Tag Archives: philosopher’s stone

Harry Potter – Death Count so far

One of the (myriad) reasons for the Harry Potter coverage being delayed was my decision based on your feedback from the last update to start a count of all the times the characters really should have died had various scenarios been written realistically. After some thought and discussion we decided not to include a lot of the more obvious ones simply because the narrative does provide a way for the problem to be dealt with – for instance, fighting the troll would probably have killed three first-years, but the book acknowledged the danger and showed an actual solution so it gets a pass. Likewise, Harry fighting Quirrell should have killed him but there was an explicit in-universe reason why it didn’t. (And Harry being alive at all, of course, but let’s not completely invalidate the entire series. At least not yet.)

[Basically, if the narrative acknowledges the danger and provides an in-story explanation for why the characters survived and/or weren’t badly injured, we’re probably not going to count it. We’re focusing on evidence of authorial neglect (and, in-story, things like supervisory neglect at Hogwarts), the dangers that should be there if the setting adheres to any level of realism but are elided or glossed over by the narrative.]

I finally found a coherent way of explaining this – we’re explicitly counting things that Rowling didn’t realise would have killed her characters, not things she explained away.

So let’s see the body count so far. Lots of head injuries, as you might expect…

Philosopher’s Stone:

  • Harry dies of exposure after being abandoned overnight on a doorstep in Britain in November at the age of one.
  • (Edit: Neville dies the first time from being thrown off a pier in Blackpool as a toddler. This could have been an honourable mention but there’s nothing in seven books to support the idea that his family care enough to fish him out before he drowns.)
  • Neville dies again from a broken neck after being dropped out of a window by his uncle as a child – he may well have bounced but he still explicitly hit the ground head first.
  • Neville dies a third time in the present day after falling twenty feet off an out of control broom during his first flying lesson.
  • Katie Bell and Marcus Flint both take cannonballs to the head during a Quidditch match.
  • Harry, Ron and Hermione fall an unknown distance of at least four stories down the trap door.
  • Ron dies again shortly afterwards when a giant stone statue bashes him in the head.

Honourable mentions: Vernon, Petunia and Dudley probably drowned trying to swim back to the mainland after Hagrid stole their boat, but it is theoretically possible that the old guy who owns the boat realised they hadn’t come back and sent help, or that there was a lifeboat patrolling nearby after the storm. [Or they could have died of thirst or starvation if they were stranded there long enough without rescue. But there’s enough ambiguity around how to count this that we’ve decided to let it slide.]

Harry nearly swallowing the Snitch likewise gets an honourable mention, since although it would have sliced his face up nicely and caused some damage through choking it wouldn’t have killed him per se. Nor would the resulting fall, since he’s probably the only student anyone would bother trying to save instead of the usual Hogwarts method of letting them splatter.

Scabbers gets an honourable mention for being thrown into a window after biting Goyle. We decided not to include animals because the counts would be sky high, nobody feeds their pets or gives them anywhere safe to sleep and all owl owners constantly make them fly way too far in unsafe conditions, but this one stood out. [Loten didn’t want to include this one, but I argued for it and this was our compromise. I think it’s relevant because Scabbers will later turn out to be (or be retconned as) a human character who is important to the plot, and instances in which he should really have died or sustained brain damage are relevant to assessing how stupid his plan is (and/or how sloppy the retcon was).]

Possible honourable mention, this might be moved to the main count later – any of the kids could have tripped over and broken their necks or fallen on broken branches in the Forbidden Forest detention. The narrative insists the monsters are no threat, and Quirrellmort were too incompetent to be a danger to anyone, but wandering around proper ancient woodland in total darkness isn’t safe regardless of external hazards.

Final count: Neville: 3. Ron: 2. Harry: 2. Minor characters: 2 (Katie and Marcus are unlikely to feature here again). Hermione: 1.

[It’s worth keeping Katie in mind though, for when we eventually get to Half-Blood Prince in something like a decade’s time. She barely exists as a character but might still have more than one entry on the death tally. Though the second one might be better counted for a different tally, “would have been a death if not for Snape’s intervention.”]

I think that tally would be a little redundant since by the end of the series it would comprise literally every character still alive…

Interesting that Neville racks up the highest count despite not being a major character and – according to the narrative – not having the angstiest backstory to ever angst. Yet another argument in favour of his being the superior protagonist.

Chamber of Secrets:

  • Harry and Ron die of dehydration and heatstroke in the flying car that the book insists is more of a flying oven, or alternatively die of dehydration and hypothermia in a more realistically written one.
  • Harry and Ron die again almost immediately when the car crashes.
  • Ron then dies a third time from complications caused by his untreated serious head injury. He’s not doing well.

Count so far: Ron: 3. Harry: 2.

Honourable mentions: Hedwig and Scabbers were both in the car, though Hedwig’s already died from malnutrition and again from exhaustion.

Overall total so far: Ron: 5. Harry: 4. Neville: 2. Minor characters: 2. Hermione: 1.

Feel free to jump into the comments if we forgot something, or if you think something should/should not be included – our criteria were pretty arbitrary and I’m happy to tweak this before we return to the main series.


Posted by on December 3, 2017 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Final Thoughts and Attempted Rewrite

So, we’ve finished the book, and we’ve watched the film. We concluded that the film does individual scenes better than the book did, but that it falls down on characterisation and suffers from being unable to show us a villain (whereas the book suffered from too many villains). And both fail hard at representing anyone who isn’t white and male, though the book is fractionally better in that regard. Fractionally. Both fail at showing anything of magic school, too.

In this post I’ll be rambling a bit about some of the flaws, then attempting a full rewrite, then talking about spells. It’s going to be another long one. Cut time! Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on December 6, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: The Film

Despite the world going to Hell in a handbasket, life goes on, at least for now, so let’s do this. As you may know if you happened to see our post aptly entitled WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED yesterday, Mitchell and I are currently in the same country. Bore da to you all.

We didn’t have a plan for this post, particularly, so it’ll be even more rambling than usual for us. Our method, such as it was, was just to watch the film together while we each took notes and occasionally paused to talk about things. You’re welcome to go watch the film now to refresh your memories before reading this if you like. We’ll wait.

I’m also going to attempt to learn to use ‘read more’ tags properly because this post is going to be ridiculously long. If it doesn’t work, which it probably won’t because I suck, please scroll down to see our other recent non-HP posts if you missed them earlier. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on November 13, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Seventeen

Okay, so, this will (hopefully) be the last post that’s unreasonably delayed. Here’s some personal waffle, feel free to skip to the start of the chapter if you don’t care (since I talk about this every time).

I’m a week away from finally moving into my own place, meaning I will be living according to my own routine and not my family’s, meaning it will be much easier for the two of us to find mutual time to set up the hours-long sessions these chapters require. So future books should be tackled far more frequently.

That said, after this post – which is the final chapter of this book; let there be much rejoicing – you’re still going to have to wait a while, because the next post we want to do will cover the film. Which we won’t be watching until November. Because reasons. After that we’ll do some sort of conclusion to Philosopher’s Stone, and once we start Chamber of Secrets things should progress in a much more timely fashion.

In the meantime, thank you for your patience. Now, on with the show…

Chapter Seventeen: The Man With Two Faces

The final chapter is represented by a picture of Quirrell wearing a polo shirt and holding a ribbon that is not connected to his ‘turban’ in any way. Said turban appears to have an ear in it.

My first thought on considering the title was that it was a reference to Janus, the Roman god with two faces, the god of beginnings and endings, time, doorways and lots of other Meaningfully Symbolic things.

My second thought was that it refers to Dumbledore, since we’ve already seen that he’s fairly two-faced and this chapter makes that so, so much worse.

Then again, it could well be both. From the Wikipedia article on Janus:

While the fundamental nature of Janus is debated, in most modern scholars’ view the god’s functions may be seen as being organized around a single principle: presiding over all beginnings and transitions, whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.

We’ve talked before about how bizarre it is for a school headmaster to be overseeing so much of this world and how he’s universally worshipped. And the painfully bad play Mitchell heroically struggled through tells us that people will later curse in his name as if he were literally a deity.

Of course, we know the chapter title is actually meant to be completely literal and not a reference to anything interesting at all. More on this later. When we last left our hero, he’d just walked into the final boss room and found that the person in there wasn’t who he expected.

The big dramatic reveal is that it’s Quirrell. And Harry intuitively grasps that this means Quirrell must be the bad guy, thus effectively spoiling the ending for the readers who hadn’t already guessed. I would think a more realistic reaction would be for him to be very confused, look around to see if there’s anyone else there, maybe even ask where Snape is or mention the Stone. He knows Quirrell and Snape are on opposite sides – one of the few things he got right – so if he’s convinced Snape is the bad guy, he should be assuming Quirrell is an ally (and in fact did assume something similar when he saw the two arguing; Harry et al already believe the two are working against each other).

But no, plot powers have activated and he knows this is the villain. Misdirection here could have been interesting and would have been an intelligent thing for the bad guys to do, so obviously it won’t happen. Instead, Harry just stammers that he thought it would be Snape, and Quirrell laughs at him and comments that yes, it’s lucky Severus is so dramatic because otherwise someone might have paid attention to facts instead of appearances. Quirrell also mockingly imitates his previous stuttering and twitching, confirming that he was faking it, which is somewhat gross and ableist.

Harry is incapable of letting go of thoughts once they penetrate his skull, and says blankly that Snape tried to kill him. No, idiot, that was me, says Quirrell, who then proceeds to spend the rest of the page and most of the rest of the scene monologuing about how evil he is and explaining the plot to Harry. An intelligent villain would have greeted Harry as soon as he stepped into the room, explained that he’d just driven Snape away and asked for help finding the stone in case Snape gets back before Dumbledore does. Particularly since said villain is ostensibly a Ravenclaw being controlled by a Slytherin. Instead, we get… Donald Trump, essentially, needing to get credit for literally everything ever and demanding recognition of how clever he is. Harry’s not even asking questions, he’s just expressing confusion; there is nothing in this scene to trigger most of Quirrell’s several self-absorbed monologues. Even if for some reason Quirrell doesn’t want to try and pretend to be innocent, he has a task to do and should either be forcing Harry to help him or making him shut up (killing him would be the smart thing to do, but this is not a smart book) rather than expositing at him.

I understand that Rowling wants to fill in the gaps and tell the readers what’s been happening all book, and that’s fine, but it shouldn’t happen now. This is the final showdown, the big dramatic climax of the book. Don’t stop what little action we’ve had for long speeches. Let Dumbledore explain it all afterwards, that would be far less annoying than the crap he actually says and wouldn’t utterly ruin the flow of this. God knows she does just that often enough for the rest of the series, and obnoxious though it is it’s still better than this. Yes, villains do explain themselves to the heroes in a lot of stories, and it’s almost always really stupid and very bad writing. The exceptions come when the villain has a specific reason for telling the hero, usually leading up to revealing that the hero has been betrayed or that the villain has been misrepresented or something. That’s not the case here and Quirrell has absolutely no reason for telling Harry any of this, and plenty of reasons not to, not least of which being that he’s on a time limit.

Anyway, long story short, Hermione knocked Quirrell over at the match and broke his line of sight on the way to get to Snape. I mentioned at the time that someone should have noticed the curse ending before she’d done anything and that there was no reason Quirrell couldn’t have sat up and carried on doing it. Neither of those things are explained now, nor does Harry have any reaction. Quirrell adds that Snape was countering him, which Harry questions but still has no emotional response to (and never will), and explains that that’s why Snape referreed the following match, though it was pointless because it was fear of Dumbledore that stopped Quirrell trying again and all it did was make all the other teachers hate him for trying to sabotage Gryffindor.

Okay, I know everyone in the wizarding world is brainwashed at birth to believe that literally everything is related to Quidditch, but would every single staff member have thought that’s what was happening? Even the ones who know about the Stone?

“And what a waste of time, when after all that, I’m going to kill you tonight.”

You could have killed him at literally any point all year. Just kept him back after class to talk about some problem with his homework, given him a slow-acting poison, wiped his memory and sent him on his way to drop dead a couple of days later. Or hidden yourself for the next Quidditch match, sniped him out of the air with a killing curse and run away. You could have killed him a few moments ago while he was staring at you dumbly wondering why you weren’t Snape. You could be killing him now instead of talking to him.

The only reason the Order ever won is that Voldemort is really, really stupid. Which is odd, because as young Tom Riddle (in later books) he seemed reasonably clever; presumably making Horcruxes causes brain damage. Is the soul part of the brain? More questions we’ll never get answers to. Or else when we get there we’ll find out Riddle wasn’t actually all that bright and just seemed that way when contrasted to his later persona.

Quirrell then makes some fancy magic ropes, ties Harry up and tells him he’s too nosy to live (don’t be ridiculous, unless it’s about him Harry couldn’t care less and only stumbles on plot clues by accident) and monologues some more. Instead of just killing him already, or at least using something like the Body-Bind. He doesn’t gag Harry, who instead of trying a spell or screaming for help asks helpful prompting questions to keep story time going.

You know what… Spell count: Hermione, 11. Quirrell, 2. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Neville, 1. Harry, 0. Let’s see how silly this gets. (That’s one point for magic ropes and one for cursing Harry’s broom. We don’t know what he actually did to the troll here, or what he was doing to the unicorns, and the harp only plays itself in the film.) Interestingly, Quirrell only uses wandless non-verbal magic throughout the entire book – he gestures, snaps his fingers, claps his hands. He never says any magic words and there’s no sign of a wand.

We still have nothing from Harry at this point. No thoughts, no emotions, no nothing. He should be terrified, since a wizard has tied him up and announced that he’s going to kill him. He should also be worried about the Stone, and still a bit confused, and maybe feeling a little betrayed. Anger would be nice, or trying to think of something he can do – he’s not even pulling at his ropes, let alone trying to think of spells. I’d like to see some guilt over Snape, or at least wondering about the whole saving his life thing, but this is Harry Potter.

Anyway, Quirrell let the troll in at Halloween. Apparently he has a ‘special gift‘ with trolls, and he refers proudly to what he did to the one that was part of the defences. You knocked it unconscious, mate. Ron managed that after less than two months of magical education. It’s not much of an achievement. And where has he been getting these trolls anyway? He tried to go off to the third floor, but Snape followed him straight there because it was an extremely obvious diversion and he was already suspicious. Quirrell sounds rather annoyed:

“Not only did my troll fail to beat you to death, that three-headed dog didn’t even manage to bite Snape’s leg off properly.”

That’s because you’re a rubbish villain. Stop trying to take credit for things that had nothing to do with you. (He really is Trump.) He then tells Harry to keep quiet – but doesn’t use magic or even a handkerchief to enforce this – because he has to figure out what the hell the Mirror of Erised is doing in here and where the Stone is. I like the sentiment of Harry’s unimportance, and it’s quite funny, but it makes no sense for Quirrell not to have killed him already or to have suggested it to his master. Or at least to knock him out, if we accept the book’s insistence that the bad guys think Harry’s super-important.

‘This mirror is the key to finding the Stone,’ Quirrell murmured, tapping his way around the frame. ‘Trust Dumbledore to come up with something like this … but he’s in London … I’ll be far away by the time he gets back …’

There are a few points I want to bring up here. One is Quirrell’s implication that he’s going after the Stone now because Dumbles is away and it’s safe to do so. That’s all very well, it makes sense on the surface, but since Quirrell is the one who set up the diversion in the first place why didn’t he do it weeks ago? This also further invalidates Harry’s earlier panic, which shouldn’t have triggered until the children learned that Dumbledore was gone. The timing of everything here is so incoherent that one of us commented it’s a little like a two year old doing a jigsaw puzzle – all the pieces are here, but they’re being assembled in completely the wrong order.

And how does Quirrell know the mirror is important, or connected to the Stone? It would be more in character for Dumbledore to just be trolling. Also, Dumbledore hasn’t been the one stopping Quirrell this entire time – Snape has. If anything, this plan should have been aimed at getting Snape out of the way (not that he’d have fallen for it), or there should have been a second plan to do that and get rid of both of them.

I’m glad we didn’t decide to do an Idiot-Ball-Moment count. I suspect we’d be well into triple digits by now, and it’s only book one.

Child reaching up through sea of balls, close-up of arm

Drowning in idiot balls wouldn’t be nearly such fun

This is a big argument in favour of the reality TV theory, honestly. If this were a real attempt to steal the Stone, one that might work, Snape would have been at the third floor the second he found out that Dumbledore had mysteriously been called away.

Also, the ellipsis abuse in this chapter is terrible and will only get worse. It’s also formatted pretty oddly, with spaces before each set (and in the US version it’s even worse: there are spaces between each dot, too, and these bizarre four-dot constructs when an ellipsis follows a complete sentence). I have no idea why.

Back with the plot, this is the moment where Harry himself finally notices the huge mirror he was dangerously addicted to has been standing behind Quirrell this entire time. If this book were even remotely consistent he’d immediately squirm or bunny-hop over to try to look into it, but of course he’s all better now somehow.

Not only that, he finally has the glimmer of a thought. If he keeps Quirrell talking, he won’t be able to concentrate on the mirror.

It’s not a bad thought, but Harry only has Quirrell’s word for it that the mirror has anything whatsoever to do with the Stone. For all he knows it’s just here as a distraction and the Stone is hidden under a floorboard, or not there at all, so letting Quirrell waste time on it is fine. (It’s probably one-way glass to let the staff watch the action.) Also, Harry failed to notice a six-foot-plus stand mirror, it’s entirely possible the Stone could be in plain sight – we have no description at all of the room they’re in. Other possible distractions, Harry: scream. Try to undo the magic ropes. Try to get over there and kick the mirror over, or kick Quirrell. Try to get to your fucking wand since the worst villain ever hasn’t even disarmed you. Though to be fair maybe Quirrell has been keeping his own spell count and knows he has absolutely nothing to worry about.

Instead, Harry wants more stories, so he mentions that he saw Quirrell and Snape talking in the forest. Quirrell’s not really paying attention, which must really grate on our hero, and answers vaguely that yes, Snape suspected him right from the start and was often trying to find out how far he’d got or to frighten him. He walks around the mirror and helpfully tells us out loud that he can see himself in it giving the Stone to his master, so where is it?

I think the most annoying part about all Quirrell’s monologues here is that he’s not being melodramatic. He’s not pleased with himself and scenery-chewing, he’s not gloating or raving. If anything, he’s coming across as teaching. He’s giving Harry some education. It’s such a bizarre tone that it’s ruining what little drama there could have been. It doesn’t help that half the time he’s talking more to himself than Harry anyway.

Harry finally tries to get out of his ropes. This whole scene is not well written; I can’t tell if Harry’s on the floor or if he’s just standing there with rope wrapped around him. Obviously it doesn’t work, so he keeps talking about Snape, apparently unable to think of any other topic of conversation. (Can’t blame him there.) Doesn’t Snape hate him?

‘Oh, he does,’ said Quirrell casually, ‘heavens, yes. He was at Hogwarts with your father, didn’t you know? They loathed each other. But he never wanted you dead.’

You see, Harry, not everyone’s actions are motivated solely by their opinion of someone. You can help people you don’t like. Honest. And hating someone doesn’t mean you’re going to try to kill them. I wish you’d remember that in book six. Though we’re not the first to point this out, it should be mentioned it’s also not a bad message for a children’s book, really; it might be a bit simplistic, but it’s true, it makes for a decent twist and it allows the characters to theoretically learn something.

More importantly, though, how does Quirrell know this? We’re not told his age here, but he’s described as young when no other teacher – including Snape – is, so he must be younger than Snape and James, and outside the series we’ve been told he’s somewhere in his 20s here. He’s very unlikely to have been at school with them, and even if he were he’d have been so many years below them that he wouldn’t know who either of them were, let alone how they felt about each other. The feud isn’t public knowledge; Rowling really finds it hard to keep track of what each character could realistically know, hence her penchant for ‘rumours’ helpfully telling everyone everything.

Harry comments that he heard Quirrell crying and thought Snape was threatening him. This has nothing to do with Snape hating Harry, but okay. This triggers a mood shift as Quirrell looks frightened and tells us that was Voldemort, who is always with him and punishes him whenever he fails to do something. It’s hard to tell if Quirrell regrets what’s happened or not, because he doesn’t get any more personality than anyone else and we really have no idea why he became a minion in the first place, whether he actually wanted to and why he hasn’t escaped from it either by asking for help or trying to commit suicide or something. Naturally, the narrative will never consider those questions or give him the barest scrap of sympathy.

Quirrell goes on to say that after he failed to steal the Stone, Voldy decided to keep a closer eye on him. I don’t know why – after all, Quirrell successfully broke into the vault. It’s not his fault there was nothing in it. It would make more sense for Voldy to have moved in after Halloween, when Quirrell did actually fail at something, or for the reason to simply be that he wanted to be in Hogwarts.

Also, where was Voldy prior to this? How did he manage to punish Quirrell, either before or after?

Quirrell’s voice tailed away. Harry was remembering his trip to Diagon Alley – how could he have been so stupid? He’d seen Quirrell there that very day, shaken hands with him in the Leaky Cauldron.

Harry, you have indeed been extremely stupid all book, but I don’t think anyone could have expected you to meet your new teacher in a magic pub and immediately figure out that he was evil and working for or possessed by the thing that killed your parents. Though that point about shaking hands is worth remembering for later.

Quirrell returns to blathering to himself about the mirror, and instead of thinking about the fact that he’s literally just been told that Voldemort is apparently in the room with them, Harry also carries on thinking about the mirror. What he wants at that moment more than anything else is to find the Stone before Quirrell does, he reasons, so if he can look in it now he’ll see himself finding it.

Personally, if I were being imprisoned by a dangerous wizard with the possibility of Lord Voldemort being there somewhere, I would be wanting to get the hell out of there more than anything else and I really wouldn’t give a flying fuck about a shiny rock, but maybe that’s just me. Harry’s complete lack of fear or emotion is even more noticeable now than it has been all book, because Rowling is more concerned with telling the readers the plot than with writing human characters. There’s no drama here at all. Why does he want to find the Stone over staying alive? Apart from anything else, he should be assuming that if he somehow did find the Stone Quirrell would just take it off him.

Harry tries to move over to look in the mirror, despite the fact that he already knows it won’t work if there’s more than one person in front of it, and falls over because he’s somehow forgotten that his legs are tied together. Quirrell ignores him, too busy talking to invisible people and asking for help figuring out what the mirror does – oh, come on, Harry figured it out and he’s clearly unbelievably stupid; how have you not worked this out? Apart from anything else it is literally written on the top of the frame.

Anyway, a disembodied voice says to ‘Use the boy…‘ and I’m really not sure how that’s supposed to help. Why does Voldy think Harry will see where the Stone is? An actual human boy would be terrified and would see himself somewhere safe and not tied up. Quirrell doesn’t question it and calls Harry, clapping his hands to remove the ropes.

Spell count: Hermione, 11. Quirrell, 3. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Neville, 1. Harry, 0.

Why untie him if you think he warrants tying up in the first place? Levitate him. And if he didn’t need to be tied up, then why did you do so earlier? It’s not as if it made Harry feel helpless and scared, or caused him any pain, or added anything else to the scene. Also, Harry, this would be a great time to try to run away. Or to try to fight. You told Hermione you’d fight Snape, so why won’t you fight someone else? I suppose it might make sense if we remember Harry had to have it explained to him that some people are motivated by things other than personal vendettas. Except that doesn’t work, because surely he should consider Voldemort worth fighting. I guess this is just one of many instances in the series where Harry/Rowling seems to forget that Snape is not his arch-nemesis.

Harry walks over and looks in the mirror, and just sees his reflection. Then his reflection winks, pulls the Stone out of its pocket and holds it up, then puts it back in its pocket, and Harry feels something drop into his pocket and immediately concludes that somehow he’s got the Stone. I admit that’s a logical conclusion, but this is not a logical world, and I don’t believe he’d be able to stop himself reflexively checking. And what would have happened if he’d been wearing something without pockets big enough to hold it? It’s a nice image so I don’t want to be too harsh on it, but it makes no more sense than anything else in this scene. And, of course, Harry doesn’t react to this either. No triumph, no relief, no confusion, no fear that it’ll be discovered.

So… why didn’t Quirrell see this? He doesn’t want to use the Stone. He just wants to find it so he can give it to his master. He should see himself finding it. The ‘find it but not use it’ loophole we’re told about later should only apply if he’d turned around and let Voldy look into it (which they should have tried anyway).

Pressed to describe what he sees, Harry stammers that he’s shaking hands with Dumbledore after winning the House Cup. I like this; it’s an incredibly stupid lie, and it’s the kind of thing a scared eleven year old would come up with when forced to think of something very quickly (this is more believable than his impressive poker face about having acquired the Stone, though not consistent with that). Disappointingly, Quirrell actually believes him and tells him to bugger off out of the way, and it takes the disembodied voice to point out that he’s obviously lying.

Harry does finally consider trying to run away, but gets interrupted by Quirrell yelling at him before he can realise that actually there’s nowhere to run to except the room where the potions were. He can’t leave because Hermione drank the potion that lets you backtrack past that point. If he’d realised he was trapped we could have seen some good reactions from him and his actions for the rest of the scene would have made much more sense, but no.

The voice demands to speak to Harry face to face, and despite allegedly being terrified of his master, Quirrell argues that he’s not strong enough. Strong enough to do what? Talk? He’s been talking for a couple of pages, he clearly is. Strong enough to look at Harry? I suppose the implication is ‘strong enough to use Legilimency’ but that doesn’t exist at this point in the series and I don’t think this fragment of Voldy would be able to do it anyway. Quirrell unwraps his turban and turns around…

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

To be fair, this is pretty creepy. Though there’s still no description of Harry’s emotions. This is, of course, Lord Voldemort, who launches into an entirely unprompted and unnecessary monologue about how weak and pitiful he is in this form that immediately sucks the remaining shreds of drama out of the scene. I think it might be supposed to show how hard he’s been working to come back and how desperate he is for something like the Stone so he can get out of his current situation, but it’s still a really bad writing choice and not in character for him either. Our first look at the villain and he instantly tells us that he’s not scary. I’m going to quote his full speech here so I can pick it apart because almost all of it is complete nonsense.

‘See what I have become?’ the face said. ‘Mere shadow and vapour … I have form only when I can share another’s body … but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds … Unicorn blood has strengthened me, these past weeks … you saw faithful Quirrell drinking it for me in the Forest … and once I have the Elixir of Life, I will be able to create a body of my own … Now … why don’t you give me that Stone in your pocket?’

So, Voldy was completely incorporeal when Quirrell first met him and was presumably just a voice in his head. Why did Quirrell listen? Why is Quirrell doing all this? We’re told later that he was greedy and ambitious, but that doesn’t explain why he thought this plan would work. And Pottermore completely contradicted it anyway, by saying that Quirrell actually set out to try to defeat the shadowy remnant of Voldemort to prove himself and was then somehow compelled or enthralled. (Of course we can’t double-check this now, since Pottermore has removed almost all its content in order to charge people for books of it.)

Possession apparently requires consent. Quirrell was scared of Voldy by that point (I don’t know why; how did a disembodied voice punish him for anything?) so why did he agree?

How did the unicorn blood do anything?

How will the elixir help create a body? It grants immortality to anyone who drinks it. You have to already have your own body if you want to use it.

And of course, how can Voldy possibly know that Harry has the Stone?

Also, why is he telling us all this? Voldy has even less reason to waste time explaining himself to Harry than Quirrell did. This is stupid.

We’re going to have to stop here and take a long hard look at Quirrellmort. Leaving aside the logistics of just how possession is possible in this universe, or any other – fuck it, it’s magic – why has it manifested physically? It’s never explicitly called possession, but whatever you call it, Voldemort’s spirit has taken up residence in Quirrell. As far as I’m concerned, he should either just be a voice in Quirrell’s mind that nobody else can hear, or have taken over completely and control the body. I don’t understand how this halfway state is possible.

How does it work, physically? The back of Quirrell’s skull appears to have opened out and formed eye sockets, a nasal cavity and a pair of jaws complete with teeth and tongue. Both faces are sharing the same skull, so there’s apparently only one brain, which can’t possibly work – at the very least you’d need two sets of sensory receptors and processors and two speech centres, or else the second face would be blind and mute, and both entities seem to have their own personalities and memories, but there isn’t space inside a single skull for two full brains. Voldy can speak, hissing or not, so his face has its own throat, larynx and windpipe; Quirrell’s neck seems to be normal size, so those must connect to the existing ones and lead to a single set of lungs for both faces. I’m not sure if either of them have ears by this point – obviously both of them can hear, but the ears would be around the point where the two faces join. Does Quirrell have any hair left around the seam, or not? Does Voldy’s face grow facial hair? How on earth do they bathe? Inquiring minds want to know.

We’ve been trying and failing for some time to imagine what the structure of this head must be like. How can you have a skull with two fully articulated jaws attached? It seems that ends up leaving no room for a neck to attach… or if one does attach, does the trachea etc branch out into a forked shape going to the two mouths separately? What’s between them? And if there is somehow a way to put this ludicrous mess together, how the fuck does it stay the same size and shape as a single ordinary skull/head, such that it looks perfectly normal if you cover the back half with cloth?

Voldy must have been incredibly uncomfortable spending literally all year wrapped in layers of cloth. He’d be unable to see and would have to hold his breath and allow Quirrell to breathe for both of them, which would probably affect whatever throat structures his face has. And this whole setup is extremely undignified – I find it hard to accept that Voldy would ever consider this plan no matter how desperate he is. There were other options, since this was only meant to be temporary. An animal, or a small child, or a Muggle, or someone too weak to resist – someone or something he could take over completely without compromising his only minion’s body.

How were Quirrellmort planning to use the Stone if they did find it? I don’t know how you get the elixir of immortality out of it – it doesn’t seem to be secreting it and there’s no indication of a tap or something else silly – but even assuming Quirrellmort knows, despite neither half being mentioned to know anything about alchemy, then what? Voldy has no digestive system of his own, so Quirrell has to be the one to drink it, just like he did with the unicorn blood (more on that in a moment) which would just give Voldy eternity stuck on the back of his skull. Voldy says he’s going to use it to literally create a new body, which is not how it works either in this universe or in the real stories about the Philosopher’s Stone. If that was what the Flamels had actually done, someone would have said so by now.

And the same applies to the unicorn blood. What was that supposed to achieve? It will keep you alive even if you are an inch from death – which neither Quirrell nor Voldemort were. Unless the possession was killing the shared body, in which case we should have been told that. And, again, Voldy isn’t the one drinking it, so how does it strengthen him? Is the Voldemort face somehow sufficiently fully formed to have its own throat, so Quirrell will be drinking the stuff through the back of his head? Presumably not, since Harry saw the thing he thought was Snape drinking the blood before and there was no description of the insane contortions you’d need to get the back of your head to a particular point at ground level without lying down. What is it strengthening? Why is it providing strength, when that’s not what we’ve been told it does?

You know what would have fixed a lot of this, and made this scene a hell of a lot more creepy? Have Quirrell remove his turban and turn around to show just the back of his completely bald head. Harry is confused for a moment, and then Voldemort’s face physically pushes through the back of Quirrell’s skull and starts talking. If it’s a temporary manifestation rather than a permanent physical conjoined twin, some of the problems go away.

Take it a step further. Assume that the possession is killing Quirrell’s body, and that’s why they needed the unicorn blood. Their goal is to get the Philosopher’s Stone, but they don’t want to use it because until Voldemort has his own body there’s not really any point; they want it to blackmail Nicolas Flamel, who is renowned as the world’s greatest alchemist. By controlling the source of the thing keeping him and his beloved wife alive, they can force him to use alchemy to create a body for Voldemort.

Someone write this for me. I want to read it. It doesn’t solve all the problems – for instance, why the hell did Flamel agree to the Stone being moved to Hogwarts in the first place? We have a couple of theories about that to discuss later – but it’s a start.

Anyway, back with the smoking crater where the plot used to be, Voldy’s just announced that he somehow knows Harry’s somehow got the MacGuffin. Harry staggers back (while still failing to actually feel anything) and Voldy tells him not to be stupid and to save himself instead of dying like his parents, who both died begging for mercy. Harry screams, ‘LIAR!‘ but since this is not accompanied by any feelings I see no reason to pay attention to the capslock; I don’t feel charitable enough. Also, why does it matter if this is true or not? If they had died begging for mercy it would have been completely understandable and nothing to be ashamed of.

Quirrell starts walking menacingly backwards towards him, so Voldy can laugh at him. I really wish he’d then tripped over because at this point this scene is so ludicrous that slapstick might actually help. Voldy says, ‘I always value bravery‘, which must surely be sarcasm, and for some reason feels the need to immediately take back the apparent insult by telling Harry that actually no his parents did die bravely and that Lily didn’t need to die at all but was trying to protect him, before demanding the Stone again.

Harry doesn’t need to be told this in order to give you the rock, Voldy. He clearly doesn’t like you, he’s not going to be swayed by you telling him his parents were awesome really. This is typical bad villain writing: have them make a stupid offer it’d make no sense for the hero to want, so the hero can refuse and look virtuous without having to actually wrestle with difficult decisions. Take the Stone off him. He’s a skinny eleven year old boy with all the magical ability of a bucket of potato peelings. Summon the thing, or knock him over and physically take it out of his pocket. Or, and here’s an idea, kill him.

You can try to handwave this as Voldy not being quite sure how Harry survived last time and not wanting to trigger that again, but there are so many other ways to deal with him. Tip the mirror over onto him. Smash it and use the broken glass. Throw something at his head. Drag him back into the potion room and force all the other bottles down his throat. Throttle him. Set him on fire. Honestly, how does Voldy not realise that the way you use magic against a magic-resistant foe is to use it to create a non-magical threat? Blow up the floor. Launch a physical projectile. Collapse the ceiling on him. This kind of solution has even become a sort of cliché, because it is that bloody obvious. There is no excuse. Even if you’re too scared of side effects to kill him, tie him up again or knock him out or paralyse him.

I can appreciate that this wouldn’t be very dramatic and Harry can’t be much of a hero if he’s incapacitated (and obviously the main reason for not killing him is because the story is about him and ends if he dies for real), but it would inject some actual peril into the situation. Right now there’s no reason to be scared for Harry because a) Voldemort has already told us what a useless villain he is and b) there is absolutely no threat. I can’t fault Harry for not being scared at this point because by now he’s had time to realise there’s nothing to be scared of. Besides, he’s a child, he can’t be much of a hero anyway. I would have simply written him as stalling for time, since he knows Hermione’s gone to fetch help; all he has to do is stay alive and try to keep hold of the Stone until Dumbles shows up. That’s still pretty heroic for a kid his age. The rest of this scene isn’t remotely needed, adds nothing to anyone’s characterisation and creates about a billion plot holes large enough to swallow galaxies, as we’ll see shortly.

Apart from anything else, Voldy’s just demonstrated that he understands perfectly clearly what happened when Lily died, despite all Dumbles’ later claims that he can’t understand sacrifice.

Harry finally, finally decides to run away, and if he’d thought of this earlier and realised he was trapped this could be a much more interesting decision. Despite his apparent incredible speed we’ve been told about for most of the book (remember ‘Harry Hunting’?) and the fact that Quirrell has to turn around to chase him – without getting motion sickness from two sets of eyes both providing sensory input – he manages maybe two steps before Quirrell grabs him. Physically grabs his wrist (luckily Harry is apparently wearing short sleeves, rather than his fetching red jumper from the movie). What happened to the magic-rope spell? Can’t you invent stunning spells a book or two early? Why isn’t Quirrellmort bright enough to realise Harry can’t go anywhere – did they somehow not know Hermione and Ron came with him originally? Were they really not clever enough to leave some means of knowing who would follow them down?

Harry’s scar suddenly hurts so badly that he yells, and Quirrell lets go. Instead of carrying on running, Harry looks around to find out why and sees Quirrell holding his blistered hand, and Voldy screams, ‘SEIZE HIM!

Quirrell has by this point completely forgotten that he can do magic, and also shows less common sense than infants or animals by immediately jumping to grab the thing that just burned him. He tackles Harry to the ground and starts trying to strangle him, then screams about his hands and lets go. For some reason Harry’s scar is hurting throughout all this. Quirrell’s hands are now badly burned, and Voldy snaps, ‘Then kill him, fool, and be done!’ which is what I’ve been saying for the last half-dozen chapters. Quirrell lifts a hand to do just that – I do wonder why he’s not using a wand – and Harry instinctively reaches up to grab his face.

I actually like this. It’s a good panic reaction – don’t question why it works, just accept that it does and try to use it, worry about it afterwards. I just doubt that Harry’s instincts, which have proved to be completely useless thus far, would prompt him to do it; he seems to work it out far too quickly, particularly given that by this point he ought to be exhausted and battered and have some sort of emotional response if he were written at all realistically. Plus, of course, that this whole thing is nonsense – more on that in the next scene.

Quirrell screams a lot, unsurprisingly, and recoils with his face blistering. Harry pauses to explicitly tell the readers that Quirrell gets burned whenever he touches Harry’s skin, which again should be saved for the next scene, then scrambles up and runs to grab Quirrell’s arm to keep him too distracted to cast spells. This is quite possibly the first genuinely sensible thing Harry has done all book. Quirrell is screaming in pain, Voldy is screaming for Quirrell to kill Harry (you would think Voldy would feel the burns as well, but apparently he can’t tell when his host body is hurt) and voices are screaming Harry’s name; for a single glorious paragraph we get a genuine dramatic, chaotic action scene.

Then Harry passes out, for honestly no reason that I can fathom since nothing’s actually happening to him, and the scene ends.

When Harry regains consciousness he sees something gold glittering in front of him, and automatically tries to catch the snitch, but his arms are too heavy. After a moment he realises it’s not the snitch, it’s someone’s glasses, and then he recognises Dumbledore. I like this, it captures his disorientation well. I also like that a moment later he remembers what was happening when he passed out and starts yelling that Quirrell has the Stone; it’s nice to see him dedicated to what’s left of the plot.

Dumbledore talks to him extremely patronisingly:

‘Calm yourself, dear boy, you are a little behind the times,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Quirrell does not have the Stone.’
‘Then who does? Sir, I –’
‘Harry, please relax, or Madam Pomfrey will have me thrown out.’

Note Dumbledore interrupting Harry the moment he asks a question. This will happen constantly throughout the scene, though if you’re not watching for it it’s easy to miss because Harry doesn’t ask very many questions after this initial promising start. He looks around and confirms that he’s in the hospital wing, and there’s a table by his bed that’s piled high with sweets which Dumbledore tells him are presents from his ‘friends and admirers’.

Well, his friends aren’t old enough to go into Hogsmeade and buy sweets, and one would hope they’re too busy worrying about him to have fussed about getting him candy, but I suppose this is sort of cute. It’s nice that people are acknowledging that Harry (allegedly) did something cool, at least. Though it’s worth noting that Harry’s friends are going to be hospitalised fairly frequently over the series and he’s not going to reciprocate. Dumbledore adds that the Terrible Twins tried to send him a toilet seat but it was confiscated – I can appreciate the nod to the beginning of the book, but even on repeat readings I barely remember that conversation and Harry heard it most of a year ago so I’m not convinced it would mean much to him. I’m not convinced the twins would remember, come to that. Dumbledore remarks:

‘What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally, the whole school knows.’

I like this line, I admit, but it’s also nonsense. We have to assume at this point that the staff were indeed watching somehow – even if it was just Dumbles getting there relatively early and eavesdropping instead of helping – but there is absolutely no way the students could know. I can’t see either Ron or Hermione telling anyone any of the real details, and neither of them knew it was Quirrell at all (and they must have been very confused the first time they saw Snape after this was all over). The only ones who know for certain are Harry, who was unconscious, and Dumbledore. Who must therefore have been the one to tell everyone.

We’re also running into another recurring issue here; the question of belief. If someone tells you that a boy has faced down evil incarnate sharing bodies with one of the teachers in a secret obstacle course underneath the school, how likely is it that you’d believe it? Even allowing for the fact that this is Hogwarts and batshit stuff happens here all the time? The wizarding world as a whole does not believe that Voldy will ever return. Everyone except Dumbles and his allies thinks he’s permanently dead. And nobody dislikes or respects Quirrell, who’s been a figure of mild ridicule all year and not seen as either powerful or evil. Fluffy isn’t general knowledge, nor was what happened to the unicorns. The children aren’t going to believe a story like this, particularly ones with family members who are or were followers of Voldemort. Harry will go through this many times over the series. Sometimes nobody believes a word of it. Sometimes, like this instance, everyone will believe every detail without question. Very rarely do we get a natural mix of opinions.

Harry’s already losing interest in finding out what happened, and instead asks how long he’s been in here. Three days, apparently. Because when a child is in a coma for three days the best course of action is to assume they’ll wake up eventually and leave them to it, rather than taking them to hospital so specialists can find out why they’re in a coma. Particularly when said child is a super-important special snowflake. Dumbledore does add that Ron and Hermione have been really worried about him, which is nice.

Harry makes one last effort to ask what happened. Dumbledore once again interrupts him mid-question, but does explain a very small amount – Quirrell does not have the Stone, and he arrived in time to pull Quirrell away from Harry. It should have been the other way around: when Harry blacked out, he was the one grabbing Quirrell. Also, Dumbledore has apparently joined the ranks of wizards who forget they can use magic.

‘I feared I might be too late.’
‘You nearly were, I couldn’t have kept him off the Stone much longer –’
‘Not the Stone, boy, you – the effort involved nearly killed you.’

What effort? Harry wasn’t actually doing anything except holding onto someone, nor was Quirrell doing anything to him. And why exactly was Harry unconscious anyway, let alone comatose for three days? We’re never going to find out, of course.

Dumbledore keeps talking about the magic rock before Harry can ask another question, and says that the Stone has been destroyed. Harry is understandably confused by this and asks, what about Flamel? Dumbledore praises Harry for having found out about Nicolas, and says they’ve ‘had a little chat and agree that it’s all for the best’.

Harry finds this about as unbelievable as I do, at least for a moment, and points out that will mean the Flamels will die. Yes, Dumbledore agrees, so what? Eternal life’s not that great, and death’s actually something to look forward to (this is where that famous line about “the next great adventure” shows up).

This is quite a horrifying message for a children’s book, when you really stop to think about it. And with hindsight once you’ve finished the series, you can see quite clearly that Dumbledore is already grooming Harry to be a good little sacrificial lamb and not make a fuss or try to find an alternative answer.

In any case, I highly doubt that the Flamels are going to throw away six hundred years because they’ve finally realised that someone might want their magic rock that grants immortality and infinite wealth. I don’t buy that they’d give it to Dumbledore to keep in the same building as the person they know wants to steal it, either. My theory is that either the Stone was a fake, or they have more than one. I assume that Nicolas knows Dumbledore well by this point, and is planning to fake their deaths and disappear to another country with the Stone and carry on living peacefully.

Understandably Harry’s lost for words, unable to understand why his Wise Old Mentor is spouting the author’s need for therapy, and lies quietly for a while before asking whether Voldemort’s going to keep trying to come back.

Um, Harry, you don’t know whether Voldy came back this time. You don’t know what happened to Quirrellmort. You’ve asked about the magic rock, and that’s good. Now how about asking what happened to the bad guys? Flamel is interesting but he’s hardly as important as Quirrell or Voldemort.

We were rather surprised at this point to find we didn’t remember how this chapter goes in the book and were both remembering the film. In the book, we never find out what actually happens to Quirrell. We don’t even know if he dies or not. I’m serious; go look it up. Harry blacks out while Quirrell is still very much alive, and he wasn’t burned badly enough to die from it. So what happened to him? Dumbles will tell us shortly that Voldy left him to die, i.e. abandoned the possession and floated off into the ether, but we’re not actually told that Quirrell then did die. He wasn’t arrested, because Harry would have had to give evidence. Really, the only conclusion here is that Dumbledore either killed him or arranged for him to be taken away and questioned – and he will never be seen or heard from again, which is pretty sinister. It’s also worth remembering that Quirrell has drunk unicorn blood; presumably it won’t stop the Killing Curse, but in general it’s going to make him harder to kill.

Harry’s not going to ask. It’s pretty clear Rowling never realised she didn’t let him see the end of the story, and for the rest of the chapter the conversation will proceed as if he knows both Quirrell and this particular aspect of Voldy are dead. And, of course, Harry’s not thinking about any of the answers he’s receiving – this whole scene is really badly written. Harry has a list of interview questions he’s required to ask, but he doesn’t actually seem to care what the answers are; Rowling has a list of plot points she wants Dumbledore to say and has created questions that will give these answers. It’s not a natural conversation between two human beings and it’s often only tangentially related to what’s actually happened in the book.

Dumbledore agrees that yes, Voldy’s going to keep trying to come back: “Not being truly alive, he cannot be killed.” This is an interesting line. It implies that the only way to get rid of him for good is to let him win and come back first, which would explain why the plot of the fourth book somehow worked despite there being about a billion ways for Hogwarts to have stopped it. You do have to wonder how Dumbles knows this, though – it’s a hell of a gamble if he’s just guessing.

Also, if Voldy’s effectively immortal in his ghost state, what the hell is he trying to do? He doesn’t need his own body as long as he has one minion willing to provide a series of meat puppets for him to possess. We know now he’s not immortal at all and just has extra respawns (well, if he wants an actual body; it seems he could remain indefinitely in this disembodied state with no consequences), and needs to find a permanent answer before he uses them all, but the Horcruxes emphatically had not been thought of at this point.

Dumbledore adds that all Harry did was delay the inevitable, but that that’s still a really good thing and maybe if enough people do just that then maybe they can stop him coming back at all – which would be a much better line if it didn’t contradict the line I just quoted, which immediately preceded it. You can’t have it both ways, Rowling.

Though we had an interesting diversion talking about how the series might have progressed if she’d gone with this latter option of just permanently delaying Voldy’s return rather than properly defeating him. It would have played out like a comic book series, and could have turned into a long-running serial of shorter, mostly-independent episodic stories. Honestly, I think that would be better suited to Rowling’s writing; she’s proved over and over again that she can’t successfully pace long novels spanning a calendar year. She could have pared out a lot of the side plots that didn’t work or were poorly handled, and an episodic format would have smoothed over a lot of characterisation issues. Though it would have been a pretty crap book to read, so there’s that, I suppose.

There is one question I really want answered at this point. What was Dumbledore expecting to happen? He clearly knew about Quirrellmort and presumably knew they’d be able to get past all the obstacles. It seems logical that the plan was to set them up, so while they were trying to figure out how to get hold of the Stone they could be arrested and imprisoned or executed or straight-up murdered or whatever finally happened to Quirrell. Equally, though, Dumbledore must have known Harry was going to follow, hence the plausible fan theory that this was also a test for Harry. Assuming that Harry was capable of getting through all the obstacles (a bold assumption given his lack of any skills beyond Quidditch) or assuming that his friends would help him, then what? There was no chance of him actually defeating Quirrell in a fight, so either Dumbledore assumed he’d never make it that far or it was a gamble that whatever magic Sue-power saved him before would activate again. That’s a hell of a risk to take with the ‘Chosen One’. Honestly, even going full tin-foil-hat and casting Dumbledore as a straight villain doesn’t justify this plan. I can’t really find any scenario that does.

A better way of ending this book would be to have the message that the teachers had set up a trap for Quirrell, they had their own plan and he would have been arrested the moment he touched the Stone (or don’t let Harry get the Stone in the first place, get rid of the mirror thing entirely and have it be booby-trapped), and that by not trusting them and interfering Harry screwed everything up. It would need to have been handled more carefully than I think Rowling can manage, but if done right it would have told Harry that he needs to think before he acts and needs to have more faith in the adult witches and wizards around him, while at the same time having the adults concede that they should have explained enough of what was happening to reassure him. It would explain that yes, it was risky to have this all take place at the school, but Hogwarts is really important, some of the teachers are more than just teachers and there are maybe other reasons not to fully trust other institutions such as the Ministry. You could set up a lot of things for later books.

Ah, well. Harry says vaguely there’s some other stuff he’d like to know and can he have the truth please? He doesn’t sound like a child. Dumbledore essentially scolds him for wanting the truth, but says okay sure unless I don’t want to answer you, and adds: “I shall not, of course, lie.”

If someone ever tells you, unprompted, that they’re not going to lie to you, do not believe a word they say ever again. Especially if they add ‘of course’.

Harry’s first question is ‘so why did Voldemort want to kill me in the first place?’ and while this is a completely reasonable question, he’s had all year to try to find out. He could have asked Hagrid, or asked Dumbledore earlier when they met and talked about the mirror, or he could have asked if Hermione had read anything about it (since she told him when they first met that she’d read quite a lot about him) or he could have tried to look it up himself. No, he wouldn’t have found the answer, but that would give him a reason to ask now and would show the readers he actually does want to know. He’s known Voldemort was floating around since Firenze told him in the forest. So why now? He’s never even wondered about it to himself before now.

Dumbledore refuses to answer, naturally, and says, “When you are older … I know you hate to hear this … when you are ready, you will know.” I don’t know how he knows Harry hates being told this, since as far as I know he never has been, but maybe he means children in general. I have to read this as Rowling having no idea at this stage, because when you think about it there’s absolutely no reason not to tell Harry at least some of the truth. What would be the problem with telling him, “Voldy heard a psychic say you’re going to be a threat to him so he was trying to pre-empt it”? That’s a perfectly reasonable answer.

Harry abandons the subject like a good little doormat and moves on to his next question, why Quirrell couldn’t touch him. A better question would be why Rowling included this sub-plot at all. None of her floundering attempts to explain it over the series make sense. It’s incoherent, it’s stupid, a lot of it ends up being unintentionally insulting or just plain horrible, and it’s completely unnecessary. We’re going to have to pause to rant about some of it here, but we’re barely going to scratch the surface and will be forced to revisit it several times in future books.

Here is Dumbledore’s full answer; I don’t really want to quote such large chunks of the book in this post, but literally every sentence needs discussing.

“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”

Harry’s going to pause here and once again think and feel absolutely nothing (though apparently needing to wipe his eyes; it would be nice if the book actually said he was crying) so before he moves on to the next question on his checklist, let’s talk about this.

Let’s start with ‘Your mother died to save you.’ No, she didn’t. We’re never told that James and Lily were aware of the prophecy, or were ever told just why they were in danger and had to hide. She didn’t know why Voldemort wanted to kill Harry but the boy was barely a year old; her getting killed just meant delaying the inevitable for a few more seconds.  Dumbledore is implying that she did it deliberately, knowing that her sacrifice would protect Harry, but we’re told later in the series that this is very old and very rare magic that almost nobody knows anything about; I can’t believe James and Lily, who weren’t even bright enough to have an escape route, could have known about it. They were both apparently talented magic users (which is an incredibly low bar in this universe) but that doesn’t mean they would have learned about something obscure. She may have died hoping someone would show up in time to save Harry, but she can’t really have thought it was likely.

But okay, let’s assume maybe she really did die deliberately to save Harry. Honestly, I could almost be willing to swallow the whole ‘someone loving you a lot means bad guys can’t touch you’ tripe in this universe if it wasn’t for the fact that it only works for Lily. James died to give Lily time to get Harry away; why didn’t that protect Lily? The Death Eaters are pretty useless villains but they did kill people fairly frequently and there’s no way she was the only parent to die trying to save their children. Frank and Alice let themselves be tortured into insanity rather than betray the Order – I’d call that a loving sacrifice; why didn’t that protect anybody?

Though the sacrifice thing is retconned in later, in one of Rowling’s many attempts to explain this nonsense. Here, Dumbledore implies that just the love is enough. If someone loves you enough, you’re invincible forever. Basically, if anyone gets hurt it’s just because nobody loves them enough. Don’t you just love the victim-blaming bullshit?

And yet Harry’s protection normally doesn’t kick in. He gets hurt by other people all the time and nothing happens to them. You can handwave Petunia and Dudley, because they’re blood relatives, but Vernon, and the boys in Dudley’s gang, should have been burned every time they hit him. Draco’s going to physically assault him a few times in later books too, if I recall correctly, and I’m sure some of the Death Eaters/other assorted bad guys must do. And remember when Harry and Quirrell shook hands in the pub? There was a distinct lack of screaming and burning. You can’t handwave it as somehow being able to detect the difference between skin contact and physical injury, or as requiring a certain level of malicious intent, because Quirrell wasn’t trying to hurt him when it first triggered during the fight or when Harry went after him and grabbed him at the end.

You can’t handwave it as only reacting to Voldy either, because Voldy himself wasn’t harmed by this. Rowling’s idea of the power of love is that it’s a big weapon that burns an abused minion (possibly) to death and lets the actual villain fly away unharmed. Voldemort doesn’t even feel any pain when Quirrell touches Harry. Dumbledore implies that Quirrell was only burned because he was just that much of an awful person (‘sharing his soul with Voldemort‘ is an afterthought in that sentence, and don’t get me started on how sharing your body does not mean sharing your soul if those are two separate things) but was he really worse than the Dark Lord? We’ve certainly never seen any sign that Quirrell is ‘full of hate‘.

Why would a magical protection only guard against physical dangers anyway? Okay, almost everyone in this whole damned book has been using muscle for everything and forgetting they can actually cast spells, but even so. Something like this magic love incineration power thing shouldn’t be so specific, it either protects you or it doesn’t. And if it’s in Harry’s skin and burns bad people who touch him, how did it originally block the Killing Curse? It doesn’t block any other magic that’s used against him over the course of the series. And after this it doesn’t block physical dangers ever again either, he still gets beaten up a lot.

So let’s review. Lily loved Harry so much that Quirrell sometimes couldn’t touch him without getting burned and that the Killing Curse didn’t work. But not enough to stop anyone else touching him, hurting him and using magic against him, including Voldemort as long as he avoids Avada Kedavra. Though still apparently more than anyone else has ever loved any of the characters in this series. That is bizarrely specific, so much so that I don’t see how it’s possible. Also Quirrell, despite all the hints that he’s being coerced into this, is apparently so evil that he can’t stand contact with someone who was loved, but every other villain in the series isn’t. As far as I remember, anyway. We’ll try to remember to keep an eye out for who has physical contact with Harry.

And we find out later that somehow this protection evaporates when Harry turns seventeen anyway, and also only applies as long as his home address contains one of Lily’s blood relatives. I’m not even going to try to explain that one.

Of course, there’s another objection to this whole theory, beyond bad writing and lack of any explanation that makes sense. It’s yet another passive ability that requires nothing from Harry except existing. Someone else did it for him and he doesn’t have to take any action to activate it. Even this early in the series, this is depressing, and we know it’s only going to get worse.

It’s possible Rowling herself realised that this is all a load of horseshit, because as far as we can remember the concept of this protection only crops up on a couple of other occasions after this. Pity she wasn’t brave enough to retcon it by having Dumbledore admit later that he doesn’t actually know what happened and was making up a pretty lie to make Harry feel better.

Moving on from the Magic Love Incineration (that sounds like an anime/manga title), Dumbledore says Voldy is unable to understand love and sacrifice. Voldy has already said he knows full well that Lily died unnecessarily in an attempt to save Harry. In later books Voldy will confirm that he knows all about the burning love thing, and there is nobody who could possibly have told him about it, so he clearly figures it out easily enough on his own. Voldy is obviously intended to be a sociopath, and sociopaths are able to understand emotions perfectly well because they’re skilled at using them against their victims. Just because they don’t feel them themselves doesn’t mean they don’t understand them in the abstract. Frankly, I would argue that Voldemort probably understands more about love than Dumbledore does.

Which brings me to my next point – why is this theory coming from Dumbledore? At this point in the series it’s not a strange choice, I grant you, but looking back in hindsight given what we know of his character, it doesn’t make sense. Dumbledore is choosing to live as an asexual/aromantic, his sole remaining relative hates him, he was distant from his family while they were alive, and he lies to and manipulates anyone who considers themselves a friend, with the possible exception of Grindelwald who he later betrayed. Certainly his actions towards Harry aren’t particularly loving, no matter how many emotional remarks he makes. I know I’m biased because I really don’t like him, but I don’t see Dumbledore understanding anything about love or sacrifice – he’s only prepared to die for his cause once he knows he’s already dying.

It wouldn’t be possible to have anyone else explain it to Harry at this point in the series, really – the only sensible candidate right now is Hagrid, who wouldn’t have the education to know this is possible. But if it were left for a later book, it could be handled by someone like Molly Weasley, who is unaccountably Harry’s surrogate mother-figure – the one Harry never writes to or even thinks of unless he’s standing in her house even though she’s inexplicably devoted to him as much as to her own children despite only seeing him for a few days a year. Or by Sirius or Lupin, who the narrative insists are both capable of love. Or even McGonagall, since the backstory we never see in the books talks about all her deep family connections, and she really should be more of a mentor to Harry as his Head of House than an old man he barely sees.

[Mitchell here. I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s possible to steelman any of this, because I don’t want to leave anything hanging some apologist could glom onto as a gotcha, so let’s see.

I don’t think it’s clear whether or not we’re meant to believe Quirrell was possessed when Harry met him in Diagon. The turban isn’t mentioned – he’s just “a pale young man” – but he’s already shaky and stuttering and Hagrid mentions he’s been off ever since travelling (“scared of the students, scared of his own subject” – also interesting because this implies he returned from his trip and saw students, which would mean the trip took place earlier than this summer… we know Rowling’s not good with timelines). I know the most common interpretation is that, at this point, he’d already encountered Voldemort and was working for him, but the actual possession didn’t happen until after he failed to get the Stone from Gringotts (I was going to call this a failed bank robbery, but actually he seems to have gotten in and out just fine, it was only unsuccessful because the Stone was not there to steal), either as punishment or because Voldy wanted to act more directly. And that’s definitely a possibility, but I’m not entirely sure it’s what Rowling intended.

Quirrell pretty explicitly states here that the stuttering is an affectation, meant to make him look weak and pitiful, but honestly that’s a pretty terrible plan. It ends up working on Harry and friends (and first-time readers, I think) because they immediately assume he’s an underdog, but those are not the people Quirrell/Voldy should be aiming to deceive. One would think he’d want to keep his behaviour as similar as possible to how he was previously, so as not to arouse suspicion among the other staff and older students who’d known him before. But I guess if he’d done that, we couldn’t have had the hints about how there’s something off about him dropped early on as a Chekhov’s gun sort of thing, for people to notice and be “astounded” at how it was there all along on rereads. Plot first, characterisation second; that seems to be a hallmark of the hack writer and Rowling rarely deviates from it.

I have to wonder if she’d originally intended the stutter/etc to be a symptom of the possession, but realised she didn’t want to have to write long rambling monologues in the supposed climax with it, and changed her mind? (In fairness, that’s not necessarily a terrible thought, because it would be annoying to read, but if that was her reasoning I don’t think she justified it well enough, and the end result seems to have been talking out both sides of her mouth.)

Regardless, the charitable reading is that magical love incineration power is specifically keyed to work only on Voldemort (which is pretty lousy for a shielding power) and therefore only hurts Quirrell when he’s actually possessed. But as Loten’s already explained in detail, there are plenty of problems even in that scenario (it harms Quirrell, not Voldy’s spirit), so I don’t care, it’s still utter fail in my book.]

In any case, Harry still has no thoughts about any of this and is ready to move on to his next interview question, so let’s leave this mess and return to what passes for the plot.

His next question is about the magic bedsheet and who sent it to him. Dumbledore says it was him – James ‘happened’ to leave it with him, and he thought it would be a good idea to give it to an eleven year old. He tells us blithely that James mostly used it to steal food from the kitchens. Ha fucking ha. This sounds a lot more wholesome than the truth (hey, remember when Dumbles assured us he wasn’t going to lie?) but I’d have liked to see if Harry would finally have a reaction to something if Dumbledore had told him James mostly used it to sneak up on his victims and to sneak dangerous monsters out of their cages.

Not even trying to pretend to respond to this, Harry says he has another question, and Dumbledore uses the decidedly un-wizardly phrase ‘Fire away‘. It’s Harry’s favourite obsession (apart from Draco) – Snape. Interestingly, Dumbledore corrects this to Professor Snape – most characters in the series seem to make a point of giving Severus his title, for whatever reason, and insisting Harry does the same – but then immediately refers to him as just Snape in his very next line, because what is consistency. Harry seems weirdly comfortable with referring to his teachers by just their surnames anyway, but that’s another topic. Anyway, Harry wants to know if Quirrell was lying about Snape and James hating one another.

Dumbledore says no, that was perfectly true, just the same as Harry and Draco hate each other now. No, the situations were different and it was far more unbalanced – but that’s a rant for another time. I’m sure you can all imagine how I’m going to react once we see more of that particular story. The comparison might be a good one to use if it sparked any sort of thoughts in Harry’s brain, but obviously that doesn’t happen. Let’s also note that, by not elaborating on the details, Dumbledore is naturally leading Harry to assume that it was Snape in Draco’s role and James in Harry’s. While he isn’t explicitly lying, this is definitely dishonest – though it’s also possible Dumbles genuinely believes this, since all Gryffindors have a blind spot the size of China where the Marauders are concerned and it’s obvious throughout the series that Dumbles really understands nothing whatsoever about Snape.

Dumbles goes on to add that the real reason Snape hated James so much was that James saved his life. Harry finds this understandably confusing. I find it infuriating, which I’m sure doesn’t surprise anyone, but once again this is a rant for another time. It does neatly illustrate my point about Dumbledore not understanding love though, as he tells Harry that Snape worked so hard to save him this year just to pay off his debt to James. The British version says ‘he felt that would make him and your father quits‘; the US version changes this to ‘make [them] even‘ even though the Britspeak was perfectly clear from context and didn’t need correcting. I’m not too annoyed about that because the slang isn’t really in character for Dumbledore to be saying in the first place.

Why, exactly, is Dumbledore so willing to share details of his staff’s personal lives with a random student? This is absolutely none of Harry’s business and it’s a petty thing to do. Our expert on love and feelings, everyone. Fuck off, Twinkles. Never mind that it’s also superfluous; Dumbledore should really have just said that teachers have a responsibility to keep their students safe and Snape was doing his job. Implying he needs an ulterior motive to do that is both impugning his character and leading Harry to believe nobody will look out for him.

Harry tried to understand this but it made his head pound, so he stopped.

That sums up the entirety of Harry’s character for the whole series, honestly. Incidentally his head has been hurting all scene, though there’s no explanation given. It’s possible he passed out because he tripped over and hit his head, though if that caused a three-day coma I’d expect some signs of actual medical treatment. Anyway, he says he has one more question – how did he get the Stone out of the mirror?

Dumbles’ response is breathtakingly obnoxious.

‘Ah, now, I’m glad you asked me that. It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something. […] My brain surprises even me sometimes …’

It’s supposed to be silly and whimsical and eccentric, but on the heels of a lot of gaslighting and manipulation it’s just terrible. His explanation doesn’t really make sense either – he says that only people who wanted to find the Stone more than they wanted to use it would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves using it. That’s fine, but it doesn’t remotely explain how the reflection then becomes real and moves a physical object into Harry’s pocket, or where the Stone was prior to that. It also doesn’t explain how Quirrell was unable to see himself finding it for Voldy when that was what he wanted; we’re not going to let that go any time soon. And if none of this had played out the way it was planned, how were they going to get the Stone back? Would anyone else have had the extremely specific desire to be handed the Stone without having to do anything that Harry has?

Was Dumbledore trying to kill Flamel while maintaining plausible deniability? It’s interesting that when against all odds the Stone is recovered, his immediate reaction is to persuade his ‘friend’ to destroy it and thus kill himself.

Dumbles says he refuses to answer any more questions now and Harry should be quiet and eat his sweets like a good boy. He then casually helps himself to one of the magic jellybeans, without asking, saying that he had a vomit-flavoured one when he was young and hasn’t touched them since but feels like stealing one off Harry now (okay, so I’m paraphrasing). He eats it, chokes and tells us that it was earwax-flavoured – don’t ask how he knows what earwax tastes like; I hope that doesn’t exist in the real-world merchandise version – and the scene ends on a jarring silly note that spoils the mood of all the discussion.

The next scene sees Harry begging the extremely stereotypical school nurse, Madam Pomfrey, to let Ron and Hermione in to see him. That’s nice. Less nice is Hermione reverting to the stereotypical girly-girl, having to visibly restrain herself from hugging him (to Harry’s relief, because ew cooties) and stammering about how worried they’ve been. But at least she has been worried; Ron disregards that this is supposed to be his best friend, who’s been in a coma after facing Voldemort, and just demands story time.

We’re told that Harry tells them the whole story (complete with Hermione screaming during the dramatic face-reveal; goddamnit, Rowling). I have no idea what he actually tells them, since as I mentioned before, Harry doesn’t actually know what happened. No wonder their conversation takes place offscreen. Ron gets stuck on the whole ‘Flamel is going to die and Dumbles says death is awesome’ thing, but the book says he’s impressed at how insane Dumbledore is. Facepalm.

Harry asks what happened to them. Sadly Hermione doesn’t go into any details, just says that she got back safely and brought Ron round before they ran for the Owlery. It’s not as if she needs more spell count points, but it would be nice to know what she actually did. She says they met Dumbledore in the entrance hall, which is pretty weird; I would assume the Owlery was at the top of the school – I think we find out in a later book that it’s in one of the towers – and they were coming from the third floor, so why were they down in the entrance hall? Well, whatever. Dumbledore went off to do whatever it is he did at the end of the fight that we never saw, and the book declines to tell us what Ron and Hermione did. I’d have assumed they’d have followed, but who knows. And how did Dumbledore get past everything? He didn’t have time to play chess, unless he managed to thrash the AI very quickly, and Harry drank all the potion that lets you through the fire into the boss room.

Ron suggests that maybe Dumbledore planned this all along, what with giving Harry the magic bedsheet and all.

‘Well,’ Hermione exploded, ‘if he did – I mean to say – that’s terrible – you could have been killed.’

That sounds like a very mild explosion, but I like that she’s pointing out that this is awful. She’s the only one to object.

Harry says yeah, he’s pretty sure Dumbledore planned the whole thing, not just by giving him the cloak but teaching him how the mirror worked and so on. He’s fine with this and has already deluded himself into thinking that it’s because Dumbles thought he was just that neat and that he deserved the chance to show off, essentially. Ron’s impressed by this (and also ignores Harry using Voldemort’s name, which usually makes him freak out). Hermione doesn’t respond, possibly wondering whether Harry sustained brain damage.

Ron changes the subject, because Quidditch! It’s the end of team feast tomorrow and Harry must come, because foreshadowing. The House Cup points have all been tallied and Slytherin won because Gryffindor lost their final match against Ravenclaw while Harry was unconscious. Apparently Quidditch is factored in for the House Cup, despite there being a separate Quidditch Cup, because reasons? This makes no sense.

That’s very late in the year for Quidditch matches. And I thought the whole point of Harry being made Seeker despite his age was that Gryffindor didn’t have a reserve and couldn’t play without one – why not say that Gryffindor had to forfeit the final match because they didn’t have a full team? Not that it really matters. The scene ends with Madam Pomfrey throwing them out.

I’d forgotten this next scene even existed, honestly. It’s very short and nothing in it is ever relevant again. Hagrid shows up for a visit (complete with the description that he ‘looked too big to be allowed‘; fuck off, Rowling) and immediately bursts into tears.

This is both good and bad. It’s bad because Hagrid is an adult who should be seeing if Harry’s okay and comforting him if he needs it, not falling apart and requiring a child to comfort him. Sometimes you really do need to act like a grownup. And I was going to be pretty harsh because of it, but along with the tears Hagrid says that it was all his fault, that he told Quirrell how to get past Fluffy which was the only thing he didn’t already know, that Harry nearly died so Hagrid could get a dragon egg. He even acknowledges that he drinks too much.

This does a hell of a lot to redeem Hagrid to me, at least for this book. It’s already very rare for any character to admit they screwed up and take responsibility for their mistakes, let alone show actual remorse. It’s not enough to forgive what he did to Dudley, but it might be enough to forgive pretty much everything else he’s done wrong in this book.

Only for this book, though. As we’ll see over the series, Hagrid learns nothing from this. He’ll continue screwing up and endangering Harry and company, some of it will be because of his drinking, and he won’t change. Nor will he be sorry for any of it again as far as I remember. He also says he should be ‘chucked out and made to live as a Muggle’; we’ll learn next book that this already happened to him fifty years ago and made no difference whatsoever. So this is a redemption for this book, and this book only – it’s a nice standalone moment, but in the context of the series as a whole it’s just filler.

I also don’t like Harry’s reaction. Not only does he instantly forgive Hagrid – in fact he denies there was anything to forgive – but he also knows immediately how to comfort his friend and does so perfectly. Any child would be very uncomfortable in this situation, but Harry in particular ought to be utterly at a loss – has he even seen genuine tears before? Dudley fake-cries all the time, and Harry wouldn’t care if it was real or not anyway. He avoids and/or ignores Hermione when she cries (and will do all series). Since he had an unpleasant childhood it’s likely he’s cried to himself a lot, but we’re not meant to believe Petunia would have tried to help him when he was upset, assuming he didn’t keep it hidden. He should have no idea what to do here.

And the emotion is cut off abruptly anyway, after Hagrid asks Harry not to say Voldemort’s name and Harry screams it at the top of his lungs. (Somehow Madam Pomfrey doesn’t hear this.)

Thinking about it, the whole issue of Voldy’s name says nothing good about either Harry or Dumbledore. The books focus on how brave they are for saying it (never mind how stupid that is) but what they’re actually doing is deliberately using a word that everyone around them finds very uncomfortable and constantly asks them not to use. And instead of listening and not doing the thing that makes all their friends uncomfortable, they explain why their friends are wrong for feeling that way and carry on doing it.

Don’t do this.

Hagrid’s shocked enough to stop crying, and will now be absolutely fine about all his stupid decisions for ever. He says he’s brought Harry a present, and produces a photo album full of pictures of Lily and James. I’m in two minds about this as well – it is genuinely cute and a really nice thing to think of, but as I pointed out during the first mirror sequence, Harry doesn’t actually care about his parents except when the plot tells him to. And of course shows no emotion here – the book tells us he can’t speak, and the scene ends without him thinking or feeling anything.

Apparently Hagrid got the photos by sending owls to James and Lily’s old school friends. We aren’t told who, or how Hagrid knew any of them. The only reasonable candidate is Lupin, who Hagrid could actually know about, but none of Lily’s friends are ever named (bar one, of course) and there’s no indication that she ever knew Hagrid. How are there so many photos? It’s not like these days where every kid has a smartphone with a built-in camera. They were at school in the seventies; cameras were very expensive and not very common and schoolchildren definitely wouldn’t have had any. James was rich enough to have had a wizard camera (though next book we’ll be told they’re pretty much the same as non-digital Muggle cameras, and the magic photos come from the potion you use to develop the film) but that doesn’t mean his friends were or that any would have survived. And once they left school James and Lily were fighting for the Order, along with all James’ friends, and I would hope they were too busy for much photography. I’d accept a few framed pictures, of the wedding if nothing else, but not an entire album.

As far as I know, the only person we know for sure Lily was friends with, and who is definitely still alive, is Snape. Can you imagine if Hagrid had contacted him asking for photos for Harry? It’s probably just as well that their friendship was a secret. Though if Severus ever had any photos I imagine he probably ritually burned them in a fit of teenage angst.

And I’m talking about this in more detail than it deserves because I really don’t want to do the next scene. You all know why.

Well, let’s get this over with. Thanks to narrative convenience, Harry arrives late to the feast – just late enough to make a dramatic entrance, but not so late that he actually misses anything. And because this is fiction, all the hundreds of hungry children talking to their friends and waiting for food notice him walking in and all care enough for there to be a dramatic silence while he walks to his chair and sits down before everyone starts talking at once and moving to get a look at him. See my earlier comments that most of them shouldn’t believe him.

The book makes a point of describing to us that the Great Hall is decorated completely in Slytherin colours, with the snake banners hanging from the ceiling; it stands out even more since Rowling stopped describing settings a while ago.

Dumbledore shows up to get everyone to shut up, and makes one of his by now trademark ‘whimsical’ self-deprecating speeches about how the kids now have all summer to forget what they’ve learned and so on. I’d like it from any other character, in any other book, but I know what’s coming. He reads out the final house point tally: Gryffindor 312, Hufflepuff 352, Ravenclaw 426, Slytherin 472.

I wonder how this is calculated – do the magic hourglasses give totals, or does some poor sod have to literally count each gem? I’ve also always thought these numbers seem pretty small, with the frequency we’re expected to believe points are given out in classes and such, ,particularly if the arbitrary Quidditch scores count. Then again, with the frequency huge numbers of points are taken away, it could also be argued it’s a miracle any of them are nonzero. Or do we think Hogwarts point totals can go into the negative?

The Slytherins start cheering, stamping, banging things on the table and generally celebrating and being happy, with special focus on Draco. Harry finds this literally sickening. Nobody else applauds.

‘Yes, yes, well done, Slytherin,’ said Dumbledore. ‘However, recent events must be taken into account.’
The room went very still. The Slytherins’ smiles faded a little.

You all know how this goes. I think a lot of readers guessed, as the Slytherins just have, from the moment Dumbledore sounded so dismissive. Long story short, he gives Hermione and Ron fifty points each, and Harry sixty, and Gryffindor starts collectively cheering and screaming for them. This isn’t sickening, of course, it’s only sickening when Slytherins do it. Then there’s a dramatic pause so the book can tell us all that Gryffindor and Slytherin are now tied for first place, before Dumbledore gives ten more points to Neville and changes all the decorations to Gryffindor red and gold and lions and not only Gryffindor but also Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff go berserk celebrating.

I hate this so much.

Current spell count: Hermione, 11. Quirrell, 3. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Neville, 1. Dumbledore, 1. Harry, 0. Obviously Quirrell will be removed from the spell count after this book; I’m mostly going to focus on the main characters, but I’ll keep track of Dumbledore, just to see how much magic this supposed great wizard actually does. I’ll be running separate counts for each book, and adding them together for the conclusion posts each time so we can compare to the series as a whole.

Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on this too much because it really makes me angry and you can all spot the problems without me needing to explain it. The whole focus of the book shifts to ignore Slytherin as much as possible and concentrate on the people who are happy at their expense; there’s no description of the Slytherins looking upset or angry. With the exception of Snape obviously faking a smile as he shakes hands with McGonagall, and that’s only included for Harry to tell us that Snape still hates him which is totally unfair because Harry’s been awesome again so Snape should now think he’s awesome, and Draco looking ‘stunned and horrified‘ for Harry and Ron to gloat about. Poor Snape now has to go to the Slytherin common room after the feast and try to make them feel better. There’s no reason why Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff would care. Dumbledore already knew he was going to do this and the only reason for decorating the hall for Slytherin in advance was to be petty and spiteful when publicly changing it afterwards to rub their noses in it.

And this didn’t have to happen. This scene could have been played out much differently. The children do deserve points for what they did, and including Neville at the end like that is really sweet, but the numbers should have been tweaked slightly. Make it so Neville’s points at the end bring Gryffindor up to tie with Slytherin and have them be joint winners. Slytherin earned the cup, they worked for it, and it’s not fair to not only ignore that achievement but to humiliate them over it because something happened at the last minute that only Dumbledore could have predicted. Have them tie, add Gryffindor banners to the existing Slytherin ones and make it a joint celebration.

Also, is there any reason Dumbledore needs to award these points so publicly? It’s not as though other point awards or deductions are announced at major events. He could easily have just awarded the points to them in private so the totals would adjust before the feast, if he wanted to avoid the spectacle, so one has to conclude that humiliating Slytherin in public was his goal all along. That could even preserve the pleasant surprise for Harry; Ron already primed him to believe they were losing because of Quidditch, so he could walk in and be shocked at the Gryffindor decorations before his friends explain why they were awarded points. There is no way to read what happened here as anything other than petty and spiteful and nasty. And yet we’re meant to hate the Slytherins later for daring to dislike Harry.

As the scene ends, Harry tells us this is the best moment of his life. The time he walked into a room and was handed a shiny thing at the expense of innocents is better than any of the (very few) times he actually achieved something. In another book I’d acknowledge that he deserves to feel happy about being rewarded, but I hate the way it was handled far too much. If the focus was on Gryffindor winning and not on Slytherin losing, it would be easier to swallow, but Harry’s (and the book’s) enjoyment of this moment really does revolve around it being taken away from the Slytherins.

The final scene wraps up the rest of the year as quickly as possible. Harry and Ron somehow not only pass their exams but get good marks. Hermione is top of the year. Neville scrapes a pass – we’re told his good Herbology grade makes up for his bad Potions one; that is not how school works – and the boys are disappointed that Goyle didn’t fail badly enough to be kicked out. I don’t know why Goyle specifically, when Crabbe’s supposed to be stupid as well, nor do I know why all the children seem to know each other’s exam results; I do hope they’re not posted publicly, but this is Hogwarts so they probably are.

Everything’s packed and the children are leaving. They’re given notes telling them not to use magic at home – Fred is disappointed, he always hopes the school will forget to do this. I don’t know why that matters, he’s not going to be allowed to use magic whether there was a note or not. For reasons surpassing all understanding the first years are sent back across the lake in boats to get to the station – I suppose there aren’t enough magic carriages for everyone?. We skip over the train ride home, except for a brief comment that they pass through Muggle towns en route because apparently despite my very thorough rant about the fucking train there are still ways to make this even stupider, and there’s a guard at the other end letting them off the platform in small groups – this is a good idea but he wasn’t there for the first journey and will never be seen again.

Ron says Harry and Hermione should both come and stay with him over the summer. (There’s no evidence that he ever invites Hermione, from what I remember; I don’t think she’s involved in anything at the start of next book.)

We see Ron’s family. Ginny continues to be obnoxious, squealing and pointing at Harry until her mother tells her off. To my surprise, Harry thanks Mrs Weasley for his Christmas presents.

We see Harry’s family. I don’t know how the Dursleys knew to come and meet him, nor why they’d bother when they have absolutely no incentive to do so. The book specifically points out that both Petunia and Dudley are terrified of him.

We do not see Hermione’s family. Of course. She does manage to stay in the scene, though, being rather taken aback by how rude Vernon seems and sounding rather concerned when she says she hopes Harry has a good summer.

This is the final paragraph of the book:

‘Oh, I will,’ said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. ‘They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer …’

Poor Dudley. We’ll see next book that Harry does do just this, despite the fact that Petunia should know he’s not allowed to do magic – what am I saying, of course Lily would have done the same thing Harry does here.

When you first read this, particularly if you’re a child at the time, this is a good ending. Harry has triumphed over his bully. Then you get older, and you realise that actually Harry has merely become a bully in turn and this is a terrible ending. To Rowling, there are bullies and there are victims, and there is no middle ground and no grey area – not only that, but characters she likes are never bullies no matter what they do.

I think this ending is meant to be a Campbellian Hero’s Journey sort of thing – those stories tend to end with the hero returning to their normal life from whatever adventures, special world, etc they visited with new knowledge that will change how they live going forward. And on that level it does work; it’s just that normally, they’re supposed to have learned and grown and become a better person. Instead, here we just get that the power dynamics have shifted and Harry intends to exploit that. So as a technical/structural thing, it does work and give the story a sort of closure; it’s just morally repugnant. And therefore an entirely appropriate note to end this clusterfuck of a book on.

Well, we made it, folks. One down, seven to go. As I said at the start, we’ll be taking a break until November, when we’ll tackle the film and put together some sort of conclusion post. I’m sure we’ll manage some non-Potter content in the meantime. Thanks for sticking with us.


Posted by on September 18, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Fifteen

This one took more than one session to cover. Considering this entire chapter is filler to justify a single dramatic image, it’s disproportionately long.

Chapter Fifteen: The Forbidden Forest
Today’s art is a slightly camp centaur striking a weird pose. I swear
one day I’ll go back and insert the images into these posts. One day.

When we last left our hero, he and Hermione had stupidly forgotten the magic bedsheet after the unnecessary and physics-defying bit of dragon-smuggling, and were being dragged off by Filch. The first line of this chapter is Harry informing us that ‘things couldn’t have been worse‘; yes, they could. Norbert could have escaped, set you on fire and trotted off to eat someone. But no, Harry’s remembered (or been reminded by that offscreen director) that he’s meant to be afraid of punishments and authority figures, and he’s panicking about expulsion again.

Filch dumps them in McGonagall’s office and leaves them to sweat; this must mean he saw her with Draco earlier and knows she’s awake, because it’s an unspecified time between midnight and 1am at this point. Presumably McGonagall has just dragged Draco off to confront Snape – brave woman; I can’t imagine he’d be too pleased at being disturbed at such a stupid time – because when she appears it’s clear she hasn’t gone to bed like a sane person. She has Neville with her, though mercifully not being literally dragged along by his ear.

Neville instantly tells Harry that he was trying to find them to warn them, because he overheard Draco say he was going to get them into trouble, he said they had a dragon. Neville, you are a wonderful human being and you deserve so much better than being stuck in this universe. Though you have to wonder just why he was so worried about them, since he doesn’t know the dragon is real and has no reason to expect that their being out of bed is going to be a big deal. (Then again, given the general incompetence of everyone involved, I expect the whole school knows about the dragon by this point.)

McGonagall continues to display a very harsh attitude towards these pre-teen children in her care; ‘she looked more likely to breathe fire than Norbert as she towered over the three of them‘ and demands an explanation. Her behaviour for this whole scene is, frankly, inexplicably bizarre. We were forced to conclude that somehow this incident has interrupted something, because she is disproportionately furious about them being out of bed. Far more so than she was over the troll thing.

It’s especially odd that she’s so put out by their being out of bed at one in the morning, particularly since they were near the Astronomy Tower and astronomy classes meet regularly at midnight. We’re not told whether any sections meet Saturday nights, but regardless it shouldn’t be this unusual for students to be out of bed at a time when some of them will be going to and from class. If they’d been thinking (and/or Rowling wanted to make them look clever) they should have told McGonagall they were going to meet a friend and walk them back from their astronomy class, or something like that.

On a related note, why exactly are Astronomy classes held at the top of a tower anyway? The Great Hall has a magic ceiling that shows the sky, it’s basically a planetarium.

Instead of this perfectly reasonable answer, Harry says nothing, and also judges Hermione for saying nothing. Given what happened to her last time McGonagall got angry with her for the terrible crime of being attacked, I’m not at all surprised.

McGonagall doesn’t give them much opportunity to say anything, and rather quickly provides her own explanation, declaring that obviously they told Draco some lies about a dragon to get him into trouble and they probably think it’s funny Neville fell for it as well.

Now, there are two possibilities here. One is that she actually believes this, in which case she’s punishing Draco for falling for a trick, which is admittedly completely consistent with her usual victim-blaming attitude. Alternatively, she knows this is nonsense, knows all about the dragon, and is punishing Draco for telling the truth (and feeding the others a cover story) in order to cover for Hagrid breaking the law, which could at least explain her ridiculous overreaction. Either way, this whole plotline is terrible and makes her an awful person. (I’m feeling a lot better now about the way I wrote her in PTL…) She’s also training the children to never go to her for anything, which is an absolutely stellar attitude for a head of house to take.

Harry tries to psychically tell Neville this isn’t true, though I don’t know why he cares because he’s treated Neville horribly all book and will continue to do so. ‘Poor, blundering Neville‘ wants you to take your patronising attitude and cram it where the sun doesn’t shine, Snowflake.

Continuing with the hyperbole, McGonagall declares that she’s absolutely disgusted with them all, before dropping this clanger: ‘Four students out of bed in one night! I’ve never heard of such a thing before!‘ Presumably she’s spent the entirety of her teaching career to date heavily sedated, but even so, the Marauders were clearly already part of Rowling’s dubious headcanon by this point; the woman is just talking nonsense. I think we have to subscribe to the ‘trying to cover up Hagrid’s illegal dragon’ theory here because there’s just no rational reason why being out of bed is such a serious crime that justifies the very harsh punishment.

Speaking of punishment, she gives all three of them detention and takes fifty points from Gryffindor. She only took twenty from Slytherin for Draco, and that was by far the highest penalty we’d seen from anyone up until that point. Harry understandably protests, so McGonagall promptly makes it fifty points each.

To be fair, I would almost like this if it weren’t such an overreaction to a very minor infraction and if she hadn’t been so awful previously; escalating punishments in response to whining is a thing teachers often do, and for good reason. One of my chemistry teachers once increased my predicted grade for quite an important exam because I was the only one in the class who didn’t try to argue with her about it.

I have to wonder if originally this chapter was meant to involve a worse crime. Perhaps in the first draft she did find out about the dragon (or at least wasn’t able to deny knowing about it), Hagrid was fired/arrested and the children were being punished for aiding and abetting his lawbreaking. That would actually justify taking one hundred and fifty points (in context, 150 is quite a lot when the final scores at the end of the book range from 312 to 472), detention, and lectures about how disgusted she is and how awful they are. As it is, there’s no way to rationalise McGonagall’s attitude – particularly since not too many chapters ago she was perfectly happy to break rules herself in order to get Harry onto the Quidditch team, because the stupid cup meant more to her than the rules did. The sudden 180 over breaking curfew is too hard to swallow.

McGonagall finishes the scene by talking over their protests and telling them, ‘I’ve never been more ashamed of Gryffindor students‘. I would like to remind everyone that ‘Gryffindor students’ include the Weasley twins, and have included their older dragon-smuggling brother, the Marauders (and she is well aware that one of them is a Death Eater who betrayed his friends and got them murdered, even if she’s mistaken about which one), and Hagrid the monster-breeder who was expelled after a student was killed. But no, she’s deeply ashamed and disgusted that a couple of children dared to leave their bedrooms without permission, and that’s the worst infraction she’s ever seen. In isolation you can dismiss this as exaggeration just to make them feel bad, but again, she’s acted like this before and you’d better believe she will do so again.

She then hypocritically sends them off to wander the castle unaccompanied on their way back to bed, because what is consistency.

I’d just like to point out here that what we’ve seen of McGonagall throughout this book has been much, much worse than anything Snape has said or done, despite the narrative insisting that he’s scum and she’s awesome. Not that I need to point that out, since it’s pretty blatantly obvious.

We did come up with a couple of other theories that could explain her terrible behaviour here. One possibility is that she hasn’t forgotten about the Marauders at all, and in fact this whole affair is her attempt to scare Harry into behaving so that he won’t end up like his father. I’d happily accept this in a different story, but seriously, she’s just a bad person and I won’t give her this much credit.

Our other possible explanation is that this is all part of some sort of inter-staff feud and McGonagall is attempting to oppose Dumbledore. This would require her knowing that he gave Harry the magic bedsheet and is encouraging him to get into trouble a lot, but it seems pretty clear by the end of the book that Dumbles has planned most of it all, so it’s not out of the question that McGonagall could know and be trying to thwart him. Except that we’ve all seen her blindly obeying him before, when it comes to leaving infants on doorsteps in November and other such things, and she never objects to anything else throughout the series.

We’re not seriously advancing these theories as true, of course; there’s too much evidence against them. But they could have been interesting possibilities in another book.

And it gets worse. Understandably the school are a little confused the next day to see how many points Gryffindor have lost – they’re tracked by magic giant hourglasses full of jewels on display in the Great Hall, which is pretty if somewhat pointless – but by the power of authorial fiat everyone very quickly finds out what happened. We’ll see many times throughout the rest of the series that Rowling doesn’t understand how rumours actually work, but here I think we have to conclude that McGonagall has deliberately leaked at least part of the story to add social shaming to the children’s punishments. Which is just plain sadistic – they’re only eleven and twelve years old. It also shouldn’t work, but when has realism and a knowledge of how humans work ever stopped Rowling?

There could have been plenty of better ways to write the rumours getting started, if we had to keep this plotline. All she would’ve had to do is put Harry in the scene a bit earlier. As an example, let’s say everyone goes to breakfast and notices the points missing, but nobody has any idea what’s going on. People start asking each other if they know anything, but nobody does, until someone asks Harry and he reacts with embarrassment (let’s say goes red in the face and stares at his shoes, or something), giving away that he had something to do with it. That would be enough for rumours to start, especially since he’d have to be evasive to avoid incriminating Hagrid.

In any case, while I’ve covered plenty of Watsonian reasons for all this, the Doylist reason is to slather on some more over the top Angst For Harry.

‘From being one of the most popular and admired people at the school, Harry was suddenly the most hated. Even Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs turned on him, because everyone had been longing to see Slytherin lose the House Cup. Everywhere Harry went, people pointed and didn’t trouble to lower their voices as they insulted him.’

The Slytherins, by contrast, are pretty pleased and keep thanking Harry for doing them a favour.

I really can’t accept that absolutely every student with no exceptions is this fanatical about the bloody House Cup. Slytherin have won for the last seven years in a row, as we’ve been repeatedly told; them being in the lead again now is not a huge deal. We’ve also seen absolutely no justification for ‘everyone’ hating Slytherin except that some of them used to be Death Eaters a decade ago. I’m also not sure Rowling’s realised that she’s making most of her precious Gryffindors look pretty horrible right now for picking on a small boy.

Only Ron stood by him.‘ Because Hermione and Neville don’t count as people. Though admittedly by this point I can understand why they’d both hate him…

Harry’s so miserable that he resolves to never meddle in anything ever again. This resolution will last, oh, about a page or so. Just long enough to be contrived and irritating in the next scene, in fact. I don’t know why Harry’s miserable, though; we’ve been told several times that this is exactly what his last school was like, because everyone was inexplicably in awe of Dudley and thus hated Harry on principle. Yes, being ostracised is horrible, but if it’s all you’ve ever experienced you wouldn’t really know it was horrible and would be so used to it that you probably wouldn’t care – particularly since being insulted is a step up from being physically (or magically) attacked.

Alternatively, given this history of Harry’s, this ought to be the final nail in the coffin that means he will never trust anyone again because it turns out that the magic world is just as awful as the Muggle one. From this point on he ought to hate all his teachers, especially McGonagall for doing this to him but also including his precious Dumbledore who isn’t stopping it, and also ought to deliberately isolate himself and never make friends with anyone again – including his existing friends – because he can’t trust them not to arbitrarily turn on him. (There’s a reason dark!Harry fics are quite popular.)

Of course, this is the wonderful world of Harry Potter. So what actually happens is that he wallows in angst for a few more pages and then forgets this ever happened and is completely unaffected. At least until the next time this exact scenario happens.

During his angst phase, he decides to resign from the Quidditch team. Why he expects this to help is beyond me; we’re never told how Quidditch and House points tally up, or why Quidditch contributes to House points at all for that matter, but it was apparently only due to his awesome seeker powers that Gryffindor were in the lead in the first place. Wood points this out and refuses to let him resign, ‘but even Quidditch had lost its fun. The rest of the team wouldn’t speak to Harry during practice, and if they had to speak about him, they called him ‘the Seeker’.

The rest of the team includes Fred and George, remember, who have not only certainly lost far more points than this over their school career but who also think rulebreaking is funny. They also seem to like Harry and have interacted with him quite a lot. Even without that, the team are well aware that it’s thanks to their pet snowflake that they were doing well and that he’s their best hope of getting their lead back. Not to mention that Harry’s Quidditch strategy is to soar a long way above the actual game; why would he need to speak to any of the team anyway?

Rowling, please write out one hundred times, “People do not work this way”. Preferably with a blood quill.

We’re told that Hermione and Neville are suffering too, but not as badly because they’re not super-famous special snowflakes. I fail to see how they’re suffering at all, really; nobody spoke to either of them anyway except to be nasty, so this is business as usual. If anything, this incident ought to have made Harry and Ron more tolerant of both of them and they should have formed a proper little group of four friends, though obviously it doesn’t. And we know it doesn’t because Harry then tells us that the Trio keep to themselves and get on with revising. Apparently Neville is even being ostracised by the kids who got him into trouble in the first place. I’m glad we’ve established that he and Hermione are secretly friends offscreen, because seriously, poor Neville. He needs hugs and puppies.

I do find it interesting that we don’t see any onscreen reactions at all, except Ron saying it’s not so bad and Wood saying that resigning from the sports team won’t help. We’re just told everyone else hates Harry now. We don’t see reactions from the other boys in Harry’s dormitory, or Ron’s brothers – not just the twins; Percy is the Gryffindor prefect, remember? – or anyone else on the Quidditch team. The really obvious, glaring lack, though? Draco. He ought to be gloating – a detention and twenty points is a very small price to pay for successfully costing Gryffindor 150 points and their lead, even if they got away with the whole dragon thing. He’s not even mentioned, though, let alone appearing onscreen to rub Harry’s nose in it. That’s just plain lazy writing, and given the amount of filler in this chapter there’s really no excuse for it.

Then we have a slightly random interlude reminding us that there’s a plot trying to happen somewhere. Harry is walking back from the library by himself and hears voices coming from a classroom – egad! Voices in a classroom? Anyone would think this was a school, or something! To be fair, the voice is whimpering, which probably is cause for concern even in Hogwarts.

He gets closer and hears Quirrell sobbing and saying things like, ‘No – no – not again, please –‘ before finally ending with ‘All right – all right‘. Despite hearing all this perfectly clearly, Harry is somehow unable to hear the other side of the conversation, and yet doesn’t seem at all puzzled by it. I don’t know what he thinks is happening here; I don’t think you can threaten someone silently. (Also, a public classroom is a pretty poor choice of venue for torturing a minion.)

Quirrell leaves the room, pale and trying not to cry and fiddling with his turban, and somehow utterly fails to notice Harry who promptly runs past him to look into the classroom. Implausibly, this classroom just happens to have exits at both ends, and there’s nobody else there. Some rooms in some schools do end up that way, since when you adapt buildings the space doesn’t always line up and sometimes limited money means turning awkward places into classrooms instead of building extensions, but none of those reasons apply to Hogwarts even if people couldn’t use magic.

Continuing to stretch all credibility, Harry starts walking towards the second door and then reminds himself he’s not going to meddle any more because he’s emo now and trots off back to the library instead. For the record, this is the only time he’ll stop himself pursuing something, and of course it’s on the only occasion where he might have learned something that could have put a hole in his pet ‘it’s Snape’ theory. Instead he goes back to Ron and Hermione and tells them that Snape’s obviously got what he needed from Quirrell now, oh noes.

‘‘Snape’s done it, then!’ said Ron. ‘If Quirrell’s told him how to break his Anti-Dark Force spell –’ ‘

…what spell would that be? These Are Not The Droids You’re Looking For-ius? Honestly, Ron, are you sure you’re pureblood?

The Trio discuss it a bit and conclude sensibly that it’s quite possible someone could find out how to get past Fluffy from one of the thousands of books in the library, so maybe now Snape can waltz in and grab the shiny plot coupon whenever he likes. It doesn’t occur to them that since he’s not an idiot he’d be doing so literally right this moment, because really why would you wait.

Ron’s all for charging in, of course. Hermione says they should go tell Dumbledore and let him deal with it – while this is sensible, given her treatment by the staff in recent chapters I can’t think this is really her reaction. For some reason they give Harry power of authority here despite that having been a really bad idea every single time, and his opinion is that they should… do absolutely nothing. They shouldn’t go to Dumbles because they’ve got no proof of anything (okay, maybe we should give him a little credit for acknowledging that… except that he just uses it as more angst fodder, so never mind), and they shouldn’t investigate on their own because emo emo emo everyone hates us.

Best protagonist ever. Apart from anything else, if everyone already hates you, what’s the worst that can happen now?

Of course, Rowling knows they’re going to get involved anyway, so from her point of view it doesn’t matter what they say here, but this is stupid. If the children were right and Snape was the villain, and if he’s just got the last piece of information he needs to get the Stone, then the risk is that he’d do so immediately; doing nothing is not a viable option. The real question is why the actual villain hasn’t acted all year and will continue not to act for the next few weeks. Not knowing how to peacefully sedate Fluffy doesn’t mean you can’t just kill him or turn him into some sort of furniture.

And I think it’s worth mentioning here that Quirrell is really suffering. He is not a willing participant in this plot – whatever his initial motivations (which are never explained in canon; you need to go to bloody Pottermore for any sort of backstory) he’s being coerced throughout the book, and this is not the only occasion where we’re told he is literally being tortured. (However that works.) He’s not in control, this wasn’t his idea and he has no choice. Yet there will never be any sympathy for him, from anyone. Nor will his fate ever be mentioned again. More on this when we reach the finale.

Several weeks have passed by this point, but McGonagall finally gets around to actually assigning the four detentions. There is no explanation given for what took so long, and honestly we can’t really think of one, except the general lack of organisation at Hogwarts. She doesn’t even tell the children directly, instead sending them notes by owl at breakfast one morning telling them to meet Filch in the entrance hall at eleven that night.

Yes, eleven at night. Honestly, the biggest delay in my getting this post up was our doomed attempt to try and explain why anyone, even McGonagall, would assign an overnight detention (literally all night, later Filch says he’ll come back to fetch them at dawn) to a group of eleven and twelve year old children at all, dangerous or otherwise. This chapter should be called ‘Rowling wants Harry to see something in the forest at night and come Hell or high water she is going to get him there no matter what really stupid writing she has to churn out to do so’. (The rest of the delay was mostly ranting about unicorns. I’m sure nobody is surprised.)

This problem could have been easily solved by giving them a normal detention involving writing an essay or lines or something and later having Harry follow someone he thinks is Snape out into the forest, see the big dramatic thing and meet the character who helpfully explains it to him. Really nothing else about this entire chapter is important and nothing justifies this stupid setup.

Harry ‘half expected Hermione to complain that this was a whole night of revision lost, but she didn’t say a word. Like Harry, she felt they deserved what they’d got.

One, it’s not a whole night lost, the detention doesn’t start until nearly midnight. Two, I’m not going to take his word for it concerning what anyone else is feeling – Hermione’s barely said a word for most of the book anyway. Three, why does Harry suddenly think they deserve it? His complaining about the injustice of it got the punishment increased in the first place. Also, literally the preceding sentence tells us he’d forgotten they still had to serve detention anyway. Though I suppose it’s nicely ironic that Harry thinks he deserves an unjust punishment, given how often throughout the series he’ll pout over ones he actually does deserve.

Filch, with Draco in tow, meets Harry, Neville and Hermione in the entrance hall that night. There’s no real reason for Draco to be serving his detention with them, either. I would love to have seen the arguments among the staff – Snape wouldn’t take this crap lying down.

The caretaker is gloating as he leads them outside, saying that they’ll think twice before breaking rules in future (you poor deluded fool) and complaining that ‘It’s just a pity they let the old punishments die out … hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I’ve got the chains still in my office, keep ’em well oiled in case they’re ever needed …‘ I’m reasonably sure he’s just trolling the kids, but I believe someone mentions in a later book that his predecessor literally whipped rulebreakers; I think Molly Weasley says Arthur still has scars (because they forgot they could heal using magic, I guess). Which honestly isn’t all that surprising given what we’ve seen of Hogwarts.

Long story short, the four of them are being sent into the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid. At night, in the dark, accompanied by one of the only people in the school who can’t use magic. Hunting monsters. All night. Age eleven.

This is one of the biggest plotholes in the book, in my opinion. On what planet would even somewhere as sadistic as Hogwarts do this? There’s no salvaging this one, except to assume Dumbles mindraped everyone involved (except Snape, who he’d have needed to threaten quite heavily instead).

I don’t think it really works, but playing devil’s advocate I suppose there could be a bit of really twisted reasoning going on, in the sense of ‘be careful what you wish for’ – perhaps someone (McGonagall?) thinks they should be punished for being out at night by being forced to be out at night and seeing the dangers thereof firsthand. It’s not a good reason, it’s just the best I can come up with; and even that doesn’t really work because it’s a very different sort of ‘being out at night’ anyway… and that’s not even getting into the fact that if we’re meant to believe this investigation of Hagrid’s is a serious matter, he shouldn’t be saddled with students to blunder around and get in his way.

Understandably, Draco protests, concerned about the possibility of being eaten by something. He’s heard there are werewolves in the forest (and we know there are invisible carnivorous winged horses, giant man-eating spiders, temperamental hippogryphs and Merlin knows what else). Neville starts to panic as well, having been trying not to cry all the way to the forest. Harry seems to be stoic, aka utterly mindless, and has no opinion. Nor does he tell us what Hermione’s reaction is, since this is yet again another scene where she’s present but mostly not allowed to speak.

Filch tells them to suck it up and that he’ll be back at dawn to collect the survivors (actually, he says ‘I’ll be back for what’s left of them’, which could also refer to their remains… again, we assume he’s trolling them, possibly in response to Hagrid’s having just undermined his authority and heavily implied he doesn’t take the detention seriously as punishment), reminds Hagrid that they’re meant to be being punished, and stomps off.

Draco tries to refuse to do it, finding a bit of bravado and saying that this is something for servants:

‘ ‘If my father knew I was doing this, he’d –’
‘– tell yer that’s how it is at Hogwarts,’ Hagrid growled. ‘

Hagrid tells him he’ll do it or he’ll be expelled. We never find out how Lucius does react, but somehow I highly doubt he’d be so blasé about it. I’m pretty sure most of his shenanigans in the next book, including – lol spoiler alert – getting Hagrid arrested, are at least partly revenge for this. It’s not a good idea to force the son of one of the school governors to serve a life-endangering detention. Also, is Hagrid playing on Draco’s ignorance here? We’ll never see another detention like this, so this isn’t ‘how it is at Hogwarts’ at all…

Draco gives in, as if he had any choice anyway, and Hagrid takes them into the trees and shows them some shiny silver liquid on the ground. It’s unicorn blood – something’s been hurting unicorns, he found a dead one last week, and he wants to find this injured one and put it down. He seems completely unconcerned with finding out what did it, he just wants to follow the blood trail to the unicorn to see if it needs to be euthanised. He says repeatedly throughout this whole chapter that there’s nothing dangerous around, which is a bold claim considering he admits he has no idea what’s suddenly murdering unicorns – not to mention that a wounded large animal can be pretty dangerous anyway, even a herbivore – yet he also behaves very nervously and is pretty trigger-happy with the crossbow he inexplicably has. Where do you find giant-sized crossbows in a society that doesn’t use physical weapons?

This has been happening for at least a week, so why wait until now to try to do something about it? The detention was arranged early this morning, so he presumably found the blood trail earlier than that. So he’s left an injured animal stumbling around wounded for at least a day, in order to try tracking it at night when it’s almost impossible to see its trail and he’s much less likely to find it. He’s also insistent that they not leave any of the paths in the forest, regardless of whether the blood trail follows them or not.

Never mind the bloody dragon, the RSPCA should confiscate your dog and you should be banned from ever keeping animals again.

Speaking of Fang, he’s present too, for whatever that’s worth. Great Danes were never tracking dogs, they were heavy hunters; he’ll be no use finding the unicorn but he might end up attacking it.

Now we’ve established yet again that Hagrid is sadistic and stupid, he continues proving that he shouldn’t be allowed near children either by ordering everyone to split into two groups. Draco says he wants to go with Fang – very sensible in my opinion, I’d pick the dog over the maniac any day – and Hagrid shrugs and says okay, fine, but he’s a coward. (This is unlikely. Traumatised by his master ill-treating him, perhaps.) Hagrid sends Neville with them – Neville who’s been cursed by Draco at least once and beaten up by Draco’s goons at least once. Two children who hate each other, alone in the forest full of monsters, attempting to track a wounded animal with only a dog for protection. And no mention of a second lamp for their group, either; Hagrid seems to have the only one.

I hate this chapter, for the record. Everything in it is painfully stupid. Why couldn’t they at least have another adult with them? The answer is that Rowling knows they won’t actually be hurt so it doesn’t matter, and she’s forgotten that other characters shouldn’t know that.

In a better book, Draco and Neville could decide ‘hey, screw this, nobody’s watching us now’ and go back to Hagrid’s hut to make a cup of tea and play with Fang and wait for the others to come back. An unsupervised detention is a colossal waste of time. Honestly, Draco’s smart enough to have worked that out and chosen the dog for that reason, and even if he doesn’t like Neville he’s certainly bright enough to swallow that and suggest they work together in the noble cause of not being eaten.

Hagrid tells them to send up red sparks if they’re in trouble and green sparks if they find the unicorn – I assume the children somehow already know how to do this, since it’s not like Hagrid can teach them. I don’t think this is going to help much anyway since everyone is going to be watching the ground; not only because of the blood trail but also because have you ever walked through the woods at night? It is ridiculously dark and even with a light source you will fall flat on your face unless you watch your feet. Besides, the forest seems to have quite a thick high canopy, it’s unlikely sparks would reach open sky. Which makes the tracking thing even trickier, since the book implies that the blood spots are shining in handy beams of moonlight that somehow reach them, rather than reflecting the lamp. It’s hard to tell whether the blood itself somehow glows or not. Anyway, they split up.

Harry asks if it really could be a werewolf killing unicorns, and Hagrid says no, they’re not fast enough. He says unicorns are powerful magic creatures (we will never see a unicorn doing anything remotely magical and they’re basically just horses) and he’s never known one to be injured before. All the more reason for you to have done something about this a week ago, and to be taking it a bit more seriously now and recruiting some magizoologists or even just hunters to help you instead of a bunch of children.

Also, is he really saying there’s a herd of large herbivores in the forest with no natural predators? That doesn’t happen naturally, and when it happens artificially it causes a lot of problems. Scotland is currently being overrun with deer because we killed off all the natural predators and a lot of the land is privately owned by people who don’t allow hunting on their property. As a result they have to arrange culls regularly to try to keep the numbers down, and it’s really starting to screw up the ecosystem. It’s not doing the deer much good either, predation helps keep the population healthy by picking off the weaker ones.

Anyway, moving on. Despite constant assurances that everything is fine, Hagrid panics on hearing a noise (how he heard anything over the sounds of three people stumbling near-blind through a pitch-dark forest is beyond me) and capslock-screams for Harry and Hermione to ‘GET BEHIND THAT TREE!‘ while fumbling to load his crossbow.

‘The three of them listened. Something was slithering over dead leaves nearby: it sounded like a cloak trailing along the ground.’

Why are there so many dead leaves at this time of the year? It’s May by this point. And how does Harry know what a cloak trailing over natural ground (as opposed to a floor indoors) sounds like anyway? This seems like a very quiet sound to be audible over the usual noise of a slight breeze moving through branches. I suppose Rowling wanted to avoid the cliché of a snapping twig, but really, not much else sounds like something moving through woods instead of just ambient noise.

The sound dies away and they carry on, until they see movement in a clearing up ahead and Hagrid calls out a challenge, adding that he’s armed. I don’t know why he thought this movement was something capable of understanding human speech but that the earlier noise couldn’t be, but it’s not as if anything else here makes sense either.

‘And into the clearing came – was it a man, or a horse? To the waist, a man, with red hair and beard, but below that was a horse’s gleaming chestnut body with a long, reddish tail.’

Yes, there are centaurs in the forest. No, we’re never going to get an explanation of why there’s an entire race of ancient Greek monsters in Scotland (it’s not as if Scottish legends are short on humanoid monsters capable of talking to wizards, though they’re not as pretty as centaurs). We’re also never going to see a female centaur, which raises a few unfortunate implications to those familiar with the myths – we’ll be talking about this properly once we reach that one scene in Order of the Phoenix, though I’ll state right now that actually all the centaurs we do see are completely unthreatening, generally relatively friendly and pretty much just useless window dressing, so either the females are hidden in the woods or this is a random asexual (or possibly homosexual) commune.

More to the point, how can they see what colour the centaur is? Human eyes can’t see colour in the dark and moonlight isn’t bright enough. I could nerd on for ages explaining to you just why this is, but if you’re particularly interested you can read up on it for yourself – start with looking up the Purkinje effect and the tapetum lucidum.

Hagrid knows the centaur, whose name is Ronan. Ronan also seems to know Hagrid pretty well, since after wishing them good evening he immediately asks if Hagrid was going to shoot him. Honestly, probably yes. Hagrid goes on to perform introductions:

‘ ‘An’ this is Ronan, you two. He’s a centaur.’
‘We’d noticed,’ said Hermione faintly.’


A thought occurs to me as I write this: Hagrid and Hermione were never actually introduced. Hermione wasn’t friends with the boys when Ron first went to meet him. The first time she and Hagrid are in the same scene (aside from the boat ride to the castle at the start of the year, in which they don’t interact) is at the first Quidditch match, where they just act as if they already know each other and are already friends. Oops, Rowling.

Anyway, Hagrid asks if Ronan knows anything about any dead unicorns, and we find out that ‘centaur’ is essentially a synonym for ‘charlatan horoscope writer’. Ronan repeats that Mars is bright tonight several times and waffles vaguely about the innocents always being victims and the forest is full of secrets. Another centaur – Bane – shows up and agrees that Mars is bright tonight, and they both wander off. Yes, every time we see these guys, they will be spouting this sort of pseudo-astrological nonsense, or else saying that humans suck.

We still haven’t figured out why, despite both appearing equally ineffective in-story, Rowling and/or her narrator seem to think that the centaurs’ version of astrology deserves to be treated with respect but Trelawney’s is moronic piffle. Sexism!

Hagrid grouses that there’s no point trying to get anything out of a centaur, in which case I wonder why he bothered asking in the first place. Harry asks if maybe it was a centaur they heard earlier and Hagrid answers surprisingly sensibly, ‘Did that sound like hooves to you?‘ before ruining it by saying he thinks the mystery noise was whatever killed the unicorn and that he’s never heard anything like it before. Okay, one, you have absolutely no reason to assume the noise at a random spot in the woods nowhere near either the dead or the wounded unicorn has any connection to them. Two, has he really never heard anything rustling some dead leaves before? If it was some sort of growling noise or maybe some odd breathing I could buy this, maybe.

I’d like to point out here that Hagrid should have a fair idea of what killed the previous unicorn, since he found its corpse. Did it have wounds on it? Presumably yes, since as we’ll find out shortly they’re being killed for blood (more on this in a bit). You don’t need to be much of a forensic scientist to tell whether the wounds were made by an animal or a tool or weapon of some kind. The possibility of magic makes it more complicated, but I doubt any spell replicates tooth or claw marks. Hagrid should know enough basic woodcraft to be able to tell the difference between animal or human injuries. At this point he should probably think they’re looking for human poachers.

Hermione manages to spot red sparks in the sky a while later. Presumably she then walks into a tree or falls over, but never mind that. Hagrid’s response is to charge off into the trees, taking with him the group’s only weapon and only light source (the flashlight spell doesn’t exist yet) and leaving the two children alone to panic horribly.

‘ ‘You don’t think they’ve been hurt, do you?’ whispered Hermione.
‘I don’t care if Malfoy has, but if something’s got Neville … It’s our fault he’s here in the first place.’

Harry, you’re a sociopath. Apart from anything else you should be aware that if Draco does get hurt it’s your pal who’s going to get into trouble for it. And no, it’s actually not your fault Neville’s here, it’s McGonagall. Though, notably, none of the Gryffindors repeatedly screwed over by the woman will ever blame her or even slightly dislike her for it.

Hagrid eventually comes back with the others in tow. It turns out that Draco sneaked up behind Neville and scared him, and Neville sent up the sparks. This is one of those things that’s portrayed as horrible here because Draco did it, but if one of our heroes had done it to one of their friends it would have been written as a hilarious joke. I don’t find it believable Draco’s calmed down enough to be playing tricks, either, because he was genuinely frightened earlier and being in a strange forest at night is scary enough without monsters. More importantly, though:

Current spell count: Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Neville, 1. Harry, 0.

Welcome to the list of people more effective than the protagonist, Neville.

Hagrid isn’t pleased:

‘ ‘We’ll be lucky ter catch anythin’ now, with the racket you two were makin’. Right, we’re changin’ groups – Neville, you stay with me an’ Hermione, Harry, you go with Fang an’ this idiot. I’m sorry,’ Hagrid added in a whisper to Harry, ‘but he’ll have a harder time frightenin’ you, an’ we’ve gotta get this done.’ ‘

Oh, I see. The staff are playing matchmaker and this whole detention thing was an elaborate plot to get Harry and Draco alone in the dark. (The frightening part is that this theory makes more sense than any of the others we came up with.) More seriously, this is another dig at Neville supposedly being a coward, and screw you book because Neville is awesome. It’s also stupid because hey, remember how Draco hates Harry more than Neville? Hagrid, keep Draco with you so you can stop him being an arsehole.

Harry and Draco wander off into the woods, and there’s a timeskip of half an hour or so. Try not to wonder what they were up to during that time. Then they find the unicorn, dead.

‘Harry had never seen anything so beautiful and sad.’

The unicorn never gets a description here except that it’s white and has long legs. There was a chance to make them pretty interesting – for a start they live in deep forests, which means they ought to be more like deer than anything else if they resemble any mortal animal. But they show up in later books and are just your standard shiny horse with a horn on its head, which is somewhat disappointing. It’s also rather stupid here, because horses aren’t adapted to dense forest; they’re plains animals and they need wide open spaces where they can see a long way and run in relatively straight lines to build up enough speed to outrun hunters. Admittedly since these ones apparently don’t have predators that’s not much of an issue, but food will be; horses are grazers like cattle, not browsers like deer, and you don’t get much grass growing in woods.

The boys start to approach the unicorn, which was very considerate and followed the path carefully the entire time and then chose to die in the centre of a clearing.

Let’s stop and run some numbers – with the explicit timeskip after the groups changed over I would guess everyone’s been out in the woods for at least an hour, perhaps more, and they’ve been walking for most of that time along apparently fairly clear paths. The lack of visibility would slow them down, but I’d say they’ve probably still managed to follow a blood trail for a couple of miles. If this was an ordinary forest at night, children wouldn’t get anywhere near this far, of course, but nobody’s described as stumbling, tripping etc. – not even Neville who we’ve been told repeatedly is clumsy – and the paths seem to be clear and even, and Harry doesn’t say it’s difficult to see or move. Of course, the real question is why there are paths in here at all – Hagrid can’t keep them clear by himself and animal trails don’t resemble human footpaths. I suppose we have to assume the centaurs maintain paths to compensate for the fact that horses aren’t forest animals and need more space to walk or run without breaking their legs.

Since the blood trail can’t have started at the edge of the woods where they picked it up – they walked to a fork in the path, then split up to follow the trail down both forks…

This is its own problem, incidentally. If Hagrid can’t tell which direction has fresher blood he has no business trying to track an animal. He should also have a dog capable of picking the fresher trail to follow. And there ought to be vague hoofprints since the path seems to be earth; everything’s pretty dry at this time of year but dust takes prints almost as well as mud and they only need one semi-clear print to figure out which way the unicorn was walking. Let’s assume that if they’d been smart enough to do this in daylight they could have found tracks.

Anyway, as I was saying, the trail didn’t start there, and both paths of the trail must be fairly close to one another for Hermione to have seen the sparks and for Hagrid to have found Draco and Neville. So it’s running in some form of a U shape, meaning that we’ve probably got a trail of at least four miles. And Hagrid must have found the trail at least a day ago, so it’s likely to be a lot longer than that and one arm of the U must be much longer than we see.

Google time! tells us this:

“So just how much blood does a horse have anyway? It varies some from breed to breed, but an average value is 80 ml (cc) per kilogram of body weight (100 ml/kg for “hot bloods” such as the Thoroughbred and 65 ml/kg for “cold bloods” such as a Pecheron). So, the average 1,200-pound horse (545.5 kilograms at 2.2 kilograms per pound) has about 54.5 liters of blood, which is approximately 12.3 gallons of blood.

Now that we know that the average horse has about 12 gallons of blood, how much can be lost before the danger of shock becomes significant? The general rule of thumb is that an animal will start to show signs of shock from blood loss when 10% of its blood volume has been lost. Based on the averages, the adult 1,200-pound horse can lose up to two gallons of blood before serious concern. “

Okay, we don’t know at this point that Potterverse unicorns are horses, but according to later books they are. We don’t know how heavily the unicorn was bleeding, but at no point does either party of utterly inept trackers lose the trail, meaning there are large drops falling consistently every few steps or so. It would have been running after the initial injury, assuming the trail was wide enough to let it do so, meaning an increased heart rate and thus faster bleeding, but would have slowed down fairly quickly if it wasn’t being chased assuming it behaves like a normal horse. Presumably it was blood loss that killed the unicorn, and as we’ll see shortly the blood hasn’t congealed yet so it’s only just bled out even though Hagrid has to have found the blood trail about eighteen hours ago.

It would be starting to go into shock after losing 10%, and further research suggests that 16% loss starts lowering blood pressure to potentially dangerous levels and that the 10% limit can be reached within about an hour and a half at a ‘steady drip‘ (it’s referring to nosebleeds, not wounds, so that needs to be adjusted a little for this situation). I can’t find anything that tells me what percentage of blood loss would be fatal to a horse, but it’s about 40% in humans.

Basically this unicorn should have died hours ago and wouldn’t have been able to travel as far as it has, and the blood should by now be clotted and therefore the big dramatic scene we’re about to see isn’t possible. Imagine my surprise.

We also have to ask just how the unicorn was wounded; all we’re told is that it was in the flank. Now, if we’re speaking of horses, the flank is a very specific small area where the hind legs and the barrel meet, right behind the rib cage and in front of the stifle joint. A wound there wouldn’t hit anything major except the cecum (part of the digestive tract, like our appendix only useful) and while it would be fatal eventually if it was deep enough you wouldn’t get much of a blood trail. All the bleeding would be internal, and as with most gut wounds it would be blood poisoning from the ruptured organs that would be the main risk rather than blood loss from the injury itself.

Given that Rowling seems to know nothing about any animals at all, she presumably meant ‘flank’ in the more general sense of ‘somewhere between rib and hip’, which is less useful but the same rules probably apply. A wound severe enough to produce this much blood loss would do so far more quickly than we see here – anything bleeding that slowly would clot relatively soon. I can’t think of a wound that would keep bleeding at this steady rate for a full day before being fatal.

Finally, I also have to ask why the unicorn was wounded in the first place. Our villain is apparently so inept he can’t kill it even with an instadeath spell; instead he cut its side, then let it run away and failed to catch it, then came after the same unicorn again the next night instead of going after a fresh one that hasn’t leaked away most of its precious blood staggering around the forest for hours.

If you are serious about killing unicorns for blood for whatever reason, here’s how you do it. You find a unicorn. You stun it or render it unconscious or paralysed in some way. You levitate it over some form of very large container. You cut open an artery between the heart and the container (the best way is to hang it head down and cut its throat). You drain the full 12 gallons or so of blood, and decant it into small containers to keep with you. Then you use magic to get rid of the corpse so nobody realises you’ve done it. We’re never told how much you actually need to drink, but our villain here gets an undefined amount of blood from the first unicorn and a few mouthfuls from the second, which is pretty wasteful as well as being stupid and obvious. There’s no point in asking why he’s only just started drinking unicorns, either. It will never be explained.

Of course, it would be a lot more sensible to catch and stun the unicorn, then make a small cut and take enough blood for a couple of drinks, Heal the wound and let it go. Nobody, throughout the entire series, ever stops to point out that blood does not equal death. (It’s Rand al’Thor syndrome, for any Wheel of Time readers in the audience. I never for a moment thought that ‘his blood on the rocks of Shayol Ghul’ meant he would die, even before he got a handy wound that kept bleeding at random intervals all the time and never healed.) Nothing indicates that the unicorn has to die for the properties of the blood to activate, and if the unicorn does die then the blood also curses you.

It would be interesting to handwave this as Quirrell wanting to be caught; it’s pretty clear by now that he regrets what’s going on and has been forced into it. But if that was what he wanted, there are much easier ways to go about it that don’t involve killing sparkleponies.

Back with the plot, let’s see the big dramatic scene that was the basis for this entire nonsense chapter, the climactic image that Rowling evidently loved so much she insisted on a convoluted implausible setup to get Harry to witness.

‘Harry had taken one step towards it when a slithering sound made him freeze where he stood. A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered … Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast. Harry, Malfoy and Fang stood transfixed. The cloaked figure reached the unicorn, it lowered its head over the wound in the animal’s side, and began to drink its blood.’

Yes, yes, very spooky. But also this is a more or less sane adult human we’re talking about – why on earth is he crawling across the ground licking wounds, instead of walking over and using magic or a knife to get the blood? Apart from anything else, that would make it a lot easier for Harry to realise that’s what he’s doing. There’s no mention of, say, sucking noises, or anything else that would indicate drinking blood.

Draco, understandably, screams and runs away, followed by Fang. Incidentally, we won’t see Draco again until the end of term feast in a couple of chapters. Nobody bothers to find him after this detention. I assume Fang led him home, or else Snape went to find him the next morning and was very angry that Hagrid lost him.

We’ll also never find out what Draco thinks of all this. He doesn’t know about any mysterious packages or three headed dogs or evil teachers. He’s had a normal, annoying, unfair school year full of secret crushes on boys. Now he’s suddenly seen a random guy in a cloak licking a dead unicorn, and nobody’s going to explain it to him. I wonder if he even tried to tell anyone once he finds his way back to the castle – maybe he convinces himself it was a hallucination or a trick the others were playing on him, and never mentions it again.

Harry doesn’t have as much common sense as Draco, so he just stands there vacantly as the cloaked figure looks up and starts walking towards him. He can see ‘unicorn blood was dribbling down its front‘ but somehow conveniently can’t see the face the blood is dribbling from; there’s no mention of a mask or even some contrived shadows. He just doesn’t mention it. I assume because he can see very clearly that this isn’t Snape and is keeping silent so the denial circuits in his brain can tell him that it is.

At this point, for no real reason, his scar starts hurting extremely badly, causing a level of agony we haven’t seen before and that Harry tells us he’s never felt. I can’t explain this – the only time we’ve seen Harry’s scar hurting before was a quick twinge back at the start-of-year feast when he was looking at Snape and Quirrell talking. It was implied then that it’s because he made eye contact with Snape, and we learn later that it’s because he made eye contact with Quirrell’s turban. The turban is facing away from him now, though – unless Quirrell is walking backwards, which even Harry would notice. And why has the scar not been hurting all year? It should be triggering in every single Defence lesson whenever Quirrell turns around to write on the board or something. Obviously this would spoil the big ‘plot twist’, since it would be happening in Defence and not in Potions, but in that case it shouldn’t have been included in the first place. The scar will never hurt consistently and works at the author’s whim like so many other things.

At this point another centaur conveniently gallops into the clearing, jumps over Harry’s head (not a problem for a horse on open level ground, but I don’t think it could get enough speed in a small space full of tree roots) and charges at the cloaked figure. For some reason, said evil figure doesn’t kill the unarmed centaur, but instead runs away.

This centaur is younger and prettier than the previous two, because reasons, being a shiny palomino. He’s also the only non-evil blond character we’re going to see for, oh, four books or so, and one of only two that I can think of in the entire series (the other is Luna). Rowling has issues.

His name is Firenze. This is the Italian name for the city of Florence. Centaurs don’t seem to have any sort of uniform naming convention, admittedly, but still… a Greek monster living in Scotland with an Italian name? He’s also not a true palomino, since he has blue eyes; blue-eyed horses with palomino-type colouring do exist, but they’re more properly cremello or perlino. That’s a little too nerdy and obscure for me to protest about it, though.

It’s been a while since we were reminded that Harry’s super-famous, so Firenze – despite being a half-horse living in a forest in the middle of nowhere – recognises his special scar of specialness and greets him by name. Oh, come on. Even if Firenze actually had somehow known about the scar and what it meant, why the hell would he care who Harry is? Voldy never got anywhere near Hogwarts, and while he might have killed any centaurs he happened to encounter he really wouldn’t have cared enough to hunt them down as long as they stayed in their forest. There’s no reason why the centaurs would even particularly know who he was, let alone care. Centaurs mostly think humans suck anyway, I can’t see them caring that one of them sucked more than the others. We can’t even blame Dumbles for this one, we know he’s friendly with the merpeople but there’s no mention anywhere of him ever speaking to the centaurs until book five.

Harry’s reaching new levels of stupidity even for him, since he feels the need to ask what it was he’s just seen. It was a human or at least a humanoid in a cloak, Harry. You could see that much. Firenze ignores this and tells him the forest isn’t safe and he should get back to Hagrid; I would argue that he should avoid Hagrid and get back to the castle, or back to the Muggle world if he really wants to be safe, but sure, whatever. He adds that it’ll be quicker if Harry rides, and kneels down to let him climb on. I don’t think this will be quicker, I doubt Harry’s ever even seen a horse in real life, let alone ridden one. Hope Firenze doesn’t mind being strangled by a boy trying not to fall off.

Ronan and Bane reappear for no real reason at this point, except to say ‘ew, human cooties, you’re gross Firenze’.

‘Do you realise who this is?’ said Firenze. ‘This is the Potter boy. The quicker he leaves this Forest, the better.’

Excellent point, Firenze. Everyone should want Harry a long way away from them. Carry on.

The centaurs all shout at each other for a while. Bane implies that the planets have told the centaurs exactly what’s going to happen, and that they can’t interfere. Firenze insists that the planets have also told him personally who the villain is, and that he’s going to fight against it with the humans (no, he isn’t. He does nothing to help for the entire series and we won’t even see him again for another four books, though I believe he does show up with the other centaurs to ineffectually shoot a few arrows during the final battle). This is a little like a kangaroo wanting to fight a South American drug cartel – the war involves a different species and will never touch the place where Firenze lives. There’s no reason for him to care whatsoever. There’s not much of a reason for him to even understand the problem.

Firenze declares that he’s won the fight and runs away with Harry before the other two can continue it. Harry asks again what’s going on, but the centaur doesn’t answer for a while and they walk through the woods for what seems to be a very long time. During this time Harry does not signal to Hagrid, either that he’s found the unicorn or that something bad has happened. We can’t have our wizard protagonist actually using magic, after all. Nor does he wonder if Draco’s okay, or if Hagrid’s going to be angry that he lost his dog. In fact, he doesn’t wonder about anything at all, including what he’s just seen. His inner monologue vanishes, because he’s an extremely boring narrator.

Finally Firenze stops at a random place in the trees and starts expositioning. He asks if Harry knows what unicorn blood is used for; no, says Harry, we only use the horn and tail hair in Potions.

This must mean that unicorns shed their horns like deer antlers, because they seem to be pretty ubiquitous but killing unicorns is super-bad and curses you.

Firenze tells us that killing unicorns is super-bad and curses you, and that unicorn blood will keep you alive no matter what but the whole curse thing rather spoils it. Once again, you don’t have to kill something to make it bleed. Has Rowling never had a cut or a nosebleed? And also, once again, Firenze is a random horse dude living in a forest. He’s not a wizard. His species tries to avoid contact with humans, except occasional grudging conversations with Hagrid. How the hell does he know what the properties of unicorn blood are?

Seriously, this would have been so much better if Harry had sneaked into the forest following ‘Snape’, seen the dead unicorn, and met Dumbles stalking him afterwards to have this explained to him. Or asked Hermione when he got back to the castle to help him look up unicorns and figure out why someone would want to drink one.

Harry’s continuing to be stupid, but in his defence it’s long after midnight by now, he’s spent most of the last few hours being scared, and he must be pretty tired. He can’t understand why anyone would want to be alive and cursed instead of dead.

We’re never told what ‘living a half life’ actually means, either. Does it make you semi-undead, or cut your life span in half, or what? There are plenty of other questions as well – why blood, specifically? Does it apply to other body fluids, or eating the meat, as well? Would you be cursed if you took the horn or tail hair from a dead unicorn? Can the curse tell the difference between blood from a unicorn you killed yourself and blood from a unicorn someone else killed or that died from natural causes? Would Hagrid have been cursed if he’d found the unicorn alive and had to kill it? Why doesn’t the curse activate when you kill the unicorn, rather than only when you specifically drink blood from it? Firenze specifically says you’re cursed ‘from the moment the blood touches your lips‘, so do you have to drink it at all? Does touching it with your fingers count, and if not, why not?

Of course none of these questions will ever be answered. This is Harry Potter. The HP wiki used to have an unintentionally hilarious entry about unicorn blood that mostly consisted of a long list of bullet points all beginning with ‘it is unknown’, but they seem to have taken it down now.

Firenze gently explains that yes, it’s bad, but not if you only need to buy time until you can get hold of something better – like, say, the Elixir of Life, and by the way did you forget that the thing that makes that is in the castle right now?

Yet again, how does Firenze know this? And how is he so sure that the elixir can neutralise whatever the blood does? You know what, I don’t care any more. Maybe the planets told him. I hear Mars is pretty bright. (I’m so sorry.) [Loten, the bad puns are my job, you’re leaving me nothing to do here! 😉 ] You’ve been a bad influence, clearly.

Harry still doesn’t understand. Who would possibly want immortality??? Apart from, you know, most people? I suppose I ought to be grateful that he’s not immediately defaulting to Snape is the root of all evil again, but given that he’s been doing that for the whole book the absence now is pretty stupid. We were introduced to the concept of there being a villain in this story somewhere around chapter 8 or 9 and Harry’s spent most of the year thinking about it.

Presumably trying not to facepalm very hard, Firenze reminds him that there’s this bad guy literally everyone knows about and is still too scared to name that multiple people have hinted probably isn’t dead.

Harry is utterly stunned by this revelation, of course. At this point Hermione and Hagrid show up, and Firenze takes the opportunity to get away from this idiot boy and scamper back to his forest.

Yes, Neville has vanished. No, he’s not going to reappear until next chapter. No, nobody’s going to acknowledge this. He hasn’t even got Fang with him, and all evidence suggests nobody’s going to care enough to go and look for him. I suppose he spent the rest of the night crying in the woods, since he doesn’t have special protagonist powers to summon friendly monsters, and once the sun came up he managed to climb a tree to see where Hogwarts was and had to make his own way out. We all know he’s much brighter and more resourceful than our hero. Capable of more magic, too, evidently.

Harry did tell Hagrid where the dead unicorn was, but he didn’t tell him what happened to it or what he saw. Instead he and Hermione go back to the castle, wake Ron up and tell him, because that’s much more useful. This does mean they walked away before their detention was finished, since it was meant to last until dawn, but if nobody noticed them losing two students I doubt they noticed the other two not finishing it.

Our hero spends the rest of the chapter ranting that Snape doesn’t want immortality and infinite money after all, he wants to help Voldemort get it instead, as soon as he gets the Stone Voldy will come back and kill Harry and the centaurs will be happy. Harry, I know you’re sleep deprived and not thinking straight, but you’re sounding a little crazy now. Particularly since you already think Snape knows how to get the Stone, so why would he be wasting time drinking cursed unicorns?

Ron’s only contribution is to repeatedly bleat that Harry shouldn’t be saying Voldemort’s name. That is literally the only thing he says. Good job, sidekick.

Hermione, perhaps recognising that we are not at home to Mister Logic right now, seizes on the only thing that might shut Harry up and reminds him that Dumbles is awesome and Voldy is scared of him so Hogwarts is safe and also the centaurs sounded a bit mad. Of course, this instantly makes Harry feel all better, and they all go to bed.

Where Harry finds that someone has sneaked into his bedroom and put his magic bedsheet in his bed. Appropriate place for it, I suppose, though that doesn’t change the fact that this is gross and creepy. It’s accompanied by a note saying, ‘Just in case‘.

So, yes, Dumbledore has planned at least most of the plot from start to finish. Nobody is surprised by this point.

The chapter ends here, so we have no idea what Harry thinks about this. I’m going to guess ‘nothing’.

So, the main fail of this chapter is the questionable detention that exists purely to force Harry to see something creepy in the woods, which he could have seen in far more plausible circumstances. The second big fail is unicorns and the incoherent mess of lore about their blood, which is an even larger fail when you finish the book and realise it never went anywhere and turns out never to matter. The narrative tries to imply here that it’s a big plot point, but if Quirrell had been even vaguely competent he could have got to the Stone a long time ago, and as we’ll see at the end of the book the unicorn blood doesn’t save him or Voldy in the end.

I think Rowling was just going for the evilulz here – we should be grateful it wasn’t kittens. Bad guys kill unicorns okay don’t question it. But as she so frequently does, she went too far; her protagonist is eleven and not too bright, so he doesn’t need to be told anything beyond ‘unicorn blood has important magical properties that make you stronger and harder to hurt, but it’s dangerous and cruel’. The readers know very little about the Potterverse at this point and they don’t need more details either. There’s no need to invent the weird never-developed immortality-with-a-price thing, particularly when we already have a source of immortality in the Philosopher’s Stone anyway (that will also never be relevant again).

Next time, after another long timeskip where our villain fails to do anything at all, he finally does something and we start limping through the grand finale.

Remember how in a recent post Mitchell told you that he’d had some poems published in a book of humanist poetry called Filling The Void? The physical paperback is now available, if anyone’s interested and didn’t want a digital version.


Posted by on April 18, 2016 in loten, mitchell


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Fourteen

Apologies for the delay, work is being mean to me again. Have a lot of animal-related rants, amongst other things.

 Chapter Fourteen: Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback
As baby dragons go it’s fairly cute. Looks a bit like a baby crocodile with cardboard
wings stuck on backwards and disproportionately
oversized legs, though.

The chapter opens with another timeskip of indeterminate length. This is becoming fairly common; I suppose it’s what happens when you try to stretch a few weeks’ worth of plot out over a full year. Which is why, had I been writing this, I would have spent at least the first term writing about normal awesome magic-school stuff, and not even touched the main plot bar a couple of cryptic hints until around this point. If you can’t make ordinary lessons at a magic school interesting, you’ve got no business trying to write fantasy, frankly. And think of all the lovely character development we could have had by focusing more on the kids. Not to mention a massively bloated spell count.

Ah, well. We’ll just have to deal with what we have.

Over the course of this indeterminate timeskip, the Trio have been trying to make sure the plot is continuing to limp in circles rather than advancing. Every time they go past the third floor corridor they listen at the door for Fluffy’s growling, and thus we reach our first problem with this chapter after only three sentences. If Fluffy’s growling is audible through the door, how have there not been any incidents yet beyond some firsties being scared and Snape being bitten? If you’re walking past a door and you hear something growling, you’re either going to take a look, or you’re going to tell other people who will take a look.

Oh, wait, this is Hogwarts. Fluffy’s probably eaten half a dozen children by now and casually maimed a few more. But they clearly weren’t people Harry knows, so they don’t count.

Anyway, they’re also checking up on the two plot-relevant teachers. Snape’s still ‘sweeping about in his usual bad temper‘ so they assume he hasn’t managed to get hold of the Stone yet. Fair point, since even he would probably cheer up once he got hold of money and immortality and could happily quit the job from hell. Quirrell seems paler and more nervous than ever, but hasn’t had a breakdown yet, and the boys attempt to be supportive in their own very peculiar way:

“Whenever Harry passed Quirrell these days he gave him an encouraging sort of smile, and Ron had started telling people off for laughing at Quirrell’s stutter.”

I have no idea what Harry’s expression would be like in this scenario, but probably quite funny. As for Ron, what a nice thing to do. If only it were because you’d realised that mocking someone for a speech impediment is horrible, and not because you happen to need Quirrell to not be upset for a little while. And if only Ron weren’t a first year who would never be brave enough to tell off anyone except his own yearmates, who would likewise not have developed into the type of arseholes who’d be insulting Quirrell to his face – yet.

Hermione isn’t mentioned as doing anything to help Quirrell. I prefer to think it’s because she’s not daft enough to think that a couple of pre-teens will have any effect on the self esteem of a grown adult in the space of a week or two, but the narrative tells us it’s because she’s too busy worrying about the upcoming end of year exams, ha ha isn’t that silly of her. Naturally, she’s the only child even remotely concerned about them, though the teachers are piling a lot of extra homework onto the students and are stressing the importance of them as well.

And if this were my old school, I could see how it would be silly, since until the OWL-equivalents at the end of fifth year the exams were really just practice (and in theory a way for the teachers to make sure we were actually learning, but I doubt they paid that much attention). But Hermione explicitly tells us that you have to pass these exams or you won’t be allowed back next year. I would think that’s something to worry about, particularly for someone like Harry, so desperate not to have to go back to his Muggle life.

Incidentally, we never hear of anyone failing these exams (which is just as well; I don’t know what the wizarding world would do to a twelve year old they didn’t think was ‘good enough’ but I doubt it would be pleasant). And failing a few OWLs seems to have no consequences whatsoever. It seems likely that Hogwarts is just making idle threats to try to make the little brats behave, but if Hermione’s the only one listening the idea rather falls flat, doesn’t it?

Besides, despite the narrative’s insistence, it’s not like Hermione’s disregarding the plot. Her very first line of this chapter references it.

” ‘Ten weeks,’ Hermione snapped. ‘That’s not ages, that’s like a second to Nicolas Flamel.’ “

The book’s giving out rather mixed messages here, and is also suffering from a familiar problem of the series – Rowling knows how the book ends and has forgotten that the characters don’t. Harry ought to be worried about the exams, but he isn’t because Rowling knows he’ll pass them. In fact, Harry is never worried about his lack of academic achievement, because Rowling knows it will never impact his life in any way. This is also not a good message for a children’s book. You want to encourage your audience to do their best, and explain that not being amazing at something doesn’t mean you’re worthless but just means you need to try other things until you find something you are good at. You don’t tell them that eh, it’s fine as long as you know the right people, and if you don’t then you may as well not exist.

Anyway, moving on. Harry and Ron spend most of their time complaining while Hermione tries to get them to revise – the twelve uses of dragon’s blood gets another mention here; it’s something that’s referenced quite a lot, and never gets actually explained and is never relevant to anything. The Trio are in the library one day – I don’t know exactly what time of year we’re up to, but it’s either during or just after the Easter holidays, so around April I suppose?

I don’t know why the wizarding world would acknowledge Easter, but they apparently do – Molly Weasley sends passive-aggressive Easter eggs during Goblet of Fire, though as far as I remember will never do so in any other book. There’s no indication of how long the Easter break is, or whether it fluctuates with Muggle Easter (which has never made any bloody sense anyway) or is at the same time every year. Not that it matters, of course, but I can’t be the only one who wants to know if Hogwarts ever manages to function as a school, can I?

In any case, the Easter holiday appears to be more of an enforced study leave than an actual vacation – based on the few mentions in the series (I don’t think it takes place at all in the next book, for a start), while there are no scheduled lessons, the students are given so many assignments that they seem to spend most of the time working anyway. According to the HP wiki the students are allowed to go home at Easter just like at Christmas, but none of them seem to. The teachers aren’t mentioned as being absent either, though I expect just not having to appear in class must be a nice break for them, if not for the students. It can’t be good for the children to have to work solidly from January to June, particularly the younger ones, but why would Hogwarts care about that?

As I was saying before I interrupted myself, the Trio are in the library. Hermione’s trying to work (and fantasising about murder, I suspect), Harry’s pretending to work and Ron is complaining, until he sees Hagrid. They ask what he’s doing in the library – I’d be asking how he got through all the not-giant-sized doorways between his hut and the library, personally – and he acts shifty and says he’s ‘jus’ lookin‘,’ which isn’t at all suspicious of course, before asking why they’re there, they’re not still looking for Flamel?

Of course not, says Ron, we found out about him ages ago, let me just yell his identity out for everyone else presumably also studying in here to hear. Hagrid shuts him up, and when Hagrid is giving you lessons in tact you know you’re a mess. Harry keeps talking about the Stone and its defences, though, because he’s a moron, and Hagrid says he’ll answer their questions later if they’ll just stop talking right now damnit before making a hasty exit.

Let us note that despite having been so desperate to stop them finding anything out, Hagrid now shows absolutely no concern over their sudden new knowledge and doesn’t even ask how they found out. Nor will he ever do so, nor will anyone else. It’s almost as if there was no reason why they shouldn’t know, isn’t it. Though the real question here is why Hagrid knows – we discussed earlier that the only reason to send Hagrid to collect the plot coupon was that he was the only minion who wouldn’t ask questions about what he was doing and why, so why tell him what it is? It would be more in character for Dumbles not to say what the object was or why he wanted to borrow Fluffy.

I imagine Hermione’s still trying to revise and hoping that they’re all struck by lightning or something while all this is going on. She makes no contributions to this scene other than to be a nasty spoilsport telling the poor little boys that they actually have to do work.

Once Hagrid leaves Ron decides to check what he was looking at, and comes back and tells us he was researching dragons. How Ron figured this out is not explained; it seems awfully convenient that the section on dragons just happens to be within sight of the section where the Trio are working (why and/or how is there an entire section on dragons, such that it’s completely obvious from where Hagrid was standing what he was looking at?). I’ll let Ron get away with it though, since he’s about to give us some exposition about dragons, and dragons are awesome. Even if they’re chickens.

Dragon breeding has been illegal in Britain since 1709. Given that various bits of them are apparently super-useful, this seems like a stupid rule. It’s not like they can’t make farms invisible to Muggles. They’re apparently unable to be tamed, as well, and Ron mentions that Charlie’s had some bad burns from wild ones. At this point we’ve only been told that Charlie studies dragons, but later we’ll learn that he basically works on a dragon farm (they can call it a sanctuary all they want, anywhere that rents out the resident animals for sporting events is a farm).

Harry asks if there are wild dragons in Britain, and Ron says yes, there are two kinds – Hebridean Blacks and Common Welsh Greens.

Ho boy. Here be dragons, and also dragon rants.

First let’s talk briefly about the kinds of dragon we see in the Potterverse. According to  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there are ten, and they can all interbreed despite being very scattered geographically and most populations being nowhere near one another. New Zealand and Australia share one, China gets one, Britain gets two as mentioned above, Scandinavia gets two (Norway and Sweden), South America gets one (Peru) and the rest are all in various countries in Eastern Europe. This sort of distribution makes no sense in a species that can fly. This fact, plus the nomenclature, suggests they’re more like breeds of dog than subspecies of a wild animal. And if this really were the case, then by now someone would have managed to breed a non-aggressive dragon that can be kept as a pet or ridden around. Because dragons are awesome. At the very least they’d have bred a more docile version so people could get useful body parts without being crispy-fried.

They’re also all standard Western dragons, with four legs, two batlike wings and lots of fire, or at least the ones we see onscreen are. Neither of the Scandinavian ones resemble the Norse ice dragons like Jörmungandr and the Chinese one isn’t the wingless Asiatic lion-headed dragon. Nor is the Peruvian one feathered, as far as I know. I don’t know any Maori/Aboriginal dragon legends but I wouldn’t expect them to fit the Western template. There aren’t any water dragons or other variations either, which is a missed opportunity – the Loch Ness Monster could easily be some sort of leviathan in this universe. (And Loch Ness is even in Scotland, so they could’ve had field trips.)

Now let’s look at the two British varieties Ron mentioned. First the Hebridean Black, because that one annoys me less. The Hebrides are two archipelagos of tiny islands off the Scottish coast. Collectively there are over a hundred, and a lot of them are uninhabited, but they’re also all very small and mostly very flat and open. Aside from livestock on the inhabited ones there’s pretty much just seabirds, there aren’t even rodents on most of them. The only dragons that could live there would be about the size of cats. Fantastic Beasts says the Hebridean Black grows up to thirty feet long, though. Given that, as I’ve just said, all Potterverse dragons are fire elementals, this is a problem. A water dragon could thrive around there, digging caves in the sea bed and hunting whales and seals and sharks and so on, but on land there’s nothing to support a large predator. I suppose they could fly to the mainland to eat deer, but if that were true they’d just live on the mainland.

More to the point, this isn’t Africa with insanely massive herds of mixed game everywhere. Britain has a few species of deer, and the odd semi-wild pony or escaped ‘wild’ boar (we don’t have them in the wild any more but people farm them). That’s really it for large wild herbivores, and most if not all large magical creatures seem to be confined to the Hogwarts grounds. Any reasonable population of large predator these days would have to also be eating livestock, humans, or both, and the Muggles might just have noticed by now. One of the reasons why it’s unlikely that we’ll ever successfully reintroduce all the large predators we killed off.

All these problems could have been fixed by Ron explaining that the surviving native dragons are very small, and that the monster-size ones died out.

Also, being native to Scotland, you’d think there would be a couple in the Forbidden Forest, wouldn’t you?

And finally, an additional problem with the Common Welsh Green. Never mind that the name implies there ought to be other varieties of Welsh Green, let me show you something.

This is the Welsh flag.

That, my friends, is Y Ddraig Goch (the pronounciation would be something like ‘ee thrayg gock’), one of the national symbols of Wales since at least the ninth century. WELSH DRAGONS ARE RED, DAMN YOU. The name even means ‘the red dragon’. I’m not Welsh by birth but I live and work in Wales and have done for years. I don’t care how irrational it is, this really annoys me.

Green dragon. Pah.

Okay. I’m fine. I’m moving on. Mitchell is laughing at me. Back to the Trio, now going to visit Hagrid. He’s clearly up to something; all the curtains are drawn, the windows are closed and his hut is overwhelmingly hot and smoky. Fang also seems to have disappeared, interestingly.

“Hagrid made them tea and offered them stoat sandwiches, which they refused.”


For those of you who don’t have them where you’re from, this is a stoat. They are utterly adorable mustelids, aka weasel-type critters. I suppose they’re probably edible, but people don’t eat them. If they live somewhere cold enough they turn white in winter and are hunted for fur (ermine), but not for meat. Apart from anything else, they’re tiny, about half the size of a rabbit. And they’re predators, who tend not to taste very nice, as well as being a bit on the smelly side like all mustelids. They’re also way too cute to eat. I used to volunteer at a zoo that acquired a hand-reared one and I fell in love and very nearly stole him.

I suppose they’ve been mentioned here to shore up Hagrid’s occasional portrayal as a savage wild man (I believe at some point in a later book there’s a ‘beef’ stew that has a talon in it), but sandwiches are a bit too civilised for that. A real gamekeeper would be trapping stoats and other predators as part of his job, but Hagrid doesn’t keep game – despite the books continuing to insist he’s “gamekeeper”, there’s never any hunting etc going on at Hogwarts. Next book he apparently keeps chickens somewhere, but there’s no sign of them here and in any case I doubt Hagrid would know about gin traps or snares, nor can he use either a gun or magic. Also, really, people do not eat stoats.

Ignoring this brief culinary interlude, Harry wants to ask about the defences protecting the Stone, and when Hagrid refuses to tell him (on the reasonable grounds that he doesn’t actually know) Hermione starts laying on the flattery and emotional manipulation to try to find out what he does know. Why? The children have no idea what Snape can get past and what would thwart him, so knowing possible obstacles won’t let them know if the Stone is safe or not. Like the earlier issue with the exams, this is Rowling forgetting what her characters know; she knows they’ll be going down the trapdoor later and would hypothetically want to know what they’re facing, but the Trio haven’t decided that yet and have no reason to need this information.

Hermione being the one to try to persuade Hagrid makes sense, though. She’s socially inept around the other children but never has a problem talking to an adult, which is often the case with a bookish only child.

Hagrid cracks within seconds, of course, and tells them that a bunch of teachers each did something to protect the Stone. Sprout, Flitwick, McGonagall, Quirrell, Dumbledore and Snape. If you don’t know anything about the teachers in question, this seems quite reasonable – the Headmaster, the four Heads of House, and the Defence teacher. Though I’ve never understood why each of them would make individual obstacles – having them all collaborate on interlinked defences would be a lot more sensible.

Oh, wait, for a moment I was in an alternate universe where protecting the Stone really was the point. My bad.

Inevitably the Trio are horrified to hear that Snape contributed. Hagrid once again tells them they’re being stupid, but Harry’s too busy making a leap of broken logic and thinks that if Snape made one of the defences then he must somehow know what all the other ones are except the one he implied he didn’t know last chapter. Harry, I think you misplaced your tin foil hat somewhere.

Harry checks with Hagrid, does anyone else know how to get past Fluffy? Hagrid says no, of course not, just him and Dumbledore. No mention of Fluffy’s past owner, who told Hagrid in the first place… A library that has books on illegal dragon-breeding probably has books on cerberuses (cerberi? Cerberus’? What the heck is the plural of cerberus?) too. Though we’re never told whether it’s just Fluffy or his entire species who suffer from music-induced narcolepsy – in the original Greek myths Orpheus lulls Cerberus to sleep with music, but it explicitly says that’s because Orpheus was an amazing musician, not because of music in general, and nobody else seems to have duplicated the feat.

We’re also never told what counts as music, of course. Humming? Whistling? Clapping? Karaoke performances of 70s disco hits? Swedish death metal?

Anyway, Harry asks if they can open a window, because it’s very hot in the hut. Hagrid says no and looks at the fire, and Harry notices there’s a huge black egg sitting in the flames. The kettle is balanced on it, which I find quite funny.

It’s a dragon egg, of course. Hagrid tells us he won it last night in a card game with a random hooded man he met in the pub. Britain does have a long tradition of pub games, in fairness, but usually not with strangers – it’s a community thing, most small villages have their own versions of games because hanging out at the pub was pretty much the only activity available except going to church. Alcohol is almost always involved, but actual gambling usually isn’t – plenty of bets, yes, but not for money or items. In any case, while Harry and company will – eventually – find it suspicious that Hagrid ended up playing against someone who just happened to have something he really, really wanted, nobody will ever ask how the mystery man got hold of the dragon egg in the first place, how he got it into the country, or how nobody else in the pub noticed it. (Shame on you, Aberforth.)

Credit where it’s due, Quirrell’s done well. His schedule isn’t quite as punishing as, say, McGonagall or Snape, but he’s still teaching full time and no doubt under at least occasional surveillance. It can’t have been easy to find and smuggle in a viable dragon egg that’s near hatching, and I’ve no idea how he paid for it. Cheating at cards to make sure Hagrid won, while drunk no less, can’t have been easy either. Though you have to wonder why he bothered, since Hagrid doesn’t need any encouragement beyond ‘hello’ to spill his secrets to anyone who asks, and his having briefly owned a dragon will never be relevant to anything again.

Of course, not every subplot should be relevant to the main story arc. In fact, in a good book, a lot of them shouldn’t be. But this isn’t developed into a side plot – it exists for this one chapter, sets up the single event that takes up the whole of next chapter, and then vanishes. It’s honestly little more than filler. Hagrid should have obtained the egg weeks or even months ago and been nurturing it this whole time, the hatching should also have happened a while ago, and this chapter should merely be dealing with the consequences once the thing’s too big for him to take care of any more.

Also I just realised, does this mean the wizarding world does in fact have other card games? Or did this really involve two grown men sitting in a dodgy pub clandestinely playing Snap? I hope it’s the latter, because that’s hilarious.

Hagrid assures the Trio that he’s been reading all about how to look after dragons – in a couple of hours, since he won the egg at night after the library had shut and has had maybe half a day at most to study whatever books were there. Kids, you need a lot more time than this to research the care of a pet. Anyway, he’s managed to identify the egg as belonging to a Norwegian Ridgeback (no, why Norway will never be explained, but at least it wasn’t Albania) and he says he knows how to look after it:

” ‘Keep the egg in the fire, ’cause their mothers breathe on ’em, see, an’ when it hatches, feed it on a bucket o’ brandy mixed with chicken blood every half hour.’ “

The only one to react to any of this is Hermione, who points out that Hagrid lives in a wooden house. The scene ends with nobody else caring about this.

Time for another diversion; let’s discuss dragon biology.

What Hagrid tells us about dragon care does sound vaguely plausible, but the mothers clearly don’t breathe fire on the eggs 24 hours a day, and a Norwegian breed isn’t going to need massively high temperatures. All he’s doing is cooking the baby alive. Also, my, that’s a lot of brandy and chickens; I wonder where Hagrid’s going to get those from, since even if he did keep his own chickens at this point bleeding your entire flock to death for a few days of dragon-feeding is a bad idea. We’re not told how long the dragon will need this food for, or whether it varies from species to species.

And why brandy? A lot of magical creatures seem to crave alcohol. Later we’re going to meet a house elf addicted to Butterbeer and some flying horses who drink single-malt whiskey. At least those are domestic, though – where would a wild dragon get brandy? (Please don’t tell us they’re mammals and produce it instead of milk. Just don’t.)

Mitchell suggested that in this instance it might be as simple as alcohol = flammable, which is a good point, though Norbert causes sparks before he’s been fed and there’s no reason why it would be brandy specifically – except that it’s traditionally used to set Christmas puddings on fire, so I suppose it’s associated with flames already. I was wondering if it was because of the association with heat and the way people think you’re meant to give brandy to people stranded in the snow – this is based entirely on some dude painting the little barrel around a St Bernard’s neck because he thought it looked neat, which never existed in reality, and giving alcohol to anyone suffering from hypothermia would likely kill them. Which means it’s exactly the sort of stupid pseudo-logic that the wizarding world would use. Choose your own explanation, I suppose.

We’re never given much detail on the diet of dragons, but there’s no reason the hatchling would need a liquid diet at all. Norbert is going to hatch able to breathe fire (well, sparks) and bite, meaning that dragons are precocial – their young are born able to move around and eat something close to the adult diet; examples include reptiles, waterfowl and hoofed animals. The opposite would be altricial, where the young are helpless and can’t do anything except squirm and be fed liquids, including humans, non-water birds and most furry carnivores. This seems to be what Hagrid’s expecting based on his ‘research’.

Given what we see of Norbert’s development, I would assume baby dragons are able to eat raw or fire-breath-cooked meat from whatever their mother kills as soon as they hatch. This is based on the egg guarding maternal behaviour we see in Goblet of Fire; it’s equally possible that baby dragons are able to hunt insects, small animals and birds for themselves as soon as they hatch. And if this is really the only food it’s being given, there’s no way Norbert can be growing as fast as it apparently does – for that sort of growth rate, which seems to be roughly equivalent to seals and dolphins, you need extremely rich milk. There’s not enough fat or protein in chicken blood to provide the calories needed, and even if there were you’d end up with a dragon unable to fly due to the thick layers of blubber (which is admittedly a cute image, but never mind that).

It’s also not clear whether Potterverse dragons are reptilian or avian. Fantasyland dragons tend to be reptiles more often than not, though avian makes more sense biologically. The eggs needing higher temperatures implies that dragons are cold blooded, but they don’t seem to hibernate in winter so they’re probably not. We don’t get much of a description of the egg shell when Norbert actually hatches, but it seems to be brittle and birdlike rather than the leathery shell of a reptile egg. Norbert doesn’t have a beak and there’s no mention of an egg tooth (a small growth on the snout of baby reptiles that falls off shortly after hatching) so how it hatches at all is another unanswered question. Norbert’s weight seems to fluctuate considerably from scene to scene as well so we don’t know if it has hollow bird bones or not.

…basically it’s very easy to tell if a fantasy author has any background in biology or not or if they bothered doing any research. See also never-tiring immortal injury-proof Fantasyland horses.

Yes, I am fully aware of how irrelevant and just plain nerdy this whole digression was. But it is possible to make magical creatures work as if they could be real, with a bit of effort, and I find it’s always much more fun when authors try it. Hopefully some of it was at least interesting.

Have another timeskip of indeterminate length. The boys continue to complain about homework and continue to be angry at Hermione for trying to help them. The plot continues to stagnate, and will do so for the fortnight or so that the rest of this chapter will cover. Most useless villain ever – what on earth is Quirrell waiting for? He has the last piece of information he needs now. Let’s assume that Severus is doing an excellent job of being a nuisance and thwarting him constantly.

Finally the egg begins to hatch, and for reasons known only to himself Hagrid abandons it for quite a while to hike up to the Owlery and give Hedwig a note to take to Harry at breakfast, instead of just going to tell the Trio directly. Incidentally, you’d think someone at Hogwarts would have noticed by now that this slightly crazy man – who we’ll learn later is at least in his sixties and probably closer to seventies – is spending a lot of time hanging out with three pre-adolescent children, wouldn’t you. Hogwarts makes Sunnydale High look like a well run and caring institution at times.

It would be nice to think it’s because Hagrid has finally learned what secrecy means, but if so he may as well not have bothered, since Ron picks a loud fight with Hermione about whether or not to skip lessons to go and watch.

” ‘Hermione, how many times in our lives are we going to see a dragon hatching?’
‘We’ve got lessons, we’ll get into trouble, and that’s nothing to what Hagrid’s going to be in when someone finds out what he’s doing –’
‘Shut up!’ Harry whispered. “

Well done, Ron. Inevitably, Draco heard them, because he’s still stalking Harry. The real question is how nobody else heard, since as I mentioned this is taking place at breakfast in the packed hall. We’re not told what Draco’s expression is like after he hears this, but Harry doesn’t like it.

Hermione actually wins the argument. I hope she doesn’t get used to it, since I don’t think the boys will ever allow it to happen again. The Trio don’t go to Hagrid until morning break, after Herbology,  ‘when the bell sounded from the castle at the end of their lesson‘.

What bell? This has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again. I mean, it actually makes a great deal of sense – a building the size of Hogwarts, with no access to electronic bells, in a world where few if any people seem to possess clocks, would benefit greatly from a bell tower. I’m sure they could come up with a spell to ring it every hour if they didn’t have anyone to be a bellringer. But there’s no indication that such a thing exists outside of this single sentence. Which is a shame, since it would have been a neat little bit of worldbuilding.

Hagrid meets them at the door to tell them excitedly that it’s nearly hatched. Fang is still missing, but he’ll reappear later on. The hatching is described the way almost every fantasy novel ever describes dragon eggs hatching – it rocks back and forth, there are noises from inside, cracks form all over it, and then it suddenly breaks apart. I have yet to see any animal hatch from an egg this neatly; Norbert’s egg seems to have done nothing but make noises for hours before suddenly breaking open. More realistically, little bits would have been flaking away from the first tiny hole for hours and if Hagrid didn’t help the dragon should be half hatched by now and just needing to break off a few more bits before squeezing out of the hole it had made.

Implausible hatching aside, Harry’s description of the new arrival is actually pretty good:

“The baby dragon flopped on to the table. It wasn’t exactly pretty; Harry thought it looked like a crumpled, black umbrella. Its spiny wings were huge compared to its skinny jet body and it had a long snout with wide nostrils, stubs of horns and bulging, orange eyes.”

Honestly, it sounds adorable. Especially since it immediately sneezes sparks and then tries to bite Hagrid.

Hagrid will insist on using baby talk for the rest of the chapter when talking to the dragon. This is meant to be cute. It’s not. He coos over it now and calls himself its mummy – yes, this is changed to ‘mommy’ in the US version, try not to cringe too much. Dear authors, editors and publishers of the world: if your story is set in Britain and your characters are British, for the love of Merlin please, please Britpick and avoid Americanisms like this. Even if you’re going to use the excuse that they’re trying to make things easier on American readers, the book is set in Britain. Unless you’re also going to move the setting, substituting out-of-place regionalisms for realistic ones is ridiculous.  He’ll say the same thing several times throughout the chapter, and I have no idea why he’s naming himself the female parent instead of saying ‘daddy’.

Oh, wait, yes I do. Because Rowling is very much of the female = nurture school of thought. That’s why it’s Lily’s sacrifice in particular that gives Harry snowflake powers, and not James’, even though both of them died in the same incident and for the same reason. Women are loving and men aren’t. Given how misogynistic her writing is a lot of the time, I don’t really know what to make of this random bit of misandry – at least not without speculating about her divorce, which I’d rather not do – but it’s a recurring theme throughout the series. The female parent is the caring emotional one and the male parent is the stoic dutiful one – we see it in the Potters (post-mortem, at least), the Dursleys, the Weasleys and the Malfoys, and arguably the Riddles. Hooray for gender essentialism!

Anyway, Hermione asks the relevant question of just how fast this thing is going to grow – none of the children seem particularly overjoyed or even much interested by this whole affair, which is a shame because did I mention that dragons are awesome? – but Hagrid doesn’t answer because he’s just looked out of the window and seen Draco scampering gleefully away towards the castle.

Another week passes with nothing happening, except Draco smiling nastily every time he sees any of the Trio. Good boy, we’ll make a Slytherin of you yet. I assume he either wrote to Lucius, went to Severus, or both, and was told that there will almost certainly not be any official punishment if you were to report it but you can have a lot of fun making them all sweat for weeks. We can’t make sense of this otherwise; Draco has never been patient about trying to get them in trouble before… once again, Rowling’s having characters move at the speed of plot rather than thinking about what they’d realistically do.

For once the Trio react intelligently and spend most of their free time trying to persuade Hagrid to get rid of the evidence before Draco squeals. Unfortunately Harry is arguing that Hagrid should just dump Norbert somewhere, because he is a terrible child. Please stop suggesting that someone should abandon their beloved pet. As I’ve already said, Norbert would actually be fine, so this isn’t an issue of cruelty to the animal – as it would be with, say, a puppy that was getting too big – but it would seriously screw up the ecology of the area. Fun fact, Britain has quite a few invasive species from people casually discarding pets – terrapins, wallabies, parakeets, even meerkats now, plus things like mink that idiot activists decided to release from fur farms. Adding a dragon would probably be a bad thing, especially if it found a wild Hebridean one to breed with.

Hagrid doesn’t care about that, of course, he just says that Norbert’s too little and would die. Norbert has implausibly tripled in size during his first week of life, despite the stupid diet.

” ‘He’s lost his marbles,’ Ron muttered in Harry’s ear. “

True, Ron, though you shouldn’t know that phrase. I doubt you have any idea what marbles are. Though saying someone’s lost their Gobstones doesn’t really sound right. This is another scene that Hermione’s not allowed to take part in, by the way, despite allegedly being present – maybe she’s outside with Fang, who has yet to reappear.

Harry points out that Norbert’s going to outgrow the hut in a few weeks, and that Draco could tell Dumbledore any minute. Excuse me while I laugh heartily, because even Draco’s not that naive. He does end up seriously misjudging this situation, and ought to have been smart enough to get Lucius to contact the Ministry, but he does clearly know there’s zero point in telling Dumbles. One assumes Severus told him not to bother.

Anyway, Hagrid admits he knows he can’t keep the soon-to-be giant fire-breathing vicious lizard, but refuses to just dump it somewhere. Thank you, Hagrid, your first reasonable statement in a very long time.

Somehow Harry proceeds to pull the solution out of his arse at this point:

“Harry suddenly turned to Ron. ‘Charlie,’ he said.
‘You’re losing it, too,’ said Ron. ‘I’m Ron, remember?’
‘No – Charlie – your brother Charlie. In Romania. Studying dragons. We could send Norbert to him. Charlie can take care of him and then put him back in the wild!’ “

I don’t know how Harry remembered about Charlie, who’s only been mentioned twice in the past five or six months, but good job. I’m undecided about Ron’s initial response – I like the implication that he’s entirely too used to being mistaken for one of his brothers, but he shouldn’t really have misunderstood this, particularly with something as obvious as a dragon right there in front of him to help the association. Also, because Harry is a God-Sue, this plan is exactly what happens, when what should have happened in reality was that they’d send Norbert to Charlie and Charlie would then use his contacts to get Norbert returned to Norway where the species is meant to live.

But no. Instead apparently there’s going to be a Norwegian Ridgeback/Romanian Longhorn crossbreed strain wreaking havoc on the ecology of the area in a few years. Or maybe it’ll turn out that Norbert is carrying some sort of disease that will wipe out the native Romanian dragons, and we’ll end up with a situation akin to the red squirrel vs grey squirrel problem that Britain also has.

Hagrid agrees to this surprisingly easily given how attached we’re meant to believe he is to this dragon, and they send Hedwig to ask Charlie how the hell to go about this.

Yet another week crawls past with literally nothing happening. At this point I don’t know what’s wrong with Draco; I can’t buy that he’s got the patience to wait quite this long. Norbert is bigger than ever and is now eating dead rats by the crateful – I have no idea where Hagrid’s getting those from either, but I suppose it makes marginally more sense than a certain creature’s ferret-only diet in Prisoner of Azkaban. At least you can bulk-buy dead rats to some extent for reptile feeding purposes, though to my knowledge not by the crate. The Trio have somehow been roped into helping with his feeds, apparently, though Ron’s the only one who’s mentioned as doing so – maybe Harry uncharacteristically loaned him the Invisibility Bedsheet in exchange for not having to join in.

Ron comes into the common room around midnight from this fun little job and dumps the bedsheet. Don’t bother asking why he agreed to night feeds or why Hagrid even suggested it, nobody will explain. Dont bother asking why Hagrid needs help anyway when Norbert can easily eat his own rats. Ron’s been bitten hard enough to draw blood and says he won’t be able to hold a quill for a week – we’ll see shortly that this injury is actually pretty serious, but Hagrid, who’s presumably been bitten several times by now, is absolutely fine. Maybe Ron’s allergic.

Luckily Harry and Hermione were waiting up for him, and luckily nobody else was in the common room. It’s especially lucky since this is taking place on a Wednesday around midnight, which we learned in chapter 8 is when the Gryffindor first years have an Astronomy lesson.

Seriously, Rowling, did you pay attention to anything? You only bothered to give days and times for two classes – this one and the Friday Potions lesson – and you still couldn’t avoid scheduling issues? This book wasn’t a cash cow, this was the book that allegedly meant a lot to you. Why don’t you care?

This is why worldbuilding matters. (And this is presumably why she got so many rejections before someone published this mess of a book.)

In fact, have a good article on worldbuilding. I was going to put it in later, but here’s as good a place as any.

This really does make me genuinely angry. I research the hell out of the things I write, and it’s only fanfic. A lot of it you guys don’t even realise. Tiny little things like the smell of Amortentia for my characters, or the specific type of rowan I put into Severus’ wand, are all byproducts of things I spent a long time reading about and researching. There is nothing in any of my stories that I haven’t taken care to study first, whether I explain it – or whether it ends up even being relevant – or not. And you wouldn’t believe the number of times I read back and double check things, or the number of errors I fix before you guys see a word of it. And I do still miss things, because everyone makes mistakes.

I put a hell of a lot of effort into what’s just a profitless hobby, is my point. Because I want to. Because it’s honestly never occurred to me not to. And the best authors put a lot more effort in than I do. But then there are published books by professional authors, like this, where the writer obviously doesn’t care. So many of the things we’ve been pointing out could be fixed in literally just a few seconds.

I know that research is much easier these days thanks to the internet and advances in technology, but there’s no excuse for basic continuity errors to get through on this scale. I don’t understand why anyone would bother writing a first novel they didn’t care about, and I don’t understand how someone who clearly doesn’t care can be this successful when arguably better authors are largely unknown – and no, I don’t mean me. I’m still a long way from being published. I’m not jealous (or fishing for compliments, I swear), but I am confused, and disappointed.

Rowling isn’t, overall, a terrible writer (except in regard to a few glaring issues). But that’s really the best I can say. She could probably be an amazing author who deserves every last scrap of success and more, because there are glimpses in this mess of something truly great, but she didn’t care enough to do it.

Anyway, Hedwig shows up at this point with Charlie’s answer, thus preventing anyone having time to remember that they’re meant to be in a lesson right now. Incidentally, Hermione is once again not allowed to speak. She has been inexplicably mute for almost the entire chapter despite being in every scene. I suspect this is actually the trend for most of the series and I just never noticed how constant it was before; we’ll see.

“Dear Ron,
How are you? Thanks for the letter – I’d be glad to take the Norwegian Ridgeback, but it won’t be easy getting him here. I think the best thing will be to send him over with some friends of mine who are coming to visit me next week. Trouble is, they mustn’t be seen carrying an illegal dragon.
Could you get the Ridgeback up the tallest tower at midnight on Saturday? They can meet you there and take him away while it’s still dark.
Send me an answer as soon as possible.

Honestly, this is quite sweet, it sounds like Charlie doesn’t hear from his family very often. It’s weird that he agreed so quickly, though – he’s one of the older responsible brothers, not like the Terrible Twins.

Actually, speaking of Fred and George, why haven’t the Trio roped them in to help? They’d love this sort of stupid stunt and everyone agrees they’re very good at breaking rules.

Anyway, let’s look at Charlie’s brilliant plan. Apparition and Portkeys don’t exist at this point in the series, so okay, let’s assume that Charlie’s friends do have to literally carry this dragon across Europe, which means brooms. We’ve not been told that invisibility spells such as Disillusion Charms exist, but there’s only so far I’m willing to stretch this and the Potterverse as we’ve been shown it so far must have some sort of concealment spell, especially given the emphasis on keeping out of sight of Muggles. So why is Charlie worried that his friends might be seen?

Why does Charlie think it’s possible for a group of random people to casually fly into Hogwarts, allegedly one of the safest places in the wizarding world, without Dumbledore knowing? Of course, it’s possible he immediately Floo’d Dumbles to come up with this plan, which would once again explain a lot, but I don’t really want this to be a world where literally everything has been engineered by the Headmaster even if that is often the only reasonable explanation.

Why do they have to collect the dragon from the top of a tower? Hagrid’s hut is in the grounds, and far enough away from the castle that it’s unlikely anyone would see in broad daylight, let alone in the middle of the night. Take Norbert directly from the hut and don’t be stupid.

And also, just how does Charlie think they’re going to get Norbert up the tower anyway? He’s studying dragons, he ought to know how big a three week old Ridgeback is. Then again, maybe he’s just genre-savvy and breaking the fourth wall, since thanks to the wizarding world’s unique physics this poses no problem whatsoever. (Presumably the dragon takes after Mummy Hagrid’s miraculous size-changing properties…)

Finally, how is Hedwig meant to get to him with their answer in two days, when it took her a week to make the first trip? The worldbuilding article I linked to earlier talks a lot about travel times and so on. It would have come in handy when I was ranting about trains all those chapters ago.

Harry says this crazy plan won’t be a problem, anyway, since his bedsheet can cover two of them and Norbert. It’s never clarified, but I think we can all tell that this statement means himself and Ron. I shouldn’t think Hermione minds, though.

Sadly Hermione doesn’t get to enjoy her escape for long, since the next day Ron has to go to the hospital wing. His hand has swollen to twice its normal size and is turning green, and is apparently very painful.

This will, of course, have no consequences whatsoever. He’ll be fine by tomorrow without even a scar, and Hagrid will never show any signs of guilt that his illegal dangerous pet inflicted what sounds like a very serious wound. Injuries should not be plot devices that only last a single scene.

Ron’s brilliant idea of a cover story was to tell the nurse that a dog bit him. What dog? The only ones in Hogwarts are Fang – who has yet to reappear and is apparently completely harmless – and Fluffy, who Madam Pomfrey probably doesn’t know exists. Also, dog bites don’t do this to people. I appreciate that it’s hard to think up a plausible alibi, but in a place like Hogwarts all he has to say is that he has absolutely no idea what happened and he just woke up with a badly poisoned wound on his hand out of nowhere. That’s entirely too realistic.

We actually spent some time trying to work out what was supposed to be going on here – were we meant to assume the dragon is venomous on top of everything else? Outside of snakes most reptiles aren’t venomous, and birds certainly aren’t… (It seems like Komodo dragons are, which is interesting, but that’s a more recent discovery and wouldn’t have been known when she wrote this). Venomous dragons are very uncommon in mythology, also. It’s entirely possible she just meant us to read this as an infection (some animals, especially cats, have notoriously filthy mouths that can breed pathogens, and it’s been feeding primarily on mysteriously-sourced dead rats…), but infections generally don’t progress that quickly…

Not that it matters, since not only are there no physical consequences, there are no other consequences either and nobody will ever try to find out what really happened to his hand.

Draco apparently showed up earlier to gloat, pretending he wanted to borrow a textbook in order to get the chance to laugh at Ron and threaten to tell the nurse what really happened. At this point, Draco, you really should have done. Making them panic is fun, but it’s been long enough now that you must realise you’re running out of time. Still, he’s young, I’m sure he’ll learn.

At this point Hermione is finally permitted to speak, telling Ron that it’ll all be over on Saturday night. This makes Ron almost wet himself, because he’s just remembered that he left Charlie’s letter in the book Draco took. In the real world this wouldn’t matter, because Draco doesn’t need a second hand copy of a textbook he already owns and would have just dropped it in the lake or set fire to it and gone on his merry way, but in this world he has of course found and read the letter. On the one hand this is a stupidly implausible coincidence, but on the other it’s an example of the kind of behaviour Ron’s been showing throughout this chapter, so on balance I’ll let it slide.

Harry says, accurately, that they don’t have time to come up with another plan and that he and Hermione should be fine with the bedsheet. I doubt Hermione’s as convinced, but it’s not as if there are many options at this point. The two of them leave Ron to his poisoned hand and go to tell Hagrid; for those keeping track, this is the moment where Fang reappears, sitting outside the hut with a bandaged tail. Let’s assume Hagrid trod on it, because if Norbert was involved he wouldn’t have a tail left.

Hagrid’s upset that the time has come, naturally, but he’s got other things on his mind since Norbet is now big enough to literally shake the walls of the hut and has just bitten him in the leg. No, of course this won’t react the way Ron’s bite did. I don’t know why anyone would expect any sort of consistency by this point. And for some reason Harry doesn’t warn him that Draco knows everything and that there’s a really high chance that they’ll be caught. I’ve no idea why.

Harry and Hermione dutifully sneak down to Hagrid’s on Saturday night. Once again, there are implausibly no other students in the common room to notice them, because all teenagers go to bed long before midnight on Saturdays. They’re known for it. The two of them are still running late though because Peeves was playing tennis in the entrance hall, which raises two questions. One, how does Peeves know what tennis is (and does he have an actual racquet and ball, and if so where did he find them?) and two, how the hell are the kids coming and going through the huge main entrance doors? I’m not even going to add an unlocking spell to Hermione’s spell count for this one because it’s just stupid that it’s even possible – and also because she’s going to hit double figures by the end of the book without it.

Hagrid has managed to get the dragon into a crate. We’re not told what this crate is made of, naturally, but let’s assume that even Hagrid wasn’t dumb enough to use a wooden crate to hold something that breathes fire. The wizarding world probably doesn’t have aluminium and certainly doesn’t have plastic or fibreglass, so what we’ve got here is a gigantic lizard in a (probably) iron box, and two small children now have to transport it up the hill, through the main entrance, and up a ridiculous number of stairs (many being narrow spiral staircases) and along an unknown number of corridors. Without being heard, which means carrying it not dragging it.

At this point I’m just going to give up and attempt to shut my brain down, because there is literally no way this is possible and I want to move on and finish the chapter.

Hagrid has packed some rats and brandy in case Norbert wants a snack, and a teddy bear. This is genuinely cute. Especially since Harry can hear Norbert ripping the teddy bear’s head off. Let us note here that nobody’s suggested trying to drug the dragon. Actual tranquilisers are clearly not an option, and we know they’re magic resistant, but you’d think someone would at least have tried to research a potion or something they could give it to knock it out. Isn’t it convenient that Norbert never makes a sound, even though it’s never been shut in a box before and would be panicking or furious or both?

They leave Hagrid in tears and start the Herculean task of hauling this dragon to the tower for no reason whatsoever. The book even lampshades that this shouldn’t work:

“How they managed to get the crate back up to the castle, they never knew.”

Quick, throw another attempt at drama in before the characters realise this isn’t possible.

McGonagall shows up on cue in the corridor beneath the tower. She’s in her night things and she’s in the middle of physically assaulting Draco – I’m not kidding, she’s grabbed him by the ear and is literally dragging him along while shouting at him. She gives him detention and takes twenty points off Slytherin for the crime of being out of bed – if you think this is disproportionate, you’re completely right, but wait until next chapter – and then tells him off for lying about Harry having a dragon. She then drags him off by the ear, saying she’s going to speak to Professor Snape about this, and I would pay quite a lot to see that particular conversation.

Poor, naive Draco. He’s obviously gone and woken McGonagall up so that she could catch them – which proves he’s been listening to his Head of House; in a different world this would have been a good plan to make sure nobody could deny the evidence and let the Gryffindors off. It’s even fairly in character for him, since I can see how he’d want to arrange their downfall on his own rather than letting Lucius or Severus deal with it. He just underestimated what a horrible person McGonagall is. Though given the events of next chapter, he has technically won this one – at least until the end of the book.

“The steep spiral staircase up to the top of the tower seemed the easiest thing in the world after that.”

No, damnit, Draco unfairly getting into trouble doesn’t mean you can break reality. The crate would not fit up a spiral staircase no matter what you did to it. Though honestly the idea that this universe is literally powered by Slytherin suffering is horribly plausible.

For some reason both Harry and Hermione are very happy that Draco got into trouble. They’re not relieved to not have been caught, or anything like that, just gloating to the point of literally dancing a jig. To be fair I suppose it’s not that stupid a reaction – I forget occasionally how young they are in this book – but it still seems like they should be feeling other emotions right now and gloating later. Hermione’s reaction in particular is strange, she’s the only one of the Trio who hasn’t actually fought with Draco at all. Or even spoken to him, as far as I remember. Maybe something happened offscreen?

A few minutes after they get to the top of the tower, four cheerful guys on broomsticks show up, utterly failing to trigger any sort of security whatsoever. They don’t get names or descriptions and we’ll never see any of them again. They wrangle Norbert into some sort of harness – it’s unclear whether he’s still in the crate or not, honestly – and fly off into the night, job done.

As Harry and Hermione go back down the stairs, they run into Filch. (Try to imagine ‘The Rains of Castamere‘ playing in the background, if you watch Game of Thrones.) And the chapter ends on a suitably dramatic note:

“They’d left the Invisibility Cloak on top of the tower.”

Shame on you, Hermione. Harry’s a moron but you’re meant to be the smart one.

The next chapter continues this scene, so ending here is a little jarring (we hadn’t remembered this and were actually pretty surprised), but even if we had time neither of us have the mental energy to cope with more than one chapter at a time.

Our current spell count hasn’t changed this chapter and still stands at Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Harry, 0. Have a literal spell counter, because Mitchell and I are geeks, and we’ll see you next time for a walk in the woods.


Posted by on March 26, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Thirteen

I’m still trying very hard not to be absolutely furious with Rowling, but the show must go on, and this chapter was fortunately inoffensive. Just nonsensical.

Chapter Thirteen: Nicolas Flamel
Today’s picture is of a conifer plantation. The Forbidden Forest is mixed woodland, but good try.

Some of you may have noticed in previous posts that I’ve occasionally spelled ‘Nicolas’ as ‘Nicholas’ – I think I caught them all before publishing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed one. It’s an easy mistake to make, particularly since the book doesn’t seem all that sure either. Without the H is the correct spelling, and the one used in my UK hard copy; in the British PDF we’re mostly working from, the chapter title is correct but the page headers add the H. In the US PDF we keep for reference, the title uses the H, but the name is spelt both ways at different points in the text. Mitchell’s physical copy is in the attic so we couldn’t check that; regardless, we found this a bit odd.

Harry’s mostly completely over his inexplicable addiction, as we expected last chapter. Though for some reason he’s now telling us he desperately wants to forget what he saw in the Mirror, which I don’t understand – wanting to forget about the Mirror itself, yes, and maybe if he seemed frightened of the addiction this would make sense, but as it is I’m not sure why he’s so eager to forget the images of his family when he was obsessed with them two days ago and why it’s suddenly traumatic when nothing bad happened. He’s also having nightmares about his parents dying in flashes of green light and the high laugh he’s ‘remembered’ (imagined) before, and I don’t know where this has come from because he’s never had this sort of dream before and the images in the Mirror shouldn’t have triggered it. This passage is treating it as though he literally saw images of their deaths in the mirror, and that wasn’t the case at all.

I suppose this is what happens when you’re going through Mirror-withdrawal?

Ron’s reaction is about as sympathetic as you’d expect: “You see, Dumbledore was right, that mirror could drive you mad.” Very helpful, Ron.

Hermione’s reaction when she comes back to school is more complicated, focusing on the ‘horror‘ of what would have happened if Filch caught Harry and disappointment that he didn’t find out about Flamel. We’re meant to read it as her preoccupation with Harry breaking rules overriding everything else, I think, but it seems more likely that the boys didn’t actually tell her about the Mirror. Even if she was somehow focused more on the rule-breaking than everything else, she would at least have mentioned it, even if only to ask how it works and are there other creepy mind-reading things in this world, or to wonder what she’d have seen if she’d been with them. I can’t accept that she has literally no reaction to a mind-reading addictive magic mirror. Also, note that use of ‘horror’ – she was worried about Harry being caught, not disapproving of him being out of bed. It also seems odd that she has no reaction to Harry’s inexplicable trauma dreams, either to be sympathetic or to tell him that it serves him right.

The alternative explanation is that Rowling either couldn’t or wasn’t interested in writing her reaction to that part and just glossed over it, but I think I can more easily buy Harry being too embarrassed to want to tell her – or the boys just not caring enough to keep her informed.

Incidentally, ‘horror’ seems a strong word. The students all seem weirdly frightened of Filch, but he’s not actually allowed to do anything except report them to a teacher. He can’t even assign detentions himself. He’s an elderly man who’s not in the best of health, and at least some of the students must have figured out that he either can’t or won’t use magic, so why are they all so terrified of him? (Well, in the movieverse he’s Walder Frey, which is a very good reason to be petrified of him…) In later books when he turns rather creepy and spends his time muttering about whips and thumbscrews I can understand it, but right now it’s just a bit strange.

And again, children, you think Snape wants to kill Harry, so shouldn’t you be more worried about him than Filch? More on this later.

Anyway, they’re still looking for information about Flamel, but Harry hasn’t got much time now term has started again because we’re back to bloody Quidditch. Wood is continuing his odd drill-sergeant stereotype by forcing the Gryffindor team to practice an insane amount, and I really don’t know how they have the time for it even if you accept that the other three teams really don’t care all that much. (There’s also a little more weather fail; we’re somewhere in the first half of January – happy birthday Snape – but the snow has already melted and given way to rain. It’s possible, but not very likely.)

Gryffindor’s next match is against Hufflepuff and if they win they’ll overtake Slytherin which is apparently a big deal for some reason. It doesn’t actually matter until later in the year, you know. At least, I don’t think it does, but we’re not actually told how the Quidditch Cup works – I think I assumed it was more of an elimination thing, all four houses play one another and the two with the most victories play a final deciding match, insert tiebreaker games as needed, but it seems to be more of a league affair with points given for winning or drawing and the scores being cumulative. Anyway, the real reason it doesn’t matter is that Harry is a special snowflake, as we know.

Wood informs the team that Snape is going to be refereeing this match, and everyone is duly horrified. I’m wondering how Wood knows, honestly – is this really such a big deal that they’d tell the students in advance? Based on what we see of Hooch’s performance in every other match in the series – yes, this is the only one that will have a different referee – the referee doesn’t actually do anything. At all. So does it really matter who it is?

Obviously, the Gryffindor team are all convinced that Snape’s going to be really unfair and rig the match to make sure they lose. I really don’t know what they’re basing this on, since despite the book’s best efforts to tell us how partisan and unfair he is we really haven’t seen any evidence of it thus far, but he won’t actually be allowed to do that. The whole school watches these stupid matches and the commentator is a Gryffindor. Snape’s only going to be allowed to assign penalties when someone actually breaks a rule – I can understand why the team would panic over this, now I think about it, since Hooch seems to look the other way and ignore it whenever that happens, but enforcing the rules isn’t unfair.

On a related note, Harry’s convinced that Snape’s done this purely to try and kill him again. Yes, Harry, it’s obviously going to be much easier to assassinate you with the entire school watching than it would be to do so from hiding. Also, you have lessons with the man at least once a week and those lessons involve explosions and dangerous chemicals. He could have killed you several hundred times by now if he’d wanted to, and that’s without counting all the times you’ve run into him out of hours. The fact that you’re too stupid to be afraid of him except when sport is involved is neither here nor there; either he’s trying to kill you or he’s not, this is not a part-time thing.

This does raise the question of why Harry actually isn’t dead, though. You don’t need literal assassination attempts – Hogwarts is already a deathtrap, how hard can it be to arrange an accident? I’m surprised students aren’t dying every week. What is our villain actually doing? I haven’t been keeping count but I’m sure there have been hundreds of chances for Harry to die by now. This is not how you write scary bad guys.

Anyway, Harry runs to tell his friends.

” ‘Don’t play,’ said Hermione at once.
‘Say you’re ill,’ said Ron.
‘Pretend to break your leg,’ Hermione suggested.
Really break your leg,’ said Ron. “

I like this exchange. But Ron’s a pureblood from a crazy family and knows that broken bones can be healed in minutes; a broken leg wouldn’t stop him playing and Ron shouldn’t think it would. You don’t even need your legs to play Quidditch anyway.

Harry says he can’t; there’s no reserve seeker and if he doesn’t play then Gryffindor can’t play. They can, you know. There is an actual game going on in the background while you chase your shiny walnut around. They’ll lose, because this sport is broken, but they can play perfectly well. And there should be a reserve seeker; if Wood takes the game as seriously as it seems, he ought to have conscripted most of the house into several reserve teams just in case. We know why there isn’t one, of course – it’s because Harry couldn’t be a special snowflake if there were! Also, again, Harry – perspective. Your life is not worth a Quidditch match. If you play and get murdered your team are also going to lose.

Neville crawls into the common room at this point, with his legs bound together by something called the Leg-Locker Curse. Everyone in the room ‘fell about laughing‘ at him, of course, because they’re all horrible people. Except Hermione, who not only doesn’t laugh but instantly jumps up to help him and does the counter-curse.

Current spell count: Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Harry, 0. You know what, it was Draco who cursed Neville… Current spell count: Hermione, 8. Ron, 1. Draco, 1. Harry, 0. Welcome to the count, Draco. Congratulations on being more effective than the protagonist. Leave Neville alone. Technically this magic happened offscreen, but I say it still counts.

Hermione urges Neville to tell someone, but he refuses. Ron tells him it’s his own fault for not standing up for himself, and Neville says, “There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor, Malfoy’s already done that.” You go, Neville – Ron is every bit as bad as Draco, thank you for pointing it out to the boys and girls. Have a hug.

The plot demands that Harry uncharacteristically show a bit of compassion here – well, what he actually does is insult Slytherin, which isn’t particularly compassionate or helpful, but it’s meant to be. He was laughing at Neville ten seconds ago, but now offers him chocolate – the last frog from the box Hermione gave him for Christmas.

Good job Hermione’s not a selfish ass like her friends, isn’t it? If she hadn’t bothered giving them Christmas presents, you know, like they did to her, this scene probably wouldn’t have happened, and God knows how this plot would have limped to a conclusion otherwise.

Neville continues to be a delightful human being and thanks Harry for the chocolate before giving him the card from it, because he knows Harry collects them despite almost never getting to actually speak to the rest of his house. Have another hug, Neville. Though actually Harry doesn’t collect the things – he has a few from the train, but after this scene he’ll never show any interest in them again, and for all that Ron’s supposedly more enthusiastic and has almost a complete set nor will he.

Mitchell and I tried to work out what Rowling was going for with the chocolate frog cards. The closest analogy we could come up with was American baseball cards, because I couldn’t really think of a British equivalent. I mean, when I was at school we collected all sorts of things, but they had a purpose – Pokemon cards, Pogs, marbles. Things you played with. Collectables with no real use aren’t something I really remember. I suppose there were football stickers, but even then those were to put in a special sticker album that you could display, you didn’t have them just for the sake of having them. Honestly the closest thing I can think of are the cards you used to get in packs of cigarettes, before my time (maybe Rowling was remembering those?).

Anyway, Harry glances casually at the card, which happens to be Dumbledore’s, and sees Flamel’s name. Thank God that’s over. Though to be fair I actually do like the foreshadowing of Flamel being mentioned way back on the train, that was genuinely well done.

Hermione has her own little Eureka moment and sprints off to fetch one of her library books from the dormitory, which turns out to have an entry on Flamel in it. The only way to even try to make sense of the fact that she didn’t remember this before is to assume that when she says she checked this book out ‘weeks ago‘ she actually meant ‘months’; that she read it before Halloween, before she was friends with the boys, before she knew Flamel was apparently important, and thus had no reason to remember the name before now. Though even then it’s a stretch, because we were told several chapters ago that she has an eidetic memory (she must do because there’s no other way a young girl can completely memorise half a dozen textbooks about utterly alien concepts in the few months she had them before coming to Hogwarts) so she should have remembered in the weeks they’ve been searching.

This would have worked so much better if she’d said ‘Oh, so he’s an alchemist, let’s immediately go to the library again and look him up in a book of alchemists’ and found this information that way. Particularly since, unlike either Harry or Ron, she’s heard of the Philosopher’s Stone already. (Interesting that Ron knows about invisibility cloaks but not this.)

I also have no earthly idea what book she’s reading, because take a look at the part she reads out.

“The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

There have been many reports of the Philosopher’s Stone over the centuries, but the only Stone currently in existence belongs to Mr Nicolas Flamel, the noted alchemist and opera-lover. Mr Flamel, who celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).”

Firstly, there’s a hell of a lot more to alchemy than the Stone. It’s a science in its own right. Secondly, why does Flamel’s age, where he lives or the fact that he likes opera get a mention? I strongly suspect that this text is left over from an early draft, where Harry read this from Flamel’s own chocolate frog card.

Also, if this book openly lists Flamel’s name and location, why has nobody gone after the Philosopher’s Stone before now? Why didn’t Voldemort kill him and take it during the first war? Why didn’t Grindelwald take it in the war before that? (Why didn’t Dumbledore? You can’t tell me it would have been out of character.) Immortality and infinite wealth – half the world would have been digging around in Devon looking for him. And why is it the only one in existence? Someone somewhere would find out what Flamel’s area of expertise is and would have worked out how to make another one by now.

Though I suppose this probably explains why the Stone was being kept at Gringotts – I’d imagine the goblins confiscated it. “Our currency is gold coins, we cannot allow you to keep the source of infinite gold because you’ll break the economy.”

I’d also like to mention that on Dumbledore’s frog card Flamel is listed as his partner in alchemy. Flamel has been an alchemist for nearly seven hundred years. Dumbledore would be his very lowly assistant at best.

[We also noticed that this book is described as an ‘old’ book but nothing is said about when it was actually published; despite that, Ron immediately assumes that the age it gives for Flamel is current, and I’ve noticed fans doing the same from time to time. Curiosity led me to do some maths, and this is probably an error on Rowling’s part; Wikipedia gives 1330 as approximate year of birth for the historical Flamel, and that would have made him 666 or 667 years old in 1997, when the book was published. So I suspect she was going for some kind of accuracy but didn’t take into account the time difference between the fictional book being published and the characters reading it, nor that the story wasn’t meant to be taking place the same year as she was writing it.]

Also let us just reflect for a minute on that date. 1997. Nearly twenty years ago. Do you feel horribly ancient yet?

I hope you enjoyed your brief glimpse of the plot, because now it’s time for yet more Quidditch. Harry tells us the entire team is panicking and no seriously why is this such a huge deal, you lot haven’t won against Slytherin for seven years, it makes literally no difference.

Harry also tells us Snape is apparently following him around, is being really horrible in Potions, and must therefore somehow know that the Trio have found out about the Stone. This is not only nonsense – and will never come up again; if Severus really is following him, he apparently gives up or hides it better after this single paragraph – but is also once again devoid of emotion. Harry’s not scared. He finds Potions ‘torture‘ because Snape’s being mean, but he’s not worried that the man’s supposedly trying to murder him. He does wonder if Snape can read minds, since he doesn’t know how else he could have found out what they’re doing, but he’s not scared of that either.

The feel of this entire sub-plot is really strange. Harry is absolutely not afraid of someone apparently out to kill him, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s not trying to avoid Snape, he’s not terrified of going to Potions lessons, he’s not trying to get evidence so he can report it to someone; Snape apparently being a murderer is just a piece of background detail. It doesn’t matter to Harry, it’s just the way it is. And yet at the same time he’s being ridiculously melodramatic about it:

“Harry knew, when they wished him good luck outside the changing rooms next afternoon, that Ron and Hermione were wondering whether they’d ever see him alive again.”

I genuinely can’t work out if Harry even believes what he’s saying or not. He’s pretty much reading cue cards that are instructing him to tell us that Snape’s trying to murder him, and in between reading them he’s forgotten all about it.

I don’t think Ron and Hermione are taking it all that seriously either. Their strategy is to practice the Leg-Locker curse we saw earlier in case they need to use it on Snape. Aside from kindly making sure he can’t fall off his broom, I’m not sure what this is meant to achieve – they’d be better off using it on Harry in that case. I’m sure Hermione knows actual useful spells, so this is really just emphasising the weird feel of this chapter – the cast of characters keep being reminded by an impatient director offscreen that they’re meant to be frightened of Snape, but none of them are really feeling it.

Anyway, as the team are getting changed Fred sees that the whole school has turned out to watch, even Dumbledore. Everyone immediately rushes to see and treats this as really shocking – I suppose this does explain why he didn’t intervene in the last match; apparently he wasn’t there – but for the rest of the series he’s going to attend at least most of them and it really doesn’t seem unusual for him to be there. We have to infer that he starts this habit because of Harry, and never bothered before, but in that case why was he apparently not there for the first game?

Harry is very relieved that Dumbles is there to protect him and thinks that Snape won’t dare do anything now. Harry, your head of house was there last game, she sits in the commentary box. There were at least two teachers in the crowd and I would guess most of them were there. Hagrid was there. There are already plenty of adults watching; if you don’t think you’re safe already, Dumbles isn’t going to make a difference. This just shows how quickly and easily he’s been brainwashed into thinking that Dumbledore is God, doesn’t it? Nobody else can possibly do anything, it’s only the precious Headmaster who can save him. Never mind that said Headmaster has done precisely bugger-all except talk nonsense on the single brief occasion they met.

The match itself is mercifully brief. Lee doesn’t seem to be commentating this time, there’s no commentary at all, and most of the game is from the point of view of Ron and Hermione sitting in the stands with Neville while Draco tries to start arguments with them. Neville attempts to stand up for himself and it’s adorable, and Draco responds by moving on to insulting Ron instead.

Snape gives Hufflepuff a penalty because George deliberately hits a cannonball at him. Yes, attempting to assault the referee does usually have consequences. George should also have been sent off, but that doesn’t seem to exist in Quidditch. We’re told in the next paragraph that Snape gives Hufflepuff another penalty ‘for no reason at all‘ but there’s no mention of the non-existent commentator asking why, or anyone in the crowd getting angry, or any signs that this actually happened. Rowling wants to tell us that he’s cheating to rig the match, but can’t quite manage to write it happening because there’s no possible way he can do it, so we just get this weird half a page of nonsense interspersed with the children bickering.

After a few minutes of insults Ron turns around and physically attacks Draco. Well, I assume that’s what happened, though if they were any older this scene might sound a lot more suggestive…:

“Ron snapped. Before Malfoy knew what was happening, Ron was on top of him, wrestling him to the ground.”

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. The slash subtext in these books is ridiculous.

More seriously, I’m tempted to start a count of all the times Ron responds with violence to basically everything, but that would require going back over the chapters we’ve already covered because it’s happened several times already. This time Neville joins in, for some reason, attacking Crabbe and Goyle – no, Neville! You’re being infected with Gryffindor! Get away quickly! – while Hermione ignores them and keeps watching Harry chasing his walnut.

“She didn’t even notice Malfoy and Ron rolling around under her seat.”

It’s canon, I can’t help it.

Once again forgetting that the man’s supposedly trying to murder him, Harry charges directly at Snape in pursuit of the shiny (speaking of which, are we meant to assume that quidditch referees are normally flying about right in the midst of the play area? No real-world sport does this). Once again displaying inhuman levels of patience, Snape doesn’t incinerate him for it, or ‘accidentally’ collide with him in a way that just happens to leave Harry impaled by bits of broomstick, but just moves out of the way and lets Harry catch the walnut and end the match. Harry assures us that it took him less than five minutes and that he’s the greatest seeker ever, but the boys were squabbling for longer than that before getting into a brawl – which is still going on, by the way, even though Hermione’s trying to tell them that the match is over.

As Harry lands, Dumbles teleports onto the pitch to touch his shoulder and congratulate him and deliberately remind him of the horribly addictive mirror he’s been trying not to think about for weeks. This is gross – it’s like walking up to a recovering alcoholic and congratulating them on not having had a drink yet today. Perhaps in recognition of how terrible and manipulative this is, the scene ends with Snape spitting on the ground. My sentiments exactly.

This game ending so stupidly quickly caused another digression, as you might expect. We wondered how it’s possible to have Quidditch in a school environment when matches can apparently last for weeks. This game started in the afternoon; what happens after a few hours when it’s getting dark? What happens if they play through the night and the match still doesn’t end? Do they miss lessons? Meals? What about exams?

More interestingly, what would happen if the two opposing seekers made a deal and simply didn’t catch the walnut? It wouldn’t be hard to fake just barely missing it every time it showed up. How long would the match be allowed to go on for before the teachers intervened? It’s really not hard to imagine a couple of students conspiring to do something like this if, say, they’ve got an exam the next day they’d rather not have to sit. We found ourselves wondering if this is why Hogwarts encourages antipathy between students of different houses, so it wouldn’t occur to them to cooperate on something like this.

Sadly we’ll never know. Every match Harry plays in will be over in about twenty minutes. But it’s fun to think about.

About an hour after the match, something weird has happened to the nature of time and it’s suddenly evening and everyone’s stopped fawning over Harry to go and eat dinner. For some reason Harry hasn’t, he’s still down in the changing rooms putting his broom away. He continues to display absolutely no sense of perspective:

“He’d really done something to be proud of now – no one could say he was just a famous name any more… He’d done it, he’d shown Snape …”

Harry. Dear. Defeating Voldemort – whether you remember doing it or not – was a teensy bit more important than your team temporarily taking the lead in a sports contest that’s not going to end for months yet. You haven’t actually won anything. And you believe Snape’s after the Philosopher’s Stone, source of infinite wealth and literal immortality – on what planet do you really think he gives even the tiniest of fucks about school Quidditch?!

I don’t object to Harry feeling good about winning the match, like he did last time. I do object to him insisting that it’s the greatest achievement in the universe and more important than the actual supposedly really serious plot – how are the readers meant to care when the characters don’t?

Stretching the nature of coincidence, he finally leaves the changing rooms just in time to see someone walking towards the Forbidden Forest, and recognises Snape from the ‘prowling walk‘. Good to see that Severus has recovered from the serious dog bite by now, but it’s evening in January and Harry can apparently see a man wearing black walking across unlit grounds into an equally unlit and quite dense forest? I don’t think so. Inevitably, he jumps on his broom and follows, though he flies over the castle to do so, which makes no sense. Conveniently, Snape waits for Harry to get on his broom before inexplicably breaking into a run; I don’t know what his hurry is, Harry can’t see a thing and it’s not like this scene is urgent.

Proving my point, by the time Harry reaches the treeline he’s lost sight of Snape and flies aimlessly in circles trying to see where he went. In defiance of how the world works, Harry manages to hear voices at ground level while flying above the canopy, and further defies the nature of the universe by landing ‘noiselessly‘ in a beech tree (not a pine tree; sorry, chapter artist). Not only that, he then scrambles around in the tree while carrying a broomstick, and still somehow appears to remain both unseen and unheard. Even though it’s January and the tree is half-dead, and the branches and any remaining dead leaves or empty beech nut husks will be rattling and rustling and snapping.

I’m also not sure how Harry knows it’s a beech tree. A Boy Scout he ain’t. Beeches themselves aren’t exactly common in Scotland either – they’re native to southern Britain. But whatever, magic forest.

He proceeds to observe a very weird meeting between Snape and Quirrell. This is not how you do stealth, guys. Everyone else is at dinner and the absence of two teachers is going to be obvious, and why the hell are they out in the forest anyway? At this point I think we have to assume Snape’s putting on a show for whatever warped reason, but it must be causing him physical pain to have to be this obvious about things.

The purpose of the meeting is for Snape to threaten Quirrell. He’s demanding to know what Quirrell’s contribution to the defences around the Stone is and whether Quirrell knows how to get past Fluffy yet, and he’s sounding delightfully menacing while doing so. (Don’t judge me.) He’s also interrupting Quirrell every time the man tries to answer – maybe he’s tired of the stutter – and ends the meeting and stalks dramatically into the night after only a few sentences and a final threat, just to underscore the message that there was literally zero point to this scene for anyone involved.

Harry scampers back to the castle to tell his friends. Ron’s more interested in gloating about having given Draco a black eye; he also tells us that Neville’s out cold and has been since the match ended. Madam Pomfrey says he’ll be fine, apparently, but he’s been unconscious for over an hour. Something is seriously wrong. But that doesn’t matter, because Fred and George have stolen a load of cakes from the kitchen to throw a party for Harry and that’s obviously more important. Never mind that they’ve all literally just eaten, or that cake is the sort of thing you make fresh as needed and don’t just leave lying around, or that as we know ‘stealing’ means ‘walking in and asking for stuff’.

Anyway, Harry drags Ron and Hermione away to tell them what he saw, rather optimistically stating that he thinks Quirrell’s done an anti-Dark Arts spell that Snape will have to break through. Good job you’re wrong, Harry, because that would take him about 0.03 seconds even on a bad day.

” ‘So you mean the Stone’s only safe as long as Quirrell stands up to Snape?’ said Hermione in alarm.
‘It’ll be gone by next Tuesday,’ said Ron. “

It’s a good line to end on, I admit, but it’s already been more than a full term. I think you’ll be okay for a while.

So let’s talk about Snape (not that I ever need a reason to do that).

We’re still being told that Snape is the villain of the book, even though we’re only a few chapters from the end now. This is a bad habit of Rowling’s writing that I saw a lot more blatantly in the Strike books – if she comes up with something she thinks is clever, she will go to utterly ridiculous lengths to avoid telling the readers about it until the last possible moment and do everything possible to hide it. This can work in moderation, but it’s a really bad way to write mysteries.

Good authors – one of the more famous examples would be Agatha Christie – give the readers all the necessary information as the story progresses, but in such a way that you don’t work it out until the right moment, along with the hero. It’s very hard to do well but it allows the reader to figure things out along with the protagonist, or even just before the protagonist does, and it’s a lot more fun that way.

Big plot twists – like a sudden revelation that the supposed ‘villain’ is no such thing – can be very effective, but it needs to be a lot more subtle than this. You need characters misinterpreting far less obvious things. If this was to be done well, Snape would not be using B-movie techniques to shout HEY LOOK I’M A BAD GUY REALLY; instead there would be nothing overtly suspicious about him at all, except that he keeps showing up in unexpected places and seems to take a little too much interest in the main characters. That plus his dislike of Harry would be enough for the children to plausibly suspect him, and wouldn’t involve butchering his character to the point where the only logical explanation is a conspiracy theory that he’s faking it because he’s been told to take the rap. We would also see more of the other teachers so Quirrell isn’t our only other plausible option, and there would be more small things for the readers to misunderstand.

You can probably handwave this, as with so many other things, with ‘but this is a children’s book’. As a defence it’s starting to lose its validity. Children aren’t stupid and shouldn’t be treated as though they are; I started reading ‘adult’ books at a very young age because I was bored with the books I was ‘supposed’ to be reading. Nobody told me my new choices were too difficult for me, and I never noticed. A child old enough to understand the vocabulary in this book is old enough not to need flashing neon signs explaining the story at every step.

In any case, nobody misunderstood anything about the Snape-Quirrell twist. The book is simply flat out lying to the readers. It’s not a case of Quirrell secretly being the villain all along; Snape is the villain, until suddenly he isn’t. It just makes it obvious that in the first draft he was the villain and that a lot of the writing was just left unchanged. And that’s a shame, because we’ve seen just in this chapter that Rowling can do it well when she tries – the identity of Nicolas Flamel is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. We’ve already seen that information, but we didn’t know it was important, so we forgot about it just like Harry did, and now we read it again along with the characters and think ‘Oh, yes, that’s right, I remember that now!’

The fact that she can do it when she tries means that we can’t give her the benefit of the doubt here and say she can’t write that sort of thing, or that it’s too much for a children’s book and everything needs to be more obvious. She can do it, and do it pretty well. She just didn’t, and it’s a shame. This whole chapter feels wasted, somehow; even though there’s a genuine plot point or two in here, I get the impression that it was a transition between two parts she was more interested in and that this was more of a necessary chore to write in order to get to other parts of the story, which might explain why a lot of it isn’t well done. I don’t blame Rowling for that, necessarily, since I’ve done it myself – but if I were writing something I intended to try to get published I’d damn well polish it a bit.

I was going to talk about this plot twist at the end of the book, and we probably will talk about it again when we get there, but in light of Snape’s conversation with Quirrell we were trying to figure out just how much either of them know at this point. It’s really not clear. Snape’s implying that he knows about all the defences except Quirrell’s, but how? Either he was in on it from the start and just happened not to see that specific defence being put in place, or he’s managed to ask everyone else about their contributions without anyone wondering why he wants to know. In either case it’s weird that he hasn’t just gone and asked Hagrid how you get past Fluffy, since after this many years he must know the man can’t keep a secret to save his life – though it’s possible he has done just that by now, since he was asking if Quirrell knew, not what the answer was.

In any case, does Snape know why Quirrell’s after the Stone? I’m inclined to say no, because he certainly wouldn’t be acting like this if he knew Voldy was lurking under the turban a couple of feet away. And there’s no reason he would know, since Quirrell was never a Death Eater and for reasons that are never explained (because Rowling can’t think of a way to retcon it) Snape’s Dark Mark hasn’t reacted to its creator being literally right there next to it.

But it’s equally possible to read this as though Snape does know and is pretending he has no idea; he’s certainly a good enough actor, and he must know that Voldy can’t do anything about it right now. In which case, does he think Quirrell believes he knows? Again, I don’t think so. Though something else that will never be explained is why Voldy never makes Quirrell approach Snape; he’s got a Death Eater right there, a much more effective minion than some random untested wizard he happened to possess in Albania. Surely he would at least attempt to find out whose side Snape is on now, particularly since Quirrell must have observed that Snape doesn’t like Dumbledore and rumours must have spread that he doesn’t like Harry either. Snape could potentially be a very important ally, yet there’s no indication that Voldy ever tried to find out.

It’s even more interesting given that Snape’s putting on a show of wanting to get to the Stone himself. He could have offered to work with Quirrell – infinite gold and immortality-juice by definition means there’s enough to share – but instead he’s choosing to threaten and intimidate him. It’s hard to tell if he’s trying to scare Quirrell off, or trying to manipulate him into asking for an alliance.

Even assuming that most of his scenes are left over from the first draft where he was the bad guy, it’s impossible to tell how much of a bad guy he was meant to be. Is he acting the Death Eater, or does he just want the cool shiny thing, or does he just want to oppose Dumbledore?

I don’t really know where I’m going with this, honestly, but I think the book would probably have been a lot more interesting if Snape really were a villain, though definitely not any more coherent. It would certainly have been more interesting if he’d been allowed to do his own thing.

To put this all a slightly different way, I think what we’re trying to say is that if you’re going to write a dramatic twist reveal that changes everything you thought you knew, you have to go back and make sure all of the scenes the reader ‘misinterpreted’ make sense when read with the new knowledge in mind. What we’ve been finding throughout this book, quite alarmingly, is that she doesn’t seem to have made any such effort, and as a result scenes like this just don’t make any sense at all. Trust me, we tried. We were asking each other all sorts of questions about what Snape should know, what Quirrell might think Snape knows, does Snape know what Quirrell/Voldy knows about what he knows, etc, but we couldn’t think of any permutation or level of depth here which should lead to the conversation Harry overhears. Instead, all she did was retcon it and assume the reader wouldn’t go back and check. Though I’ll also say that it baffles me that we never seem to have noticed this before, nor do most fans; we aren’t sure if we think that’s because people reread the first book less frequently or something like that, or it’s something else… regardless, we don’t really have the data.

This was a pretty short chapter this time. Next time, here be dragons…


Posted by on March 4, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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