Essay: The Devil You Know
In the first Harry Potter book there are seven obstacles to the Philosopher’s Stone, each provided by a Hogwarts teacher, including Professors Quirrell, Snape and Dumbledore, and each obstacle aligns with one of the books in the series. The obstacle aligning with the first book was Fluffy, who, like the three-headed dog Cerberus in Greek mythology, is guardian of a symbolic Underworld, forcing anyone seeking the Philosopher’s Stone to metaphorically die in order to reach it. This obstacle aligns with the first book because in it, Harry crosses the threshold from the Muggle to the wizarding world. (See Blood Sport or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 11: Wargames.)
The second book aligns with the second obstacle: The Devil’s Snare. The snakiness of the Devil’s Snare is seen in Chamber of Secrets in multiple incarnations: first we have the branches of the Whomping Willow, which is another guardian of an “underworld”—the tunnel leading to the Shrieking Shack. The tree guards the tunnel with its flailing branches, with which it attacks Harry and Ron after they arrive at school in the Flying Ford Anglia. There is another snake at the Dueling Club, conjured by Draco Malfoy at Snape’s urging, and there is the basilisk. There are metaphorical snakes as well: Draco Malfoy, Snape and Tom Riddle.
Devil’s Snare is defeated in the same way that Harry defeats the basilisk: with sunlight and/or heat. In the book, Hermione conjures bluebell flames to make the plant withdraw, while in the film the three must use an act of faith to escape it, which is the best way to describe going limp in order to get it to release them. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry uses both an act of faith and something linked to the sun to defeat the basilisk, so even though the film changes the way they fight the Devil’s Snare, it is an appropriate substitution that still fits Rowling’s symbolism.
The phoenix is associated with the temple of the sun at Heliopolis in ancient Egyptian theology. Fawkes-the-Phoenix—linked to both fire and the sun—comes to Harry in the Chamber due to his statement of faith in Dumbledore. This ultimately brings Harry the Sword of Gryffindor, which he uses to kill the basilisk after Fawkes attacks its eyes, rendering this weapon useless against Harry, since it is a basilisk’s eyes that petrify or kill at a glance. (It does still have its fangs, of course.)
Ginny-as-Red-Riding-Hood is the most obvious way Rowling reflects Grimm’s story in the second book of the series, but she puts Harry, Ron and Hermione in this role briefly. (See Red Riding Hood Goes to Hogwarts or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode13: Deus ex Machina.) Harry and Ron “stray from the path” that they usually take to school by “borrowing” the Ford Anglia. Grimm had his heroine racing with a wolf to get to her grandmother’s house and Rowling has them racing with the school train, described as going “along below them like a scarlet snake” as they fly to school.
Ron and Harry co-opt the prerogative of adults (which is to say, they grow up too soon) by going to school on their own. (See Arrested Development or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 12: Grow Up Now.) This game, the race with the train, is a battle once they get to school and their flying car is attacked by a snake-like tree. In this sequence, snake imagery appears again: “...Harry looked around just in time to see a branch as thick as a python smash into it.”
Harry and Ron succumb to temptation and they pay the price; a game becomes a dangerous battle and they’re lucky to escape relatively unscathed. However, just as he is the benevolent god-figure at the end of the book, Dumbledore is in the same role at the beginning, forgiving the boys, who are still learning to discern right from wrong, especially in relation to magic.
Harry and Ron partially act out Grimm’s tale again when they enter the forest seeking knowledge and encounter the giant spider Aragog, who threatens to eat them. They’re saved by a unique hunter/woodsman character: the Ford Anglia, which is now a “woods-car” instead of “woods-man”, living (so to speak) wild in the forest.
The “wolf” who takes in Hermione is the smooth-talking Gilderoy Lockhart. Dumbledore implies that he removes people’s memories, having tempted them to brag about their accomplishments, which is presumably how he learned what he needed to write his books. Losing your memories is a virtual death, since we’re the sum of our memories and experiences. Like a wolf, Lockhart has rapaciously swallowed these people’s pasts whole and their old lives are effectively over.
Hagrid provides the first obstacle to the Philosopher’s Stone, Fluffy, who is a threshold guardian, and as a threshold guardian himself, he’s with Harry or is linked to each of the seven significant thresholds Harry crosses in the first book. (See Blood Sport or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 11: Wargames.)
Professor Sprout provides the second obstacle to the Philosopher’s Stone: Devil’s Snare. This book is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a fairy tale about a girl lured into a symbolic forest that is also a symbolic hell, and she’s lured by a wolf/snake who represents the Devil, so it’s appropriate that this obstacle is a very snaky sort of vegetation and has “Devil” in its name.
Professor Sprout has a further link to this book because she oversees the cultivation of the Mandrakes needed to brew a potion to revive the Petrifaction victims. Like many Maidens, which is the book’s ruling archetype (See Female Archetypes in Harry Potter, Part I or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 3: Iron Maiden), Sprout oversees new life, though here it is lives that are renewed. She is also an archetypal Mother and Crone, all three in one, nurturing plants and cutting the threads of their lives, quite ruthlessly; the Mandrakes are presented as very human-like, especially as adolescents, when they “move into each others’ pots”. It is yet another reference in this book to the onset of adolescence, though it concerns Mandrakes, not humans.
Without awakening the Petrifaction victims, the story cannot have a happy ending, and the teacher who provides the second obstacle to the Philosopher’s Stone makes this possible.
The fairy tale theme pervading most of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn’t mean that Rowling’s usual pattern of games segueing into battles is neglected, though Quidditch is a little less prominent than it is in the next book. (See Childish Things or Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 1: The Kids’ Table.) Magical transportation is treated in this book as a (dangerous) game repeatedly, such as when Harry is rescued from Privet Drive by Ron, Fred and George in their father’s flying Ford Anglia. This is again children growing up too soon, co-opting adult behavior, and they get in a great deal of trouble.
In this book, Harry goes to Diagon Alley with the Weasleys, which is the first time he uses Floo, a network of fireplaces regulated by the Ministry of Magic. This isn’t children co-opting adult behavior but is dangerous and uncertain, a game-like mode of transportation. His unfamiliarity with it leads to his being in a war-like situation: spying on Draco and Lucius Malfoy at the dodgy shop called Borgin and Burkes. Draco is interested in two items in the shop that turn up later: the Hand of Glory, which Draco uses in the battle at the end of Half-Blood Prince, and a cursed necklace that he tries to use to kill Dumbledore in the sixth book. Rowling also foreshadows other elements of later books:
A glass case nearby held a withered hand on a cushion, a bloodstained pack of cards, and a staring glass eye.
The withered hand is likely the Hand of Glory but it can also be seen as a reference to Dumbledore’s “withered” hand in Half-Blood Prince. The “staring glass eye” could point to Mad-Eye Moody, a character introduced in Goblet of Fire (though the real Mad-Eye doesn’t appear until the end of the book). And finally, the “bloodstained pack of cards” could be Tarot cards, which Trelawney repeatedly consults in the sixth book, when she is alarmed by the Lightning-Struck Tower card turning up over and over in her Tarot readings.
Harry spying on Draco Malfoy in Borgin and Burkes is repeated in the sixth book, and the Vanishing Cabinet where Harry hides here figures in Draco’s plans in that book. Its “partner” at Hogwarts is the cabinet that Draco works for months to repair, and it is first damaged in this book, when Nearly Headless Nick gets Peeves to drop it right above Filch’s office, to help Harry, who is being written up by Filch. Borgin and Burkes is full of what writers call “Chekhov’s gun”, or guns, in this case. Almost everything mentioned in the shop is tied in some way to or foreshadows an aspect of the future war, so for Harry, traveling by Floo is another game that turns into a war.
After an initial Quidditch reference (the decor in Ron’s extremely orange bedroom/shrine to the Chudley Cannons) we don’t hear about it again until Oliver Wood wakes Harry for practice and the Gryffindors learn that the Slytherins have permission to use the pitch at the same time in order to train Draco Malfoy, their new Seeker. They repeatedly confront each other, so it’s fitting that Harry and Draco have the same battle-rank: Seeker. The members of the Slytherin team, however, have superior weapons—new brooms bought for them by Mr. Malfoy:
All seven of them held out their broomsticks. Seven highly polished, brand-new handles and seven sets of fine gold lettering spelling the words ‘Nimbus Two Thousand and One’ gleamed under the Gryffindors’ noses in the early-morning sun.
It’s also appropriate that Ron and Hermione come to the pitch during this confrontation in order to find out what’s going on, since both Ron and Hermione “engage” Draco during this scene, and that should be on the field of war. The Slytherin captain is called Flint and “flinty steel” is another way to refer to the sabers that were once used in war. Flint calls Ron and Hermione’s advance a “pitch invasion”, a war-like term.
Hermione engages Draco with the weapon of truth: no one on Gryffindor bought their way onto the team. Draco has no defense; he lashes out with the word “Mudblood”, a highly offensive and divisive epithet. This causes an “instant uproar” equivalent to a declaration of war. The Weasley twins try to jump Draco but Flint leaps in front of him. Ron points his broken wand at Draco but his spell backfires. Again, Rowling could have put this anywhere, to demonstrate the broken wand that’s important later, but instead this is on the field of metaphorical combat.
Rowling uses games and settings for games very deliberately. An unusual sporting club in the second book that doesn’t appear again until the seventh is the Headless Hunt, which the Gryffindor ghost, Nearly-Headless Nick, wants to join. In the Hunt ghosts use their severed heads to play Head Polo and Head Hockey, among other games, and they also engage in ghostly, warlike cavalry-type charges. However, Nick wasn’t properly beheaded, so he’s not accepted. Soon after Harry witnesses this militaristic organization, he hears the basilisk’s voice, going from metaphorical war—the Headless Hunt—to real war, and following this is the first casualty of the basilisk: Filch’s cat.
The Gryffindor vs. Slytherin Quidditch match is really Harry against Draco. Harry worries about the superior brooms the Slytherin players have and Oliver definitely turns it into war, telling Harry to get the Snitch first “or die trying.” Before the match, Harry, Ron and Hermione discuss Polyjuice Potion, for spying, in Myrtle’s bathroom, and Ron says, “It’ll be a lot less hassle if you can just knock Malfoy off his broom tomorrow.” A game is suggested as a route to success in the war or as a substitute for another war-tactic.
Bludgers are indistinguishable from an indisputably war-related object: a cannonball. During this match a Bludger has been tampered with and pursues Harry single-mindedly; he again starts off playing a game and ends up in a life-or-death struggle because the metaphorical war has turned real and he’s gone through the looking glass again. Despite the Bludger smashing his dominant right arm, he catches the Snitch before Draco, achieving completion, reuniting with this part of himself. Dobby visits Harry in the infirmary and Harry learns that the elf charmed the Bludger so Harry would have to go home, injured. Even though this is “friendly fire” and it’s an attack Dobby could have staged at any time to send Harry home to relative safety (remember—he lives with the Dursleys), this occurred in a metaphorical-war.
It’s also due to Harry being injured in this mock-war that he’s in the hospital wing when Colin Creevey’s Petrified body is brought in, so Harry is able to hear Dumbledore say, “...the Chamber of Secrets is indeed open again.” Fortunately, Colin has been playing the game of running around with his camera, trying to snap pictures of Harry, so he only views the Basilisk through the medium of the camera and therefore a mirror, not looking directly into the Basilisk’s eyes, which would have been fatal, as it was for Moaning Myrtle.
Another metaphorical war in this book is the Dueling Club. The meeting quickly degenerates into real battles, first between Lockhart and Snape, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers in this book and the sixth book, then between Harry and Draco. Harry learns something of utmost importance to the war: the Disarming Charm. He learns this from the one person he thought never to like or respect: Severus Snape.
Remus Lupin, whom Harry does like, warns Harry in the seventh book against making this his “signature move”, but Harry is absolutely right to fight Voldemort with a spell that’s designed to disarm, not harm. It’s also fitting that the venue in which Harry learns it is the Dueling Club, which is meant to be a mockery of war. With this “signature move” Harry is again positioned as an anti-warrior, though he is constantly forced from battle-like games into game-like battles. (See Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 19: Not Playing to Win.)
When Harry and Draco duel, Draco attacks first and makes Harry feel “as though he’d been hit over the head with a saucepan”. Harry’s counter-attack is a tickling charm, producing laughter, which is used to fight boggarts in the next book. Love, laughter, children’s games and fairy tales are all discounted by Voldemort and his followers, but they become weapons against death and despair in Harry’s hands.
Harry believes “it would be unsporting to bewitch Malfoy while he was on the floor,” but Draco fights back with a spell he receives from Snape, who whispers it in his ear. It’s not clear that Draco knows what will occur, as Harry doesn’t know what the Sectumsempra spell will do in the sixth book, a spell he also receives from Snape, or more specifically, from his old potions text. Draco conjures an enormous snake, though it’s presumably smaller and less deadly than a basilisk. Then he finds that Harry can speak to it. Another of Harry’s “weapons” is revealed during a “battle”, though again the weapon is non-traditional and unifying: speaking the language of the Other. Some students are now frightened of Harry, convinced that he defeated Voldemort as an infant because he was even more evil. They mistake possession of power for the intent to abuse it. Harry instinctively shares this power by trying to get the snake to back off from Justin Finch-Fletchley, but Harry still emerges from the battle with a frightening reputation after displaying a previously-unsuspected weapon.
Justin has now been linked to a mock-war and was nearly a casualty of it, and Nearly-Headless Nick is also linked to a mock-war (the Headless Hunt). They are the next two victims of the Basilisk. Like Colin, who had been on the Quidditch pitch—the field of war—photographing Harry just before the confrontation with the Slytherin team, Justin is not killed because he sees the Basilisk indirectly, through Nick’s ghostly figure. Nick, on the other hand, is already dead, but he’s still “damaged” by this experience.
Harry is suspected, now more than ever, of being the Heir of Slytherin, just as he, Ron and Hermione suspect that Draco Malfoy is the Heir. Fred and George Weasley turn this into a joke, as usual, allowing laughter to again do battle against fear:
“Oh, get out of the way, Percy,” said Fred. “Harry’s in a hurry.”
“Yeah, he’s nipping off to the Chamber of Secrets for a cup of tea with his fanged servant,” said George, chortling.
Harry finds this comforting: “...Fred and George, at least, thought the idea of his being Slytherin’s heir was quite ludicrous.”
The next war-like activity for Harry, Ron and Hermione is using Polyjuice Potion to spy on Draco. Hermione finds a hair on her clothes after her Dueling Club encounter with Millicent Bulstrode degenerates into a wrestling match, not suspecting that it’s a cat-hair, not Millicent’s hair, so using it in the potion doesn’t work. Harry and Ron knock out Crabbe and Goyle with cakes, which are a cousin to sweets. The cakes are laced with sleeping potion so that Harry and Ron can get their hair for the Polyjuice Potion. The war again becomes like a game; Harry and Ron must work out how to get into the Slytherin common room and make Draco confess that he’s the Heir of Slytherin. Draco says he wishes he knew who the real heir was, so he could aid and abet him; ironically, when he’s later required to aid and abet the real heir, Voldemort, he has to be coerced and he only does it to protect his family.
Harry finds the diary in Myrtle’s bathroom. She frames the manner in which someone tried to dispose of it as a game:
“Here I am, minding my own business, and someone thinks it’s funny to throw a book at me...”
“But it can’t hurt you if someone throws something at you,” said Harry, reasonably. “I mean, it’d just go right through you, wouldn’t it?”
He had said the wrong thing. Myrtle puffed herself up and shrieked, “Let’s all throw books at Myrtle, because she can’t feel it! Ten points if you can get it through her stomach! Fifty points if it goes through her head! Well, ha ha ha! What a lovely game, I don’t think!”
Another game segues into a battle on Valentine’s Day when Lockhart has dwarves dressed as Cupids descend on the school to deliver Valentines. The one delivering Harry’s twangs his harp “in a threatening sort of way” before tackling and sitting on him, forcing him to listen to a song. This battle that began as a game contributes to the “real” war when Ginny sees the diary fall out of Harry’s bag. Harry writes in the diary and “meets” Tom Riddle, who is definitely playing a game. He shows Harry a memory to make him believe that Hagrid opened the Chamber fifty years earlier, just as Slughorn gives Dumbledore a false memory later, which is designed to absolve himself of culpability.
Quidditch isn’t mentioned often in this book, but just after Harry is at a practice for the last match he finds his dormitory ransacked and Tom Riddle’s diary gone. Ginny knows Harry has the diary because of one game, the singing Valentine, and that he won’t be in his dorm because of another, Quidditch, giving her time to look for the diary. But the last match is canceled because Penelope Clearwater and Hermione are Petrified.
With the school entrenched in a real war and on the verge of shutting down, the mock-war of Quidditch disappears. When real war is at center stage, “fake” wars go away and the “real” war takes on a game-like quality. Ginny and Harry’s descent into the Chamber becomes a battle that is the retelling of a fairy tale, and Harry and Ron’s harrowing excursion in the forest, with the giant spiders, echoes the same tale. A triumph is again achieved through things that are disregarded and belittled: a small, thin, bespectacled twelve-year-old boy voicing his faith in the Muggle- and sweets-loving headmaster who seems to be gone from Hogwarts; his best friend wielding a malfunctioning wand; and tips torn from the margin of a book by a Petrified, Muggle-born witch. When Harry kills the basilisk and destroys the diary-Horcrux, it is the first step in defeating Voldemort, the one who dismisses children and all things connected to childhood.
Because of Harry’s faith, his belief in what he cannot see, which is something supposedly childish that we “grow out of”, and because he also believes in the inherent worth in saving a little girl who did not heed her parents’ warnings, wholeness and light return to the world and all is well again.
Adapted from the script for Quantum Harry, the Podcast, Episode 14: The Devil’s Game, Copyright 2017-2018 by Quantum Harry Productions and B.L. Purdom. See other posts on this blog for direct links to all episodes of Quantum Harry.