Thursday, September 12, 2013

Blast from the Past: Part 1

Before I got the gig writing the review column The Book Trolley, I dipped my toe into the waters of writing op-ed pieces for the Harry Potter fandom. This seems to be the first editorial I successfully submitted to MuggleNet. Of course, my predictions were totally wrong. But boy, does it take me back!
Who Will Die in Book 5? (4/21/2003)

JKR has given us a few hints. We know it will be an emotionally devastating moment, and the victim is a “big fan” of Harry’s.

Purely from a technical, building-blocks-of-writing point of view, it has to be someone significant enough for their death to have a long-term effect on the series, and yet not TOO significant. There are certain characters who are simply indispensible to the formula, so she cannot afford to do away with them.

Recently Tom Felton has been dropping rumors that he thinks his character (Draco Malfoy) will die in Book 5. But Draco is no fan of Harry’s. [Emerson's note: We also know from interviews that Tom isn't exactly a huge HP fan.] Other victims suggested by fans include Dumbledore, Ron, and Hermione, who are simply too important to the structure of the storyline to be sacrificed at this point. It would be awful if Hagrid or Sirius Black were lost, but I think they also may be too essential to go.

On the other hand, Colin or Dennis Creevey are big fans of Harry’s, but they probably aren’t significant enough. Their death would hardly raise the stakes higher than that of Cedric Diggory. For similar reasons, and because of their “comic relief” character, I reckon the Weasley Twins are safe.

In my opinion these considerations leave five candidates, any one of whom could get the axe in Book 5:
  • Arthur Weasley
  • Molly Weasley
  • Ginny Weasley
  • Remus Lupin
  • Prof. McGonagall
To arrive at which one to put your money on, you must next ask whose death would actually advance the storyline or have interesting repercussions into books 6 and 7. I suppose that depends somewhat on the creativity of JKR, and what she comes up with cannot really be foreseen or scientifically predicted. But if I was writing the stories, I would consider what each of these 5 characters gains or loses for the whole storyline by his or her death.

Arthur Weasley loves muggles and is very fond of Harry. His political connections and pro-muggle advocacy are an important weapon in the hands of the Good Guys. Losing him would be a devasting blow—possibly the sort of blow for the forces of Good that would set up an even darker and more desperate Book 6. It would also change Ron’s outlook on things, and the guilt of this (assuming that Arthur dies protecting Harry) will torture Harry and complicate their relationship.

Molly Weasley is REALLY protective of Harry. Things would be quite different without her, especially at the Burrow. I think the effect this would have on the entire Weasley clan would very much darken the tone of Books 6 and 7, as well as having effects on Ron and Harry similar to what would hold if Arthur died.

Everyone knows Ginny has a crush on Harry. If there’s one Hogwarts student who meets the qualifications JKR laid down for her sacrificial lamb, it’s Ginny. Suppose she and Harry really begin to hit it off, and then she dies? This sort of twist has almost become a clich√© in the entertainment world. How many times have characters played by, for instance, David Hasselhoff, been killed just when it looked like they might make a happy life together? Losing Ginny this way would really suck—for Harry especially. But maybe it would clear things up for him romantically, in other directions...or maybe it would bring the fight out of him the next time he faces Voldemort!

Lupin could be the one because he has expressed fondness of Harry. He is very impressed by the young wizard, not least because he takes after his terrific father. You can also bet that Lupin will be part of the “order of the Phoenix” that might be, say, Dumbledore’s Crack Commandos behind enemy lines. A loss like this would be, for Harry, like losing his parents all over again. And it would also be bad news for the anti-Voldemort resistance.

But McGonagall is the one who has kept her warmth & favoritism toward Harry well hidden under a crusty, strict, business-only exterior. I think her death would have the most lasting effects on Harry. He would be constantly thinking about it and trying to figure it out; it would never entirely make sense to him. Whoever stepped in to replace her as head of Gryffindor would never measure up, would always be a reminder of what was lost. And though she is a wonderful character, to the extent she has been developed, I do think she can be dispensed with without prejudice to the overall arc. At least that’s my guess. None of the Weasleys seems more likely to provide a tragic surprise than any of the others. Lupin, on second thought, is a pretty weak candidate too. I think the real shock that would take everyone aback, would be if McGonagall died. That’s where I’m putting my money.

In the article above, "Emerson's note" came from MuggleNet founder Emerson Spartz. This early effort was followed by...

A Sophisticated Look at Rowling (07/12/03)

This week JK Rowling's fans have been stirred into action by the poison pen of Booker-Prize-winning author A. S. Byatt. The author of Possession railed against Rowling's literary stature, accusing her basically of kow-towing to the low-brow, MTV/video-game culture of our time.

What an interesting observation!

Obviously some creative artists have the notion that they are creating works of art for the ages. Perhaps Byatt is among them. And such artists, many of whom belong to the "starving" variety, can be excused for looking upon popular entertainers with bitterness. But the popular entertainers can be excused as well, because they are *not* trying to create art for the ages, they are simply trying to entertain the public. And the fact that the public appreciates this is borne witness by their financial success.

J. K. Rowling understands how to tell a story.

She also understands her audience.

This is no great cultural crime. The same things could be said of Charles Dickens, whose stories had many points of similarity to Harry Potter, and whose serial novels were followed by as large and passionate a body of fans as Rowling's. He was a good storyteller and he understood his times. Of course his stories reflect their times, to such a degree that today, it takes a person of above-average intelligence and determination to plough through them. His diction, his dialect writing, his vast compound-complex sentences and witty circumlocutions tire out many a reader today. Not as much as, say, Herman Melville. For him who has a keen mind and a tolerance for windy prose, Dickens is still quite a lot of fun. But he will never again be the man of the moment as he was in the 1840's and -50's.

The reason JK Rowling is so successful is that she knows exactly how to captivate the MTV/video-game generation, and the fact that they put down their joysticks and remote-controls to read her hefty novels is ample testimony to the power of her story-telling. What is so sinister about this? She is not trying to compete with Salman Rushdie or, well, A. S. Byatt. There is no reason for the literati to resent her success. Quite possibly, the fact that so many people are reading a real book for the first time will result in more people reading classics and "art" novels as well. It certainly doesn't hurt.

Besides the criticism of A. S. Byatt, there remains the low hum of "Christian right" condemnation against JKR and our Harry. They say Harry teaches children Satanism, witchcraft, paganism, etc. Speaking as an ordained minister in a denomination known for its conservatism, I can only say: Codswallop! I have read these books with a critical eye and I find that they are completely, religiously neutral. They are purely secular entertainment that say nothing for or against any religion whatsoever, including paganism or Wicca. Simply because Wiccans take encouragement from Harry Potter doesn't mean he has anything to do with them. JKR is on record that she does not believe in magic. She has merely created a magical, imaginary world in which the only "spirit" that anyone relies on is the spirit within him/herself.

Compare this to the series of young-readers' books most often considered Harry's closest competitor: Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Sorry to offend those of you who love it, but afterall this is my opinion. And in my opinion, "His Dark Materials" is a completely undisguised attack on Christianity-its morals, doctrine, and history. Ask him and I doubt that he will deny it. Perhaps the fact that Harry Potter is so far ahead of HDM in sales is related to the fact that a magical world full of anger against a religion so many of us cherish, does not have the popular appeal of a magical world without any particular agenda.

JKR does address social "issues," but she is not preachy as sometimes Dickens, and Roald Dahl, could be. Her world is rich in detail and unabashed fantasy, unlike CS Lewis and E Nesbit who sometimes seem apologetic for anything in their stories that could not pass for non-fiction. It is a world shadowed by evil and darkness, like the worlds of JRR Tolkien, but if he can be forgiven for wistfully longing for a time that is past, she should be forgiven for reveling in the present. Like the culture reflected in the writings of these other authors, the culture reflected by the Harry Potter stories is the culture of its own time, and of course some of the magic will fade when time and culture change. Who can deny that E Nesbit's magical world has lost some of its appeal, along with the social structure that inhabits it? Who can deny that something of JRR Tokien's vision is lost in translation to a new generation that cannot remember, imagine, or quite understand a society in which Sam would call Frodo his "master" and the distinction between a commoner and a gentleman was so evident that no one needed to remark on it? Who can fault JKR for never writing a sentence like the last one I just wrote, seeing as most living people would have trouble deciphering it?

As for the hype, you must remember that Harry Potter was huge before there was any hype about it. The first four books were already record-breaking bestsellers before the first movie was made and the merchandising craze began. Certainly some people have jumped on the bandwagon because of the hype and the fad. But don't forget that most of the fans are in this for the long haul, and they at least know how to distinguish the real Harry Potter story from all the hype.

Let us leave prognostications about whether or not Harry Potter is for the ages or just for our times. We cannot see the future. And literary experts are just as limited as the rest of us in that respect. History is littered with the debris of prophecies made by the most qualified people that went totally awry. What concerns us now is whether or not Harry Potter is worth reading. An enormous, loyal, and enthusiastic following, the likes of which no author has seen since Dickens, cannot be entirely wrong. JKR does what she does, she does it well, and it hits the spot. Take it or leave it. But beware of hurling insults in the face of an entire generation of readers, whether you approve of what JKR does or not, whether you wish to do the same or something else. No one's work is immune from criticism!

At some other date in 2003, MuggleNet picked up this third editorial:
Harry Potter: Magic or Magick?

Like any Christian who is a fan of the Harry Potter saga, I grow concerned when I hear religious critics of the series claiming that it depicts the occult. If this could be the case, we need to recognize it and respond accordingly. However, after skimming a couple of books by a very scholarly yet misguided fellow named Richard Abanes (including Harry Potter and the Bible and Fantasy and Your Family), as well as editorials posted by other concerned Christians, my conclusion is that said critics are, God bless them, out to lunch.

Recently a couple of young ladies in Alexandria, Minnesota, wrote to their editorial page stating that The Lord of the Rings promotes evil occult practices and violence. They share with Abanes the view that any spiritual powers that do not come specifically from the Holy Spirit must be from the devil. Technically, as a theologian, I regard this as correct. However, an objective reader of Tolkien, as well as Rowling, ought to know the difference between fantasy and reality, between a fairy tale and a religious writing.

Traditional storytelling, in Christian culture particularly, often takes the form of fairy tales (what bookstores now classify as "Fantasy"). Such stories, in which imaginary creatures interact with people who have imaginary powers, teach moral lessons, build character, and stimulate analytical thinking. These stories, which often include witches, wizards, fairies, and talking animals, are neither descriptions of reality nor prescriptions for black sabbaths and other occult behavior.

A more acute question regarding Tolkien, Rowling, and other writers whose fantasy includes magic, is whether or not their world of imagination is likely to lead readers to be more accepting of real-world "magick" or occult practices. I suppose the answer depends on the writer and the work, and to find that answer, anyone concerned should read the book in question with their "Critical Thinking" organ switched on. But, I believe that a disservice is done to all Christians who enjoy a good yarn, when Abanes and others overgeneralize and oversimplify. One must not arbitrarily say that any time a story depicts "magic" that it is talking about "magick." You need to do better than that.

I have read all the Harry Potter books several times each. Ditto The Lord of the Rings. From a general standpoint, I think they depict a Christian worldview. They do depict villains who are demonically evil, but not so as to glorify them or make them dangerously appealing or a guilty pleasure for readers--but to horrify us, and to set off the goodness of the heroes who risk so much to oppose them. Certainly they are not literal, real-world testimonies of Christian belief; Christ and the Holy Spirit are not openly named in them. But, I can think of so-called "Christian fiction" that is much more harmful, insofar as it distorts the biblical truths it is supposed to be literally depicting.

Use your intelligence and you will see that a fairy tale, or fantasy story, operates on its own internal rules, the laws of the imaginary world it inhabits. It is not right to expect every piece of fiction to obey the rules of the natural world. There would be little wonder or "escape" if they did.

Abanes and others do go into more specifics, pointing out some things in the Harry Potter books that smack of the occult, or of things forbidden by the Bible. Let's address these concerns, too.

Some of the examples I have read are just plain silly. One lady wrote to her church newsletter that the scenes in which Dobby punishes himself are a depiction of demonic possession. Another griped that the behavior of the protagonists falls short of the spotless virtue one should expect for the good guys in a fairy tale. I think these complaints, and others like them, indicate that some people are reading carelessly or with minds already made up, and their examples simply don't make sense. Dobby's plight is a symptom of the corruption in the wizarding world and particularly the evil of the family he is enslaved to. Harry and Ron's occasional lapses into pettiness or lack of academic integrity are signs that they are ordinary kids, like anyone their age alive today. What makes Dobby, Harry, and Ron positively GOOD is that, nevertheless, they are loyal friends and they courageously battle against evil.

Some bits of the first five HP books could raise eyebrows for those who are on the lookout for signs of the occult. Not many, though; even considering that she doesn't believe in magic, JKR seems to have been very careful not to explore the side of fairy-tale magic that can often seem occultish (like pentagrams, demon familiars, etc.). The most disturbing things, I'll warrant, in the first 5 Harry Potter books, are Professor Trelawney's prophecy in Book 3, the ritual/spell/potion that brought Voldemort back in Book 4, and some of the things in the Department of Mysteries in Book 5.

Divination is, of course, a "dark art" from the biblical point of view. God does not allow his people to sneak peaks into the future, unless he gives them the peak through his specially-sent prophets. Necromancy and fortune-telling are specifically condemned. However, these forbidden arts rely on consulting spiritual agencies, including the souls of the dead. The only form of divination in the HP stories that even remotely looks like a "spiritual agency" is at work, is the trance in which Trelawney seems to speak in a different person's voice. But, no one even wonders who the owner of this voice is; no one in the stories seems concerned that a spiritual agency is at work. As far as the inner workings of JKR's world are concerned, it would seem this is simply part of the special magical gift of divination that Trelawney has so little of (and most of what human wizards consider "divination" is pure humbug, as Firenze tells us in the fifth book).

Like all the other magical arts in the HP books, divination--if there is anything to it at all--is simply a gift or innate ability that certain imaginary people (wizards or witches) may have to some degree, and Professor Trelawney's trance is the form her gift takes. There is no suggestion that this is a "spiritual gift," either of a holy or an unholy spirit; there simply is no spiritual dimension to the world of witchcraft and wizardry that JKR's imagination has created.

Nevertheless, the ritualistic spell-cum-potion that revives Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire is very scary and disturbing. And so it should be. Voldemort is truly evil, a monster to be feared. Such darkness should be expected of someone so awful that most wizards refuse to utter his name. But nothing about Voldemort is attractive, even in a subversive way. Lest anyone find him magnetic or dangerously appealing in any way, he has been made somewhat pathetic and ridiculous, in addition to being frighteningly powerful and bad. JKR has done quite a literary dance to make it so. I don't think it likely that anyone will be drawn to Voldemort as an antihero. He is just plain vile.

So the "bone of the father/flesh of the servant/blood of the enemy" bit has a vaguely Black-Sabbathy ring to it. I think JKR purposely wrote it that way to make chills run down your spine. But remember, folks, this is the evil that, sooner or later, everyone good is going to have to fight against. And, sadly but truly, the bad guy doesn't lose every battle or get thwarted at every stage of his plans. In fact, even allowing for not getting the prophecy and retreating from his duel with Dumbldore in the Department of Mysteries, Voldemort has not really suffered a defeat since Chamber of Secrets. In Books 3 and 4 Harry escaped from what at least seemed to be Voldemort's plot against him, but in each case the Dark Lord's real agenda went forward. Throughout Book 5, Voldemort and his Death Eaters had a whole year to do what they wished without most of the wizarding world knowing or offering opposition. And even in the end, with the prophecy shattered and Voldemort exposed, the side of good suffered a deeper loss than he did.

The moral, then, is not, "Let's all draw a pentagram on the basement floor and burn some black candles, won't that be fun!" but rather, "The servants of good may not get the better of the Enemy in every battle, but, hazarding all, they keep fighting through every heartbreak, failure, and betrayal. They do not like to fight and kill, but they accept that they may have to do so, to save all that is beautiful and worthwhile from being perverted and destroyed." Harry, Ron, and Hermione may not be perfect, infallible, or even completely grown up--they may even be tempted by the very evil they confront! And yet this is precisely what keeps us turning the pages. We dread the dangers they must face, and we hope for the victories they must win, to prevent the world from being swallowed by darkness.

If there is a devil at all, in the Harry Potter fairy tale, it may be Voldemort--or it may even be that Voldemort is deceived! But he is certainly nobody's buddy, and the possibility that he may triumph threatens both the world of magic and the world of muggles that populate JK Rowling's fertile imagination. It would only be an evil world of imagination if it ended with Voldemort's victory--and I doubt that it will. I even pray that it doesn't! And I say, Christian readers, feel free to visit that world and enjoy a fantasy in which people with imaginary powers, and imaginary creatures, share a bit of the same moral burdens that we bear, and may inspire us to bear them better.

Also in 2003, sometime after the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I submitted this bit of analysis:
Sneakier and Sneakier: Informers, Traitors, Double-Agents, and Spies in HP5

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the plot very definitely thickens. Partly concealed from Harry's point of view, a complex web of conflicting interests spawn "sneaks" and rat-finks of all sizes and shapes. Some of them are exposed for everyone to see. Some, I think, are only hinted at, for us to speculate about. Assuming that J. K. Rowling doesn't put anything in her books without a good reason, we may be finding out more about those "secret sneaks" in later books.

Marietta Edgecombe wears the pimply badge of Sneakdom in the most obvious colors. We know all about her betrayal of Dumbledore's Army. Fortunately, the situation was saved by a counter-betrayal, as Ministry Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt sabotaged Marietta's testimony, right under Cornelius Fudge's nose. The questions that remain from this scene include: Will Marietta's complexion clear up before the next year at Hogwarts starts? Will the D. A. continue and grow in size and importance? Or has it served its purpose and run its race? And now that everyone knows Voldemort is back and that Harry and Dumbledore have been telling the truth all along, will the Ministry (Fudge in particular) warm toward Dumbledore? Or will they continue making trouble for the wizard school?

I don't think the answers to these last couple questions are as simple as they seem, based on the scene in the Ministry when Fudge sees Voldemort dueling with Dumbledore. After a whole year of believing that Dumbledore is his enemy and that Harry is crackers, these habits of thought may take some breaking. Probably more to the point, Fudge and his followers have shown how much they love power, and that there is no fundamental liberty they will not trample upon in order to keep power. Will the Pin-Striped Tiger change his stripes? Not easily, I dare say.

Another kind of betrayal is seen in Percy Weasley, who makes his priorities known when he throws over his whole family in favor of the Ministry of Magic. He has said choice things that won't be easy to take back--things about Dumbledore, about the Order of the Phoenix, and about Harry. Will Percy find it in himself to eat humble pie? Can he ever be trusted again? Or could he have sold himself irredeemably to the cause of Self and Power?

Just a bit more subtle is the Filch-Mrs. Norris-Umbridge dynamic in Order of the Phoenix. Apparently Filch and Umbridge had a unique understanding between them. Each was, in short, the other's only ally, and one hand washes the other. Umbridge agreed to reinstitute corporal punishment, and Filch became her devoted stooge. They both played informant on each other, with Mrs. Norris the cat running between them as a courier. Sort of like how Mr. Tibbles reported to Mrs. Figg in Little Whinging, Mrs. Norris kept Filch informed of when Harry was stirring in the corridors.

It seems that Umbridge tipped Filch that she expected Harry to place an owl-order for dungbombs, so that when Mrs. Norris alerted Filch that Harry was headed toward the owlery, Filch would come running, confiscate whatever Harry was sending, and bring it to Umbridge. In return for her information, Filch informed Umbridge when Mrs. Norris saw him and McGonagall heading toward Dumbledore's office in the middle of night. This explains the significance of Mrs. Norris catching sight of Harry and running away (no accidents, remember!). And, it explains how, according to Fawkes' signal, "she" knew Harry and the Weasleys were out of bed, which seems connected to Hermione's news that Umbridge was furious about the Weasleys and Harry getting out from under her guard.

In spite of Sirius' wise comment that "the world is not divided into good people and death eaters," there remain some questions about Umbridge: what she knew and when, and how she knew it. Okay, her brand of evil, vile as it is, could be merely the private evil of a small, small person; and it would not be at all relieved by not being a Death Eater. But, couldn't she be a Death Eater after all? How else would she know some of the things she knows? Okay, she frisked Hedwig and found Sirius' note saying, "Same time, same place." How did she know it was from Sirius? How did she know what time he meant, and that the "same place" was the Gryffindor common room fire? Another question: the night of Harry's vision of the snake attacking Mr. Weasley, how did she know to be on the alert for him and the Weasleys leaving school? Why did their escape irritate her so much? Was she getting information from Lucius Malfoy via the Ministry or from Draco? Or was she, perhaps, in league with the Death Eaters after all?

The Hog's Head is full of sneaks, probably more than we necessarily know about. Mundungus, in drag as the veiled witch, informed the Order about what the kids were planning. Willy Widdershins, bandaged after his exploding-toilet-related injuries and quaffing goblet after goblet of Firewhisky, informed Umbridge about the same. And, I personally think the barman is Aberforth Dumbledore, who may have been directly in touch with Albus about what went on in his establishment. But, is that all there is to it? Maybe not. Willy had already gotten a slap on the hands for the exploding toilets; he had already cut some kind of deal, apparently. Ordinarily such deals are made in exchange for ready information. Could it be that in this deal, he was set free on purpose to gather information? Was he sent on purpose to overhear what Harry and Co. were planning in the Hog's Head, as Mundungus was? If not, how could his information about the DA be related to his plea bargain on the exploding toilet charge? But, if so, how did Umbridge and Widdershins know when and where the students were going to gather?

Another question that almost seems too ridiculous to bother with is this: what side is Mundungus really on? Could the fact that he was banned from the Hog's Head "twenty years ago" be related to the account of an unnamed spy eavesdropping on Dumbledore and Trelawney in the Hog's Head sixteen years ago? Could the difference in the figures be only the result of Sirius speaking imprecisely? Could it be that being a rogue and a crook is merely the best possible cover for someone who REALLY shouldn't be trusted? But, then again, would Dumbledore trust anyone who had once betrayed his side to the Dark Lord? As he does, evidently, trust Mundungus. Who was that eavesdropper, then? I think we will find out later. Wormtail, maybe?

Once again, J. K. Rowling does not often tell us things without having a reason for doing so. Ponder, if you will, the dumpy, mustached wizard and the frizzy-haired witch in the second row of benches at Harry's hearing before the Wizengamot. They whisper together in a way that seems distinctly scornful of Harry's defense. I expect we will get to know them better in a later book. But, I also wonder if there isn't evidence--thin and shaky, to be sure--that they are in league with You Know Who. Soon after Harry gets back to Grimmauld Place, as the Weasleys begin celebrating his acquittal, he has one of those Blazing Scar moments that tells him that Voldemort is quite upset.

Could it be that Voldemort is angry about Harry getting off? Could it be that some person or persons on the Wizengamot itself have conveyed the news to him? Of course, the fact that Lucius Malfoy knew the verdict immediately after the trial provides an alternate explanation... unless Lucius would still be in conference with Fudge. And if Umbridge, for all that she sicced dementors on Harry, isn't a Death Eater herself, could Wizard Mustache and Witch Frizz be closet Death Eaters? We'll know something about them, by and by. Be sure of that.

Another eyebrow-raising question: where was Security Wizard Eric Munch, he of the wand-weighing machine and the golden frisking device, when the Death Eaters and Harry's friends were in the Ministry of Magic? He who caught Sturgis Podmore at 1 a.m. should certainly have been on duty at the much earlier hour when twelve bad guys (including escapees from Azkaban) and six minors were dueling for all they were worth, one floor down. How was he subdued or lured away? Or was he, perhaps, not there on purpose? (I begin to sound like The Quibbler.)

Rat-finks and more rat-finks. The Inquisitorial Squad must naturally be mentioned. I think Draco and his pals were in tight with Umbridge long before they started wearing their little silver pins. When she was auditing Care of Magical Creatures class, she seemed to know exactly whose opinion she wanted to hear: the Slytherins'. More telling still is the fact that she just happened to have a new Educational Decree in her handbag the very day Draco baited Harry and George into beating him up while Crabbe, having successfully diverted Madam Hooch's attention long enough to let this happen, stood by and chuckled with satisfaction. The whole incident reeks of "set-up." And again, in a later Care of Magical Creatures class, Draco pushes exactly the right buttons to achieve the effect both he and Umbridge seem to have looked for: Harry loses his cool and earns another detention, and Malfoy and Umbridge share the same smile of satisfaction. Based on clues like this, I think the Inquisitorial Squad functioned long before it had an official charter, name, and pin. At least, JKR has dropped clues as to how it developed and flowered.

And speaking of the Inquisitorial Squad, I love the little joke the twins played on Montague. Remember that vanishing cabinet from Chamber of Secrets, when Nearly Headless Nick goaded Peeves into smashing it on the floor above Filch's office in order to create a diversion for Harry? I don't know if this is the same one--it sounded as if the one in Book 2 was pretty well destroyed, and maybe magical objects like that cannot be magically repaired without losing their charm. I have a feeling that is the case. No doubt there are more than one vanishing cabinet in the world, and I imagine (though we have not seen it through Harry's eyes) that "vanishing cabinet" means the sort of cabinet in which a person is placed, whereupon he or she vanishes into who-knows-where. Sleight-of-hand artists use that sort of gimmick quite often; it should surprise no one to see the genuine article at Hogwarts. And, it couldn't happen to a better victim than a member of the Inquisitorial Squad!

The dementors have deserted their post at Azkaban. What will the ministry do now with its prisoners? And now that a dozen Death Eaters have been exposed and the Dark Lord's return has been officially announced, how will that change the state of affairs in the wizarding world? Is it time for open war? And if so, how can business-as-usual go on at Hogwarts, while sympathizers with both sides--and the big, confused middle--are mixed together? What about non-Death Eater prisoners in Azkaban, like Sturgis Podmore? (Though, I suppose his six-month sentence must have run out in March or thereabouts.) And can the Order of the Phoenix go public, or do they still need to keep their activities and membership hush-hush? If the latter, is it to protect them from Death Eaters, or from the Ministry and wizarding public opinion?

Another great Sneak deserves mention: Rita Skeeter. Has she seen the light now? Or will she be gunning for revenge after her year of exile? Will the fact that her disinterested interview with Harry was her most successful work, alter her views about journalism?

An undeserving mention goes to the house-elves at Hogwarts, who were coerced by their magical enslavement into revealing the secrets of the DA to Umbridge. Dobby emerges as quite a hero, for double-dealing on her, risking severe punishment (even if it is self-inflicted) in breaking her command not to warn Harry. On the other hand, Kreacher the house-elf comes over as a black traitor of the first water, no pun intended. What will happen to him? Understandable as his behavior is, in a sad way, how can he be trusted whether he leaves Grimmauld Place or stays? Can Number 12 still be the Headquarters of the Order? Can it still be Harry's home away from home? And would he want it, after all--especially if he inherits Kreacher with it?

Harry is so right to be angry, angry, angry. His fifth year at Hogwarts is pimpled with more Sneaks, Spies, Traitors, and Double-Dealers than the spots on Marietta's face. Besides that, he has to bear with disillusionment about his father, bitterness against Snape, Sirius' death, the Quidditch ban (I'm observing no particular order). He is hampered by the malice of Umbridge, the power-mongering tyranny of the Ministry, the slander of the Daily Prophet, the distrust of his fellow students, and Dumbledore's, I beg your pardon, STUPID mistake of not telling Harry what he is so very ready, so desperately needs, and so obviously deserves to know. What Dumbledore said about Volemort excelling in placing divisions among people is so true. Because no less damaging than all the direct and deliberate betrayals are those done in innocence and openness of heart, unintentionally, by Harry's friends. And, in the last analysis, Harry is betrayed by his own good nature. What could be more horrible to contemplate?

Maybe Harry's fifth year should be called the Year of the Sneak.

And to conclude this first installment of my series of MuggleNet reprints, there's this:
Cornelius Fudge's Tyranny Primer (3/31/2004)

The behavior of the Ministry of Magic, particularly Fudge and Umbridge, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, makes for a nursery-book on the arts and sciences of tyranny. In the year following Lord Voldemort's return, when the peace, freedom, and harmony of the magical world are under their most deadly threat in thirteen years (if not longer), Fudge models the classic behavior of a power-loving ruler who would gladly trade in peace, freedom, harmony, and everything else pertaining to his constituents' quality of life, in order to stay in power. Lovers of freedom and good government can learn a lot by observing the many ways Fudge botches it.

How does Fudge love power? Let us count the ways.

1. Grinding Justice Under His Heels. I don't know how many of us understand words like "subvert" or "suborn," or how many simply run screaming from the phrase "independent judiciary." But we understand something, maybe, about fair play. And we understand, maybe, that one of the first things citizens of a free society could ask for, is a justice system they can trust. Trust it to assign guilt or innocence impartially. Trust Justice to be blind.

Perhaps the, and I stress "the," basic factor in the concept of Injustice is, that it favors the rich at the expense of the poor. When Draco Malfoy says, "It's not so much what you know, as who you know," he is exaggerating in that instance; but in many another instance, his father has proven his words. Lucius has connections, he can smooth the way for things he wants to happen, and he can spike the wheels of things he wants to stop. He does it with money, and when money talks, Fudge is one of those who listens. Surely, he does not consciously or directly favor Lucius because of his money, but Fudge is dazzled by wealth and prestige; it does add weight to Lucius' point of view. And at least indirectly, this influences the way Fudge works the Judicial Branch of his Ministry.

Another big priority for the justice system in a free society, is that it be (at least somewhat) immune from politics. Fudge crassly puts his Justice System under the sway of politics, firstly by being himself part of the Wizengamot; secondly, by sidelining Dumbledore because of his beliefs (a process that goes beyond the Wizengamot, in fact, with outrageous vindictiveness); and thirdly, by perverting the judicial process in order to ensure a verdict that is politically expedient. Fudge wants to silence Harry. Umbridge knows this and uses dementors to set Harry up (her towering hypocrisy is later revealed when, at Harry's career advice session, she makes such a big deal out of Harry having a criminal record-- as though she didn't set him up!).

Then Fudge tries to pass summary sentence on Harry, which from his point of view is simply a convenient way to silence a disturber of the status quo, but from any other point of view is a monstrous act tantamount to murder. It would, in effect, end Harry's life as a wizard, ostracize him from the world he belonged to, and leave him unprotected for Voldemort to dispose of him for good. In his delusion, Fudge sees only the political advantage of getting Harry out of the way. His politics clearly come in higher than justice because he at first wants to expel Harry and confiscate his wand without a trial (and without legal jurisdiction to expel Harry from Hogwarts), then he decides to throw the book at Harry in a full criminal trial (with the possibility of Azkaban lurking under what would ordinarily be a minor disciplinary matter).

Once Fudge has started twisting the justice system, he keeps twisting. He changes the time and place of the hearing at the last minute, apparently hoping that neither Harry nor Dumbledore will learn of the change until they have missed the hearing, so Harry can be tried in absentia and convicted without a defense. He cross-examines Harry with the obvious goal of keeping Harry from telling his side of the story, then uses sarcasm and malicious insinuations on Harry's character to throw doubt on Harry's testimony. He tries a similar approach with the testimony of Mrs. Figg, while also trying to rush the trial along to prevent exculpatory witnesses like Dobby or another interview of Mrs. Figg. He unequivocally questions Harry's honesty without having any evidence that Harry has ever lied, except his own refusal to believe; and he clearly has the political wherewithal to drive people out of the Wizengamot, not to say the International Confederation of Wizards, who do not share his politically-motivated views. And because Fudge is both the Judicial Branch and the Executive Branch in wizarding affairs, he can combine outraged executive authority with an implied threat of "contempt-of-court" to shout down anything he perceives as Dumbledore's meddling with his authority, which really amounts to Harry's whole defense.

Fudge also retorts on Dumbledore's arguments on the grounds of existing laws and lines of authority. He says, more than once, that laws can be changed. Meaning, if you take these statements in context, that for the sake of political expediency, by the next time he has Dumbledore or Harry where he wants them, he will have changed the rules to make sure he gets them but good. Meaning, maybe it's time to sweep aside inconvenient niceties and technicalities like the rules of evidence (e.g., Harry can only be convicted on evidence concerning the crime he is charged with, not other supposed crimes), the right to a fair trial (e.g., the ministry couldn't break Harry's wand without giving him a hearing first), restricting the jurisdiction of the court (e.g., the Ministry cannot impose school sanctions on Hogwarts students), and so on. It seems Fudge is as much prepared to change these basic tenets of Justice in a free society, on short notice and for small political ends, as he was to change the date and venue of Harry's hearing.

A last observation under this item is that Fudge cut a deal with Willy Widdershins, the toilet bomber, who turned informant for Umbridge. Here justice is not just blindfolded, she has had her eyes put out, and Fudge is leading her in a merry game of Blind Man's Buff. The guilty go free so that they can snitch on the innocent, and the innocent get railroaded to prevent them from telling the world their story. It is amazing that Fudge can think of himself in the right when he has deliberately turned Justice upside-down like this.

Considering how profoundly Fudge has perverted the justice system in the wizarding world, it's astounding that Harry was acquitted. I guess Dumbledore's magic is stronger.

2. Silencing Free Expression of Ideas. From the word "go," it's clear that Fudge has gagged The Daily Prophet, and that the Ministry is feeding an official line to the wizard newspaper-- its interpretation of the Azkaban breakout, its blackout on news of Cedric Diggory's death and Voldemort's return, its ridicule of Harry Potter, and the totally political article on Educational Decree 23. Then his right-hand woman at Hogwarts puts a similar gag rule on the teachers, and later goes over the top and threatens to expel anyone caught with the issue of The Quibbler that contained Harry's interview. She creates an oppressive atmosphere of censorship and thought-police. With spies in the Hog's Head, stooges in the Inquisitorial Squad, and other Sneaks at large, Umbridge sees to it that no confidence is safe.

3. Turning the Educational System into a Nursery for Government Propaganda. In a place of learning, where ideas ought to be shared, Umbridge makes it impossible to hold free discourse, to assemble without her permission, to teach skills (however useful they may be) that the Ministry feels could be used against it, or to communicate ideas that run against the grain of then-current political orthodoxy. She then begins a purge of the faculty, singling out people she considers too close to Dumbledore, or racially impure, or connected somehow (like Trelawney) to what she considers the dangerous Harry Potter Myth. She strips the headmaster, the teachers, and the prefects of all authority autonomous of the ministry, and ensures that the only authority that counts for anything directly serves the political interests of the Cornelius Fudge administration. This includes hiring and firing teachers, imposing sanctions on students, and (as noted before) putting limits on the topics that can be read and discussed. Umbridge's regime comes close to the atmosphere of Stalin's USSR, when the most promising and competent people were destroyed because they threatened the security of one man's grasp on power. History shows that the USSR paid dearly for it, when its defense against the invading German army was left in the hands of safe, unthreatening, and deliberately-undertrained mediocrities. This could be the fate of the wizarding world, if people like Umbridge continue sacrificing the school curriculum to political ends.

4. Using Force Instead of Due Process. I cite Umbridge's attack on Hagrid and McGonagall as the chief example. Fudge takes the same tactic against Dumbledore once, and later seems prepared to try it again in the atrium of the Ministry. Maybe a sub-category here could be, "Looking for Problems, thereby being sure to find them, rather than responding to complaints as is usually done." Her whole regime as Inquisitor is based on going around looking for things to criticize, which occasionally has the effect of causing such things to happen.

5. Torturing Confessions out of People. You could look at the lines Umbridge makes Harry write, in this light. She is forcing him to write, in his own blood, many times over, that he is lying when he is, in fact, telling the truth. Perhaps she thinks that if she brings Harry down far enough, she can turn his truth into a lie. With the same sad sort of wishful thinking, she gives the high-hat to a hundred centaurs on their turf. Part of me would like to know what the centaurs did to make her view things differently-- did they use her own tactics against her, somehow? The other part, though, says: Best Left to the Imagination.

Not quite rising to the level of torture is Umbridge's attempt to hit Harry by stealth with a probably lethal dose of Veritaserum. She has no trouble at all drugging a 15-year-old student so she can interrogate him about wanted criminals. What makes it despicable is that she does it by trickery, while pretending to be having a friendly cup of tea with him. Later she goes even further, by preparing to use the Cruciatus curse on the boy. It's amazing that she can say, with a straight face, that her students needn't bone up on defense spells because there are no dark wizards out there waiting to attack them... when she herself is prepared to attack her own student with one of the worst spells in all dark magic!

6. Putting Internal, Political Battles Ahead of the Public Interest. This refers to the fact that Fudge wastes a year dealing with Dumbledore as a rival for power, rather than Voldemort as an enemy of the entire system in which he holds power. This makes Fudge, unwittingly, more a servant of the Enemy than of his public.

7. The Risk of a Sudden Change of Fortune or Fall From Favor. Civil servants (i.e., those who work for the Ministry of Magic) are put on notice that their political loyalties are being watched, especially those who already have suspicious ties; and they will be sacked the instant they are found to be supporting Dumbledore and his party. Again, I am reminded of Stalin's USSR, when something like Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" was a matter of life and death-- political, and actual life and death! As your political fortunes rose and fell, as you waxed and waned in the favor of the Man, you could be swept from obscurity to the halls of power and, in a heartbeat, become an untouchable person waiting for a sudden knock on the door in the dead of night. Maybe I'm over dramatizing this, but isn't this what Fudge means by putting the Ministry on notice that their political loyalties will determine whether they continue to work for the Ministry? There can be no steady, workmanlike, disinterested Public Service when public servants live in constant fear of being caught behind the political curve. Or worse, in the way of the Wheels of Progress.

Unfortunately, as Fudge expands his powers as dictator of the magical world, these conditions also apply to the staff at Hogwarts, whose administration and teachers have lost all control over the affairs of their own school in favor of a political appointee. And wherever Umbridge finds her aims checked by some loophole (as when Dumbledore appoints Firenze to teach Divination), it's a simple matter to get a new Decree expanding the Ministry's powers still more.

8. Micromanagement of Every Aspect of Life. Totalitarian regimes depend on complete control over every aspect of every minute of every citizen's life. At Hogwarts this policy is represented by the Educational Decree that puts Umbridge in charge of all teams, clubs, student organizations, etc., as well as the decrees on what teachers can say and what students can read, and really, the whole idea of an Inquisitor peering over the teachers' shoulders. Umbridge's great failing as an administrator is that she personally has to put out every fire, has to control what every teacher teaches, has to take a personal interest in what all the students are getting in the mail, has to have the fires watched, and has the last word on punishments handed out to wrongdoers. This makes her vulnerable to afflictions like Peeves and the Weasley Twins, and lays her open to remarks like the one on which Prof. Flitwick closes his classroom door on her face ("I wasn't sure I had the authority..."). It causes her to spend too much time running around at her wits' end. But it also means that, when nothing passes without her observation, she can control what people think and know, and single out anyone she cannot control.

9. The End Justifies the Means. This probably solves the problem of how Fudge and Umbridge can live with themselves. Nevertheless, their ends are pretty small. They are, after all, looking after themselves rather than the public they supposedly serve. Classic example: Umbridge's little debate with herself as she decides whether to put Harry under the Cruciatus Curse.

10. The Bigger They Are... My prediction is that Fudge will go the way of all totalitarian dictators. His enlightenment as to Voldemort's return, as of the end of Order of the Phoenix, does not change what he basically is. His first concern will always be for his own standing, his own regime. I predict his next step will be some kind of appeasement policy à la Neville Chamberlain. Or, at best, he will fight to protect his Legacy. But his weakness as a strategist will always be that his is motivated first of all by self-interest, and therefore he will not find it easy to make necessary sacrifices or to commit sufficient forces to achieve a swift and total victory. He is the sort of leader who will bring to mind Abraham Lincoln's generals, who time after time let smaller enemy forces move freely, and larger forces outmaneuver them, and let every advantage slip away because they were hesitant to commit.

My prediction, in short, is that the true scope of the disaster of Fudge's Ministry will not be seen until at least Book 6, when the war is on in earnest. And historically that situation admits of two possible outcomes. Either Fudge will be brought down by his own people, in disgrace (if he lives so long), or he will be brought down by an equally power-hungry rival, which would hardly improve things. I think Fudge's mismanagement will set the stage for many of the fiery trials to come. But sooner or later, he is coming down.

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