The funny thing about Harry Potter is that he was famous from the
start. "There will be books written about Harry -- every child in our world will know
his name!" J. K. Rowling announced with spooky accuracy in the opening chapter of her
first novel, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." No doubt she meant this as
a reflection of Harry's awesome powers of wizardry, not of his ability to land on magazine
covers and lure children to bookstores at the witching hour. But the fact is that Ms.
Rowling's gifts of prophecy have proved nearly as amazing as all the magical feats she
ascribes to Harry and company. Still, not even she could have predicted this.
The frenzy that has greeted the fourth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the
Goblet of Fire," would seem to go beyond any reasonable response to fiction, no
matter how genuinely delightful that fiction happens to be. Instead, the current wave of
Harrymania brings the Potter series to a fever pitch better associated with movie hype,
major sports events and hot new Christmas toys. And it has placed Ms. Rowling, already the
golden goose of publishing, in the dicey position of having to outdo herself with a sequel
written under huge commercial pressure at twice the length of any of her previous books.
We know what happens to talent when the tie-ins hit the Happy Meals, and the stakes get
But Ms. Rowling, a kindred spirit to both Lewis Carroll and the pre-Jar Jar Binks
George Lucas, turns out to be a fantasist who lives inside a thrillingly fertile
imagination, mines it ingeniously and plays entirely by her own rules. Talk about
supernatural tricks: she has turned this odds-defying new book into everything it promised
to be. As the midpoint in a projected seven-book series, "Goblet of Fire" is
exactly the big, clever, vibrant, tremendously assured installment that gives shape and
direction to the whole undertaking and still somehow preserves the material's enchanting
innocence. This time Ms. Rowling offers her clearest proof yet of what should have been
wonderfully obvious: what makes the Potter books so popular is the radically simple fact
that they're so good.
It is not immediately clear that "Goblet of Fire" is a step forward for the
series, since it gets off to a shaky opening. Displaying her only real Achilles' heel, Ms.
Rowling starts the book with a sinister, tacked-on prologue hinting at the whereabouts of
evil Lord Voldemort, who is the Darth Vader of this enterprise and is so wicked that
others fearfully refer to him as "You-Know-Who."
When she cuts cinematically from this whiff of peril to Harry's awakening with a start,
she resorts to the kind of predictable storytelling signals that her narrative doesn't
need. When you can dream up an idea like the Pensieve, a basin to hold one's excess
thoughts until they can be dealt with at leisure, or a household clock that indicates
family members' whereabouts ("home," "work," "traveling,"
"prison," "mortal peril") instead of the mere time, there's no excuse
for falling back on the humdrum.
The new book starts off with some explaining to do (and handles it expeditiously enough
to be inviting and accessible to first-time Potter readers). Then like the three volumes
before it it rescues Harry from his miserable foster parents (who this time will send him
a single tissue as a Christmas gift) and restores him to the Weasley family, where he is
warmly welcomed and where Mrs. Weasley cooks dinner with the help of magic ("pointing
her wand a little more vigorously than she had intended at a pile of potatoes in the sink,
which shot out of their skins so fast that they ricocheted off the walls and
Harry and most of the Weasley children are headed for Hogwarts, the academy of magic
that Ms. Rowling has turned into the series' most seductive attraction, what with
mischievous, mobile portraits on the walls and studies like Potions and Care of Magical
Creatures. Never has one author done so much to make readers of all ages long to be at
But en route to Hogwarts, in a book that owes its expansive length to many such
alluring diversions, the Weasleys and Harry stop at a kind of wizards' Woodstock. This
huge outdoor event, at which magical types pitch wildly fanciful tents but can't figure
out how to light matches, revolves around the World Cup Competition in the game of
Quidditch, which would by now be played on sandlots and street corners everywhere if it
did not require the use of flying brooms. Typical of the heavenly whimsy that keeps the
Potter books so freewheeling is the catalog of souvenirs described here:
"There were luminous rosettes -- green for Ireland, red for Bulgaria -- which were
squealing the names of the players, pointed green hats bedecked with dancing shamrocks,
Bulgarian scarves adorned with lions that really roared, flags from both countries that
played their national anthems as they were waved; there were tiny models of Firebolts that
really flew, and collectible figures of famous players, which strolled across the palm of
your hand, preening themselves." Also Omnioculars, binoculars capable of instant
The teams are cheered on, respectively, by tiny leprechauns in the sky who align
themselves in the shape of rude hand gestures when Ireland is losing, and gorgeous blonde
female creatures called veela who develop the beaks and scaly wings of birds of prey when
they get angry. "And that, boys," the Weasley father announces, "is why you
should never go for looks alone!"
Then it's on to Hogwarts, still the home of Ms. Rowling's most irresistible characters
and creations, like the Sorting Hat in charge of assigning new students to each of the
school's four houses; to do this, the Hat perches on a stool, opens its brim and begins
singing. "Sings a different one every year," remarks Ron, the Weasley who is one
of Harry's best friends.
"It's got to be a pretty boring life, hasn't it, being a hat? I suppose it spends
all year making up the next one." Much of "Goblet of Fire" is devoted to
enriching the already witty, madly colorful portrait of Hogwarts life that Ms. Rowling has
continued to tweak merrily and has not allowed to grow tired.
Eventually it develops that Hogwarts will be engaged in a special contest this year: a
Triwizard Tournament that involves two other schools, the stern Durmstrang and the rather
more glamorous Beauxbatons. Each will be represented by one participant in an event that
spans the entire school year and that, needless to say, involves Harry on the Hogwarts
side, complete with tabloid press coverage that satirizes the treatment of Britain's
schoolboy princes. Ms. Rowling would be profoundly disappointing her readers if she did
not link the contest, with small clues salted all through the narrative, to the complex
and ominous machinations of You-Know-Who and friends.
The series's first book served primarily as an introduction, though its intrigue
involved a three-headed monster guarding the Sorcerer's Stone of the title. Then, in the
weaker "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," Ms. Rowling drifted into a
ghastly special effects denouement, replete with giant spiders, that provided the books'
most unappetizing scenario. With "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," she
arrived at a more trickily convoluted finale, to the point where you might have fried an
egg on the forehead of anyone trying to sort out the book's climactic moves.
This time she achieves her most lucid, well-plotted and exciting conclusion, complete
with a spectacular wand-on-wand confrontation to recall Luke, Darth and their light
sabers, enhanced by the identity-twisting tricks in which Ms. Rowling specializes. The
book ends on a mournful note with the loss of one character, and with ominous,
cliff-hanging hints of a next installment. Two things seem certain: it will involve giants
and be awaited with justifiably bated breath.
Twice as hefty as its predecessors, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is
an uncommonly good-looking book, with a substantial feel and artful chapter illustrations
that anticipate the narrative. Today's readers are bound to appreciate that. Future
generations, for whom the Harry Potter books will be classics, should like it, too.