The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 14 Jun 2007

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I have not been too impressed with the Harry Potter books. I read them all, one at a time, on airplanes. They are good for this because they are fat, undemanding, and readily available in airport bookshops for reasonable prices. In a lot of ways they are badly constructed, but there is really no point in dwelling on their flaws. The Potter books have been widely criticized already from all directions, and so what? People keep buying them.

But The Goblet of Fire has been bothering me for years now, because its plot is so very stupid. I am complaining about it here in my blog because it continues to annoy me, and I hope to forget about it after I write this. The rest of this article will contain extensive spoilers, and I will assume that you either know it all already or that you don't care.

The bad guys want to kill Harry Potter, the protagonist. The Triwizard Tournament is being held at Harry's school. In the tournament, the school champions must overcome several trials, the last of which is to race through a maze and grab the enchanted goblet at the center of the maze. The bad guys' plan is this: they will enter Harry in the tournament. They will interfere subtly in the tournament, to ensure that Harry is first to lay hands on the goblet. They will enchant the goblet so that it is a "portkey", and whoever first touches it will be transported into their evil clutches.

They need an evil-doer on the spot, to interfere in the competition in Harry's favor; if he is eliminated early, or fails to touch the goblet first, all their plotting will be for naught. So they abduct and imprison Mad-eye Moody, a temporary faculty member and a famous capturer of evil-doers, and enchant one of their own to impersonate him for the entire school year.

The badness of this plan is just mind-boggling. Moody is a tough customer. If they fail to abduct him, or if he escapes his year-long captivity, their plans are in the toilet. If the substitution is detected, their plans are in the toilet. Their fake Moody will be teaching a class in "Defense Against the Dark Arts", a subject in which the real Moody has real expertise that the substitute lacks; the substitute somehow escapes detection on this front. For several months the fake Moody will be eating three meals a day with a passel of witches and wizards who are old friends with the real Moody, and among whom is Albus Dumbledore, who supposedly is not a complete idiot; the substitute somehow escapes detection on this front as well.

Even with the substitution accomplished, the bad guys' task is far from easy. Harry procrastinates everything he can and it's all they can do to arrange that he is not eliminated from the tournament. None of the other champions are either, and the villains have a tough problem to make sure that he is first through the maze.

Here is an alternative plan, which apparently did not occur to the fearsome Lord Voldemort: instead of making the Goblet of Fire into a portkey, he should enchant a common object, say a pencil. We know this is possible, since it has been explicitly established that absolutely any object can be a portkey, and the first instance of one that we see appears to be an abandoned boot. Then, since fake Moody is teaching Harry's class, sometime during the first week of the term he should ask Harry to stay behind on some pretext, and then say "Oh, Harry, would you please pass me that pencil over there?" After Harry is dead, fake Moody can disappear. A little thought will no doubt reveal similar plans that involve no substitutions or imprisonments: send Harry a booby-trapped package in the mail, or enchant his socks, or something of the sort.

In fact, they do something like this in one of the later books; they sell another character, I think Ginny Weasley, some charm that puts her under their control. This is a flub already, because they should have sold it to Harry instead—duh—and then had him kill himself. Or they could have sold him a portkey. Or an exploding candy. But I don't want to belabor the point.

Normally I have no trouble suspending my disbelief in matters like this. I can forgive a little ineptness on the part of the master schemers, because I am such an inept schemer that I usually don't notice. When evil plots seem over-elaborate and excessively risky to me, I just imagine that it seems that way because evil plots are so far outside my area of expertise, and read on. But in The Goblet of Fire I couldn't do this. My enjoyment of the book was disrupted by the extreme ineptness of the evil scheme.

One of Rowling's recurring themes is the corruption and ineptness of the ostensibly benevolent government. But perhaps this incompetence is a good thing. If the good guys had been less incompetent in the past, the bad guys might have had to rise to the occasion, and would have stomped Harry flat in no time. Lulled into complacency by years of ineffective opposition, they become so weak and soft that they are defeated by a gang of teenagers.

Okay, that's off my chest now. Thanks for your forbearance.

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