Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore
After I finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I couldn’t have waited more than twenty minutes before starting the next one. In fact, the first three books came out so close together (and came into my hands even faster than that) that, for me, there may as well have been no gap between them at all.
As Harry enters his second year at Hogwarts, a number of new, very important things are established, and both the world and the scope of the story grow larger. Again, the series approaches some very serious subjects in a way that’s accessible and digestible to children. In the same way Sorcerer’s Stone is about life, death, and finding strength to face them, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is about acceptance of people different from ourselves, as well as taking care with who you choose to place your trust in, and how. Right now, however, I’m going to talk about racism.
Now, I’m not going to go off on some rant about racism, its dangers, and the fact that it is still very much alive in the world. Far better thinkers and writers than I have had their say on that subject. What I want to do instead is give credit to this book and the woman who wrote it for approaching it so well, and examining it so closely while still making the book deeply entertaining. The lessons it teaches are some of the most valuable that can be learned, and they’re presented naturally, without feeling forced or preachy.
It is detailed clearly in this volume of Harry Potter’s story that Muggle-born and half-blood witches and wizards are reviled by small, vicious sections of the magical population. This, it seems, was one of the largest motivations behind Voldemort’s grab for power. To put it quite simply, he detests those he finds impure. Pure-blood wizards often consider themselves to be superior. Draco Malfoy (Harry’s nemesis at Hogwarts, and I don’t feel that word is too strong in their case) and his parents are among the ones who consider themselves above the rest. His father, Lucius, was one of Voldemort’s greatest supporters during his rise to power, and only through a combination of trickery, bribery, and threats did he avoid a jail sentence. They would just as soon see all of the “mudbloods” – a nasty name for those who aren’t pure – wiped off the face of wizard society.
Interestingly, Rowling does not approach the subject from a stark “pure-bloods are the bad guys” angle. The temptation to do so for simplicity’s sake is there, but instead, she chooses to be more flexible. The introduction of Arthur Weasley, Ron’s father, is incredibly welcome. He provides the series with a much needed counterpoint to the menacing Lucius. Fun, funny, good-hearted, and absolutely adoring of all things Muggle-related, Arthur and his family are also pure-bloods. Their dismissal of this fact is an incredibly strong point. They simply don’t buy into the concept that anyone is better than anyone else due to the nature of their birth.
The book’s examination of acceptance of other cultures and races goes far beyond that pair of characters and what they stand for. Nearly every aspect of the story touches on the concept that being different is not only okay, but a thing to be celebrated. Rowling introduces an entirely new magical race in house elves, a type of small magical being that has been enslaved by wizards for ages. Harry meets Dobby, an odd little elf who struggles against his orders (at great personal cost) to do whatever he can to protect Harry from harm at the school. Harry and his friends attend a “deathday party” for one of the ghosts that inhabits the castle, where they learn about the morbid culture of the disembodied spirits. They meet an intelligent, giant spider name Aragog, who was accepted and protected by Hagrid, despite his monstrous nature. Around every bend is a new lesson about accepting people for who they are and who they choose to be, rather than who we want them to be.
On a personal note, this book also introduces my favorite character in the entire series, one Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Good looking, famous, and wildly successful, Lockhart holds the hearts and eyes of many in the palms of his well manicured hands. Known the world over for his great deeds and heroics, he takes to the job with a great gusto… where it is immediately clear that he’s a buffoon with no real skills whatsoever. The man is a smarmy braggart in the extreme, and I find him ENDLESSLY entertaining. I could read about his particular brand of idiocy for hours on end. He lends levity to a book that is a step forward in maturity from the previous entry.
The story itself is more sinister than the first. A new threat faces the school, like none that Harry has seen, and for the first time, his fellow students are in danger. Someone or something is prowling the halls, petrifying people, and all that the students and teachers have to go on is an old legend about a hidden chamber in the school, said to house a terrible creature that will cleanse the school of impure blood. For a number of reasons, the evidence points to Harry himself as the culprit.
The school quickly turns to mistrust and fear of their one-time savior. Danger, real or only perceived, in a place where one used to feel safe can quickly bring paranoia bubbling to the surface. This is something I know all too well. In my adult years, my mental illness has been triggered by many things, and it can be something as simple as an unexpected sound in a place where I usually feel perfectly at home. This story can and has served to remind me that those fears and suspicions I feel toward the people and places I feel most comfortable with need to be taken with a grain of salt, and considered carefully before taking action. This is tempered, however, with a valuable lesson about who you should place that trust in to begin with. Without spoiling the story too much, at the center of the tale is the fact that a main character trusts too quickly and with too little thought, pouring their heart into the hands of someone who wishes to do them harm. Once again, Rowling’s lesson isn’t black and white, but complex and careful.
The book builds swiftly to an absolutely stunning climax, one that throws all of these philosophies together in one incredible scene, reaffirming all of the lessons learned. In the aftermath, Professor Dumbledore again imparts his wisdom to Harry (and the reader), saying a single fantastic sentence that binds it all together. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
It doesn’t matter what you are born with, or who you are born to. You choose how to treat other people. You choose who to trust. You choose who to defend. You, and no one else, choose who you are, and all of your successes and failures are due to that choice. Make the right choice, these pages urge. Be a person you can be proud to be. It is a lesson that all children need to learn. I can’t think of a better way to learn it.
P.S.: This entry in my series is a bit shorter than the first. I imagine that Part 3 will be as well. This is because there wasn’t much to add about my own life at the time of release, due to the speed with which I devoured the first three books. When I hit book four, I imagine that the entries will soar in length and content, both because the books are far longer and more complex and because my life began to change far more rapidly as I grew up. I hope you enjoyed this, and stay tuned for part 3!