Harry Potter 101: Wizards Don’t Learn Math

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Abra Cadabra, Lord Voldemort.

What is Harry Potter?

Harry Potter’s a wizard.

No, I mean, like, the series.

Oh! Harry Potter is a book series, written by J.K. Rowling, about a secret world of wizards.

Harry Potter is an ordinary eleven-year-old who lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, the Dursleys, until he finds out he is a wizard, and goes to a wizard school called Hogwarts.

Why’s he live with his aunt and uncle?

His parents are dead. Lord Voldemort, the most powerful, evil wizard ever known, killed them, when Harry was just one year old.

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Which is not to say he doesn’t have fun with it.

Wow.

Yeah, that’s kinda Harry’s reaction to all that, too.

Why did he kill Harry’s parents?

He killed a lot of people, to be fair. Harry’s parents were just the last before he disappeared. And he killed them because he wanted to kill Harry.

Why’d he want to kill a baby?

Magic.

C’mon…

No, really. And I can’t say much more, without spoiling a few plot twists. But the basic answer is: magic.

Okay, smart guy, how does a baby beat the biggest, baddest wizard around?

That’s complicated, but the simple answer is: the spell Voldemort used rebounded from Harry and hit Voldemort instead. Harry walks… well, crawls away with just a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt.

That’s pretty metal.

Hellz yeh.

Does it give him any special powers? Aside from wizardry, I mean?

He can talk to snakes, which is weird, and never very useful. It does some other cool stuff that becomes important in later books.

How long is this series, anyway?

Seven books. They start out standard sized, about 300 pages, until the fourth book. From there, they grow until the last, which I think is an 800 page whopper. The first two are basically kid’s books – I’d have no problem letting a 7 or 8 year old read em. The third and fourth are more young adult. By the fifth and sixth, though, the books get pretty dark, so if your kid wants to read them, check them out yourself, first.

That’s a lot of reading. Can’t I just watch the movies?

You can, and some of the movies are actually good. As the kid actors grow up, they get even better. But Harry Potter is all about the weird, fun little details, and most of those get dropped from the movies.

What kind of details?

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House Elves like Dobby, simultaneously the best and worst doll you could give a child.

Like goblins and house elves and centaurs, and how wands work, and the Ministry of Magic working with Muggles and… a lot of nerd stuff that’s probably boring you. But trust me, it’s awesome

Wands? Really, like goofy sideshows, “Hocus Pocus!”? And what’s an effing muggle?

A muggle, sir or madam, is a non-wizard. There’s also Squibs (wizards who can’t use magic), muggle-borns (wizards born to muggles), and pure-bloods (wizards born from wizards).

Ugh…

And a wand’s important. It’s like the wizard’s lightsaber, except it uses Phoenix feathers and Dragon heartstrings instead of jewelry. It’s pretty metal, too. Unless you’re saying Dragonforce isn’t metal…

I would never say that.

Good.

And I think there was something about the government in there…

Yeah, the Ministry of Magic. The series takes place in England, and the Ministry governs the wizards and tries to keep them out of sight of the muggles.

How can that work? Wouldn’t somebody just take a picture of some kid levitating and post it to Instagram?

Probably, and I want to see that sequel, but not in the series. The series begins (in-universe) in 1991, and ends in 1998, the year the first book was published. So, give it like a decade, and muggles will probably be all up in the wizard’s business (if you’re reading, Ms. Rowling…)

All right, all right. Now I’m rereading this… I mean, reviewing our conversation, and you said Harry goes to wizard school? So this is what, Magic Times at Wizard High?

Harry goes to school with about a thousand other wizard kids from age eleven on, at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A big part of the books are about classes and sports and friends, wrapped around the plot.

Isn’t a school full of adolescent wizards, uh, dangerous?

For Harry, it’s practically a deathtrap. For everyone else, it’s just mostly dangerous. But Harry would be dead a lot if not for his best friends Ron and Hermione.

How in the world do you pronounce that name?

Ron. RAH-AHN…

No! The other one!

Oh, yeah. Hmmm… HER-MY-OH-KNEE. I think. Or HER-MY-KNEE, for short.

There is no way that name is worth struggling over. 

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Don’t sass Hermione. Ron is Harry’s best friend, and he’s got some great snarky and bright moments, but Hermione holds them together. She’s the brains and badass wand-slinger of the series. There’s an article over here, all about her (NSFW and spoilers).

I still don’t know. I mean, I haven’t read them, and they’re really old now. Is there any point to going through them at this late date?

I think so. I still read through them occasionally, and I usually find something new to enjoy. But I’ll put it this way: If the idea of rebellious wizard-Jedi, led by Gandalf, in a war against Magic Hitler doesn’t sound appealing, I don’t know what to tell you. Except that Hermione’s in it, and she is totally awesome.

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At some point, they really should have renamed the series after her.

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Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 18

Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair Concludes.” This is the most recent installment, so until I write more of these for the Monster, we’ll be doing something else here on Thursdays. I hope you’ve enjoyed  this run!

Part 18 of an ongoing series.

At dusk of the day after the battle with the spiders, Thorin-and-Company-Minus-Thorin are waylaid by the Wood-elves. The dwarves are armed only with small knives. They are so hungry and exhausted they are “glad to be captured” and give up without a fight. Bilbo puts on the Ring quickly enough that the elves don’t notice him and follows them to the royal stronghold. (1)

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

The passage where he makes the decision to enter the stronghold is interesting.

He did not at all like the look of the cavern-mouth and only made up his mind not to desert his friends just in time to scuttle over at the heels of the last elves, before the great gates of the king closed behind him with a clang. (2)

Since we’ve established already that Bilbo recorded these events, the wording here is important. He enters out of loyalty. Sticking by your friends and family is even more a virtue in Middle Earth than it is in the here-and-now. Also a big deal: keeping one’s promises.

I read this passage as a signpost that points us to even more evidence of Bilbo’s innate goodness than we’ve already seen, and there is a passage at the end that works the same way. They’re like bookends – but before we get to the second passage, we need to give at least a little attention to intervening time.

image by  lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s not much putting-on and taking-off of the Ring in this chapter because Bilbo is wearing it continually to avoid being seen by the elves, and the dwarves are held captive for a period of three or more weeks. It’s worth noting that the Ring is not doing all the work. When Bilbo slips in and out the gate behind elven hunting parties he does not “dare to march among them because of his shadow.” So he’s using his wits, and he’s actively hiding the whole time. (3)

The elf-king imprisons the dwarves because they refuse to tell him why they are travelling through the Woodland Realm. They don’t want him to know what they are after the treasure of the Kingdom Under the Mountain. The elves treat them well enough, for prisoners, so they hold out for weeks and eat the elves’ food. (4)

The dwarves are all held in separate parts of the palace, so Bilbo has to learn the layout of the elven stronghold and figure out where Thorin is stashed away. He carries Thorin’s orders not to give away the purpose of their journey unless he gives the word to the other dwarves. Thorin’s motives are clear in the passage where he gives the order:

For Thorin had taken heart again . . . and was determined not to ransom himself with promises to the king of a share in the treasure, until all hope of escaping in any other way had disappeared; until in fact that remarkable Mr. Invisible Baggins (of whom he began to have a very high opinion indeed) had altogether failed to think of something clever. (5)

It’s also worth noting that Thorin is looking to Bilbo for salvation here, just as the other 12 dwarves did after the encounter with the spiders. (6)

Eventually Bilbo finds the water gate the elves use to return their provision barrels to Lake–town. He finds the opportunity to make an escape attempt on a night when most of the elves are feasting in the woods. He catches the butler and the guard chief sampling the king’s wine, which is stronger than they realize and makes them fall asleep. (7)

Bilbo steals the prison keys and releases the dwarves. They all make their way to the cellars and stuff themselves into food barrels. There are two quotes from the escape incident that deserve highlighting, because they tell us both about Bilbo’s relationship with his companions and about his own character. (8)

When Bilbo frees Balin from his cell, the dwarf (as is typical of Balin) bombards Bilbo with questions. Bilbo responds:

“No time now!” said the hobbit. “You must follow me! We must all keep together and not risk getting separated. All of us must escape or none, and this is our last chance . . . Don’t argue, there’s a good fellow!” (9)

This exchange is important because it places Bilbo clearly in charge. Is shows that he not only understands the stakes, but is also capable of taking leadership of the whole group if need be. “All or none” also demonstrates that he is fully invested in the success of group.

Before they go to find the barrels, Bilbo makes a decision that is at least as good as his refusal to attack the unarmed Gollum. He sneaks back into the room where the guard chief is sleeping and slips the keys back onto his belt.

“That will save him some of the trouble he is in for,” said Mr. Baggins to himself. “He wasn’t a bad fellow, and quite decent to the prisoners. It will puzzle them all too. They will think we had very strong magic to pass through all those locked doors and disappear.” (10)

Bilbo Art by Deviant Artist Deviant Artist Duh22

Bilbo Art by Deviant Artist Deviant Artist Duh22

Here we see the two elements of Bilbo’s character that inform his decisions to spare Gollum and to sneak invisibly into the midst of the dwarves before slipping off the Ring after his escape in one delicious passage. He’s showing the jailer mercy, but he’s also taking a bit of delight in some dramatic mischief.

Perhaps this is why he gets away with wearing the Ring continuously for nearly a month (and, ultimately, possessing it for so long) without it drastically affecting his personality. He’s good even to his adversaries when he has a chance to be good to them. And he loves a good practical joke. Could humor and compassion be the antidotes to the lust for power and obsession with forbidden knowledge that do so many of Tolkien’s characters in?

We’ve talked more about Bilbo than the Ring in the last few posts, but I hope you see why I said when I started this arc that understanding Bilbo is the key to understanding the nature of good in Middle Earth.

This series takes the next several weeks off so we can do the A to Z Challenge up right, both here and at Sourcerer. I’ll continue with Bilbo beginning in late May or early June.

Notes (Bibliography)

All page numbers are from The Hobbit

1. p. 167

2. p. 168

3. p. 169

4. p. 168-69

5. pp.171-72

6. p. 163

7. pp. 171-73

8. pp.173-76

9. p. 174

10. p. 175

Throwback Thursday: My Endless Tolkien Series, part 17

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– Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 3.”

Bilbo’s encounter with the giant talking spiders is one of the most important episodes in The Hobbit for a number of reasons. I’ll focus on three of them today, and look at specific passages where Bilbo puts on and removes the Ring as I move through this episode.

  • In his encounter with the first spider, Bilbo saves himself without the help of any other character, including the Ring.
  • He locates and rescues the captured dwarves. He has the help of the Ring, of course, but it is really his wits and bravery that save the day.
  • The battle with the spiders leads to the dwarves discovering that Bilbo has the power to become invisible, and he tells them about the Ring.
Map by Deviant Artis silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

After being separated from the dwarves in the confusion of the elf-feast, Bilbo sits down and dozes. He wakes to find a huge spider binding him with webs. He manages to pull his sword and kill the spider all by himself. I can’t be sure without carefully parsing the goblin chapters again but I think this is Bilbo’s first kill, and it’s the encounter that prompts him to name his sword Sting. It’s clear that this is a significant moment for Bilbo:

Somehow killing the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath. (1)

Bilbo is more confident now than he’s been since he left Hobbiton, and the Ring has nothing to do with it. He’s also in a position to search for the dwarves. He takes a lucky guess about the direction he heard their last screams come from, having first “slipped on his ring.” The role-playing nerd in me is thinking Bilbo just gained a level of experience. (2)

He finds the dwarves trussed up in webs. A swarm of giant spiders is having a conversation about how best to kill and eat them. This whole encounter echoes the incident with the trolls – only this time it’s Bilbo instead of Gandalf who comes to the rescue. (3)

Invisible Bilbo kills two spiders with thrown stones, then leads the spiders away from the dwarves just as they are about to kill Bombour. He taunts the spiders with silly rhymes, leads them into the forest, then circles back, surprises and kills the one spider who stayed behind to guard the dwarves, and frees the dwarves from their webs just as the rest of the spiders return. There’s a battle. Aside from their knives, the weary, poisoned dwarves have only sticks and stones. The spiders begin to encircle the whole group with a fence of webs. (4)

Bilbo, having taken off the Ring to free the dwarves, sees that he’s going to have to put it on again to win the battle, and has no way of doing it without the dwarves seeing him disappear. So he warns them:

I am going to disappear, he said. I shall draw the spiders off, if I can; and you must keep together and make in the opposite direction. To the left there, that is more or less the way towards the place where we last saw the elf-fires.

It was difficult for them to understand . . . but at last Bilbo felt he could delay no longer . . . He suddenly slipped on his ring, and to the great astonishment of the dwarves, he vanished. (5)

This is the first time Bilbo uses the Ring as part of a strategy. Up to this point, in every instance that he’s worn it, it’s either slipped onto his finger (seemingly) of its own free will, or he’s used it to hide from danger. In this instance, the invisibility is a sort of armor. And of course, now there must be a conversation about it with the dwarves when all this is over.

He tries to lead the spiders away again, but some of them pursue the dwarves, who are in no condition to run or fight. Bilbo circles back, flanks the pursuing spiders, and goes total badass on them.

He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at their legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed . . . but they had become mortally afraid of Sting and dared not come very near . . . It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their colony. (6)

Bilbo changes so much by the end of this story, it’s increasingly easy to forget he’s the same polite, nervous, comfort-loving creature Gandalf approached in An “Unexpected Party.” I locate the most drastic part of the change in this battle. Bilbo’s been lucky (I’d love to know how many times the word “luck” appears in the text – it seems to be on every page) and clever all along. Now he’s found his physical courage and proven he can keep his wits about him in a crisis. The dwarves are fortunate to have him, because they seem to have trouble with that. (7)

image by lucasmt

image by lucasmt

What I can’t say, really -– because the language of the text doesn’t give me much to go on – is how much the Ring influences Bilbo’s behavior here. Certainly, the invisibility is required to make his plans work. But the Ring seems to be lurking in the background and functioning as a simple magic item. If I did not know the story of The Lord of the Rings, I would probably have forgotten all that slipping on and off Bilbo’s finger from “Riddles in the Dark” by now. (8)

When the spiders flee, the company finds themselves in one of the circles where the elves had been feasting the night before. Bilbo explains the finding of the Ring to them. He’d told them about Gollum just after the escape from the Misty Mountains, but left the Ring out of the story. (I missed this one, and I am sure there are interesting things to say about it.) (9)

The conversation shifts to finding food and figuring out what to do next, and we get this gem.

These questions they asked over and over again, and it was from little Bilbo that they seemed to expect to get answers. From which you see that they had changed their opinion of Mr. Baggins very much, and had begun to have a great respect for him (as Gandalf had said they would). Indeed they really expected him to think of some wonderful plan for helping them, and were not merely grumbling. (10)

The dwarves are suddenly looking to Bilbo for leadership. And this is interesting: if you follow the dwarves through the first half of this novel, they do not change. The trouble with the elves and the spiders is the same sort of trouble they had with the trolls. They are prone to being out-witted and vulnerable to ambush. In the absence of Gandalf, Bilbo is the smartest, most savvy person in the group at this point.

Sadly, Bilbo is too exhausted to think of anything, so they all pass out in the elf-circle. At some point later, Balin pops open an eye and realizes no one has seen Thorin since the confusion with the elves the night before and the narrative shifts to a descriptive passage explaining that he’s been carried off to the dungeon of the Wood-elves. (11)

We’ll leave them for here for now.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Throwback Thursday My Endless Tolkien Series, part 16

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Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 2”

This is part 16 of an ongoing series. You can find previous installments here, and catch early installments on Thursdays at Sourcerer. I’m reading the One Ring as a character and looking at its interactions with various other characters to see what it tells us about the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

I was a little surprised to find, as I scanned The Hobbit for passages where Bilbo interacts with the Ring, just how important the Mirkwood chapters are. Before we dive into “Flies and Spiders,” though, one earlier passage that I’ve missed deserves a little attention.

After Bilbo escapes the Misty Mountains with the aid of the Ring, he discovers Gandalf and the Dwarves talking about having lost him. He sneaks past Balin, who is on sentry duty, and right into the middle of the party before taking off the Ring.

“And here’s the Burglar,” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them and slipping off the ring.

Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them . . . It is a fact that Bilbo’s reputation went up a very great deal with the dwarves after this. If they had still doubted that he was a first-class burglar, in spite of Gandalf’s words, they doubted no longer.” (1)

This passage is important for three reasons.

  • This is the first instance I can find where Bilbo is clearly acting on the Ring. All through the previous chapter, Bilbo’s interactions with the Ring are written to suggest that the Ring is deciding when to slip on and off of Bilbo’s finger.
  • That last sentence is the point at which the dwarves begin to take Bilbo seriously as a burglar, and in the Mirkwood chapters we’ll see them asking his advice and even following his lead at times. Bilbo’s come a long way since he left Bag End, and the adventure isn’t even half over yet.
  • It is the first time Bilbo makes a choice about how to use the Ring. When he decides, a page earlier, to slip into their midst before removing it, he says to himself “I will give them all a surprise.” This tells us something about Bilbo’s character – he’s getting up to some mischief here, but it’s not malicious. He’s doing it for the laughs. This is a clue as to why the Ring doesn’t affect Bilbo as quickly, or as drastically, as it does Gollum. Bilbo just doesn’t have any malice for it to work with. (2)

Once the company is reunited, they are nearly done in by pursuing goblins and are rescued by the Great Eagles. The eagles deposit them between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. The shape-shifting Beorn feeds and shelters them, and allows them to ride his ponies to the edge of the forest. When they reach Mirkwood, Gandalf announces that he has business elsewhere, but will not say anything more about it. He rides away, leaving Thorin and Company to traverse the forest without his aid and with a warning not to stray from the path he’s led them to. (3)

It’s immediately clear that Mirkwood is not a happy forest:

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. (4)

They travel for so long they begin to run out of food. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how long this journey though Mirkwood takes, but it is a substantial amount of time. This timeline extrapolated from dates mentioned in the text and references to phases of the moon indicates that they enter the forest in mid-July and arrive at Lake-town on September 22. So we’re possibly looking at a period of eleven weeks, during seven of which the Dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo wears the ring continuously.

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

During the early part of this episode, they come to an enchanted river, which Beorn has warned them not to touch or drink from. They find a small boat and use it to cross, but Bombour falls in and when the others pull him out, he is comatose. And we get our first hint that Wood-elves are about:

They were standing over him, cursing their ill luck, and Bombour’s clumsiness . . . when they became aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs baying far off. Then they fell silent, and as they sat is seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path, though they saw no sign of it. (5)

This is the first of several passages that introduce the elves of Mirkwood. The picture of them that emerges is much different than Tolkien’s depictions of elves in the other texts, so I’m quoting them extensively as I work my way toward Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders. We get a bit of foreshadowing a couple of paragraphs later:

Yet if they had known more about it [the forest] and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were drawing towards the eastern edge . . . (6)

When the white deer referred to in the passage crosses the path,  the company is already so low on food they waste their last arrows shooting at them. Bombour remains asleep for days, during which time the others lug him along. Eventually, the food runs out entirely and Bombour wakes up. He’s had a curious dream

“I dreamed that I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lit with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground; and there was a great feast going on, going on forever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.” (7)

The picture of the wood elves that begins to resolve as these passages build on one another is straight out of Faerie. The dwarves spy fires in the distance and forget Gandalf’s warning to stay on the path in hope of finding help. They discover that there are indeed feasting elves about and we get another Faerie-like description.

. . . they peered round the trunks and looked into a clearing where some trees had been felled and the ground levelled. There were many people there, elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown and sitting on sawn rings of the felled trees in a great circle . . . they were eating and drinking and laughing merrily. (8)

So we have a woodland host hunting white deer and a character who’s been under an enchantment having a prescient dream about a king with a crown of leaves. Then the heroes are drawn off the path in search of aid and discovering a circle of feasting elves. It gets even better.

They try three times to enter the circle and speak to the elves. The first two times, the fires go out suddenly, they are plunged into darkness and confusion, and the lights reappear in the distance. On the second attempt, the dwarves shove Bilbo into the light before he has time to slip on the Ring. He falls asleep when the fires go out, and when the dwarves wake him up, they discover he’s had a dream similar to Bombour’s. (9)

The third time, the feast is huge and the elven king is there. Thorin himself steps into the light, and the darkness falls again. This time, the dwarves are blinded by ashes and cinders and Bilbo is separated from them in the confusion. That is the last we see of the Elves until after the encounter with the spiders, but a few pages later, there is this notable passage:

The feasting people were Wood-elves of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them . . . were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. (10)

image by lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s much more about elves in that passage, but I am quoting it here to note that Tolkien is actually using the word Faerie for Valinor here. The mythology was obviously not fully-formed at the point Tolkien published The Hobbit, and that makes reading The Hobbit as part of a seamless set of historical narratives a challenge. But it also makes the book more interesting.

There is not much to learn about the Ring in the early part of there chapter, but there is all manner of nerdy goodness here. These passages are important background to the encounter with the spiders, which is a huge turning point in Bilbo’s development as a character, and the escape from the dungeon of the Wood-elves. I’ll discuss those in the next two installments, and hopefully we’ll be out of Mirkwood before I pause to do the A to Z Challenge.

Notes (Bibliography)

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