A Series Grows Up: J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Reviewed by Jen Larsen
1 September 2000
That's an impressive rock you've found yourself under, there, if you haven't a deep-seated urge to check out the Harry Potter series.
By all accounts, kids love it; parents steal it from their kids while the little ones are sleeping, and love it; teachers see their students reading, and love that. The media? They love Rowling's half smirk and folded arms. They love the "she wrote it when she was on the dole" aspect, the "resurgence of kid's literature" angle, and they really love the backlash slant.
Speaking of backlash: do you love the Harry Potter series? Why not?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- the series's fourth book -- is as good a reason as you're going to get to begin reading. It's been described as the pivotal book and the beginning of the end -- it's where bad things happen to good student wizards, and suddenly, dismissing these books as over-hyped, as cut-rate children's stuff isn't as easy. If you're not reading because you've heard the series snubbed as cut-rate Narnia, half-witted Oz, or an Alice In Wonderland knockoff, you've been misled. You've been, to say it flat out, something of a snob.
The Narnia series and the Oz books are, with little argument allowed, firmly established as classics of the genre -- children's books that have created timeless and precise worlds. These are the kinds of places that exist outside their books, aside from their authors. So tangible you can taste them, yet so very removed from reality. They are doorways (literally, in the Narnia series) into an unreality that is utterly concrete.
But Rowling has created something that is, arguably, as real and removed. In the first three books she has developed a seamless world of seams and corners. She has embroidered a new side to the painfully ordinary world we exist in already and made it alive in that way that makes the reader, somewhere in the back of her head, think wistfully, "perhaps" and "could be." Rowling's gift is to make all the wonder of Harry's discoveries -- from paintings that move and talk, to the infinitely silly but utterly appealing Every Flavor Jelly Beans -- both intense and playful, realistic and strange.
In these imaginative details that would snag kids, the first three books in the series are children's books in truth. They speak to children of wanting to find their place in life, of being an outsider, of being different. Of the injustices of childhood, and the impotency of the young. Harry's triumphs are the reader's, and Harry's wonderment at the world is ours as well. Adults read with a whiff of nostalgia, a sense of remembering and recognizing younger selves and younger worries. In the first three books, this was a brand new world, and we were settling into Rowling's head, getting the lay of the land.
But in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there is a noticeable shift. The reader immediately notices that a familiarity is assumed -- with characters, plot, background and story -- that previously had not been there as strongly. As she moves deeper into the story line, Rowling is necessarily moving from the laying of narrative groundwork into the meat and heart of the series. The entire book has a feeling of heat lightning in the air; there is the sense of impending climax, of new heights and twists. Harry's world opens up -- physically and emotionally. As Rowling's plot expands, Harry's world widens, and he's growing up.
Hogwarts, the school of magic Harry's been attending, is suddenly not the only school in the neighborhood -- the magic hidden in the underside of the everyday is suddenly revealed as a world-wide phenomena. Awkwardly, Rowling slaps vaguely French and Russian accents and stereotypes all over her international students -- most notably, the French-ish students and headmistress say things like "zees ees an outrage!" while the Russian-esque students wrap themselves in large bear furs and take dawn swims in icy lakes.
Between these vaguely typecast schools, a magical competition is staged. Clearly, because Harry is the star of the show he must take part, no matter the seemingly strained plot twist that causes it to be so. And clearly his path through the contest must be marked with glory.
But Rowling pulls it off. In previous books Harry most often stared in wonderment or hid important discoveries from his adult supervisor. Now he grows as a character and also grows up. He's allowed to be heroic, but never at the expense of realism. He struggles, and his struggles are both real and character-true.
The book, and the conclusion of the contest, mark a new launch point for the series. Loose ties and past connections are brought to a head, and in a scene that is flat-out astonishing in its emotional impact, despite its somewhat fantastic and unbelievable thread, Harry's past is finished, and his future is laid out before him in a web that is as frightening as it is fascinating.
The only major flaw in the book comes in the end, lessening the impact of this hugely pivotal moment of the series -- call it the James Bond Villain Moment, when the Bad Guy pauses in his Evil Preparations to take a moment and explain his Nefarious Plot, step by step. It is a weakness that interpolates another thirty pages into an already lengthy book, but a reader could wish that those pages had not been written, and that Rowling had taken a look back at the chapter in the Writer's Handbook that's headlined "Show, Not Tell."
But for all that, it's a deeply satisfying entry in the seven book series. An era in the main character's life has skillfully been drawn to a close, without the reader feeling as anything at all has been lost -- she is drawn to imagine the next three books, with a feeling of awe, and discovery, and a bit of dread.
The series is not yet a children's classic -- and bestsellerdom, as the Goosebumps series might illustrate, is not an indication of how successful, long term, a book will be. But soon to be classic or not, Rowling has shown herself to be a skillful hand at creating and maintaining a satisfying and engrossing world of magic. Even snobs might agree, on that point.
Jen Larsen is a writer and editor who takes offense when you suggest that she lives in New Jersey, rather than the New York Metropolitan area. Her fiction and poetry has been published on Clean Sheets and in numerous small print journals. Her website, which contains mostly non-fictional non fiction, is om mani padme hum.