Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out 20 years ago, 20 years ago as of July 8. 20 years ago, then, was my first midnight release party. This was the first book I brought home after midnight and stayed up late reading while a friend read her copy in the bed beside me.
This book is even before my most recent fight with Lyme disease, the last Harry Potter book that I would read without the mental handicap that the disease gave me.
The wait between this book and the fifth book in the series set me on the path to becoming a writer as I discovered that I could write stories to imagine what would happen in the sequel and that people would want to read those stories. I discovered self-insertion. Ugh. You all will never see some of those dreadful stories. Some of them are locked away in my closet where I dare not look at them either. But we all start somewhere.
To say that my relationship with this book comes with baggage for me is to under-represent it.
I had last read Goblet of Fire in 2015 (and if I remember, that was a slow, plodding read, taking many months if not more than a year).
A lot has happened to the world and to me in 20 years. A lot has happened in the five years since 2015!
SPOILERS! For this book and for those that follow.
I was struck re-reading this book in 2020 that it has now been as many years since I left high school—and coincidentally as many years since the release of the last Harry Potter book if you need a more fixed point in time—as between Voldemort’s defeat at Godric’s Hollow and his rebirth in the cemetery. It’s an interesting perspective, reading with such a clear marker of the passage of time. 13 years seems a lot longer when I have a distinct time to link it back to. I’ve managed to maintain friendships with only a few friends that I knew 13 years ago while not living near them, fewer actually than appear in the graveyard. How many friends do you have that you met more than 13 years ago? How many have you lost touch with that you thought you would never lose? (I did recently reconnect with a friend after 13 years, a mutual goal bringing us back together.) I suspect, though, if I were to send out an invitation to friends I haven’t spoken to in 13 years for a major life event—a wedding or some such—some of them probably would come.
How long is 13 years of relative peace? Is it long enough to make you feel safe from the threats that knocked on your door 13 years ago? I don’t think for me that it is. But then I say that in the midst of a pandemic that echoes one that we fought in 1918, 102 years ago, while we never came home from a region we invaded in 2001, 19 years ago. (International readers, yeah… I’m sorry for how little my apology can undo or change.)
2020 has been a year of upheaval, with one crisis or fight following on the heels of another. (You all know this.)
Re-reading “The Parting of the Ways” while living in the US in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s hard not to see Dumbledore as Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts spelling out exactly how President Trump and the American people need to respond to the pandemic—Voldemort’s comeback in this fantastical world. And it’s difficult not to read Fudge as Trump, bluntly refusing to believe the experts and act upon their advice—even believing the conspiracy theories, printed in HP by Rita Skeeter—because the crisis will hurt his chances of remaining in office. Just. Ouch. I hope that this parallel can’t be continued much further than this scene because it sure seems a lot of people who followed Dumbledore die because of the ineptitude of Fudge’s inactions—but if that ain’t ever coming true now in real time.
I had this late-night revelation too re-reading “Padfoot Returns”: It took a genocidal cult leader rising to power and a power-hungry politician wanting the poll boost that being “tough on crime” gave him for the Aurors to be given permission to kill instead of capture. As we struggle here in the US with violent police, the idea that for so long the Aurors were denied this power (presumably until the height of Voldemort’s first rise to power) is comforting somehow. And it gives me hope that this is a reversible policy in the wizarding world, even if here I fear that the struggle will be harder. As we struggle with government forces being sent into cities to quell protests, it’s a chilling notion that the poll boost of being “tough on crime” was reason enough for Aurors to be given the power to kill.
One thing that I feel that Rowling did well was prepare us to see corruption and ineptitude in many forms within in the government.
But, this reading, I struggled with Rowling’s use of accents. The use of accents is something that I have come to be wary of in fiction. It is a way othering the speaker from whichever characters are not written with accents.
Rowling uses accents, actually especially before this book when wizards from outside of Britain first occur to Harry, on non- or part-human characters and to mark under-education.
British characters written as having accents are Stan Shunpike, Rubeus Hagrid, and Dobby and the rest of the house-elves.
Stan often appears as something of a joke and as comic relief when he does appear in the text. In Half-Blood Prince, he is arrested as a Death Eater, and Harry and Dumbledore both agree that it is unlikely that he would be, though he does in Deathly Hallows appear as part of a group of Death Eaters attacking Harry. His accent seems to denote him as laughable and under-educated, a non-threat because of it, despite evidence. (I thought Rowling had revealed that he did not attend Hogwarts, but now I’m not finding any conclusive statement to that effect.)
Hagrid is the first major character to appear in the series and be given an accent. I know that Rowling proclaims Hagrid one of her favorites, but he is othered. He is “too big to be allowed” (SS 14). Harry finds him frightening at first when he knocks down the door of the shack by the sea. In Goblet of Fire we find out that Hagrid is not fully human. His mother was a giantess who possibly sided with Voldemort in the first war. And we know almost right away that Hagrid is not a fully qualified wizard, that he never graduated Hogwarts, though he did briefly attend. He is not meant by law to be able to perform magic.
The next major character to be given an accent or odd speech pattern is Dobby. And Dobby’s accent is even more problematic, particularly as we learn in Goblet of Fire that it is not unique to Dobby but is an accent shared among his race: house-elves. This accent is particularly problematic, I think, because house-elves live if they are not raised (we never see house-elf children) alongside wizards, meaning that they are exposed to a speech pattern that they could learn and adopt (like learning to code-switch, which shouldn’t have to be a reality but is), but that house-elves either choose not to or are unable to adopt the speech patterns used by wizards. Could it be a voluntary choice and a shared language that brings house-elves pride? Maybe. But so little seems to be a choice for house-elves. I think it more likely that Rowling uses the house-elves’ accents not only to other them as separate species from wizards but to mark their lack of formal education. Many slave-owners in the US limited the education available to their slaves. I think it likely similar limitations are imposed upon many house-elves by the wizards to which they belong. It’s even possible that they are forbidden from speaking as wizards do.
House-elves are problematic beyond the othering that occurs in the house-elves peculiar speech patterns. House-elves are a race of creatures born to enslavement. They are magically tied to the family, passed down in wills, magically unable to disobey a direct order from their masters. (I’m drawing here on things that we learn in later books as well, but the points stand.) They are a race bred to slavery, who claim to enjoy their enslavement (bar the odd black sheep, namely Dobby). The very existence of such a race, the creation of one in fiction, is worrying. Though Rowling always paints the abuse of house-elves as wrong and signals that house-elves are best treated with human decency and kindness and as individuals with all that that entails, the ownership of house-elves is something in which even Harry becomes complicit when he is left an elf in a will.
Hermione in Goblet of Fire launches a campaign to free the house-elves, inflamed by her realization that Hogwarts itself is serviced by this race, the students’ and staff’s meals cooked, their laundry done, their fires made, and their rooms cleaned all by enslaved creatures. Her quest takes on a distinctly white savior story line because she does this without asking the house-elves whether they want to be freed, and when she is told by them that they don’t wish it, she decides that she knows better than they do and continues to push for their freedom and even tries to trick them into accepting freedom by leaving clothes about the common room. While her motivations are laudable, she would have done better to consult the house-elves to see how she could improve their lives rather than assuming that she knew how best to do so. (I hope that the lives of house-elves do improve post-Potter, but the movement needs to be led by and done with the house-elves.)
Most of you are probably aware that many fans have broken with Rowling over her most recent virulence on Twitter. I include myself among them, though for all the reasons and more enumerated above, it has been difficult for me to sever my ties to the books (and I was in the middle of this one when her most recent incendiary tweets were published). This is the not the first time that Rowling has used her Twitter platform in particular to spout hateful rhetoric.
I feel I would be remiss to post any kind of review or reflection on a Harry Potter book now without addressing this—at least a little.
It saddens me that a woman whose books have been proven to increase empathy in their readers, a woman who spawned a fandom that has done so much good (look up the HP Alliance and Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), has become so distant from the very ideals that her books imparted to us.
I worry now that these books imparted more to us than we realized, and I hope we do the work—and trust that we can do the work—to untangle what is good and helpful and what is harmful.
For those who don’t know, the words that Rowling has recently been saying on Twitter (or was saying as of early June; I have since unfollowed her because I was saddened rather than heartened or informed by her tweets) have been harmful to the trans community. And this latest string of tweets and actions has been particularly brutal.
Rowling has long been called out for a lack of diversity in wizarding Britain and Hogwarts, particularly a lack of racial representation and an absence of relationships other than heterosexual ones. She has made some attempts post-publication to remedy this, with the revelation of Dumbledore’s and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship, very subtly hinted at in a line of text in Deathly Hallows, and the casting of Black women to play Hermione and her daughter in the original cast of The Cursed Child. (Neither of these moves I would argue has largely been seen as enough.)
The representation of Rita Skeeter in Goblet of Fire has been suggested as one of the strongest warnings we should have seen of Rowling’s anti-trans views. Though not explicitly transgender, Rita is described as having “large, mannish hands” (307) with fake nails, a “surprisingly strong grip” (303), heavy make-up, and bright outfits, Rita Skeeter is a reporter who thrives on gossip and ruining reputations. She is generally ridiculed and disliked. She is also a shape-shifter, an Animagus. She is trapped in beetle form and kept in a jar by Hermione for at least a week at the end of Goblet of Fire. Few others in the wizarding world are described as having such garish make-up.
All of this complicates my relationship personally to these books that have done a lot to shape me, that have helped me through a lot of difficult times in my own life. I think it’s important that we question and interrogate what is important to us.
The media that we intake and the language and ideas that that media espouses, overtly or subconsciously, can effect our own views in subtle and less subtle ways.
Listen to those who say that they have been hurt. Learn why. Do better. Do the best you can.
But too. I think it’s important to be willing to speak up and be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out, be willing to make mistakes and then learn from them when you’re called out. “If you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time” (454).
Rowling, J. K. Book 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic, 2000.
Intended audience: Grades 3-12.
*Page numbers are from a paperback copy of the US edition of Goblet of Fire and a paperback copy of the US edition of The Sorcerer’s Stone (SS).
This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., or anyone else associated with the world of Harry Potter. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.