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!)
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.)
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.