I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Keeper of the Keys
Hagrid bashes down the door to the shack and presents Harry with a birthday cake, along with the letter that’s been trying so hard to get to him. The letter is an official acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hagrid explains Harry’s true magical origins, and gives a little more information about Voldemort and his reign of terror. The Dursleys protest but Hagrid repeatedly shouts them down. When Uncle Vernon insults Dumbledore, Hagrid finally snaps and tries to turn Dudley into a pig. With the Dursleys cowering in the other room, Hagrid loans Harry his coat to sleep under.
Hagrid’s appearance here reads like a first introduction to him, which is a little odd, since he’s immediately recognizable from the first chapter (hairy giants with thick accents have a way of sticking with you). He seems a bit menacing at first - his eyes are compared to shiny black beetles, which isn’t very flattering - until Harry realizes that he’s smiling, so I suppose that just reflects the fact that the book is now told from Harry’s point of view.
Hagrid’s one of my favorite characters in the series; he’s easy to like, coming as he does from the archetype of the gentle giant. He’s good-natured, kind, and not very smart, but all the more lovable for it. And he’ll fiercely protect the people he cares about, so you really want him on your side. Case in point: Dudley’s pig-tail. Frankly, this seems like letting the Dursleys off a bit easy (especially when Uncle Vernon just blurted out that Harry’s parents deserved to get murdered), but we have six books to go, and there’s plenty more comeuppance awaiting them.
A lot of this chapter is given over to explanations of things we already learned back in the beginning of the book, which makes me wonder if that first chapter was even necessary. I guess it’s good to start the kids off with some magic so they won’t get bored, but Rowling usually gives her readers more credit than that. Starting the story with ten-year-old Harry waking up in his cupboard might have been more effective. It would have added some nice tension to this scene, since we wouldn’t know if Hagrid was actually dangerous or not. Once again, Rowling is still finding her footing here. I’m pleased at least that the intrusive narrator is gone; I don’t think, from this point forward, that schoolteacher voice ever comes back, and I won’t miss it.
Also here is the first explanation of what Muggles are. This is an aspect of the story that didn’t always sit well with me when I first read it. The idea that magic is a hereditary skill, completely unavailable to people who aren’t born with it, seemed to carry some unpleasant racial undertones. Of course, Rowling later addresses this directly with the “Mudblood” slur and Voldemort’s obsession with blood purity, which put my discomfort to rest. Her system of selective magic isn’t really fair, but it reflects real-life disparities, and how the characters deal with it speaks volumes about them. It’s not a particularly deep commentary on racism; still, it shows that Rowling was going for something more grounded than the escapist fantasy Harry Potter could have been. She may have set the books in her own invented world, but the people and the problems within it are straight out of our own, just like in all good fantasy writing.
A few throwaway lines in this scene hint at long-term plot developments. Hagrid speculates on what happened to Voldemort after he tried to kill Harry:
"Some say he died. Codswallop, in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die."
Choice words, given what we’ll learn about Horcruxes much later. Hagrid also dodges Harry’s question about why he was expelled from Hogwarts, which is the entire basis for the plot of Chamber of Secrets. Rowling starts the foreshadowing good and early, but she doesn’t beat us over the head with it, which I appreciate.
So Harry finally has his letter and the Dursleys have been dispatched with, more or less. Now the magical world awaits. Tune in next time for Diagon Alley.