In which we periodically examine how art imitates life and life imitates orienteering.

by Peter Amram

NEOCer Barbara Lamay has suggested that the travails of a resourceful, if imaginary, lad navigating a perplexing maze might interest orienteers. I was hesitant to engage, because mostly all that I knew about the Harry Potter phenomenon was that Emma Watson went to Brown University. (Go, Bruno!) Nevertheless, from the local public library I extracted The Goblet of Fire, a tome of some 734 pages (thus only slightly longer than the NEOC meet director’s packet in the mid-1980s).

Following Barbara’s guidance, I turned to Chapter 31 (“The Third Task”). Soon I was looking up so many definitions and references that I was reminded of the joke among classicists that a person can read either all extant Latin and Greek literature or all that 19th century German scholars wrote about Latin and Greek literature, but no-one can possibly do both. Similarly, it seems possible to absorb the entire Potter canon but not also the immense supporting material provided by Wikipedia and assorted fandom sites. Below, therefore, are the impressions of a reader who frequently did not understand what the hex going on.

The basic narrative contains familiar elements. Harry P., a promising student at Hogwarts School (a reputable British conjuring academy) is competing with three other youths in the third leg of the prestigious Triwizard Tournament. (The first leg involved dragons; the second did not.) The challenge is to reach the Triwizard Cup in the middle of an intricate maze temporarily constructed on a venue normally used by teams of broomstick riders. (There appears to have been some sort of a Quidditch pro quo.) The Hogwarts' Headmaster, one Albus Dumbledore, serves as the Meet Director, whose duties include patrolling the perimeter of the course on alert for red sparks: the equivalent of three whistle blasts calling for aid. Since the competitors were adolescents, I initially thought their course equivalent to Orange, but the constant possibility of instant destruction suggests a more advanced level.

Harry P. and a frenemy named Cedric are tied for the overall lead. The format is a chase start, so these two are first into a maze formed by 20’ high hedges, surely mapped as uncrossable. Forget grievances about selecting among boulders in middle of the Pawtuckaway map or slabbing a ridge-side in the Hudson Valley. Contestants for the T. Cup must continually re-locate at multiple dead-ends and routinely confront the prospect of a quick and messy DNF from contact with gigantic arachnids, a Boggart (!) acting as a Dementor (!!), and several Blast-Ended Skrewts, which turn out to be pretty much what they sound like, only worse. A hazard more familiar to conventional orienteers (the term 'Muggles’ has an unfortunate condescending tone) is an “odd golden mist,” within which Harry is turned upside-down and threatened with a DSQ if he sends up red sparks to request rescue. (The use of the word ‘odd’ seems odd, as if the rest of the day’s outing was perfectly normal.) I, too, have been vertically untethered in the woods, and I didn’t recover as quickly as Harry did.

Safe progress through the maze is often possible by employing a series of mystical spells expressed aloud in Latin and in sorta-Latin. But Harry’s main advantages are an enchanted wand and a Four-Point Spell that instantly orients him, no matter the local conditions. (No local O-venders I have contacted report such items in their stock.)

"Point me,” he whispered to his wand, holding it flat in his palm.” [Note proper compass technique. Perhaps author Rowling was once a Girl Guide.] “The wand spun around once and pointed toward his right, into a solid hedge. That way was north … he needed to go northwest for the center of the maze … take the left fork and go right again as soon as possible …. reached a right turn …. found his way unblocked. …. the lack of obstacles was unnerving … he should have met something by now … the maze was luring him into a false sense of security.” Been there, mate. Lost my pace count and didn’t go far enough looking for that stream with a cliff on the far side.

As expressed by a delightful Britishism, Harry is finally “bang on course” until encountering an antagonistic sphinx who demands the solution to an elaborate riddle. He is rightly apprehensive. “Harry’s stomach slipped several notches. It was Hermione who was good at this sort of thing, not him.” (Go, Bruno!)

Using deductive logic opaque to me, Mr. P. solves the sphinx’s riddle and is about to claim victory when Cedric re-appears. After a joint tussle with an enormous malevolent spider, the two boys decide to lay hands on the Cup at the same time. By in effect punching in simultaneously at the Finish, they settle for a comradely tie.

That would have been enough adventure for the day had the Cup not turned out to be a Portkey (should have known!), and in a moment Harry and Cedric find themselves in a sinister graveyard far from Hogwarts, where I abandoned them to sort out their fates in the following chapters.

It was not a clean run: too much time lost to poor routes, lethal antagonists, and that upsetting golden mist. But our intrepid hero did finish the course and merits credit. Please note that my description of his race has striven for accuracy, but, unlike young Potter, I had no recourse to a spell-check.  wand

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