Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived
In which the Dursleys’ perfect world is shattered as a whole bunch of weird stuff goes down, including errant shooting stars, a literate cat, and owls with unusual sleeping patterns; the wizarding world celebrates the defeat of Voldemort, and Dumbledore, McGonagall and Hagrid leave Harry Potter on the doorstep of Number Four, Privet Drive.
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
I remember the first time I read this sentence. I was eight years old, I was at a party with my parents and I was extremely bored.
One of the mums at the party was trying to find something to amuse me. “Have you read Harry Potter, Rosie?”
I shook my head. I’d heard of this Harry Potter, and I knew that lots of people liked it, but I’d already decided it was stupid. This was a pretty strange thing to decide, as I was a pretty voracious reader even at that age, and would normally read anything I could get my hands on, especially fantasy (although in fairness I liked fantasy with princesses the best). Obviously I was trying to be hip and non-conformist.
“Oh, you’ll love it. It’s about a boy who flies around and saves the city.”
Gee, way to fill me with excitement there lady. (Also, had you even read the book? My God.)
Nonetheless, I was bored enough to give anything a try, so I accepted the host’s copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone from this family friend and looked at the back cover. Oh, great, he’s a wizard. You’ve both given away the plot and made this book boring and predictable. Thanks a lot. And who the hell is this guy with the brown beard and the pipe?
So I opened the book and read that opening sentence and … I was hooked.
It’s the “perfectly normal, thank you very much” that’s so intriguing. What crazy, unexpected things will I encounter that are going to contradict this statement? I think I was astute enough at eight years old to know that Mr and Mrs Dursley were not the main characters, so I delighted in the fact that things would get strange, soon. And I was right.
First, though, we get a snapshot into the “normal” life of the Dursleys. I remember thinking that they were Roald Dahl-worthy—awful, but utterly ridiculous enough to make them palatable for children. (I think I’d just read Matilda.) And, in this book at least, I was right here too.
They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
This says so much about the Dursleys. This basically summarises their entire role in the series. Except the thing is, they know that magic exists, so this belief that such things are nonsense is a façade. It’s like they’re trying to be ultra-normal, because they’re so afraid that someone will find out the truth.
Reading this book after having read the rest of the series shows you exactly how much Rowling’s writing style has changed. Here, she definitely had children in mind—everything is simple, and indeed somewhat stark, compared to the other books. She already has her individual voice, though.
He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.
Rowling’s Spartan description, despite its brevity, allows you to picture the Dursleys perfectly. It’s one of the distinctive aspects of her writing style, and one that is particularly impressive.
They had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
Please excuse me while I vomit.
(I promise I’m not going to quote every single line from this chapter!)
Vernon is so obsessed with normality that when he does see something out of the ordinary (McGonagall the Cat reading a map), he goes out of his way to assure himself that it was “a trick of the light”, an early indication of the reasoning that Muggles remain ignorant of the magical world because, when presenting with evidence of it, they tend to find mundane explanations. (Interestingly, the same reasoning is given in Artemis Fowl.)
However, Vernon’s obsession goes further than to dismiss anything that might be considered extraordinary—he actually gets angry when he encounters unusual behaviour (he is “enraged” by the sight of adults dressed in what he believes to be “some stupid new fashion”). And when he hears the name “Potter”, he is downright frightened. This is a bit odd, when you think about it; he doesn’t know at this point that this business is going to have a profound effect on his life, and no one has connected him with the Potters so far. Why is he so scared? Is he really so afraid that people will find out his relationship with the Potters, and therefore, with magic? This is irrational at the very least.
(As a side note, is it weird that I really want to know who the “tiny old man” in the violet cloak that Vernon almost knocks over is? Also lol he hugs Vernon! I’d totally forgotten that part.)
He was rattled. He 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.
Vernon. You are a sad and angry man.
I love the contrast between Vernon’s anxiety at all these strange things, and the simply curious and amused reaction of the news presenters:
‘Experts are unable to explain why the owls have suddenly changed their sleeping pattern.’ The news reader allowed himself a grin. ‘Most mysterious.’
(Also, totally not relevant, but the weatherman’s name is Jim McGuffin. I am such a nerd.)
Okay, on to the good bit. Dumbledore!
I love how Dumbledore is described, especially the “high heeled, buckled boots” (what an image—and so fitting with certain controversial revelations). Also, “his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice”. Who knew this would be a plot point all the way in book seven?
Except for the matter-of-fact statement of Dumbledore’s name, this whole scene is presented as though through the eyes of an outsider who doesn’t know what is going on, so that the narrator has just as little an idea of what is going on as we do:
For some reason, the sight of the cat seemed to amuse him.
This is a pretty effective way of drawing the reader’s curiosity. Instead of explaining all the wizarding references, we’re left with a whole bunch of unanswered questions.
Calling the Deluminator a “Put-Outer” at this point is rather revealing of the story as a whole. It shows that Rowling is not going to be predictable or cliche—she’s going to go against the traditions of fantasy fiction up to this point and call this strange instrument something completely mundane. And it’s awesome.
‘I must have passed a dozen feasts and parties on my way here.’
Knowing what we do about the circumstances of Voldemort’s defeat, this seems … kind of insensitive. Two well-respected members of the wizarding community are dead. However, McGonagall goes on to ask Dumbledore to confirm the rumour that James and Lily have been killed, so in actual fact most of the revellers probably didn’t know.
‘We’ve had precious little to celebrate for eleven years.’
Eleven years. The second war lasts less than two, and we know how awful that was. That means that the first war was going on pretty much since the Marauders and co started school. It makes me wonder how on Earth Voldemort failed to take over the Ministry in that time. What was he doing?
‘It certainly seems so,’ said Dumbledore. ‘We have much to be thankful for. Would you care for a sherbet lemon?’
‘A sherbet lemon. They’re a kind of Muggle sweet I’m rather fond of.’
Dumbledore, YOU ARE AMAZING. This is the first insight we get into his wonderful eccentricity, and is yet another indication that this book is not going to be what we expect.
‘Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.’
‘It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs.’
LOL. I really want to see a picture of Dumbledore in earmuffs. Anyone know any fan art? Also, I love that McGonagall shoots Dumbledore a “sharp look” and just keeps on talking. She’s not going to tell Dumbledore off, but she’s not going to be bothered by any of his crap, either.
‘The rumour is that Lily and James Potter are – are – that they’re – dead.’
And this is the point when we realise that this series is not going to sugarcoat anything. It may be a kids book, but it sure as hell doesn’t pretend that nothing bad happens to kids. My God, does it ever.
Also, this is one of the few times that we see McGonagall get emotional—in fact I don’t think it happens again until (to borrow from the famous Mark) shit starts getting real in the second half of the series. (Wait, there’s that one moment in Chamber of Secrets when Harry and Ron say they want to see Hermione while she’s Petrified—whatever, you get the point.)
‘… but how in the name of heaven did Harry survive?’
‘We can only guess,’ said Dumbledore. ‘We may never know.’
But, as it’s later pointed out, Dumbledore’s guesses generally turn out to be good ones. I think he already has a pretty good idea of what happened—he just doesn’t want to get into it with McGonagall at this point. Also, it’s interesting that she says “heaven”—it gives me the feeling that Rowling was still working out how this world works. Having said that, it could also be a subtle clue that McGonagall was Muggleborn!
Now. Heralded by the roar of a huge flying motorbike, everyone’s favourite half-giant arrives with baby Harry in tow. Yay!
The description of Hagrid is almost as awesome as the description of Dumbledore. The phrase “simply too big to be allowed” is fabulous, and the image of this wild man on a giant motorbike holding a baby is great too.
I can’t go past this point without highlighting the casual mention of one name: Sirius Black. As early as page 16, she’s dropped a name that will be indispensable to this story, pretty much for the sole purpose of making us marvel at her foresight in two books’ time. Rowling knows exactly what’s going on in this world.
‘House was almost destroyed but I got him out all right before the Muggles started swarmin’ around. He fell asleep as we was flyin’ over Bristol.’
We know now that Godric’s Hollow is in the West Country (incidentally, it’s apparently pretty near Ron’s place at Ottery St Catchpole) thanks to Deathly Hallows, but before that, this was the only clue we had to its location. And even this tiny scrap of information was not particularly helpful, because of a little niggling thing that fans have called the Missing 24 Hours.
I didn’t realise this until I read it in The Harry Potter Lexicon, but Hagrid didn’t come straight from Godric’s Hollow to Privet Drive. He couldn’t have. He rescued Harry very soon after Voldemort was defeated, as seen in the quote above, but he doesn’t meet Dumbledore and McGonagall until the next night—at least twenty-four hours later.
Where he was, or what he was doing in that time is a mystery. He probably took Harry somewhere safe to wait for Dumbledore to make the arrangements for Harry’s arrival at Privet Drive (the charm that keeps him safe while he calls his mother’s blood home). However, he appears to have left Harry at some point early in the morning, as he saw McGonagall and told her where Dumbledore would be later that night (and, apparently, nothing else—she doesn’t know for sure that the Potters are dead, or that Harry will be brought to Privet Drive).
When asked about it, even Rowling herself couldn’t answer the question, though she couldn’t deny that the whole day was unaccounted for. It’s a mystery that has spawned nearly as many theories as the Wand Order Problem—which I will get to in due course!
(For an in-depth analysis of these few days, check out Steve Vander Ark’s essay on the subject.)
All right, on with the chapter:
‘Couldn’t you do something about it, Dumbledore?’
‘Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Scars can come in useful. I have one myself above my left knee which is a perfect map of the London Underground.’
So there are some things, like the mention of Sirius, that seem innocuous and turn out to be vastly important, and there are others that are merely one-off gags, as it were. I always hoped that Dumbledore’s scar would come in useful, or at least be mentioned again—but alas, it never was.
It could, however, be a deft deflection on Dumbledore’s part; he’s giving McGonagall a pretty flimsy reason for not trying to remove Harry’s scar, and therefore does not need to discuss his theories as to what the scar might actually be (and I’m sure he already has theories, even if they are not substantiated for another several years!). If this is the case, Dumbledore is already showing his propensity to keep things to himself—something I’m sure I will discuss in great detail as we move through the series.
‘Could I – could I say goodbye to him, sir?’ asked Hagrid.
He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss. Then, suddenly, Hagrid let out a howl like a wounded dog.
Nawwww! Hagrid, you deserve all the love in the world.
‘Good luck, Harry,’ he murmured. He turn on his heel and with a swish of his cloak he was gone.
You don’t really notice it the first time you read this, but Dumbledore’s actions really are very Machiavellian, even here in this early stage of proceedings. It’s not really until the end of Deathly Hallows that we realise exactly much Dumbledore is willing to risk for the greater good, but the fact that he is able to turn away from Harry and leave him to endure ten difficult years on his own is an indication that Dumbledore has more than Harry’s safety on his mind. Granted, he may not have known exactly how awful the Dursleys would prove to be, but he knew it wouldn’t be sunshine and unicorns.
Oh my God, that was totally epic. Don’t worry, I don’t think all this chapters will be this long!
Okay. For every Harry Potter post I make, I’m going to share at least one piece of fan art with you. Hopefully they will be relevant to the chapter being discussed, but sometimes (like today) I’ll just have to find something funny for you to enjoy.
(I will include artist’s names and links if I possibly can. If I have used your art and you are unhappy, don’t hesitate to let me know, and I’ll remove it!)
Today we get this lol-worthy picture of Ghetto Dumbledog by the ever funny Hillary CW/Cambryn.