the process. I’m impressed with her restraint, frankly.]
The post shows up, featuring Errol, who passes out above the table and falls unconscious into a jug of milk. Hygienic. And also convenient that he made it exactly that far. Ron naturally fails to care in the slightest and barely bothers dragging his comatose pet out of the pool of fluid that could have drowned it, too busy freaking out over the letter Errol’s carrying – a bright red envelope.
While he’s staring dramatically at this, Hermione actually checks Errol and confirms that he’s still breathing. It’s not much but it’s more than anyone else bothers to do. You’d think that if nothing else Ron would be worried about getting into trouble if the owl dies, but apparently not; he’ll walk off at the end of the scene and leave Errol unconscious and covered in milk on the table.
After some confusion from Harry and Hermione, Ron says the red envelope is a Howler (I don’t know why this is capitalised; is it a brand?). Neville adds that it will do something unspecified but ‘horrible‘ if Ron doesn’t open it – he says he got one from his grandmother once. Presumably that means last year, since he lives with her and she wouldn’t be sending him letters until he went away to school, but Harry certainly doesn’t seem to have witnessed it; as we’ll see in a moment they’re hard to forget, even for someone as self-absorbed as our protagonist. The envelope is now smoking at the corners, so presumably it’s on a self-destruct.
Please do not tie exploding letters to live birds. This is why we’re not including animals in the death count. [Though maybe we should’ve done an animal cruelty count… and then probably a count count, because we’d need one at that point.]
After half a page of dramatic hype from both Ron and Neville about how horrific Howlers are, the reality falls rather flat. It’s just a letter that shouts its contents out loud in the writer’s voice. In this case, Molly Weasley, yelling at her son. We’re told the voice is too loud to block out, but despite that we’re not given the entire contents, only excerpts. Those excerpts comprise how worried Molly and Arthur were when they found the boys and the car missing, how ashamed they were when Dumbledore wrote to tell them the boys stole it, how Ron and Harry could both have died, and how Arthur is facing an inquiry at work and it’s all their fault.
I don’t believe that she would have included that last part; why would she want to announce in public that her husband might have broken the law? As with so many other things, Harry assures us that he feels guilty while displaying no signs of guilt whatsoever and then forgets all about it within a single sentence and will never think about it again. Since Arthur never will get into trouble over this, somehow, it doesn’t matter.
We’re clearly meant to think that this is a terrible punishment for Ron and Harry, being embarrassed in front of everyone, and that Molly’s continuing to be a harpy or a shrew or whatever other misogynistic label you want to pin on her by scolding them like this. But nothing she says is wrong or unfair. It’s been argued that the fact this is a Howler rather than just a letter is that the public nature of it is meant to be part of the punishment, which would work if there were any ramifications whatsoever to it being public, and while they absolutely deserve it in this specific instance I don’t think that justifies Howlers existing in the first place. How easy would this be to abuse? Kids would be sending each other anonymous letters that yell insults about other random kids, for instance. Imagine telling a friend a secret in confidence and then having it screamed out in front of everyone over breakfast. And why was this even invented?
I have no idea why this scene is here. We’ll never see a Howler again, as far as I remember, though they’re apparently common enough to be unremarked on by everyone else in the room. (I might be wrong about this, I think Neville gets one next book, but I don’t care enough to look it up. [I checked and yes, he does; he grabs it and runs offscreen with it and we only get vague descriptions of what happens. Again, it’s weird how much the narrative ignores something that’s supposed to be impossible to ignore by nature.]) We’ve been told repeatedly that what the boys did was amazing and only mean horrible people disagree, and we’ve been shown repeatedly that the book doesn’t like Molly much. This scene adds nothing. Particularly since nobody reacts.
That bears repeating. Nobody reacts. We’re told a couple of people laugh, and Hermione starts trying to say something and gets told to shut up by Ron, and then everyone goes back to talking as though nothing happened. It’s worth nothing that ‘everyone’ includes Ron’s brothers and Harry’s enemies – Percy ought to be mortified and furious, and worried about his father. The twins ought to think this is funny, and be glad that it wasn’t them (I imagine they must have had Howlers before), and George at least would also be worried about their father since we’ve seen before that the family’s general lack of money concerns him. Draco ought to be paralytic with laughter, gloating and jeering. Snape should probably be smirking, though I tend to think that about any scene where he’s in the room. And McGonagall and Dumbledore ought to have some sort of reaction too. So would Lockhart, supposedly the star of this chapter.
You can handwave the teachers as Harry being too embarrassed to look around (though I don’t know why since apparently nobody cares), but Draco and the Weasleys would be vocal and he would notice their response to what is supposedly a big deal that goes on for several pages. But there’s absolutely nothing from anyone, and the absence is pretty jarring as well as rendering this entire scene completely pointless. [I could understand it somewhat if Howlers were going to be an important plot point later, and the purpose of this scene was to seed them early. But it’s not. They’ll never matter for anything, and really, how could they? Never let’s forget that Rowling is purported to be a master of foreshadowing and every last detail matters!]
Rowling got bored at this point, so we move on to the start of lessons. The Trio’s first lesson is Herbology, with the Hufflepuffs. Professor Sprout shows up carrying bandages, followed by Lockhart, who tells everyone that he was advising her on how best to treat the Whomping Willow since he knows all about them. Sprout seems understandably less than impressed by this. Harry spots the Willow in the distance with some of its branches in slings, and amusingly feels exactly as guilty about this as he did about Arthur being in trouble (when he’s not telling us how pretty Lockhart is, anyway).
I would think using magic on the tree would be a lot easier than bandaging each branch. Sprout must know the paralysis trick (that doesn’t exist yet) doesn’t last very long, and this seems hazardous. She doesn’t have a broom with her either so we have to conclude she climbed the tree. Maybe the Willow knows her. Maybe it’s actually perfectly friendly to anyone who isn’t a Gryffindor? That would also explain Snape being concerned for it earlier.
Lockhart pulls Harry aside for a chat as the others go into the greenhouse for their lesson, and monologues at Harry about how obviously the car stunt was attention seeking (probably true) and it’s clearly an attempt by Harry to make himself as famous as Lockhart but he’s not there yet despite, you know, the whole Voldemort thing, and he should maybe take it easy for a while, he’ll probably get there eventually, Lockhart triggered it accidentally by giving Harry a taste of fame at the book signing and he blames himself. Harry tries to get a word in edgewise once or twice before giving up and enduring this in bewildered silence.
We talked about Lockhart quite a lot over the course of this chapter. He may honestly be one of the best-written characters in the series. He’s absolutely consistent – we’re shown his personality over his first few scenes and then he sticks to it, instead of acting the way the plot demands from moment to moment. He also provides a great character for other characters to interact with; almost everyone who ever speaks to him onscreen ends up showing more depth as a result. More on this later, but this readthrough is giving both of us a new appreciation for him, despite the utter cringe of his actual scenes.
[A well-written character and a character who is pleasant to read about are not always the same thing. Not at all. I am definitely gaining a new appreciation for that distinction.]
The Herbology lesson for the day involves repotting mandrakes. Gee, it sure is lucky Hogwarts just happens to be growing mandrakes this year, when as we’ll see in a later chapter they clearly don’t usually have any. I do hope you’re all paying attention to literally the only detailed Herbology lesson we’re ever shown, I’m sure this won’t be important at all despite it being used as the chapter icon. It’s not the most subtle foreshadowing in the world, is it.
Hermione earns some house points for providing exposition. Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative used for countering curses or transfigurations. Gosh, do you suppose maybe that might happen to someone later this book? Nah, probably not. They also make noise, which kills anyone who hears it, so the class will be given earmuffs.
I like Sprout’s attitude. The cry is fatal so we’re letting the second years deal with these things, the NEWT students are probably busy making daisy chains or something.
[Though I have to point out that this falls into a disturbing pattern: quite a lot of Hogwarts lessons we actually get to see involve the teacher exposing the students to deadly monsters without adequate safety precautions. Hogwarts has an excellent reputation and is the best school of magic in the world!]
Sprout mentions that “the mandrake forms an essential part of most antidotes“. Which is why the Potions master can’t source any later in the book, why Hogwarts apparently doesn’t usually grow them since he has to wait for this specific batch to mature and there clearly aren’t others being grown, and why we’ll never hear about them again despite quite frequent poisoning incidents and numerous people being cursed.
Mandrakes exist in the real world. The genus Mandragora are mostly Mediterranean plants, though there are a couple of similar plants in other regions that are probably related despite being classified as different species. Their roots can look vaguely humanoid to some extent, and they’re excitingly poisonous in the fun way that causes hallucinations and delirium, so people thought they were magical. They are supposed to scream when uprooted and the scream is meant to kill you, so you were meant to tie the plant to a dog and get the dog to pull it out for you so the dog died instead. I don’t know why the superstition persisted when the dogs didn’t die.
Potterverse mandrakes, it transpires, are ugly green babies with leafy plants growing out of their heads. The books are suspiciously silent on how you prepare them for potions, but they get more and more human-like as they grow. Try not to think about it too much.
The students fight one another to avoid having to wear the pink fluffy earmuffs. I think this is meant to be funny. Sprout doesn’t bother to check everyone’s earmuffs before uprooting a mandrake to show them. She does say they’re too young to actually kill, but students being stunned for hours is still an issue. Everyone’s fine, of course, but still.
We’re finally introduced to a non-Gryffindor student who isn’t an eeeeeeeeevil Slytherin. Yet another white male student, but it’s still a nice change. Justin Finch-Fletchley introduces himself to the Trio while they’re gathering pots and soil, and monologues cheerfully for a bit while the three of them utterly fail to respond in any way. Rowling, this is not how children behave.
“Why hello, Harry! I’m going to be relevant this book so let me tell you I know who you are and here’s my life’s story. Oops now we have to go back to class, why’d I want to talk to you?”
In the course of his rambling he mentions how good Lockhart’s books are and how full of brave cool-sounding anecdotes. Harry, naturally, hasn’t read any of them since he bought them, so we’ll have to take Justin’s word for it. Justin also mentions he had his name down for Eton but he’s glad he came here instead even though his mother was disappointed. I know I’ve talked about this before somewhere, but I may as well say it again here: this is nonsense. If he was down for Eton, he’d have gone to Eton. He wouldn’t get to decide, his family would make the decision for him, and they’re of the social class that gets to send their sons to Eton with the royals and aristocrats. They’re not going to tell all their friends that they’ve actually sent him to a different boarding school nobody’s ever heard of and that he won’t get any qualifications from. Once again, notice how few poor or lower-class kids there are at Hogwarts?
[I think Justin’s comment here is meant to confer prestige on Hogwarts by comparison – ‘look, people are turning down Eton to come here!’ – except it doesn’t work for all the reasons Loten outlined. And also makes Justin and his family look like idiots, the more we get to see what an awful school Hogwarts is.]
The rest of the lesson passes quickly. Mandrakes don’t like being repotted, and since Harry’s an idiot he spends ten minutes trying to force a fat one into a too-small pot even though that defeats the entire point of repotting a plant. [Fat hatred and botanical incompetence combine to make a potent mix of awful! If this were a better book, this could’ve been a good opportunity to have Sprout stop him and explain how repotting a plant is actually supposed to work. Also, small wonder these things don’t like being transplanted when they’re uprooting them first, that’s nowhere near how you actually repot plants.]
Their next lesson is Transfiguration. Harry tells us he’s forgotten everything he learned. Since he hasn’t learned anything, this isn’t hard. They’re meant to be turning beetles into buttons, but he doesn’t manage it. Ron’s having problems too:
He had patched up his wand with some borrowed Spellotape, but it seemed to be damaged beyond repair. It kept crackling and sparking at odd moments, and every time Ron tried to transfigure his beetle it engulfed him in thick grey smoke which smelled of rotten eggs. Unable to see what he was doing, Ron accidentally squashed his beetle with his elbow and had to ask for a new one.
The Spellotape pun may have been lost on people outside Britain, but I appreciate it. [I remember thinking it was obvious the book wanted me to notice it, but I had no idea what I was supposed to be noticing. We don’t have Sellotape brand here. It’s kind of interesting they didn’t change this in the ‘translation’, although to be fair I have no bloody clue what they could have changed it to.]
This paragraph does raise questions, though – why do the staff let him keep trying to do magic with a malfunctioning wand? There’s no way McGonagall doesn’t notice this. We’ll see later that wands that aren’t working properly are dangerous, both to their users and to random bystanders. The children don’t actually use their wands most of the time, but she has a year to see this, and so does Flitwick in Charms. Presumably even though we’re told outright many times that his wand is unuseable he still manages to do all his classwork with it just fine.
Once the lesson finishes (apparently Hogwarts has a lunch bell; I also very nearly wrote ‘lynch bell’ which is frankly more believable) he starts hitting his wand on the desk, because obviously that will make it work better. To be fair to him he has a concussion from yesterday’s car accident [and this is a thing people often do to machines]. The wand responds by making exploding noises. Harry suggests Ron write home and ask for a new one, which Ron vetoes because he doesn’t want to get told off again. (Also probably because his family can’t afford it, this was a hand-me-down wand in the first place.) This is a plausible enough reaction, but if only Ron had a responsible older brother at school who could ask for him. Or a best friend with a vault full of gold who could buy him a new wand as an early Christmas present. Harry. You moron. Ron doesn’t help matters by shoving the hissing, smoking, firework-noise-emitting wand in his bag, which sounds decidedly unsafe.
It turns out that Hermione managed the transfiguration perfectly, of course. I don’t know why she still has the buttons with her – will they ever be turned back into beetles? Would the beetles be dead if they weren’t turned back soon enough? [What happens if you sew one onto a coat and then it reverts, for that matter?] Why is transfiguration a thing? Naturally, Ron is angry with her for succeeding at something he can’t do.
Current spell count: Ron, 2. McGonagall, 2. Hermione, 1. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
Their next lesson will be Defence, after lunch. Ron asks why Hermione has drawn hearts on her timetable. Sigh.
At this specific point in time, I’m okay with her having a crush on Lockhart. She’s never met or spoken to him, only witnessed him being nice to Harry at a distance. His books are apparently well written and full of cool exciting impressive things, and she’s still consistently written enough to believe what books tell her, and he’s apparently pretty. It will only become a problem after this chapter, when she will have had plenty of evidence that ought to kill this immediately – and her becoming disillusioned with him and learning to question books could have been a good character arc, if she was actually a character and not the Potterverse version of Navi, as Mitchell put it. Mitchell also said, “It occurs to me that every opportunity Rowling has to try to give Hermione actual characterisation turns into ‘but she’s a girl, right? girls do girly things’,” which is completely accurate and rather sad.
The Trio hang out together during their lunch break, which involves Hermione reading and the boys talking about Quidditch until Harry notices a small boy watching them. This is Colin Creevey.
Colin isn’t quite the way we remembered him. He’s not actually a rabid Harry fanboy, not yet anyway – I don’t know what will trigger that obsession later, it’ll be interesting to see if the book ever addresses it or just assumes he’s always been that way. Instead, Colin is just incredibly enthusiastic about absolutely everything. He loves Hogwarts, he loves magic, he’s wildly excited to be here and he’s bouncing around taking photographs of anything and everything to send to his Muggle family, and someone told him if he develops the photos in a special potion then they’ll move, isn’t that awesome? He wants a picture of Harry because he recognises him as someone famous that he’s been told about and that’s another cool thing to take a picture of, maybe Ron could take a photo of Colin and Harry together, hey, maybe Harry could sign it too, that might be neat. There’s no indication here that he cares personally, which makes perfect sense because why on earth would he, he’s a Muggleborn who at best was a newborn infant when Voldemort was defeated and who can only have heard of Harry yesterday unless he read about him a bit over the summer.
Basically, Colin is a spaniel puppy. I like him. This is a much more normal reaction for a Muggle kid at magic school than Harry’s utterly lukewarm apathy from last book. He does seem much younger than any of the kids were portrayed last book at the same age, though.
[I honestly find him irritating, but as with Lockhart this is just more evidence of a realistic and/or well-written character not always being pleasant to read about. Of course, this will probably change shortly, I fully expect him to be less well-written but equally irritating in the near future.]
How does developing a photo in a potion make it move, by the way? There is no possible way to handwave this. The moving paintings don’t really make sense either but that feels like a thing that should be possible, if that makes sense, whereas the photos don’t. Of course, it will never be explained.
[I think the distinction might have to do with the amount of time and effort it takes to produce; painting is a long and effort-intensive process and it doesn’t take much to imagine adding extra (magical) steps as you go to produce this effect in the end. Or using magical paints or something, I’ve seen some interesting takes on this in fic (such as incorporating bits of the person being painted in the paints). Whereas photography is instantaneous, and you already have a still image on the film (albeit in negative) before it undergoes the development process. I think I’d find it a lot more plausible if it were a magical camera and/or film, and whatever enchantment was necessary occurred during exposure.]
Draco has been stalking Harry again, and is therefore close enough to hear this; he promptly starts yelling at everyone to queue up because Harry’s giving out signed photos. (This is changed to ‘line up‘ in the US version for no reason whatsoever [It’s not precisely no reason, we don’t use the word queue in that context while ‘line up’ is commonly said; honestly I object to this one less than most of the other changes].) Harry objects, they bicker, Colin tries to help by saying Draco’s jealous. Well, probably, but not for the reason you think, Colin. This scene is funnier if you imagine Draco sounding excited rather than mocking. Ron also joins in:
‘Eat slugs, Malfoy,’ said Ron angrily. Crabbe stopped laughing and started rubbing his conker-like knuckles in a menacing way.
Why ‘eat slugs‘? I assume Rowling wanted a child-friendly version of ‘eat shit’ or something, but given what happens in a later scene there’s apparently more to it than that. More clumsy foreshadowing, of course, but it doesn’t make sense in-universe unless this is an actual spell. One, why would it be, and two, Draco doesn’t react as though he’s just received a threat, particularly – though you could read it that way, it’s not as if he’d be frightened of Ron.
As for Crabbe’s knuckles, the ‘conker-like‘ part was removed from the US version, which irritates me. No, conkers aren’t a thing over there, but they’re a big part of a British child’s life for at least a couple of autumns at school and I’m sure nobody would be hurt by accidental exposure to another culture. Even if you don’t understand the description, it doesn’t matter. (That said, I have to admit it’s a weird description; if Rowling means calloused like the rough top part of a conker, why has Crabbe been punching things that much? And if she doesn’t mean that then I have no idea, apparently his knuckles are dark brown and shiny.)
[Even if they didn’t know what conkers are, I’m pretty sure most American children would be familiar with ‘conk’ as a verb meaning hitting things and get close enough…]
Draco starts mocking Ron instead of Harry, doing an imitation of this morning’s Howler, and a group of Slytherin fifth-years laugh. This just lampshades how unlikely and out of character it is that nobody reacted at the time. As for why the fifth years feel the need to laugh at such an unsubtle bit of childish taunting from a twelve year old, one assumes they must want to show support for Lucius Malfoy’s son.
Ron reacts the way he always reacts when someone says something he doesn’t like, and draws his wand. Hermione, who’s been trying to ignore all this, warns them all to look out, and Lockhart shows up to ask who’s giving out signed photos – apparently he heard that part of the discussion and then had a minor stroke that prevented him hearing anything else in the time it took to walk over, or else he can’t walk and listen at the same time. He laughs, hugs Harry – bad touch! – and poses with him for Colin to take a double photo, before the bell rings and he tells everyone to go away.
Harry is bright red and very embarrassed by this, for some reason. Remember last book where a packed pub full of strange adults all mobbed him to shake his hand and he was totally fine, just slightly puzzled? Last book was full of offhand mentions of people talking about him all the time, too, and that didn’t bother him either. Everyone on the train was talking about him, everyone was gasping dramatically when he was sorted, etc. etc., and none of that affected him in the slightest. But now, he’s mortified. It’s too much to hope for that Lockhart’s shown him how gross it is to wallow in your status like that, of course [what is character development?]; this is just a minor personality glitch for no reason, because Rowling needs him to suffer for a bit.
Lockhart leads Harry away, still hugging him in a creepy-uncle fashion, and tells him that it’s too early in his career to be giving out signed photos and that he’ll probably need to keep some with him later, as Lockhart does now, but he’s not there yet. Seriously, dude, you were right there when he said he was doing no such thing. I still admire Lockhart’s consistency, but he can’t quite act like a human being any more than most of Rowling’s characters can. They reach the Defence classroom and Harry slinks to his seat, still inexplicably embarrassed but unable to think about why.
Ron helps, of course.
‘You could’ve fried an egg on your face,’ said Ron. ‘You’d better hope Creevey doesn’t meet Ginny, they’ll be starting a Harry Potter fan club.’
I do like the fried egg line, but again, Colin wasn’t foaming over Harry. Obviously Rowling thinks that’s what she did write, and later she’ll exaggerate it endlessly because she thinks it’s funny, but the text doesn’t support it here.
Time for Lockhart’s first Defence lesson. He picks up one of his books, shows them his smiling photo and talks about how famous he is and how he’s won a magazine award for Most Charming Smile – Rowling’s mentioned that before and thought she was very clever, but we’ve talked about the lack of celebrity culture in the wizarding world before; the population is just too small to support this sort of thing. He also says he’s a member of the Dark Force Defence League, which as far as we can remember will never be mentioned again and he may have made it up.
He gives them a quiz to see how much they’ve read of his books over the summer. Fifty four questions, all about him. The implication is that all seven of these books talk exclusively about him and are very short on actual monster-hunting details, but we’ll see later that’s not completely true, and it couldn’t be true anyway because he’d never have been published and certainly wouldn’t be famous, nor would so many students be fawning over him. In fact, Justin told us just a few pages ago that the books are actually full of exciting action stories, but that’s not what we’re shown here.
Hermione’s the only one to get everything right. My patience is already running out, but it’s probable she thinks this quiz is a joke – well, you would, wouldn’t you? I can handwave the rest of this lesson, but beyond that we’re going to dismiss almost all her behaviour as just out of character bad writing.
On to the main lesson:
‘Now – be warned! It is my job to arm you against the foulest creatures known to wizardkind! You may find yourselves facing your worst fears in this room. Know only that no harm can befall you whilst I am here. All I ask is that you remain calm.’ […] ‘I must ask you not to scream,’ said Lockhart in a low voice. ‘It might provoke them.’
The outcome of all this drama is… a cage full of Cornish pixies. The children are less than impressed.
Myths about pixies (or piskies) are found all over the place, but mostly in Devon and Cornwall – so Ron should know all about them, and the gnomes living at the Burrow are probably related. (In fact, there’s a Pixie Day tradition in Ottery St Mary, which is certainly very near the fictional Ottery St Catchpole if not its direct counterpart.) They’re more or less as they’re shown here – tiny, mischievous, mostly benign but with a bit of a malicious edge. Potterverse ones are bright blue for some reason.
Lockhart’s idea of the lesson is to just open the cage and let them free in the classroom, which goes about as well as you might expect. They can fly, for a start. Two of them lift Neville up by his ears and hang him from the candelabra on the ceiling (why a classroom has this is not explained, nor why this doesn’t seriously injure him). Several others smash their way through the window and escape, while the rest thoroughly trash the room. Lockhart tries a spell, which doesn’t work; we didn’t add this to the spell count because honestly it’s not likely to have been a real spell, and apparently does nothing. One of the pixies throws his wand through the broken window. We’re not told how he gets it back.
After some chaos, Lockhart and the students run for it. The Trio are the last ones to leave, conveniently, so Lockhart tells them to ‘finish’ rounding them up and shuts the door in their faces.
The chapter ends with Hermione being an idiot stubbornly defending the teacher, and Ron ‘shove exploding stick in bag full of paper’ Weasley being the voice of reason implying that the books might not be real. You could charitably assume Hermione’s embarrassed about being so mistaken and doesn’t want to admit it, if later chapters didn’t contradict that. She does at least manage to use a Freezing Charm on two of the pixies, while the boys waste time trying to grab them (interestingly Harry the master seeker fails).
Current spell count: Ron, 2. McGonagall, 2. Hermione, 2. Dobby, 1. Molly, 1. Arthur, 1.
Obviously, we’re meant to view this lesson as a complete disaster, utterly outrageous, unacceptable behaviour from a teacher, etc. It is. But consider – Lockhart’s first lesson is to loose a monster on the kids. Lupin’s first lesson will also be this. As will Hagrid’s. [And Sprout’s earlier this chapter, for the most part.] And actually Lockhart’s choice of monster is less dangerous and/or potentially traumatic than either (except for poor Neville, physically abused again).
So let’s take a quick look at Lockhart again before we finish. We know that he’s a con-man, that he’s stolen other people’s accomplishments with the aid of memory charms and has built this persona for himself based on charisma and lies. But how? We do have to ask the question of how such an unsubtle self-promoter actually managed to keep the con going this long, when children can easily see through him; he doesn’t have the intelligence to back it up. You could argue he’s just underestimating the children here, but his behaviour won’t change later, and one of the defining traits of any successful con artist is adaptability – when you realise you’re losing your audience, you change your approach to find something else that works.
It’s possible Lockhart’s simply never had to lie to anyone for more than a few days at a time, and that only now he’s in a full-time job in a confined location and having to maintain the facade constantly are the cracks showing. But the thing about claiming to be a monster hunter is that people are occasionally going to ask you to hunt monsters – with his reputation the Ministry ought to be occasionally contacting him to help them out, say, or Hogwarts themselves should have asked before for him to come and deal with Hagrid’s latest acquisition. It’s not clear how long he’s been famous for – we aren’t told his age in the books, but he’s younger than Snape, so early thirties at the very most – but he really should have been found out by now. This isn’t the sort of pretence you can maintain for long before someone asks you to put your money where your mouth is.
Rowling seems to be arguing that he gets away with it through sheer sex appeal. (I did mention in a fic once that it’s possible Dumbledore hired him because he looks like Grindelwald apparently used to.) Well, all right, that certainly explains why his books sell so well, but that doesn’t help him here. The only ones impressed by his prettiness, except possibly Dumbledore, are underage girls – sadly the creepiness will not be addressed, but you can bet we’ll be talking about it. None of the female staff are attracted to him. Nor are any of the male staff, question mark over Dumbledore notwithstanding, or any of the male students because this is an extremely heteronormative universe. The students almost all think he’s a joke, they will be complaining to their heads of house who all dislike him, and there is no way he would be able to keep his job for the full year unless there was some loophole in his contract.
Except, of course, the theory that Dumbledore is evil and did it because he thought it was funny.
As with so many other characters, the issue we have here is that Rowling’s trying to write two separate characters in the same space. Either Lockhart is a flailing incompetent, or he’s a sinister crook. I’m not convinced the story supports both, but I suppose we’ll have to see as the book continues – either way it’s a real waste of potential though, because focusing on one or the other could have been great, and even without that we’ve said already that he’s one of the best written characters in the series.
[I have to admit I find Lockhart a lot more plausible after these years of extended exposure to the execrable Donald Trump. It’s not an exact parallel, though, and I think many of the questions Loten’s raised do apply in a way they might not to Trump. I want to believe Lockhart would be expected to deliver in a way he couldn’t fake, eventually. I would also love to know why, if Lockhart is really as famous as he is portrayed in this book, to the point that it’s plausible for him to think he’s better known than Harry, we never heard about him at all in the previous book and he’ll be all but forgotten after this one. Some of these problems might have gone away if Lockhart were explicitly written as a new up-and-comer, whose reputation had spread much more quickly than his actual books…]
Next time, plot! Much earlier than it showed up last book!