Re-Reading Harry Potter: The Beginning

Harry Potter?

I have long wanted to do two things with a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series. No, strike that. Three things. I have wanted to do three things with a re-read of the Harry Potter series.

  1. Read the British versions. There are differences.
  2. Analyze/discuss/think about the events in light of what we know now that the series is done with addenda revealed via Pottermore (though they are only in the middle of Azkaban and not likely to move at the speed I’ll read).
  3. Blog about the series re-read as I do it.

Jenny actually reminded me I need to do the third item. I have been adjusting to living in MA and a new job and all that entails, and now that things seem to be settling, and I finally feel like I have more time to read and blog, I am catching up on blog posts I missed from my favorite bloggers, Jenny among them, naturally.

Apparently, folks are doing a big re-read of HP, and Jenny is participating. I did not know this was happening, but I am not about to commit myself to any sort of a challenge or anything, so it’s probably best. Anyway, I decided to re-read the Harry Potter series again, as I said previously, because I’m in a rut, and returning to my beloved Wizarding World is always a great palate cleanser.

So, without further ado, my take on the first five chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

First, I have a bone to pick with the American publishers about the title. The philosopher’s stone is a well-known alchemical substance. Even us backwater Americans have heard of it. Truly. Which is why I hate the American title of this book and consider it to be talking down to its American audience. Americans are perfectly capable of looking up the term “philosopher’s stone” if they are not familiar with it. And the notion of a “sorcerer’s stone” only introduces unnecessary confusion. But no one asked me.

I am reading digital editions published by Pottermore, so I will not be making any attempt to locate page numbers, but I will provide quotes. The first thing I made notes about was a reference to a man wearing a violet cloak who bumps into Vernon Dursley when he is leaving Grunnings in the afternoon the story begins. My guess is that this man is Dedalus Diggle, but I’m not sure anyone has ever confirmed this.

I always laugh at the line where Dursley “hurried to his car and set off home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn’t approve of imagination.” That, in one, is what is wrong with the Dursleys. Right?

Later in the first chapter, when Dumbledore arrives on Privet Drive, he uses the Deluminator to put out the lights on the street. This device, described as Dumbledore’s invention, has some very interesting properties, and I wonder that we didn’t see it more often. It is used in Order of the Phoenix when Moody et. al. arrive at 12 Grimmauld Place. We see it willed to Ron after Dumbledore’s death and learn that in addition to putting out lights, it is used to help Ron find his way back to Harry and Hermione. Very cool toy, that thing is.

Another interesting note from this first chapter. McGonagall, in protesting Harry’s placement with his terrible Muggle relatives, tries this tactic with Dumbledore, hoping it will help the old man see reason: “Really, Dumbledore, you think you can explain all this in a letter? These people will never understand him! He’ll be famous—a legend—I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in future—there will be books written about Harry—every child in our world will know his name!”

Just a pause to think about how awesome it is that McGonagall’s pronouncement really happened. How cool is that?

When Hagrid arrives with baby Harry in tow, we find out he borrowed Sirius Black’s motorcycle. We don’t find out more about Sirius until Azkaban, and the casual reader isn’t likely to note the reference and remember it by that time.

Moving on to chapter two, we see Harry referred to as “Dudley’s favourite punch-bag.” How clever Rowling is. She remembered to make Dudley actually pursue boxing seriously later on. And get pretty good at it. I know she did extensive planning. I will be interested to learn how Dudley turned out whenever that information is shared on Pottermore.

We (sort of) meet Mrs. Figg in this chapter, too. Harry is delighted to learn he will not be staying with her on Dudley’s birthday and will actually be going to the zoo. Let us pause a moment and think about how truly awful the Dursleys are. I mean, seriously, they never let him go to Dudley’s birthday parties (never mind they never give him one of his own). He has to stay with Mrs. Figg every year. He watches Dudley’s presents pile up on the table. And then, when their plans with Mrs. Figg fall through, they try to think of everything they can do to avoid taking Harry to the zoo. I mean, really, would it be so terrible if the boy could have fun once in a while? Let’s call it out by its right name—they are abusive. They are by far some of the most evil characters, in my estimation, in the series. Still, it was nice to learn later that at least the Order of the Phoenix had an eye on Harry.

In chapter three, there is this excellent description of Harry and Dudley fighting over a spot where they can listen in to the conversation between Vernon and Petunia about the letter Harry has received from Hogwarts: “Harry and Dudley had a furious but silent fight over who would listen at the keyhole.” The reason I love that description is that it captures exactly what it is like to quiet fight with a sibling. Exactly. I can always picture this little scene perfectly.

In chapter four, we meet Hagrid. The first thing he says to Harry is “Yeh look a lot like yer dad, but yeh’ve got yer mum’s eyes.” Harry would hear this many times over the years, and of course, the fact that he has his mother’s eyes becomes crucial near the end of Deathly Hallows. The fact that he looks so like his father is also crucial to his relationship with Snape through much of the series. One wonders how Snape would have treated Harry had he looked like Lily, no?

When Petunia finally admits that what Hagrid is telling Harry about being a wizard and all that is true, she lets loose with pent up jealousy.

“Knew!” shrieked Aunt Petunia suddenly. “Knew! Of course we knew! How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that—that school—and came home every holiday with her pockets full of frog-spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was—a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!”

Petunia goes on, but you get the idea. This little speech is interesting in light of some things we learn later. Firstly, that underage witches like Lily are not supposed to do magic outside of school, so when was she turning teacups into rats? Was that an accident? Or did she do it on purpose and get in trouble for it like Harry? If so, it sort of puts a dent her squeaky clean image. Not a bad thing, necessarily. We also learn later that Petunia herself wanted to go to that school. But she wasn’t a witch, so she wasn’t allowed. You know, I had a hunch at some point that Petunia knew Snape, but I couldn’t figure out how. I must admit it never occurred to me that she knew Snape as a child because he was friends with her sister. Oh, jealousy!

Some time later in the conversation, Hagrid tells Harry that his parents had been “Head Boy an’ Girl at Hogwarts in their day!” I have some confusion on this point because we learn later that it was Remus Lupin who was chosen as Gryffindor prefect in the Marauders’ fifth year. It stands to reason Lily was chosen as his female counterpart. So how did James become Head Boy? Did Remus have to leave school because of his lycanthropy? That doesn’t make sense to me, given what we know. How is it possible for a boy who was not a prefect to be Head Boy? We haven’t seen other instances of Head Boys or Girls chosen from outside the pool of 7th year prefects. Percy Weasley was one. He had been prefect since 5th year. Tom Riddle was one. Again, also a prefect. So what is up with Hagrid’s comment? Is this a mistake on Rowling’s part? I am inclined to think it is a mistake, but I await some elucidation on this point in Pottermore at some stage.

Very soon after we learn that Lily and James were apparently Head Boy and Girl, we learn about some of the people Voldemort killed during his rise to power—the McKinnons, the Bones [technically should be Boneses], and the Prewetts. We encounter the Bones family later through Susan, Harry’s classmate, and her Aunt Amelia Bones, who is on the Wizengamot at Harry’s trial in Order of the Phoenix. We learn that the Boneses in reference are Susan’s uncle Edgar Bones and his wife and children. As Edgar was Amelia Bones’s brother, we can assume he was also brother to Susan Bones’s father. The Prewetts were Gideon and Fabian Prewett, Molly Weasley’s brothers. Sobering reminder of how just about every family was affected by Voldemort.

Probably one of my favorite passages is Harry’s first step into the Wizarding World, when he first sees Diagon Alley in the next chapter.

Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once; the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping.

I just love that description. It perfectly captures the feeling of that moment, and it’s one of the moments when I as a reader felt I was right there with Harry and seeing everything he could see. It’s amazing.

We also go to Gringott’s and meet Griphook. I always found it interesting that Rowling chose to bring him back in such an important role in Deathly Hallows. Harry cranes his neck looking for dragons as the cart wheels around the underground vaults, hurtling towards his own vault. Little did he realize he would see, much less ride, a real Gringott’s dragon!

While Hagrid goes for a pick-me-up at the Leaky Cauldron, Harry goes off to buy his robes and meets Draco Malfoy. Malfoy tells Harry that Narcissa Malfoy is up the street looking at wands. Why would she be doing that when the wand chooses the wizard? Could be Draco didn’t exactly know what Narcissa was doing. Or maybe she was checking them out. But it makes more sense for her to wait and look at them with Draco present, right? Another weird little line that trips me up every time.

We learn that Slytherin House is notorious for producing evil wizards, including You-Know-Who. This information prompts Harry to ask in wonder about Voldemort’s time at Hogwarts. Hagrid only volunteers that Voldemort went there “years an’ years ago,” but doesn’t offer up the fun fact that they were classmates. I guess that is understandable, given that Voldemort framed Hagrid for Moaning Myrtle’s death (or at least framed Aragog).

A nice throwaway line informs us that toads went out of fashion years ago, so when Neville shows up with a toad, we know a lot about poor Neville immediately. J.K. Rowling is great with exposition. It is not easy to do. The guy who wrote another book I’m currently reading is very clumsy with exposition, so it is nice to appreciate what it looks like when it is done well.

And then we go to Ollivander’s. And we learn that Ollivander’s family has been making wands for millenia. That is pretty amazing. If you are on Pottermore, you learn a whole lot of other really interesting things about Ollivander.

  • His full name is Garrick Ollivander.
  • He was in Ravenclaw (which makes sense, given his vast academic knowledge of wandlore).
  • He was a half-blood, like Snape, only with a wizard father and Muggle mother.
  • He had a family, including a wife, son, and daughter, but they are deceased.
  • His own wand is hornbeam and dragon heartstring, twelve and three-quarter inches, slightly bendy.

It is worth joining Pottermore for what you learn about wands alone, in my opinion. For the record, my own wand is sycamore and phoenix feather, ten and three-quarter inches, hard. About phoenix feather cores, Pottermore has this to say:

This is the rarest core type. Phoenix feathers are capable of the greatest range of magic, though they may take longer than either unicorn or dragon cores to reveal this. They show the most initiative, sometimes acting of their own accord, a quality that many witches and wizards dislike.

Phoenix feather wands are always the pickiest when it comes to potential owners, for the creature from which they are taken is one of the most independent and detached in the world. These wands are the hardest to tame and to personalise, and their allegiance is usually hard won.

And sycamore:

The sycamore makes a questing wand, eager for new experience and losing brilliance if engaged in mundane activities. It is a quirk of these handsome wands that they may combust if allowed to become ‘bored,’ and many witches and wizards, settling down into middle age, are disconcerted to find their trusty wand bursting into flame in their hand as they ask it, one more time, to fetch their slippers. As may be deduced, the sycamore’s ideal owner is curious, vital and adventurous, and when paired with such an owner, it demonstrates a capacity to learn and adapt that earns it a rightful place among the world’s most highly-prized wand woods.

I always took the description of the wand’s pliability to say something about the flexibility of its owner. As my wand is hard, you can draw your own conclusions. Stubborn is one word that has been used. Seriously, though, you really do learn a lot about the personality of various Harry Potter characters from the information about wand cores and wand woods on Pottermore. And every person I know who has obtained a Pottermore wand has a wand core and wood that fit their personality. It is more accurate than a Myers-Briggs test. Also, it is interesting to note here, before I go on about wands too long, that once Ron’s own wand chooses him (and even before, really, as his brother’s wand has the same core), the trio have wand cores of each of the three types Ollivander uses: Harry has phoenix feather, Hermione has dragon heartstring, and Ron has a unicorn tail hair. Very cool fact. Wands really merit their own post. I will stop now.

Oh, wait. I should tell you about Harry’s wand before I stop. You already know about the phoenix feather core because my wand has the same core (see above). About holly wood, Ollivander has this to say:

Holly is one of the rarer kinds of wand woods; traditionally considered protective, it works most happily for those who may need help overcoming a tendency to anger and impetuosity. At the same time, holly wands often choose owners who are engaged in some dangerous and often spiritual quest. Holly is one of those woods that varies most dramatically in performance depending on the wand core, and it is a notoriously difficult wood to team with phoenix feather, as the wood’s volatility conflicts strangely with the phoenix’s detachment. In the unusual event of such a pairing finding its ideal match, however, nothing and nobody should stand in their way.

Do you see what I am saying about wands? They are so illuminating and much more important than we realized. After all, Ollivander remembers every wand he has ever sold. And while he says the wand chooses the wizard, it is his craft in putting together the cores with the woods and trying various selections on his clients that makes that happen. After all, he has the ingenious idea that perhaps Harry might be destined for the wand with one of Fawkes’s phoenix feathers as its core just as Voldemort was destined for the only other feather Fawkes gave. Again, this detail is very important later on.

Oy, this is getting long. I should have broken it up. Are you still with me? I apologize.

Actually, I should end it there. Yes. That might be best. We are pushing 3,000 words.

But if you read the whole thing, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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