I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Boy Who Lived (cont’d)
Mr. Dursley has drifted off to sleep and the action shifts to Privet Drive outside. Albus Dumbledore arrives and magically turns off the streetlights before meeting up with Minerva McGonagall, who’s spent the day disguised as a cat waiting for him to show up. He confirms the rumors she has heard that Voldemort killed James and Lily Potter, but was somehow defeated when he tried to kill their son Harry. The half-giant Rubeus Hagrid arrives on a flying motorcycle with Harry, who is to be left in the care of his only living relatives, the Dursleys. The three take a moment to mourn the Potters before leaving Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep. Harry sleeps peacefully, unaware that after this night, his life and the world will never be the same.
I wondered in my last post how long it would take for the narrator’s kid-friendly winking tone to phase out, and it looks like it’s already started. Here, Rowling tends to heavily underline the characters’ motivations through what amount to stage directions - “She threw a sharp, sideways glance at Dumbledore here, as though hoping he was going to tell her something, but he didn’t, so she went on” - but once the wizards start talking, the narration begins to settle back and let them carry the story without too much intrusion.
This passage introduces us to four major characters, including the one from the title, and has to explain the major plot catalyst for the whole series besides, so it’s a little unwieldy. To Rowling’s credit, she keeps things fairly tight, and leaves room for us to get a sense of the characters’ personalities without flat descriptions. Dumbledore takes a moment to eat some lemon drops, to McGonagall’s exasperation, and we start to see a bit of his quasi-aloofness, his affection for Muggles, and his relentless calmness. He does come across as a little cold to the deaths of the Potters here (especially compared to the openly weeping Hagrid), but as we know from the rest of the books, he has a lot on his mind.
Meanwhile, McGonagall is something of an uptight scold, as she always is, but she’s allowed to cry for the Potters and to be somewhat lost and confused about the circumstances of Voldemort’s fall, so we actually get a good view of her human, vulnerable qualities. Hagrid, of course, is as unambiguous as ever, crying and stammering and making no attempt to hide his feelings. Aside from a few lines here and there that try to oversell the characters a bit (“I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs”), these pages are very consistent with the way these characters develop over the rest of the books.
There are a lot of little references and hints dropped into this section, too, and Rowling just lets them hang there for the time being, which shows a lot of foresight. Some that I noticed:
- The first mention of Voldemort, and the unwillingness of most wizards to say his name aloud. That tells us a lot about just how scary he is to people, while keeping him nice and mysterious for the time being. It'll also be a plot point way down the line in Deathly Hallows.
- Dumbledore mentions Dedalus Diggle, a member of the Order of the Phoenix who will play a small role later on.
- Hagrid borrowed the flying motorcycle from Sirius Black, who at this point in the story has still not been framed for Peter Pettigrew's death. We won't hear any more about him, of course, until book three. I wonder if he takes the motorcycle when he's hunting the traitor down.
- Dumbledore's Put-Outer, which he uses to extinguish the streetlights. I seem to recall this coming back later as well, maybe not until Deathly Hallows, although I forget the significance. It seems a little weird that he doesn't just use a spell on the lights; perhaps that makes sense later, or maybe Rowling originally intended magic to be a little more gadget-centric and just kind of abandoned the idea as she went along (the Time-Turner notwithstanding).
Another thing that caught my eye: McGonagall saying, “…how in the name of heaven did Harry survive?” I think the word “heaven” in there is about as close as the books ever get to openly acknowledging religion, specifically Christianity. Rowling identifies as a Christian, and it isn’t too hard to dig up some Christian themes in the series - in spite of the book-burning furor the books have stirred up in some of the more easily-provoked Christians out there - but there’s never any direct mention of God or Jesus in the books that I can remember. Naturally, if there were, the text would have to confront the issue of how exactly miracles relate to magic (turning water into wine would be a pretty elementary trick in this universe, and hardly proof of divinity), and how an all-powerful diety fits into a magic-using world, and pretty soon the theological questions would really get in the way of the story. If the text didn’t address these questions, they’d just form a big churchy elephant in the room. Rowling’s choice to just leave religion out of the picture was probably a smart one.
(I’m probably thinking about this because I just read Diana Wynne Jones’ first two Chrestomanci books, the series being a sort of Harry Potter forerunner. The first book has characters going to church, but also using magic and travelling between parallel worlds. The second book features characters in a parallel world worshiping a goddess named Asheth - who is shown pretty explicitly to have magical powers - and calling Christians “heathens.” But both books shy away from any open discussion of theology, which felt like a bit of a cheat to me.)
Anyway, the story is now set up and we’re ready to watch Harry suffer the abuse of the Muggle Moron patrol. Tune in next time for Chapter 2.