Pre-Flight of the Dursleys

For my Harry Potter re-read, I’m supposed to be writing a post called “The Flight of the Dursleys.” It’s about one of the funniest, most stapsticky chapters in the entire Harry Potter saga – the letters for Harry from Hogwarts, and the Dursleys’ most extreme measures to avoid them.

The problem is, my terminally ill, 18 year old cat is declining fast, and I’m just not feeling very slapsticky right now. So, please excuse me for a few more days while I tend to Rusty. Here is Rusty’s Twitter profile.

Here’s a Rusty photo taken 1/29/10:

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Here’s a Rusty photo from a couple of months ago:

Another pic on mommy's real camera. Tricky... I get squirmy w... on Twitpic

I’ll be back shortly with more on Harry Potter.

UPDATE (2/4/10):

Tomorrow, we will be sending Rusty “on.” I will be spending most of the day just hanging out with him. I should be back with “The Flight of the Dursleys” by early next week.

If you’re new here, there’s still plenty to read. The archives should keep you busy for awhile.

‘I Won’t Blow Up the House!’

On Dudley Dursley’s birthday, the unthinkable happens. Arabella Figg – the crazy old cat lady Harry gets dumped on every time Dudley has a birthday – breaks her leg, and the Dursleys have to figure out what to do with Harry. When the boy suggests just letting him stay home, Uncle Vernon protests that he does not want to come back to find the house in “ruins.”

“I won’t blow up the house,” replies Harry.

The Ruined House

Sounds like the typical parent/guardian exchange with t(w)eens, doesn’t it? But this is actually that rare, almost non-existent, occasion when there appears to be some factual basis for Dursley fears. Dumbledore apparently told the Dursleys in his letter dated 10 years earlier about the condition of the Potters’ home after Voldemort came calling.

As Hagrid told Dumbledore at that time, the “house was almost destroyed,” and (as he later tells Harry) he took the boy from the “ruined house” himself. Aunt Petunia certainly knows that her sister “went and got herself blown up.” So it is with some bit of authentic, fact-based fear, perhaps, that Uncle Vernon mentions “ruins” when he thinks of Harry being left alone in the house while the family celebrates Dudley’s birthday at the zoo.

All Harry remembers of the You-Know-Who incident, though, is contained in a recurring dream about a flying motorcycle and the memory of a flash of green light from the “car crash”:

Sometimes, when he strained his memory during long hours in his cupboard, he came up with a strange vision: a blinding flash of green light and a burning pain on his forehead. This, he supposed, was the car crash, though he couldn’t imagine where all the green light came from.

(Well, Harry, that would actually be an Avada Kedavra curse, Voldemort’s signature spell. But you aren’t going to learn anything about the Unforgivables for four more years!)

Wandless Magic

Though the Dursleys may well have images of real ruins in mind when they talk about not wanting to leave Harry alone in the house, they seem more afraid of the random “strange things” that happen around the boy. Wizarding children have magical abilities, with or without a wand. The wand helps them learn to control and channel their magic, but being gifted with magic is not dependent on the wand.

Under various forms of stress, Harry has already caused his hair to grow back overnight from a bad haircut, caused a hated sweater to shrink while Aunt Petunia tried to force it on him, and even found himself on the roof of the school kitchens while attempting to escape from Dudley’s gang.

(Wandless magic plays a role throughout the series, but nowhere more strongly than in DH, where we learn of the wandless magic performed by young Lily Evans (Harry’s mother), her childhood friend Severus Snape, and Dumbledore’s own sister, Ariana. Ariana Dumbledore provides the tragic example of a Wizarding child who pays the price for being unable to control her magic.)

The Parselmouth

Then, there’s the event in the reptile house, from which this chapter takes its title. The Dursleys do end up taking Harry to the zoo (better than having him blow up the house, I suppose!), and after Dudley unsuccessfully tries to force his Muggle father to get a sleeping Boa Constrictor to “do something,” the snake initiates an interaction with Harry. First it winks, then it nods, then it gestures with its tail. In the course of this interaction, Harry starts talking to the snake. And the snake understands him.

On first reading, this seems like just another example of Harry’s wandless magic. And this possibility is underscored by the fact that when Dudley punches Harry, something more typically magical happens – the glass to the cage disappears, and the snake escapes. But as the snake leaves, it speaks to Harry in a “low, hissing voice” – and just as the snake understood Harry, Harry understands the snake.

Harry is a Parselmouth – a natural speaker of Parseltongue, the language of snakes. This is no ordinary magical power, and it is not typical of children’s wandless magic. In HBP, when Dumbledore teaches Voldemort’s history to Harry, he shows one memory in which an 11-year-old Tom Riddle (later Voldemort) reveals to the adult Dumbledore:

I can speak to snakes…. they find me, they whisper to me.

Dumbledore does not let on, but he is clearly taken aback by this revelation. Parseltongue is a language associated with Salazar Slytherin, founder of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, the House that values pure Wizard blood. Additionally, when Harry reveals his Parseltongue capabilities during the Duelling Club segment of CoS, his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger tell Harry that this is a bad thing – that Parseltongue is generally associated with Dark Magic, and that You-Know-Who himself is a Parselmouth.

And speaking of You-Know-Who… notice that just as the Boa in the reptile house initiates contact with Harry, so young Riddle tells Dumbledore that the snakes “find” him. Apparently, snakes can innately tell if a Wizard is a Parselmouth… and seek such Wizards out.

The Parselmouth motif becomes increasingly important throughout the series, as Dumbledore pieces together the connections between Harry and the wicked Wizard who tried to kill him. But at this point in the story, the snake incident looks like just a throw-away magic event, another neat magical thing Harry can do. Which makes “The Vanishing Glass” a wonderful early instance of Rowling’s talent for misdirection.

Reactions and Comments?
Let’s get this party started!

  • How justified do you think the Dursleys’ fears of Harry are?
  • What was your reaction the first time you read of Harry’s unconscious, wandless magical abilities? What is your reaction now?
  • On first reading, how did you feel about Harry’s ability to talk to snakes? Has your feeling changes since then?
  • Is there anything else you feel like commenting on?

Next time, from Chapter 3:

‘The Flight of the Dursleys’ … in which we discuss the strange letter(s) addressed to Harry… and the Dursleys’ even stranger behavior surrounding them.

The Boy Who Lived (in the cupboard under the stairs)

10 years on from Harry’s arrival, Privet Drive has “hardly changed at all,” and neither has the Dursleys’ living room. Besides cousin Dudley’s growing-up pictures, the place stays stuck in time, held in stasis – with no evidence, either, of Harry’s presence.

An 11th Birthday

Chapter 2, “The Vanishing Glass,” opens on Prince Dudley’s 11th birthday. In the British Wizarding World, 11 is one of the most special birthdays. It’s wand age – the age when a child can begin training at Hogwarts.

For the spoiled Muggle bully, though, 11 is just another birthday, a day when he can boss around his parents, receive an obscene stream of expensive gifts (a racing bike? a video camera? 16 video games? – for an 11-year-old?!?!!), and engage in his favorite sport: Punching-Bag Cousin.

A Grim Fairy Tale?

And how about the cousin? Harry lives in a cupboard under the stairs, amid spiders, wearing Dudley’s baggy hand-me-downs, even being awakened ahead of the rest of the house to slave away in the kitchen.

Is it just me, or does Harry’s plight sound like something out of the Brothers Grimm? …..

[Cinderella’s step sisters] took her pretty clothes away from her, put an old grey bedgown on her, and gave her wooden shoes. “Just look at the proud princess, how decked out she is!” they cried, and laughed, and led her into the kitchen. There she had to do hard work from morning till night, get up before daybreak, carry water, light fires, cook and wash. Besides this, the sisters did her every imaginable injury – they mocked her and emptied her peas and lentils into the ashes, so that she was forced to sit and pick them out again. In the evening when she had worked till she was weary she had no bed to go to, but had to sleep by the hearth in the cinders. And on that account she always looked dusty and dirty, they called her Cinderella.
– From Cinderella, The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Pantheon Books, p. 121 –

Unlike Cinderella, Harry’s abuse comes at the hands of relatives by blood. He’s not literally a step-child. But like Cinderella, he is deprived of decent clothes, mocked, compelled to do the dirty work, forced to live in a place not fit for humans, and talked about as if he’s not there. And this is a child who, in the Wizarding World, is considered something of a Prince – a child famous for surviving Voldemort’s Killing Curse!

In the Introduction to the Muggle edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Rowling writes:

In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles…. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do.

Cinderella is an exception among Muggle fairy tales. She is saved by magic… or perhaps by grace. The magic comes from praying everyday under the hazel tree planted on her mother’s grave.

Harry, too, will eventually be saved from the Dursleys by magic – only to be thrown into a mounting War among Wizards. He was left on the Dursleys’ doorstep with a letter and a “Good luck, Harry.” But at this point, it looks like his luck ran out the night his parents (according to the Dursleys’ lie) died in a car crash.

Parallels and Foreshadowings (Smaller Font for the Spoiler-Sensitive!)

  • Living in a cupboard under the stairs and all makes Harry sound a bit like a house elf for Muggles, doesn’t it?
  • Fearlessness around spiders will later come in handy when he confronts Aragog and his acromantula brood in the Forbidden Forest.
  • Memories of his own baggy hand-me-downs will help him find compassion for Severus Snape when he dips into the Pensieve in “The Prince’s Tale.”
  • And speaking of stairs, Jess (“The Last Muggle”) wrote a fairly amusing post on Harry being trapped under the stairs towards the end of HBP.

Reactions and Comments?
Let’s get this party started!

  • Are there other Fairy Tales that come to mind when you see how Harry is mistreated by his Muggle relatives?
  • How do you feel when you read about this mistreatment?
  • Given the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy and the protective magic, could anything have been done by the Wizarding World to stop the abuse?
  • What is the Arabella Figg’s role, living a couple of blocks away?
  • Is there anything else you feel like commenting on?

Next time, from Chapter 2:

I Won’t Blow Up the House!‘ … in which we discuss Harry’s wandless magic, his Parseltongue capabilities, and his dreams.

Lemon Drop?

I have come to the conclusion that lemon drops are the gateway drug into the Potterverse. It’s a Muggle sweet, you know, that the Headmaster is particularly fond of.

Several days ago, I created a Content Map for Chapter 1. (And yes, it included lemon drops). The map shows, basically, that Rowling laid the groundwork for the entire series right here in the first chapter. We’re missing references to only one major character (and a second minor one) who prove significant in the events leading up to Harry Potter’s being left, an orphan, on the Dursleys’ doorstep. And what happened in Godric’s Hollow on All-Hallow’s Eve, 1981 – and what is happening on Privet Drive on All-Saints Day – are the events that provide the key to everything else.

Let’s break down the chapter a bit. I’ll place the most serious spoilers (plus a few asides) in a smaller font – in parentheses.

Cloaks and Deluminators

Albus Dumbledore arrives on Privet Drive in a purple cloak and high-heeled boots, carrying a “Put-Outer.” When McGonnagall comes out of her Tabby Animagus transfiguration, we will find her adorned in an emerald cloak. Much later, at Hogwarts, Severus Snape will swoop in and out of the scene in an ubiquitous black cloak. Cloaks are, quite simply, the finest fashion statement of the Wizarding World. (Vernon Dursley, of course, sees only “Weirdos” when he sees Wizards in cloaks, congregating on Muggle street corners.)

The “Put-Outer” Dumbledore uses to …put out… the street lamps initially seems like a little touch of gratuitous magic – something to show Muggle readers a hint of what Wizards can accomplish. But in Year 7, we get the payoff. The “Put-Outer” is really called a Deluminator. And it can do a lot more than turn off the lights on a Muggle street.

“Would You Care for a Lemon Drop?”

I love Albus Dumbledore. Yes, yes, I know he gets knocked off his pedestal a bit in DH, but he’s still, you know, Dumbledore. Brilliant. Eccentric. “Nitwit. Blubber. Oddment. Tweak.”

While McGonnagall’s concerns and questions about “You-Know-Who” provide the backplot needed for narrative exposition, Rowling tosses in this supremely casual aside about lemon drops. Dumbledore’s love of sweets becomes one of the standing jokes of the series. Lemon Drop, Fizzing Whizbee, Cockroach Cluster, Acid Pops – all pop up as passwords to the Headmaster’s study during Dumbledore’s tenure. “Acid Pops,” I believe, is Dumbledore’s last known password. (But perhaps the most touching password is Severus Snape’s, as Harry learns when he goes up to the Headmaster’s study to view the memories after Snape has been murdered. The password to Snape’s study is the simple, prosaic, yet poignant tribute: “Dumbledore.”)


While Dumbledore fiddles with his lemon drops, the stern, severe, but compassionate McGonnagall puts Muggle readers on notice that Wizards intentionally hide from the Muggle World (thanks to the International Statue of Wizarding Secrecy). But perhaps more significantly, Muggle readers learn that someone who apparently must not be named has terrorized the Wizarding World over the past 11 years.

McGonnagall’s fear of Voldemort’s name sets the stage for the whole “You-Know-Who” motif that will play out throughout the series. Snape will snarl at Harry not to mention the Dark Lord’s name. Ron Weasley and all of Harry’s Wizard-raised friends will nearly jump out of their skins every time Harry does. Only Dumbledore will encourage Harry not to be afraid to name the man who killed his parents and tried to kill him. (The pay-off to the “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” motif finally comes in DH, when Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic and has a spell put on his name so that the Death Eaters and Snatchers can track down anyone who uses it.)

The Letter

Dumbledore intends to leave the orphaned child on the Dursleys’ doorstep with no explanation but a letter. Is his judgment sound? Is he out of his mind? Is this a result of the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy? Is it necessary in order for the magic to be sealed that will protect Harry when he’s living with his relatives?

Whatever the case, it probably helps reinforce Petunia’s hatred of the Wizarding World – bringing back memories of her own humiliation (when she wrote Dumbledore begging to be let in to Hogwarts, even though she had no magical abilities. On that occasion, Dumbledore also wrote a letter – declining her request. Now, he drops off her Wizarding sister’s child and explains “everything” in a letter.)

The Motorcycle

Hagrid and Sirius. Our introduction to Hagrid comes with his entry on Sirius’ “Misused Muggle Artifact” – an enchanted motorcycle. This kind, emotional giant of a man (or man-giant) brings Sirius’ orphaned godson to Privet Drive. Harry’s godfather, of course, will become increasingly important as the story spins out. (And Hagrid’s howl is remniscient of the terrible sound Severus Snape makes on this same day in Dumbledore’s office, after hearing about Lily Potter’s death – a sound “like a wounded animal.”)

The Scar

A whole book could be written on the scar. Right now, it’s just a lightning-shaped cut. But it will ultimately help Dumbledore unravel how young Harry survived Voldemort’s killing curse, how the scar connects Harry to the man who tried to kill him, and what Harry needs to do about it.

When next we meet Harry at 10 years old, he will consider the scar the only cool thing about his physical appearance. It will help the Weasley twins recognize him as being Harry Potter on the train to Hogwarts. And soon, it will burn in the presence of Voldemort.

This small cut on baby Harry’s forehead will prove to be one of the keys to the larger story.

A (Harry Potter) Narrative Manifesto

I interrupt this re-read to bring you this…

Should anything one character says about another be taken as objectively true canon unless otherwise contradicted? For example, should we automatically believe Sirius’ statement that Severus Snape knew more hexes and curses when he arrived at Hogwarts than most older students despite having no corroborating evidence to support Sirius’ statement, and despite the fact that the (objective) memories we see in the Pensieve really show no hint of Severus having an interest in the Dark Arts before arriving at Hogwarts?

This is a question that does come up in discussion of the Harry Potter series, and in my opinion, it gets into the whole issue of narrative reliability and unreliability. So here is my take on this question (from an actual post I wrote on the Chamber of Secrets Forum):

Words put into a character’s mouth by an author are frequently not intended to be taken literally, whether contradicted or not – particularly when the author is as talented as Rowling and as capable of drawing 3-dimensional characters who have their own agendas and biases. When those biases consist of full-blown personal enmities dating back 25 years, the red flag should go off, indicating that nothing this person says about his/her enemy should ever be taken at face value. This is not merely true about the Harry Potter series but about good fiction in general.

If Rowling were using 3rd person omniscient narrator to describe Snape, and the 3rd person omniscient narrator stated in a god-like voice that young Severus came to school armed with hexes and curses more advanced than students much older, then yes we should take it at face value. If Dumbledore had made that statement, then we should believe it unless contradicted. But if Sirius or Remus made that statement, then we should be highly skeptical unless confirmed by a more objective source. And the same goes for anything Severus says about the Marauders.

Rowling does occasionally use 3rd person omniscient with Snape (Spinner’s End and The Dark Lord Ascending come to mind). But curiously, her omniscient paints a decidedly unreliable portrait – and I mean this in a good way. It’s a very clever use of omniscient narration. We see Snape acting as a Death Eater, but since we have no access to his thoughts, we have no real way of knowing that he’s working from the inside to bring Voldemort down. We can only rely on our gut feelings about Snape – and those gut feelings, of course, lead different readers in two completely different directions at this point in the narration.

Yes, Rowling is putting words in characters’ mouths, but that does not mean that their words are the equivalent of omniscient narration. Nearly every scene we have at Hogwarts – of Snape and everyone else – is being processed through Harry’s subjective consciousness and filtered through his perspectives and biases. This means that when Harry sees Snape look at him in a “shrewd and calculating” way, it means that Harry perceives the look to be shrewd and calculating. If Harry sees “hatred and revulsion” etched across the harsh lines of Snape’s face, it means that Harry perceives the look to be one of “hatred and revulsion.” An omniscient narrator might very well describe the scene very differently – or might not. We don’t know because we’re only seeing the scene through Harry’s eyes.

Basically, what I’m saying is that a strong reading must take narrative technique into account. It’s not enough, IMO, to say that “Sirius said it and it’s not contradicted so it must be true.” We also have to take into account who Sirius is, what his perceptions and experiences are, how he regards the subject of his comment, and whether he is capable of delivering an objective statement.

I’m not arguing that what Sirius says is untrue. I’m saying that it’s unconfirmed and therefore – because of Sirius’ history with Severus – it’s unreliable unless confirmed, not reliable unless contradicted.

Okay, so to repeat – unreliable unless confirmed for the old enemies; reliable unless contradicted for characters like Dumbledore. Also, unreliable does not mean untrue. It means not to be taken at face value. I thought readers might like to know my critical assumptions in reading the text.

Okay… we’ll be back to the Harry Potter re-read in a day or two.

A Map of the London Underground

Dumbledore: “He’ll have that scar forever.

“McGonnagall: “Couldn’t you do something about it, Dumbledore?”

Dumbledore: “Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Scars can come in handy. I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground.”

I don’t quite have a map of the London Underground. But I did prepare a little “map” of Chapter 1. The key is that basically, everything centers around, you know, the boy who lived! (Click to enlarge, below)

Content Map for Chapter 1

Content Map for Chapter 1

At this point in the narrative, the lines mostly signify mentions rather than action. But in a single chapter, we’re introduced to the Hogwarts staff set opposite Harry’s Muggle relatives. We get our first news of Voldemort and James and Lily and Sirius Black. We learn a little bit about the scar. We see Apparation and Disapparation, enchanted Muggle artifacts, an Animagus, owls carrying news. And almost every line pointing, ultimately, to the boy who lived.

Rowling creates a whole world in a single chapter – and we haven’t even left Muggle streets. Severus Snape, of course, is offstage at Hogwarts… having the worst day of his life while the rest of the Wizarding World celebrates.

Let me know how you like the map and if there’s anything else I should add to it! I’ll be back in a couple of days to pick up the conversation. (I’m studying for an exam at the moment. Don’t really have much time to talk).

A Parliament of Owls

Jess, The Last Muggle to Read Harry Potter, has now passed through “The Seer Overheard” chapter in HBP and has decided that – damn the torpedoes – she’s still a die-hard member of Team Snape! Whatever you do, folks, don’t spoil it for her.

Now, back to our re-read…
(just setting the stage)

Even the Muggles have noticed something was going on. It was on their news….

Flocks of owls… shooting stars… Well, they’re not completely stupid. They were bound to notice something!

-Professor Minerva McGonnagall

We all know that J.K. Rowling likes C.S. Lewis. And I’m sure we all know (unlike McGonnagall ;)) that a group of owls is known as a “parliament,” not a “flock.” And if we’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia, we know that Lewis names the fourth chapter in The Silver Chair “A Parliament of Owls.”

Well, despite the logic implied in that circularity (not to mention the title of this post), I’m not sure there is an actual link between these chapters in Lewis and Rowling. But there is certainly a prodigious number of owls flying about!

It’s All-Saints Day, 1981 – the day after Halloween, the day after murder has been committed in Godric’s Hollow, the day after a small child has trumped the most dangerous Dark Wizard of all time. And owls are flying, delivering the news throughout the Wizarding World.

Crowds of Wizards, dressed outside Muggle norms, congregate on street corners. And even Vernon Dursley overhears the “weirdos” whisper:

“The Potters, that’s right, that’s what I heard -”

“- yes, their son Harry-“

The Potters? Harry? And some strange old man in a violet cloak and squeaky voice telling him that “Even Muggles like [himself] should be celebrating this happy, happy day!”? It’s enough to give a great big Muggle like Vernon a very bad day!

And then, there’s the news broadcast that McGonnagall overhears while standing guard in her tabby animagus outside the Dursley home:

“And finally, bird-watchers everywhere have reported that the nation’s owls have been behaving very unusually today. Although owls normally hunt at night and are hardly ever seen in daylight, there have been hundreds of sightings of these birds flying in every direction since sunrise. Experts are unable to explain why the owls have suddenly changed their sleeping pattern.”

Outside, as the Dursleys go to sleep, owls swoop above the house. The inscrutable tabby continues to watch the corner of Privet Drive. And an old man with long white hair and a purple cloak arrives, appearing “so suddenly and silently that you’d have thought he’d just popped out of the ground.”

The adventure is about to begin.