I feel that I owe this story an apology. I have long stated that its movie counterpart was my least favorite in the series (yes, even more so than all of that camping in movie 7), and had let that color my memory of the actual book. Friends – I do not remotely hate this book! I might even love it. I’ve been debating with myself for days whether this 4.5 rounds up or down.
In my review of Career of Evil, I extolled Rowling’s ability to build out her universes, and go back to the seeds left in the beginning to grow the middle. This is, perhaps (maybe?), her single greatest strength as an author because she also does it with the Harry Potter books from the very beginning. Here at the halfway point we are seeing the fruits of those earlier seeds, and more seeds are being laid for the final harvest in book seven.
Goblet of Fire is the turning point of the entire series. Voldemort returns and we discover the Wizarding World is much larger, and much darker than we had previously expected. New dangers are introduced, new components of people’s characters are unveiled, and we get our first real taste of the unforgiveable curses. J. K. Rowling also foreshadows the HECK out of this book. Whether its Voldemort telling Wormtail that other of his followers would give their right hands to be of aid, or alluding to the lengths he has gone to extend his lifetime (horcruxes, anyone?) the reader is being guided to what we need to be looking for.
I think when I first read these books I couldn’t fully fathom how Rowling could make this fantasy series so complex and expertly planned out in terms of plot and world building while also keeping it appropriate for its audience. My brain refused to acknowledge the work and artistry that goes into this kind of writing. As I went through this time, I can see that she was confident of the story from the time she started writing the first book. Her attention to detail is more than impressive even at this point in the series, and the variety and authenticity of her characters are perhaps underrated even now. Every single character (even inanimate ones) is fully developed, or has the potential to be if Rowling had decided to pursue another avenue. All the pieces are in place, all she would have to do is go back to her files and make a left hand turn instead of a right.
Goblet of Fire is a long and dense book with so many plots and subplots as to make a person a bit crazy, and if I don’t end up over 2,500 words in this review it will be a minor miracle. I will be attempting this review in chunks, so here we go.
The Goblet of Fire and Tri-Wizard drama:
The book is named for the wizarding competition that Harry will be forced to compete in during his fourth year. However, we spend the first third of the book knowing nothing about it. Instead, Rowling spends time building out her world by having Harry attend the Quidditch World Cup with the Weasleys. (A moment of comic relief comes early in the book when the Weasley men attempt to retrieve Harry from Privet Drive via the floo network. Too bad the Dursleys have a walled off fireplace with an insert. A scene that I wish had made it into the movie.) While Harry is there we are introduced to portkeys, Cedric and his father, veelas, Viktor Krum, Mr. Crouch, and Winky, all of whom will be vitally important to the plot. We also see the unrest of the Death Eaters and the beginnings of their danger to those we love.
Once our characters are at school we are introduced to the tournament and the competing schools Durmstrang and Beauxbatons – I forgot they were both co-ed since the movie makes them single gender schools! However, Fleur is the rare character that I actually prefer in the movies. She’s a bit of a weak competitor, which if Harry hadn’t been aided he would also have been. But it was disappointing to have a character who doesn’t compete well and is seen almost exclusively through the male gaze.
As to the actual Tri-Wizard tournament. I still don’t really like it. It is the weak point in the story – not the intrigue surrounding how Harry got pulled into this nightmare in the first place, but the actual tasks. I never found myself invested fully in the tasks or their various outcomes. What did matter to me was how being forced to compete effected Harry’s relationships. His fight with Ron made me feel terribly for both of them. Rowling perfectly captures the feeling of anger and frustration on both sides, which are entirely relatable to anyone who has ever experienced a situation of confusion and mistrust with their closest friend. We can see why Ron is so hurt, and Hermione does a respectable job of navigating the waters without becoming too firmly entrenched on one side or the other. However, that does not stop her from being relentlessly supportive of Harry, which is important because he desperately needs help .
When Ron and Harry finally get over their fight, and the way each handles it following the “Caught on, have you? Took you long enough” remark from Harry was priceless. Ron can be a bit himself, but then so can Harry as he completely ignores Hermione and Sirius’s valid concerns. All the danger signs are there: his dreams, painful scar, and name mysteriously out of the Goblet. But Harry is Rowling’s stubborn fourteen year old boy who is more used to being alone than being supported, even this far in (and we know that mindset will continue) and he cannot quite accept help the first time it is offered and he simply doesn’t want to live in a world where he’s constantly in danger. Even the pretending will be taken away from him by the end of this book.
Cedric’s death hit me a lot harder than it ever has before. I’ve always felt that his good guy character was underdeveloped by Rowling, and even though we get so much more in the book (him reprimanding his father for being belittling to Harry at the World Cup), he is in so many ways still a cipher. But, that serves the endgame well. We are sad to see a positive force lost to the world, but it allows Dumbledore’s end of term speech to resonate perhaps a little more strongly as we place our own thoughts of Cedric-like people into our mind’s eye.
“Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”
Rowling gets a bad rap occasionally for the way and amount of characters who die in this series. Its more that she isn’t afraid to show that good, loyal, moral characters will die in the pursuit of defeating Lord Voldemort and all he stands for. We lose Cedric, we have lost others before, and we will lose more before it is all over. Fear and inaction have effects, but sometimes we lose innocents who did not realize that they were fighting in the first place, and that in and of itself is a great tragedy.
The Mystery and the Media
Again, because it has been so long since I had last read the book, I had forgotten that the identity of the person who placed Harry’s name in the cup was a mystery until the bitter end of the tournament. It is one of Rowling’s best-laid mysteries in the series, I think upon reflection. The layers of deception and the way she layers in our knowledge over the length of the book (I have no idea how many hours I listened to, but it was 17 discs worth) keep us in the dark and confused just long enough to keep the suspense up. So, even though I found the tournament itself uninspiring, there was still plenty to unpack.
We also have the problem of the media in the character of one Rita Skeeter. Her reporting is the stuff to make readers of this series seriously doubt anything they read in the media. Which lately, could be a good thing. I love to hate her and I think adding her in as a foe was an important move in this book. She inherently broadens the scope and gives us a new adult to doubt and distrust as the adults in Harry’s life are getting better at communicating with him about the things that are important. Don’t get too excited though, it won’t last to the end.
But Rita Skeeter’s end, and Hermione’s triumph over a vicious beetle, is the stuff of legend.
Also, we have to deal with the fact that Lord Voldemort is back and he, along with his death eaters, will dominate the remainder of the series. The entire scene after Cedric’s death is even more frightening to me now, in my mid-30s, than it was when I read this book 13 years ago. Perhaps most importantly the refusal of the Minister of Magic to believe and accept what he is told, and the destroying of evidence (in this case the mind of Barty Crouch) is even more frightening to me now. The world we live in is also a dark and scary place, Rowling was getting us ready.
Dobby, Hermione, and the Will of the Good:
Dobby, and his life as a free elf, are centerpieces to the B story lines running through the book. I put off discussing Dobby in my review of Chamber of Secrets because I knew he reappeared in a big way here. Rowling uses a character we met two books ago to give us a toe-hold into the larger environment of the story, easily moving her readers along the path of greater understanding. Rowling is aware that she has an audience of young readers, and she continues to use her platform for good with the introduction to Winky, the house elf for the Crouches, as well as the elves working in the kitchens of Hogwarts and Hermione’s warm hearted, but perhaps not fully thought, S.P.E.W. initiative for the “freeing” of all house elves.
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
The physical world of Hogwarts is expanded, including the way to the Hufflepuff common room and the kitchens. Hermione becomes in this book focused on the welfare of the elves, and with the formation of S.P.E.W. Rowling is weaving additional layers for her readers to think about. Are we treating people a certain way because we think it is what they want? Are we being fair and equitable? This all brings us to:
Hermione Granger, lady hero. I love how much Hermione stands up for what she believes in. She wants justice for the house-elves, she will not let Ron get away with being an idiot (”So basically, you’re going to take the best-looking girl who’ll have you, even if she’s completely horrible?”). She will also not be made to feel less than, she moves through life as confidently as she can, knowing that if she works hard enough, tries her best, and doesn’t sink to the level of her enemies (Draco, Pansy, Snape) she will be able to rise above.
And Everything Else:
The Yule Ball continues to make me happy because it is the perfect microcosm of all the things teenagers love and hate. Parties, food, music, dancing, getting dressed up. Some love, some hate, all have opinions. I also take umbrage with those people that don’t like the Hermione/Ron endgame (spoiler?) because Rowling makes it so obvious that Ron and Hermione are developing romantic feelings for each other alongside their friendship, and they just don’t want to admit it because teenage reasons. It continues to give me all the feels, especially their fight (“Next time there’s a ball, ask me before someone else does, and not as a last resort!”).
I also get a kick out of the fact that Harry thinks Hermione is a girl he has never seen before. I love that once Harry and Hermione talk about it, she explains the work that went into making that look happen and how its just too much bother to do it all the time and Harry just lets it be. Because it’s entirely Hermione’s decision what she looks like.
I also got a bit weepy at the end of the book, when Harry’s chosen family is all there. Molly Weasley, Bill, Ron, Hermione, and Sirius. He had been so sad when it was time to meet the families before the final task, and instead the family that has adopted him was there and when it all goes so terribly wrong Dumbledore calls in the person Harry wants most and desperately wants to be with him. The chosen family bonds are strengthened even more when Harry chooses to invest in Fred and George and give him the winnings from the tournament since the Diggorys won’t take it.
Because I love all things Molly Weasley, I got a laugh out of how she is very disapproving of Bill’s looks. I love that Bill stood up for himself and was able to bring the outside world to bear with his mother, highlighting that no one at Gringott’s was bothered by his hair or earring, thank you very much. It was a nice thing to throw in there, that even young adults, five years out of Hogwarts are still defining their boundaries with their parents and it should be something the younger readers are on the lookout for (it matters what your boss thinks, but not necessarily what your parent thinks).
“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”
Hagrid and Madam Maxine. How could you not root for our boy Hagrid as he gets himself fancied up for his lady friend, only to have her turn on him when she finds out that he is half Giant? The entire scene in the garden broke my heart.
For such a dark book and series, Rowling wasn’t afraid to bring the humor. For example, when is Vicky short for Viktor? When Ron’s jealous. Socks that screamed loudly when they became too smelly-Harry’s sweetest gift to Dobby, and that Dobby calls Ron “Wheezy!”
As we leave this book we are set to head into the Order of the Phoenix. We know why Harry can’t stay with the Weasleys, even though Molly wants him to, we see Dumbledore sending out the word to bring in those that are loyal and will fight against Voldemort even though the Ministry officially will not, and Snape being sent to work as a double agent once again. These books take a long time to read and, for me, a long time to review but I will be starting in on book five in a couple weeks.
“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
This review is preceded by The Prisoner of Azkaban and will be followed by The Order of the Phoenix which until this reread has always been my favorite. We’ll see if it stays at the top of the leaderboard or is supplanted by another.