I’m old, you guys. Very old.
That basically means that I probably came to the Potter books long after y’all did. I had seen the first movie when it came out (there was a girl involved…shut up!), but hadn’t read a single word of Rowling’s writing until 2004. I knew about the books (obviously) and had even gone so far as to buy the box set of the first four paperbacks. I just didn’t get around to reading them until the third movie was about to come out and, before I knew it, I was halfway through the fourth book. Since then, I’ve read the entire series several times, and even taught The Philosopher’s Stone one semester. What does all of this mean? I have no idea. Wait. No. That’s a lie. What it means is that I adore the world that Rowling created. Even in these early books, when details were only vaguely sprinkled throughout the text, it was obvious that a larger world of wonder awaited the readers.
CHAPTER 16: THROUGH THE TRAPDOOR
This is it! The moment we have all been waiting for! Harry Potter vs. … Final Exams? That’s right, it’s end of term and the students of Hogwarts are all settling in for their final exams, complete with special quills that have been “bewitched with an Anti-Cheating spell.” You’d think that a school that created a racist, murdering sociopath would be more trusting. I kid, I kid. But, seriously, with all of the wand-waving and crazy broom-flying that happens in this book, one of my favorite aspects of the series is how Rowling takes the time to remind us that these kids are in school. (I just had a flashback to my dad watching an episode of Friends and shouting “DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE JOBS!?!?”) I’ve never been to a school with dormitories or much of a campus, so whenever Rowling gives us a glimpse of everyday life at Hogwarts, I’m happy.
But, no matter how much I love reading about life at a private school, we’ve got work to do. With their final test behind them, Hermione wants to review all of her answers and Ron just wants to relax by the lake (where Fred, George, and Lee Jordan are tickling the tentacles of a giant squid, which in any other book would have been a euphemism). Unfortunately, Harry’s Voldy-sense is tingling again, which means danger is on the way. Being students at a magical school–which happens to include a forest full of unicorns and centaurs–Ron and Hermione try to convince Harry that he’s imagining things and that, no, his magical scar isn’t trying to warn him of danger, it’s just post-exam nerves. (It’s really something of a pet peeve when characters in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy story suddenly become incredulous about something that would clearly exist in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy world.)
Besides, they tell Harry, the Stone is safe at Hogwarts with Dumbledore around. Also, the only person who knows how to safely get by Fluffy is Hagrid, and Hagrid is not easily tricked.
Look, I love Hagrid. How can you not? But, he’s not the brightest guy in the world. Loveable, yes. But not savvy. He’s Jerry Gergich, both the schlemiel and the schlemazel of Hogwarts. I mean, who else would tell a cloaked stranger how to get past a giant three-headed guard dog? I’m sure there are a bunch of hep, snarky folks out there who are all “Why does Dumbledore keep giving Hagrid important stuff to do?” Because that’s who Dumbledore is. Dumbledore is all about second chances. He’s all about taking the screw-ups–the half-giant wash-out, the seemingly incompetent seer, the lovesick traitor–and giving them a chance to shine. Back in the day, all a DC hero needed to succeed was to have Superman say that he has faith in them. That’s Dumbledore’s true power: faith in others.
Anyways… Dumbledore suddenly receives an owl from the Ministry and buggers off to London, leaving Harry convinced that Snape is about to make his move for the Stone. Of course, there’s a run-in with Professor McGonagall, who’s having none of Harry’s Snape-hunting shenanigans. McGonagall is presented in this early book as being the standard strict, no-nonsense teacher that we’ve seen in countless other stories. I can’t remember exactly when she flipped, becoming more obviously aligned to Dumbledore and Harry (was it the third book? the fourth?).
Our plucky, green-eyed hero (he has his mother’s eyes, you know) will not be thwarted. Taking his trusty Invisibility Cloak, Harry–along with Ron and Hermione–sneak out of Gryffindor Tower and head to the third-floor corridor, stopping momentarily to petrify Neville into submission.
This brings us to the traps. Oh, the traps! I feel like this section best illustrates what’s at the heart of the entire series: Community. Sure, you can throw around words like “love” and “family” and “friendship”, but those just all boil down to community. The wizarding world is out of balance unless everyone–wizard, Mudblood, squib, half-breed, goblin, werewolf, house-elf, centaur, etc.–has a chance to contribute. The professors have each contributed a puzzle to the overall protection of the Philosopher’s Stone, working together for the greater good. (Except poor Binns.) And, it’s only by working together that Harry, Ron, and Hermione can reach the Stone. One lone wizard probably couldn’t make it through. Harry might be the Chosen One, but that doesn’t automatically insure success. And, all of his successes were because he had his friends by his side, which is what he tells everyone when they come to ask him to lead Dumbledore’s Army. I keep coming back to that scene in a Buffy episode when Spike says the reason he can’t kill Buffy despite already chalking up two Slayer kills is because, unlike the other Slayers, Buffy has friends. The lone hero can be interesting for a time, but a team is where it’s at.
CHAPTER 17: THE MAN WITH TWO FACES
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
There comes a point in every mystery when the detective gathers everyone together and explains how they figured out who the murderer was, whether it’s Jim Rockford at the taco stand or Nero Wolfe in his office on 35th Street. To me, that is what the final chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone will always be. It’s the point in the story when we’re told “what happened.”
The previous chapter ends with Hermione solving the final test, sending Harry into the chamber with the Mirror of Erised…and Professor Quirrell! That’s right, Harry has spent the entire book convinced that Snape was the Big Bad, while it was actually poor, stuttering Professor Quirrell. This is a classic mystery trope: the detective spends the entire story chasing one person they are sure is guilty, only to find out that it’s the nebbishy accountant or mousy assistant. I’m going to talk more about how the Harry Potter series can be considered mysteries in a bit; but first, let’s talk about Voldemort.
“See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapor … I have form only when I can share another’s body … but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds.”
This isn’t the first time we see Voldemort. However, it is the first time we see what has become of Voldemort since that night ten years earlier. Voldemort has become a parasite, a creature with no body of his own, who must latch onto Quirrell’s body in order to survive. Now, I’ll admit that I have not read or watched many interviews with Rowling, so I have no idea if this is something that she has stated outright, but it’s important to note that Voldemort survived because of the greed and ambition of another person. Evil does not exist in a vacuum. Evil is a virus that requires a carrier. No matter how powerful Tom Riddle might have become, it would have been impossible for Lord Voldemort to ascend without the willing (and unwilling) assistance of ordinary people.
This stands in direct opposition to Dumbledore’s sense of community. While Dumbledore fosters cooperation, Voldemort coerces and manipulates. In Voldemort’s eyes, he’s the only person who matters. Everything exists to serve his needs. When the tide turns against him, he abandons Quirrell to save himself. This is why he has a problem with love. The idea that you could care about someone more than you care about yourself is a foreign concept to Ol’ Voldy.
That brings us to the very end of the beginning. Harry awakes in the hospital wing to see Dumbledore’s smiling face. Like the reader, Harry is full of questions. This is when Rowling shifts into mystery writer mode, with Dumbledore explaining the hows and whys of Voldemort’s plan. He tells Harry (and us) why touching him caused Voldemort such intense pain. He explains why Snape–excuse me, Professor Snape–went through so much to protect Harry even though he hated Harry’s father. However, Rowling has Dumbledore stop before giving everything away. She’s smart enough to realize that there are certain things you don’t tell an 11-year-old, like why a homicidal maniac wanted to kill him as a baby.
I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who think the conclusion of The Philosopher’s Stone is too simplistic or too neat. Personally, I love how the book feels like a classic whodunnit, right down to the “drawing room” scene at the end. And, while each book in the series contains mysteries and riddles to be solved, it’s these earlier books–one through three, and maybe even four–that feel like true mystery novels. In hindsight, Rowling’s post-Potter career as a mystery novelist came as no surprise to me.