Second of the series- my review of the Philosopher’s Stone can be found here.
When I was a kid, The Chamber of Secrets was easily my least favourite Harry Potter book. I’m not sure why, because this time around I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I suspect that my previous aversion was due to this book’s grimness. It”s a lot darker and less cosy than The Philosopher’s Stone. Harry, Ron and Hermione spend a large portion of this book in a manky school toilet; there’s a large focus on Slytherin, and of course there’s a snake the size of a double decker bus roaming around the castle. And I really am not keen on snakes.
Harry really goes through the mill in this one, and it starts badly for him. Back with the Dursleys for the summer, he is absolutely miserable. His aunt and uncle have not come around to the idea of having a wizard in the family; in fact they are pretending that Harry doesn’t exist. Even frightening Dudley with the threat of magic has lost its fun. But when a house elf smashes a dessert at Vernon’s very important dinner party and Harry wrongly receives a warning for underage magic, things get very bleak indeed. The Dursleys lock Harry in his room, barely feed him and let him out twice a day to use the bathroom. Before it’s revealed that Dobby the house-elf was intercepting his letters, Harry thought Ron and Hermione had forgotten all about him. Something about all this abuse that Harry gets at home is a lot more upsetting as a grown-up than it was as a kid. He’s only twelve years old and, if this were to happen in real life, we all know that Fred, George and Ron Weasley would not turn up to rescue him in a flying car.
But what a car it is! Anyone who says they don’t want a flying blue Ford Anglia is a liar. The car is so cool that Ron and Harry, rather than wait five minutes for Ron’s parents to come back after the barrier to Platform 9 ¾ mysteriously seals up, nick the car and fly to Hogwarts in it. Many of us suspect that cars have minds of their own, and this one definitely does. Annoyed with its treatment (it’s had to fly all the way from London to Scotland, and then gets beaten up by a vicious tree) it takes off to the Forest and goes wild. Later on though, it’s clearly forgiven Ron and Harry, and saves them from some giant tarantulas.
The Chamber of Secrets has more of an element of mystery than its predecessor. Rowling has set the scene in The Philosopher’s Stone, and she has free rein to deliver a more meaty plot. It’s quite sinister; students are being attacked all over the school, alive but totally petrified. Writing daubed on the castle walls inform the terrified residents of Hogwarts that something called ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ has been reopened. Only a magical potion can revive the victims, and it won’t be ready for months. In the absence of any witnesses, suspicion falls on a desperately unlucky Harry. In the wrong place at the wrong time, his ability to speak Parseltongue (snake language, which was demonstrated so memorably at the zoo in The Philosopher’s Stone) marks him out as evil. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to everyone, Ron’s little sister Ginny has obtained a magical diary, which is slowly taking her over…
More minor problems come in the form of Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher. Arrogant and vain, Lockhart is a celebrity monster-hunter. Despite having rid Bandon of its banshee and more international ghouls besides, Lockhart is curiously inept in class. As a kid, I found Lockhart a funny yet unconvincing character; I never thought anyone could be so self-absorbed and clueless. He seems more believable as I’ve grown older and met some shameless chancers myself.
Lockhart’s eventual fate- to lose his memory- seemed harsh until this reread. Here is a man, who committed fraud to get where he is, willing to leave two twelve-year-old boys and and an eleven-year-old girl to die (and stripped of their memories in the Chamber, Harry and Ron would not have lasted five minutes) in order to preserve his reputation. Put in those terms, Lockhart is far nastier than the silly, conceited twit I remembered.
It’s here we get more of an insight into the faculty as people too. Hagrid gains extra depth- wrongly convicted of opening the Chamber fifty years before, he is sent to Azkaban, a wizard prison, as a ‘precaution’. In the next book we see just how horrible Azkaban really is. But for the fearless Hagrid- a man who once twisted a shotgun into a knot- to be scared, we readers know it must be bad indeed. Towards the end, when Ron and Harry overhear that Ginny has been attacked, the reaction of the teachers is touching and sad. Ron’s reaction “Harry felt Ron slide silently down on the wardrobe floor beside him” always struck me as heartbreaking.
It’s all quite a clever mystery, with some false leads and red herrings. There is not an element wasted- from Moaning Myrtle and Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday party and Ron’s slug attack- Rowling has placed enough clues to the identity of the monster and the heir of Slytherin both satisfying and pleasingly obvious when revealed. As to the diary, which we will learn much later on, is a part of Voldemort’s soul, a Horcrux, one of seven which must be destroyed to vanquish him forever. Knowing that nothing is forgotten or wasted is one of the real satisfactions of this series- here’s an author who knows exactly what’s she’s doing.
Voldemort’s (then called Tom Riddle) teenage diary was an ordinary Muggle notebook, but it has been bewitched to respond when written in. Ginny has been writing to it for months. There’s an element of grooming involved; the book was written in 1998, when the idea of internet chat rooms and who may lurk there was new and frightening. It’s not too difficult to see the parallels- Riddle feeds off Ginny’s fears and secrets, and manipulates her into doing what he wants; in this case, opening the chamber and setting free the basilisk (that big dirty snake). It’s all quite unnerving, and while Ginny appears to recover from her ordeal, the adult reader wonders about what deeper scars have been left.
If you, like me, thought The Chamber was one of the weakest entries of the series, have a second glance, it may surprise you.
Notes on my copy: Again, I first read a library copy of this. It actually was the first Harry Potter book I read. I’d never heard of it until I picked up the book in my local library (they may not have had The Philosopher’s Stone; if books were in demand by other libraries in the same area, they would be sent there). Later on, I bought my own copy, again in my local newsagents. There is this gem of a code written in the back of my copy:
After my Nokia 3310 broke (yes, I know, hard to believe!) I got a newer Nokia, one in which you could download games, presumably by typing this long-ass code into its prototype Play store. There was one called Dragon Island, a good-old fashioned platform game which I crippled my thumbs playing on the train between Dublin and Belfast. I’d like to think that’s the code for it.