Rowling, J.K. 1998 (first US 1999). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic (1999).

Reviewed 22 June 1999

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (cover) My oldest son wants to play Quidditch.

This is a new classic series in the making, one to rival (and perhaps surpass) C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. I'll have some comments on the publishing history at the end of this review. For now though, what about the book?

Lazy academics probably won't like Rowling's work as much as they do Lewis's. Rowling is less self-aware, and her manipulation of symbols is much more subtle. Unlike the Chronicles, there's no Christian allegory here; none at all, in fact. But there is much more going on here than just another coming-of-age/wish-fulfillment fantasy. It is, perhaps, too subtle for academics; but every child (of any age) will understand it, even if unable to provide a 7-to-10 page exegesis.

Harry Potter is the orphaned son of two wizards who lives with his awful aunt and her family. Oh, no. Not another Cinderella. Nope. The world of the Dursleys is that of contemporary England. The world of the wizards is a concurrent parallel society. It occupies the same space, but has different occupations, houses, money, sports (Quidditch), and so on. The wizardly community looks down upon the Muggles (unmagical), and has strong rules against allowing Muggles to become aware of magic.

In the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone ("Sorceror's Stone" in the US, for some unknown reason), we met Harry. Harry is unaware that he is a wizard, and a famous one for surviving the attack of the Dark Lord when he was a baby. We follow Harry's adventures in his first year at Hogworts, the premier public (private to us Yanks) school for young wizards and witches. Harry succeeds, through inventive application of the rules of magic scattered throughout the book and his own power and tenacity, in defeating one of the Dark Lord's minions.

This book begins with Harry's first summer holiday back with the Dursleys, who have, if anything, become even more repressive. Harry cannot do his summer homework, because the Dursleys have locked all of his magical equipment away. One of Harry's best friends from school eventually rescues him, though, and takes him to his house for the rest of the summer. This is Harry's first chance to see how wizards live away from Hogworts.

Without giving too much away, Harry has trouble getting back to Hogworts, thanks to the machinations of a house elf. Once there, the year seems a disaster. Students and staff members are attacked at the school, anti-Muggle rumblings begin to turn to very nasty hints of racism, and Harry can't seem to avoid the new instructor—a publicity-seeking gloryhound with no competence or skill whatsoever. Eventually, Harry and his allies get to the bottom of all this; Harry again defeats the Dark Lord, although just ambiguously enough that, like Arnold in The Terminator, he'll be back.

But we already know there's something left. This is only the second year at Hogworts. The third book is already out in the UK, and is selling like hot chocolate in the Alps. And thereby hangs a tale. The excuse that Scholastic has been offering for the delays in bringing out US editions is the "necessity of converting the book for a US audience." Hogwortswash. All that has been done to the text is to incompletely change some terms—and, inexplicably, not others—to those that an American child who has never seen any British TV at all will understand without reference to the context in which it occurs. The boot of the Weasleys' car, for example, becomes the "trunk." "Sniggering" usually becomes "snickering." This took nine months? No. Hopefully, the Harry Potter books will do something of inestimable value to writers: destroy territorial rights. Amazon UK has shipped a significant number of books to US addresses. Territorial rights are anticompetitive and bad for both writers and readers. (In fact, if the Justice Department looked at territorial rights carefully, it would find significant violations of the Sherman and Clayton Acts.)

Rowling's writing is very, very clean. The reading level stays pretty low without being obtrusive about it. Even the butchering Scholastic did to the US edition (I've compared the UK edition) doesn't mask the Englishness of the book, although it's not pretentious at all (no Agatha Christieisms). She is writing a series without seriesitis. Each book really does stand alone, but the repeated business and background are done naturally. There are a lot of experienced authors of Interminable Fantasy Series who could learn much from J.K. Rowling, who wrote the first half of the first book on the kitchen table in a shelter in Scotland. Chamber of Secrets is fresh without just piling on new wonders (like the Oz books).

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent.
The theme of the Harry Potter books thus far seems to involve not wizards, but intellectuals. This is a very shadowy theme; it's certainly not a blatant allegory. However, there are a lot of parallels, some of them remarkably subtle. It will be interesting to see exactly how this develops in the remaining five books planned for this series. In the meantime, if you are a kid or you have kids, read Harry Potter. It's great for reading aloud or silently.


A Powell's Books Partner

  • You can buy this book on-line through Powell's Books. At this writing, the U.S. edition is available as a very reasonably priced hardback. The prequel, Harry Potter and the [Philosopher's/]Sorceror's Stone, is also available in a reasonably priced hardback US edition. I encourage anyone who is interested to order trade paperback editions from Amazon UK, if only in protest at the unnecessary and poorly done "Americanizing" of the US editions and inordinate delays.
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