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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  - J.K. Rowling It's been very interesting, reading these British editions aloud to my son. For one thing, it's nice to know I can still cuddle up and bond over a story with an almost-sixteen-year-old, no matter what color his Mohawk is this week. For another, I'm understanding a lot more of the pure pleasure that can be derived from the Potter books. I recently read an article by a film fiend who insisted that movies can only be enjoyed completely in the context of a theater with other people. The humor and suspense of Harry's adventures comes through so much more strongly when shared this way. We've listened to the recordings together, but even that isn't the same as one of us offering the words to the other.

(It doesn't matter which one of us is doing the reading. I just caught a bad cold and begged my son to read our nightly chapter yesterday. After warning me that he "can't do voices," my son ended up throwing himself into an inspired performance, completely with an appropriately rough and rusty rendering of Hagrid.)

I don't know if he was worried about the criticisms I've voiced (here and at home) about aspects of the Potterverse, or if he thought he might seem too old for this sort of enchantment; but my son recently told me in an "I just have to admit this" tone that he really enjoys these books. "They're fun," he said. "Reading them makes me happy." I agreed with him, and assured him that I'd never meant to say anything to imply that he couldn't or shouldn't feel that way. There is so much to love about these stories.

Which, yeah, okay, makes me that much more bummed out about what I see as genuinely creepy moral lapses in Rowling's creation.

In this volume, Mr. Weasley (a very sympathetic and appealing character) is revealed to be an employee of the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts [sic] Office:

"It's all to do with bewitching things that are Muggle-made, you know, in case they end up back in a Muggle shop or house. Like, last year, some old witch died and her tea set was sold to an antiques shop. This Muggle woman brought it, took it home and tried to serve her friends tea in it. It was a nightmare -- Dad was working overtime for weeks. ...The teapot went berserk and squirted boiling tea all over the place and one man ended up in hospital with the sugar tongs clamped to his nose."

This is a delightful passage. It's like something out of "Bed-knob and Broomstick," one of my favorite stories ever. It's followed, however, by this:

"Dad was going frantic, it's only him and an old warlock called Perkins in the office, and they had to do Memory Charms and all sorts to cover it up..." [ellipses in original]

...and all of a sudden we're in menacing territory, at least to an American. I have very bad associations with the idea of forcing amnesia on those who learn too much about how the way the world *really* works. Bad enough if it were done in the name of defensible (so to speak) national security concerns. Absolutely unnerving when performed by those who are interested in keeping the true nature of the universe a secret for the sake of greed and convenience. And that's really all it is.

Rowling seems to realize she's on unsteady ground here. Later in the book, she describes the founders of Hogwarts as building the castle in "an age when magic was feared by common people, and witches and wizards suffered much persecution." But how does this jell with what she said in the previous book about magic-users keeping their powers secret because "common people" would want to use magic to solve their problems? (You know -- the way the wizarding community does.) Or what she says at the beginning of the very next book (I'm behind on my reviews) about how much real witches enjoy being harmlessly burned at the stake?

Also, what on *earth* is up with Mandrake roots? They're presented as conscious, sentient beings who begin life *looking just like human babies* -- but chopping them up can create potent magic, so that's what the wizarding community does. I kept trying to tell myself that surely Madam Pomfrey only meant the *leaves* of the Mandrake plant. Maybe that really *is* what she means when she says:

"'The moment their acne clears up, they'll be ready for repotting again,' Harry heard her telling Filch kindly one afternoon. 'And after that, it won't be long until we're cutting them up and stewing them.'"

Or when Professor Sprout is happy to report that "several of the Mandrakes threw a loud and raucous party in Greenhouse Three. 'The moment they start trying to move into each other's pots, we'll know they're fully mature,' she told Harry. 'Then we'll be able to revive those poor people in the hospital wing.'"

Okay. On to pleasanter matters.

Some of the best fun that comes from reading these books in the original British is learning some new vocabulary. I now know the verb "to scarper." I'm still trying to figure out what it is to go somewhere "crocodile fashion," as the students do when Snape snaps that they have to hurry along to Herbology class. So "off they went, crocodile fashion." The American edition just says, "off they marched."

At one point, Ron asks why Tom Riddle had to "grass on Hagrid." I'd never heard this before, in spite of years of listening to British comedy and BBC Global News podcasts. My American edition translates that, with appropriate slanginess, as "squeal on." The day after my son and I read this passage, I was listening to one of the aforementioned podcasts. I believe it was the brilliant British comedian Jeremy Hardy who casually used the phrase "grass on." Never heard it before, and suddenly here I am coming across it twice in 24 hours. I'm gobsmacked, I am.