“It’s just filler between One and Three.”
“It’s a bit stale and predictable – just a repeat of Philosopher’s Stone.”
“Nothing really spectacular happens.”
Such are common complaints against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – the second instalment in our much beloved saga. But why exactly is it that such a curiously large proportion of the fandom unblinkingly chooses to rank it last in their “favourites” list? General consensus holds that whilst it is undeniably “a great book,” it is simultaneously “not quite as great as the others.” Apparently it fails to significantly build upon the magical world established so delightfully in its predecessor and falls short of the action and excitement of its successors. In other words, Chamber of Secrets could be said to resemble it’s own infamous Polyjuice Potion, “bubbling sluggishly,” with only a soggy “gloop” sound to indicate its impact on the unfolding backdrop of the Harry Potter saga. But upon closer inspection, Chamber of Secrets consists of countless interwoven issues, plots and tremendous moments of humour that bubble away beneath the surface to create one of the most important instalments in the series.
Of all the issues explored in the text, blood prejudice immediately leaps out as being of the utmost importance. In Chamber of Secrets, we are introduced to such a concept with Draco Malfoy’s darkly memorable promise, “You’ll be next, Mudbloods!” 1 It cannot be denied that this notion of blood superiority plays a key role in the unfolding saga, providing a rationale for the behaviour of various antagonists, from Death Eaters to smarmy politicians. It is in Chamber of Secrets that the word “Mudblood” is first defined, that we discover the historical prejudice of wizarding society and that an evil monster haunts the school in search of prey – specifically prey of the “Muggle-born” variety. The Slytherin password, “pure-blood,” almost leaps off the page at us in an effort to underline the importance of this issue. We are also informed of the existence of Squibs through the hapless Filch’s Kwikspell letter. Interestingly, it is also Chamber of Secrets that first brings into focus the wizarding world’s discrimination against other magical beings, namely house elves. In fact, the book serves as our first introduction to this race – a fact worth noting considering their importance in later plots, from Dobby’s gillyweed to Kreacher’s betrayal. Although these issues may not play a huge role in Chamber of Secrets itself, they are crucial precursors to later plot lines.
It is also in Chamber of Secrets that J.K. Rowling introduces a crucial lesson for her younger readers in particular – that fame has a very real downside. From the lessons of the comically self-absorbed Lockhart – “fame’s a fickle friend, Harry” 2 – to the horror of the “Heir of Slytherin” affair, Rowling refuses to allow her readers to walk away with an idyllic perception of Harry-style fame. The issue was first raised in Philosopher’s Stone with Harry’s loss of house points during the Norbert fiasco and his subsequent unpopularity within the student cohort. This lesson is built upon substantially in Chamber of Secrets, as Harry learns of the potential trappings of fame; here, he is not merely unpopular – the other students actually fear him. Such a betrayal is an important precursor to Order of the Phoenix, where our unfortunate protagonist is ostracized not only by a group of gossiping students, but by the entire wizarding world. Again, Chamber of Secrets introduces a crucial theme and lesson for it’s readers; after all, we wouldn’t want Harry to live a carefree and universally popular existence up until his fifth year at Hogwarts, and then be utterly unable to cope with the cruelty of the public. Harry needs this experience of the downside of celebrity and we, as readers, need the experience of sticking by our hero even when he has been consigned to the role of social pariah. His high profile consists of more than just the shaking hands and exclamations of “honoured to meet you!” we see in Philosopher’s Stone; for better or worse, Harry is in for a wild (and sometimes terrible) ride.
The “terrible” aspects of Harry’s journey lead us to another important theme of Chamber of Secrets, one which is often overlooked – the mortality of young people. In most childhood adventure books, children do not die. They might enter a life-threatening situation, but they survive it largely unscathed. This concept plays out nicely in Philosopher’s Stone, where despite the incredible danger of facing Voldemort and the various obstacles to obtain the Stone, the trio’s adventure remains just that – an adventure. We never seriously believe that their lives are in danger – after all, the idea of murdered schoolchildren hardly fits the genre. But Chamber of Secrets is different. Here, we are introduced to Myrtle, an innocent student who was murdered and then forgotten during her schooldays. Yes, she does largely serve as comic relief (arguably it’s tragic in itself that this role overrides the true horror of her situation), but her character does combine with the basilisk’s petrified victims to highlight an important message – children will not be spared simply because they are children. This is some crucial groundwork for Rowling, who must establish the rather ruthless rules of the game early in the series in order to prepare the reader for Cedric’s death in Goblet of Fire and any student deaths we might see in Deathly Hallows. A slowly simmering potion indeed.
On a loosely-related note, Chamber of Secrets also introduces us to the concept that the trio is not infallible; they can get things very, very wrong. In Philosopher’s Stone, their adventures are usually portrayed in a positive light. Despite any lectures they may have received, their various escapades are passed off as having little or no real consequences – in fact, they actually earn points after battling the troll. This is a typical ploy for a children’s author. By pandering to our desires to rebel and “get away with it,” Rowling cleverly hooks in her younger audience by siding with them against traditional rules and authority. But in Chamber of Secrets, the situation is again different. When Harry and Ron fly the car to school, they land themselves in a very serious situation and we cannot help but wince at the stupidity of their actions. The glimpse we get of Harry’s shame and regret compounds this message, as he laments that, “It would have been better if [Dumbledore] had shouted. Harry hated the disappointment in his voice.” 3 It is interesting to note that Ron and Harry’s mistake stands not alone; Hermione is also shown to be fallible with her unfortunate feline mutation. Through such examples, Rowling reminds us that the trio are not superheroes; they are ordinary kids who can do stupid things and make very regrettable mistakes.
The idea of children versus authority leads us to the concept of the family unit. Apart from a brief introduction on the train platform in Philosopher’s Stone, it is in Chamber of Secrets that we first truly meet everyone’s favourite wizarding family – the Weasleys. Considering that the Burrow is the only place Harry has ever felt at home apart from Hogwarts (not to mention the way that our main characters’ relationships are progressing by the end of Half-Blood Prince), this introduction is extremely relevant to the wider story arc. We are also treated to our first glimpse of ordinary wizarding life at the Burrow, from de-gnoming the garden to noisy ghouls in the attic to horrible orange Quidditch posters. It has been argued that a flaw in Chamber of Secrets is its lack of important progressions in our knowledge of the wizarding world compared with the magical bonanza of Philosopher’s Stone, but it is here that we first see a real wizarding home it all of its glorious detail. And what a wonderful, whimsical place it turns out to be!
In stark contrast to the loving, happy environment of the Burrow stands the corrupt, ruthless world of politics. Of course, it is in Chamber of Secrets that we first discover the Ministry and most notably meet the Minister of Magic himself – Cornelius Fudge. Many of Fudge’s statements in Hagrid’s cabin in Chamber of Secrets effectively summarize his later attitude after Voldemort’s rebirth and Sirius’ escape; he cares only for political point-scoring and his public image. One line is particularly chilling: “Look at it from my point of view … I’m under a lot of pressure. Got to be seen doing something.” 4 This is his excuse for deliberately sending an innocent man to a place which leaves him wanting to die. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Hagrid reflects on his incarceration, “Yeh can’ really remember who yeh are after a while. An’ yeh can’ see the point o’ livin’ at all. I used ter hope I’d jus’ die in me sleep ...” 5 If we re-examine Fudge’s actions in Chamber of Secrets with full knowledge of what Azkaban actually is and contains (knowledge we were not privy to prior to the release of Prisoner of Azkaban), Fudge’s actions are utterly horrific. This scene is our first glimpse of his merciless nature and unflinching willingness to sacrifice others for his own benefit. In fact, the scene is eerily reminiscent of his behaviour at Harry’s trial in Order of the Phoenix, as is his subservient attitude to Lucius Malfoy. Such subplots simmer slowly, but when they finally come to the boil their power is tremendous.
Of course, the actions of Lucius in this book also bring to prominence another previously unknown character – Ginny Weasley. Considering her later role as Harry’s “best source of comfort” in Half-Blood Prince, it is not a stretch to say that her introduction here is one of the key aspects of Chamber of Secrets. When Ginny is kidnapped, we are informed that, “It was probably the worst day of Harry’s entire life.” 6 The traditional tale of the hero rescuing a damsel from a dragon (or in this case, a basilisk) also comes into play here, as does our first glimpse of Ginny’s strength of character; as an eleven-year-old girl, she battles against Voldemort’s evil influence for an entire year! It is also worth noting that Chamber of Secrets is actually the closest that our hero actually comes to losing his life. Generally, when people speak of climactic adventures and death-defying heroics they speak of the graveyard scene in Goblet of Fire, for example. But it is in Chamber of Secrets alone that Harry is actually in the process of physically dying. True, the climax here is arguably less dramatic than the risk of being hit by the Killing Curse or attacked by a Dementor, but it is in the chamber that Harry’s body actually begins to shut down and he is almost lost to us:
Harry slid down the wall. He gripped the fang that was spreading poison through his body and wrenched it out of his arm. But he knew it was too late. White hot pain was spreading slowly and steadily from the wound. Even as he dropped the fang and watched his own blood soaking his robes, his vision went foggy. The chamber was dissolving in a whirl of dull colour.7
Were it not for Fawkes’ intervention, our beloved series would have ended then and there, with Harry’s and Ginny’s bodies doomed to “lie in the Chamber forever.” 8 And yet people argue that little of significance happens in this book!
And so finally we reach what is arguably the most important aspect of Chamber of Secrets – the “Diarycrux” and Tom Riddle. Here, for the first time we meet the young man who is to become Voldemort and discover his past – of course, this will be of the utmost importance in Half-Blood Prince. We witness the horrifying power of a Horcrux, “wickedest of magical inventions,” 9 as it parasitically infests a young girl and attempts to drain the life and spirit out of her, leaving her to slowly die. And we have our only “onscreen example,” so to speak, of the destruction of a Horcrux – something which will undoubtedly play a key role once the deliciously bubbling cauldron of ideas in the Harry Potter saga comes to a boil in Deathly Hallows.
Moving on from the plot discoveries and moral themes of Chamber of Secrets, there is also the powerful writing to consider – after all, it’s difficult to assess the “worth” of any text without examining the effectiveness of the language with which it is constructed. In the case of Chamber of Secrets, words shine most powerfully in times of darkness. The book is infused with a creepy, ever-pervading sense of doom; as Rowling herself puts it, “I’ve always thought [that with] Chamber of Secrets, people underestimate how scary the book is.” 10 Mysterious voices, students afraid to walk the halls of their own school, blood-streaked messages on the wall – these are the elements of a nightmare. We also witness, through Tom’s chillingly heartless re-enactment, the terrified cries for help of an eleven-year-old girl: “Tom, what am I going to do? I think I’m going mad … I think I’m the one attacking everyone, Tom!” 11 The horror of the climax is exacerbated by its evocatively described setting, with “long black shadows,” “serpentine columns,” “a ceiling lost in darkness,” and all filled with an “odd, greenish gloom.” This is powerful writing, reminiscent of the cave scene in Half-Blood Prince when it comes to sheer creepiness. Again, Chamber’s true worth has been vastly underestimated by much of the readership.
Of course, the entire book is not infused with such ominous tones – it is also speckled with moments of laughter. By mixing humour and darkness, Rowling draws us ever more deeply into Harry’s world of shifting perceptions. The humour in Chamber of Secrets ranges from musical verse (“Oh Potter, You Rotter!” and “His Eyes are as Green as a Fresh Pickled Toad…”) to the dry witticisms of Harry’s internal dialogue, (“Harry couldn’t feel too excited about this. He didn’t think the Dursleys would like him any better in Majorca than they did in Privet Drive” 12) and Ron’s own refreshingly honest brand of humour – “D’you think we’ve got nothing better to do in Potions than listen to Snape?” 13 Lockhart and Dobby are naturally always good for a laugh and even Dudley has a chance to (unintentionally) shine – “We had to write an essay about our hero at school, Mr. Mason; I wrote about you.” 14 Combined with literally dozens more brilliant examples, Chamber of Secrets is arguably the funniest book in the series.
Of course, these are far from the only highlights of the book. We are also introduced to phoenixes for the first time, learn the ever-faithful “Expelliarmus” spell (amongst other gems) and hear for the first time Dumbledore’s immortal line, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 15 Coupled with the above-mentioned array of crucial themes, from blood prejudice to the ruthlessness of politics, the book is arguably one of the most intriguing in the series. Unfortunately, such genius is often overlooked. Scissored between two turning points in the series – the unforgettable journey into the magical world of Philosopher’s Stone and the tangled web of plot twists and adventures of the past and present that make up Prisoner of Azkaban, the slowly unravelling mystery of Chamber of Secrets may appear a little slow upon the first read. But once properly “brewed” and examined, the bubbling pot of ideas brings about a metamorphosis for the series, as light whimsy and magic are effortlessly combined with touches of the darkness that characterize later instalments. And like Polyjuice Potion, the book may initially appear slow and gluggy – but once the hairs are added and the contents swallowed, it’s true power is inestimable.
1. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 106.
2. Ibid., 92.
3. Ibid., 64.
4. Ibid., 193.
5. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 164.
6. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 218.
7. Ibid., 236.
8. Ibid., 217.
9. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 357.
10. Mzimba, “Interview with Kloves and Rowling.”
11. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 229.
12. Ibid., 11.
13. Ibid., 120.
14. Ibid., 10–11.
15. Ibid., 245.
Mzimbo, Liza. “Interview with Steve Kloves and J.K. Rowling.” Chamber of Secrets DVD. Transcript by Eric of Mugglenet and Melissa of The Leaky Cauldron, Accio Quote. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2003/0302-newsround-mzimba.htm (accessed 29 March 2007).
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.