In a weekly series, staff writer Katie Majka takes a look at some of our favorite witches and wizards, and how they fit into literary and social archetypes. This week: Rita Skeeter
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When we first meet sensationalist writer Rita Skeeter in Goblet of Fire, she seems little more than a nuisance, another roadblock for Harry to hurdle over in the long, arduous, and perhaps impossible task of living his life in some peace. Rita appears as yet another disruption, although on the surface she’s more comical than enemies like Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort. And while Rita remains a more lighthearted foe than Harry usually encounters, all the trouble she puts him through in GOF turns out to have lasting, damaging effects, in both this book and those that follow (most notably, Order of the Phoenix). In this way Rita Skeeter proves herself the archetypal herald: She issues challenges to the hero and, in doing so, announces the coming of significant change.
While Rita very seldom writes the truth, what she does write pits Harry against challenges heretofore unexperienced by him. Goblet of Fire introduces its audience to a Harry who’s forced to really come to terms with his fame and why he has it, what it means for his future, and how that fame can work against his actual character.
The Triwizard Tournament isn’t the first time that Harry is seen as unfavorable in the public eye: He knew the price of his well-known name in Sorcerer’s Stone when he lost Gryffindor an obscene amount of points, and in Chamber of Secrets when his classmates suspected he was the Heir of Slytherin. But as the House Cup is only relevant to the students, and the reopening of the Chamber was kept hush-hush by the Ministry, the Tournament is the first time that the wider Wizarding world begins to raise an eyebrow at their beloved Harry Potter. He is no longer just the Boy Who Lived, but the fourth champion in a tournament that claims only three.
Rita Skeeter is the one to spearhead this campaign from the moment she meets Harry in “The Weighing of the Wands.” While she initially writes Harry as the humble hero he is, she greatly exaggerates his character by hardly abiding by it at all; she renders him an emotional caricature of a boy who is so open with his feelings that he would express them to a stranger, although readers know that Harry is often reticent and not often likely to express his worries to his friends, let alone a well-known, glorified gossip.
But Rita sets her sights on Harry immediately, less interested in her assigned story on the Triwizard Tournament’s newest champions, and focused entirely on the one who’s already famous. Harry ascertains Rita’s modus operandi quickly enough, as following their impromptu broom cupboard interview, he “really hoped that Mr. Ollivander wasn’t about to tell the room about [his wand’s connection to Voldemort’s]. He had a funny feeling Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill might just explode with excitement if he did.”
Rita proves herself to be enough of a challenger without being privy to any real details of Harry’s personal life, however, as we learn shortly after her first appearance:
In the meantime, life became even worse for Harry within the confines of the castle, for Rita Skeeter had published her piece about the Triwizard Tournament, and it had turned out to be not so much a report on the tournament as a highly colored life story of Harry. Much of the front page had been given over to a picture of Harry; the article (continuing on pages two, six, and seven) had been all about Harry, the names of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang champions (misspelled) had been squashed into the last line of the article, and Cedric hadn’t been mentioned at all.
The article had appeared ten days ago, and Harry still got a sick, burning feeling of shame in his stomach every time he thought about it. Rita Skeeter had reported him saying an awful lot of things that he couldn’t remember ever saying in his life, let alone in that broom cupboard.
Although a public figure, Harry has spent very little of his life thus far actually in the public eye. While everyone in the Wizarding world knows his name, Harry has lived without that world longer than he’s lived in it. This is the first time in Harry’s life that he is consciously aware of who he is and what that means to both him and a community of people, most of whom he doesn’t even know. He’s in the spotlight more than ever before, and Rita Skeeter is the one who dragged him into it. Had a different reporter taken on this profile of the Triwizard Tournament, they may have given equal time to each individual champion, but Rita’s focus is always on an angle, regardless of that angle’s sincerity. She writes for thrills, not facts.
This method led Rita to her status as a household name with a wide readership who devour her articles for the Daily Prophet, Witch Weekly, and her various unflattering biographies. She paints a scandalous picture of anyone famous (as she does in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore) or even anyone who so much as annoys her (as Hermione learns when Rita drags her name through the mud in GOF), and in doing so changes public opinion of them. Rita has the power of the podium, and she uses it to her full advantage.
When she tires of writing Harry as the hero the world knows and loves, she switches gears and turns him into something of a pariah—a perspective that would only worsen when Harry and the Ministry come to blows in Order of the Phoenix regarding the truth of Voldemort’s return. Rita eventually seeks out Harry’s nemeses to speak against him on the record, and cites Harry as being “disturbed and dangerous,” a description that the Daily Prophet runs with, presumably under Cornelius Fudge’s orders, in OOTP. As Hermione explains in “Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place”:
“It’s quite nasty, actually,” said Hermione in a voice of forced calm. “They’re just building on Rita’s stuff.”
“But she’s not writing for them anymore, is she?”
“Oh no, she’s kept her promise—not that she’s got any choice,” Hermione added with satisfaction. “But she laid the foundation for what they’re trying to do now.”
“Which is what?” said Harry impatiently.
“Okay, so you know she wrote that you were collapsing all over the place and saying your scar was hurting and all that?”
“Yeah,” said Harry, who was not likely to forget Rita Skeeter’s stories about him in a hurry.
“Well, they’re writing about you as though you’re this deluded, attention-seeking person who thinks he’s a great tragic hero or something,” said Hermione, very fast, as though it would be less unpleasant for Harry to hear these facts quickly. “They keep slipping in snide comments about you. If some far-fetched story appears they say something like ‘a tale worthy of Harry Potter’ and if anyone has a funny accident or anything it’s ‘let’s hope he hasn’t got a scar on his forehead or we’ll be asked to worship him next—”
“I don’t want anyone to worship—” Harry began hotly.
“I know you don’t,” said Hermione quickly, looking frightened. “I know, Harry. But you see what they’re doing? They want to turn you into someone nobody will believe. Fudge is behind it, I’ll bet anything. They want wizards on the street to think you’re just some stupid boy who’s a bit of a joke, who tells ridiculous tall stories because he loves being famous and wants to keep it going.”
Rita may not have realized the negative impact she would come to have on Harry’s life and reputation, but impact she did. Harry’s stint as fourth champion in the Triwizard Tournament provided a basis for the Ministry’s smear campaign, as they used Rita’s popularity to ensure that the general population wouldn’t take Harry seriously.
Rita begins her second stage as the herald when she agrees—even though it’s “against the public mood”—to interview Harry for the Quibbler. Once Harry’s story is made available to the wider Wizarding population—a story that fills in the blanks where the Ministry and the Prophet don’t—Harry’s support system begins to grow. Fellow Gryffindor Seamus Finnegan, who had a falling-out with Harry at the beginning of the school year, is convinced by Rita’s piece that Harry isn’t the liar the government wants to make him out to be, and Harry receives a slew of mail from strangers regarding the interview. Whether these people believe Harry or not is relevant to Harry himself, but it sparks another change in the Wizarding world as well: the acceptance that Voldemort has returned. While they would have eventually been forced into this fact, it’s Rita’s article that flipped the switch and made it happen.
We see throughout the series how Harry comes to terms with and deals with so many aspects of his life, and books four and five present him with some of his more make-it-or-break-it obstacles, all thrust upon him by Rita Skeeter. She forces Harry to realize what fame means beyond a familiar name, what it says about his past and what it means for his future; she shows him that there are two sides to every coin, and then leaves him alone to deal with it. Her job is not to teach, but to challenge: Rita Skeeter doesn’t hold your hand while you cross the street—she pushes you into it, and the rest is up to you.
Be sure to check out our other Harry Potter and the Order of Archetypes installments.