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 seven 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.

Shall We Play a Game?

They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron and Hermione shivered slightly – the towering white chessmen had no faces.

“Now what do we do?” Harry whispered.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” said Ron. “We’ve got to play our way across the room.”

As a Wizarding Chess afficionado, Ron quickly figures out that the giant chess pieces they encounter in Professor McGonnagall’s task have been transfigured into the moving, “living” pieces of Wizarding Chess. He quickly deduces that the three of them will have to take the places of black chess pieces and confirms this with one of the black knights:

[Ron] walked up to a black knight and put his hand out to touch the knight’s horse. At once, the stone sprang to life. The horse pawed the ground and the knight turned his helmeted head to look down at Ron.

“Do we – er – have to join you to get across?”

The black knight nodded.

The Task

Unlike Professor Flitwick’s complex task, this one is fairly straightforward – once it’s figured out. The prospective thief has to take the place of a black chess piece and play a successful game of chess. But therein lies the problem. While it takes intelligence to play chess, having intelligence is no guarantee of success.

Chess is a game of strategy, and so it takes a strategic thinker to win at it – someone who can see the big picture, comprehend the implications of the opponents’ moves, and plan moves in advance. In other words, it takes a specific type of intelligence. This is what makes McGonnagall’s task rather brilliant. It narrows the field considerably concerning who would be able to get to the next door. Hermione herself (minus Ron) would likely not have passed successfully through this task.

But Why Is This Task for Gryffindor?

Shouldn’t chess be more of a Ravenclaw specialty? I mean, in RL it is the province of those crypto-Ravenclaws of the Muggle world – Math and Computer geeks. So why should this be the task for the Head of House for Gryffindor?

Transfiguration: Well, the most obvious answer is that the task requires the pieces to undergo Transfiguration spells… and Transfiguration is McGonnagall’s specialty. In fact, it seems that Transfiguration is something of a Gryffindor specialty. Such noted Gryffindors as Professor Dumbledore have specialized in Transfiguration. And several recent Gryffindors (three Marauders and Professor McGonnagall) are known to be capable of making the animagus transformation (not technically Transfiguration, but certainly requiring Transfiguration skills as a prerequisite).

Transfiguration, according to McGonnagall, is among the most “complex and dangerous magic” taught at Hogwarts – the danger, perhaps, being a reason the discipline seems to coalesce around Gryffindor. But thus far (at Hogwarts at least), we’ve seen mainly the lighter side of Transfiguration. We’ve watched Professor McGonnagall transfigure her desk into a pig (and back again), teach her First Years to change a match into a needle, and test them on turning a mouse into a snuffbox. In the chess task, we finally see the more serious application of Transfiguration.

War: Additionally, chess is a warlike game, involving pieces that emulate soldiers crossing a battlefield. The game, in fact, is won by capturing the opposing player’s King. Gryffindor, of course, is the most warlike of Houses – the House that most highly values bravery and chivalry. And McGonnagall’s version of chess creates an aura of battlefield danger, guaranteed to unnerve your average prospective thief.

The white pieces don’t just “take” black pieces. They hit and break them, with strong stone arms:

[The Trio’s] first real shock came when their other knight was taken. The white queen smashed him to the floor and dragged him off the board, where he lay quite still, facedown.


Every time one of their men was lost, the white pieces showed no mercy. Soon there was a huddle of limp black players slumped along the wall.

McGonnagall’s transfiguration transforms a game based on war into an actual simulation of war.

Strategy: Smart as the Ravenclaws are, and crafty as the Slytherins, the best strategic thinker in the series is Albus Dumbledore – who manages the wars against Voldemort like a master moving pieces around the board. While Dumbledore’s Slytherin protegé, Severus Snape, is a brilliant tactician, Snape is not essentially a strategist. And this perhaps shows us something about the differences between Ravenclaw intelligence, Slytherin intelligence, Hufflepuff intelligence, and Gryffindor intelligence.

Ravenclaw is often said to admire abstract, theoretical knowledge. Slytherin admires skill and practical application. Hufflepuff emphasizes an earthy, pragmatic, common-sense approach. But despite its reputation (largely among Slytherins) for reckless action, Gryffindor, perhaps, brings the strongest capacity for strategic thought.

Certainly the evidence for strategy being the most Gryffindorish type of intelligence is a bit thin if we base it entirely on Dumbledore, but if we consider that strategy is the quality most desired in warfare – and martial ability is a huge part of the Gryffindor portfolio – then we perhaps have a more solid circumstantial basis for linking Gryffindor with strategic intelligence.

So What Do We Learn about McGonnagall?

She’s pretty formidable – far more formidable than the no-nonsense witch who sternly greets new students.

Not only does she perform the necessary transfiguration to animate the pieces, she “programs” the white pieces to respond to the black strategy and create a dynamic strategy for defense of the Stone. (Curiously, too, she uses the traditional color scheme of white representing the “good” defenders of the Stone and black representing the “bad” prospective thieves).

Unless there is a ready-made spell that gives transfigured pieces the sort of strategic knowledge necessary to play a human opponent without human assistance, McGonnagall must have chess-expert knowledge of the inner workings of the game in order to give the pieces that ability. (And given that chess is the task she chooses, my bet is that she does.)

Additionally, this simulation of battle foreshadows what we will ultimately see of McGonnagall in the context of a real battle in DH – as she defends Hogwarts against the minions (and assumed minions) of the Dark Lord.

McGonnagall ruthlessly duels presumed Death Eater Severus Snape in one of the corridors of the castle (making it, I think, safe to say that the scary White Queen of Transfigured Chess is a striking symbolic representation of McGonnagall herself). And the actual animation of the chess pieces is a foreshadowing of McGonnagall’s calling on the statues and armor to do their duty and defend the school during the Battle of Hogwarts:

“And now – Piertotem Locomotor!” cried Professor McGonnagall.

And all along the corridor the statues and suits of armor jumped down from their plinths, and from the echoing crashes from the floors above and below, Harry knew that their fellows throughout the castle had done the same.

“Hogwarts is threatened!” shouted Professor McGonnagall. “Man the boundaries, protect us, do your duty to our school!”

Clattering and yelling, the horde of moving statues stampeded past Harry: some of them smaller, others larger, than life. There were animals too, and the clanking suits of armor brandished swords and spiked balls on chains.

“Now, Potter,” said McGonagall, “you and Miss Lovegood had better return to your friends and bring them to the Great Hall – I shall rouse the other Gryffindors.”

That is the quintessentially Gryffindor Professor McGonnagall in the context of war. She takes charge. She defends the school. And she shows no mercy to any she believes would dare overthrow Hogwarts.

[Translation of Piertotem Locomotor: “All do your duty!”]

The Remembrall


HP1:Malfoys got the Remembrall by ~Marauders-Map

The first half of “The Midnight Duel” is devoted to the Flying Lessons and their immediate aftermath.

Short Summary: The young Gryffindors are filled with anxiety at the prospect of having Flying Lessons with the Slytherins. On the morning of the lesson, Neville Longbottom receives a Remembrall from his gran – to help him remember things he’s forgotten. Draco tries to nick it, but McGonnagall quickly steps in.

Later, during Flying Lessons, Neville’s broom goes out of control, and the boy falls 20 feet to the ground, breaking his wrist. While Madam Hooch takes the injured boy to the Hospital Wing, Draco picks up the dropped Remembrall, thus leading to a broomstick confrontation with Harry Potter who learns – much to his surprise and delight – that he’s a natural-born flyer. When Draco tosses the Remembrall into the air and challenges Harry to fetch it, Harry performs a daring move that ends in his catching the small object just an inch from the ground – a perfect Seeker maneuver.

Professor McGonnagall comes charging out of the castle, demanding that Harry come with her. Since Madam Hooch threatened expulsion for any student who did not stay firmly planted on the ground, Harry is convinced he is about to be kicked out of Hogwarts. Instead, McGonnagall introduces him to Oliver Wood, Captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch Team, and tells Wood that she has found him a Seeker for the team.

Overview

This section further develops the Harry-Draco rivalry – which will become even more intense once Harry gets to own a broom (despite the first-year ban) and becomes the youngest House Quidditch player in a century.

But for me, the real core of this part of the chapter is the development of Neville Longbottom and Professor McGonnagall. And for both characters, appearances are a bit misleading.

Neville Longbottom

I’ve talked about Neville a bit before, but this is the first chapter where we really see a lot of him, so I’d like to repeat a bit and expand.

When we first meet Neville, he is a complete mess. He can’t remember anything (not even something as simple as the password to Gryffindor Tower). He can’t brew a simple potion without blowing up or melting his cauldron. He can’t do any magic worth speaking of. And now, he can’t even fly a broom without hurting himself.

In our introduction to Neville, we assume that he’s in the story to play the buffoon and provide some comic relief. And actually, there is very little in PS/SS to prove we’re wrong. But in GoF we begin to learn a little bit of his backstory… and start to think that maybe he has good reason to be afraid of succeeding at magic. Finally in OotP, he will start to resolve his fears. And in DH… well, let’s just say that Neville comes through in a way that no reader could have anticipated at this stage in the story.

Neville’s story over the course of the series shows that early failure does not doom a person to failure for life. When we first meet him, we wonder why he is in Gryffindor instead of Hufflepuff (the House Hagrid says is for the “Duffers“)? By the end of DH, nobody will be asking questions about what qualities landed him in Gryffindor.

ETA on Neville:
For more extensive analysis of Neville, try this page on the CoS Forum.
I wrote post 605 and post 609, but there are a lot of other posts on that page that are well worth reading.

Professor McGonnagall

We don’t have any concerns for Professor McGonnagall’s competence. But she, too, has a side that it takes awhile for the audience to see.

When we first met McGonnagall – just outside the Dursleys’ house in the first chapter – she came out of her Tabby Animagus form in order to interrogate Dumbledore on the deaths of Lily and James Potter… and the survival of their year-old boy. At that time, she dabbed her eyes on learning that the rumors were true. But ever since that time, we’ve seen her as primarily a stern, no-nonsense teacher. And Harry is certainly expecting a bit of that stern no-nonsense when she brings him back into the castle after his catching the Remembrall.

But McGonnagall is also a fierce competitor… and last year’s Quidditch Cup did not go well for Gryffindor:

“I shall speak to Professor Dumbledore and see if we can’t bend the first-year rule [concerning flying broomsticks]. Heaven knows, we need a better team than last year. Flattened in that last match by Slytherin, I couldn’t look Severus Snape in the face for weeks….”

Part of the reason she does not punish Harry for the Remembrall dive is that she wants to defeat Slytherin as badly as Harry does… possibly more. Her own former Transfiguration student (Severus Snape) can smirk in her face for weeks every time Slytherin prevails over Gryffindor.

But I think there’s even more to it than competition with Slytherin. McGonnagall was Head of House for Harry’s parents, and she was clearly fond of them (as we see from her emotional reaction to their deaths). The fact that she shows up at the Dursleys’ house and tries to convince Dumbledore not to give the child to these “worst sort of Muggles” indicates that she feels a bit protective toward this orphan. In fact, when she and Wood have finished discussing how to get Harry to play for the team, she momentarily drops her stern demeanor:

Professor McGonnagall peered sternly over her glasses at Harry.

“I want to hear you’re training hard, Potter, or I may change my mind about punishing you.”

Then she suddenly smiled.

“Your father would have been proud,” she said. “He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.”

This is McGonnagall’s second smile since Harry arrived. The first was for Hermione’s rudimentary Transfiguration ability. This, for Harry’s potential at Quidditch… but even more, I think, for reminding her of his lost parents.