Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

Read The Goblet Of Fire to my kids earlier this year, and it struck me that the Triwizard Tournament about which the story revolves is really a great example of an author wanting very desperately to have her cake and eat it, too. If Rowling has a strength as an author, it’s her ability to write characters we fall in love with and hate (because they’re all of us and the kids we went to school with) and her ability to pace her stories to keep us reading.

But she never was a gamer, and she doesn’t understand games. This should have been obvious with her creation of Quidditch, a game that exists for no other purpose but to catapult Harry alone to stardom, by placing him in the position on a team to always, 100% of the time, win (or rarely, lose) the game for his House.¹ And there are no other sports (seriously, when have you ever been to a school where there is ONE sport?) and they never play other schools (which is kind of odd, because there are WORLD CUPS in Quidditch, aren’t there?)

This was never more obvious than the Triwizard Tournament. Granted, Rowling has a serious problem, here: just making Harry the Hogwarts champion by random draw would be a coincidence of the first water, and unbelievable. Of course, she could have had Moody/Crouch make certain of that by using some previously-unknown spell to make him the real champion, but it would have been a dead giveaway since it is indeed only logical that junior and senior (6th and 7th year) students will be the most capable of doing ANY task in a high school. Plus, of course, it loses the entire reason that Cedric can be killed and for Harry to be hated throughout the book.

So Rowling comes up with the whole fourth champion trick. Which serves every purpose except making any actual sense. Consider: the solutions that everyone but Dumbledore arrives at are quite sensible: 1) Don’t let Harry Compete, and 2) Give the other schools additional champions.
When these solutions are proposed, there is a lot of handwaving about some sort of “magical contract” that demands Harry compete, so that we do not pay attention to the woman behind the curtain who does not want the plot to go that way, dammit! But never a word is said about how it will be enforced. The Goblet, having chosen the champions, has no further role to play in the tournament.² There was no reason that Dumbledore could not have agreed to the quite reasonable solution of having Harry operate under impossible constraints (e.g. Giving Harry only one minute to accomplish each challenge). Or, since all the events but the final were judged, and the judges were under no constraints to judge fairly, by simply instructing the judges to give Harry zeroes no matter how he performed.  In fact, it’s kind of out of character that Maxime and Karkaroff don’t do that.
But even so, who does this magical contract punish if it’s not carried out? Hogwarts? How? Harry? Apparently not, because Harry drags his feet over the Second Task and goes into it completely unprepared, and the Tournament makes no move to punish him for his procrastination. This of course would have been the easiest way for Harry to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow students: just refuse to succeed.

So what can we learn from this? I suggest a few basic lessons: Firstly, don’t make things you have no interest in (like sport and games) central to your conflict. Secondly, if you create something like a “magical contract” it needs to have an enforcement clause. Real things have real consequences. Finally, handwaving to make people stop asking questions rarely works well.

¹This would have been easy enough to fix, by the way, and still let Harry do his thing. The obvious solution would have been to make the Snitch catchable by every player on the team and then make Harry a Chaser who was just really good at finding Snitches.

²This also would have worked as a partial fix. If the Goblet itself had magically spawned the challenges, this would have actually made sense. It would not have continued the tournament until Harry passed (or failed) his challenge, and additional challengers would have had no challenge to fight.


4 thoughts on “Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

  1. I think that Goblet Of Fire is the book that suffers most from the series tonal shift and the growing mismatch of trappings and theme.

    In the first novel (Harry Potter and The Bad Defense Against The Dark Arts Teacher) the tone is light and absurd. Many of the trappings of the world have the feel of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or James and The Giant Peach. The money system, the game of Quidditch, the names of spells and mystical creatures, all convey an inherent metaphysical goofiness–the situations described can be dangerous, but never serious.

    By the last book (Harry Potter and The Really, Really Bad Defense Against The Dark Arts Teacher) the tone has changed entirely. The world has grown dystopian and it’s just not a fun place to live anymore. Dramatic and exciting, yes, but the silliness has drained out of things.

    Goblet Of Fire is the Wizarding World’s heel turn. The Prisoner of Abracadabra sets up the idea that bad things (false imprisonment, corruption in high places, anti-lycanthrope prejudice) can happen in the world and that it’s not all chocolate frogs and laughing ghosts, but the bad things happen to grownups. That’s an important distinction because the book still has the essential divide between “real people” (students) and “plot devices” (faculty and staff) that characterizes books written by grownups for children.

    In Goblet Of Fire a real person dies. Suddenly, shit gets real, metaphysically speaking. Midway through this book Rawlings found herself playing by a different set of rules, and I don’t think she was prepared for it.

    The last three books have a very different feel than the first three. It’s not just the eponymous character who has grown up, the world itself has. There are far fewer silly names and ridiculous creatures in the last three books, and where Rawling was forced to keep certain conventions for the sake of continuity they often feel forced.

    • Well put! The distinction between juvenile People and grown-up Plot Devices is well taken. And just the other day we got my nine-year-old a used Sorcerer’s Stone, but my wife was balking hard at letting him read anything past Book Four in the foreseeable future.

  2. The worst sin against game design – and, let us note, one that the plot would have survived fine without, with some minor adjustments for the latter case – is the question of why there were even spectators for tasks number two and three. They’re spending the whole event staring at a lake and a hedge maze, respectively.

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