When I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), only the first four books had been published. It is a good thing for all interested parties that they continued to be literary hits. Had it not been for the movies, I would have had no interest in reading the books. This is in keeping with my semi-hipster character. Like anyone else, I was well aware of the groundswell of popularity for J. K. Rowling’s scrawlings. When the general public appears to be zigging towards something, I have a habit of zagging. Yet, when I saw the movie, I was, if you will pardon a practicing Catholic using magical parlance, enchanted. Still, I resisted diving into the novels until one summer during my early graduate school years I found myself with a lot of time and nothing on my reading docket. My roommates at the time had all the entries in the series released to that point, and so I gave them a go. I had all four done in two weeks. I could not put them down. Now, all this took place after I had seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). After the original, the sequel could have been just another failed follow-up to a classic. Luckily, this was not the case.
As with many of these films, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with our title character (Daniel Radcliffe) at the Dursley home. The Dursleys are Harry’s aunt and uncle, and they do not care for the weird witchcraft and wizarding world in which their nephew found a home in during the previous year. Harry is looking forward to going back, but is experiencing a lack of communication from the friends he made. This is when he is visited one night by a diminutive creature known as a house elf named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones). Dobby is there to warn Harry not to return to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his school and true home, because of the dangers to come that year. In order to hopefully prevent Harry from going, Dobby proceeds to ruin an important dinner the Dursleys are hosting. With this job done, Dobby disappears, and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) locks Harry in his room, putting bars over the windows. These efforts are soon spectacularly circumvented when Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) arrives with his twin brothers in a flying car to spring Harry from his suburban London prison. They then take Harry to the Weasley abode in anticipation of heading to Diagon Alley to obtain their supplies for the upcoming school year. Once there, they encounter the school’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the vain Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), signing autographs in the book store. Also in attendance are the Malfoys. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is Harry’s sworn enemy, but it is with Draco’s father, Lucius (Jason Isaacs), that Harry has a chilly exchange. At any rate, with their necessaries obtained, it is off to the train station to catch their ride to Hogwart’s. Everyone else is able to make through the barrier to the secret platform where the Hogwart’s Express awaits except Harry and Ron. Panicking that they will miss the start of school, they decide to take the Weasley’s flying car. They make it just in time to miss the opening feast, and when they are caught by Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), they are given detentions. Nonetheless, the settle into their new school year, only to have it disrupted by a series of attacks. Harry, in particular, notices when these events are about to happen because he hears strange, raspy voices coming from the walls. Shortly after this happens, there turns up a student or somebody else who has been “petrified,” i.e., turned to stone. Despite the requests of the faculty to remain as secure as possible by staying in their assigned houses’ dormitories, Harry, Ron, and their more brilliant friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) take it upon themselves to investigate the situation. Doing so leads them to a mysterious journal that had been discarded in one of the bathrooms. When Harry begins to write in it, he finds that answers materialize on the page. Further scribblings reveal that the journal once belonged to a former Hogwart’s student named Tom Marvolo Riddle (Christian Coulson). Using the magic of the journal, Harry is shown that similar attacks happened decades previously, and that Harry’s friend and school gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) had been involved. Things become even more personal for them when Hermione falls victim to petrification. Yet, she left an important clue: basilisk. A basilisk is a massive snake that has been living in a part of Hogwart’s known as the Chamber of Secrets in the school’s underbelly, and the room had somehow been opened. Wanting to save their friend, Harry and Ron venture down into the subterranean levels, along with a resistant Professor Lockhart. When Harry becomes separated from Ron and Professor Lockhart, he carries on and finds Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) lying unconscious in the title room. Standing over her is Tom, and he lets on that he had used Ginny to open the chamber, the basilisk being a distraction so that he can return as his true self, ultimate series villain Lord Voldemort. Yet, with some timely help from headmaster Albus Dumbledore’s (Richard Harris) phoenix, Harry is able to kill the basilisk and use one of its fangs to destroy the journal. This breaks the spell, and with the phoenix, everyone returns to the surface. Once there, it turns out the Lucious had been the one to plant the journal on Ginny, setting in motion the awful events of the year.
If you are not a fan of Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is not going to seem much different from its immediate predecessor. This is why it is handy to have other lenses with which to view this material, such as my Catholic sensibilities. One area I glossed over (actually, much of this is glossed over) is how Harry is able to obtain the help of the phoenix. When he is back in Dumbledore’s office after saving the school once more, Harry is curious as to how this happened, including the delivering of the Sorting Hat containing the sword of Gryffindor came at the critical moment. Dumbledore explains that only a true Gryffindor, a school house that prides itself on bravery, could have pulled the sword from the hat. Bravery in desperate moments in not a foolhardy endeavor. The history of Christendom is full of examples of this behavior, particularly with the martyrs. Indeed, Harry is willing to lay down his life for his friend’s sister, which is the hallmark of what the Catholic versions were willing to do. One can look at such acts and see them as simply throwing away one’s life. That is a narrow view. In the Catholic way of thinking, martyrdom is not only about laying down your life for another, but doing so for the purpose of another’s salvation. Salvation is a word that seldom gets its due credit. Salvation pertains to the eternal, in other words, something that will last much longer than the little blips that are our lives. Everything about our Faith points to the notion that God wants us with Him eternally. Therefore, there are few better things you can do for another than to help them on that path. Of course, Faith is a far-off notion when it comes to Harry Potter. Yet, the act of martyrdom has a universal impact. Harry did not ultimately give up his life, but I like to think that had he done so, Ginny would have honored that memory with a good life of her own. That is also a big reason as to why Catholics venerate saints.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a worthy entry in the series, but one issue I have not discussed in any of the reviews is the Catholic response to the series. There has been a great deal of consternation from Christian circles as to a series aimed at young ones that deals with witchcraft. However, it is a topic that I have covered in non-Harry Potter titles. In short, the Church is against witchcraft. What it also acknowledges is that these books are works of fiction, and that the values of the main characters are good ones, despite their use of magic. If you are a Christian parent reading this and wondering whether or not you should allow your young one to read the books or see the movies, I would not make any direct recommendation to you. I can understand arguments on both sides of this debate. Nonetheless, I can think of other, potentially more harmful parts of culture that are aimed at our youth.