I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Boy Who Lived
In the first half of Chapter 1, we’re introduced to the Dursleys, a prudish and judgmental couple who spoil their son Dudley rotten. They have an embarrassing secret in the form of Mrs. Dursley’s estranged sister, Mrs. Potter, and they are careful never to speak of her or her husband and son. But then Mr. Dursley has a very strange day in which he witnesses flocks of owls, a suspicious cat, and overhears odd people in colorful cloaks talking about “the Potters” in hushed tones. He speculates uncomfortably that these Potters are his in-laws, but after a terse conversation with his wife, decides to ignore these omens and assume it has nothing to do with him.
I’m going to stop there, because there’s a lot to comment on even before Dumbledore shows up.
The first thing that struck me was an element of these books I’d nearly forgotten - the little Mary GrandPre illustrations at the head of each chapter (again, American editions). Chapter One features a picture of baby Harry, sleeping in a bundle, with stars glittering overhead and a tiny lightning-bolt scar on his forehead. Like all of GrandPre’s illustrations, it’s a really nice little whimsical drawing, but seems a little oddly out of place now that I no longer think of these as children’s books. Which leads to the next thing that struck me on this re-read: the tone. Here’s the first paragraph:
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.
That’s a classic children’s book kind of opening. It has the distinct sound of a teacher reading to a group of young students (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rowling was a teacher herself): simple declarative sentences with just a hint of pursed-lipped sternness, the better to set up all the mischievous magic that’s in store. Even a very young reader knows full well that the Dursleys are asking for it. They’re going to be involved in something strange and mysterious before too long.
The Potter books have long been characterized as having grown up along with their readers, and nowhere is it plainer than in this first chapter. Interestingly, Rowling has contested this somewhat, as in her 2005 interview with MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron:
...I'm surprised when sometimes people say to me, "Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark." I'm thinking, "Well, which part of Philosopher's Stone did you think was light and fluffy?" You know, there is an innocence about it, Harry is very young when he goes to the school, but the book opens with a double murder.
Only it doesn’t, really. The book opens with the reaction to a double murder, as seen by a guy who would rather not even know about it. Rowling could have started the book with Voldemort showing up at the Potters’ hideaway and killing Harry’s parents, but she didn’t (although that would have been pretty cool, honestly). Instead she brings readers into her invented world more gently, by giving us the perspective of a outsider. A rather cartoonish outsider who “didn’t approve of imagination,” but nonetheless a character children can grasp pretty easily, and whose initial ignorance of wizarding ways mirrors the reader’s own.
This is a device Rowling will return to multiple times, all the way up to the last book: an initial chapter that gives us a bit of exposition and foreshadowing before she takes us to Harry’s point-of-view and stays there. It’s an interesting approach, giving us a little bit of perspective on Harry’s place in a larger world, and it’s one of the rare occasions when Rowling lets the reader know more than Harry does. This initial chapter sets itself apart, though, by giving us a completely omniscient narrator who regularly comments on the action.
“None of them noticed a large, tawny owl flutter past the window.” That’s the first hint of magic we get in the book, and it explicitly pulls us away from the Dursleys’ POV. Later, when Mr. Dursley falls asleep thinking that he can’t possibly be directly affected by the weirdness of his day, the narrator tells us with barely restrained glee: “How very wrong he was.”
I’ll be interested to see how and when this winking-at-the-reader tone disappears from the text, because I sure don’t remember it popping up in the later books. Between the tell-don’t-show summarizing and the over-the-top characterizations, there’s no question this is aimed at kids. I’m not judging the writing here; it’s a pretty effective way to draw in a young reader, or a reader who’s willing to play young for a while. But man, this is a far cry from the opening of the fourth book, which gives us an actual on-page murder from the victim’s perspective. Getting from here to there is quite a trip, and I look forward to tracing that path.
Other random thoughts: there’s a lot of talk of brightly colored cloaks on the wizards Mr. Dursley sees. Maybe this is the effect of the movies, but I hadn’t pictured wizard wear as being very colorful for some time. Or maybe these are celebratory cloaks? After all, the wizards are being awfully indiscreet to begin with, hugging Muggles in the street, and you can hardly blame them for being happy the Dark Lord has finally (so they think) been defeated.
In the next post, I’ll cover the second half of Chapter One, which introduces us to Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and of course, the Boy Who Lived himself.