How Not to be Virtuous: Wormtail

I'm not going to remark upon the use of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Captain Kathryn Janeway, of Star Trek: Voyager, once said that thinking about time travel gave her a headache. Puzzling it out certainly gives me one. I'd be interested to see if the Harry Potter and Philosophy book has an essay on the subject.

Nor am I going to write about identity and the distinction between appearance and reality with regard to it, as I did for The Chamber of Secrets, even though that sub-theme is even more prominent (and with all those shape-shifters in The Prisoner of Azkaban, even more confusing).

What I am going to scribble in the margins about is how Peter Pettigrew - Wormtail - fails to display virtue.


The Heir of Slytherin

The question of identity is of paramount importance in the Harry Potter series.

In each book, Harry himself undergoes the process of discovering his identity. This process is long, arduous, and dangerous; indeed, answering the question, 'Who is Harry Potter?', takes all seven books to do and changes the wizarding world.

The nature of identity is at the root of problems for a lot of other characters. The crisis (krisis, to make it less hyperbolic) of every person in his or her teens is to make sense of one's identity, and how a person's identity is formed in childhood and adolescence goes a long way toward determining what kind of person he or she'll be as an adult.

Books one through three, and book five, probably have the most to do with identity, especially Harry's identity. The Goblet of Fire, it may be said, is the book which identifies the Ministry of Magic for what it truly is, while The Half-Blood Prince is in large part about Voldemort's identity, and The Deathly Hallows Dumbledore's.

Of the books which focus on Harry's identity, The Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the best in that regard. But I want to look at the question of identity in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One weakness of The Philosopher's Stone, it may be said, is its occasional clumsiness with regard to the matter of identity. The uncovering of Quirrell as the real villain attempting to steal the Stone is not well handled, compared to nearly every revelation of a similar nature in the rest of the series, and in some respects Harry's discovery that he is a wizard is treated superficially. On the other hand, The Philosopher's Stone has some keenly felt and superbly written passages on the need to feel belonging (a yearning most poignant in Harry's case), such as the following:
A horrible thought struck Harry, as horrible thoughts always do when you're very nervous [notice the clumsy authorial interjection]. What if he wasn't chosen at all? What if he just sat there with the hat over his eyes for ages, until Professor McGonagall jerked it off his head and said there had obviously been a mistake and he'd better get back on the train [p. 90]?
One almost believes that Rowling consulted widely among eleven-year-old boys for this passage, because Harry's anxiety could hardly be put better, from a boy's perspective. Those of us who are grown-up would not think about our fear of rejection in such basic terms, but this passage (except for the phrase beginning with 'as horrible thoughts') is a piece of perfect characterisation.

What I specifically wish to treat in The Chamber of Secrets is the sub-theme (under identity) of appearance versus reality. A person (or situation; but my focus will be on people) will appear or seem to be one thing, but will really be another. The Chamber of Secrets is in many ways the liminal book of the series. Had Rowling been unable to master her treatment of identity in The Chamber of Secrets, I question whether she would have been able to complete the series at all (and certainly the remaining five books would have been the poorer for it, even if the series were completed).

So, we'll examine some of the characters in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and discover how Rowling handles writing about their identity, particularly as it relates to appearance versus reality.


The Boy Who Lived

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
So reads the first sentence of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the book, published in 1997, which began Pottermania, a phenomenon which has yet to run its course; if it subsides, it will be following the release of the second half of the film version of The Deathly Hallows (in 2011) and the official Potter encyclopaedia which J. K. Rowling plans to publish.



If you've ever taken a book out of a library, or read something about the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, you'll have encountered marginalia, which are comments or illustrations in (obviously) the margins of books. Library books frequently have words, sentences, or entire paragraphs highlighted, underlined, or circled. Maybe you like to write notes in the margins or highlight passages in your own books.

I don't like to mark my books, having grown out of doodling (in books) years ago. But as I enjoy reading books and often want to comment upon them, I decided to start this blog as a forum for just that; better still, I can have a conversation about whatever books I am reading, and what I think of them, with others.

I'm also interested in the theory and practice of virtue, so this blog is also going to be an exploration of the virtues.

I hope you enjoy what you read; please feel free to comment - I look forward to some interesting conversation.