There is one scene that will forever stay with me, and it was when the stakes really changed. There are some major plot points I will tiptoe through here, so forgive me if I get a wee bit circumspect. There is a delicious battle scene mind you, and the sort of one-on-one confrontation the first three books of the Harry Potter saga had build towards. But this takes place a shade earlier, when the confrontation begins. Harry Potter has achieved one of his greatest, and most impressive triumphs. However, for many reasons – he decides to share his triumph with Cedric Diggory, fellow competitor and one of the students from another house. But suddenly, as the victory was being anticipated, Rowling throws us out of the reverie – Harry and the other student end up transported elsewhere where almost instantly, the other student is killed.
When I read the book (in 2 sittings, mostly on a Transatlantic flight), I could not figure out why the death of a peripheral character shook me so profoundly. Indeed, the battle continued, Harry was able to stave off Voldemort (there are future books after all), but his mate Cedric Diggory lay there, dead. He was just a wizard who played Quidditch, played the role of a handsome teenager and hell, I was rooting for Harry to win the prize. But now he is gone, in a situation he had no way of anticipating, a pawn of something much larger. What had started as a journey of personal awareness and rivalry with Harry now, in fact, really matters. Hogwarts is in trouble, and the Wizarding community even moreso.
This is just a small part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, one of the great works of fiction which will (and certainly ought to) certainly still matter when my own child is old enough to begin to take it on. I had complained about Rowling’s previous attempt to expand the scale of the saga, where we were basically left with a “climax” which involved basically a bunch of people talking, but once you get this book, the entire story ties together. This is not a rousing compliment to the previous work – you’d like these things to be free standing – but it adds to the richness of this book, a clear leap forward for the entire series, so much so that the first two books almost belong in a different genre.
As always, we start with the goings on in Privet Drive with the Dursleys. However, this time Rowling dispenses with Harry’s struggles fairly quickly as the Weasleys whisk him away to the Quidditch World Cup – tickets landed by Mr. Weasley due to his role with the Ministry of Magic, in a particularly hilarious encounter. While there, things start to become very complicated, as the evening after the finale, there is a sudden appearance of a symbol significant to Voldemort’s return. This casts a serious pall over the proceedings, as we know how scared the wizarding community is of the Dark Lord’s name.
Soon thereafter, the gang returns to Hogwarts for their fourth year – except this year it is decided that there would be another rendition of the Triwizard Tournament between Hogwarts and a couple of other Wizarding Schools. (there are others?? You’d think Harry would transfer after all of the issues he has had to deal with). Normally this event would be focused on seventh years, but somehow Harry is chosen.
The Triwizard Tournament is enough for a novel – at least a novel akin to the first two stories, but there is a LOT more here, and the tournament is really just an effective narrative engine. Don’t get me wrong, the events themselves are all terrific scenes, particular one involving – well a talent that Harry didn’t actually have. But Rowling has older readers here, and clearly senses it. The readers can juggle a lot more, including a legitimate plot and subplot combination that is fully mature. The Tournament works on its own, but we see the ball continue forward on all sorts of other themes:
- Snape: Dumbledore’s loyalty to Snape has baffled Harry forever. He seemed to be behind the plot against Harry in the first book, and he definitely loathes him. Snape was also troubled very much by Harry’s father – Snape was certainly not one of the popular kids. We see more on the relationship – especially where Snape’s Slytherin connection. At this point we probably should not be doubting him.
- Politics: One of the buried ideas in the books have been that while Harry has gone through a ton – aside from a few people, it is hard for others in the Wizarding community to believe what has happened. After all, Voldemort is dead, right? The Ministry of Magic has had the safety of the community as central to its image, so any idea that the Dark Lord is alive and well creates real problems. We see newspapers spreading misinformation, head functionaries insisting “there is nothing to see here” and that “Dumbledore is an old codger”. The final scenes in this story where Dumbledore and the head of the Ministry are staring each other down are powerful.
- Racism: We heard the term Mudbloods as far back as the second book. For many people, the idea of anything but pure Wizards represents inferiority. Much of Draco Malfoy’s cruelty is rooted precisely in half-Muggles, half-Monsters. Indeed, Voldemort’s own self loathing is central to much of what has driven him to this point. Even in a clever subplot involving Hermione and the plight of the house-elves such as Dobby, the themes of just treating people better permeate throughout.
- Adolescence: Sort of standing astride the larger ideas are some very personal ones. Harry’s world is both growing more complex and shrinking. Meanwhile, we see that he is growing more powerful as a Wizard, but every bit the scared, awkward teenager he should be, especially when he has to do the hardest thing he has ever done to date. Women might not be the Dark Lord, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t intimidate a first timer.
But I still think of those amazing final scenes after the Tournament ends. The sheer suddenness and quickness of Cedric Diggory’s death is as powerful a statement on death itself as anything else. While Diggory was not really a major player (if you want to go there), one day he’s a 17 year old at the Tournament, and then seconds later dead. There are vanquishings and magical accomplishments in the earlier stories, but to stare down the barrel at a cold blooded, normal, teenaged death is jarring. Moreover, it was the death of an innocent – just collateral damage to this battle. THIS is what shifts the canvas. It’s not just a coming of age staredown with a kid and a villainous Wizard; this is a world being shattered, and people, whether they believe it or not, now truly having reason to be very afraid.