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.
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.