At-Home Video Readings from Wizarding World (sticky post)

Hello everybody!

Wizarding World is providing video readings of PS/SS (Philosopher’s Stone / Sorcerer’s Stone), with various actors taking a chapter apiece. Here’s what we’ve got so far (and please note that this does require a login at Wizarding World, but membership is free):

I’ve made this post sticky and will update links as new chapters are released.

‘But they were our kind, weren’t they?’

The last time I wrote on this very dense chapter, it took me three posts to cover what I wanted to say:

My brilliant guest author AnnieLogic later contributed this post on Draco:

Guest Post: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandusa

This time, I’m hoping to use a single post to cover a discussion of Draco and Slytherin from Diagon Alley to The Sorting Hat, but it won’t be this one. :)

Instead, it struck me this morning that there’s one line in this chapter that encapsulates the underlying cause for the unrest currently engulfing the U.S. Of Harry’s parents, Draco asks:

But they were our kind, weren’t they?

As Draco’s question very directly illustrates, we see each other often in terms of our tribal identity.

So far, Harry has experienced this sort of division mainly between himself and the Dursleys. They don’t view him as family but as a member of a different tribe (he’s some Wizard “weirdo,” and they are “perfectly normal, thank you very much”). Now that Harry has entered Diagon Alley and begun to experience the world of Wizards, he sees the same sort of tribal identification from the opposite direction.

It’s tempting to pin this sort of thinking on a Malfoy or a Slytherin, since the Malfoys have a long family history of hating Muggles and Muggle-borns, and Salazar Slytherin became a Pureblood Supremacist. But really, the tribal thinking is embedded into the very House structure at Hogwarts. Harry’s own prejudice against Slytherin begins with Draco and is reinforced by Hagrid’s claim that it would be “better” for him to land in “Hufflepuff than Slytherin” because according to Hagrid,

There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.

It’s true that Voldemort was in Slytherin. It’s not true that being in Slytherin is a requirement for going bad. And it’s certainly not true – as Hagrid implies – that being in Slytherin is an indicator that the student is drawn to darkness and is morally corrupt. (Merlin, anyone?). It takes Harry years to overcome this prejudice, but ultimately even Draco has a unicorn-tail-hair at his wand’s core.

The Wizarding World often reflects our world, and as in the Wizarding World, we tend to see our fellow citizens also in terms of tribes – whether those tribes are racial, subcultural, religious, or political. I wrote on how this phenomenon played out during the Jack the Ripper killings in 1888 and how it nearly caused riots then.

Not surprisingly, different tribes have different narratives about truth and justice. Though we, like Harry, are encouraged to adopt the perspective that Wizards of all backgrounds should be welcome at Hogwarts, the side that hates Muggles and Muggle-borns has its own narrative designed to “justify” its prejudice. The anti-Muggle-born narrative remembers a time when Muggle oppressors slaughtered witches and wizards (True! two of the Hogwarts ghosts died in the slaughter), and so the opponents of Muggle-borns mistrust the children of Muggles as a result. Over the centuries, these opponents have embellished their narratives, eventually claiming that Muggle-borns stole their magic, but regardless of the mindless bigotry that we see manifest in the 1990s, the initial prejudice against Muggle-borns was born out of fear that Muggle-borns would infiltrate the Wizarding World and serve Wizards up to their parents, not serve the Wizarding World.

What are some of the narratives we create or tell about the people who are not part of our own tribe(s)?

At-Home Video Reading: If you want to hear / watch this chapter read by Simon Callow, Bonnie Wright (Ginny), and Evanna Lynch (Luna), check out Chapter 5: Diagon Alley at Wizarding World.

A Letter from Hogwarts

The last time I wrote about this chapter, I focused on Harry’s interaction with Hagrid and on Hagrid’s explanation of Harry’s magic:

I really don’t have much to add, except that in this chapter, in the hut on the rock, Harry finally gets to read the letter that has been following him around for the past week. In contrast to Hagrid’s air of familiarity and intimacy, the letter itself is pretty straightforward and unsentimental:

Dear Mr. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on September 1. We await your own no later than July 31.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall,
Deputy Headmistress

I think we can assume that Lily’s letter was pretty much the same, though we don’t know who signed it. We do know, though, that Lily’s letter set Petunia off. As Petunia recalls:

Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that — that school — and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was — a freak.

What Petunia does not tell Harry or Hagrid (and what Harry won’t know for another 7 years) is that Petunia begged Dumbledore to allow her to go to Hogwarts alongside Lily. Petunia did not see Lily as a freak until Petunia felt left out. Lily’s letter, in other words, created the rift between the sisters, a rift that we do not see on that swingset in Snape’s memory of Cokeworth. Her own envy created it. Harry receiving his letter can only exacerbate that envy and the resulting rift.

The Hogwarts acceptance letter, though, is not supposed to cause so much drama (and trauma). It’s supposed to be a source of joy for the family. I got to have a bit of fun a few years ago writing the response of a different family when their half-blood daughter receives her letter. The entry was for contest called “A Year in the Life of a Hogwarts Student.” You can find the story originally posted here. Have fun…

The Secret Spell

The letter arrived just as mum started the seventh song in her step routine.


When the owl emerged from the chimney, it connected with her right pumped fist, sending feathers flying. The startled bird screeched, dropped the letter, and darted back up the chimney to escape the Mad Muggle!

When mum saw the emerald-green ink on the envelope, she collapsed in a heap on the floor. “It’s your letter,” she blubbered. “Your letter from Hogwarts.”

She was such a sight that I barely had the presence of mind to run over and rip the letter out of her hands before she smudged the ink with tears!

Mum knew our world. She’d mingled with the witches during promotional tours for the Quidditch World Cup and heard dad do interviews about the fabled Battle of Hogwarts. The Daily Prophet called him a war hero, but he never thought he did anything special (“just what was needed to defend the castle”). Still, he had been the one to cast the secret spell.

Dad was the youngest survivor – the 4th year who snuck back in with Professor Slughorn and hid behind the rubble. When he emerged at the start of Voldemort’s one-hour truce, Professor McGonnagall found eight befuddled Death Eaters lying prostrate beside his hiding place, unable even to remember their names. So she allowed him to remain. Not one of those Death Eaters has since recovered enough of his wits to stand trial, and they are all still rotting in the prison ward at St. Mungo’s.

Dad never told the Ministry what spell he used, and they never asked specifics. He called it “Just something Professor Snape taught me a couple weeks before Dumbledore died, during a detention for casting a JellyLegs on that Malfoy prat in the Common Room.”

That’s why he gets interviewed every year on the anniversary by The Daily Prophet and even got recruited to appear in the first “Battle of Hogwarts Heroes Tour” when he was 17. That was the one where the Wizarding Wireless brought the Castle Defenders together to retrace the steps of Harry Potter in the wilderness and interview them on how it felt to “Walk where Harry Walked on (roughly) the Days that Harry Walked There.” Dad said it was a load of rubbish. Just publicity for the Wireless. But that’s how he met my mum – on the Heroes Tour, on Boxing Day, in a village beside the Forest of Dean.

She was an innkeeper’s daughter. He was a Pureblood Wizard whose family hadn’t spoken with him since the Battle. She taught him about Muggles. He taught her about Wizards. And he’d prepared her for my letter since the day I made the television turn on from two rooms down the hall.

“She’ll get a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry when she’s eleven years old,” he’d declared nearly once every week since then. And then he would turn to quiz me on all the House colors and mottoes before adding proudly: “It’s addressed in emerald-green ink – like the colors of Slytherin House.”

He always found the ink color amusing since his own letter had been addressed in Slytherin-green by the Head of Gryffindor. Mine would be addressed by someone else.

He wasn’t much help, though, when I asked why mum got all teary-eyed over my letter. He’d floo’d in from Glastonbury during an outreach to “At-Risk Pureblood Youth in the West Country” after his Hogwarts contacts told him that my owl went out. Mum’s eyes were puffy when he walked out of the fireplace, and I was in the kitchen with my head down, asking why she couldn’t just be happy.

Dad thought it must be because of something the Muggles called “empty-nest syndrome” (he got that idea from her telly). But that explanation made no sense since my little sister and brother weren’t going anywhere!

Finally, I just asked her.

“Oh, love, I am happy for you!” she replied, getting weepy once again. “And proud,” she smiled through the tears. “And excited!

“I’ll go with you and dad to Diagon Alley for your school supplies,” she added with a kiss. “And to the Platform to catch the school train,” she brushed the hair out of my eyes with her fingertips. “And I’ll try very, very hard not to embarrass you again with any tears. But it’s just that you’re the first to go, and you’ll be gone such a very long time.”

Once mum’s eyes dried, the blonde woman from the Daily Prophet arrived at our doorstep, demanding to interview the “Halfblood girl about how exciting it must be to follow her father’s footsteps.”

No sooner did the reporter start asking if I already knew any secret spells than my dad yelled “Not my daughter, you lying witch!” and disarmed her Quick-Quotes Quill with one of his own secret spells. He was threatening to stomp any beetles found on the property when we heard the pop. Dad said she “just apparated back to whatever rock she crawled out from.”

Dad had sheltered the family from his notoriety since before I was born, but that part of my life was clearly done.

“I’m afraid Hogwarts will be hard on you,” he warned me that night. “People will try to get close to you and learn more about the secret spell. And they’ll ask why Professor Snape entrusted it to me. That’s something I don’t even know! Maybe he used Legilimency, to find out where my loyalties really lay. No matter, though. You’ll be under a lot pressure. Do you still want to go? We could send you to Beauxbatons.”

“Oh daddy!” I cried. “I’ve been waiting for Hogwarts forever! To live inside the castle and learn magic where you learned it! What’s a little pressure? And now I’ve got my letter! Please don’t take it away from me!”

Then I hesitated before continuing, “But there’s still one thing I’d like to know.”


“Did Professor Snape give you the counter-curse?”

Dad twisted his mouth into a mischievous little grin. “Now, that, my dear, would be telling.”

At-Home Video Reading: If you want to hear / watch this chapter read by Simon Callow, Bonnie Wright (Ginny), and Evanna Lynch (Luna), check out Chapter 5: Diagon Alley at Wizarding World.

“I WANT MY LETTER!” he shouted.

Harry finds his voice

In the previous chapter, Harry seems largely cowed by the Dursleys. He had learned not to ask questions and regretted being open about his motorcycle dream. In this chapter, though, we begin to see glimpses of the bold young man Harry will become. Here’s how he responds at three different times to not being given his first letter.

Harry was on the point of unfolding his letter, which was written on the same heavy parchment as the envelope, when it was jerked sharply out of his hand by Uncle Vernon.

“That’s mine!” said Harry, trying to snatch it back.

After Vernon consults with Petunia:

“I want to read that letter,” he said loudly. “I want to read it,” said Harry furiously, “as it’s mine.”

“Get out, both of you,” croaked Uncle Vernon, stuffing the letter back inside its envelope.

Harry didn’t move.

“I WANT MY LETTER!” he shouted.

Later that night:

“Where’s my letter?” said Harry, the moment Uncle Vernon had squeezed through the door. “Who’s writing to me?”

“No one. It was addressed to you by mistake,” said Uncle Vernon shortly. “I have burned it.”

“It was not a mistake,” said Harry angrily, “it had my cupboard on it.”

Throughout his life, Harry has been told he is nothing, worthless, that nobody could possibly be interested in him. Yet he tenaciously and single-mindedly demands his letter when the letter’s very existence unmasks the Dursleys’ lie. This tenacity and demand for justice will follow him to Hogwarts.

Because the letter addresses his cupboard, Harry finally gets a real bedroom, yet

Harry sighed and stretched out on the bed. Yesterday he’d have given anything to be up here. Today he’d rather be back in his cupboard with that letter than up here without it.

And he devises his first elaborate plot (or at least the first we hear about):

Harry walked round and round his new room. Someone knew he had moved out of his cupboard and they seemed to know he hadn’t received his first letter. Surely that meant they’d try again? And this time he’d make sure they didn’t fail. He had a plan….

He was going to wait for the postman on the corner of Privet Drive and get the letters for number four first.

Even though Uncle Vernon thwarts his plot, Harry’s determination to get that letter and his willingness to devise a plan foreshadows all sorts of Hogwarts behavior – from trying to prevent Snape(!) from stealing the philosopher’s stone, to finding a way into the Chamber of Secrets, to ultimately breaking into a Hogwarts crawling with Voldemort allies.

Harry does not know yet that he is the “boy who lived.” He doesn’t know that his parents were murdered or that he was the target. He doesn’t know even that he is a wizard. But right here, with something as simple as waiting for the postman on the corner of Privet Drive, Harry begins to show the same resourcefulness that will see him through the Second Wizarding War and lead to Voldemort’s final downfall.

Previously in Chapter 3

At-Home Video Reading: If you want to hear / watch this chapter read by Eddie Redmayne, check out Chapter 3: The Letters from No One at Wizarding World.

Previous posts on this chapter:

Holiday in Hell… uh, Cokeworth

Before we get to Cokeworth, here are some previous posts on Chapter 3: “The Letters from Nowhere,” focusing largely on the chapter’s slapstick elements:

As we will soon see, it is thanks to Cokeworth that the Dursley parents rarely address Harry by name. To them, he is generally “you” or “the boy” or “one” (as in “one of them”). The Hogwarts letters don’t address him by name either. Instead, they use the more formal first initial but still give him the respected title of “Mr.” We can probably assume that Hogwarts addresses each 11-year-old letter recipient according to the same formula. Here are the addresses:

Letter 1 –

Mr. H. Potter
The Cupboard under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
Little Whinging

Letter 2 –

‘Mr. H. Potter, The Smallest Bedroom, 4 Privet Drive —’”‘

Letter at the hotel –

Mr. H. Potter
Room 17
Railview Hotel

Part of the joke of the chapter is that as Harry moves, the letters track his location and include it in their address. Though the Dursleys suspect they are being watched, the truth more likely is that the charm used in creating the letters is simply tracking Harry – and tracking him quite precisely from the “Cupboard under the Stairs” to “The Smallest Bedroom” to the “Railview Hotel.”

Let’s take a closer look though at that final location.

Photo from Harry Potter Wiki

On first glance, Cokeworth seems just some throwaway place with no real significance. In reality, it hints at a rich backstory. The address tells us that the hotel has a view of a railroad in the fictional industrial town of Cokeworth – a place we will see later in Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Snape, in Chapter 2 of Half-Blood Prince, and in Chapter 33 of Deathly Hallows. In other words, Spinner’s End is in Cokeworth. So is the swingset where Lily first met her young wizard friend Severus Snape.

Somehow, whether by chance or instinct or even providence, Vernon’s random driving has landed him in “a gloomy-looking hotel on the outskirts” of one of the most important pre-Hogwarts locations in the Harry Potter series: the home-town of Harry’s mother Lily, his Aunt Petunia, and his Potions Master, Severus Snape. In the larger plot of the saga, this is the town where Petunia learned to hate magic – because her sister had it and she did not. It is the town also where Snape learned to despise Muggles – because his Muggle father treated his mother abusively and Lily’s Muggle sister held him in contempt. And likewise, young Severus’ disdain for Muggles feeds into Petunia’s hatred of magic. In other words, many of Harry’s struggles, both at home with the Dursleys and soon at school with Snape, link back to Cokeworth.

Earlier, on reading the first letter,

[Vernon’s] face went from red to green faster than a set of traffic lights. And it didn’t stop there. Within seconds it was the grayish white of old porridge. “P-P-Petunia!” he gasped.

And when aunt Petunia’s reads the first line of Harry’s letter,

it looked as though she might faint. She clutched her throat and made a choking noise. “Vernon! Oh my goodness — Vernon!”

Petunia’s childhood experiences in Cokeworth elicited these exaggerated responses and have brought them back, perhaps unthinkingly, to Cokeworth, on the run from the ghosts of Petunia’s past and Vernon’s fears of “that dangerous nonsense.”

Meanwhile, at their hotel in Cokeworth,

Harry stayed awake, sitting on the windowsill, staring down at the lights of passing cars and wondering. . . .

To be continued

At-Home Video Reading: If you want to hear / watch this chapter read by Eddie Redmayne, check out Chapter 3: The Letters from No One at Wizarding World.

Note: J.K. Rowling has written about Cokeworth on Wizarding World, confirming the location’s significance. I’m not really sure when I first realized that Spinner’s End and the Evans sisters’ asphalt playground were in Cokeworth, but I think it was well before Rowling’s 2015 write-up because I was fairly surprised recently on re-reading my 2010 posts and realizing that I had not included that information then.

The Power in Powerlessness

And now, for the re-read! We are picking up with Chapter 2: “The Vanishing Glass.” (Here’s a recent discussion of Chapter 1).

When I wrote about the chapter 10 years ago, I focused on fairy tales of abuse (see The Boy Who Lived (in a cupboard under the stairs)) and on wandless magic and Parselmouths (see ‘I Won’t Blow Up the House!’).

So let’s look at this chapter from a slightly different angle.

Muggle Power / Wizard Powelessness:
Ostensibly, all the power belongs to the Dursleys. They keep Harry locked up in a small cupboard, allow him to be subjected to physical abuse, and reduce him to a life of servitude. Their conscious attempt to thwart the wizarding power they know resides within him ironically forces his magic to find a wandless outlet that Harry cannot control. In other words, as a result of the Dursley’s choice to repress his power, Harry is rendered powerless over his power.

The stories of Ariana Dumbledore and Credence Barebone (“Aurelius Dumbledore”?) demonstrate that the consequences of uncontrolled magic can be potentially tragic. Thankfully, for Harry Potter, his lack of control mostly leads to shock and additional Dursley abuse. After Dudley lands Harry on his back in the Zoo’s Reptile House, 

Harry sat up and gasped; the glass front of the boa constrictor’s tank had vanished. The great snake was uncoiling itself rapidly, slithering out onto the floor. People throughout the reptile house screamed and started running for the exits.

Harry never casts a spell to release the snake. His magic simply responds to unexpected stress by vanishing the glass. And had the snake been of a mind to be more aggressive, people could have been hurt or killed.

Not Voldemort’s Snake
A popular fan theory claims that the Boa Constrictor Harry’s wandless magic inadvertently releases becomes Voldemort’s pet snake, Nagini. It would be supremely ironic if this were the case, given that in the endgame Nagini is the final Horcrux that needs to be destroyed.

From Harry’s conversation with the snake, we learn that it should have been born in Brazil but was bred in the zoo:

“Where do you come from, anyway?” Harry asked. The snake jabbed its tail at a little sign next to the glass. Harry peered at it. Boa Constrictor, Brazil. “Was it nice there?” The boa constrictor jabbed its tail at the sign again and Harry read on: This specimen was bred in the zoo. “Oh, I see so you’ve never been to Brazil?”

By pointing Harry to the sign, the snake agrees with the museum’s statement of its origins, yet as we know from its exit line, it longs for Brazil:

As the snake slid swiftly past him, Harry could have sworn a low, hissing voice said, “Brazil, here I come. . . . Thanksss, amigo.”

The theory of a connection between these two powerful snakes may have been plausible if Nagini had been born a snake in captivity. Yet we know from The Crimes of Grindelwald that Nagini is a Maledictus, born human and presumably originating in Indonesia. Consequently, she cannot have been bred as a snake in a London zoo.

The fan theory is further smashed by JKR herself. On her Twitter feed, Rowling writes:

And what do we know of this snake’s personality? All of its interactions with Harry indicate that it has a sense of humor. And even its treatment of Dudley and his friend Piers shows that it really holds no malice:

As far as Harry had seen, the snake hadn’t done anything except snap playfully at their heels as it passed

I thought I’d mention this now because we’ll want to remember our first interaction with a snake when we start to talk about Slytherin in Chapter 5. Snakes are not inherently scary. They are not inherently demonic. They are not inherently in league with the devil or in league with Voldemort. Sometimes, they’re just bred in a zoo and want to be free to go home. In fact, this snake’s liberation parallels the liberation Harry longs for.

Wizard Power and the Power of Love
This chapter ends with one of the most heartbreaking, yet hopeful, passages in the first book. Here’s the heartbreak:

When he had been younger, Harry had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family.

And here’s the hope:

Yet sometimes he thought (or maybe hoped) that strangers in the street seemed to know him. Very strange strangers they were, too. A tiny man in a violet top hat had bowed to him once while out shopping with Aunt Petunia and Dudley. After asking Harry furiously if he knew the man, Aunt Petunia had rushed them out of the shop without buying anything. A wild-looking old woman dressed all in green had waved merrily at him once on a bus. A bald man in a very long purple coat had actually shaken his hand in the street the other day and then walked away without a word. The weirdest thing about all these people was the way they seemed to vanish the second Harry tried to get a closer look.

In the Muggle world, Harry – like the Zoo’s Boa – is on his own. In the Muggle World, he is an avatar for bullying, abuse, and isolation. Yet, this passage also hints at a bigger world, where Harry is viewed as a hero. It’s only hinted at in this chapter because we’re seeing it through Harry’s eyes, and Harry has no idea what it all means. In the first chapter, though, we got a more omniscient view, with the celebrations taking place and the toasts to Harry’s name. The Wizarding World clearly believes Harry to be so powerful that even as a baby he could defeat Voldemort.

Yet once again, Harry’s power is not the point, and the Wizarding World’s belief in it is a misplaced hope. The magic of Lily’s love – of her self-sacrifice for her powerless child – is what had made Voldemort disappear 10 years earlier.

In a very real way, Harry’s greatest power at this point in the story is his own powerlessness.

At-Home Video Reading: If you want to hear / watch this chapter read by the actress who played Hermione on the stage, check out Chapter 2: The Vanishing Glass at Wizarding World.

More on Nagini: On the day The Crimes of Grindelwald trailer dropped and revealed the truth about Nagini’s origins, Rowling claimed to have known Nagini’s backstory many years earlier:

Battle of Hogwarts – 22nd Anniversary

On May 2, 1998, the Battle of Hogwarts was fought. Expecto Patronum! once again honors all the brave men, women, Headmaster portraits, and magical creatures who helped in the fight against Lord Voldemort for the future of the Wizarding World, especially:

  • Harry Potter – who personally faced Lord Voldemort twice that night… and prevailed
  • Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – who stood beside Harry throughout his Quest and provided much-needed support during the Battle
  • Neville Longbottom – for keeping Dumbledore’s Army alive and slaying Nagini
  • Luna Lovegood – for keeping Dumbledore’s Army alive and helping Harry into Ravenclaw Tower
  • Ginny Weasley – for keeping Dumbledore’s Army alive and giving Harry inspiration
  • The Portrait of Phineas Nigellus Black – for locating Harry in the Forest of Dean
  • Severus Snape – for getting the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry in the Forest of Dean and for using his dying moments to offer the memories that would help Harry to defeat Lord Voldemort
  • The Portrait of Albus Dumbledore – for providing much-needed guidance to Headmaster Snape
  • Aberforth Dumbledore – for helping Harry, the Order, the DA, and many others get in to Hogwarts from the Hog’s Head and for then fighting in the Battle alongside many other citizens of Hogsmeade
  • The Members of the DA, the Order, the Gryffindor alumni, the Slytherins who returned with Slughorn, and the citizens of Hogsmeade – for standing up to fight
  • The Magical Creatures who fought – particularly Kreacher and the House Elves, the Centaurs of the Forbidden Forest, and Grawp
  • Minerva McGonnagall, Horace Slughorn, Filius Flitwick – for leadership during the Battle and for directly battling Voldemort
  • Molly Weasley – for destroying Bellatrix Lestrange
  • Hagrid – for being true of heart
  • Peeves and Trelawney – for their unique contributions

And now, we’d like to honor the fallen heroes:

Severus Snape


Credit: The Death of Severus Snape by littlepureblood

Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks

Credit: Remus x Tonks: Pale and Still by ~Kitoky

Fred Weasley

Credit: the death of Fred by *viria13

Plus Colin Creevey and the 50 or more unnamed dead.

Thank you!


The Boy Who Lived

I have to confess that I really love Chapter 1. I think last time I wrote about it, I may have said it reminded me in tone a bit of Tolkien’s opening to The Hobbit.

Actually, yes, I did.

In looking back, it appears that I wrote four consecutive blog posts about just this one chapter. In addition to the Hobbit comparison, I discussed the overwhelming presence of owls, drew up a  Chapter map (complete with explanation), and wrote another whole long post about Albus Dumbledore and sundry other issues. I really went “into the weeds” with this chapter when I wrote about it 10 years ago!

But in fairness, this brief introductory chapter accomplishes a lot. It sets up the conflict between the Dursleys and Harry and the recent and future conflicts between Harry and Voldemort, shows the secret world of the Wizards and its fear of being found out, introduces part of our main cast of Wizards, and hints at the recent war with Voldemort.

It’s a writing tour de force, and in it J.K. Rowling announces her presence on the literary stage.

The Power Dynamic

In terms of our broader themes, this chapter sets up various versions of power. We don’t know yet how it’s all going to play out, but we can clearly identify four power centers in the chapter:

Vernon Dursley – Vernon is a non-magical person who abuses power and people and gets “enraged” at anything that deviates from his conception of social norms (such as older people wearing weird attire). Yelling “at five different people” at work in the morning puts him in “a very good mood.” Yet after hearing rumors about the Potters from the “weirdos,” he shrinks into worry and insecurity. With just these small character details, Rowling establishes Vernon as an abuser who will soon be placed in the position of having to foster his “weirdo” nephew (Hint: This will not go well),  but she also establishes him as something of a paper tiger. Just put some pressure on him and watch him crumple.

Voldemort (a.k.a. “You-Know-Who”) – We don’t really meet Voldemort here, just hear about him. But from the conversation between Professor McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore, we find he is a magical person whom Wizards have feared for the past eleven years – feared so much that only Dumbledore will say his name. In fact, Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents the night before… and even tried to kill the boy. On a first read, this is where it gets confusing, because apparently trying to kill the boy made him disappear. Before the night he disappeared, Voldemort clearly possessed astounding powers, but used them to evil purpose. As the story progresses and he finds a way to return, his ill intent will thwart him over and over again. It’s almost like Rowling is saying that “power is not enough.” (Hint: It’s not!).

Albus Dumbledore – Dumbledore is, in many ways, the antithesis of Vernon Dursley and even moreso of Voldemort. He’s an older man, dressed weirdly, yet Professor McGonagall (who can transform herself from a cat into a human being!) defers to him. He speaks gently, consolingly, and with a certain amount of wisdom. He’s also a bit naive. He thinks that if he just explains the situation to the Dursleys in a letter, they will accept Harry and eventually tell him who he is. In addition, Dumbledore has a bit of humility, as we can see from this snippet of dialogue:

“But you’re different” [said Professor McGonagall]. Everyone knows you’re the only one You-Know-Who – oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of.”

“You flatter me,” said Dumbledore calmly. “Voldemort had  powers I will never have.”

“Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.”

McGonagall here effectively establishes Dumbledore as a man whose powers rival Voldemort’s but who restrains himself from using the more ignoble types of power. We will (much) later learn exactly why Dumbledore restrains himself, but for now, it’s simply worth noting that in the first chapter Rowling subtly establishes the possibility that life could have gone much differently for Albus Dumbledore had he just seized all the power he was capable of wielding. Instead, he has chosen a different path and consequently introduces us and the Dursleys to Harry.

Harry Potter – He’s just a baby, but he inexplicably broke Voldemort’s power just the night before. The implication here is that Harry has amazing powers of his own (we will later discover the extent to which this is true), and McGonagall argues that Dumbledore should not give him up to the Dursleys because…

“He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!”

Dumbledore wisely replies that anonymity with the Dursleys will be better for Harry until “he’s ready to take” the fame thrust on him by the Wizarding World.

Dumbledore is right on the face of it. He’s just missing one major detail: the Dursleys are not the people he hopes they will be. And then he leaves Harry on the doorstep to face his unwilling aunt and uncle.

Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley. . . . He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!”

It is a powerful conclusion to a magnificent opening chapter.

Power, Choice, and Love – Preamble to The Harry Potter Re-Read

I think I originally published this post in 2016 or 2017. I’m hoping to get started again on this re-read, but it may not get into full speed until the summer. 

Regarding the re-read… I considered going through the series backwards, but in looking at the “Dark Lord Ascending” chapter, I decided it might be too dark a place to start. So let’s start back at the beginning.

Main themes this time around: Power, Choice, Love.

Since I’m assuming that you’ve read the series, I won’t be including spoiler warnings, except for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which, as the official “eighth story in the Harry Potter series” will be treated here as canon).

I don’t want to get dragged this time into side-issues like “Is Snape good or bad?” so here are my assumptions, which I believe are backed by canon:

  • Snape was a Death Eater in his youth.
  • By the time we meet him, Snape’s loyalty is to Lily’s memory, to Albus Dumbledore, and later to the Order of the Phoenix.
  • Snape consistently behaves like a jerk to Harry.
  • One of the alt-Timelines in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (CC) has Snape protecting Ron and Hermione and dying an unabashedly heroic and selfless death – an outcome that was canonically possible for Snape, apparently, by the time of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, when the timelines diverged.
  • Harry says to his son Albus Severus at the end of CC that the men he was named after were “great men, with huge flaws, and you know what – those flaws almost made them greater.”

So, these are my assumptions about Snape: He was a deeply flawed man who possessed elements of greatness. You can hate him if you like because of his past and his treatment of Harry, but I am not going to debate his loyalties or his ultimate greatness. I intend to assume them.

Well, that’s enough preamble. I’ll be back a bit later with something to say about “The Boy Who Lived.” :)