Some Thoughts on my First Listen Through the Harry Potter audiobooks.

After all my years of Harry Potter fandom and academic work, I had never listened to the English language audiobook productions, though I had listened to Philosopher’s Stone a few times in Spanish.  I decided to rectify that this year, listening to them all on my daily commute.

Some random thoughts, and things I noticed this time through.  An incomplete list, to be sure, since I am not in the place to take down notes in the car.

Sorcerer’s Stone:  In the Forbidden Forest detention, Neville “panics” and sends up red sparks when Malfoy grabs him from behind.  Panics?  It looks to me like Neville actually kept his head and did exactly what Hagrid had told him to do at the first sign of trouble. For him to have the presence of mind to use the right spell under those circumstances is quite an accomplishment for the kid who has trouble with magic. Malfoy, on the other hand, when confronted with the horror of Voldemort feasting on the unicorn blood, screams, turns tail and runs, followed by Fang, the dog Hagrid describes as a coward. A nice early example of Neville showing Gryffindor-style courage, and a fair bit of magical talent (when he needs it), in contrast to Malfoy’s cowardice.

It also reminded me a bit of Robin Ellacott successfully defending herself when Morris grabs her from behind.

Chamber of Secrets:  I had forgotten that the name Mundungus Fletcher came up this early in the series.

Prisoner of Azkaban: During the Dementor patrol on the Hogwarts Express, Ginny had almost as severe a reaction to the dementor as Harry. Of course, she is the only one besides Harry who has also had a close encounter with Voldemort.

Order of the Phoenix: As he is walking Cho down to Hogsmeade for their disastrous Valentine’s date, Harry looks up at the Quidditch pitch, and feels a “horrible pang that he was not up there with them.”  The two people he specifically mentions seeing are Ron and Ginny. Could this be a preview of his attraction to her?

Half-Blood Prince: Snape told us back in Philosopher’s Stone that the Draught of Living Death was made with powdered root of asphodel and an infusion of wormwood.  Here, the potion students seem to be doing something quite different, chopping up valerian root and sopophourous beans.

Slughorn drops the Dirk Cresswell name as another example of a Muggleborn who made the Slug Club. The poor guy meets a tragic end in Deathly Hallows.

Deathly Hallows: Voldy thinks he is the only one who ever discovered the Hall of Lost Things?  Then who does he think put all that stuff in there?

The closing line of Elphias Doge’s tribute to Dumbledore describes him as: “to his last hour, as willing to stretch out a hand to a small boy with dragon pox as he was on the day that I met him.” Elphias has no way of knowing that, in his literal last hour, Dumbledore did try to extend a helping hand to a boy named “Dragon” who certainly had a figurative “pox” on his house, with his family in disgrace and his desperate efforts to redeem it through murder.

Some nice Easter Eggs in this brief view of the Battle of Hogwarts:

Harry saw Yaxley slammed to the floor by George and Lee Jordan, saw Dolohov fall with a scream at Flitwick’s hands, saw Walden Macnair thrown across the room by Hagrid, hit the stone wall opposite, and slide unconscious to the ground. He saw Ron and Neville bringing down Fenrir Greyback, Aberforth stunning Rookwood, Arthur and Percy flooring Thicknesse…

  • The twin’s friend Lee is at George’s side now, after the loss of Fred. “River Jordan” has become the friend who sticks closer than a brother.
  • I love seeing “tiny” Professor Flitwick take down one of the most powerful Death Eaters, the guy who, among his many crimes, killed Molly Weasley’s brothers in the first Wizarding War.
  • Hagrid gets to defeat Buckbeak’s would-be executioner!
  • Neville is fighting by Ron’s side, taking Harry’s place in the Trio, just as Harry had wanted. And, together, they are taking down the one who earlier had grievously injured (or killed?) Ron’s ex, Lavender Brown, on top of his having bitten Remus Lupin. thereby avenging both a fellow Gryffindor and a teacher, who was especially kind to Neville.
  • After two year’s estrangement over Percy siding with the ministry over his family, father and son team up to defeat Pius Thicknesse, the current Minister of Magic.

Please join in and add any details that jump out at you upon re-reading or re-listening.

First Flip of the Tarot Cards: Louise’s Predictions for Strike 6.

I went into my first predictions for Troubled Blood a bit overconfident, after my bulls-eyes in Lethal White, where I successfully predicted a connection to the London Olympics, a Yule Ball analog where Robin would get to wear her fabulous Green Dress, and that the title referred to the horse disease, not heroin, and that a killer would be an equestrian. For Troubled Blood, I can really only give myself one of six points, as I nailed the rather easy targets of Matthew and Robin fighting over the proceeds from their flat sale, and Charlotte attempting to get Bluey to rescue her (albeit from the misery of her marriage and a suicide attempt, not, as far as we know, from Jago’s physical violence). Maybe I will give myself a bit of partial credit for the “cooling” of the Strike-Robin potential for romance and Robin dating someone new. Granted, the detective partners are clearly more attracted to each other than ever, with thoughts of beds and clean sheets in the aftermath of whiskey and black eyes, but their relationship, for now, has landed squarely in the realm of “best mates.”

The closest thing to a “new short-term relationship for Robin” was her very brief pairing with Saul Morris, which existed largely in Morris’s dreams, Pat’s hopes, and Linda’s speculations. Robin spent Boxing Day texting DeMorris Dickhead* for the express purpose of making her family think she was dating someone new. It was interesting to see a little of that fakery unintentionally seep over to Strike, and and arouse his jealousy as he pondered making new rules against partners and contractors dating. But my other speculations: an education-themed mystery, Whittaker v. Strike, the return of Switch LeVay Bloom Whittaker or Brittany Brockbank, came to naught. As much as I’ll miss Aunt Joan, I am most grateful that neither Shanker or Vanessa filled in for Sirius Black and crossed the veil.

Still, I want to take a stab at putting some ideas down as we start to ponder, and the process of scanning Rowling’s Twitter Headers for clues begins anew. More after the jump. [Read more…]

Second (updated: and Third!) Hogwarts Tournament of Houses Teasers released!



Time to start scanning for familiar Potter Pundits!



Paint and Memory, or Should That Be Pixels? Chatting with the Dead Via Magic and Technology.

One of the more fascinating, and mysterious, constructs in the Harry Potter series is the moving, talking painting, and what that means for the possibility of communicating with loved ones after death.

On the one hand, Cursed Child reminds us that the portraits are “paint and memory” …  something far different and far less than actually speaking with the portrait subject. This view seems consistent with one that Rowling herself opined in 2004. 

Q: All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?

JKR: That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death.

source from Accio quote, Edinburgh Book Festival, 2004

On the other hand, there are certainly times when the portraits seem to do far more than repeat catchphrases. Dumbledore’s painting, for instance, was able to generate original ideas for Order members in the fight against Voldemort. For instance, he seems to have come up with the idea of the Seven Potters, which, according to Mad-Eye, was a response to the Ministry outlawing apparition from Privet Drive. He suggested to Snape that he implant the idea of the plan by confounding Mundungus Fletcher. Later, he advises Snape to give Harry the Sword of Gryffindor, reminding him that the sword must be recovered under conditions of bravery.  This seems to be more original thinking than a “faint imprint” could impart.

I was reminded of this curiosity after reading this story about a grief-stricken man who created an AI version of his deceased girlfriend, with whom he could converse by text chat. It is a fascinating read, and delves into both the potential for healing, and the dangers, of clinging to a created “imprint” as a way of coping with loss.  Reading the article made me think of Dumbledore’s advice to Harry regarding the Mirror of Erised:

“However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible…It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that. “

I hope our Hogpro readers will look into the AI story, and comment here on the similarities to magical paintings. 

More Hauntings in Cormoran Strike: Freddie Chiswell as the Lethal White Horse

One of the few things Cormoran Strike and Raphael Chiswell agree on his their joint characterization of the late Major Freddie Chiswell as “a shit.” His list of crimes is pretty lengthy:

  • Underage drinking and marijuana use.
  • Driving under the influence.
  • Mocking his baby brother by calling him a girl’s name.
  • Choking the same brother into unconsciousness, traumatizing both Raff and Billy in the process. 
  • Drugging 16-year-old Rhiannon Winn at his 18th birthday party.
  • Sexually assaulting Rhiannon and taking pictures, which he later distributed, likely triggering her suicide.
  • Maliciously shooting a pony, and compounding Billy’s trauma as a witness to the burial.
  • Recklessly ordering a subordinate soldier into danger, resulting in the young man being shot and paralyzed. 
  • A whole host of other actions in the Army, where he was characterized as a “cunt” and people speculated that his own unit might have done him in. 

Strike, who originally investigated Freddie’s death in action, finds himself revisiting the major while investigating in Lethal White

Disliked by his soldiers, revered by his father: could Freddie be the thing that Strike sought, the element that tied everything together, that connected two blackmailers and the story of a strangled child? But the notion seemed to dissolve as he examined it, and the diverse strands of the investigation fell apart once more, stubbornly unconnected.

Though Freddie does turn out to be the strangler of the child and key to Geraint Winn’s motive to blackmail Chiswell, he cannot be directly connected to his father’s death, having died in Iraq 6-9 years earlier.* Or can he?  

Lethal White, as already discussed on this site, introduces each chapter with a quotation from Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and connects to that work withrepeating motif of white horses. In Rosmersholm, the white horses are an omen of death, and particularly connected to Beata, the dead woman who, at the play’s end, drives her husband and his lover to join her in Hades by throwing themselves into the mill-race. I am going to argue that Freddie Chiswell is the Lethal White equivalent to Beata, the “White Horse” whose haunting presence may well have both encouraged the murder of his father and driven his despised younger brother to attempt suicide.

Jasper Chiswell, along with godfather Henry Drummond, seems to be in full denial about how despicable eldest son is. Jasper describes Freddie as “wonderful boy” and “full of promise.” This is despite the fact that Freddie was a major in the army, and presumably in his 30’s when he died.**  The minister also was aware of at least some of Freddie’s misdeeds; he knew about (and dismissed) the potentially fatal attack on little Raphael, while becoming “furious” about the slaughter of Spotty the pony. The assault on Rhiannon Winn, which could have resulted in child pornography charges, also seems to have been common knowledge, though, like Raff’s throttling, dismissed as “boys will be boys” mischief.

Perhaps it was Freddie’s untimely death that made his family view his memory through such distorted, rose-colored lenses. On the other hand, it is possible Freddie’s excesses were as easily overlooked when he was alive. If so, it becomes easy to see the relationship between Freddie and his father as mirroring that of Draco and Lucious Malfoy, or Vernon and Dudley Dursley:  the father overly indulgent and the son completely spoiled and self-centered. Jasper Chiswell detested Raphael, yet still pulled strings to get him a short prison sentence when Raff committed vehicular homicide, then to get him a cushy job in an art gallery upon his release. How much more willing would Chiswell have been to use his connections to help beloved son Freddie escape the consequences of his actions? How many bailouts did he provide during Freddie’s adolescence and young adulthood? The fact that Freddie was still called a “boy” at 30+ suggests a father well used to cleaning up his messes. 

It was only in the Army, where, as Strike muses, “your background and your parentage counted for almost nothing beside your ability to do the job,” that people saw Freddie for what he was, and it left his comrades-in-arms literally wanting to kill him. The first thing Jasper Chiswell tells Strike about Freddie was that he “Went into my old regiment – well, as good as.” Nothing in Freddie’s background suggests him as prime military material. Could it be that young Freddie, with his prize fencing days behind him and a long record of misbehavior, found himself in a position where no university or employer would have him?  Could Dad have pushed  him to join his old unit (and had enough influence to ensure his acceptance?) for lack of any better options, or in hopes that the discipline of military service would straighten out his wayward son? 

If this forced enlistment resulted in Freddie’s death, it is good reason for Freddie’s spirit to want vengeance on dear old Papa. In addition, we can imagine Freddie’s resenting his father’s infidelity to Freddie’s mother; we know he hated the child that was sired as a result of the affair. Depending on when the marriage to Kinvara happened, Freddie may have been around long enough to resent her, the money she spent, and her potential to produce a competing, legitimate male heir. If Freddie’s spirit is hanging around as the Lethal White Horse, the idea of bringing his father, step-mother and half-brother down in one swoop might have been quite appealing. What better way than to have Raff bump off Papa, then kill himself rather than go down for murder?

Some sort of malignant spirit seems to be pursuing Jasper Chiswell in the days before his death. Raphael tells Robin of a drunken phone call.

“He phoned me the other night, which is strange in itself, because he can’t normally stand the sight of me. Just to talk, he said, and that’s never happened before. Mind you, he’d had a few too many, I could tell as soon as he spoke. Anyway, he started rambling on about Jack o’Kent. I couldn’t make out what he was going on about. He mentioned Freddie dying, and Kinvara’s baby dying and then…He said, ‘It’s all punishment. That was Jack o’Kent calling. He’s coming for me.’”

Could the entity that Jasper mistook for Jack o’Kent have actually been Freddie, extending Jasper’s denial of his son’s evil nature to beyond the grave? Whether this phone call actually happened, or was a lie of Raff’s being set up to support the faked suicide, the imagery of Minister Chiswell is much like that of Rosmer:

Rosmer: The wild fancies I am haunted with! I shall never get quit of them. I am certain of that—certain. They will always be starting up before me to remind me of the dead.

Rebecca: Like the White Horse of Rosmersholm.

In the course of the investigation, Strike twice lays out photos of the crime scene, almost has if he was doing a tarot reading. He evokes the presence of Freddie through two objects connected to him:

The fourth, fifth and sixth photographs Strike laid together side by side. Each showed a slightly different angle of the body, with slices of the surrounding room caught within its frame. Once again, Strike studied the ghostly outline of the buckled sword in the corner, the dark patch over the mantelpiece where a picture had previously hung and, beneath this, barely noticeable against the dark wallpaper, a pair of brass hooks spaced nearly a yard apart.

And later…

He turned to the next page, headed “Things,” and now he set down his pen and spread Robin’s photographs out so that they formed a collage of the death scene. He scrutinized the flash of gold in the pocket of the dead man, and then the bent sword, half hidden in shadow in the corner of the room.

The flash of gold is Freddie’s  gold money clip, engraved with the rather ironic slogan Nec Aspera Terrant, or “Difficulties be Damned.” Chiswell pretends to have lost this clip, in order to, with arrogance, great entitlement and lots of noise, press La Manoir for information about Kinvara’s stay. The minister’s inability to conduct his investigations discreetly prompts the rushed timing of his death, which ultimately leads to the murderers’ capture. As Raff tells Robin:

We hadn’t known what first tipped him off… it was only after I heard he was ringing Le Manoir about Freddie’s money clip that I knew he must have realized something was going on. Then he invited me over to Ebury Street and I knew he was about to confront me about it, and we needed to get a move on, killing him.

Chiswell also tries and fails to fight off his murderer with Freddie’s old fencing sabre. The fencing sabre, of course, reminds us of the motivation for Freddie’s despicable sexual abuse of Rhiannon, and the fact that he was never held accountable for it. 

“—but while I’m arranging everything, the old bastard wakes up, sees me fixing the tubing onto the helium canister and comes back to fucking life. He staggers up, grabs Freddie’s sword off the wall and tries to fight, but I got it off him. Bent the blade doing it. Forced him down into the chair—he was still struggling—and—” Raphael mimed putting the bag over his father’s head.

The physical fight may have been between Raphael and Jasper, but symbols of Freddie’s indulgence, privilege and cruelty are all too present. 

Once Minister Chiswell and his eldest are reunited, they seem eager for Raff to join them. The bastard son has already secured his father’s old revolver by the time he lures Robin to the boat, determined to bump himself off rather than return to prison. Once he decides on suicide, he resolves to take Robin with him:

Dark-skinned though he was, she saw that he had turned ashen, the dark shadows beneath his eyes hollow in the half-light. “It’s all gone. You know what, Venetia? I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, because I’ve decided I don’t like you. I think I’d like to see your fucking head explode before mine comes off—…We’ll go together. I’d like to arrive in hell with a sexy girl on my ar—”

Only Strike’s wisdom in removing the bullets prevents Raff from dying, and, as our Headmaster and Strike point out, it was rather a stroke of luck that Raff did not check that the gun was loaded, or notice the weight difference. Robin remembers Raff’s anticipation of hell in the book’s epilogue: 

She pictured his expression over the gun, as he had asked her why women thought there was any difference between them: the mother whom he called a whore, the stepmother he had seduced, Robin, whom he was about to kill so that he didn’t have to enter hell alone. Was he ill in any sense that would put him in a psychiatric institution rather than the prison that so terrified him? Or had his dream of patricide been spawned in the shadowy wasteland between sickness and irreducible malevolence?

If there is any character who seems to be dwelling in a shadowy wasteland, and who embodies irreducible malevolence, it is Raff’s older brother Freddie. His narcissism was spawned in his indulged upbringing in Chiswell House, under the eye of the White Horse in which he would eventually strangle his younger brother. Chiswell House was also where he abused young Rhiannon, and killed the innocent and aged pony. Freddie was, at his father’s insistence, buried in wood from the family estate, his casket chiseled (or, should we say, “Chiswelled,” pronounced “chizzled”) by the resident angel of death, the devilish carpenter and gallows-maker, Jack o’Kent.

The epigraph to the chapter in which Rafael tells Robin how much Freddie hated him reads, “They cling to their dead a long time in Rosmersholm.”  Let us look that quotation in context: 

Rebecca (folding up her work):  They cling to their dead a long time at Rosmersholm.

Mrs. Helseth: If you ask me, miss, I should say it is the dead that cling to Rosmersholm a long time.

Rebecca (looking at her): The dead?

Mrs. Helseth: Yes, one might almost say that they don’t seem to be able to tear themselves away from those they have left behind.

Rebecca: What puts that idea into your head?

Mrs. Helseth: Well, otherwise I know the White Horses would not be seen here.

Chiswell House, like Rosmersholm, is the decaying ancestral home of a family with secrets. Thanks to “Papa,” Freddie’s body  is permanently ensconced in a box constructed of  Chiswell estate wood, by a Satan-like figure. In Lethal White, it is Freddie who can’t seem to be able to tear himself away from earthly bonds; indeed, the imagery is one of someone trapped in Hell rather than resting in peace.

Rather than a guardian ghost, seeking to put things right, like Margot Bamborough, or a mischievous spirit who wants payback on the brother who killed him, like Charlie Bristow, the ghost of Freddie Chiswell haunts both his father and brother, trying to entice both into joining him in his torment. In this way, Freddie becomes another of the many pale equines of the story, evoking the deathly White Horses of Rosmersholm. Just as they uncover the ghostly horse skull from its grave in the dell, the Strike detectives unearth the crimes of Freddie Chiswell, as effectively as they did the Rattenbury-style murder committed by Kinvara and Raff. 

*Historically, Freddie’s unit, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, was deployed three times to Iraq, in 2003 (during which an ambush in Basra–the place of Freddie’s death–resulted in a unit member being awarded the Military Cross), in 2006, and 2008. Freddie presumably died in either the 2003 or 2006 deployments. By 2008, Strike would have been injured himself, and unable to investigate the death. 

** Freddie was Chiswell’s eldest child, and so presumably at least a year or two older than Izzy, who seems to have been in Strike’s year at Oxford. In 2003, the earliest year Freddie could have died, Strike would have been near 29, making Freddie at least 30.