Mild spoilers below
Goblet of Fire is the middle book of the seven-book series about the boy-wizard, Harry Potter. It is long. Much longer than any of the previous three, partly because it is a more complex story on many levels. But also because, as the author admits, she had a touch of writer's block and lost her way a bit while writing it, and then was hounded by an artificial deadline. On the complexity thing, JKR is developing the story lines, vocabulary and plot details in line with the developing capabilities of her protagonist. Previous books (1, 2, 3) were simple stories with only a few simultaneous plot lines, almost all of which were wrapped up at the end of each book. With GoF, we see more long-term plot lines opening up, few of which reach a conclusion with the end of the book.
In particular, the climax of the book resolves nothing, raising far more questions than it answers. So with GoF, JKR appears to be starting in earnest upon the main story line of the seven-book series. Up to now, the books have been mostly scene-setting, with short, simple stories building the scenery upon which the real action now starts to unfold.
As a book, I do not especially like GoF. It drags too much. Certainly there are things I like about it. I love (and hate) Rita Skeeter and her quick quotes quill. I like the way JKR uses the pensieve to show us some scenes from the past, and fill in some of the background and history of Voldemort's previous reign of terror. The ending is terrific, a real page-turner. Even now, years after it was first published, I find it hard to put the book down when re-reading those final chapters. But I tend to find myself dipping into this book, avoiding the slow bits and selecting the best scenes, much more than with any of the other HP books.
In keeping with the increased complexity, GoF is much less about Hogwarts and the year as a chronological progression of quidditch matches, lessons and night-time adventures and much more about relationships, moral choices and self-discipline. Rowling starts to give the lead characters a bit more character in this book, and finally tackles boy-girl relationships directly. Previous books have only hinted at it, but in GoF we can see them bubbling just below the surface throughout, and occasionally breaking through into the main story line. I think the introduction of the other wizarding schools with their completely different cultures is wonderful. Beauxbatons appears to be a feminine culture, whereas Durmstrang is clearly more masculine.
Girls and boys
The girl/boy thing is not just allegorical between the two other schools. JKR introduces it specifically with the chapters on the yule ball. This sequence makes it plain that the relationships between the various students will play a steadily increasing role in future books. And not only the studentslook at Hagrid and Olympe Maxime. At fourteen, however, Harry and Ron are completely unaware of any sexual motivations. But Hermione is not. JKR knows that girls mature earlier than boys.
And with Hermione's growing self-awareness, we start to see that Ron is jealous of Hermione's partner. He is barely aware of the feelings gradually forming and growing in his heart, but from the outside, we can see that Ron is jealous of her partner, and Hermione quite enjoys seeing his jealousy.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Ron becomes the main focus for emotional development. JKR plays a little game with us, first giving us the clear and unambiguous plot line that Ron is jealous of Harry and his fame, but all the while building the emotional tension between Ron and Hermione.
Harry himself remains more enigmatic. We see that he remains shy around girls, witness his attempts to win a partner for the Yule ball, and his stumbling shyness whenever he sees the beautiful Cho Chang, yet he is much more confident around Hermione, probably because he does not think of her as any kind of love interest. "Hermione, you're a girl, aren't you?"
Harry, it seems, has a pre-adolescent view of love. He has little sense of sexual love... up to now. Instead, he expresses his love for his friends through deep and loyal bonds of friendship. Once more, I think JKR is exploring different kinds of love. The love Harry has for his parents; for his godfather, and for his friends is so deep, yet not what we immediately think of when we discuss the love a teenager feels. In later books we see how this deep, Platonic love triggers Harry's ability to fight off dark forces, and ultimately, I suspect we will see how Harry's powerful Platonic love, magnified by sexual love will be the undoing of Voldemort.
Apart from the undercurrents of sexual tension, this book seems to be laying the ground rules for moral choices that Harry and the gang will face in future books. JKR manages to portray a world in which a group of violent, amoral terrorists gained a strong foothold, and used that foothold to impose their white supremacist views on more 'civilized' members of society.
She appears to be asking how we should behave in a world where criminals, and notably some violent terrorists, are at liberty and show no restraint. We see people who are accused of murder, torture and forcing others to do immoral acts against their will. We then see how the Wizarding authorities deal with those people. The authorities impose a kind of shoot-first-ask-questions-later Police State, using techniquesincluding murder without trialbarely less cruel than the terrorists they seek to capture and punish. JKR shows us this through Harry's eyes, and she forces us to wonder if the authorities are any better, morally speaking, than the terrorists.
In the real world, politicians will sometimes use the phrase, "there are no magic wands to wave over this problem…" JKR appears to be showing us that even with magic wands, the moral issues do not go away. And besides, where magic wands exist the bad guys also have them, and are prepared to use them to do even more damage.
There are lessons here for childrenand adultsgrowing up in the modern world. JKR does not shy away from these complex and difficult moral issues, but works out the arguments for and against, and tries to show her young readers that there are moral imperatives beyond the short-term need to capture and punish suspected criminals. She tries to show us that the attitudes we take with us when dealing with criminals and their crimes are more important than the tools at our disposal.
Luckily for the good guys, fortune smiled on the wizarding world, and Voldemort disappeared after attacking the Potter family. His supporters quickly stopped their anti-social activities, 'normal' society emerged once more, and all the difficult moral choices disappeared. However, Dumbledore and others are aware that if the Death Eaters found a rallying point, they would be back soon enough. Once more, this mirrors the real world, where casual violence is never far from the surface of a large section of the population.
It looks like she is setting us up for a different way to beat the evil of terrorism, but that remains to be seen in future books.
Speaking of moral choices. I have noticed that there are many references to low-level corruption in this and subsequent books. People doing each other favours; ministry officials obstructing the course of justice to help their friends, and receiving favours in return. I'm not sure if Rowling is showing that even the good guys can have flexible morality, or whether she is trying to inject a note of realism into the books by people scratchng each others' backs. I think probably, she is just showing that Harry is becoming aware of this moral flexibility as he gradually matures.
In other reviews I have given a plot summary. I'm not sure I can do that for GoF. The book opens up too many plot lines to successfully summarise them.
Furthermore, as I indicated above, this book is less about the chronological progression of the school year, as about the developing relationships among the various characters we meet. There are, I suppose two main plot lines.
Serious spoilers below
The first is the growing unease among Dumbledore and his friends that Voldemort is growing stronger, and is unrolling some kind of evil plan. A plan that involves Harry in some not very nice way.
The second is the school year, in which a four select students have to compete against each other by partaking in three arduous tasks, designed to test their knowledge of magic; their courage and resourcefulness.
Along the way we meet a number of new characters, including the auror, Alastor 'Madeye' Moody, the journalist Rita Skeeter, the ministry functionary Bartemious Crouch, the world-famous quidditch player Viktor Krum, the honest, loyal, good sport Cedric Diggory, the beautiful, but unattainable Fleur Delacour and others. We see dragons, mermaids and leprechauns and veelas. We discover corruption in high places and find out that some people are so ambitious they are prepared to put their own family aside, if need be. In short, we see a lot of the nastier side of the wizarding world. We see a fair amount of gratuitous violence and start to understand Neville Longbottom a bit more.
It all comes together in the final scenes, where, to cut a long story short, Lord Voldemort returns to bodily form and gathers his Death-Eaters around him to prepare once more to rise to power through violence and terrorism. Harry faces Voldemort, duels with him and manages to escape to tell the story.
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