A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Category: Harry Potter

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

After reading the first Harry Potter book way back in March, I only got around to The Chamber of Secrets at the beginning of May. I’m trying to read one book every month but the pandemic-related anxiety and burnout has meddled with those plans a bit.

Book cover image of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the second book:

  • Dobby’s self-harm every time he says something against the Malfoys or breaks their rules was so much more noticeable during this reading. As a kid, Chamber of Secrets used to be my least favourite book of the series and I found Dobby mildly annoying – that is, before discovering his character arc in The Deathly Hallows and all the subsequent fan discussions about him. I felt terrible for Dobby this time around, especially for his lack of self-worth which was born out of abuse and enslavement. He’s brave enough to break the shackles of his slavery to come warn Harry even though he’s going to have to punish himself. He can’t believe Harry treats him as an equal i.e. gives him some basic respect and decency. I couldn’t help but imagine his life at the Malfoys – full of trauma and abuse – and its impact on Dobby’s mental health and sense of self. Much like Harry, he seems to have come out of his abuse with empathy and kindness for others (however misguided that sometimes may be). Harry, although annoyed by Dobby, realised that while he was having a horrid time at the Dursleys, Dobby has it much worse – even without knowing the full details of Dobby’s enslavement and what that entails. Most importantly, while Harry is able to leave the Dursleys when he goes to Hogwarts and will eventually be able to leave them altogether, Dobby has to remain with the family until he dies.
  • Dobby reminds me of all those children of refugees, migrants and poor people in general who can’t even imagine a different life – who are so grateful for the tiniest bit of kindness and attention. This may be reflected in adult attitudes too, though I wonder if you grow more cynical about other people the older you are
  • Later in the book, Dobby says that house elves had it much worse during Voldemort’s reign. But it’s not like him being defeated actually improves their lives much – albeit Dobby acknowledges other house elves largely lead better lives than he does. The magical world is very witch/wizard supremacist.
  • What a silly rule that using magic in the presence of Muggles is a serious offense. What if it’s to save them or yourself? There may be many reasons why you need to use magic. According to the history, witches and wizards decided to hide themselves to escape persecution. But after centuries of this, I think it might be time to engage in some cross-cultural relationships.
  • According to the Weasley twins, a lot of wizards think Muggle tricks like using a hairpin to unlock a door is useless. I wonder if locked doors which are charmed against magical spells can be undone with Muggle tricks. Another example of magical folks overlooking Muggle culture to their own detriment.
  • Muggle-baiting involves things like shrinking keys sold to Muggles so they eventually don’t find them. Arthur’s department tries to stamp this out which the wizard supremacists hate, as evidenced by Lucius Malfoy’s constant sneers about the department. At what stage did fear of Muggle persecution turn towards hatred and derision of them, which in turn, led to the wizard supremacist structure of the magical world? This idea not just impacts Muggles and Muggle-borns but also all magical creatures who aren’t witches and wizards.
  • When Draco calls Hermione a Mudblood, it causes an uproar among everyone except Harry and Hermione who have no idea what the word means. They do realise it’s something terrible based on the reactions. There are such different contexts of taboo and insults even in the real world. Slurs against African Americans, for example, or even in India words like ghaati – where different social and cultural contexts means that what’s insulting or terrible to some people may be something somebody else doesn’t understand at all.  In Trevor Noah’s biography, he talks about how one of his friends is called Hitler. Every country thinks their history is the most important – especially Western countries – but not everyone follows the same rules. In India, things like the swastika, Mein Kampf aren’t seen as taboo. What is taboo is both inconsequential in certain contexts but also belies the ignorance of cultural norms and customs with Muggles and magical folk.
  • Ron’s detention involves helping Filch clean the trophies in the trophy room without magic. Why??? Why is Filch doing this? Why is there no magical assistance for him?! Even Filch’s office is dingy and windowless – what sort of unending punishment does he have to endure as a part of his job?!
  • The Kwikspell correspondence course for Squibs that Filch has subscribed to – its recommendations make it sound like a learning disability than an inability to do magic. Is this just the result of poor pedagogy in Hogwarts which doesn’t make room for different learning needs? Why aren’t there schools or classes for Squibs, if so? Or is Kwikspell running a giant scam?
  • The attacks on Muggleborns in Hogwarts are reminiscent of white fascists attacking mosques, synagogues, gay nightclubs, cinemas in Western countries and Hindu nationalists targeting Muslim communities and businesses in India/Delhi.
  • After the latest attack on Hermione/Penelope, Lee Jordan suggests chucking all the Slytherins out because it’s the heir of Slytherin, it’s Slytherin’s monster, and none of the Slytherins have been murdered. His assertion is met with cheers. That reminds me of rampant Islamaphobia in the world + COVID-19 racism against east Asians and North East Indians. It’s so easy to demonise an entire group of people for the actions of an individual/handful. Even when you think you’re one of the good guys, you can fall prey to bigotry.
  • Is it so easy to suspect Hagrid not just because of his alleged past transgression but also because of his half-giant status? Some groups of people are treated with more suspicion and prejudice – ex-convicts (although Hagrid was a juvenile), werewolves (Lupin has to resign when Snape reveals he’s a werewolf and parents don’t trust him around their children), men from certain communities, Muslims, black men. Even gay men in certain historical and current geographical contexts.
  • Much like fascists and other insecure horrible ghouls, Voldemort has created his own nonsensical narrative about himself and others in his head. He hates his father for leaving his mother after finding out she was a witch. That’s not what happened. Merope love-potioned Tom Riddle into a marriage and he left when he was no longer enchanted. Even Voldemort’s glorious Slytherin family wasn’t so glorious after all; Merope and her family were reduced to abject poverty and Merope’s father and brother were horrible. It’s just like a fascist to hark back to imagined historical glories and slights.
  • Tom Riddle was probably the most brilliant student Hogwarts had ever seen according to Dumbledore. Maybe until Hermione came along. It’s almost like being from a Muggle background can mean you’re valuable and have skills too, Voldemort!

Re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

A couple of weeks ago, I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Until a few years ago, I used to re-read the series quite regularly – but then postgraduate life got in the way. I’m going to re-read the entire series and re-watch the movies in order to document my thoughts about them/draw on examples during my podcast episodes. I’m quite interested in seeing whether/how I view the series differently in the context of all the critical conversations I’ve encountered about them. I’m supplementing this reading by listening to three Harry Potter re-read podcasts – The Gayly Prophet, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and #WizardTeam. While this process doens’t really form the core data of my project, the conversations and readings do inform my ideas and engagement with other texts/people.

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading the first book:

  • The first chapter in this edition of the book doesn’t mention that Hagrid borrowed the flying motorbike from Sirius Black, which I thought was an extremely odd exclusion, especially since I have a very firm memory of reading Prisoner of Azkaban for the first time as a teenager and recognising the name instantly from the first book (and feeling quite smug about it too). There were a couple of other edits which were probably only noticeable to me and wouldn’t matter to new child readers encountering this book for the first time (knickerbocker glory is replaced by chocolate ice cream but only in the first mention and it reverts to knickerbocker glory in the second instance; there was an odd mention of money in Diagon Alley in the edition I remember which was fixed in this one). It did make for a distracting experience though because I felt like these edits detracted from the comfort I’d gained in the book as a ten-year-old and I longed for my childhood copy which is back home in Mumbai. Silly, of course! It’s still the same book (though I’m only writing that to pretend and be an adult about it – it still makes me irritable!)
  • The Dursleys hate anything that is different – clothes, ideas, imagination – nothing should disrupt the status quo. They hate the Potters because they are so different which makes the Dursleys ashamed. What is this hatred rooted in? Fear? While reading about their attitudes and prejudices, I could definitely draw more direct parallels with racism and xenophobia in the current British as well as global contexts. They definitely voted for Brexit!
  • “Don’t ask questions” is the Dursley rule. I wonder how much of an influence this had on Harry’s later life in Hogwarts where he is constantly questioning everything – not just all the new things he encounters, but also rules, adult authority, unfair practices and overall injustice.
  • As a result of Witch, Please often pointing this out out, I noticed that the fat-shaming of Dursleys was really evident and made me really uncomfortable. It’s seen both in the narration as well as the characters. For example, Hagrid mocks Dudley in the hut for being hungry. All he (as well as the others) has eaten is a banana and a packet of crisps! Of course he’s hungry! And then Hagrid takes out his anger at Vernon on Dudley BY GIVING HIM A PIG TAIL! How is that fair?!
  • I don’t know if it was because I know how Dudley turns out or because his parents’ over-indulgence harms him as well – just in a different way than it harms Harry, but I felt quite bad for him, despite how nasty he is. He’s only eleven years old and children can be quite horrible sometimes – especially to each other. He was definitely a bully, but doesn’t the blame lie on the adults responsible for his upbringing? He does grow out of this beginning in Order of the Phoenix (and probably needs a lot of therapy as an adult!)
  • Reading as an adult, the Dursleys’ abuse of Harry is so much more noticeable and unsettling. As one of the hosts on The Gayly Prophet says, it’s very Roald Dahlesque. However, as  they also pointed out, in Roald Dahl books, the abused children usually escape or outwit the adults pretty early on in the story whereas with Harry, he has to live with the Dursleys for another six years with increasing levels of abuse. I was also uncomfortable about how the Dursleys’ over-indulgent parenting had a negative impact on Dudley’s life.
  • Hagrid looks big and intimidating and likes scary creatures but sits and knits and makes birthday cake and is rather cuddly. I love the dichotomy in his character where it goes beyond what you would expect based on first appearances
  • I could definitely read Neville as someone with dyspraxia or vertigo. He needs a leg up through the portrait hole into the Gryffindor common room, he’s not very good at balance and coordination, he’s extremely forgetful and absent-minded
  • McGonagall is described as tall, stern, black haired. As another Witch, Please episode points out, we only see her as old because of the movies’s impact on our imagination. She would have been a pretty cool spinster character or even just a young, powerful woman.
  • The Remembrall is such a rubbish magical contraption, especially if you read it as a disability aid for Neville.  It tells you if you’ve forgotten something, great. BUT IT DOESN’T TELL YOU WHAT IT IS YOU’VE ACTUALLY FORGOTTEN??? Way to crush someone’s self-esteem without providing any solution, Remembrall!
  • Throughout the book, I was keenly aware of how much Draco seems to have a giant crush on Harry. I could blame fandom’s shipping influence but I can’t unsee it now. I would like to read fanfiction where Draco and Harry actually end up being friends and how this may have improved Draco’s Hogwarts life and made him less of a brat (he does eventually become less of a brat but it’s a long, arduous journey). Do I need to write this story?
  • Hermione becomes a bit more relaxed about rule breaking after the troll incident. Maybe the reason she stuck to rules so much is because she’s very conscious of them as an outsider to the magical world. This reflects experiences of people who are newcomers in different unfamiliar cultures -immigrants, class, race, religion etc. – where people may feel they need to assimilate into the new culture to be included, welcomed, and respected
  • Harry didn’t even have to try out for the keeper position. In fact, there were no tryouts! What if there was someone better than him that has now lost the chance forever because McGonagall spotted him catching a ball? At the very least, they could have had a reserve Seeker which would have come in handy for all the times Harry missed a match while lying in the hospital wing. McGonagall directly mentions how his father was a great Quidditch player too. This seems to have implications on Harry’s class, family, and race (i.e. blood status) privilege. His skills had a role to play but he had a much easier time gaining access thanks to his family’s network and the position they had in the magical society.
  • One of the fan podcasts I listened to (I don’t remember which one at all) mentioned that Molly knits jumpers for Harry and all her kids every year and every year Ron moans about his. On the one hand, why is his jumper always maroon if he hates that colour? Just like his sandwiches were corned beef which he also hates. Maybe there is something to the theory that Ron is the most neglected since all the attention goes to either his older brothers or to Ginny. On the other hand, Molly’s thankless labour is constantly rejected by her son (though Fred, George and Harry seem to appreciate theirs)
  • Okay so Charlie Weasley, a fully-grown adult (I’m assuming? Maybe just an older teenager? Early 20s? Okay, a baby adult) is happily smuggling dragons? Okay so he wants to help Hagrid and has noble intentions but surely he could have done that without getting the eleven-year-olds involved?
  • So Hermione, Harry, Draco, and Neville’s detention not only involves going into a very dangerous forest that is literally forbidden to all students because of how risky it is, but they also have to do this in the middle of the night all night?!?!? What sort of school is this?! Was there any sort of debriefing session after the traumatic experience in the forest? How about the traumatic experience rescuing the Philosopher’s Stone? Does Madam Pomfrey have to deal with both physical and mental ailments? Why can’t Dumbledore hire a school therapist? Does Hogwarts just not believe in mental health outreach?

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