On June 26, 1997, J.K. Rowling’s first novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in the U.K. In the 20—yes, 20!—years that followed, the book sparked not only a magical, wholly devoted following, but six other canonical books, three additional texts, a staged play, and eight movies, plus a prequel (and more on the way), two amusement parks, countless merchandise, fan theories, and much, much more.
Since I first started reading the series in 1999, I’ve found Harry Potter to be a safe topic of conversation when meeting new people or even when the conversation goes a bit dull. Whether I’m talking to Harry Potter obsessives who have interesting facts and tidbits to share, people who—like me—saw the books as a springboard to a love of literature, or even those who never read the books, the series elicits strong opinions that always make for a good chat. However, I've found that, through these chats over the years, one book has stood out as remarkably underrated: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (GoF).
When I ask my friends, colleagues, and enemies which HP book is their favorite, the most popular answer is the third one: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA). When I push them on why they love it the most, I don’t get themes or ideas or characters or plot points they loved. Posing this question to my PoA-loving friends, family, and colleagues, they respond with answers like, “Voldemort isn’t really in it, which allows Harry to face other interesting battles,” and “I love Sirius and moody Harry too much."
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As a Ravenclaw myself, I like my books to be a little more nuanced and challenging, and therefore consider GoF—which has been described as “rambling,” “confusing,” and “taking a little too much of a stretch in plot,” by fellow Harry Potter-lovers—the hidden gem in the series. And, unlike the PoA-fans, I have some pretty clear reasons why I love it.
GoF is also often passed over since it was a whopping 734 pages—Rowling’s first foray into epic-length novels. As it was almost 300 pages longer than PoA, it likely was the longest book a lot of children had ever read up to that point. GoF is longer than many marathon classics like Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo, though, arguably, less dense. When discussing our mutual love for the fourth installment with Real Simple's books editor, what emerged was another salient reason GoF seems to be left in the dust: The fast-paced movie’s not that good, so readers tend to lump the book and movie together. Not surprisingly, my roommate, a PoA lover, digressed that she loved the third book so much because it’s was the best movie adaptation and probably conflated the two.
Yes, the book is sprawling and often confusing at points, but it does a necessary job of grounding the world of Harry Potter in deeply-human themes—that is, as much as you can in a wildly fantastical novel. It is the first book that makes us realize that the Wizarding World extends beyond Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and Hogsmeade. There are sporting events like the Quidditch World Cup to travel to as a spectator and other schools like Beauxbatons and Durmstrang to attend as a student. The fourth book essentially makes Harry realize his battle with Voldemort affects the lives of others beyond those he interacts with every day. There also are many moments when we see Harry isn't always the hero—he often makes mistakes, is put into tough situations he didn’t choose to be in, and still has to deal with the consequences.
The sudden shift into deeper and darker themes such as terrorism, bigotry, injustice, sudden death, and violence might have not sat well with many, especially after finishing the lighter PoA. As children, many of us couldn’t fully grasp the emotional weight of grief, jealousy, joy, and hopelessness in the novel, as Rowling didn’t portray these emotions cartoonishly or overly simplified, as many other young adult books do. A lot of Rowling’s satire, like Hermoine’s student activist-inspired S.P.E.W tirade, was probably not understood either.
If you needed a reason to revisit the books, the 20th anniversary is a good one—just promise me you’ll give Goblet of Fire another chance. I swear, it’s better than you remember.