“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”
In Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the Harry Potter series and also the point where J.K. Rowling’s gave up, our eponymous hero finds himself entered into the Triwizard Tournament, a magical contest between three European schools of magic involving three fearsome magical tasks to overcome. The Tournament is only supposed to be open to over-seventeens: so who entered Harry, and how did they deceive the Goblet of Fire, a magical guardian of considerable power, into selecting him?
The book opens confusingly, with Frank, an old Muggle man we’ve never met, investigating some nighttime noises he has heard in the great dark empty house of which he is caretaker. The old man thinks it’s just kids trolling him; as it turns out, it is, in fact, the Dark Lord, an unspeakable and inhuman monster, plotting ‘orrible revenge against his enemies.
Let’s stop and think about that narrative choice for a moment, because as an opening scene it tells us a great deal about the work the novel is going to do.
The scene, of course, yells haunted house to any even moderately experienced genre reader. But Frank, a Muggle and a war veteran, is an unflappable bastion of rationality: his first assumption is kids, and his second one, even after he eavesdrops on Lord Voldemort discussing wizardry and magic and terrible deeds, is spies talking in code. The fact that the nighttime noises are supernatural in origin is in the context of the Potterverse mildly subversive; for the world Rowling has built is actually fairly rational, despite appearances to the contrary (Hogwarts is an institution, after all), and this shattering of the rational, this revelation that the wizarding world is the domain of witches and demons and haunted houses (even the Shrieking Shack in Hogsmeade had a relatively mundane explanation) shakes the foundations of that world pretty severely.
What we’re seeing here, I think, is a return of the repressed: just as ancient and superstitious folklore about Frank’s house returns to haunt it, returns to become true again (for fifty years ago Voldemort murdered his Muggle family, who were found unmarked and unmistakably dead within the house, to the puzzlement of the surrounding villages; and now, old Frank is murdered in the same way by the same person), the much-feared shadow of Voldemort and his Death Eaters returns to trouble the wizarding world.
This clash of a past that hasn’t adequately been dealt with (Voldemort isn’t dead so much as forcibly forgotten in the wake of trauma, his name unspoken, his followers forced underground, into disguises of good citizens like Lucius Malfoy, or into prisons to rot and be forgotten) with a present still refusing to recognise it makes the novel profoundly unstable. Many of its set-pieces are symbolical sites for lostness, for change, for unknowing: the woods in which Harry, Ron and Hermione lose themselves after the Quidditch World Cup, surrounded by the panic of the fans as they’re set upon by (hooded, cloaked) Death Eaters under the ghostly sign of the Dark Mark; the lake into which Harry must dive to save his friends in the second task; the maze whose centre contains not escape but a Portkey to Voldemort himself. (It’s interesting that Mike Newell, director of the Goblet of Fire film adaptation, seems to pin down the symbolic significance of the maze better than Rowling herself does: you can lose yourself in Newell’s maze, in its unnavigable shiftings, its meaningless mists.) And the motif of a returning repressed past is continued even where instability isn’t made specific in the setting of the novel: I’m thinking particularly of the admittedly problematic house-elf subplot, Hermione’s doubtlessly-misguided efforts still making us, and those around her, uncomfortably aware of how their lives are shaped by prejudice.
This is a book, then, about a society in crisis; a society suddenly haunted by the paradoxically very real spectre of prejudice that it has utterly failed to deal with adequately. Seen in this light, it suddenly doesn’t quite matter (to me, at least) that the plot ultimately makes no sense (why does Voldemort use a school sporting event as his framework for coming back to life?) or even that it’s self-evidently far too long. Its bagginess is, as with many Gothic novels, in some way the whole point: it writes around the cipher it’s trying simultaneously to express and to repress, revealing and concealing the truth it can’t articulate to itself. It is, in a way, timeless and thus plotless: plot can’t mean anything, really, in the face of this unresolvable and unspeakable clash between past and present; all there is at any point is a moment, a return, a cipher.