Think of the Harry Potter series as having two axes of growth: social/psychological and plotwise/’worldbuilding’ dimensions. The third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is the inflection point for the series’s psychological and emotional growth. Its climactic scene in the Shrieking Shack, which draws Ron’s hapless comic-relief rat Scabbers into a tale of remembered trauma spanning decades and grounds Snape in the social world of the story’s erstwhile unblemished Good Guys, is the precise point at which the story stops being good times with the boy wizard and his friends and darkens into a generational story — a triumphant achievement for Rowling and her storyworld.
This fourth volume is the inflection point for Rowling’s overall ‘mytharc,’ the ‘metaplot,’ the multivolume series-story — here she transitions from tightly conceived books for kids to doorstopper volumes which have a harder time hitting their ostensible age targets, and her victory is more equivocal.
For one thing, it’s too fucking long.
There’s an enormous amount of faffing-about between events of the Triwizard Tournament, to the point where the quest for the Cup recedes uncomfortably into the background — but there isn’t really any other material to take its place. Harry hates his classes as usual, but it doesn’t matter because he’s inexplicably excused from final exams…and Ron and Hermione are somehow reduced in status by being mere students while Harry does hero-in-training stuff. Worse, the plot of the book is pure misdirection: Harry’s courage and moral uprightness are real, but he’s being helped through the tournament by the Bad Guys in order to bring Voldemort back, which is the book’s actual purpose. Here Rowling’s juggling act falters a bit — Voldemort is a threat but not a focus, the Tournament is central to the plot but irrelevant to the story, the petty jealousies (not solely romantic) and social tangles feel like distractions. And it’s too fucking long. I tore through the first three books and had the devil’s own time finishing this one, because it’s neither the high-spirited romp of the early books nor a 100% ‘mytharc’ serial like the latter books. Order of the Phoenix (volume 5) will be all about the looming threat of Voldemort, Half-Blood Prince will set up the climactic magical war, but the Triwizard Tourney isn’t as significant as all that; in the end it doesn’t matter at all, in fact.
Presumably there’s some symbol-play going on — after all, Goblet kicks off with the Quidditch World Cup, another bit of wiz-worldbuilding that was obviously a kick to write but raises more fridge-logic questions than it answers (where and how do all these goddamn wizards live, anyway?). The ultimate irrelevance of the Tournament is a neat countermelody to the ruin of the Quidditch tourney by Voldemort’s minions, another irruption of the Grownup World into the lives of the kids. Rowling can write! But it does (again) raise the question of how, exactly, wizard-children are supposed to exist — and reinforces the argument that while Rowling’s zest for worldbuilding and social portraiture is equaled by her love of single-volume mystery plotting, they’re somewhat let down by the seat-of-the-trousers looseness of her serial plotting. The Sorting Hat, the Ministry of Magic, the Death Eaters… It’s all lovely but it doesn’t really work, never quite coheres into a believable magical England. You can buy Hogwarts but not its relation to the Wizarding World; I’m there for the Quidditch World Cup but can’t imagine tens of thousands of superpowered spectators feeling threatened by the presence of a couple dozen rioters. And why is Voldemort’s return a merely local matter, for British magekind? Do the Beauxbatons gals even know who the hell he is? Why not?
Rowling faces the same problems of scale-mismatch that coloured the earlier books…but where the first three books were about a school, its students, and their alumni parents, so you could easily put plotstuff aside and just float blissfully through Hogwarts and the little lives of these adorable little kids, Goblet of Fire is suddenly about an existential threat to a magical community that somehow exists all over Our Actual Existing Planet. And in those terms, it just doesn’t work.
I can only assume that the Harry books rely, in a sense, on British cultural memory of The War for some of their meaning and borrowed/assumed coherence. The felt sense of keeping calm and carrying on as apocalypse draws near…that’s not a familiar American dynamic; our home front has never been threatened. I suspect, though I can’t be sure, that Rowling is evoking something dear to the British imagination but distant from mine. The specific kind of social pathogen that Voldemort and the Death Eaters represent remains, for me, perilously abstract. And as a consequence, Goblet of Fire is left standing on its own, psychologically, without certain points of reference that perhaps it tacitly relies on.
That isn’t to say I dislike the book — for long stretches I loved it, as I love the story overall. Rowling’s story is so dear to me. Perhaps half of Goblet‘s pagecount is top-shelf Hogwarts stuff. But that pagecount approaches 800 pages, for God’s sake. Too fucking long. It feels repetitive, stitched-together, drawn out. And Rowling’s growing ambition outstrips, I must sadly admit, her planning and (‘meta’)plotting. The emotional arc of the stories, for the three beloved protagonists, is perfectly clear and beautiful. The plot-machinery is rickety and in places ridiculous. I was 20ish when I first read this novel and adored every single word of it; I’m 42 now, I’ve written books of my own, and Goblet of Fire is a 400-page novel that hangs around for 300+ pages extra.
Weirdly, I’m quite looking forward to Order of the Phoenix — inspired by the film, which was surprisingly engaging, I want to see Rowling fully integrate the sometimes disjoint worlds of the wiz-kids and the grownups whose unfinished business they’ll risk (and give) their lives to wrap up.