Sun Aug 3, 2003

Harry Potter and the Implausible Plot Device

Our household has just finished reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the general feeling is one of disappointment. Henry has already written about the claim, made recently by the much-reviled A.S. Byatt,that Harry is derivative and ersatz. The real problem is more that Harry seems to be an idiot.

Spoilers, and a certain amount of ranting, ahead.

J.K. Rowling is not good at plots. She is superb when it comes to the incidental touches that make Harry’s world entertaining—the paper aeroplane memos, the names of Hospital wards, and all the rest of it—but she is constantly painting herself into plot corners where the only way out is for a character to be quite unbelievably stupid. Over and over again, things are made to happen because “Harry felt his anger well up inside him” or “Not caring what happened next, Harry …” Unlike Byatt, I don’t believe that the books have to abide by some Grand Laws of Children’s Fiction, so I was happy to excuse a lot of this on the grounds that Harry is now a hot-headed adolescent and doesn’t always make the right choices. But having it happen for the *n*th time (with Harry showing absolutely no capacity to learn from previous mistakes) begins to grate in a book that’s 760 pages long.

There are other problems besides the overreliance on the “Angry Young Harry” device.

Grawp. The character of Grawp serves no purpose at all in the story other than to save the day, deus ex machina, a few chapters after he is introduced. (Harry’s inability to figure out what Grawp’s cry of “Haggy!” means is further evidence that he has been licking the lead paint at Number Four Privet Drive.)

The Two-Way Mirror. I will be very happy if anyone can explain to me (1) Why Harry does not use the two-way mirror to communicate with Sirius, but rather puts himself in mortal danger by breaking into Umbridge’s office, (2) Why the first words out of Sirius’s mouth when Harry uses the fireplace to talk to Sirius are not “Why aren’t you using the magic two-way mirror I gave you, idiot boy?”, (3) Why Harry does not even bother to unwrap the package containing the mirror that Sirius gives him when leaving Grimmauld Place, choosing instead to put it at the bottom of his trunk and not unwrap it until it’s far, far too late, even though Sirius hands it to him with the words “If you want to get in touch with me, use this,” and Harry spends most of the book wanting more than anything to talk to Sirius, and (4) Why Sirius even waits as long as he does to give him the mirror in the first place, having already had to put his own neck at risk by trying to talk to Harry earlier, and putting Harry in danger by forcing him to send messages via owl post.

The Order vs the DA. When Harry et al found the DA, they are very careful not to get caught. They do an excellent, well-organized, and wholly successful job of maintaining an illegal secret society of 25 people right under Umbridge’s nose. In contrast, Harry and Ron seem unable to take the Order of the Phoenix seriously, routinely yakking about it over breakfast in the Great Hall, ignoring the requests or demands of its leaders (even if they have repeatedly put their lives on the line to save the worthless boy) and never once, despite four years of repeated attacks on Harry by Voldemort, giving a charitable interpretation for why the order is guarding Harry so fiercely, hiding him so carefully, or asking him not to put himself in danger.

Wot, Magic?!. Harry’s been living in the wizard world for more than four years, and has seen a lot of weird stuff. He also knows that the wizard world is hidden from the muggle world. So can we please stop having tedious little scenes where Harry is amazed—*amazed*—that some innocuous looking side alley or department store window turns out to be the entrance to the Ministry of Magic or St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies, even though he knows he’s being taken to these places. “Harry looked at Mr Weasley blankly… why was he talking into a broken telephone box?” “Harry couldn’t understand why they were whispering into the empty shop window.” Harry needs a smack upside the head.

The Dreams. Harry never once asks himself why he is repeatedly having his dream about the locked door at the end of the corridor, or why he is so curious to see what’s behind it.

Other Members of the Order. “We have to risk our necks because there are no members of the Order left at Hogwarts!” said Harry, his anger welling up inside him. “Um, what about Snape? He’s over there, waving at us,” the normally clever Hermione unaccountably did not reply.

Malfoy Jr. I have no idea why Harry is now even remotely afraid of or even irritated by Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle, all garden-variety school bullies who have never displayed much in the way of special magical talents. Harry, meanwhile, is spending his time battling Death-Eaters (including Malfoy’s and Crabbe’s fathers!) not to mention Voldemort himself. But of course when it’s necessary to have something plot-related happen, Malfoy has no trouble goading Harry into one of his now-trademark Terrible Rages.

Some of these issues were evident in the fourth book. (In a move worthy of late-period Dallas, the long-hidden and wholly implausible secret of Scabbers the rat had to be pulled out of a hat in order to make the plot work.) They seem to be getting worse, to the point where all the great little details and ideas are drowned out by the blaring idiocy of the central characters. Despite the reams and reams of dialogue, it’s amazing how many opportunities to have a short, sensible conversation about what’s happening are passed up by children and adults alike. It’s one thing to say that misunderstandings happen and that people make errors of judgment. But Rowling forces her characters into places where they must be stupider than we know they are, because she has no other way of making things happen. It’s just not that satisfying when everything is driven by Harry’s permanent rage or Ron’s ever-deepening stupidity or Hermione’s sudden lapses of judgment.