Thursday, November 29, 2012

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Who Don't Understand Magic

So I've blogged before about how Harry Potter; in particular I've blogged about how the Sorting Hat is either intentionally destroying the wizarding world or completely incompetent, but also a more general point on the nature of the series.

The first book is unmistakably a children's book; when it came out I was 10, and it was the hottest thing at that time.  I was actually in the same grade as Harry Potter when it came out, and all my friends were reading it.  Yet in just the same way the 7th book is unmistakably not a children's book.  For one thing, the later books are all well over 500 pages. They also touch on such topics as death, torture, and making out.

In children's books it is okay that adults are blundering idiots, that kids get away with nearly dooming the entire world to destruction, and that villains and heroes both time their moves exactly with one another.

Yet in adult books, all of that is inexcusable.

So when characters in the 5th book refer back to the events of the 1st book, they should be able to refer back to them and see how they acted completely oblivious to the existence of magic or of magicians who could perform magic, and how the three kids then lauded as heroes actually came inches from handing the key to immortal life to the most evil wizard in memory.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, we meet Harry and follow him to Hogwarts where he learns magic, and watch as he tries to uncover the mystery of what is hidden in the forbidden wing and who is trying to take it.

Harry and the gang spend all academic year asking questions they have no business knowing and talking to the game keeper who has a habit of getting drunk and revealing secret information, until they figure out what's going on.  A guy named Nicolas Flamel has created the Philosopher's Stone (which they call the Sorcerer's Stone for Americans because they figured we're too stupid to know what it is) and with it eternal life.  Voldemort has decided that getting this stone would help him return from mostly-death and back to power, so he tries to capture it.  It was first hidden in a vault in Gringott's bank, run by goblins and protected with spells, but is later transported by the same drunkardly-secret-revealing game keeper from thence to a special wing on the third floor of Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards.  Harry and Co. find out that a number of professors have set up an obstacle course of magical defenses, and that Snape himself made one of the defenses, but then decide that Snape is going to steal the Philosopher's Stone and that they and they alone must go and get it themselves, because Snape might outwit the most powerful wizards in the world, but not them.

It's a stupid plan, but then again, they're kids.

The first defense to the Stone -- and it is crucial to point this out as a defense -- the first defense is a door.  A normal door.  A normal door that connects to a wing in a school containing children as young as 10 and as old as 19.  A door that is not locked; it isn't magically locked, nor is it mechanically locked, but is completely perfectly openable to anyone and everyone who comes traipsing by and wants to have a look at what might be held therein.  Or any kid who gets lost in a school with malicious architecture might accidentally open.

So the first obstacle is to find a forbidden door and open it.

They could have bewitched the door in any of a dozen ways.  They could have magically sealed it -- they did with a later door.  They could have magically hidden the door so that you look right over it without noticing -- the Leaky Cauldron works this way.  They could have magically hidden the door with a Fidelius Charm.  They could have magically transmuted the door in to solid rook melted with the wall.

They could have done anything.

But they didn't.

It's a normal door.

They forgot that magic worked.

The second defense, after (accidentally?) opening the door is a giant three-headed dog called Fluffy that was provided by Hagrid.  This seems pretty reasonable, because ferocious beasts are what we expect to be guarding important treasures; but does Fluffy actually offer any challenge to a dark wizard from getting the Stone?

I'd have to say no.

We know from the 4th book that the killing curse works on animals.  It's a simple Avada Kedavra and no more Fluffy.  Even if we want to assume it wouldn't work, high school students are known to be able to defeat dragons, and Fluffy doesn't have any of the magical dragon scales that would deflect magic.  A first-year like Harry might have no idea what to do, but a talented wizard (especially one with knowledge in defending against dark magical creatures) would cast studepfy, or petralus totalis, or that thing that stings your eyes, or shoot firebolts, or lightning, or transform the dog in to a tea cup, or anything.  The guy you're hiding the Stone from is a wizard, one who was able to break in to the most magically protected bank in the country.  Not that Fluffy is nothing, but a wizard can use magic.

They, again, forgot that magic worked.

After Fluffy, you jump down a trap door and land in a Devil's Snare, which is a plant that strangles you more the more you try to escape.  It was put there by Professor Sprout, who then proceeded to teach her Herbology class all about it and how to escape from it.  Yes, that's right, the third obstacle is a plant from which 6th grade children are taught how to escape, and from which 6th grade children that very same year were being taught how to escape.

This isn't so much a problem of forgetting that magic worked, as a problem of just being an idiot.  Putting in an obstacle to protect the world from evil magic and then openly and publicly teaching people how to circumvent said obstacle would get you fired from your job in the real world, for sure.  It's even more unforgivably dumb than just forgetting that magic works.

After the plant, you go in to a room with lots of flying keys, one of which opens a door that is magically locked.  Spells like Alohamora will not work on it.  Let me reiterate, it is possible to lock a door magically such that no amount of magic and only a key will open it, and they just didn't do it except for this door.  Anyway, the object here is to get on the broom placed there for the dark wizard's convenience and try to catch the proper key, also placed in the same room as the lock for the dark wizard's convenience.

Now, let me point out the purely stupid error here.  Why do you offer the dark wizard the chance to get the key?  Why leave it in the room?  Just carry it down with you next time you need to visit the Stone.  Lock it in the Headmaster's office, or hide it with a Fidelius Charm.  And why offer them a broom?  It's like you want them to get on it and fly around and catch the right key and open the door -- except that you don't because you think an evil genocidal maniac is trying to capture the Stone and live forever.

But also, what is the challenge of this room?  The way you're clearly supposed to solve this puzzle -- ignoring that you are by no means supposed to ever solve this puzzle -- is to get on a broom and chase down the right key.  And solving it in that manner may present a challenge to a non-athletic wizard (though it clearly posed no problem for either a 10-year-old kid or for a middle-aged academic).  But these people are wizards.  There's all kinds of ways they can get the key without getting on a broom and flying.  Most obviously, they could Accio Key all the keys to them.  They could Impedimenta all the keys and then fly up and slowly pick them out of the air.   They could form a magical net with the rope spell and levitate it it over the keys and drop it.  Would Sirius's magical pocket knife have opened it?

But they didn't think of any of these things.

They forgot that magic works.

After this door, you enter a room where you "have" to play wizards chess.  There are (conveniently) three empty spaces for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to station themselves and act as pieces in an attempt to checkmate the opposing King.  Supposedly you have to beat the King in order to be allowed to pass.

Except not really, so far as I can tell.

This is Professor McGonagall's room, and the chess pieces are just transfigured to large size from a smaller board.  What works for one wizard one way could work for another wizard another way; anyone wanting to get by could transfigure them back to original size, or transfigure them in to something else entirely, like tea cups.

But then, how exactly do the pieces impede the forward progress of the player in the first place?  The books aren't clear, but the movie suggests the pieces physically block anyone trying to run past them; so wait until the enemy pieces are moved and then run past.  Or don't, and just use the broom from the last room to fly over them.  Or use a levitation spell to lift the pieces off of the ground and run under them.  Or use an explosive spell to blow up the pieces.  Or heck, what is to stop someone from Apparating directly behind the pieces?  These are just some suggestions, from a Muggle who has never been to wizarding school and isn't trying to steal the elixir of life; surely a wizard at the caliber of Voldemort would know of other, more elegant means of getting past the chess pieces without having to play chess.  But McGonagall didn't bother to think of clever ways that a wizard could use magic to quickly get past this obstacle.

Supposing even that the room was simply impassable unless you beat the chess game...  then make all the rooms that way and don't offer a chess game to get past it! 

Once more, in trying to stop the rise of dark and evil powers, they forgot that magic works.

After this is the mountain troll.  This is the laziest, most slovenly excuse of an obstacle I can think of.  It's basically Fluffy II, except not even as good as that.  At least Fluffy takes up the majority of the room in which he's imprisoned, and at least we don't know explicitly that a 1st-year magic student can knock Fluffy unconscious by using the very first spell a wizard learns on Fluffy's own weapon.  I guess it was provided by Quirrell who intended to get past all of the obstacles which offers some excuse.  Why Dumbledore looked at this and said "yeah, good idea, let's just have a troll in this room," is another issue.

When Harry and Hermione enter the room, the troll is already knocked unconscious, probably when Quirrell casts a first-year-level spell and levitated the troll's club over its head and knocked it out.  (Seriously, trolls are that easy to concuss.)  But Quirrell was being nice.  He could have Avada Kedavra-ed the troll (as with Fluffy) and moved on.  Or stupefied it.  Or anything.  Really, anything that would have been able to kill Fluffy would work just as well - or easier - on the troll.  It provides no new skill set to be tested, but worse, the skill set to be tested is regularly taught to everyone to graduate from wizard high school.

They forgot that magic works.

After this one goes to Snape's room, which contains a logic puzzle.  There is a riddle explaining the contents of the various bottles on the table, and by solving the riddle, one can deduce which potion to drink that will bring them through the fire and out of the room.

First of all, don't include a riddle.  You can just tell the people who need to get to the Stone which potion to drink and let everyone else guess.  And don't bother with stupid things like nettle wine - make everything poison except the bottles forward and backward.  Second of all, don't include the bottles, either.  Keep them in the Headmaster's office, along with the key to the flying-key door.  Or better yet, include the riddle yet lie and only have poison bottles and tell the people in on it to bring their own potion.

But then, let's ask what boundary is constraining us to have to pick some stupid bottle and drink it.  And the answer is fire.

Can't wizards cast spells to protect themselves from fire?  Maybe a freezing charm, or a protection charm.  Maybe wear dragon skin armor?  Maybe eat some herb or potion that allows the eater to withstand burning?  Can't you conjure water?  Can't wizards fly, and hence fly over the measly fire?  I mean, Flitwick did provide them with a broom three rooms back; they could go back and grab that, if they didn't already.  And once more, what is stopping them from Apparating just past the fire?  Or making a temporary Portkey to just past the fire?  As with all the other obstacles, there doesn't seem to be anything about this room that would actually prevent a wizard from just magicking straight past it.

And why not?

Because they seem to have forgotten that magic works.

Then finally the last room.  This one was thought of by Dumbledore, and this is the only defense that is actually functional.  This Mirror of Esired ensures that no one can get the Stone unless they do not wish to use it; therefore anyone wanting to steal the Stone for any reason other than altruism will be stumped.

Let this room act as an example of what a good obstacle is.  Note that it isn't an obstacle at all, but a legit security checkpoint.  Any idiot who went to wizard school could have blundered through the others; only particular people can get the Stone from this one.

But then Harry moronically shows up, thinking he's going to somehow overpower a professor of magic, fails to overpower a professor of magic, and while being held by the professor looks in to the mirror and receives the Stone, with Voldemort only inches away.  The Stone was perfectly safe, and Harry did absolutely nothing but remove it from its hiding place for an evil wizard to take.

And why doesn't Quirrell take it?  Because he tries to physically restrain Harry Potter with his hands.   Rather than using Imperius Curse, or the Cruciatus Curse, or the Avada Kedavra Curse, or Stupefy, or Impedimenta, or  using the freakin' rope spell again, or casting fireball, or transfiguring Harry in to a ferret, or levitating Harry off of the ground so he couldn't run away... or anything.  He could have done anything else at all to keep a 10-year-old kid who barely knows magic from escaping, and instead elects to not use the fact that he's a wizard to capture Harry and instead to grab Harry with his physical hand.  When he detects a burning sensation, rather than shouting something like "Stop touching him and use the killing curse", Voldemort idiotically demands Quirrell continue to physically restrain Harry until Quirrell bursts in to flame and disintegrates.

So why doesn't Voldemort get the Stone?  Because of Harry's bravery in standing up against a Dark Wizard?


Voldemort doesn't get the Stone because Voldemort forgot that magic works.

After this, for breaking over a dozen school rules, subverting security measures on a protected and dangerous magical artifact, all to break past the only obstacle that was a real obstacle preventing Voldemort from taking the Stone and living forever, and nearly (but for the most powerful wizard's temporary amnesia re: the existence of magic) handing it straight over to him, Harry Potter is punished by having his school house awarding some 200 points and given all sorts of applause and accolades by professors and students alike.

So you look at this, and you think "Hey, it's a kid's book, don't be so hard on it."

Except the Dumbledore who looked at this worthless collection of obstacles and gave it the A-Ok, and who rewards Harry for nearly getting himself and the entire wizarding world killed by his stubborn and dangerous actions, is the same Dumbledore who leads the Order of the Phoenix, searches out the Horcruxes, and makes the brilliant double-triple crossing plan to allow his own death by Snape to prevent Malfoy from having to murder and to prevent Voldemort from gaining the Elder Wand.  It's the same Dumbledore who duels with Voldemort, dodging curses and pouring out powerful magic.

Why doesn't Dumbledore know how magic works in the 1st book?

The Voldemort who had to only defeat his mortal enemy, a 10-year-old boy with no magical knowledge, to gain immortal life and does so by fisticuffs, stubbornly ignoring the pain caused by it in determination to subdue Harry by physical force, is the same Voldemort who later stoically kills total strangers with the Killing Curse, who laughs as he tortures even his allies, who has possessed dozens of people with curses and with darker magic, and who duels with Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic.

Why doesn't Voldemort know how magic works in the 1st book?

The Harry who in the 5th book expresses great guilt and shame at his foolish and impetuous urge to rush off to the Ministry of Magic, leading to his godfather's death and the near-retrieval of the prophecy he was trying to stop Voldemort from obtaining in the first place -- that Harry is the same Harry who nearly gave Voldemort eternal life for his same foolish and impetuous urge to act a hero, and who earlier in that same 5th book comments on how his actions in the 1st book do qualify him to teach DADA.

Why doesn't Harry realize, in that same 5th book, how nearly his actions in the 1st book killed everyone?

I have much more to say as it concerns Harry Potter, even as it concerns the very first book, but that will suffice for now.


Anonymous said...

This is amazing. So true.

Anonymous said...

I know it's a bit late to comment now... but I'm just so pleased to find someone with a critical view of these books! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Dumbledore was sacrificing Harry as bait. It explains all those actions including giving Harry the invisibility cloak. The tests were designed so Harry could get past them, confront Voldemort and then die. But Voldemort eluded Dumbledore. Only later does he find out about Parseltongue and Horcruxes. BTW you can not Apparate on school grounds (only the Headmaster can).

Superfrog said...

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Anthony Alvarado

Anonymous said...

First of all forgive my English, it is not my native language. But I am really impressed with your article on HP. You answered the questions I had asked myself - why I feel tired reading that book - I had no incentive to move to the next part, so I gave up after reading the first 3 volumes. I tried to compare it with Narnia, Mary Poppins, Whinie-the-Pooh and I admit I could not articulate precisely what annoyed me the most- until I came accross your writing. You're right - the story itself is so inconsistent and blurred, and the author gets away without proper explanation that annoys me. The author was not able to "manage" properly the world she created. Let alone the style that gets clumsy many a time. It didn't surprised my that Rowling had been turned down 6 times before she finally found the publisher willing to publish her book.
Why such a success? I think the audience has become less demanding.

ChangelingChilde said...

Most of them weren't even trying, although Snape did pretty good. But yeah, the only real explanation is that Dumbledore was blatantly planning to either trap Quirrell, test Harry or both. Probably both.

Unknown said...

So two things: one is that I dimly recall that in the denouement, Dumbledore explains that the whole obstacle course was a head-fake. The mirror is not even kept in that wing for most of the year. Dumbledore is unexpectedly removed from Hogwarts for like three hours when Voldermort attacks, defusing the trap thats supposed to spring when Dumbledore detects someone messing with the mirror.
Two is that, up until that point in the story, voldemort is supposed to believe that harry is shielded from specifically his magic, and it may kill voldemort to cast any spell at harry.