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.

The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore

“Don’t be a fool,” snarled the face. “Better save your own life and join me… or you’ll meet the same end as your parents…. “They died begging me for mercy….”

“LIAR!” Harry shouted suddenly.

Quirrell was walking backward at him, so that Voldemort could still see him. The evil face was now smiling.

“How touching…” it hissed. “I always value bravery…. Yes, boy, your parents were brave…. I killed your father first, and he put up a courageous fight… but your mother needn’t have died… she was trying to protect you…. Now give me the Stone, unless you want her to have died in vain.”

“NEVER!”

We expect the lie from Voldemort, just as we expect defiance from Harry. Voldemort lies in claiming…

  • That Harry’s parents died begging for mercy
  • That he values bravery
  • That Harry’s father put up a courageous fight

In actuality, Harry’s father rushed at Voldemort without a wand in his hand, Voldemort cast the curse, and…

James Potter fell like a marionette whose strings were cut….”

That’s it.

In context, fear has failed to motivate Harry to give Voldemort what he wants, so Voldemort reverts to flattery, reciting the key Gryffindor quality of bravery. And no doubt, James Potter bravely rushed at the Dark Lord. But put up a courageous fight? There was no fight.

Voldemort’s lie about Harry’s father, however, is ultimately less destructive than Albus Dumbledore’s. Once the Stone has been saved, Dumbledore promises Harry to answer whatever questions he can… without, of course, lying. But when Harry asks if it’s true that Snape hates him because he hated his father, Dumbledore replies:

“Well, they did rather detest each other. Not unlike yourself and Mr. Malfoy. And then, your father did something Snape could never forgive.”

“What?”

“He saved his life.”

That’s not exactly true. James Potter got cold feet on a Marauders prank that would have gotten Severus killed, and James intervened to stop it.

But Severus never believed that James’ primary intention was to save his life. He believed that James’ intent was merely to save himself and the other Marauders from getting expelled.
(And when we see what James did to Severus shortly afterward in the SWM, who can blame Severus for denying James any benevolent intent?)

But the question of James’ intent is not at the core of Dumbledore’s lie. It’s in his claim that Snape, in essence, was angry over owing James a life debt – a life debt that Severus never believed he owed. In framing Snape’s hatred in those terms, Dumbledore glosses over the true source of Snape’s fury: severe, public humiliation and abuse in SWM (what I would call a form of gang rape, frankly). And then, the worst of all possible humiliations: James winning Lily’s hand.

Yes, I know why Dumbledore might feel compelled to lie on this matter. Snape swore him to secrecy, admonishing Dumbledore never to reveal his [Snape’s] motives for protecting Harry – and putting Dumbledore in a bit of a bind. So it’s possible that Dumbledore invents an alternate scenario to explain Snape’s protection (i.e., attempting to retire the life debt) while at the same time honoring his word to Severus.

But the lie doesn’t help. It doesn’t really explain anything about Severus’ antipathy toward James to Harry. It merely helps to escalate the tension between Harry and Snape. And a couple of years later, Harry uses the lie when he throws his father’s life-saving “courage” right back in Snape’s face.

So my question is: How conscious is Dumbledore that he’s telling a lie? Has he, like Harry, created some ideal “James” in his head? Or is he deliberately misleading Harry in order to protect Severus’ secret? Or what?

I await your comments.

‘The Abandoned Boys’

One of the most poignant moments in the entire Harry Potter series occurs as Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest at the end of Deathly Hallows to meet his fate at the hands of Lord Voldemort. Hiding under his cloak of invisibility, he overhears a wounded girl whispering for her mother and telling Ginny that she wants to “go home.”

Harry has seen the memories. He now knows Snape’s loyalties. He knows Dumbledore’s plan. He intends to die. And all he can think is that…

He wanted to shout out to the night, he wanted Ginny to know he was there, he wanted her to know where he was going. He wanted to be stopped, he wanted to be dragged back, to be sent back home…

But he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he had ever known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here…

I don’t know that there’s any more remarkable statement in the entire series than that final sentence. Something happens in the Pensieve that gives Harry compassion, that helps him identify… not only with Severus Snape, but even with Voldemort himself.

When Harry first discovered that Tom Riddle’s mother died about an hour after giving birth, he was so stunned that Dumbledore asked if he could “possbly be feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort.” Harry denied any empathy.

When Harry dipped his face into the Pensieve to view the memories the hated Potions Master had left him, he did so with a “reckless abandonment,” thinking that “nothing even that Snape had left him could be worse than his own thoughts.”

Yet what is the first thing he sees when he arrives in Snape’s memories? Two girls swinging on a sunny day, and a skinny boy of 9 or 10 spying on them:

…a skinny boy was watching them from behind a clump of bushes. His black hair was overlong and his clothes were so mismatched that it looked deliberate: too short jeans, a shabby, overlarge coat that might have belonged to a grown man, an odd smock-like shirt.

Have we seen any other skinny black-haired boys so deliberately misdressed? Here’s the first view we get of 11-year-old Harry:

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was.

Harry identifies. Even though young Severus grew up with two parents, Harry learns from the memories that they were always shouting at each other – just the way that Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia (one of the girls on the swingset) were always shouting at him. Could it even be possible that Petunia so associates magic with “that Snape boy” that she intentionally dresses Harry to look as shabbily as Lily’s young Wizard friend?

There’s another moment, too, that may help tie matters together for Harry. As we’ve already seen, when Dumbledore tells Severus that Lily’s son lives, Severus gives…

… a tiny jerk of the head [that] seemed to flick off an irksome fly.

Harry has seen that motion before in the Pensieve, in Dumbledore’s own memory of his first meeting with Tom Riddle. When Dumbledore tells Riddle about the Leaky Cauldron (and thus the entry to Diagon Alley), he instructs Tom:

You will be able to see it, although Muggles around you, the non-magical people, that is – will not. Ask for Tom the barman – easy enough to remember, as he shares your name – ”

Riddle gave an irritable twitch, as though trying to displace an irksome fly.

Two twitches. Two drastically different choices.

Snape, as Harry learns from the memories, takes on his irksome fly: Lily’s living son. He protects the boy, shields him, challenges him, berates him, trains him, even dies horribly to get him the memories needed for his task. It’s not what he wants to do. It’s what he chooses to do because it’s necessary. It is his penance, and ultimately his redemption.

But Riddle seeks to escape the irksome fly: his common humanity. He changes his name, destroys his identity, splits his soul, becomes something other than human, and finds destruction.

Is it possible that these two slight images in the Pensieve help Harry see – really see – the choices, mistakes, sacrifices, even horrors wrought by these men he has hated… and accept the links they forge with him? Harry, Severus, Tom – the abandoned boys – all adopted Hogwarts as home. Two groped toward the light. The other, in trying to escape it, found nothing greater than death.