Hello, present and future friends. Welcome to the very first post of the Harry Potter Medicinal Re-Read. Over the next six months, myself and thirteen of my internet friends will be writing our way through a re-read of the entire Harry Potter series. I’m not exactly sure how it’s going to turn out, what crazy things they are going to write, or even how many people will show up to play along with us. I’m hoping it’s just going to be a ridiculous amount of fun, and knowing how smart and talented my friends are (not that I’m bragging, of course), I think it’ll be really interesting as well. So since I don’t have a crystal ball to gaze into, and I never learned how to read the alignment of the planets, I’ll just leave you with the wise words of Albus Dumbledore: “And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
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Certain things are always mentioned when anyone talks about why it is that so many people love Harry Potter so very much: the hero’s journey, the fish out of water thing, the wish fulfillment thing (very deliberately not using the word ‘escapism’ here), Harry’s dual role as an Everyman and as The Chosen One, etc. But something that I never really hear people point to in this context is J.K. Rowling’s voice as an author. This is especially astounding to me not only because it’s the very first thing that drew me to this book, but also because it seems to me that her voice is what holds the rest of it together — all those other lovely, constantly shifting pieces of word and story. Right from the very first sentence of the very first chapter of the very first book, it’s obvious:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. 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.”
Even as a thirteen year old, this seemed different to me than the usual stuff I read. It was polite yet sassy. It was saying things that were maybe a bit over my head, things about being an adult, but which nonetheless were amusing and stuck with me. Every time that I’ve read it since, though it’s read a bit differently to me each time, it’s never failed to suck me in, to the point where if I accidentally pick the book up and read the first sentence, it’s often not until I reach the end of the chapter that I realize I’m still reading. I have done this on multiple occasions (including the first time I read the book — I found it abandoned on the floor of my sister’s room, picked it up, read the first chapter, and then stole it from her; I still don’t think she realizes I ever did that) . And the way she introduces the Dursleys! Uncle Vernon with his thick beefy neck, Aunt Petunia with her long skinny one, and both of them caring way too much about what other people think of them.
I have always loved that our first glimpse of Harry’s world is through the eyes of his aggressively normal Muggle relations, particularly the expansive Vernon Dursley. We know from later books (more on this in a bit) that while Petunia may certainly pretend a hatred and ignorance of the Wizarding World, she’s not exactly what she appears. But Vernon — yeah, it’s pretty much all on the surface with him. He kisses his priggish wife and chubby son goodbye, and then he spends the rest of his day alternately missing signs of the wonderful that occur practically under his nose, and pushing those he does see under the dusty rug in his brain that is reserved for Things That Cannot Be (“the get-ups you saw on young people!”). But cats reading maps, owls fluttering all over the place, people in cloaks, a whisper of the Potters . . . and then this:
“Mr. Dursley stood rooted to the spot. He had been hugged by a complete stranger. He also thought he had been called a Muggle, whatever that was. 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.”
For as much as Vernon Dursley doesn’t approve of imagination, he sure does use it a lot — mostly to pretend things. In fact, both of the Dursleys are champion pretenders, pretending being the main way they get though their days. They pretend Petunia doesn’t have a sister named Lily, who was a witch who went away to Witch and Wizard school and who married a wizard; Vernon pretends here that nothing odd is going on around him, squashing down reality into little bite-sized pieces until it fits into his preconceived notion of What The World Should Be, until he can once again believe that he lives in a world where everyone is just like him. (I’m also thinking of an incident from the beginning of Chamber of Secrets when the Dursleys force Harry to stay shut away in his bedroom “pretending he’s not there” — this could actually describe their entire relationship with him, but there it’s just made more explicit than usual).
Even though I think Mr. and Mrs. Dursley are very entertaining on their own, all that excessive Dursleyishness makes what happens next seem all the more wonderful. After Vernon has finally manages to fall asleep, we meet Albus Dumbledore, who “didn’t seem to realise* that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Dumbledore is the living embodiment of everything the Dursleys work so hard pretending doesn’t exist. As soon as he puts out all the lights on Privet Drive with his ‘Put-Outer,’ we forget all about the Dursleys. And then the cat who’s been sitting on a wall all day, reading maps and upsetting Mr. Dursley with it’s non-cat behavior, turns into a severe looking woman who Dumbledore greets warmly. (“How did you know it was me?” “My dear Professor, I’ve never seen a cat sit so stiffly.”) The interaction that follows does a lot of heavy lifting in a short amount of time. By the time it’s over and everyone except Harry has left Privet Drive, we may not know exactly the details of their lives, but we do know exactly what kind of people they are, and we’ve barely met them.
We also learn the bare bones version of Harry’s story: that the reason owls have been flying around all day and people in strange cloaks ruined Mr. Dursley’s day is that someone called Voldemort has — unbelievably! — gone from the world, that Voldemort was unspeakably evil (to the point where people are reluctant to speak his name), and that according to McGonagall, Dumbledore is the only wizard Voldemort ever feared (“You flatter me . . . Voldemort had powers I’ll never have.” “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”) We learn all of this in an organic fashion, piecing together the bits and pieces of McGonagall and Dumbledore’s, and later, Hagrid’s, conversation. She eases us into the story without resorting to clunky exposition. This is exactly how these characters would talk if this had really happened (WHICH OF COURSE IT DID). We get just enough information to understand what’s going on, and to tempt us to read further to find out more.
But the meat of their conversation isn’t in the veiled clues about Voldemort and Harry, or even the Wizarding World, it’s in the deep human emotions that these people display even from the very first chapter. It’s these same deeply felt emotions that clue us in to their characters:
“It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold hard wall all day, for neither as a cat nor as a woman had she fixed Dumbledore with such a piercing stare as she did now.”
While everyone else was out celebrating, McGonagall — who has to be the most stubborn, immovable woman I’ve ever read about — waited all day to hear news that was only going to devastate her. She is fierce and hard and very contained, and yet she feels things very deeply. It’s a really nice touch that when she starts asking Dumbledore about the rumors, that Lily and James Potter are dead, that Voldemort tried to kill Harry and failed, he can only bow his head. That he was only moments before yammering on about sherbet lemons makes his lack of words here even more notable. There’s real grief under there, grief he doesn’t have the words for at the moment, grief perhaps he doesn’t want to feel quite yet, and so he talks of Muggle sweets and scars shaped like the London Underground. And that’s Dumbledore’s character in a nutshell. Eccentric and kind on the outside, dark and unknowable on the inside. And then there’s Hagrid, a giant of a man who shows up on a flying motorbike with a sleeping baby Harry wrapped up in a blanket. Hagrid, wild and hairy, who gives baby Harry a big whiskery kiss before letting “out a howl like a wounded dog” at the thought of leaving him there. Hagrid, who McGonagall questions, but of whom Dumbledore says, “I would trust Hagrid with my life.” (This statements tells us two things: 1) That Hagrid and his appearance are strange even in the world these people come from, and 2) that Dumbledore is the kind of man who places his trust in people the general world mislikes.)
I noticed on this read through that she sets up Voldemort as the series antagonist in a very strange way (no idea on how many times I’ve actually read this chapter, by the way, although I do know it’s probably an obscenely high number). “After all he’s done . . . all the people he’s killed . . . he couldn’t kill a little boy?” McGonagall asks Dumbledore. So of course we’ve got the first hook of the story, the thing that will presumably keep us reading until we fall in love with the world and the characters and just can’t help ourselves anymore: How could a baby defeat a dark wizard, a fully grown man who we have just learned has powers even the wizened old man we automatically trust won’t use? This is the central mystery of the series, and it will keep unraveling throughout all seven books, but what I’m interested in is the way that she downplays his threat, treating the central mystery almost casually, like she’s in no rush to get to the answers. More importantly, Voldemort’s defeat is presented in such a hopeful manner in this first chapter (despite the tragic deaths of Harry’s parents). I think it’s important that the first time we hear about Voldemort’s defeat, it’s couched in terms of utter victory, like Voldemort is definitely dead and gone. Even up until book four, most of the Wizarding World takes it for granted that Voldemort is dead and the world is safe. It’s only later that we gradually begin to realize that Voldemort is still in the game, and I think his eventual resurrection in The Goblet of Fire is all the more threatening and forboding for how slow it takes to get us there. It gives us enough time to feel the same as the rest of the Wizarding World, and to dread their worst fears coming true. Will this really happen? Is it possible?
And of course, it’s fun on re-read to spot all the things that will come to mean much more later on: mentions as small as Ted Tonks the weatherman talking about owls (he turns out to be Tonks’ Muggle father), Sirius’s Black’s motorbike (the first time I re-read this book after reading Prisoner of Azkaban, I screamed out loud in surprise — his name had been there the whole time!), the Deluminator (which only gets a name in book seven), and stuff in chapter two as well: old Mrs. Figg, Aunt Marge, and Harry being a Parseltongue (which is explained only a book later). And of course, Harry’s scar, but I don’t think we should count that, as it was pretty obviously going to be important.
And so we come to the end of chapter one. Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid leave Harry on the Dursley’s doorstep with nothing but a letter containing secrets that he won’t learn until more than ten year later. Again, it’s such a mix of tragedy and hope.
“A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. 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!'”
I love the mix here of quiet normalcy and mysterious goings on all around it, the way that all the things Harry doesn’t know are like promises to us as well, that there are many things to come of which we know absolutely nothing, and that like Harry, sometime soon we will find out what they are. So ends one of my very most favorite opening chapters in literature, and a wonderful beginning to a story that has stuck with me (is still sticking heartily as we speak) for a very long time.
*Please note: I’m working from my British copies of these books, so all my spellings will be British, as well as the other instances that were edited for American audiences in the Scholastic editions.
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Since I’ve spewed verbosity all over chapter one, I’m going to limit my discussion of “The Vanishing Glass” a little bit. Mostly, I want to talk about the heightened reality Harry Potter takes place in, especially during the parts in the Muggle world.
Fast forward ten years and we learn that Harry has had a rather miserable childhood. His aunt and uncle and cousin treat him like scum. He’s forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs and wear Dudley’s old clothes. He’s underfed in the physical sense — he’s described as small and skinny for his age, with a thin face and knobbly knees, black hair and bright green eyes — but he’s certainly malnourished in terms of love and affection as well. He has no friends, as no one wants to get on the bad side of Dudley’s gang at school.
As a teenager reading this for the first time, I never questioned the logistics of Harry’s horrible situation. It seemed right to me that it played out the way it did. Having recently been a child (arguably, I still was one), I think I inherently understood the naturally powerless state of being a child, albeit one from a family who loved and cared for her. But I think even the most well-cared for child, unless they are incredibly sheltered, knows what it means to live in a world full of grown-ups who have their own set of rules that you just have to live by. For me and for Harry, these were just the rules of the world that Harry lived in. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley may not physically abuse Harry, but they certainly don’t care for him. He has to adapt to his surroundings in order to survive emotionally, sneaking out to get food, making the most out of accidental treats, like eating Dudley’s old dessert, or being forced to go to the zoo when Mrs. Figg breaks her leg. And he seems to be a hardy, scrappy little thing. He finds humor in the little things, makes do with his cupboard, and gets on with his life.
As an adult, I look at it a bit differently. If this was real life, Harry would most likely have been taken away from the Dursleys a long time ago, or more likely, the state would have shamed them into the pretense of caring for him properly (as sort of happens when they think they’ve been found out for making him sleep in the cupboard and move him into Dudley’s second bedroom). The fact that the Dursleys do such ridiculous things and aren’t punished for it lends me to believe that they are living in a heightened version of reality — this isn’t precisely our world we’re reading about, even when we’re not in the Wizarding World. Everything is just a little bit MORE. (Which makes sense for children’s literature, both because it’s more fun that way, and because children see everything as being bigger and more important and momentous than it actually might be — inversely, they also have a tendency to normalize things that maybe they shouldn’t. For example, “Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept.”)
Despite the horrible situation Harry is in, the whole chapter is rather lighthearted. The humor lets us know that as bad as things are, Harry’s okay really. I also think that Dumbledore would have stepped in if he thought Harry were really in trouble. (And as we learn later, he has his reasons for keeping Harry with the Dursleys, reasons besides wanting Harry not to grow up being famous for something he can’t even remember.) Certainly his time with the Dursleys keeps him humble. The Dursleys, especially in the earlier books, represent every bad thing about humans Jo could think of: greed, fear, laziness, cruelty . . . and their bad behavior has created a monster in their son, Dudley. They’ve trained him to put more stock in his possessions than in his relationships, spoiled him rotten, and taught him by way of Harry that the way to make yourself feel more important is by pushing other people down.
Harry certainly presents a target, with his latent magical abilities popping up all over the place. They always give me a chuckle, and it always upsets me that they didn’t do them justice in the movies: His hair growing all over the place, shrinking an ugly sweater so he doesn’t have to wear it, jumping up on the school roof to get away from Dudley and his gang . . . Any magical child in a normal situation might have cottoned on to what was happening, thought, is there something special about me? But the Dursleys were so intent on stamping out anything abnormal in Harry that he really seems to have internalized his non-specialness as a given (although I think it’s important to note that he never seems to have lost his own sense of self-worth). Even when the featured event of the vanishing glass occurs later in the chapter, after he’s just had a conversation with a snake, he doesn’t quite catch on. He seems to know something is off about the way the Dursleys treat him, but not quite what, and you can only tell by the littlest of comments: “they seemed to think he might get dangerous ideas.” This is Harry’s life, and he deals with it the best he can. All those strange things that happen to him, all his childish dreams of escape, they all add up to nothing as long he still lives with the Dursleys.
“When he had been younger, he had dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take him away, but it had never happened; the Dursleys were his only family.”
We leave Harry as he falls asleep in his cupboard, dreaming of a better life, thinking he won’t ever get one. Little does he know. Aaaaand scene.