Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J.K. Rowling
Published by Raincoast Books
636 pages, 2000
Harry's Real Magic
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
There's something magical about Harry. This magic has very little to do with the fictional magic that Scottish author J.K. Rowling has woven into her four books to date. For the last couple of decades or so, parents have been scratching their heads in concern and sometimes real fear while their offspring gave hour upon hour first to television, then video and computer games and, more recently, the Internet. Hours that added up to weeks and, over time, to years of slack-jawed passive entertainment while technological marvels shoveled up activities that required little creative input from the growing young mind in question.
Then out of the blue and from across the pond came an unlikely answer. A young, orphaned wizard devoid of any high tech gimmicks. One got the feeling, after the first wave of international Harry Mania hit in the middle part of 1999, that it wouldn't have mattered if Harry was a dog or a frog or an eggplant, the epic that Rowling was weaving with her series had somehow captured the imaginations of millions of readers of all ages. Somehow, with nothing more technological than a tightly told tale and a lot of typing, J.K. Rowling had -- seemingly with very little effort -- managed to do what a cotillion of concerned coalitions collectively couldn't: she'd gotten the children of the world reading. And reading passionately and with abandon. As everyone who loves good fiction knows, reading breeds still more reading. One good book behind us sets us on the trail of still more. Even if you have to read a half dozen or more books to find another special one, the trail is seldom unsatisfying. But it takes that one book to send us on the course.
The release of the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, has illustrated how straight a course it is. When, predictably, bookstores everywhere quickly ran out of the earliest shipments of the first edition, the children still flooded into the stores dragging along credit card-holding parents. And what did they do when they didn't find Harry? They began their trail. They bought other books. As printing presses began whirling out the second edition, children were already settling onto sofas and cuddling into their beds or perhaps finding a shady tree with copies of other books in their sweaty little hands. Harry's magic, you see, is not exclusive. It invites comparison, competition and expansion. It invites children to take a break from passive entertainments and experiment with the first -- the original -- virtual reality: The stories we build with the aid of a fabulous writer. The colors, the scents, the experience of fiction.
While Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire might invite comparison, there's not really a great deal that makes this cut. First of all, it's a massive book. More than twice the reading commitment of the previous books in the series. While something like this might be barely remarkable in a book by, say, John Grisham or Tom Robbins, the latest Rowling -- like the others before it -- is a children's book, aimed at -- if not exclusively enjoyed by -- humans under the age of 12 or 13 years.
A book of this size seems like it could be a daunting challenge for the preadolescent reader who might not ever have had reason to pick up a book this thick in their lives before. And pity the poor youngsters lugging it about in their messenger bags and backpacks. Yet, this too is part of the magic. Once an epic has been consumed with gusto, it paves the way for other epics. I've known adults who have declined to read especially thick books because, "I could never finish anything that long." The Potter generation won't share those qualms: they'll have done it.
It was optimistic for the writer, as well. The reviewed edition (Raincoast Books) weighs in at 640 pages. The Potter neophyte might well ask how a writer could sustain a book about magic and underage wizards over such a long haul. Somehow -- and with no discernible trouble -- Rowling pulls it off. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is all of the things the three earlier books ever were. And more. Goblet of Fire is an entirely tight story that fairly crackles with the excitement, warmth and humor that has rapidly become Rowling's signature. But -- as the very weight of the book would suggest -- there is more here, as well.
In Goblet of Fire, Harry is 14 and seems almost ready to take on the world as indicated by his pre-destiny. Prior to publication, Rowling had warned that book four would have a darker nature than the previous three, but I'm not sure this is an accurate description. Strictly speaking, all of the Potter books have had elements that are darker than your average children's book. I think this is partly why these books have been so extremely popular. This isn't the whitewashed reality that has become so prevalent in children's fiction; even in realistic fiction. Harry's brushes with death are very real and this -- magic aside -- makes his heroics all the more believable. Also, Harry spent a good part of book one locked in a closet by his nearest living relatives and by book three, Harry was nearly snuffed through the apparent machinations of devotees of Lord Voldemort ("You-Know-Who") only to be saved just in the nick of time by his long-incarcerated godfather (the title character in The Prisoner of Azkaban) and his own ingenuity.
Of course, dastardly and determined characters like Voldemort are not easily put out of their misery and the unspeakable noble provides some of the action and tension in Goblet of Fire. Since Harry is the only person -- wizard or muggle, alike -- who has been able to survive Voldemort's spells, it only stands to reason that he'll stop at very little to get Harry out of the way. Whatever it takes. As the story progresses, Rowling introduces some engaging new characters, some world class Quidditch and a lot of the resonances at which Rowling is becoming so adept.
Some of the darker feeling comes from the fact that Goblet of Fire is simply a much longer book than the previous three and thus there is room for more intricacies of plot with ever more delicious twists and turns. The conclusion leaves readers at the edge of their seat and anxious for more. More is coming, though at the moment, the wait seems very long. At its inception, there were seven books planned for the Harry Potter series. Just over halfway there and it feels like Rowling is just warming up. | July 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.