I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.

Diagon Alley

Hagrid escorts Harry back to the mainland and into London.  There, Harry is introduced to Diagon Alley, a hidden magical thoroughfare where wizards and witches do all their shopping.  He visits Gringotts, the heavily guarded wizards’ bank, and buys all his needed equipment for Hogwarts, including his magic wand.  He also meets a fellow first-year who comes across as an elitist jerk.  After his shopping is done, Hagrid takes Harry to King’s Cross station so he can board a train for home.

Thoughts

All right, now we’re getting to the good stuff.  As familiar as Rowling’s wizarding world is to me by now, I still get a little vicarious thrill reading Harry’s first introduction to it.  One of the things that keeps me coming back to these books is their deft balancing act between fantasy world-building and a well-paced story.  Both are critical to good fantasy writing, but they’re often at odds with each other.  The fantasy genre is a naturally attractive one to writers who are, well, fantasists, and so it’s usually the world-building that gets in the way of the story; linger too long on the minutiae of your magical city, or the particular breeds of trolls you’ve invented, and you can easily lose your readers to self-indulgence (Eragon, especially the last hundred pages or so,  is a prime example of this).

Rowling is pretty good at avoiding this trap.  She tends to work in layers; we get a nice broad overview of Diagon Alley in this book, but we’ll return to it many times, and on each trip we’ll get to see a new side of it.  This patient approach makes the world feel lived-in, and keeps the various settings from feeling superfluous; Gringotts is a cool little setpiece now, but it’s also a Chekov’s Gun - if you set up a place as absolutely theft-proof, of course our heroes are eventually going to have to break into it.

So we get to see Diagon Alley, but we don’t really linger here.  This whole chapter is just a taste of things to come.  There’s actually a lot of foreshadowing in this chapter:

  • The first mention of Harry having his mother's eyes.  This is a point that comes up a lot over the course of the series, and Rowling acknowledged that it was an important one.  I think a lot of people, myself included, suspected that this had some magical connotation that would factor into Harry's final battle with Voldemort.  I was pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be wrong; it's all a buildup to a small but significant moment at Snape's death.  It's a sweet, very sad scene, and it says a lot about Rowling as a writer that she considered it as meaningful as the big climactic battle that follows.
  • This exchange with Griphook the goblin is our first introduction (Voldemort killing Harry's parents aside) of the inherent dangers of the wizarding world:
    "Stand back," said Griphook importantly. He stroked the door gently with one of his long fingers and it simply melted away. "If anyone but a Gringotts goblin tried that, they'd be sucked through the door and trapped in there," said Griphook. "How often do you check to see if anyone's inside?" Harry asked. "About once every ten years," said Griphook with a rather nasty grin.
    Children's literature is not a very safe place for children, is it?
  • We meet Professor Quirrell, this volume's more-or-less villain.  No mention of a turban, so presumably he's not hosting Voldemort on the back of his skull just yet, but I think at this point he's already met the Dark Lord.  His introduction is something of a throw-away moment, which helps set up Snape as the red herring later on.
  • I'd never noticed this, but the first fellow Hogwarts student that Harry meets is none other than Draco Malfoy.  We don't know his name yet, but his stuck-up dialogue is unmistakable. It's interesting that Harry is defined, so early on, by his connections to his enemies.  Close as his friends will become, they'll never be quite as close as his foes.
  • Speaking of which, we also get our first hint of Harry's connection to Voldemort, when Harry gets a wand with a core feather from the same phoenix.  We'll come back to this a lot, so I won't touch on it just now, but it's a core plot point and a major theme of the books.

This chapter also introduces Hogwarts’ four houses, along with Quidditch and wizarding money.  The latter two are both reflections of the somewhat random nature of the magical world.  Quidditch has a bizarre scoring system that heavily skews the game toward a single player; wizard money counts seventeen Sickles to a Galleon and and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle -  "easy enough," according to Hagrid. Even though the wizarding world has consistent rules, the mischievous nature of magic ensures that those rules will often be silly and arbitrary, in contrast to the real world.  The wizarding world is not nearly as concerned with convenience or efficiency as ours; that’s part of why it’s so much more fun.

Other thoughts:

  • I felt a real twinge of melancholy when Harry picked out his owl.  Hedwig!  Of all the deaths in Deathly Hallows (an apt title, now that I think about it), I think hers was the only one that really stunned me.  I know we have a long, long way to go before that happens, but it still colors my re-introduction to her.  I wonder if I'll have the same reaction to Fred and George, or even Dumbledore.
  • I like Hagrid's simple, eloquent explanation for the series' version of The Masquerade: if Muggles knew about magic, they'd just want to use it for easy solutions to their problems.  The implication is that it would only lead to further problems, and it's pretty hard to argue with that.
  • When Harry and Hagrid leave the island in the beginning of the chapter, they take the Dursleys' rowboat - so what happens to the Dursleys?  How do they get off the island?  I'll bet there's a funny short story to be written on that subject.

We’re almost to Hogwarts - tune in next time for platform nine and three quarters.