Tag Archives: worldbuilding

Various Recent Developments in Potterland

I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to talk about American politics, it’s too fucking depressing. I’ve been trying and failing to come out with anything coherent, in all honesty. So let’s talk about Harry Potter.

Firstly, sometime in September, Pottermore apparently added a feature where you can take a quiz to be assigned a Patronus animal (here’s an article about that). We knew about this at the time but never quite got round to writing about it; let’s just say we found it to be quite the mess.

I personally have not experimented with it at all, I can’t be bothered, but Loten did attempt it and apparently got assigned an osprey (which she wasn’t particularly pleased with, but I’ll leave it to her to complain about that if she wishes to).

[I don’t particularly object to ospreys, they’re nice birds. But there was no comment on what that’s supposed to mean about you, and I can’t see how the quiz led to that specific result – there seem to be a couple of dozen possibilities, but the quiz is just six or seven ‘here’s a few words, pick the one you like best and don’t take too long’. So I assume it randomly assigns you a set of possible animals before you even start.]

That said, we noticed quite a few things that irritated us about the apparent selection of animals. There are a lot of varieties where horses and dogs are concerned, but in many other cases you simply get a catchall term like ‘wolf’ or ‘dolphin’ where there are huge numbers of subspecies being ignored. And then, too, the type of variety provided is questionable: for instance, in many case it’s described as a certain colour of horse (not a breed or subspecies, a colour!). Patronuses don’t have colour. They’re ethereal silvery-looking things, how are you supposed to tell the difference between colours of horses? Somebody didn’t think this through (as if that’s a surprise at this point).

[To clarify – dogs have specific breeds, like huskies or Jack Russel terriers or whatever. The options for horses were ‘grey mare’ or ‘white stallion’ – which is a fail in itself; in equine circles all white horses are referred to as grey anyway. It’s not like there aren’t diverse horse breeds around – you could have, say, a Shire, an Arabian and a Shetland pony, or something. The weird gendering was odd as well – ignoring deer and apparently horses, nobody seems to be paying attention to the (apparently visible) genitalia of their Patronus.

There were also some really random animals as possible outcomes. The ones people seem most disappointed by were a mole and a salmon.]

The questions were also all extremely generic and we couldn’t tell how (if at all) they correspond to the results. You have to create an account to take the test, you can only do it once per account, and it moves through the questions rapidly enough that it would be difficult to record them; we certainly find it too impractical to experiment with and try to figure out how it works (not to mention we don’t care nearly enough, to be honest), and that difficulty is probably why we haven’t seen anyone else doing it either. Let us know if you do come across anyone gathering data about it, though.

Moving on. This thread is very much worth reading, more indigenous peoples’ reactions.

I didn’t feel comfortable contributing (or excerpting), but seriously, go read it.

[Agreed. Go read. We’ll wait.]

As we anticipate Fantastic Beasts, have some more history fail:

In short, it’s a reveal of some more details about magical society in America as fleshed-out for the setting of Fantastic Beasts. For a while, I honestly didn’t know what to say about it, and the article I’ve linked does a decent job pointing out the more obvious problems.

What it reads like is this. It reads like she’s gone down a list of buzzwords that sound American and thrown them together in a blender. As they pointed out at Tor, she has “MACUSA” existing before there was any such thing as the United States of America, under that name. This isn’t necessarily surprising, given the stew of anachronisms that she so often uses in her fictional history, but that doesn’t make it less nonsensical.

Hey, white Americans, maybe now you will understand what cultural appropriation feels like, and what marginalised populations have been trying to tell us? Even if you don’t find this particularly painful – I don’t – look at this amount of cluelessness about your culture, your polity, etc, see how ridiculous it looks and imagine that being nearly universal. Imagine that being the mainstream conception of what you are and what your society is.

If you can understand why MACUSA and Magical Congress and all of these other things are stupid and problematic, you can understand why Native Americans have been and continue to be so pissed off. That’s not nearly as bad as the bullshit they’re regularly expected to swallow.

[I don’t have anything to add here, though I almost want to apologise for Rowling. Almost. #NotAllBritons]

And in other news, there are apparently going to be five Fantastic Beasts films, because somehow this cash cow’s udders have not yet started bleeding or falling off. Fuck everything. I really haven’t the slightest clue how they’re going to get five films out of this when it seems to be primarily composed of history fail and cultural appropriation, and barely has any plot to speak of aside from ‘there are monsters. also there are conspiracies.’ It also sounds like she’s going to be trying to give us detail on the Grindelwald war, because taking history fail into the World Wars and possibly Nazi Germany is a brilliant idea that cannot possibly go wrong in any way. I am utterly atwitter with anticipation.

[Grindelwald is going to show up in the second film. Johnny Depp has been cast in the role, despite not looking remotely like the pretty blond we’ve been told to expect. I assume this means Rowling, Warner et al are fine with the fact that he abused his wife…]

And for the sake of proving I can be even-handed and don’t hate everything Rowling says on principle, I did think this was rather clever.

More to come this month from both of us – expect two film reviews, and hopefully the conclusion of Philosopher’s Stone, possibly more. Watch this space.


Posted by on November 4, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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An exercise in Magic: the Gathering fanfiction

Before anything else, I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for my/our silence recently. Loten is trying not to be overwhelmed by work and moving house, and I… well, I don’t have quite as good an excuse, except for being overcome by stress and depression brought on by political news (between the fucking Brexit and the insane popularity of a moronic narcissistic proto-fascist in the States, this year just continues to get worse) and not having much energy for anything. I may end up doing some rants about that in this space at some point, if I can muster the energy. I swear we’ll finish Philosopher’s Stone soon.

In the meantime, perhaps to distract myself, I did a thing. I’m not sure if our readers will necessarily be aware, but I am actually a longtime player/fan of Magic: the Gathering (I’ve played since around 2001, holy shit that’s fifteen years). And for what it’s worth, I’ve been slowly corrupting Loten also. (For the record, to get an idea of the kind of role Magic has played in my life, it was a huge part of my experience at school. We taught the teachers to play and huge segments of the school still hold tournaments and such. People from an official Magic show even visited my high school and did an episode there a couple of years ago, which was really surreal for me to see.)

We’ve both been enjoying a lot of the recent storytelling the game has been doing, through the cards and short fiction on the site; they’re honestly getting a lot better at this as the years go by (the older stuff is very much of mixed quality though there are definitely some gems if you look), and I look forward to seeing where they go from here.

That said, there have been some things that irritated and frustrated me in the current story (when isn’t there something that irritates me in storytelling, nowadays?). To wit: in the service of larger plot, the story team seems to have decided the characterisation of two characters who happened to be favourites of mine would be an acceptable sacrifice. Which I find particularly unfortunate, because I understand exactly why they did it, and can’t completely fault them for it because the plot they did it in service of is actually pretty good. For a game that’s ostensibly about planeswalkers fighting each other, the story doesn’t focus on that sort of thing as often as it should, so to actually tell a story that’s explicitly about that happening and the huge environmental impacts it ends up having was honestly an inspired choice. But at the same time, they just had to ruin those characters to do it. (In fairness, not all of the new characterisation is terrible: what it really boils down to is that they were forced to act really stupidly on one or two occasions, such that the fallout from that could lead to the events the story team needed.)

So I decided I’d try to salvage something from it. I’ve actually been working on this thing for about two weeks now; I’d hoped to finish before last Wednesday, actually, because I wanted to preempt the next official story article before it could officially contradict me (I wanted my story to be consistent with the canon at the time of publication, even if I fully expect it to be contradicted soon). I didn’t quite manage that, but thankfully that episode didn’t change much and I was able to get it finished this week. I’m sure Loten is quite pleased I’ve finally finished it also, now that I’m no longer pestering her to look over drafts.

Here is the story.

I welcome any feedback, constructive or otherwise, as this is the first longish writing exercise I’ve attempted in a while (I’m hoping this gets my fiction writing juices flowing again after such a long hiatus but no promises). Likewise, I hope it doesn’t come across as too much of an apologetic for those who commit atrocities, as the characters I’m trying to redeem have been made to do some pretty horrendous and possibly unforgiveable things; I’m working with what I was given, and I do think these characters would likely have a somewhat detached perspective and I’m trying to be true to them.

If you’re interested but don’t know the necessary background, I’ll provide the necessary links (some of these are to articles I mentioned in the author’s notes that gave me the inspiration to do this, because I can’t link them on FFN; the rest are to the official short fiction connected to the story arc I’m working with).

Official Magic story column:

Main Magic story page (updates Wednesdays)

The Lithomancer
Stirring from Slumber
Sorin’s Restoration

Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) story index
Oath of the Gatewatch (OGW) story index
Shadows over Innistrad (SOI) story index
Eldritch Moon (EMN) story index

Imprisoned in the Moon (not a story article, card preview that revealed story points)

I should also mention they have collected the stories in ebook format as well: BFZ OGW SOI

Articles by vorthosjay that I mentioned in the author’s notes:
Catching-up for Eldritch Moon
Narrative: Nahiri’s Motivation
Nahiri’s Disappointing Endgame

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Posted by on July 26, 2016 in mitchell


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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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An important perspective on Rowling’s new rubbish

I became aware yesterday of this article by Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations (h/t Shakesville), and recommend you read it (these two earlier articles of hers she links to at the end are also well worth a look). She’s been writing about this since June 2015 so it’s probably negligent of me to only become aware of it now, but regardless.

I don’t think I’m really qualified to comment on how to respectfully handle writing about Native Americans in fictional milieu, so I don’t want to say much about it myself. She raises a lot of important issues I wouldn’t have thought of. My first thought was that it’s probably impossible to win, because the most likely alternative is to not include them at all and it’s probably better to acknowledge that indigenous peoples existed and mattered, but that’s an incredibly low bar to set and, as Adrienne points out, misrepresentation may well be equally problematic if not worse (e.g. let’s not forget what happened with Stephenie Meyer, and that now a lot of people only know about the Quileute tribe because of her bastardised werewolf mythology).

Likewise it’s not really fair to say “well, if you don’t want to be misrepresented, you’d better volunteer your time to explain everything to any author who decides they want to write about your culture”, that’s an undue burden to place on anybody… but what’s the alternative, encouraging them to do shoddy research and misrepresent you in problematic ways? Once again, marginalised people(s) just can’t win. I don’t know what the answer is.

But please don’t put too much stock in my whitesplaining of this, go read the original articles.

Quick edit to add: here’s another really good article on this, by Chris Lough at Tor.


Posted by on March 10, 2016 in mitchell


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Pottermore: other wizarding schools

The next chapter of Philosopher’s Stone is in progress. In the meantime, have some decade-overdue attempts at worldbuilding. Continuing my new policy of avoiding the mess that Pottermore has become, you get Tor’s summary of it instead:

To summarise, Rowling has named four more of the eleven wizarding schools allegedly serving the entire planet.

Castelobruxo, in Brazil – according to the comments this is very dodgy linguistics and should more properly be Castelo dos Bruxos, though either way it just translates to ‘witch castle’ which is really boring. Looks like a ruin in the rainforest and has random magical creatures stopping Muggles trying to explore it. Serves the whole continent of South America (current population around 388 million, for reference). They’re good at herbology and magizoology.

Uagadoo, in Uganda. Presumably serves all of Africa (current population over a billion) but this isn’t explicitly stated. Seems to have its own magic system that doesn’t work along any Potterverse rules:

“Instead of owls, Dream Messengers leave tokens with chosen pupils; African witches and wizards practice wandless magic, opting instead for using fingers and hand gestures; and students have performed synchronized transformations into elephants and cheetahs, panicking other Animagi.”

Good at astronomy, alchemy and self-transfiguration. Apparently all magic originated in Africa too, which makes it even weirder that their magic doesn’t exist anywhere else. What the hell is a Dream Messenger?

Mahoutokoro, in Japan. More linguistic failure, apparently this collection of syllables simply isn’t possible in Japanese and should be spelled slightly differently according to someone in Tor’s comments, but I know precisely zip about it so I’m staying out of it (also, at best the name translates as ‘magic place’, which is perhaps even worse than ‘witch castle’). Random jade palace on an uninhabited island. They take children from 7 years old as day students who are flown back and forth on giant birds. Pupils wear colour-changing robes that show what they’re studying and how well they’re doing at it, so clearly they have a horrific bullying problem. No idea what they’re good at, but they have a Quidditch team, so probably ‘bugger all’.

Ilvermorny, in the USA. Why the American school has such a thoroughly Scottish name is not explained. Implausibly serves the entire continent of North America, population 528 million. Apparently Native American tribal magic was very important to the founding of it – hence the Scottish name, clearly… – and Rowling refuses to say where it is except ‘not in New York’. They don’t seem to be any good at anything either.

Mitchell is a masochist and chose to read the actual Pottermore articles, linked in the Tor summary, and he’ll throw some of the best/worst bits at you now.

Let’s have some fun with quotes. From here:

The wand is a European invention, and while African witches and wizards have adopted it as a useful tool in the last century, many spells are cast simply by pointing the finger or through hand gestures. This gives Uagadou students a sturdy line of defence when accused of breaking the International Statute of Secrecy (‘I was only waving, I never meant his chin to fall off’).

Silliness over consistency yet again, which I suppose is consistent with Rowling’s writing over the years but still disappointing. This is really not how ‘wandless magic’ has been depicted in the rest of her series.

There is also this:

Much (some would say all) magic originated in Africa, and Uagadou graduates are especially well versed in Astronomy, Alchemy and Self-Transfiguration.

I can’t decide whether or not I think this is horribly racist (it seems sketchy to me considering various Magical Negro tropes and/or Backwards Superstitious Africa tropes, but at the same time ‘humanity originated in Africa and therefore so did magic’ shouldn’t be objectionable…), but regardless there’s something very odd about the African school’s specialities being alchemy and astronomy when those are very thoroughly European/Western concepts.

From here:

the school offers very popular exchange programmes for European students* who wish to study the magical flora and fauna of South America

It would’ve been nice to have some indication in the actual stories that things like this existed (maybe this is what happened to the students like Sally-Anne Perks that Rowling forgot existed?). That asterisk indicates the following charming footnote:

* It was one of these trips that Bill Weasley’s parents could not afford, causing his disappointed penfriend at Castelobruxo to send him something nasty in the post.

As I said, charming. (Loten adds this is in fact canon, Ron mentions it at some point; I believe it was a cursed hat that made Bill’s ears shrivel up, or something.)

And whilst we are at least vaguely on the subject of quidditch, the article about the Japanese school tells us that they were taught the game

centuries ago by a band of foolhardy Hogwarts students who were blown off course during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe on wholly inadequate broomsticks

I’m too lazy to look it up, but the sport isn’t much more than a few centuries old according to Quidditch Through the Ages and she tried to depict a timeline of developments in the game in that book, so it could be interesting to see what she said the game would have been like at a time this could have happened. And then we get this gem

Every member of the Japanese Quidditch team and the current Champion’s League winners (the Toyohashi Tengu) attributes their prowess to the gruelling training they were given at Mahoutokoro, where they practise over a sometimes turbulent sea in stormy conditions, forced to keep an eye out not only for the Bludgers but also for planes from the Muggle airbase on a neighbouring island

We’re really returning to form here, this is the same stuff we got in the first book with Draco and Ron boasting about nearly encountering hang-gliders and helicopters and things. It’s still just as stupid; I understand what she’s trying to do to some degree, but if you want to maintain a hidden world you probably shouldn’t write its inhabitants as being so completely unconcerned about being seen, and imply that in essence the entire population of the world are unobservant idiots.

Relatively unrelated, but someone has already edited the Wikipedia article of the volcanic island Rowling chose as the location of the Japanese school to add that information. I looked it up because I wanted to see how old the island was and whether or not it would be completely uninhabitable; it looks like a pretty barren place, but it’s at least vaguely plausible I suppose.

Wasn’t that entertaining, boys and girls. The phrase ‘quit while you’re ahead’ has never been so apt. Tor implies we’ll eventually see details of the last four schools; presumably one in Australia or New Zealand, one in China, maybe one around the southern Mediterranean (Italy, Greece or Turkey perhaps) and one out in the Pacific somewhere? This all just makes it even more ridiculous that Britain gets a school to itself, with our population of 64 million.

And why does the entire wizarding world just plain suck at naming things? [Well, it’s a natural consequence of the fact that Rowling does, at least most of the time.]

Have fun discussing this latest mess, the next chapter of our adventure will be done… sometime next week, I should think. See you all then.


Posted by on February 4, 2016 in loten, mitchell


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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Ten

Here we go again. A belated Season’s Greetings of whatever flavour you desire to you all. This was mostly typed up while I was in a food coma, so let’s blame any mistakes on that.

A note about last chapter’s flying lessons; on the subject of Meaningful Names. Hooch means moonshine liquor. I am completely at a loss to suggest what this has to do with anything; almost all the other teachers have a vague attempt at an aptonym.

Content warnings this time: minor bullying, major sports-related rants, McGonagall is a terrible person.

Chapter Ten: Hallowe’en
(there’s no apostrophe in the US version, and we tend not to use it in the UK any more either)

Today’s illustration that I’m too lazy to show you is the artist’s impression of a troll. It seems
to have spikes for some odd reason, and the perspective is a little wonky, but can’t complain.

To Draco’s apparent astonishment the next morning, Harry and Ron have not in fact been expelled. I don’t think that was the point, book. There’s no reason he would think they’d be expelled just for breaking curfew. He just wanted to hopefully get them into trouble, and if not at least make them miss sleep and get cold and bored and feel silly sitting around waiting for him. Admittedly we’re never actually told what the school rules are – possibly because there aren’t any beyond the few we’ve already seen, and each member of staff makes them up according to their mood at the time or the house affinity and level of plot-importance of each student. Certainly the main rule seems to be ‘do whatever the hell you want, just don’t get caught’. In any case, although Draco’s obviously ignorant of the power of protagonist-hood, he’s not an idiot.

It’s interesting that Harry and Ron never confront Draco about what happened. It seems entirely in character for them to go and laugh at him for not showing up, to mock him for being too scared (even though that was obviously not why he wasn’t there) or even to try to reschedule the duel since they both seem to be labouring under the delusion that they can do any magic at all. Nor does Draco mock them for actually falling for his scheme and going to sit in an empty room half the night. In fact, this whole scene will never be mentioned again by anyone. It’s almost as if there was no point to it whatsoever except to tell us that there’s a three-headed dog behind the secret door.

Harry and Ron seem totally unaffected by their encounter with Fluffy, and are described as ‘tired but perfectly cheerful’. We’re told that by morning they ‘thought that meeting the three-headed dog had been an excellent adventure and they were quite keen to have another one’. I can see them feeling this way a few weeks after the fact – your brain reacts oddly to adrenaline, and after a while you’d remember the excitement but would have forgotten the fear, since a single encounter with no injuries or other negative consequences wouldn’t have caused any trauma – but a few hours later? No. Particularly not for Harry, who was Muggle-raised and has never seen or heard of real monsters before; you can perhaps slightly handwave Ron, who has at least encountered enough weird magical creatures to be more able to accept the idea that there’s a monster in the school, but Harry should be wetting himself and too scared to go anywhere for a week or two yet. (Also, considering they enjoyed it so much and are so keen to repeat the experience, neither of them ever suggest going back for another look.)

Harry also tells Ron about the mysterious package from Gringotts, and they spend a long time wondering what it is. Since all they know about it is that it’s about two inches long, and presumably valuable, dangerous or both, they don’t get anywhere.

Far more sensibly, Neville and Hermione don’t give a fuck what the dog is guarding and just want to stay away from it. Additionally Harry also tells us that Hermione’s not speaking to them; as we’ll see throughout this chapter, nobody seems to have told Hermione that, since actually she’s interacting with them exactly the same way she always has – i.e. as little as possible except when they’re doing something stupid. Given how rarely she speaks to them anyway, I don’t know what Harry’s even basing this on. He does add that since she’s ‘such a bossy know-it-all’ he and Ron are pretty happy that she’s ignoring them; again, Harry, she usually ignores you, because you’re dicks to her and her actual friend Neville. She doesn’t like either of you, why would she speak to you unless she has to?

Anyway, all Harry and Ron really want now is ‘a way of getting back at Malfoy’. Why? His trick didn’t work, and he has no idea they fell for it, and they inexplicably enjoyed the consequences; what is there to get back at him for? Ignoring this lack of logic, Harry’s plot-controlling powers duly provide, a week later. (Let us observe that ‘getting back at Malfoy’ involves a phallic symbol. I will go down with this ship.) Six large owls bring him a long thin parcel at breakfast in the Great Hall one morning, attracting the attention of literally everyone and utterly amazing him, even though he was present for the stupid conversation between McGonagall and Wood last chapter and should be able to guess what this is. Another owl follows with a letter, and in defiance of all human behaviour Harry opens that first, which is lucky because it tells him not to open the parcel at the table (let’s note that they were brought by separate owls and he has no reason to believe them connected, so it’s really quite stupid of the sender to have relied on Harry opening them in any particular order).

Incidentally, although ‘post‘ was changed to ‘mail‘ for the US version, they didn’t change ‘parcel‘ to ‘package‘. Maybe they don’t want to make the Draco/Harry ship any more obvious than it already is.

The letter is from McGonagall.

It contains your new Nimbus Two Thousand, but I don’t want everybody knowing you’ve got a broomstick or they’ll all want one. Oliver Wood will meet you tonight on the Quidditch pitch at seven o’clock for your first training session.
Professor M. McGonagall

If you don’t want everyone knowing he’s been sent a broom, maybe don’t send him something broom-shaped at breakfast time in front of everyone? Just saying. There’s no reason why she couldn’t have given the broom to Wood to give to Harry at this training session later, except then Harry wouldn’t get to look special enough. I’m assuming most of the other students can tell from the shape that this parcel is a broom; if any of them attempt to protest this blatant rule-breaking, we never hear about it, though I expect most of the older students are cynical enough not to bother.

Once again, I ask why the school buys this broom for him. Harry is stinking rich and has a vault full of gold. He can afford a dozen most-bestest-awesomest-specialist-ever broomsticks if he wants. Hell, the way this universe works, the manufacturers would give him one for free and put a sign up in the shop telling everyone that this is the broom Harry Potter uses.

Also, by 7 p.m. it’s probably going to be dark, and this is either during the dinner break or immediately after it. I really wish we had any idea of the actual school hours, but I’m sure there’s a more sensible time to schedule this. Like, say, the weekend.

A gleeful Harry and envious Ron leave the Great Hall to go and drool over the new toy privately. Draco, Crabbe and Goyle follow them out and Draco does nothing to deny the ship: ‘Malfoy seized the package from Harry and felt it.’ Okay, okay, I’ll stop. I’ll try to, anyway, but the book seems determined to make this canon.

Draco very astutely points out that this is a broom, and that first years aren’t allowed them. This rule actually makes no sense anyway – not letting first years try out for the team is very arbitrary, any sport-focused school would let a blind three-legged dog play on their team if it was good enough, but even assuming that’s age restricted, why can’t the first years bring their own brooms just to fly for fun? It seems the other year groups are allowed to, despite that being its own flavour of stupid, and the fact that they don’t seem to bother is just authorial laziness.

I’m told that a lot of schools actually do have a policy like this that forbids new students to bring their own stuff, for whatever reason. I can’t really comment personally, since I don’t play an instrument and the school system made damned sure that I never enjoyed any sport enough to want to play it outside lessons, but we had to supply our own tennis rackets and hockey sticks, so I’m still going to call bullshit and say that the only reason for this rule to exist is so it can be broken for Harry.

[Mitchell adds: I did think of an interesting parallel, in that in my experience a lot of American universities don’t allow resident freshmen to keep cars on campus, but that’s usually done for space considerations because parking is at a premium. While brooms are a personal vehicle, they’re much easier to store than cars, so there isn’t a similar justification available here. And Hogwarts students don’t actually seem to get any opportunities to leave the school unless it’s on chaperoned trips to Hogsmeade in later books, so unless they play Quidditch (or, I suppose, engage in recreational flying, which despite seeming like a thing Potterverse wizards would do isn’t ever something we see…), they have no need for them either.]

Narratively, this is just stupid. Imagine that instead, first years are allowed their own brooms and are allowed to try out for the Quidditch team, although they usually don’t bother because naturally the older and more experienced students tend to get onto the squad. Imagine that after McGonagall sees Harry magically being really good at flying, she gives him a telling-off and takes points from him – and Draco – for the whole incident, and then suggests as he’s leaving that he seems pretty good at this, Quidditch tryouts are this weekend and maybe he should go. Imagine that he has a fair audition along with a bunch of other interested students, and his smaller size makes him fast and agile enough for him to be legitimately picked for the team, and afterwards Wood has a talk with him and suggests various models of broom he might want to buy for himself. (As an added bonus, this could even preserve McGonagall’s motivation of wanting him for the team if so desired, while making her significantly less obnoxious about it.)

Compare this version with the book. In both of them, Harry is special and awesome and gets an opportunity first years don’t get. In one of them, he actually earns it on his own merit; in the other, he gets it handed to him on a silver platter. Which version makes Harry a) look like an underdog fighting to achieve cool things and more likeable as a character, and b) look like a spoiled entitled brat who never has to try because most of the adults in charge are unfairly biased towards him? I don’t want to read about a child sitting and waiting for the universe to arbitrarily give him things. I want to read about a child learning to do cool shit for himself and proving that he actually is better than the others and deserves rewards for his efforts.

We’ll be discussing this again at the end of the book, when any reader with any sense should decide ‘fuck Harry’ and be firmly on the side of the actual underdogs. Children don’t like unfair situations. Witness every sibling fight ever – if a parent doesn’t know the situation and sides with the wrong child by mistake, it usually triggers a massive tantrum, because that’s not fair and children know from a very early age that it’s not how things are supposed to go. Conversely if the parent picks the right child, the loser will cry a bit but generally won’t make anywhere near as much fuss, because they know they screwed up.

The reason so many fans don’t react like that is hard to explain. There is something about Rowling’s writing – though it’s hardly exclusive to her – some quality or phrasing that encourages you to read in a way that skims the surface of the story and accept what the narrative tells you. It took both Mitchell and me several readthroughs to say ‘Hey, hang on a minute…’ in the earlier books. Later books were much more blatant, and frankly the writing was lazier, and it was easier to see – though we were also growing disillusioned with the series anyway and less willing to believe it. We’ve wanted to do an essay on this for quite some time, but it’s really hard to put into words, and even after many hours of discussion we’re still not sure how Rowling did it. Part of it is just that this is what happens when you spend a series inside the head of only one character; we all know unreliable-narrator exists, but it’s not always easy to remember that. But the sheer strength of the world’s response to Harry Potter is a lot harder to explain – we’ll be trying to talk about some of the factors we’ve picked out as this spork continues, but we won’t get everything.

Moving on, then. In isolation, I don’t have a problem with Harry getting the occasional bit of favouritism. Children don’t object to unfairly winning those fights, after all. And he is the hero, and he’s had a fairly rubbish life so far, and he can have a bit of good luck. But it shouldn’t be on this scale, for a start, and it certainly shouldn’t happen all the damned time. There’s nothing fun in reading about a child who gets everything handed to him for nothing, but over and over again in every book the universe will bend around Harry, and Dumbles and co. will break every rule  to make sure he gets ALL THE THINGS. It’s both extremely boring and might well make readers sympathise with the people who get screwed over to make it possible, rather than with him.

It also kills all suspense, because by now everyone’s already guessed the end of this book, and after next book you can confidently guess that this is how every book of the series is going to end. Harry isn’t an underdog, he’s an arsehole who leaves a lot of bewildered victims in his wake (victims who are expected to cheer for him and not allowed to be upset by it, no less), and gets dozens of victories handed to him all the time at everyone else’s expense (and often in ridiculously contrived ways just to make sure he never has to put any actual effort in), and who wants to read about that?

Anyway, back to the plot. Ron has already forgotten his envy to wallow in status by proxy, and sneers at Draco for not having a super-special Nimbus Two Thousand, only a Comet Two Sixty, whatever the difference is. Ron, sweetie, you clearly don’t understand how wealth works. This broom only came out at the end of the summer, and Draco’s not going to be able to access his own broom until the Christmas holidays at the earliest because he doesn’t have super protagonist powers; if he’s as keen on flying as he seems, he’s absolutely going to get a Nimbus for Christmas, especially because his daddy (who is very cool) loves him.

Also, we know that next book the aforementioned cool daddy is not only going to buy his son the newer, better super-special broom, but he’s also going to buy one for every person on his son’s house team. Because Lucius Malfoy, one of the (supposed) villains of the series, is less of an arsehole than Dumbledore and McGonagall. Go figure. Not only that, but Harry and co. are going to be utterly outraged about it. Because favouritism is only okay when Harry benefits. See also IOIAGDI, It’s Okay If A Gryffindor Does It.

Honestly, a Comet sounds like it would be better than a Nimbus anyway. Which is going to be faster and more awesome, a shooting star or a cloud? Considering all the effort Rowling went to in order to give almost everything Meaningful Names, it seems odd she didn’t bother here.

Presumably getting annoyed with constantly being insulted when he hasn’t actually done anything, Draco snaps back that Ron doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he couldn’t afford half the handle, and his family must have to save up twig by twig. In case you hadn’t guessed by now, brooms are analogous to cars and this is car porn and all that matters is how much it costs and how shiny and phallic it is. I assume that’s one reason why I find it so boring. We also noted certain unpleasant parallels to Twilight… yet another series which loves to go on and on about how wonderful its protagonists are for owning expensive vehicles. It’s not necessarily an uncommon cultural assumption, but we’ve always found it stupid.

Flitwick randomly shows up at this point, materialising at Draco’s elbow. If we take this literally as him being as tall as an eleven year old’s elbow… wow, he really is insanely short. And described as squeaking, which doesn’t help. Anyway, you may be wondering why Flitwick, instead of the supposedly super-observant McGonagall who’s actually invested in this stupid scenario? So we can show just how deep the rot goes. Draco protests to the Charms teacher – also Head of Ravenclaw, therefore supposedly neutral and also not going to like another house being obscenely favoured – that hey, Harry’s got an illegal broom…

” ‘Yes, yes, that’s right,’ said Professor Flitwick, beaming at Harry. ‘Professor McGonagall told me all about the special circumstances, Potter. And what model is it?’
‘A Nimbus Two Thousand, sir,’ said Harry, fighting not to laugh at the look of horror on Malfoy’s face. “

So, the deputy headmistress (who as I’ve said many times in fics should not also be a head of house anyway; never mind that Rowling also doesn’t seem to realise that school administrators do actual work, and would be very unlikely to also teach, let alone full-time) has persuaded the Headmaster to break school rules for one student, and only one student. And the other teachers know about this blatant favouritism, and are totally okay with another house getting an advantage that their own house isn’t allowed? There is absolutely no other explanation for this except that Dumbles brainwashes all his staff. There’s no other reason they’d be not only fine with this but actively happy about it.

And what ‘special circumstances’? The fact that McGonagall likes him? Fuck off. The only thing I can think of is that ‘special circumstances’ means McGonagall’s/the Gryffindor team’s desperation to fill the seeker position, which… no. Just no.

As an aside, imagine if Snape were the teacher in question here. We already know he’s immune to the Dumbledore Kool-Aid. Imagine Draco appealing to his own head of house for something approaching justice (as I imagine he does offscreen about ten minutes after this scene) and getting a weary look in response and a sour, ‘Yes, I know. The Headmaster is a bastard and he hates us. You’re going to have to get used to it, I’m afraid; there’s nothing I can do.’

Gosh, I wonder why the Slytherins don’t like Harry. Especially since he now rubs salt into the wound by saying it’s actually thanks to Draco that he’s been given this shiny new toy at the expense of the other houses. Possibly literally, since although there’s no mention of it there must be some form of taxation in the wizarding world because there’s nowhere else they could get money from, and the lack of school fees means Hogwarts must be government-funded. The parents of the other students are probably paying for Harry to be given advantages over their own children.

Harry and Ron walk off laughing like the little arseholes they are, and Harry gloats that it’s true because if Draco hadn’t grabbed the Remembrall none of this would ever have happened. Oh, trust me, Draco knows that – I don’t believe he ever pulls a stunt like that again, actually, and sticks to verbal insults. Because he’s intelligent and learns from his mistakes.

” ‘So I suppose you think that’s a reward for breaking rules?’ came an angry voice from just behind them.”

See, Hermione knows this is unfair bullshit. Of course Harry thinks this is a reward for breaking rules, because that’s exactly what it is. Naturally, despite his supposedly deprived upbringing, he doesn’t appreciate what’s being done for him here and just sneers that he thought she wasn’t speaking to them, echoed by his lackey Ron who says for her not to stop now because it’s doing them good. Again, Harry, she clearly is speaking to you as often as she ever did, I’m not sure why you think she isn’t. She doesn’t even bother replying to this, just walks off, and Harry and Ron spend the rest of the day drooling over the shiny thing.

[Mitchell adds: I honestly think the book’s constantly pointing out that ‘Hermione isn’t speaking to them’ despite the fact that she is clearly speaking to them is a bit of narrative cheating. Rowling knows that Hermione is one of the main characters and will become their friend later, even if the characters don’t, so it’s important that the reader know who she is and be kept up-to-date on what she’s doing to some degree. And she’s trying to set up an arc where they don’t get along until a certain moment later… but she’s not good at managing these things simultaneously.]

Sadly at this point we’re going to have to talk about Quidditch, as Harry frolics off to his training session with his new stick. To start us off, does anyone know why it’s capitalised? You don’t capitalise the names of sports. It’s not Football, it’s football. I know literally everything in this series is written with Unnecessary Capitals, but even so. (Mitchell’s just pointed out it really ought to be called ‘broomball’ or something like that, which is just… yeah. No.)

And my second question is, why is there only one sport in the wizarding world? It really is Quidditch or nothing. They also have exactly one card game – Exploding Snap – and two board games, chess and Gobstones. And we know they also have exactly one solo singer and exactly one pop group, and apparently no fiction beyond one book of children’s stories and no art at all except creepy sentient portraits and a few ugly statues. This is a very, very stagnant culture. No wonder most people are such idiots; there’s nothing for their brains to do once they leave school.

Harry skips down to the Quidditch pitch, which is actually a complete stadium containing hundreds of seats in raised tiers, because reasons. Going by what we see later, it’s pretty much compulsory for every student to go and watch every match, and apparently for the staff as well, but even then there can’t be enough people to justify a stadium. I suppose there would need to be some sort of structure for the seats since you’d have to be high up to be at eye level with the gameplay, but it’s a castle full of wizards, I’m sure they can levitate some benches for the few who actually want to watch. Obviously the pitch has no markings, but there are three golden posts at either end with vertical hoops on top.

Harry spends half a page flying around, just to remind us all that he’s awesome at flying. We’re still not told how he’s controlling the broom, of course. Fuck it, it’s magic. Wood shows up and calls him down, and he’s somehow carrying a large wooden crate under one arm, which would be impressive if it weren’t physically impossible. This is the first time Wood’s actually seen his new team member fly, so he’s probably quite relieved to find out he actually is good at it and didn’t just get in based on his name.

Wood starts explaining the batshit rules of this batshit game. There are four different-sized balls in the crate; ball number one is red and about the size of a football (soccer ball to some of you). There are seven players on a Quidditch team; three of them are called Chasers for no discernible reason, and they play with this ball (which is called the Quaffle; the wonky capitals are painful) and throw it through the golden hoops to score. Each goal is worth ten points. Each team has a Keeper – Wood, in Gryffindor’s case – who defends the goals and tries to stop them scoring. All pretty reasonable so far, and Harry helpfully describes it to the readers as ‘basketball on broomsticks with six hoops‘. Wood doesn’t understand this, though we’ll see later in this scene that he’s not ignorant of Muggle sports.

Then Wood hands Harry a club, described as a rounders bat in the UK version and a small baseball bat in the US version, and indicates two of the other balls in the crate. They’re black, a bit smaller than the Quaffle, and are chained down inside the box and appear to be struggling.

Okay, you know what, I hereby refuse to keep capitalising this shit. I will grudgingly keep Quidditch in case it’s named after someone, but I’m not doing the rest, it’s stupid.

(According to Quidditch Through the Ages the name is a corruption of the place it was invented, ‘Queerditch Marsh’… but I don’t think that’s really a valid excuse for the capitalisation, and while fantasy authors love to do this sort of fake etymology it isn’t really how languages work most of the time. She obviously backfilled that name afterwards, anyway.)

Unaccountably, Wood lets one of these balls loose. Why would you do this. It turns out these balls are basically cannonballs – we’re not told what they’re actually made of, but they fly very fast and they’re not much smaller than a football and somehow they’re enchanted to attack the players. They’re aptly called bludgers (one of the rare silly names of Rowling’s that works well; credit where credit’s due), and the one that’s been released now flies at Harry and tries to smack him in the face, forcing him to hit it with the bat ‘to stop it breaking his nose’. It flies off, comes back for another go, and Wood jumps on it and wrestles it into submission before chaining it back inside the crate. He blithely explains that these two balls fly around all match, and two of the other players – known as beaters – chase them with bats and try to smash them into members of the other team, or at least keep them away from their own team.

This is such an issue that even Harry is actually concerned. He asks if the bludgers have ever killed anyone, and Wood says cheerfully, ‘Never at Hogwarts. We’ve had a couple of broken jaws but nothing worse than that.’ Okay, one, I don’t believe that. If a cannonball smacks you in the mouth, it’s going to kill you. Two, broken jaws are actually serious, and almost never heal properly. Three, how would Wood know? I can’t imagine anyone tells new students that this fun new sport might be fatal. Also this implies that outside Hogwarts people are killed by these things, probably quite often. Probably not always players, either, there’s nothing to ensure these things won’t fly into the crowd and attack spectators. Or fly off into the sunset and attack random people a long way away. There’s also no safety gear. In the films, the keepers get ugly helmets, but the books don’t even have that and nobody gets any sort of protection.

This is yet another example of the books’/the wizarding world’s careless attitude toward danger and horrifying disregard for violent personal injury (we’ve already seen Neville injured twice, and more in his backstory…), but here it’s almost as if there’s a kind of culture shock for Harry. In the future he’ll forget about this and become as inured to it as the rest of them. I really can’t tell whether it’s a consequence of magical healing existing in the setting (although that seems to have very arbitrary limitations based on the whim of the plot), or Rowling just really loves slapstick and hasn’t realised she isn’t writing cartoons and/or has no conception of how fragile human bodies can actually be.

You know what could have saved this? Having them not be actual solid balls. As far back as ancient Rome, they used inflated sheep’s bladders to make a kind of football. (They also used them for condoms, but that’s another story.) Something like a beach ball or pillow flying around, with just enough weight to be a distraction, would be funny and would add challenge to the gameplay. At least, it would if there were responsible adults around whose only job was to catch anyone who falls off their broom (or some kind of magical levitation field to function as safety net), but in fact this never happens and if you fall you’re fucked. This must happen a lot, since most of the players are having to fly hands-free and are busy catching balls or waving clubs around and there’s no way you can hang on to a stick with just your legs. Instead, we have dangerous missiles flying around with enough force to shatter bones, and the only reason to implement something like this is to kill people. Particularly since they don’t have an off switch and stay active when the game is over, as we see here.

Wood attempts to change the subject from the deathballs, saying that Harry doesn’t have to worry about them, to which Harry adds, ‘unless they crack my head open’. It’s a shame he’s so rarely capable of normal reactions, I enjoy reading him much more when he acts like a sane person. Wood reminds us that the Gryffindor beaters are the Weasley twins, who are so good at it that ‘they’re like a pair of human Bludgers themselves’. This is perfectly true; the twins are indeed like sentient sadistic cannonballs who exist to cause chaos and hurt people.

No, we are never going to let the malicious sentient cannonballs go. They are absolutely horrifying, and nobody else seems to notice or care. Even most of the fandom who complain about the sport don’t seem to have a problem with the bludgers.

Moving on, Wood explains what Harry’s going to do. Namely, break the game. He’s the last member of the seven, known as the seeker, and his job is to chase the last ball around and catch it before the other team’s seeker does. This last ball is gold and about the size of a walnut. It’s called the snitch, and it has little silver wings. No, we’re never going to get an explanation for why the quaffle can’t fly when the other three can, or why the snitch has wings but the bludgers don’t.

Quidditch Through the Ages does actually explain that last point. Instead of a ball they originally used a live bird called a snidget, and the seeker’s job was to catch it and kill it, so now the snitch has wings to remind everyone of how terrible this game used to be. I quite like this as an explanation, though it’s yet another instance of gratuitous animal cruelty from Rowling (this one’s not as bad as some of the others because, sadly, it does seem like the kind of thing people would actually have done; see the existence of things like cockfighting or bear-baiting or whatever. Humans are horrible sometimes).

Incidentally, as we know, snitches were retconned in the final book to be one-use only. There’s no sign of that here, and won’t be in any of the other books until then. Because that’s really stupid.

And the reason that the seeker breaks the game is that although ordinary goals are only worth ten points, catching the snitch is worth one hundred and fifty points and immediately ends the match. So if the seeker catches it, their team win. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the team do. They might as well not be there. The seeker is the only one that matters – so, naturally, that’s the position Harry gets.

To be fair, the fans didn’t like this either. I assume Rowling got a lot of complaints, and rather than attempt to change the rules and add any sort of balance to the game she instead buggered around in Goblet of Fire creating a ridiculously contrived situation to demonstrate that see, it’s totally possible for the other team to win really, honest it is!!!

This did not fool anyone.

More than that, we see so little of flying and are given no idea of what’s actually involved in it. Harry can just do it. There’s no mention of aching muscles afterwards, for example, or anything else that would indicate some sort of genuine effort. Going by what the narrative tells us, you just sit there and the stick does all the work and all you have to do is hold your hand out at the right moment – it seems to be very rare for a seeker to miss. So not only is the seeker the only position that matters, it actually boils down to which seeker has the most expensive stick. If your seeker has a better broom than the other team’s seeker and doesn’t get maimed by a cannonball, then your team will win and the rest of the players can sit around with their thumbs up their arses. (It really is blatantly obvious that Rowling wanted to give Harry a special role to shine in, but didn’t want him to actually have to do anything… and that’s pathetic. There’s a reason we call him various permuations of Harry Sue.)

As with so many of the issues in this series, this too has an easy fix. If the seeker catches the snitch, their team gets ten points and possession of the quaffle. The snitch is released again, and the game continues. Make it last for a fixed period of time, like every sport ever that’s run by sane people. (Quidditch games have no end point except someone catching the snitch. It’s technically possible for one to literally last forever. Wood tells us in this scene that the record is three months, because nobody was bright enough to say ‘fuck it, this is stupid, let’s call it a draw’.)

[Mitchell adds: In fairness, real sports exist with this problem also, so I may reluctantly award a point for realism despite the stupidity. Growing up in the States I’ve been dragged to several baseball games in my lifetime, and I distinctly remember the misery of games that Just. Would. Not. End. My family used to make a habit of going to a game on July 4 because they’d have a fireworks show afterward, but when the game went into twenty-three innings or something like that, as it did on more than one occasion… let’s just say that I despise baseball, and while that is not the only reason it’s definitely a significant one.]

There are alternative fixes, too, though that one might be the best if we want to keep the game as similar as possible to Rowling’s; the obvious one, naturally, is just to eliminate seekers and snitches and use a clock. Thinking about it now, another interesting idea would be to then split it into two different games, so the wizarding world doesn’t have just a single sport – just make the snitch-hunting thing a separate game altogether. Without obnoxiously overshadowing everybody else who’s playing, it wouldn’t be nearly as objectionable.

Rowling apparently claims she designed Quidditch to piss off men who like sports. I can certainly believe she’d say something so stereotypical and dumb, but I’m pretty sure she only said this after so many fans complained about it, because we know she’s not anti-sport – witness all the Pottermore stuff we covered involving the wizarding world’s inexplicable interest in rugby, and the Quidditch World Cup. Besides, almost all her characters either play the sport or are at least screaming rabid fans of it. I believe Hermione’s the only one to explicitly say at any point that she doesn’t care about it, and she’s still at almost every match and still goes to the World Cup with the boys in book four. And there’s at least one match in every book, usually more than one, all described in considerable (tedious) detail.

Mitchell pointed out something interesting [I don’t think I’m the first to comment on this; I probably read about it somewhere like deathtocapslock at some point, but if I have I can’t remember the specifics]: in many ways Harry is a stereotypical sports jock personality-wise, yet physically he’s a stereotypical nerd. It’s also worth noting that, typically, wizards are a sort of nerd archetype, despite Harry not actually embodying any of those aspects (or really any Potterverse wizards except Hermione and some of the faculty: typically ‘wizard’ connotes magical power that comes from knowledge, which is bizarrely not how it works at all in the Potterverse, which is all genetics and pointed sticks).  This ties in to what I was saying earlier about the popularity of these books; because Harry’s a complete blank slate, with no discernible personality and only a few vague traits from all across the spectrum, it’s extremely easy for the reader to map themselves onto him and read the series almost as a self-insert fanfic (it’s the Barnum effect – there’s something for everybody!). That very neatly discourages your brain from noticing anything wrong with him, because nobody’s good at picking up on their own flaws.

The scene continues, but we’ve covered everything important. Wood’s explained the broken game to Harry and told him what a special snowflake he’ll be, and Harry is for once not being a dick and is more concerned about the cannonballs. Wood says they won’t practice with the snitch now because it’s getting dark and they’d lose it, and produces a bag of golf balls from his pocket to use instead. I have no idea where the hell he found golf balls. Maybe Hogwarts is near St Andrews. Also, Wood didn’t know what basketball was a couple of pages ago, but he knows about golf? Why not use almost anything else – maybe walnuts, since we’ve already been told that’s how big the snitch is anyway. Why not transfigure something? Show us some goddamned magic already! We really don’t see many spells throughout the series.

Anyway, Wood starts throwing golf balls around for Harry to chase. This really sounds more like a guy playing with his dog than two people practising a sport. Naturally, Harry catches every single one. They head back to the castle once it’s too dark to see – with no mention of Wood using his wand to light the way, incidentally, and Harry doesn’t know how to do that yet – and Wood says he thinks Harry will be better than Charlie Weasley, ‘and he could have played for England if he hadn’t gone off chasing dragons.’ We’re going to meet Charlie fairly soon, and he’s stocky and muscled and pretty much the exact opposite of Harry who is apparently physically the perfect seeker. I’m going to say that being a better seeker than Charlie probably wasn’t that hard, especially since his family are too poor to afford good brooms to win games for them, and also that England’s team apparently has very low standards. (Given that Rowling’s Scottish, don’t even try to tell me that’s not what she really meant.)

Hopefully, now that we’ve ranted at such length about this stupid sport, we won’t have to cover it in too much detail again. Apart from anything else, all this crap has really spoiled the flow of this post.

The next scene jumps forward a month or so and takes us to Halloween. Harry tells us he can’t believe how fast time is passing because he’s so busy, with Quidditch practice three evenings a week as well as all his homework (which we learn later mostly consists of very long essays). This is an insanely brutal schedule for an eleven year old, for a start, and actually probably the reason they stopped letting first years join the team – particularly since he has that stupid Astronomy class one night a week as well. I’m also questioning the logistics – we see in the next book that for some reason the teams can only practice on the single pitch, and there are often scheduling issues because all four teams need to use it. If Gryffindor are monopolising the pitch three nights a week, either this is further evidence that the school is spiteful and biased, or it’s evidence that Wood is completely bug-nuts and the other teams do perfectly well on just one night a week. (We don’t see such crazy schedules in later books, do we? She’s really hammering the gung-ho drill sergeant coach stereotypes for Wood right now, but she seems to forget about this frequency in practices in later books even while Wood’s still in the picture. Granted, she never seems to think about the scheduling if she can help it…)

As an aside he also tells us that his classes have grown a lot more interesting. It sure would have been nice to see that.

On Halloween morning they all wake to the smell of baking pumpkin. I honestly don’t know what that smells like, I’ve only ever eaten it in soup or curry, and then very rarely. I’m also not sure how the children in Gryffindor Tower can possibly smell it – the entrance to the tower is on the seventh floor, remember. Pumpkin pie is not a thing in Britain, and while we make jack-o-lanterns on Halloween very few people eat the leftover parts, though I think the seeds are semi-popular as a snack. I was never able to work out what the ‘pumpkin juice’ is that the wizarding world seem to drink so much, either, because pumpkins don’t really have juice. I imagine it’s some kind of pumpkin puree thinned down with water or fruit juice, but that just sounds gross.

Shockingly, we actually get to see a lesson. This is already so rare that it’s fairly obviously just foreshadowing a later scene, but first-time readers aren’t going to care because holy shit actual magic lesson in a book about magic school it’s about fucking time.

“Professor Flitwick announced in Charms that he thought they were ready to start making objects fly, something they had all been dying to try since they’d seen him make Neville’s toad zoom around the classroom.”

Why does Neville take his pet to classes? Flitwick is not the only teacher to abuse the poor thing. Depressingly, it might well be because he’d rather they hurt the toad than hurt him. Even so, you’d think this was against the rules. And again with the random animal cruelty; I’m guessing (hoping) that Rowling doesn’t have any pets. This could so easily have been changed to ‘textbook’ or ‘quill’ or other inanimate object. Why does she have Flitwick do this?

The students are put into pairs. Seamus gets to exist again to save Harry from having to work with Neville, but this really shouldn’t matter since frankly Neville’s got a stronger work ethic than most of the rest of his year put together and there’s no dangerous equipment or substances around for him to damage in Charms. And Ron and Hermione are working together – I assume Hermione must have somehow accidentally pissed Flitwick off, because clearly the children aren’t choosing their own partners or Harry and Ron would be together, and I doubt Hermione sits anywhere near them, nor are they close alphabetically. Either that or Flitwick’s hoping Ron might actually learn something, in which case good job I suppose. Harry says they’re both angry about this, and adds that Hermione hasn’t spoken to the boys for the last two months, which Hermione will once again contradict on the next page because nobody’s told her she’s meant to be ignoring them. I really don’t know why Harry cares since he apparently hates her. I assume it’s because in his mind literally everyone else in Gryffindor talks to him all the time and he’s sulking because she doesn’t worship him.

Flitwick tells them to be sure to remember the swish and flick wrist movement they’ve been practising. This is nice, a magic system based around wands really ought to incorporate specific movements as well as words. Shame we never see it again. He adds some further words of wisdom:

” ‘And saying the magic words properly is very important, too – never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.’ “

I remember on my first few readthroughs spending ages staring at this paragraph, trying to figure out the joke. There’s clearly some sort of joke or linguistic pun in this line, but I still don’t get it. Also, ‘Wizard Baruffio’ sounds like an official title, unless his parents had a sick sense of humour and literally named him Wizard.

Levitating a feather is apparently very difficult. Seamus gets impatient and starts poking it, which somehow makes it catch fire; this is far less annoying than the movie version since it doesn’t explode, he doesn’t keep doing it constantly, and Harry puts the fire out himself. With his hat, which is interesting because they never seem to wear them.

At the next table, Ron is yelling the words loudly – Wingardium Leviosa, of course –  and ‘waving his long arms like a windmill’. This is stupid. Ron is a pureblood with two magical parents and five older magical siblings. As with the attempt to turn Scabbers yellow on the train, he should know this is not going to work. He’s seen magic being done literally every day of his life. It’s not written as if he’s getting frustrated, or anything like that; he’s just being a moron. Which admittedly is perfectly in character, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.

Hermione tells him he’s pronouncing it wrongly, in defiance of Harry’s insistence that no she’s totally ignoring both of them really, and explains the correct pronounciation. Kindly not adding ‘you idiot’ to the end of the sentence, since it’s been about ten minutes since Flitwick told them this. Ron snarls that if she’s so clever, let’s see her do it, then.

Naturally, she does.

She doesn’t make any fuss about it, just rolls up her sleeves – of her ‘gown‘, inexplicably. This is not a synonym for robe. I assume we’re meant to picture the academic gowns most people only ever wear to graduate? – and casts the spell with the proper pronounciation and wrist movement, and lifts the feather a few feet above their heads.

We’ve now seen a grand total of two specific spells in the last ten chapters, and Hermione’s done them both. Once again, why is Harry the protagonist?

Flitwick is clearly a very poor teacher, since having ignored the students starting fires in the classroom he now pays attention to what’s going on and singles Hermione out and tells everyone to look at how awesome she is. While I approve of this on general principles, he might as well have painted a target on her back. Don’t do this with a group of children, seriously. He even applauds her.

Proving that this was a very bad idea, we move to the end of the class, and Ron bitching to Harry as they leave the room. ‘It’s no wonder no one can stand her… She’s a nightmare, honestly.’

Of course, Hermione hears him, and pushes past in tears and runs off. Harry points out very astutely that she must have heard this – as if that’s the problem. Being nasty to people isn’t okay as long as they can’t hear it, you horrible child – and Ron replies with, ‘So? She must’ve noticed she’s got no friends.’ We’re told he looks a bit uncomfortable, which just makes me wonder how spiteful he’d be without this token gesture towards guilt.

Leaving aside the question of how Ron knows this – at this age boys and girls really don’t pay each other much attention and he’s not likely to know about friendships among the girls of the house – and leaving aside my own headcanon of her actually being friends with Neville and thus just upset that her attempt to help backfired, of course she’s noticed. Your nasty comment on its own would not actually make anyone cry, Ron. But on the heels of two months of trying to make friends in the most terrifying school on the planet, clearly Hermione’s just reached her limit here, especially since there’s literally nobody she can talk to since at this point the female prefect simply doesn’t exist and their head of house is a heartless monster. I imagine she’s extremely homesick and wants to get out of here. I also imagine every Muggleborn student ends up in this state sooner or later.

Because she’s a girl, Hermione can’t just have a bit of a cry and pull herself together and get back to work but must instead have a complete breakdown for several hours, and isn’t seen for the rest of the day. None of the teachers seem to care that she misses the rest of their classes, or lunch, supporting my theory of just how isolated she is. Everyone in this building is terrible. As the boys go to the Great Hall for the Halloween feast that they apparently have here (Halloween really isn’t a big deal in Britain), they hear Parvati telling her friend Lavender – egad, another female student! That takes us up to, gosh, four? Though Lavender doesn’t get a last name yet – that Hermione’s crying in the toilets and wants to be left alone.

Okay, no, if she’s been crying for that long, something’s really wrong. She’s turned twelve by this point, I suppose it’s possible she’s started puberty? That certainly wouldn’t help matters – particularly since we don’t know how witches deal with this. Muggle schools have emergency vending machines in the girls’ toilets (for sanitary items, I should clarify, not emergency chocolate. Though that would also be a good idea), and generally a sympathetic female staff member willing to share painkillers. Either that, or Hermione’s just decided ‘fuck everyone’ and has locked herself in with a book for some peace and quiet.

Also, the girls have noticed her absence, have found out where she is, and are talking about it, which if it weren’t a literary device to let the boys know what’s happened (because God forbid they show any actual concern and either try to find her or ask someone) would indicate they don’t hate her. How else could they have found out she didn’t want to be disturbed unless they’d reached out to her and tried to help?

Ron looks uncomfortable again for about 0.4 seconds, and then they reach the hall and ‘the Hallowe’en decorations put Hermione out of their minds.’ She is literally less important to them than some paper streamers. Clearly the bonds of friendship between the Golden Trio are wondrous. Also, the decorations mostly seem to consist of two thousand live bats, who are probably panicking at being trapped in a room full of noise and smoke and lit candles and are also probably less hygienic than owls. Bats carry lots of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Have fun, kids.

The feast is interrupted by Quirrell running in with his turban askew. One, this isn’t how turbans work, they’re not just hats. Two, doesn’t this mean the back of his head is showing? Three, why a turban? Quirrell has specifically been described as pale in previous scenes, so we know he’s not a person of colour. Wear a wig, you dumbass. Anyway, he looks terrified, he shouts that there’s a troll in the dungeons, and he collapses face down on the floor. Brilliant behaviour from the Defence teacher, isn’t it.

Hogwarts School of Sadism and Misery lives up to this name. Nobody bothers to check why on earth Quirrell passed out; maybe he’s hurt? They just leave him there. And dear old Saint Dumbles gives orders that all students are to return to their dormitories, at which point I really, really, really wish Snape had stood up and yelled, ‘Slytherin’s dormitory is in the bloody dungeons, you senile old goat.’ Unfortunately he’s busy with the plot at this point, and I assume the Slytherin prefects are far too jaded to bother objecting that the Headmaster’s telling them to go play with the dangerous monster. The Hufflepuffs are probably a bit worried too, their dormitory is near the kitchens which means either at ground level or a level below and they must be quite close to the dungeons as well.

Incidentally, on subsequent readthroughs it’s obvious that at this point Snape is still the villain and Rowling hadn’t impulsively decided to make it Quirrell instead (lol spoiler alert). Because Quirrell just stays ‘unconscious’ on the floor until some of the other teachers round him up to go hunting for the troll. He let it in as a distraction and then didn’t do anything. A halfway competent author would have had him disappear somewhere, but we know Rowling has never understood that you can go back and edit things once you’ve written them. A halfway competent editor would have noticed this, too, but clearly publishers dealing with children’s books don’t give their audience credit for intelligence and don’t care about continuity errors.

As they head back to Gryffindor’s nice safe monster-free tower, Harry realises that Hermione doesn’t know about the troll. Based on everything we’ve seen of his character to date, namely his total sociopathic lack of empathy, there is absolutely zero reason why he’d have remembered this. Hey, Harry, how did your family get off that island you and Hagrid marooned them on? How’s your traumatised and mutilated cousin doing? Anyway, he mentions this to Ron, and for some reason neither of them even discuss the possibility of letting someone else know. Admittedly they believe the troll is down in the dungeons and that they just need to warn Hermione so the three of them can all scamper off to their nice safe monster-free tower, but even so. Also you’d think Percy might notice that his little brother is missing, or that someone might have noticed Harry Snowflake Potter isn’t there. And the other girls are far more likely to have remembered that Hermione won’t know what’s going on.

Harry and Ron wander off towards the girls’ toilets. This is being written about as if it’s the only one in the building (how do they know which toilet she’s in?). I really hope this is not the case. I’m also not sure why there’s such an emphasis on it being the girls’ toilets, specifically, that they’re looking for; anywhere with binary-gendered toilets generally puts them next to one another (or they do in newer buildings at least; some older buildings have issues, if they were built with gendered expectations in mind… but as far as we’re given to understand Hogwarts has always been coeducational), which is presumably how Harry and Ron know where they are. They hear footsteps and assume it’s Percy coming after them, so rather than wait and tell him why they’re here they hide behind a convenient statue, which is lucky since it’s actually Snape – presumably having realised he can’t both serve the plot and guard his students from the troll, and no doubt rather annoyed about it.

They follow Snape’s footsteps for a bit, forgetting what they’re actually meant to be doing. Severus, I understand you’re annoyed and that you’re overworked and trying to do a thousand things at once, but we know you can walk without making noise, and also there are secret passages. Honestly, the only way to make any sense of any of this – once you finish the book and learn that in fact he’s not the most incompetent villain ever – is to assume that he’s been ordered to take the blame for some weird reason, and frankly the only reason that makes sense is that Dumbles hates him.

Harry realises Snape is heading for the third floor, which would mean Hogwarts has an astoundingly simple layout for a castle except that he’s clearly using his plot powers again, but then he and Ron smell something terrible and hide again to watch the troll inevitably appear. The troll that was originally in the dungeons, but has somehow managed to sneak past most of the staff and a lot of terrified Slytherin and Hufflepuff students and get all the way up here without being seen. And also it’s twelve feet tall and would have serious trouble fitting through doorways, and doesn’t seem to move very fast, and smells so bad you can pick up on it long before you hear or see the actual troll.

The troll pauses by a door, then goes inside. Harry suggests they lock it in, because neither he nor Ron know where the fuck they are, nor is this door marked in any way, and why the hell is there a key in the outside anyway? Or at all? As we know, this door is actually the girls’ toilets they were originally aiming for, and I can’t think of a single acceptable reason for that door to ever be locked and many, many, many reasons why you would not leave the key in it. Not to mention that hey, this is a magic castle, lock spells are a thing, why do you even have regular locks and keys?

It’s also interesting to note that while at this point wizards know about Muggle stuff and it makes sense they’d have modern plumbing, this makes no sense at all for the rest of the series when they suddenly regress to complete ignorance. Particularly next book, when apparently at least one of the Founders knew about plumbing that didn’t even exist in his lifetime.

Anyway, they lock the door, and trot off feeling very proud of themselves, and then hear a scream and realise they really really fucked up. No, seriously, why do you not know where you are? Are the boys’ toilets in fact not next to the girls’? Where the hell were you going if this wasn’t the toilet you were planning to get to? Why did the troll even go in here? Do trolls eat children? Did it just hear something and wonder what the noise was? We’re never told.

“It was the last thing they wanted to do, but what choice did they have?”

This could have been phrased better. ‘Going back to face the troll was the last thing they wanted to do’, for example. Because this just sounds like they don’t want to help Hermione, which while totally in character isn’t really the impression you want to give of your protagonist and his Plucky Sidekick (TM).

They run back and flail at the door, and manage to unlock it and run in. The troll is smashing stuff for no real reason, and Hermione’s cowering against the wall and looks about to faint, whatever that’s meant to look like. Pale, presumably. At this point I’m assuming Fluffy caused some latent trauma, because she didn’t go to pieces then and I would say three sets of giant fangs is a lot scarier than one giant stick. I much prefer PTSD to the actual explanation, which is almost certainly that Girls Need Rescuing. Even when said girl is demonstrably far more competent than the boys nobly accidentally nearly killing her, and is the only character in the series to have used actual spells onscreen at this point.

This scene also marks the first instance of a very frequently recurring theme throughout the series. If you allow yourself to be upset by something, you’ll be attacked, especially if you’re a girl. Here, Hermione is crying in the toilets over being bullied, and gets attacked by a troll. Next book, Myrtle tells us she was crying in the toilets over being bullied, and got attacked by a basilisk. In book six, Draco is crying in the toilets because of sheer stress and fear, and gets attacked by Harry. There are other examples, but these all take place in toilets for some reason. Basically tears are weak and if you dare to get upset over anything you’ll regret it, because it’s your fault if you’re a victim of something. These books are downright damaging for younger readers; they’re going to absorb some pretty toxic messages without realising.

All that aside, Harry reacts reasonably here. Probably too reasonably for an eleven year old child, but whatever, it’s rare enough that he actually does something useful, I’ll take it. He and Ron don’t try to attack the troll directly; instead they start throwing bits of wreckage and yelling, distracting it and confusing it by giving it a choice of targets. While Ron’s got its attention, Harry gets to Hermione and tries to get her to run, but the plot demands that she now be completely frozen and unable to move.

It is possible to be paralysed with fear, but almost always in situations involving a fear of the unknown, or a phobia or other trigger, or when you have multiple options and can’t decide which one to take. When something is literally attacking you, you’re usually more than capable of running as long as you have a clear way to run, because that’s what you’ve evolved to do. Your brain isn’t even involved, your glands dump adrenaline into your blood to kick up your heart rate and your breathing to power your muscles to get the fuck away without any actual thought required (there’s a reason they call that reflex ‘fight or flight’). If Hermione can see the open door, she’s going to run, so for my own sanity I’m going to assume she can’t and that she thinks she’s trapped.

The troll tries to attack Ron.

“Harry then did something that was both very brave and very stupid: he took a great running jump and managed to fasten his arms around the troll’s neck from behind. The troll couldn’t feel Harry hanging there, but even a troll will notice if you stick a long bit of wood up its nose, and Harry’s wand had still been in his hand when he’d jumped – it had gone straight up one of the troll’s nostrils.”

I like that the narrative acknowledges that sometimes bravery is stupid. This won’t happen again. I’m questioning how Harry managed to jump twelve feet up, though. And Harry’s wand is not in his hand, he’s never mentioned drawing it at any point and he’s been throwing taps and pipes around. Also, it’s entirely possible – given that despite wands just being sticks, they’re apparently almost always unbreakable – that this might actually have killed the troll, rather than just hurt it a bit. If you stab someone up their nose with something long enough, it’ll go straight through some very thin cartilage and into their brain.

The troll howls and flails, though doesn’t seem to be bleeding even though the wand’s apparently gone deep enough to get stuck. Then we get a really random single sentence from Ron’s point of view, telling us that he doesn’t know what to do but hears himself cast the first spell he can think of.

Chapter One was partly from Vernon Dursley’s point of view, and partly omniscient-narrator. Everything else in the book apart from this single sentence is Harry’s point of view. And there’s no reason to be in Ron’s head here, since Harry could very easily hear him cast the spell.

Inevitably, it’s Wingardium Leviosa, and despite there being no way he’s going to manage precise wand movements in these circumstances it seems Hermione teaching him how to pronounce it earlier was enough to let him cast it perfectly now despite having been unable to at the time. The troll’s club lifts out of its hand, hovers, then drops and smacks it on the head with enough force to stun it. Okay, this is horribly contrived, but I like it anyway and it’s a good way of letting three first years survive a fight with a monster despite not really knowing any useful spells. I always really enjoy books that use magic more creatively, taking a spell for Thing X and making it do Thing Y instead.

That said, the movie did this scene much better. Hermione wasn’t useless and helped Ron cast the spell, and he then moved his wand to slam the club down on the troll.

Current spell count: Hermione, 2. Ron, 1. Harry, 0. Worst. Protagonist. Ever.

Hermione suddenly unfreezes now, despite that not really being how this sort of shock works, and asks if it’s dead. Harry says he doesn’t think so – it’s twelve feet tall, I think you’d be able to tell if it was breathing, but fair enough, he’s a kid in the aftermath of a terrifying situation – and retrieves his wand from the troll’s nose. It’s covered in slime, which is ‘bogies‘ in the UK version but changed to ‘boogers‘ for the Americans – incidentally it rarely if ever is after this point (or before for that matter), so I really have no idea what on earth the Bat Bogey Hex etc. actually means. There’s also no reason for this detail to be included, really, particularly since copious amounts of blood would be far more likely.

At this point three of the teachers burst in. McGonagall, Snape, and Quirrell. Well, Snape was off on the third floor chasing plot coupons and fighting monsters of his own, and I’m not sure he’d have had time to do that and get back to the other teachers and then backtrack to here again. Let’s be nice and assume he heard the noises and abandoned the idiot-ball plot to come and help. Quirrell was on the floor in the Great Hall, so apparently McGonagall went back to get him and then went looking for the troll again? And where the fuck are Dumbledore and the other teachers?

Quirrell whimpers and nearly faints. Snape ignores them and starts looking at the troll; I don’t know what for, but it amuses me that he’s apparently more concerned for it than he is for the children. Maybe it’s an endangered species. And McGonagall… well.

“Harry had never seen her look so angry… ‘What on earth were you thinking of?’ said Professor McGonagall, with cold fury in her voice.”

Yes. She’s furious with them. There’s no concern whatsoever. She’s really angry that they were attacked by a monster. Remember, kids, if you’re a victim of anything, it’s your fault! What the fuck is this woman’s problem? People do react with anger after they’ve been really frightened, as anyone who’s accidentally made their partner or parents extremely worried can testify, but it doesn’t look like this. You cry, you make sure the person you were worried about is okay, and then you’re angry at them afterwards. McGonagall storms into the room already furious, and yells at three presumably fairly traumatised children without bothering to see if they’re hurt or not first.

She demands to know why they weren’t in their dormitory – Snape glances at Harry, who looks at the floor; this tells me Snape knew Harry and Ron were following him earlier, frankly – and the boys stare at each other. Hermione speaks up and says truthfully that they were looking for her. And she should have added that they were doing so because she wasn’t at the feast and didn’t know about the troll, and that’s where this conversation should have ended, because that’s all completely reasonable and honest and she doesn’t need to add that it’s partly their fault she wasn’t there given that they did come after her and help. But for some reason Rowling then has Hermione tell a very unconvincing lie and claim that she had read about trolls, thought she could handle it and went looking for it. In a toilet several floors away from where it was supposed to be. I have no idea why – this isn’t in character, and there’s no way any of the teachers should have believed it, and it’s not remotely necessary given that the first part of her statement was enough to stop any of them getting into trouble and all Hermione’s done is put herself back in hot water with the inexplicably furious teacher. (Clearly Rowling wanted a scene where Hermione lies to get the boys out of trouble, for some reason, because that is a sort of school story trope… but this makes no fucking sense because she doesn’t need to lie to do that.)

Hermione goes on to describe the fight and that Harry and Ron saved her life, while the boys try to pretend that yes, this is totally what happened. This part at least is more believable; we’ve already seen that Hermione talks too much when she’s nervous, and she’s just realised she’s accidentally screwed herself here.

And McGonagall’s reaction to all this is to call Hermione a fool, say she’s really disappointed in her, take five house points from her and tell her to fuck off on her own back to Gryffindor Tower.

Why is this bitch allowed near children? (I generally don’t like using that word, but sometimes nothing else will fit.) This is just plain cruel. Even if you hate Hermione, you’ve got to feel for the poor girl at this point. She doesn’t get to see the end of this conversation; as far as she’s concerned, she cost her house points by being attacked by a monster, and nobody gives a shit whether she got hurt or not or how scared and upset she is.

This school is fucking horrible.

Anyway, McGonagall then gives Harry and Ron five points each, tells them they were lucky and that she’ll tell Dumbles how great they are, and sends them on their way too. I like to think that as soon as they’re out of earshot Snape tells her she’s a dreadful head of house and walks off in disgust while she’s asking what he means.

Harry and Ron discuss how they should have got more points on their way back to the tower. Ron actually admits it was good of Hermione to lie for them, though he adds that they did save her and needs Harry to remind him that he’s the reason she was there to need saving in the first place. I don’t see why Harry would be more aware of this than Ron, they’re both equally sociopathic most of the time, but at least someone said it.

The three of them reunite in the tower (conspicuously devoid of concerned prefects/brothers; Percy, I am very disappointed in you), stare around awkwardly, mutter ‘thanks’ and scurry off in different directions. It’s kind of cute actually.

“But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”

This is also kind of cute. Even though I still maintain that Hermione isn’t really their friend at all. And really she ought to be afraid to go anywhere near them, given that she gets attacked by monsters whenever she’s alone with them. And going through a scary experience together wouldn’t magically change their personalities, and we’ll see throughout the rest of the series that they still have nothing in common and still don’t honestly like one another very much. But cute nonetheless.

Also, the school as a whole for some reason never finds out about this incident. Unlike literally everything else that happens. Go figure.

Holy crap, this was a long one this time.

Something that came up in the comments on the last post, the ‘how to fix this chapter’ section that used to be at the end of these posts isn’t there any more. I’ll be honest, there was such a gap between chapter 7 and 8 that I just forgot; I did consider going back to add it once I realised, but by this point in the story the chapters can’t really be fixed except by making it a completely different book. I’ll attempt to do some sort of summary post at the end suggesting an overall rewrite of the whole thing, maybe, and continue to suggest rewrites of individual scenes as I did here.

We’d like to end by wishing you all a Happy New Year. Here’s to 2016.

(Also, there was a real-life Professor Snape and he used to teach Chemistry at my old university.)


Posted by on December 30, 2015 in loten, mitchell


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Eight

This has been a very long time coming, hasn’t it, folks? I’m sorry. My schedule and Mitchell’s just haven’t been very compatible, it’s been hard to find a few hours uninterrupted by work or relatives. With luck, over the next few weeks we’ll find time to do these much more regularly, but no promises.

Trigger warnings: none. I’ll say this for the Baby Silk Moth of Misogyny and Awfulness, it’s made these books so much more pleasant to write about…

Chapter Eight: The Potions Master (aka the only decently developed character in this whole sorry series)

The chapter art for this is pointless. It’s a book, smoking. This has
nothing to do with anything. Was a cauldron too hard to draw?

The chapter opens with Harry being recognised by literally everyone around him and them all being very shocked by it. For the third time in two chapters. They all heard about him on the train, and then got to stare at him for ten minutes during his Sorting, but the average Hogwarts student has the attention span of a concussed mayfly and they all seem to have forgotten about this overnight. Once again, I ask why any of them would care given that even the seventh years were only around six years old when Voldy was ‘defeated’ and most of the students were toddlers who won’t even remember, yet here they are literally following him around to stare at him.

Harry’s fame and backstory is interesting, in a way. It doesn’t quite fit the standard Chosen One trope. Usually a protagonist is Chosen because of a prophecy that ties into the defining origin myth of their particular world, something that’s been a universally accepted legend in most societies for centuries. That makes it easier, since the entire population has been aware of it for generations and more people are going to believe it than will doubt it. In Harry’s case, the story that makes him Chosen is only ten years old, yet we’re meant to believe it’s somehow permeated the entire world? (As we’ll see later, many other countries are apparently also aware of how amazing Harry Potter is, even though Voldy’s reign never reached beyond Britain.) Subverting tropes is great, but only if it still works.

In addition, Harry’s never talked about in terms of his mythology. He’s not even labelled the Chosen One for several books yet. His title is the Boy Who Lived – his fame is literally simply because he didn’t die. He’s not… I don’t know, Voldykiller, or something more descriptive. It’s not clear if the Hogwarts kids even know why he’s famous and what he’s meant to have done. It’s also worth noting that most wizards think Voldy’s permanently dead, so Harry’s already fulfilled his Chosen One trope – he’s not a potential hero and saviour, he’s done that already. Nobody’s been hoping for him to show up and rescue them from evil, that’s over. The only people who should be excited about Harry’s presence are the very few who believe Voldy’s going to come back and that Harry’s going to defeat him again. One of the Discworld novels says it best – ‘history has a great weight of inertia‘. Most of the population will have moved on. (Especially as Voldy didn’t actually do anything to most people, by all accounts. It wasn’t like the World Wars, no matter how many poorly thought out Nazi analogies Rowling throws in. He wouldn’t have left much of a lasting impression.)

Also, you’d think at least a few people would actually be quite scared of him, assuming they buy into the mythos. This kid supposedly, as an infant, defeated someone who was supposedly the most powerful evil wizard ever. In later books there’s plenty of bullshit with people thinking Harry’s evil, but that’s based on current events and is thrown in purely to try and generate what passes for conflict, but here there’s nothing to indicate it’s possible for people to think that way.

This was a long rant for the opening paragraph of the chapter, wasn’t it. Anyway, Harry wishes people wouldn’t follow him around staring, because he’s got enough to cope with trying to find his way to classes. This segues into a description of just how fucked up Hogwarts is.

‘There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.’

On the one hand, I kind of like this. Magic school should be very weird, and a Muggle-raised child should be fairly disorientated, and this ties into the semi-whimsical feel the Potterverse has at this point before Rowling tries for grimdark and fails; it’s also pretty well written, because credit where it’s due, she’s really good at describing scenery. On the other hand, this is ridiculously impractical – why did the Founders build the castle this way? (And how?) Why has nobody tried to fix it in the centuries since then? Because seriously, it sounds like it would be very easy for a student to get utterly lost and end up starving to death because they’ve been teleported somewhere they can’t get out of. Which might explain why we see so few Muggleborns throughout the series, actually… Also, as we learn later this chapter, at this point Harry hasn’t experienced a Friday here yet, so how does he know some stairs are different then? I suppose someone could have told him (and this is the boy who believed a total stranger telling him to charge headfirst at a brick wall, after all) but there’s been no mention of any kind of orientation for the new students. I’ve mentioned before that my secondary school was in a big stately home, and it was pretty easy to get lost without magic troll stairs, which is why they gave us maps and also had teachers come get us and take us to lessons for the first week. There were also signs in the corridors pointing you towards various departments. At Hogwarts you’re on your own.

As if troll stairs and doors weren’t enough, the ghosts make things worse by frequently drifting through doors the children are trying to open and scaring the shit out of them. Peeves, the poltergeist we met last chapter, openly assaults them as well. You could probably develop a pretty interesting story around theories concerning why nobody’s ever tried to get rid of him. Harry assures us that Filch, the caretaker, is somehow worse than Peeves, though. On their first morning, Filch caught Harry and Ron trying to get through the locked door on the third-floor corridor that they were warned not to go near literally a few hours ago, and not unreasonably wouldn’t believe that they didn’t know where they were. He threatened to lock them up, and somehow this makes him worse than a ghost who throws things at them, tries to trip them up, and randomly grabs them. Harry, you are a fucking idiot. Get some perspective. Quirrell ‘happened’ to be passing at the time and rescued them, which is a really nice subtlety that no first-time reader would remember but that jumps out on subsequent readthroughs – Rowling can do foreshadowing well, accidentally, when she’s not trying to telegraph how clever she thinks she is.

Incidentally, Filch is invariably described every time he shows up throughout the series as ‘wheezing‘, and is heavily implied to be quite elderly. Leaving aside the question of why Hogwarts has a caretaker – let’s put that in the file with Hagrid’s redundant job as well – he’s not exactly a great choice for the post. Especially given what we’ll learn about him later. Also, school janitors don’t actually have the power to even scold students, let alone shout and threaten them or assign punishments (though in a few cases they really ought to). In any case, we get some more inexplicable animal cruelty here – Filch has a cat, Mrs Norris, who is super-intelligent and patrols by herself and brings her master to scenes of trouble, and apparently most of the students want to kick her down the stairs.

I never gave it much thought, but if Mrs Norris is that smart she must be part-Kneazle or something, like Crookshanks. I don’t know where Filch would have got her from if that’s the case. Rowling also doesn’t seem to like cats very much – see Umbridge for further evidence.

Anyway, after blathering on about the staircases and the caretaker, Harry finally gets around to telling us a bit about his lessons.

‘There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.’

Yeah. This line sent Mitchell and me into hysterics. After all, the title of our blog comes from the Harry Potter magic system – point stick, say word. It’s vaguely implied throughout the series that there is a lot more magic can do, but we’ll never see any of it except at a distance, and that rarely. Harry will only ever perform the kind of magic involving waving his stick and saying something in broken quasi-Latin, and no other kinds of magic will ever be explained, nor will we learn any magical theory.

Which sucks, because that’s my favourite part of most fantasy stories. But we’re magic geeks, so we relucantly concede not everyone wants to learn the nerdy stuff. Still, enough people do that we should get something.

The vagueness about how the magic system works could be a positive, as a kind of literary smokescreen to preserve the immersion. In fantasy series that aren’t hyper-focused on magic users, where mages are just side characters, this works pretty well. It’s part of the universe but not a major focus, so it doesn’t need to be picked apart since the main cast have no reason to need to know how it works and it would interrupt the flow of the story. It’s also a good choice for less competent authors, since the fewer details you have, the less chance there is of you fucking up and contradicting yourself or making mistakes.

In a fantasy series where every cast member is a magic user, in a setting designed to teach half the characters how their magic works, it’s just stupid not to include it. And on the very few occasions where Rowling does give us a solid rule about how her magic system operates, she contradicts herself and gets it wrong.

Mitchell adds: let’s have a brief aside to talk about magic systems in fiction, I suppose.

It can be instructive to think about separating the magic system’s transparency to the characters within the story, and its transparency to the reader. There can actually be quite a lot of value in writing in such a way that obscures details to the reader while still making it clear the characters know about them; if nothing else, this is a very good way to preserve the suspension of disbelief. The alternative is making it completely obvious where the Invented Bullshit meets reality, and drawing the reader’s attention to this can catapult them right out of the story (I present as an example Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, throughout which I mostly kept getting distracted by the arbitrariness of the properties he assigned to various metals, and mentally shouting METAL DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY; while there are things I enjoyed in those books, overall they definitely irritated me more often than not). A bit of obfuscation around the specific point of departure is probably a good thing. So, for instance, having the students taking copious notes without actually going into much detail about what the notes contain could be a decent idea. On the other hand, magic systems also need well-defined rules in order to maintain internal consistency in the fictional world (something Rowling’s never seemed to grasp, really), so too much obfuscation causes other problems. As in this case, where she portrays things as ‘point stick, say word’ so consistently that all of her telling us it’s more complicated than that rings hollow.

One way I like to think about magic systems is in terms of the converse of Clarke’s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”. Any story is going to have to fall at some point on the scale of advancement, if you will. How well-informed are the characters about the rules by which their world’s magic operates? It’s definitely possible to do interesting things with magic systems that aren’t well-understood by the characters, nor by the readers; there’s a sense of mystery etc this can provide, which I think is definitely conducive to maintaining a ‘magical’ feel to things (as opposed to the point where magic starts to feel like technology); that said, if the author doesn’t have at least some well-defined rules in mind for how things work, there’s some danger of ending up in the deus-ex-machina failure mode (where it looks to the reader like the author is constantly pulling things out of their arse and making everything up as they go along). So the limitations need to be there even if they aren’t mentioned explicitly in the text; done well, this gives the reader something to puzzle over and speculate about (for that matter, done badly it can do this too, somehow: see how many readers have tried to find a way to make a coherent whole out of what Rowling’s given us). The alternative extreme is to go into incredible detail about how the magic works, which can also work very well at times, but as I said above, one risks killing suspension of disbelief etc in taking this too far (never mind also that there’s a risk of boring readers who aren’t specifically interested in those sort of complexities). The other danger with too much specificity is running into what I’ll call the “video game” failure mode – there’s definitely a risk of ending up with lists of predefined spells with numerical costs that will be deducted from a mana meter, etc.

If you’re going to write a story specifically about characters learning magic (and, especially, if you want to make details of the magic system into plot points later – as Rowling does attempt), you probably want to err at least somewhat on the detailed/’technological’ side of the spectrum, so that there’s actually something you can portray the characters learning. Done well, the reader could feel like they’re learning it alongside the characters, which is also a plus (as Loten said earlier, at least for us that seems to be a lot of the appeal of a setting like this). It’s very difficult to successfully portray an academic setting when the sum total of knowledge the students acquire is a list of words or phrases that could be written on a scrap of paper and memorised over a week-end.

One of the things that I think ends up making the Potterverse so rich as a fanfic setting, actually, is the fact its magic system (well, everything, really, but I’m focusing on magic systems here) is so poorly defined; there’s a skeleton there to work with, enough to provide a bit of consistency and recognition between stories, but each author and/or story has the freedom to flesh it out in a way that will suit the story they want to tell. Of course, this doesn’t really work as a defence of the source material: I’ve said before and will probably say again that the qualities of the Potterverse that make it work well as a fandom don’t actually seem to be the same qualities that would make it a quality story or fictional setting; there’s a certain open-endedness to all of its failures that I think might contribute to making it so compelling to tinker with.

For some reason Harry starts his list with the least interesting subjects. On Wednesday nights they study Astronomy, learning the names of stars and the movements of the planets. When I talked about revising the Hogwarts syllabus in my fic Post Tenebras Lux (shameless promotion is shameless), I removed Astronomy from the core timetable and made it a third-year option, because there’s zero reason for the first-years to study it. We’ll learn later that centaurs can predict the future using the stars and planets, but human prophecy doesn’t work that way and there is literally no connection between human magic and astronomy. What they learn about it in Divination in later books will make it clear that it’s a load of rubbish. Astronomy remains utterly irrelevant for the whole of the series, yet it’s mentioned a few times in every book. I wonder if it’s another of Rowling’s ghost plots that was originally intended to have a purpose? Also, Harry’s going to describe his teachers for all his subjects except Astronomy, for some weird reason. We’ll eventually learn that the teacher is a witch named Aurora Sinistra, but I don’t think we ever get any kind of description.

They have Herbology three times a week, learning to look after magical plants and fungi and studying their uses. This actually makes sense – even if it only really ties in to Potions, it seems like something that would actually be useful in later life, and is information-dense enough to need more lessons to take it all in. It should also be more interesting than the books give it credit for, given that most magical plants seem to be dangerous in some way. Herbology is taught by Professor Sprout, head of Hufflepuff house – ‘a dumpy little witch‘. I find it interesting that ‘dumpy’ is generally not a pleasant word, it implies fat and plain and other ‘negative’ traits, but Rowling generally uses it for characters she sort-of likes such as Molly Weasley. It’s also quite awkward seeing female characters described as witches given all the modern connotations; though it is technically the term for a female magic user in this universe, the masculine ‘wizard’ is the default word in most cases. Maybe she thought ‘mage’ was too geeky.

[Mitchell adds: it continues to bother me that the Potterverse arbitrarily divides the terminology along gendered lines when there is no actual reason to. It’s just yet more sexist language, when there’s no difference between a wizard and a witch except what their gender identity happens to be. It’s also a wasted opportunity of a different kind, because it could have been a good way to have multiple kinds of magic/magic-users in the setting – ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ would be a lot cooler, and a lot less redundant, if witchcraft and wizardry were two different things and we could learn what distinguished them, etc etc. Likewise with other terms, ‘sorcerer’ is definitely thrown about a bit and I think ‘warlock’ makes an appearance too, but Rowling never does anything with them or even suggests they’re anything other than synonyms for ‘wizard’ or ‘witch’.]

Harry’s least favourite subject – so far – is History of Magic, because it’s extremely boring. I’m not sure what he’s basing this on, really, since this is half way through his first week and at most he can only have had maybe two lessons. Also, History of Magic is taught by a ghost – Professor Binns – and a Muggle-raised child is unlikely to be so jaded after only a few days that he’d find this boring regardless of the subject matter. In any case, History of Magic involves taking notes of names and dates as Binns drones on a lot, and it’s easy to mix up what they’re learning (not that we’re told what that actually is). History as a dull list of dry facts by a teacher with a boring voice is an established trope, so I can’t technically fault it here, but this is also an example of the anti-intellectual trend throughout the series. I have no idea why Rowling tried for a school story when she so clearly has no respect for education.

(My history lessons were fairly interesting, actually. Though admittedly a lot of that was because we all knew the history teacher was having an affair with one of the art teachers. The day his daughter, also a pupil at the school, found out was… quite dramatic.)

It’s always seriously annoyed me that History of Magic isn’t given more screen time. It’s used for a plot dump in the next book, and apart from that the only things we’re ever told that they learn about are old witch trials (played for laughs, silly Muggles can’t possibly hurt real wizards) and goblin rebellions that are never relevant to anything. Rowling had the perfect opportunity to use these lessons to tell us about the first wizarding war and explain why we should actually worry about Voldy coming back, to make us care about her villain and want her protagonist to win, and she didn’t bother. This could have been a great vehicle to get us all completely invested in the plot, and she dropped the ball. It would also have been a nice way to explain some of her worldbuilding, but we all know she didn’t do any. (You’d also think that ‘History of Magic’ would actually involve learning about the history of magic, e.g. when various types of magic were discovered or developed, etc… but that would have involved actually developing a magic system. As it stands, the class is really just ‘History, but only the parts Muggles aren’t allowed to know’… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but isn’t really what the name of the class suggests.)

‘Professor Flitwick, the Charms teacher, was a tiny little wizard who had to stand on a pile of books to see over his desk. At the start of their first lesson he took the register, and when he reached Harry’s name he gave an excited squeak and toppled out of sight.’

Sigh. It’s unclear whether Flitwick actually has dwarfism or is just very short – I honestly can’t remember if his being part-goblin is canon or fanon, and I’m too lazy to look it up – but this certainly comes across as ableist. I can easily buy that Hogwarts wouldn’t bother providing appropriate furniture to help him teach without having to balance on piles of books, but the man is a wizard, why on earth doesn’t he give himself a taller chair, a shorter desk, or both? There’s also no reason why just reading Harry’s name would make him literally lose his balance and fall over, even if he is a fanboy for some reason. As far as I know, Flitwick wasn’t particularly involved in the first war – I don’t think he was in the Order, fanon aside, and he’s certainly not involved in the second one – so there’s really no reason for him to care. But I’m surprised it took four subjects for us to see a fanboy teacher, though this attitude won’t reappear and won’t be relevant since Flitwick himself is rarely onscreen.

Professor McGonagall teaches Transfiguration. We’ve talked about what a pointless waste of time that is before; there are really half a dozen basic concepts that can then be adapted to literally anything. It’s a six-week summer course at best, but is unaccountably a compulsory five-year subject. Harry thinks she’s strict and clever; we’ll see many times over the series that she’s not. The first chapter demonstrated that she’s not, and next chapter is going to really hammer this home in infuriating fashion. Her description is actually very consistent throughout the series, unlike a hell of a lot of the cast, but her behaviour never backs it up.

Of course, it’s not her fault. Someone is throwing around liberal amounts of drugs (shameless promotion is still shameless). She never gets a chance to actually use her brain properly; she might well be quite clever for all we know. She does actually bother to give the children a safety talk in the first lesson, which by Hogwarts standards is off-the-charts levels of intelligence, though her subject isn’t particularly dangerous as far as I can tell and if it was so complicated you wouldn’t be trying to teach it to children.

She demonstrates Transfiguration by turning her desk into a pig. To be fair, it doesn’t specify a live pig, but this is still troubling. Throughout the series the students will blithely be turning inanimate objects into living things and vice versa without anyone ever questioning the ethical or philosophical issues behind this. The students take copious notes, though goodness knows what about, before trying to turn a matchstick into a needle. There is zero reason why either of these products would exist in the wizarding world, incidentally. Hermione’s the only one to make any progress by the end of the lesson.

That’s the other reason Transfiguration mildly annoys me; it seems to have been transplanted from another series, because it runs on a completely different magic system. Almost all magic in the Potterverse is absolutely binary; it either works or it doesn’t, and sometimes backfires and does something dangerous instead. But Transfiguration works by degrees – in this case, Hermione manages to make her match change colour and become vaguely pointy, without actually changing it completely into a needle. Nothing else in this universe works this way.

Harry is disappointed by his Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons; apparently it’s the one class everyone was looking forward to, which could make sense (although I would have been looking forward to all of them, because IT’S BLOODY MAGIC SCHOOL), but Quirrell makes them ‘a bit of a joke’. We’re not actually told how, of course; Harry hasn’t bothered to mention the actual content of most of his lessons, and he never will (lazy author is lazy). The classroom smells of garlic, and the students tell each other it’s to ward off a vampire that Quirrell met in Romania and is worried will be coming after him. God knows what this is based on, but I’m disappointed it wasn’t Albania, since that would have been more accurate and thus more effective misdirection. There’s an odd emphasis on vampires throughout the series, actually, and I’m inclined to think it might be another ghost plot because we only ever see one and he’s not exactly plot-relevant.

(This is also a curious detail because, as far as I can tell, garlic will never be mentioned in connection with Potterverse vampires again. Are we meant to suppose this was baseless speculation by the students based on cultural osmosis and the like, or take it as an actual detail about the setting’s vampires?)

Quirrell tells them his turban was a gift from an African prince as a reward for dealing with a zombie. Rowling will decide in later books that zombies don’t exist in her world, and calls them Inferi instead, but she hadn’t planned that far here. Fair enough, but if you can do magic zombies pose exactly zero threat, and even to Muggles they’re not that terrifying. Quirrell should have come up with a better cover story – or better yet, not drawn so much attention to the fucking turban because nobody cares about the origins of his hat. This is what happens when Rowling makes a conscious effort to do foreshadowing.

The students don’t believe him. Seamus asks how he defeated the zombie and Quirrell blushes and changes the subject – no seriously, is this man an idiot? It’s just a zombie. You set fire to it. You picked up a piece of furniture by magic and smashed its head in. (This would have been a really good explanation to use, given what happens in the troll fight later.) You turned it into a rock. Anyway, there’s also a ‘funny smell’ hanging around the turban. I have no idea how the children can tell it’s specifically the turban that’s the origin of the smell; why are they apparently sniffing Quirrell’s head? The Weasley twins, who have no reason to be discussing this with their little brother’s friends, insist the turban is stuffed with garlic for added vampire protection, but Harry didn’t say the funny smell was garlic and he clearly knows what garlic smells like. (Also, what’s causing the smell? We know what’s actually under the turban and I don’t know why it would have a particular odour.)

‘Harry was very relieved to find out that he wasn’t miles behind everyone else. Lots of people had come from Muggle families and, like him, hadn’t had any idea that they were witches and wizards. There was so much to learn that even people like Ron didn’t have much of a head start.’

Ron is a very poor yardstick to be using, Harry. I assume most of these Muggleborns get lost and starve to death, since we only know of four Muggle-raised students in Harry’s year and one of those is Harry himself. And given how often the issue of purebloods having an advantage has been brought up in the book thus far, it’s a little odd that as far as I remember the subject is now going to vanish and will never, ever be raised again.

When Friday of the first week rolls around, Harry and Ron manage to get to breakfast without getting lost for the first time. (Even though apparently some of the staircases go somewhere different today.) Harry asks Ron what they’ve got today, because God forbid he show some initiative and look at his timetable, and Ron says it’s double Potions with the Slytherins.

Why do they only have Potions once a week? Given how many things potions can apparently do in this universe, I would think it was an important enough subject to take up at least as much timetable space as Herbology. And how long is a double lesson? At my school the timetable was broken up into half-hour slots, and most lessons were an hour long, thus double lessons, but is that the case here? Mitchell tells me the American system is much more arbitrary and periods can last anywhere between forty minutes and an hour – and that they often also sensibly include transition times to walk between classes – but it seems likely a double lesson here is probably going to be two hours. Since it appears to be their only subject all day, it could be a lot longer than that, which would make up for the fact that they apparently only get one lesson a week and would also allow them to do longer practical classes involving more time-consuming potions, but you wouldn’t inflict a long lab session on pre-university students.

And why is this class with the Slytherins? Okay, we know why – so Rowling can tell us all that Snape’s evil – but it’s so arbitrary. There’s been no mention so far of any other class being shared with another house. Later we’ll learn they have Herbology with the Hufflepuffs, and Care of Magical Creatures in third year will also be shared with the Slytherins, but every other subject seems to be one-house only. Given the workload Snape would apparently be under if the Potterverse was real, it does actually make sense that his lessons would be combined – so would McGonagall’s, probably, though her lessons would only need to be infrequent single periods, so perhaps not – but there’s never any actual reason given to justify Rowling’s need for petty drama (seriously, would even Hogwarts staff be stupid enough to deliberately pair up the two houses constantly at war with one another? Especially in potentially dangerous lessons?). It makes less sense for classes to be split by house at all, actually; teaching all the first years together for every subject would be more likely, and in later years they’d probably be separated by ability rather than by what bedroom they sleep in.

(We’ll never really be able to make sense of the class scheduling at Hogwarts… to start with, let’s keep in mind that we’re expected to believe a single professor per subject is sufficient to teach seven years of students. Each year is going to require their own syllabus, of course. This would be an insane workload for a single teacher even if we didn’t consider the fact that for many of those years they’ll need multiple sections – if we assume every subject follows the ‘two houses at a time’ model then each professor is somehow teaching fourteen separate classes. And they somehow still have time to do things like patrol the corridors. The only way to make any sense of it (aside from just saying Rowling never considered anything beyond Harry’s schedule) is to assume they’ve all been outfitted with Time-Turners.)

Ron says Snape is head of Slytherin, and that ‘they’ say he always favours them. Who ‘they’ are isn’t clear; I don’t know why he wouldn’t have just said ‘my brothers’ or something. The series will constantly make a huge deal of the fact that Snape favours his own house, but that’s his job. He is their head of house. Of course he favours them. That’s the point. McGonagall favours her own house too, and nobody ever makes a fuss about that. Harry never pays any attention to Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff but if he ever did I’m sure we’d see their heads of house favouring them too. Also, we see very few examples of this supposed favouritism throughout the series. It does happen, but we’re told about it far more often than we actually see it. Like most things in these books.

About a hundred owls sweep into the Great Hall to deliver the post, as they do every morning. Harry assures us blithely that he’s quite used to this now. Yes, because you are so dull and unimaginative it’s taken you less than a week to stop caring about anything at Bloody Magic School (TM). He’s never had post, but today Hedwig brings him a note and starts nibbling his toast. One, owls don’t nibble things, they swallow them whole. Two, don’t let your owl eat toast, she’s not a dog. Anyway, the note is from Hagrid:

‘Dear Harry, (it said, in a very untidy scrawl)
I know you get Friday afternoons off, so would you like to come and have a cup of tea with me around three? I want to hear all about your first week. Send us an answer back with Hedwig.

(This is in a handwritten font face in the US version, as all letters are. I still wish the British version did that.)

Why do they get Friday afternoons off? What kind of school is this? I didn’t start getting free periods on my timetable until I was taking my NEWT-equivalents and was down to four subjects. I suppose boarding schools might work a little differently, I have no idea, but seriously. And if they were going to get free afternoons it ought to be on Wednesdays given that they have Astronomy lessons at midnight that day. In addition, a random staff member asking a young boy to come to his house is fairly questionable. Anyway, Harry naturally says yes – it occurs to me that there’s no reason why he’d know where Hagrid lives at this point, but okay, sure – though he has to borrow Ron’s quill to reply. He’s apparently starting his school day without any of his things, which might make life a little difficult.

This book doesn’t believe in scene breaks, so we move straight into Potions.

‘At the start-of-term banquet, Harry had got the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.’

Potions takes place in the dungeons. Once again, this castle was custom-built as a school, why the fuck does it have dungeons. It’s cold, and there are pickled animals in jars around the walls. This is pretty normal for science classrooms, honestly, but here it’s apparently creepy.

‘Snape, like Flitwick, started the class by taking the register, and like Flitwick, he paused at Harry’s name.’

The fact that this is specifically stated implies that none of the other teachers have bothered taking a register and have no idea whether all the students made it to the lesson without being transported somewhere or murdered by sadistic ghosts or getting stuck in fake stairs. Remind me again how Snape’s meant to be a terrible teacher? He’s already showing more responsibility for his classes than almost all the other staff. Also I think this also demonstrates that Snape’s behaviour in this lesson seems so much worse than it actually is because it’s contrasted with literally every other magical adult we’ve met thinking Harry is fucking amazing. Snape is literally the only one not worshipping him.

He refers to Harry as ‘our new – celebrity.‘ While this is clearly sarcastic, it’s not really an insult. It follows on from what I said earlier about Harry not being treated as a hero, in fact; Harry is being treated like a celebrity. He’s famous for existing, not for having done anything awesome. And it’s pretty ironic that Rowling is so anti-celebrity (Lockhart, anyone?) when she goes on to become one. Draco, Crabbe and Goyle snigger, despite this not actually being funny, but it’s nice that the other two are described as Draco’s friends. They’re treated as his henchmen, his minions, so it’s nice to have it pointed out that there’s more to it.

Snape finishes the register and looks at them; his eyes are described as ‘black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.’ People don’t have black eyes, generally speaking. Non-Caucasian ethnicities often have extremely dark eyes, but still more brown than black; outside Fantasyland I’ve never heard anyone described as having black eyes. I’m also baffled trying to imagine eyes that make people think of tunnels, because honestly that sounds more like empty eye sockets, or as though he has no irises and oversized pupils, or something. And this is really not an analogy an eleven year old would think of. Though presumably ’empty’ means he’s using Occlumency, which would actually make sense (we know she hadn’t thought of that at this point, but hey, stopped clocks and all that).

Anyway, Snape then makes a short speech by way of introduction to his subject, which I’m quoting in full because it’s fucking awesome:

‘You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potionmaking,’ he began. He spoke in barely more than a whisper, but they caught every word – like Professor McGonagall, Snape had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort. ‘As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses … I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.’

Seriously, how can you not like this guy. Of course, the film had the added benefit of Alan Rickman’s very dangerous voice, but even without that this is just a cool speech. It’s also a blatant challenge to the students to prove him wrong, which is a perfectly legitimate teaching method and – as Hermione’s reaction in particular shows – pretty successful. (Interestingly, ‘dunderheads’ wasn’t Americanised for the US version.)  Credit where credit’s due, Rowling does manage to come out with a genuinely well-written passage occasionally.

Snape then starts asking Harry questions about various Potions ingredients, and sneering when he doesn’t know the answers. Technically, this is a legitimate teaching method, since Snape does go on to give the right answers and tells them all to write it down – though what he tells them about the Draught of Living Death is contradicted in book six. In some circumstances, pushing a student to make mistakes and then correcting them does help information stick in the memory, and all the potions and ingredients mentioned here do show up again at various points throughout the series. In particular, Harry being taught about bezoars here in a way that guarantees he’ll remember it ends up saving someone’s life (though sadly just Ron, who by that point we could happily do without).

Though the sneering part isn’t necessary, of course. Obviously Snape’s behaviour is unpleasant. Even his fans mostly don’t try to deny that. It’s horrible, and children are occasionally going to be upset by it, and he really shouldn’t be teaching. But there’s a very large gap between ‘my teacher is a temperamental arsehole’ and ‘my teacher is literal evil and abusive and everyone must be terrified of him and think he wants to summon the Devil and rule the world’, and as we’ll see frequently the narrative always takes the latter option.

Just to demonstrate this, let’s look at Neville for a moment. We won’t really see it for a while yet, but he is absolutely petrified of Snape for the entirety of his time at the school, and there’s absolutely no reason why he would be. Think about what we know of Neville. His relatives tried to kill him on a regular basis for most of his life, and his parents were tortured into insanity. There are two possibilities that would make sense here: either he’s not remotely scared of Snape merely for calling him an idiot, because compared to being thrown out of a window or almost drowned or repeatedly tortured for fun that’s not remotely frightening. Or he’s scared of every single teacher, including Snape, in case they start throwing him out of windows or drowning him or torturing him. Having him be perfectly fine with every teacher – including the supposedly strict McGonagall, who is his head of house and has the actual power to punish him – except one is just nonsense. Once again, Rowling had plenty of options and picked the one that doesn’t work.

Moving on, then. There is a fanon theory that there’s a hidden message in the questions Snape asks; if you look at some of the obscure symbolism behind the various plants he mentions, you get references to regret and lilies and death, and a subsection of the fandom ran with this and decided that Snape was trying to apologise for Lily’s death and turned against Harry when he didn’t understand and therefore accept the apology. It’s an… interesting theory, certainly, and I could believe that Snape knows enough to have come up with something this cryptic, but it’s not remotely in character for him to say it and he’s easily smart enough to know Harry wouldn’t get it. [While there may be something genuinely cool about it, I generally give the side-eye to anything you need to use Bible Code-level techniques to discover. Coincidences do exist.]

During this questioning, Hermione starts acting a little oddly. She knows the answers to all the questions Snape asks, and when he ignores her raised hand she escalates her behaviour to get him to notice her, ending by physically standing up. Obviously she’s meant to be a caricature of the teacher’s-pet stereotype, the really smart showoff kid nobody likes who fawns over all the staff, but she doesn’t act like this most of the time and certainly wouldn’t be doing so five minutes into the first lesson with a strict and intimidating new teacher. When she reaches the point of standing up, Harry answers the next question by saying he doesn’t know but that he thinks Hermione does, why doesn’t Snape ask her? Several children laugh at this, but I have to admit it’s not particularly rude – at least, his voice is described as ‘quiet‘ rather than defiant or sarcastic or something. It’s still not really how you should behave towards a teacher, and as we’ve discussed before Harry ought to be very wary of unfamiliar adults, particularly ones he thinks hate him. Snape responds by snapping at Hermione to sit down, explaining the answers to all his questions to the class, and docking a house point from Harry for cheek.

The students are split into pairs and set to work making Boil-Cure Potion. I don’t know why literally their first lesson is a practical, since Snape – theatrical though he can be 🙂 – isn’t the type to go for flashy demonstrations of how awesome his subject is and just expects people to realise it’s awesome on their own, plus it just plain doesn’t make sense. Let’s believe that Dumbledore, who presumably approves the syllabus since there’s no official body regulating it, vetoed the idea of having the first lesson be a health and safety workshop and an explanation of how to use the equipment. Alternatively, let’s go with the more likely reason that Rowling doesn’t remember how science works, since she never describes a single theory-based Potions lesson. All their lessons are brewing. Also, why would a potion designed to cure boils contain stewed slugs, powdered snake fangs, dried nettles and porcupine quills? I get that Rowling was going for anything that sounded creepy and witchy, but seriously, lay off Macbeth and go for actual healing herbs or something.

Snape compliments Draco on his ingredient preparation at one point, and uses it as an example to the rest of the class of what it’s meant to look like. I think this is meant to demonstrate how he so unfairly favours his own house all the time, but he doesn’t give Draco points for it here or on any future occasions (as far as I remember), and there are a lot of examples throughout the series of most of the rest of the staff throwing points around for any Gryffindor student merely doing what was asked of them. If you want to insist a teacher is unfairly biased, you might want to show him actually being unfairly biased a little more often.

In any case, we don’t dwell on it for long since at this point Neville manages to cause an accident. This is why no teacher anywhere would start brand-new first years on a practical lesson. Neville has managed to completely melt Seamus’ cauldron, creating clouds of nasty-sounding fumes and drenching himself literally from head to foot in caustic liquid that’s causing him a lot of pain, creating boils all over his body and burning holes in nearby students’ shoes.

Er. No.

Firstly, the cauldrons are made of pewter. Depending on the quality and the metals present the melting point of pewter can vary, but is around 170–230 °C (338–446 °F). You’re not going to be able to cause an exothermic reaction strong enough to reach those kinds of temperatures with bits of animals. Secondly, I can’t accept that just adding an ingredient before taking the potion off the heat is enough to completely reverse it so it causes boils instead of curing them. Thirdly, none of the ingredients we’re told about would be remotely corrosive, nor would children this young be allowed in the same room as anything dangerous enough to burn through shoes in seconds, nor would anyone be near anything that dangerous without safety shoes. Fourthly, Neville has absolutely covered himself in this stuff, but his partner Seamus and every other student in the vicinity is miraculously completely untouched until the spill manages to reach their shoes? (and despite the liquid itself being incredibly toxic, the fumes have done nothing?) And how is it travelling that far? How big are these cauldrons? I don’t believe they’re using industrial-sized vats for classroom work.

Basically there’s absolutely nothing about this scenario that’s remotely possible. Literally the only thing Rowling ever learned in chemistry is that some liquids are corrosive. And then she forgot even this much by the time she wrote The Silkworm.

Yes, yes, I know, children’s book. That’s not an excuse for not bothering to research anything.

Snape calls Neville an idiot, instead of being impressed that the boy managed to defy most of the laws of the universe. He does so while cleaning up the spill and getting another student to take Neville to the hospital wing, though. What a bastard, right? Then he turns on Harry and Ron, tells them off for not stopping Neville in time and takes another point off Harry. Yeah, all right, that’s a dick move. But it’s also not the end of the world. It’s two entire points. In fact I’m certain we never see Snape taking more than five points from anyone, ever, and one point is pretty normal for him, whereas the other teachers all seem to work in multiples of ten.

Harry is in low spirits when the lesson finishes an hour later – oh, so a double lesson is about an hour and ten minutes long, then? That doesn’t seem very likely, and no seriously why is this apparently all they do on a Friday. Ron tells him to cheer up, Fred and George are always losing points. We’ll see later that actually most students tend to lose points quite frequently and a whole two points won’t register with anyone; right now I can’t believe Harry’s gone through the week without ever witnessing anyone losing a point for anything. Later when he does actually lose quite a lot of points I can understand him feeling bad, but here it’s just Rowling insisting that Snape’s utter scum instead of mildly unpleasant.

Ron asks if he can go and visit Hagrid too, and Harry accepts. No, Harry. If someone asks you to their house, you don’t randomly decide to bring a friend along. You contact the person and ask if that’s okay. If you were consistently written as not understanding normal social rules thanks to your ‘abusive’ upbringing this would work, but instead you’re just occasionally a rude little shit.

Hagrid lives in a one-room wooden hut on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, complete with open fire (though there’s never any mention of it being very smoky and cold). I can certainly see Dumbledore not caring enough about his staff to provide adequate living quarters, but although it’s repeatedly implied that this post was arbitrarily created just for Hagrid, at one point Molly Weasley refers to a previous groundskeeper; unless said groundskeeper was also forbidden to use magic, why didn’t he make himself a proper house? With insulation? And a bathroom? Rowling’s been spending too much time reading about stereotypical Ye Olde Medieval Peasants, so there are hams and dead pheasants hanging from the ceiling of the hut as well. Pheasants I can accept, even a magic forest probably has lots and it’s not like Hagrid’s a real gamekeeper who would be maintaining the population for rich people to shoot and therefore wouldn’t be allowed to eat them, but where did the hams come from? He doesn’t keep pigs or other livestock (though he does grow vegetables), and there’s no mention of anywhere suitable for butchering large animal carcasses, not to mention that there’s more to smoking meat than hanging it in a room with a fire (alternatively that’s just coincidence and Hagrid doesn’t know you’re meant to preserve meat).

Of course, this begs the question of where meat in general comes from in the wizarding world, and in fact most foodstuffs. I don’t see them going in for farming, or milling grain into flour, or making butter or cheese from milk, or processing cane or beets into sugar, or…

Fuck it, it’s magic. (It certainly can’t be economics, most of them don’t even seem to know how Muggle currency works so I can’t imagine they’re buying any of it!)

Hagrid owns a dog, a massive black boarhound named Fang. Fang is apparently the only dog in the multiverse who doesn’t counter-surf and steal food. If you have a large dog, you probably don’t want to be hanging hams from the ceiling. Especially since a boarhound is another name for a Great Dane – so why the filmmakers used a Neapolitan Mastiff is anyone’s guess, and I don’t know how Harry would know the less common name – and Fang is apparently quite a bit larger than average, so can probably reach the ceiling without even having to rear up. Incidentally this is another reason why Hagrid shouldn’t be living in a wooden hut; they’re in the north of Scotland. It gets very cold. And Great Danes are notorious for hating the cold, and getting pretty cranky and snappy. If you want to be at risk of being bitten by the largest breed of dog in the world, put it somewhere cold with no insulation and only one source of heat that requires a large hole above it letting all the heat out.

Also how big is this ‘one room’ when it can hold a gigantic human, a gigantic dog, some gigantic furniture, an open fire and a kitchen? Where did Hagrid get a Great Dane from anyway?

Harry introduces Ron, who Hagrid identifies as another Weasley; he mentions he spends half his time chasing the twins away from the Forest. This isn’t very likely; why would Fred and George want to go into the forest? They can’t play nasty practical jokes on trees. The boys tell Hagrid about their lessons, while Fang drools on Harry (probably the first and last piece of accurate animal behaviour in the series; Danes do dribble a lot. Most giant breeds do) and Hagrid gives them home made rock cakes that are apparently tooth-breakingly hard and inedible. It amuses me to imagine they’re actual rocks and Hagrid didn’t understand what the name really means.

Hagrid agrees with the boys that Filch is horrible, calling him an ‘old git‘, and says he wants to set Fang on Mrs Norris. No really, why does Rowling hate animals? This isn’t remotely in character for Hagrid the obsessive animal lover. He did mention in an earlier chapter that he doesn’t like cats because he’s allergic to them, but I’m sure that’s easily fixable by magic and even if it isn’t that’s not a reason to dislike an animal. I’m allergic to certain types of tree pollen but I don’t hate trees.

He tells Harry not to worry about Snape because Snape doesn’t like any of his students. This is true, but I don’t know how Hagrid would know, since he seems to have no contact with anyone at the school except Dumbledore and the occasional random Gryffindor. Harry says no, Snape totally hates him specifically, and Hagrid says that’s rubbish but won’t look Harry in the eyes and then changes the subject to ask Ron about his brother Charlie the dragon guy. There are a few hints here that Hagrid knows why Snape doesn’t like Harry, but there’s no way he possibly could know even the reason most people believe, let alone the real one. I suppose since we know the Marauders uncharacteristically made friends with Hagrid they might have ranted about hating Snape in front of him, thus Hagrid would know Snape and James Potter didn’t like each other, but that’s not much to go on and there’s no reason Hagrid would still remember it anyway.

While Ron talks about dragons – offscreen, naturally, because dragons are awesome and interesting and therefore Rowling won’t write about them – Harry looks around and just happens to find a newspaper cutting on the table. Not the newspaper, that he could then idly flick through and happen to stumble on that article, or that was even conveniently left open to that article in particular, but a cutting that there’s no reason for Hagrid to possess. Dumbledore, stop using the invisibility cloak and get out, what you’re doing right now is creepy.

The implausible plot coupon talks about the Gringotts break-in that Ron mentioned on the train, and helpfully tells us that the vault that was broken into had been emptied earlier that day, July 31st. Harry realises this must be the one he visited with Hagrid, that had that mysterious thing wrapped in brown paper in it. (I still say it’s porn.) He mentions this to Hagrid, who avoids his eyes and gives him another horrible cake and doesn’t answer. Harry spends the rest of the chapter brooding about this.

‘Harry thought that none of the lessons he’d had so far had given him as much to think about as tea with Hagrid.’

You have been LEARNING TO DO MAGIC, you stupid little shit. That is about a billion times more interesting than someone failing to steal something.

Sigh. Next chapter is an infuriating one, too.

And to finish, here’s a snippet of trivia I meant to include several chapters ago during the long train rant and completely forgot about – King’s Cross and the surrounding streets became a notorious red-light district as soon as the station was built, and still is to this day. Yes, long-ago wizards, truly that was the perfect location to choose for your children to go to school from.


Posted by on November 19, 2015 in loten, mitchell


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