Coming off a book like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling had a tough job ahead of her. Not only did she need to live up to her previous work, Harry Potter was officially a phenomenon. Kids across the UK and North America lined up at Midnight to buy Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, an unheard of occurrence in the world of publishing, and the expectations were huge. Rowling delivered a book that broke all preconceptions of what kids would read. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is dark, dense, complex, and long. Really long. It’s also really great.
At this point in the series, Rowling appears to be shifting her direction. Prisoner of Azkaban ends with the escape of Peter Pettigrew, who is prophesied to return Voldermort to power. Goblet of Fire is all about continuing that path. The book introduces Harry to a larger, more complex world of wizardry, and it provides a taste of the old war with Voldemort. Near the beginning of the book we get our first understanding of just who the Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, were. They represent unflinching evil and chaos.
Goblet of Fire begins with Harry being taken to the Burrow before heading off to the Quidditch World Cup. The World Cup is a grand, exciting sequence, but it’s greatest function is as a new introduction to a universe that is much grander than we have heretofore seen. We get a taste of the huge bureaucracy that is the Ministry of Magic. We see that wizards exist in countries all over the World and that they all have societies as unique and complex as we’ve come to know in the UK. We also get that first taste of the Death Eaters in a scene that is absolutely chilling. Rowling might be writing a book for kids, but she doesn’t shy away from images as horrific as an innocent family of muggles being manipulated in the air like rag-dolls.
That sense of a wider universe becomes the mode of the book when we get to Hogwarts. This year, Hogwarts plays host to the Tri-Wizard Tournament, a dangerous contest between champion members of three wizarding schools. The mystery becomes central when Harry’s name is spit out of the Goblet of Fire. Not only is he too young to compete, a Hogwarts champion, Cedric Diggory, has already been selected. For the first time ever, the Tri-Wizard Tournament will feature four wizards.
Rowling plays this out in some fascinating ways. For the first time in the series there is serious disdain from the students of Hogwarts to the celebrity of Harry Potter. Harry did not put his name in the Goblet, but everyone else thinks he did, and they attribute this lack of respect to his being famous. And it’s not just the students at large that are angry at Harry. Ron’s jealousy boils over into rage and for a good chunk of the book Harry and Ron hardly speak. I love that the series actually addresses the darker side of celebrity, particularly the fact that Harry never asked for it. He really just wants to be a normal kid, but the call to greatness is inescapable, even when it is not an asset.
The fight with Ron also helps to highlight another aspect of the series: the relationship between Harry and Hermione. In this book Harry and Hermione become closer than ever, but as always their relationship remains beautifully platonic. These are two characters who share non-magical origins, and they manage to connect very deeply as friends. Also at work is the relationship between Ron and Hermione. These are two characters who seem much less like genuine friends, but the emotional connection between them is clear. They each long for the other to notice them, and the result is a constant series of near-misses that continue for almost the entire remainder of the series.
Oh look, I haven’t even gotten to the Tournament itself yet! There are three tasks, and each one is scarier and more exciting than the next. The tasks also reveal Harry’s capacity for compassion and his unexpected resourcefulness. He has help along the way, but much of the drama comes from his inability to let others suffer. In the second task, Harry loses time and points by saving a contestant’s sister. He does not need to do it, but in the moment his compassionate streak takes over and he sacrifices a win to save her.
At the end of the final task, Harry is supposed to pick up the Goblet of Fire to become the winner, but again his good heart gets the better of him. He convinces Cedric Diggory to touch the Goblet at the same time as he does so that they will both be called the winner. Unfortunately the main mystery thread of the book makes itself known at this moment. The Goblet is a portkey that transports Harry and Cedric right into Voldemort’s lap. Before Harry can even comprehend what has happened, Cedric is killed. He then witnesses return of Voldemort to a full body.
Voldemort takes his time to berate his Death Eater followers, and to explain his intentions to Harry. Then the fight begins, and in a bravura sequence, Harry and Voldemort fire spells at each other and their wands connect. Apparitions of those people Voldemort has killed pour out of his wand. Harry, for the first time, interacts with his parents. They provide him with that bit of help he needs to get away from Voldemort and bring Cedric back to Hogwarts using the portkey.
The death of Cedric Diggory haunts the remainder of the book and, in fact, the rest of the series. His death signals the reality of Voldemort’s return and the terrible stakes involved. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is one of the most fun books in the series. There is a lot of action and adventure and the mystery at its heart is totally intriguing. But Goblet of Fire is also a dark book that introduces Harry to the true nature of the coming fight. In his life he will see more death and destruction, but the only thing for him to do is to stare that fight head on and maintain his defining compassion. As the books go on they become more and more adult, and with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling makes the biggest shift into that scary world.