The Whomping Willow
Chapter 5 of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Whomping Willow
Summer ends quickly, and it is time to return to Hogwarts. After several false starts, everything is loaded into Mr. Weasley's car, the flying Ford Anglia. Mr. Weasley has apparently charmed the car so that everyone fits in easily, though Mrs. Weasley apparently thinks it is normal for Muggle vehicles to be this large inside. With the trouble getting started, by the time they arrive at King's Cross Station, it is nearly time for the Hogwarts Express to depart. Everyone but Harry and Ron are on the platform. Something is now blocking the passageway. The clock strikes 11:00 a.m and the train has left, stranding Harry and Ron at the station.
Harry suggests waiting by the car, but Ron is worried his parents may be unable to return (except in the US edition, where Ron states that his parents can Apparate). In a panic, Ron suggests flying to Hogwarts in the car. They take off, soaring above the clouds, dipping below occasionally to see where the Hogwarts Express is. The flight is uneventful until they reach the school. On the final approach, the car loses power and crashes into the Whomping Willow, the impact breaking Ron's wand. The massive tree seemingly comes alive, violently pounding the car. The battered Ford extricates itself and lands on the ground, ejecting Harry, Ron, and their luggage, before wildly driving off into the Forbidden Forest.
Peering through a window into Great Hall, Harry and Ron see the Sorting ceremony underway. Unable to locate Professor Snape at the staff table, they speculate on why he is absent, only to find him standing behind them. In his office, Snape demands an explanation and wants to know where the car is—the Evening Prophet has reported that several Muggles saw a flying car. Snape fetches Professor McGonagall, who asks why they did not send an owl. Harry admits he never thought of that.
Professor Dumbledore enters, and, on hearing the story, says he will be writing their parents, though Harry and Ron will not be expelled. Their House Head, Professor McGonagall, will determine their punishment. After Snape and Dumbledore leave, Professor McGonagall assigns them detention but does not deduct any House points. She also mentions that Ginny was sorted into Gryffindor House. The boys are provided sandwiches before heading to their dormitory.
Hermione meets them outside The Fat Lady's portrait and gives them the password ("wattlebird"). Though she is unhappy at what they have done, as are Harry and Ron, the other Gryffindors in the Common room applaud their audacity for driving a flying car into the Whomping Willow.
Something or someone has acted to prevent Harry from getting to the Hogwarts Express. This could be related to Dobby's previous warning that Harry must not return to Hogwarts, though there is no direct proof yet to support that. Harry is starting to tie these clues together, however. Harry and Ron's reaction to this incident shows the boys' immature, illogical, and linear thinking here. Rather than go and wait by the car or return to The Burrow to see if Mr. and Mrs. Weasley return there, Ron's panicked solution is to fly directly to Hogwarts. Harry simply goes along with this ill-conceived plan, having no better idea about what they should do.
The Whomping Willow incident affects Harry and Ron in different ways. Unfortunately for Ron, in addition to being punished, it results in his wand being broken. It takes some effort to select a new wand, and they are costly. Ron, probably in serious trouble for taking and wrecking his father's car, is unlikely to admit to his parents that he also broke his wand. Just how effectively a damaged wand can perform is unclear. Even though Hagrid's wand was snapped in two after he was expelled, as mentioned in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the broken pieces hidden in his umbrella still seem able to cast spells. How that compares to Ron's wand is unknown yet, though Ron will certainly have to make temporary repairs and carry on as best he can with a damaged instrument.
Harry is also punished, though he was mostly a passive participant. For him, the incident brings more unwanted attention, resulting in Hermione's stern disapproval while the other Gryffindors are mostly delighted by what they consider to have been a deliberately orchestrated prank to make a grand entrance. Rather than basking in his House's enthusiastic approval, Harry is utterly humiliated.
Snape, meanwhile, dearly wants Harry gone, and he is hoping that McGonagall or Dumbledore will expel him, along with Ron. Snape is disappointed that Dumbledore requires that he leave Harry and Ron alone with McGonagall—Snape obviously wanted to witness, and probably have some role in setting, Harry's punishment. McGonagall, though never losing her sternness, wants to be fair. She likely knows Ron will be strongly disciplined by his parents, and lightens her own punishment accordingly, even though this allows Harry to get off relatively easily.
Two nominally-inanimate objects play an important role in this chapter. The Ford Anglia initially seems only to be a vehicle that has been enchanted to fly, probably by Mr. Weasley. However, after dumping the boys onto the ground, it appears to be much more than that, tearing off into the Forbidden Forest like a wild animal suddenly set free. This indicates it may have become somewhat sentient, though Mr. Weasley probably never intended that. Also, the Whomping Willow is, obviously, no ordinary tree. It reacts violently when the flying car crashes into it, attempting to smash it, and Harry and Ron, to bits. No explanation is given for its behavior, though it may also have been charmed in some way. It is curious that neither boy seemed aware that the tree, planted in a very visible and accessible location on the castle grounds, has this capacity. If it is that dangerous, then why are students never warned to keep away from it? One has to wonder why such a dangerous tree is there at all.
- What kind of tree do Harry and Ron crash into?
- What House is Ginny sorted into?
- Why does McGonagall give Harry and Ron such light punishments, considering how serious their actions were?
- What or who would prevent Harry and Ron from passing through the barrier at King's Cross? Give possible reasons why.
- Why would a tree attack Ron and Harry?
- Why would such a dangerous tree be planted on Hogwarts' grounds? What is its purpose? Who might have planted it there?
- How can the car drive itself off into the Forbidden Forest? Why does it go there?
- Why did Ron fly directly to Hogwarts? Was his explanation to McGonagall believable? What should he and Harry have done instead?
- Why is Hermione angry at Harry and Ron while the other Gryffindors applaud them? Which is right?
Ron's broken wand will be a useful plot element, as it produces humorous effects throughout the story, finally backfiring at an opportune time, rendering a major threat harmless to Ron and Harry. Ron receives a new wand after his father wins a contest at the beginning of the next book.
Also, the flying Ford Anglia, which takes on a life of its own, probably due to Mr. Weasley's spells on it, later plays an important role in this book, saving Ron and Harry from a colony of Acromantulae. It will never be seen after that time, however, presumably roaming wild in the Forbidden Forest.
The Whomping Willow is also an important plot element in the next book, though no explanation will be given for its violent behavior until near the end of that book. Unlike the Flying Car, the tree will be seen again, and it is learned later that it was planted over an entrance to a tunnel leading from the castle grounds to the Shrieking Shack, where, as a student, Remus Lupin, a Werewolf, was confined during every full moon. This tunnel, which proved useful some thirty years before the series began, and becomes an important plot device in the third book, is also utilized in the final book.
It is interesting that Snape seems to believe that Harry and Ron arrived at Hogwarts by Flying Car solely to gain attention. We will see shortly that Gilderoy Lockhart shares this misunderstanding about Harry's motives. With Lockhart this is understandable, as his main motivation is fame, but it is unclear why Snape believes this; in almost every other respect, Snape disagrees with and opposes Lockhart as best he can.
- The Whomping Willow, seen here for the first time, will be explained in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The Willow, and the passage it guards, will appear again in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
- The way wands behave when broken, and how and whether they can be mended, is touched upon throughout this book. We see mention of this also in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in the context of Hagrid's wand having been snapped, and in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when it is Harry's wand which is nearly destroyed.