Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40′s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. ;-)

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s WifeI have had Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife on my to-read list for an age, and I’m not sure why I wasn’t compelled to actually start reading it sooner. I started watching Doctor Who on Netflix, and I found the story of the Doctor and River Song deeply compelling. In the episode “The Day of the Moon,” River is going back to prison, and she kisses the Doctor goodbye.

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I found the idea of two time travelers, in love, but living in opposite directions, so devastatingly, hopelessly sad. And as I did some digging online, I found that people compared the relationship between River and the Doctor to this novel, which is what prompted me to read it at last.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is the story of Henry and Clare DeTamble. Henry has a genetic disease that causes him to travel through time. He is unable to control it, and when he arrives at his destinations, he is naked (being unable to take his clothes with him through time) and often has no idea when he is. From Clare’s perspective, they first meet when she is a little girl, and Henry occasionally visits her as she grows up. Though Henry can’t seem to control his travels, he does seem drawn to important people and places in his life. Their love story is both beautiful and tragic.

At this point, the review is about to be spoilery, so you have been warned. Don’t read further if you don’t want parts of the book ruined for you. Though I realize this book has been out for a while now, and spoiler alerts are technically “off,” I enjoyed the book spoiler free (excepting for spoiling it for myself by peeking ahead), and I think everyone else who wants to read it has that right. For that reason, spoiler text is in white below. Select the text to read it.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that I thought Henry’s death was unsatisfactory. After all the times he managed to get out of scrapes, he winds up being shot, and by Clare’s father and brother while they’re out hunting, no less? Yes, it’s probably a miracle that he managed to survive as long as he did, given all the bizarre situations in which he finds himself, but that was just pretty awful. All that said, I loved the rest of it. I admit it was a little difficult to keep up with Henry’s adventures, but his life with Clare, and their love for one another, was so well drawn and compelling, that I couldn’t quit turning pages. And then I peeked ahead and realized Henry was going to die, and I had to put the book down for a while because I just couldn’t take it. I knew that a story as strange as this one was bound to be fraught and most likely could not end well, but I didn’t want to read about Henry’s death. At last I picked the book up again and finished it. I adored the ending and the comparisons to Odysseus and Penelope. We read The Odyssey and see Odysseus’s story, but we have glimpses, only, of Penelope’s twenty years of waiting. In many ways, Clare’s own story is much more heartrending than Penelope’s.

In all, this was a good book, and it’s been a while since I read a book I enjoyed this much.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Alex Jennings

The Horse and His Boy CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I know I read the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, about 20 years ago when I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I had no memory of its plot at all. I think I know why. It’s utterly forgettable.

If you are not familiar with the plot, it is the story of a foundling boy named Shasta, who is raised by a fisherman named Arsheesh in Calormen, which seems to be C. S. Lewis’s stand-in for the Arab world. Shasta runs away upon learning that he is to be sold, and he meets talking horse from Narnia named Bree; a feisty fellow runaway named Aravis, who is escaping a marriage she does not want; and Aravis’s horse, Hwin. In their escape, they go to the city of Tashbaan, where Shasta is mistaken for a prince of Archenland named Corin. You see where this is going, right? I figured out most of the rest of the plot at that moment. At any rate, Shasta does meet Queen Susan, Queen Lucy, and King Edmund in his travels, as well as Aslan, who guides him in the night when he is running to tell the king of Archenland of an impending invasion by forces from Calormen.

I thought the plot was predictable. My reaction on finishing the book is really just a resounding “meh.” The characters were fine. I liked them. I just felt the plot was fairly well trodden. I really wonder why the book needed to be included in the series. It feels like filler material. However, Alex Jennings does an excellent narration, and I think I would like to read other books read by him.

Book Rating: ★★½☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

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Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Michael York

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I recently decided to finish reading The Chronicles of Narnia, as I never read them as a child, and the time I did start them, I never finished the series.

The second book in the series, chronologically speaking (the first book published), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is arguably the most famous. In fact, one of my students made a reference to going inside the wardrobe as a metaphor for exploring the unknown just today. I often wonder how many children spent several frustrating minutes inside closets and wardrobes over the years in a desperate attempt to get to Narnia.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story (not sure how that can happen), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of the four Pevensie siblings: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are sent to live in the country house of Professor Digory Kirke during the London air raids, and while playing hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, discovers a magical wardrobe that transports her to a snowy land inhabited by a faun, Mr. Tumnus. She befriends the faun, and he reveals that he is in league with the White Witch and has promised to give the Witch word should any “Sons of Adam” or “Daughters of Eve” show up in Narnia. He meant to turn Lucy in, but he couldn’t do it. She returns through the wardrobe back to Professor Kirke’s house to discover she’s been gone no time at all, and the others don’t believe her. Later, the others all discover she is telling the truth, but not before the White Witch manages to sink her claws into Edmund via some fiendishly addictive Turkish Delight and convince him to rat out his siblings. The Pevensies find themselves caught up in ancient Narnian prophecy and wind up having to rid Narnia of the White Witch.

So, we have to talk about Aslan. Is it me, or is he the least interesting character? I mean, I understand he is supposed to be a Christ figure, and I have nothing against Christ figures in literature, but Aslan’s depiction in that role is just so heavy-handed. Perhaps it isn’t so heavy-handed to the intended audience of children. I actually really liked Edmund this time around. He was a pain in the rear, but he redeemed himself, and he was a little more interesting than the other characters. Jadis makes for a nice villain. I had forgotten the ending was so violent. I also have a soft spot for Lucy, but I confess I found Peter and Susan to be too goody-goody and boring to be terribly interesting. However, the storyline is deeply engaging, and it’s not hard to see why it has endured as a children’s favorite.

Also, as a side note, the missing Oxford comma in the title really bothers me, given C. S. Lewis was an Oxford man. Anyone know why it was left out?

It had been quite a long time since I read this book, and I have to say the Disney movie did a superb job capturing all of the book’s elements (and in casting). I couldn’t help but think about the movie as I was reading and remembering how the various parts of the book were depicted. I have to say Michael York’s reading was uneven. He did an excellent job characterizing most of the Narnian characters and Edmund and Lucy as well, but I didn’t care much for his Aslan, and he had a sort of odd cadence that sounded slightly patronizing. I think it was an attempt to sound avuncular, but it didn’t always hit that mark. All things being equal, I liked The Magician’s Nephew better in terms of the narration.

Because this book features Jadis, as the White Witch, I will count it for the Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge.

Story Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★☆☆

2014 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge

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Review: The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Kenneth Branagh

The Magician’s Nephew CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)Many years ago, I started reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but I think I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’. I never did finish the series, and I have almost no memory of what happens in the books (with the large exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). I did remember that Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word and destroyed Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, but that is truthfully just about all I remembered. So when I discovered that the audio book versions of the Chronicles of Narnia were all read by great British actors like Kenneth Branagh, Michael York, Derek Jacobi, and Patrick Stewart, I decided to use my Audible credits to get the whole series and re-read it once I had accumulated the entire collection. I have decided to follow the apparently controversial chronology established by Harper Collins rather than the publication order. I know plenty of people seem to feel quite strongly that following chronological order instead of publication order is doing it wrong, but I am going to do it anyway. I hate reading rules, anyway.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of The Magician’s Nephew, it concerns the story of Digory Kirke, the nephew in question, who later grows up to be the professor who takes in the Pevensies when they are fleeing London during World War II. His evil uncle Andrew is a magician who believes he possibly had the last real fairy godmother in Britain. He creates some magic rings that will take the bearer to another world, but as he’s too chicken to try them out himself, he forces Digory to try them by sending his new friend Polly to this other world without a ring that will bring her back. When Digory goes to rescue Polly, he discovers the rings actually take to bearer to a place between worlds. Digory and Polly decide to explore one of the other worlds before going back to mean Uncle Andrew, and they wind up in the destroyed world of Charn. Digory wakes up the evil former queen of Charn, Jadis, when he is too tempted to ring a bell to resist, and she manages to go back to London with the children, where Andrew is both charmed and frightened by her. In an attempt to take Jadis away from London, the children, Andrew, and a hapless cabbie and his horse all wind up in the land between worlds and from there end up in Narnia, which is just in the process of being created by Aslan (the Jesus allegory lion). Unfortunately, Jadis is there, too, and Aslan is disappointed that people have already brought evil into the world he just created (cue really heavy-handed Genesis allegory here). He asks that Digory right the wrong by retrieving an apple from a far distant tree. When he arrives, Jadis tempts him to eat the apple himself, but he manages to resist and bring it back to Aslan, who uses it to plant a tree that will protect Narnia from Jadis, now the White Witch, at least for as long as the tree stands. He gives Digory one of the apples to take back with him to London so that he can give it to his ailing mother and cure her, which he does. Later he plants the core, which grows into a great apple tree from which a certain wardrobe is later made.

One thing I thought as I listened to this book, aside from the thought that Kenneth Branagh should just read all the books to me, is that J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman owe a fairly obvious debt of gratitude to C. S. Lewis. I know both have acknowledged him as an influence, but the writing style and humor really reminded me of the kinds of things I have heard in Rowling (particularly the first few books of the Harry Potter series) and Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Polly in particular reminded me of Scarlett Perkins in The Graveyard Book. She was utterly charming, and I liked her very much. I didn’t remember Uncle Andrew very much from my first reading of his novel, but Kenneth Branagh gave him this fabulous unctuous manner of speaking that made me happy every time he was given a line. In fact, Branagh was fabulous the entire way through. I really could listen to him read all the books.

Because this book features Jadis, who later becomes the White Witch, I will count it for the Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge. From this time forward, audio books will receive two ratings: one rating for the story and one for the audio interpretation.

Story Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

2014 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge

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Splintered, A. G. Howard

A. G. Howard’s novel Splintered is a sequel, of sorts, to Lewis Carroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. What if Alice really did go down the rabbit hole, and all the adventures she had really happened? Alyssa Gardner is a descendant of Alice Liddell’s, and she carries a family curse—beginning with Alice herself, a strain of madness has run through each woman in Alyssa’s family. Alyssa’s mother Alison lives in a mental institution, and Alyssa herself hides the fact that she can hear bugs and plants talking to her because she knows her mother’s fate is the fate that awaits her as well. But a Wonderland resident reaches out to her and convinces her that she has the power to save her mother, and herself, if she is willing to go down the rabbit hole and put right what Alice destroyed when she went to Wonderland.

The cover of this book is gorgeous, and the beautiful cover, along with the plot description, convinced me to pick up this book. The book owes a great debt to Tim Burton’s visions of Wonderland, which A. G. Howard acknowledges herself. Parts of it were quite enjoyable, and the ending was a page-turner. However, there were stretches of time when I found myself avoiding reading it, which is always a sign to me that something’s bothering me about a book. I like the premise, but the writing isn’t even, and I almost felt like Alyssa and her crush Jeb were a little too “cool.” I really wanted to like this book more than I did. If it is part of of a series, I don’t believe I’ll be picking up the other books. I admit it was diverting in some places. I liked it best when Lewis Carroll’s characters showed up in all their glory, however. What that means to me is that Alyssa and other characters created for this sequel more or less pale in comparison to Carroll’s memorable characters, even if their descriptions were rather deliciously morbid and freaky. The Wonderland landscape is rendered vividly. I think the right readers will find and love this book, and truthfully, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I give it 3½ stars for being more than just OK and for being different and creative, but in the end, I just wanted to like the new characters and to find them more interesting than I did. It just took me way too long to finish.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Re-Reading Harry Potter: The Pensieve

The PensieveOne of my favorite magical devices in the series makes its first appearance in this reading selection, chapters 26-30 of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

Chapter 26 sees Harry preparing in earnest for the second task after he’s worked out the egg clue. The trio are talking about what Moody said about Snape being on a second chance, and Harry remarks, “I just want to know what Snape did with his first chance, if he’s on his second one.” The arc of Snape’s development is interesting to watch. He is a complex character precisely because he’s not a nice guy, but he is ultimately on the side of good, and the reason he is good is that he has loved someone deeply. I think perhaps one of the strongest motifs of this series is that there is true goodness in love. Voldemort’s evil stems in part from the fact that he has never known love and therefore cannot understand it as a motivation for behavior. It is this blind spot that is his downfall over and over again, from trying to kill Harry to trusting Snape to believing he can be stronger and even defeat Harry if he steals Harry’s blood to his final defeat at the Battle of Hogwarts when he cannot fathom the characters’ strong bonds of love for one another that give them, as Harry puts it in the fifth movie, “something worth fighting for.” And part of loving others is giving them second chances and forgiving them, which is yet another thing—forgiveness—that Voldemort cannot comprehend. Dumbledore trusts Snape not just because of what he knows about Lily, but because he understands the power of his forgiveness over Snape. Snape will get no such treatment from Voldemort, no matter how useful he might be.

Dobby finds Harry in the library and gives him gillyweed, which enables him to grow gills and swim easily underwater. The route by which Harry gets the gillyweed is a little circuitous. I actually liked that the movie had Harry find out about it from Neville. That had been Moody/Crouch’s plan all along, but in the book, Harry never asks Neville for help and so Moody/Crouch lets slip that gillyweed would work where Dobby could overhear. A bit contrived. I imagine the movie used Neville instead because of the extra expense of CGI Dobby. That whole film cuts the storyline waaaay down, anyway, but I do like Harry getting gillyweed from Neville better. Sigh.

A moment’s pause to reflect on what a ridiculously dangerous task the champions are set. I mean anyone could have drowned, hostages or champions. I suppose the fact that so many trained wizards are on hand would probably have prevented such a tragedy, but still. I have to wonder again about why anyone sends their child to Hogwarts.

In chapter 27, I noticed a nice little bit of foreshadowing I don’t think I have picked up on before. When Hermione is speculating about how Rita Skeeter could have known that Viktor asked Hermione to visit him in Bulgaria over the summer, she is “holding her pestle suspended over a bowl of scarab beetles.” Of course, Rita turns out to be an animagus who turns into a beetle. If you re-read the book after knowing about Rita, you notice that Rowling carefully connects those dots and plants clues about Rita’s secret.

It does crack me up every time when Snape sidles over to their table and says, “Fascinating though your social life undoubtedly is, Miss Granger, I must ask you not to discuss it in my class. Ten points from Gryffindor.” But then he reads that horrible article out loud. That’s just nasty. I have known teachers who will do that sort of thing—read notes out loud. Of course, students today rarely pass notes in class. They text.

Much has been made of Sirius’s statement in this chapter that “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” On the one hand, Sirius seems to be advocating kindness towards creatures like house elves, but on the other, his statement makes it very clear he considers them lesser beings, and he himself is not kind to Kreacher. He has his reasons. Kreacher is pretty horrible to him. It’s interesting that Harry later determines that kindness is the key to reaching Kreacher and actually befriends the elf, but Sirius, despite this platitude, never figures that out.

We also learn that Sirius never had a trial before he was sent to Azkaban. Had he been given a trial, there is a chance he might have gone free, though the evidence against him did look overwhelming. Crouch’s tactics as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement are reprehensible. He allowed Aurors to use Unforgivable Curses and sent others besides Sirius to Azkaban without a trial. He did it for what he might have viewed as the greater good, but as we learn in the rest of the series, many atrocities are committed by people who think they are acting “for the greater good.” My hunch is that we’ll find out more about Crouch’s background on Pottermore when this book is released, and one thing I expect to find out is that he was in Slytherin House in school. And then, his son is caught alongside the Lestranges, torturing the Longbottoms. I am interested to learn more about Barty, Jr. He swears he is innocent, but all of his actions in this book point to his being a full-fledged Death Eater. I’d be interested to know how he wound up in the company of Death Eaters.

Sirius also wonders why Dumbledore would hire Snape to teach given Snape’s fascination with the Dark Arts. As we later learn, he invented quite a few hexes, including the very nasty Sectumsempra. Sirius says, “Snape knew more curses when he arrived at school than half the kids in seventh year and he was part of a gang of Slytherins who nearly all turned out to be Death Eaters.” He has a keen mind, and that he would choose to dwell so much in such activity is interesting. I have to say as much as we learn about Snape and his history, I still would like to learn more. But Sirius cannot get past one fact: Dumbledore trusts Snape. And though Dumbledore “trusts where a lot of other people wouldn’t,” it doesn’t make sense to Sirius that Dumbledore would let Snape teach at Hogwarts if he had ever been a Death Eater, which just illustrates further Dumbledore’s capacity to forgive and ability to understand others, and, indeed, to understand regret and what it means to have a second chance—something, as we find out, Dumbledore himself was never given. As the trio leaves Sirius in the cave near Hogsmeade, they talk about Percy and Crouch. Ron has the measure of Percy: “But maybe he doesn’t care … it’d probably just make him admire Crouch even more. Yeah, Percy loves rules. He’d just say Crouch was refusing to break them for his own son,” to which Hermione replies, “Percy would never throw any of his family to the Dementors.” Ron says, “I don’t know … If he thought we were standing in the way of his career … Percy’s really ambitious, you know.” Foreshadowing. You know, I just don’t ever forgive Percy for being such an ass later. I just don’t. I guess every family has to have a jerk like Percy in it somewhere.

In chapter 28, Harry says something to Hermione about Rita Skeeter using “bugging,” and Hermione gets an idea. She dashes off to the library to check, and sure enough, Rita Skeeter is not a registered animagus. Later in the chapter, he and Krum go have a chat in the forest after learning about the final task, and Crouch shows up, raving mad. He is clearly fightly off the Imperius Curse with some difficulty.

In chapter 29, Harry speculates that Moody was using the Marauder’s Map to reach them in the forest so quickly, which is precisely what he was doing. The trio later runs into Fred and George in the Owlery, discussing blackmail, when Ron warns them they could get in trouble for that, George says, “Carry on like this and you’ll be made a Prefect.” Ron replies hotly, “No I won’t!” Interesting because, of course, he is made a Prefect, and he is not disappointed about it when it happens.

Harry later has a dream in Divination that appears to be real—he is seeing what Voldemort is doing at that moment. He goes straight to Dumbledore, who is with the minister and leaves Harry in his office, alone with the Pensieve, which he did not put away properly. Naturally, Harry peeks. The first scene Harry sees is Karkaroff’s trial, in which he names the names of other Death Eaters in order to walk free. Harry learns that Snape himself was, indeed, a Death Eater. The scene changes, and Harry is seeing a new trial. This time, Ludo Bagman is testifying on his own behalf, addressing charges that he passed information to Voldemort through Augustus Rookwood. The wizards and witches in the courtroom are so blinded by Bagman’s celebrity that they can’t focus on the trial, and Bagman walks. The scene changes again, and this time, four people are brought in—the Lestranges and Barty Crouch, Jr. Harry learns that Neville’s parents were tortured into insanity.

I have always found it interesting that Barty, Jr. pleads his innocence. I don’t know how guilty he actually is. Did he become true to Voldemort only after his father cast him away, or is his desperation in the court a ruse to appeal to his father’s paternal instincts in order to avoid prison? It’s hard to say. I think he was probably young and stupid. He was with the Lestranges when they were caught, but knowing them, I have a hunch they did the torturing while Crouch more or less watched and did nothing about it. However, his behavior later suggests that he has strong loyalty to Voldemort, even after all these years have passed. He seems to view Voldemort as a father figure—a substitute for the father who cast him aside and then imprisoned him for years. It’s a complicated situation, and I’d like to learn more about him, for sure.

At that point, Dumbledore returns to his office, and far from chiding Harry for nosing into the Pensieve, he is patient and understanding of Harry’s curiosity. He shows Harry how the Pensieve works and even answers his questions about what he saw in it. It would be a great device to have if you want to make connections and see how everything fits together.

Harry and Dumbledore discuss Harry’s scar hurting, and Dumbledore says that Voldemort and Harry “are connected by the curse that failed.” Whether he has completely figured out that Harry is a Horcrux or not at this stage is not clear, but I believe he has. I think he realizes that the diary is a Horcrux in Harry’s second year, and he deduces that Harry must be one as well before the events in this book.

Harry probes Dumbledore about why he trusts Snape, but Dumbledore says, “That, Harry, is a matter between Professor Snape and myself.” The relationship between Snape and Dumbledore is one of the closest and most touching in the books. When we finally explore it from Snape’s memories in the final book, Snape and Dumbledore are both illuminated. I know my perspective of them both changed as I saw their relationship through that lens.

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Re-Reading Harry Potter: Hermione and House Elves

houseelvesLook at this very cool House Elf Abolitionist Badge you can buy on Etsy!

I love Etsy.

That said, Hermione’s heart is in the right place, but she has it wrong about house elves, which is just one of the thoughts I have about chapters 21-25 of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

Harry has successfully managed to beat the dragon in the first task, and he is trying to work out the egg clue for the second task, but it just sounds like wailing. Seamus Finnigan says it sounds like a banshee, which is what his boggart is. Neville says it sounds like someone being tortured and wonders if Harry will have to fight the Cruciatus Curse. He has been much preoccupied with this curse, for obvious reasons, and it begs the question: Did he remember, somewhere in the back of his mind, his parents’ torture? He would have been quite young, but it is possible that such an event left an impression on him.

I mentioned Hermione and house elves. As I said, she has good intentions, but house elves do not seem to want to be free, at least not for the most part. Winky is devastated when Crouch frees her, and she never really gets over it. She is so determined to view Dobby as the example instead of an exception to the rule. She can be quite stubborn when she thinks she’s right. On the other hand, Hermione is right. House elves are treated like slaves, and the fact that they seem to like it is ignorance. Even Dobby, the most “forward thinking” elf in terms of his conception of freedom, talks Dumbledore down from a larger paycheck and more benefits. So what do you do? How do you free a people who doesn’t want to be free? How do you educate them about their choices? The issue of house elves is not really resolved in the books, but I would be interested to learn more about them on Pottermore. I hope the issue of house elves is addressed when they release this book on Pottermore.

Harry faces his first major dating challenge and has to confront the dilemma of how to ask a girl out. He sets his sights on Cho Chang, with whom he has a few things in common: she’s a Seeker for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team, so at least there is Quidditch to talk about. I have always liked the actress who played her in the movies. Her wonderful Scottish accent! At any rate, of course, she already has a date, and Ron and Harry grow more desperate until Ron is even willing to go with Hermione. I love her response. And I love how gorgeous she looks at the ball. They wind up, of course, with the Patil twins, and Dean Thomas even remarks that he can’t figure out how they managed to get dates with the prettiest girls in their year. Interesting that Neville thinks to ask Hermione out before her two best friends. He seems to be able to appreciate her as a girl and as a friend before they can. As Ron relates, “He told me after Potions! Said she’s always been really nice, helping him out with work and stuff.” Ron thinks Hermione has made up a date to avoid going with Neville.

I have to admit I’ve always found it kind of odd that Viktor Krum asked Hermione out. I mean, she is quite a bit younger than he is, and it’s hard to see what might attract him. I suspect he is a much more serious student than his pro-Quidditch-player background would suggest. I was glad Rowling brought Krum back later in the books. I liked him.

Fred winds up asking Angelina Johnson to the ball. Their relationship is never really elucidated in the books, but Rowling has hinted that they dated for some time because she refers to Angelina as Fred’s ex. That’s not the kind of terminology you use to describe someone with whom you went to one dance. Later on, George winds up marrying Angelina. She has intimated that it is not the healthiest thing to marry your brother’s ex under the circumstances, but also perhaps that George and Angelina came together in their grief over Fred, and they did name their son Fred (they also had a daughter Roxanne).

One last note about the whole date-procuring fiasco. Parvati Patil’s best friend is Lavender Brown, and when Harry asks Parvati to the ball, he initially asks if Lavender will go with Ron, but Lavender already has a date with Seamus. So funny that later on, Lavender will be Won-Won’s first girlfriend.

Later, Hermione has a great time at the ball until Ron ruins the end of her evening by being a jealous jackass. Viktor describes Durmstrang. It sounds sort of stark and cold. Karkaroff is prompted to quiet Viktor so as not to reveal Durmstrang’s secrets, after which Dumbledore and Karkaroff have a short discussion about their school’s secrets, and Dumbledore’s reaction always makes me laugh: “Oh, I would never dream of assuming I know all Hogwarts’ secrets, Igor.” He describes finding the Room of Requirement when he had to use the bathroom. It had been full of chamber pots. In pondering the room’s appearance, he speculates finally that it might only appear when “the seeker has an exceptionally full bladder,” which is the closest explanation to the truth.

Then the Weird Sisters take the stage, and this one aspect of the books that I felt was really well represented in the films. Of course, the filmmakers were able to convince Jarvis Cocker to be the Weird Sisters’ lead singer and write songs for the film.

A side note: Rowling included the passage when Viktor is trying to learn to say Hermione’s name in order to address frequent questions from readers about how to pronounce it. Pretty sneaky, sis.

Ron and Harry overhear Hagrid admitting he is half-giant, and he notices the Rita Skeeter beetle for the first time. She’s a great character, isn’t she? I hope we learn more about her background on Pottermore. My bet is that she was a Slytherin because she doesn’t seem to mind bending the rules—at all—when she’s after a story. She doesn’t strike me as particularly brave, so Gryffindor is out. She is not kind and loyal, so Hufflepuff is out, too. She might possibly be a Ravenclaw because she does have some brains, but I think her ambition and hungry story-seeking is much more dominant in her personality, so my vote is Slytherin. Do you ever try to figure out what House characters whose Houses are not revealed in the series are in?

Naturally, Skeeter prints the news about Hagrid’s mother. Hagrid retreats to his cabin, and he doesn’t come back to work until the trio visit him. They find Dumbledore already there, trying to convince Hagrid to come back to work. Dumbledore says, “Really, Hagrid, if you are holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time.” Isn’t that the truth? I love Dumbledore. I have always wondered exactly what inappropriate charms Aberforth was practicing on that goat.

In the next chapter, “The Egg and the Eye,” we learn more about the limitations of the Maruader’s Map. It does show everyone, even if they are magically concealed under an invisibility cloak or Polyjuice Potion, but it does not distinguish among people with the same name. Bartemius Crouch, Sr. or Bartemius Crouch, Jr. would both just read Bartemius Crouch, which is why Harry naturally assumes Barty Sr. is poking around Snape’s office. Why on earth would he assume it was Barty Jr.? Who would? But Barty Jr. realizes that the map could reveal his big secret and asks Harry if he can borrow it.

I always found it interesting that when Moody/Crouch arrives when Snape and Filch have found Harry’s egg, and Filch is about to reveal that someone has broken into Snape’s office to Moody, Snape hisses at Filch to “Shut up!” Snape doesn’t trust Moody. Now you could go the obvious route and note that as a former Death Eater, Snape likely tangled with Moody in some capacity, but I have a hunch that he knows something is up with Moody, but is not sure what. Possibly he is more attuned to the effects of Polyjuice Potion than others might be, being the Potions Master. I think it likely he hasn’t figured out that Moody is really Barty Crouch, Jr., though, but that he thinks there is something not quite right with the guy. Snape has pretty good instincts, when he doesn’t let his prejudices blind him, and he does seem to pick up on things that others miss. He did, after all, figure out Lupin was a werewolf back in school.

Interesting that Moody/Crouch suggests Harry consider a career as an Auror. I think it’s the first time Harry ever thinks about it, and even though the suggestion comes from a madman, he winds up doing exactly that with his life later. I still contend that no matter how insane Moody/Crouch was, he was still one of the best DADA teachers Harry had. Even Dean Thomas later says they learned a lot from Barty Jr. despite his being a maniac.

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Re-Reading Harry Potter: “Never Laugh at Live Dragons”

Hungarian Horntail

My oldest daughter used to love dragons, and she drew some excellent ones over the years. One thing she couldn’t stand was a dragon who answered to a person, which was why she never got into the Christopher Paolini books and some other great dragon series by authors like Jane Yolen. Harry Potter dragons? Now those were more her speed because they will fry you crispy and bite you in half if they don’t stomp you first. In some ways, the subjugation of dragons in literature is much like the defanging of vampires. Dragons have traditionally been bad news. A dragon killed the great warrior Beowulf in the end. Dragons are fascinating mythical creatures in that they seem to have cropped up in the mythologies of many more ancient cultures than seems coincidental. But they are almost universally depicted in ancient myths as frightening creatures.

So on to my thoughts about chapters 16-20 of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.

In chapter 16, “The Goblet of Fire,” Harry is selected as a fourth champion in the Triwizard Tournament, alongside Viktor Krum of Durmstrang, Fleur Delacour of Beauxbatons, and Cedric Diggory of Hufflepuff. Moody himself suggests that someone cast a powerful Confundus Charm on the Goblet, hoodwinking the object into thinking a fourth school would be competing, and entered Harry’s name under that school. As he was the one who did it, he’s probably just telling the bald truth.

I have a big problem with how Michael Gambon portrays Dumbledore in chapter 17, “The Four Champions.” Aside from this one scene, I think Gambon does OK, though he never quite inhabits Dumbledore like Richard Harris did (or, I contend, like Ian McKellen would have—I have a feeling he was offered the gig and turned it down, don’t you?). But he manhandles Harry when questioning him about how his name was entered into the Goblet of Fire. He does not do this in the book, and he would never do it. He is a skilled Legilimens. All he needs to do is look into Harry’s eyes when asking him about entering his name, and he’ll have the truth of the matter. As a matter of fact, the book’s description reads, “‘Did you put your name into the Goblet of Fire, Harry?’ Dumbledore asked calmly.” CALMLY. Not freaking-out-and-pushing-Harry-around.

It is really sad that Ron doesn’t believe Harry and that they stop talking to each other.   Hermione knows exactly how Harry feels. She’s been on the receiving end of Ron’s stubbornness many times, but experiencing it from Harry’s point of view for the first time is interesting. It makes me feel more empathetic towards Hermione.

In chapter 18, “The Weighing of the Wands,” Ollivander returns to check that the Triwizard participants’ wands are in working order. Before that, Hermione tries to get Harry to see Ron’s point of view—he’s always overshadowed and shunted to the side. These feelings will resurface again, most strongly, when Ron believes Hermione prefers Harry to Ron himself and leaves his friends while they are hunting for horcruxes in Deathly Hallows. In this conversation, Hermione mentions Harry is “already in half the books about You-Know-Who, you know.” I realize Hermione is estimating here, but wouldn’t it be more logical for Harry to be in a lot more of the books than half? Especially those written after his downfall?

Malfoy and Harry duel before Potions class, and their spells hit Goyle and Hermione by mistake. Hermione’s teeth grow past her chin, and Snape says, “I see no difference” in reply to Ron’s protestations that Malfoy’s curse also caused damage. I think it’s easily the nastiest, meanest thing he says in the entire series, and there’s no excuse for it. It’s just cruel. It’s the one single thing he says that I can’t get past. He bullies Neville, all right, which is wrong, but if you consider he knew that Neville might have been the Chosen One instead of Harry, and the fact that he wasn’t chosen led to Lily Potter’s death, you can sort of see it. Not that it’s right. At all. But it makes some kind of twisted sense. It’s not Neville’s fault he wasn’t chosen any more than it’s Harry’s fault that James Potter was his father, and Snape is wrong to hold such ridiculous grudges. But his treatment of Hermione here is really beyond the pale, and he never redeems himself of it.

And now some commentary on the wands and their cores from Pottermore.

Ollivander first checks out Fleur Delacour’s wand, which is “nine and a half inches… inflexible … rosewood … and containing … dear me …” a veela hair. Ollivander only uses unicorn tail hair, dragon heartstrings, and phoenix feathers in his wand, as much study has led him to conclude these three substances produce the best wands. He is considered a master wandmaker in a long line of master wandmakers.

Wand flexibility is interesting. If you notice, many of the characters in Harry Potter books have wands described in various gradations of flexibility or rigidity. It is a sign of willingness to change. I, for instance, consider myself to be fairly flexible, but my wand is described as “hard,” so what do I know? Perhaps my husband would nod knowingly and just keep his mouth shut. Fleur’s wand is “inflexible,” meaning she herself has a certain inflexibility, and you do see that with her character.

No mention is made of rosewood among the wand woods that Ollivander uses, either. I will be interested to see if the article on wand woods is expanded when this chapter of Goblet of Fire is added to Pottermore.

Next, Ollivander examines Cedric’s wand, twelve and a quarter inches, ash, pleasantly springy, with a core of unicorn tail hair. This happens to be the same kind of wand wood and core my oldest daughter, the previously mentioned dragon lover, has. You will find if you join Pottermore that wands really do tend to match the personalities of their owners in some amazing respects. I think that every time I check on a friend or family member’s wand and look it up in the wand wood and wand core articles. Anyway, Cedric’s wand of ash:

The ash wand cleaves to its one true master and ought not to be passed on or gifted from the original owner, because it will lose power and skill. This tendency is extreme if the core is of unicorn. Old superstitions regarding wands rarely bear close examination, but I find that the old rhyme regarding rowan, chestnut, ash, and hazel wands (rowan gossips, chestnut drones, ash is stubborn, hazel moans) contains a small nugget of truth. Those witches and wizards best suited to ash wands are not, in my experience, lightly swayed from their beliefs or purposes. However, the brash or over-confident witch or wizard, who often insists on trying wands of this prestigious wood, will be disappointed by its effects. The ideal owner may be stubborn, and will certainly be courageous, but never crass or arrogant.

About unicorn tail hairs, we learn

Unicorn hair generally produces the most consistent magic, and is least subject to fluctuations and blockages. Wands with unicorn cores are generally the most difficult to turn to the Dark Arts. They are the most faithful of all wands, and usually remain strongly attached to their first owner, irrespective of whether or not he or she was an accomplished witch or wizard.

Minor disadvantages of unicorn hair are that they do not make the most powerful wands (although the wand wood may compensate) and that they are prone to melancholy if seriously mishandled, meaning the hair may “die” and need replacing.

I think an ash wand with unicorn tail hair is a good fit for Cedric Diggory.

Next, we have Viktor Krum’s wand, a Gregorovitch creation “hornbeam and dragon heartstring … quite rigid … ten and a quarter inches.” Again, like Fleur, Krum is on the inflexible side. Ollivander also uses this wand wood and core.

Hornbeam, of which Ollivander’s own wand is also constructed, is an interesting wand wood:

My own wand is made of hornbeam, and so it is with all due modesty that I state that hornbeam selects for its life mate the talented witch or wizard with a single, pure passion, which some might call obsession (though I prefer the term “vision”), which will almost always be realized. Hornbeam wands adapt more quickly than almost any other to their owner’s style of magic, and will become so personalized, so quickly, that other people will find them extremely difficult to use even for the most simple of spells. Hornbeam wands likewise absorb their owner’s code of honor, whatever that might be, and will refuse to perform acts—whether for good or ill—that do not tally with their master’s principles. A particularly fine-tuned and sentient wand.

About the core, which, incidentally, he has in common with love interest Hermione Granger, we learn

As a rule, dragon heartstrings produce wands with the most power, and which are capable of the most flamboyant spells. Dragon wands tend to learn more quickly than other types. While they can change allegiance if won from their original master, they always bond strongly with the current owner.

The dragon wand tends to be easiest to turn to the Dark Arts, though it will not incline that way of its own accord. It is also the most prone of the three cores to accidents, being somewhat temperamental.

If Ollivander’s obsession is wandlore, perhaps Krum’s is Quidditch. It explains why Moody had to use a powerful Imperius Curse to get Krum to act against his nature and also why Krum has established himself as such a singular individual at such a young age. He’s clearly a gifted wizard, aside from being a gifted Quidditch player. The fact that Harry can hold his own with the likes of Krum speaks to Harry’s own astounding gifts.

Of Harry’s wand, I have previously written, but you can read it here.

In chapter 19, “The Hungarian Horntail,” Harry learns the champions will have to face dragons in their first challenge. I realize this competition is known for being dangerous, but really. It’s amazing anyone sends their kids to wizarding school. He actually defeats the dragon in chapter 20, “The First Task.” Despite being a Quidditch pro, Krum doesn’t think to use his broom, showing that Harry has a certain resourcefulness Krum lacks, although truth be told, Harry wouldn’t have thought of doing it either if Moody hadn’t planted the suggestion in his head. Krum, as it turns out, used the very curse Sirius was going to suggest Harry use when Ron interrupted them talking at the Gryffindor Common Room fireplace—the Conjunctivitis Curse.

Harry makes the unprecedented move of telling Cedric Diggory about the dragons. Cedric is dumbfounded.

“Why are you telling me?” he asked.

Harry looked at him in disbelief. He was sure Cedric wouldn’t have asked that if he had seen the dragons himself. Harry wouldn’t have let his worst enemy face those monsters unprepared—well, perhaps Malfoy or Snape …

“It’s just … fair, isn’t it?” he said to Cedric.

Harry has a strong moral character and sense of fair play, and this kindness toward Cedric cements their friendship. Hufflepuff is known for its friendship and loyalty as well as its goodness and amiability. Cedric embodies all Hufflepuff’s best characteristics. He will not forget Harry’s kindness in sharing this information.

Even Moody remarks it was “a very decent thing you just did, Potter.” Later, he mocks Harry for doing it after he has been unmasked as Barty, Jr., the Death Eater, but I have a feeling that old Barty, Jr. genuinely feels what Harry did for Cedric was very decent. Contrary to his own plans, yes, but decent nonetheless.

I like Ludo Bagman’s reaction to Harry being the fastest champion: “That’s going to shorten the odds on Mr. Potter!” Always thinking of gambling.

McGonagall offers rare, effusive praise: “That was excellent, Potter!” Of course, she was quite a Quidditch player herself in her Hogwarts days, and she has always appreciated Harry’s talents on the Quidditch pitch.

Seeing Harry nearly killed by a dragon gives Ron a good excuse to quit being a git and believe Harry would never have signed up for such a dangerous tournament (finally), and they make up by the end of the chapter.

Quote in the title courtesy J.R.R. Tolkien, who should know about such things.

Image by Mary Grandpré

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