Welcome to the Anti-Shire

And welcome to the Harry Potter re-read!

Ever since I opened the first page of the first book, I’ve been wanting to say this… The opening reminded me of The Hobbit. Just sort of in reverse.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is minding his own business, smoking a pipe in front of his hobbit hole at Bag End, when a great Wizard shows up on his doorstep, trying to enlist him for an adventure:

“We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!

So says Bilbo when Gandalf invades his nice comfortable neighborhood. Bilbo has never had an adventure, never wants to have one, and just wants to be… normal. But then, flustered, he invites Gandalf back for tea. And that small courtesy makes all the difference in the world. In fact, it will ultimately save the whole of Middle Earth.

Now here’s our introduction to the Dursleys:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people to be involved with anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense….

Sounds a bit like Bilbo, yes?

Actually, no.

Bilbo initially refuses his adventure out of ignorance and hobbit social pressure, but he yet retains his Shire-bred hospitality. Mrs. Dursley, on the other hand, has already had a bit of an adventure, and it has soured her for life. We find further down the page that…

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.

There it is.

The Dursleys could not bear it if anyone found out that there was something secret, mysterious, adventurous… unusual… in their family. And there is something mysterious and unusual. Mrs. Dursley’s sister is a part of the magical world.

While Bilbo’s distinguishing feature at this stage in his story is his hospitality, the Dursleys’ distinguishing feature is their refusal of hospitality… to Mrs. Dursley’s sister, to her brother-in-law, to their one-year-old child, and later to all the magical people who cross their threshold.

What Mrs. Dursley does not know is that her sister has been murdered – just the night before our story begins. And before another night will pass, a great Wizard will show up at Number 4, Privet Drive and task her with the care of her sister’s small Wizard child.

Yes, the magical world will invade the Dursleys’ nice, normal home. But in a reversal of the fairy tales, no evil sorcerer will hold captive some helpless Muggle prince. These great Muggles will hold captive their sister’s Wizard child… and torment him with the no-nonsense inhospitality that so characterizes their skewed notion of what it means to be “perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

5 responses to “Welcome to the Anti-Shire

  1. Brilliant! Very astute observations about the small courtesies in life & hospitality being extended even to people you’re trying to get off your doorstep.

    BTW, I also always loved the opening of HPSS. That quote about the Dursleys really does sum them up.

    • Why thank you! I love those passages, and the Dursleys’ inhospitality is just so striking.

      Bilbo thinks he wants to be left alone (even though he really wants to have an adventure!). But he still extends courtesy to Gandalf. It’s a prelude to one of his greatest acts of kindness: not killing Gollum when Gollum was helpless to stop him. I doubt the Dursleys would have had second thoughts about slitting Gollum’s throat, given the way they treat a helpless innocent child.

  2. Pingback: The Boy Who Lived | Expecto Patronum!

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