I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters
Harry rides out the remainder of the summer with nervous expectation. On September first, the Dursleys drop him off at King’s Cross station in London. A friendly red-headed family, the Weasleys, help Harry find his way through a magical entrance to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, where he boards the Hogwarts Express. On the way to the school Harry meets Ron Weasley, the youngest brother in a large family of wizards who already feels overshadowed by his siblings; Hermione Granger, a brainy Muggle-born girl who talks at great length; Neville Longbottom, an awkward boy who’s always losing things; and he is reintroduced to Draco Malfoy, the upper-crust bully he met at Diagon Alley earlier. Other side characters make their first appearances. After enjoying some wizard candy for the first time, Harry disembarks and follows the rest of the first-years across a still lake to the massive castle of Hogwarts.
This is a busy chapter, with a lot of major character introductions. It’s clear that the characters are Rowling’s focus in this section; she offers spare details on the exact look and feel of the train, the passing countryside, and even Hogwarts itself, which is described only as “a vast castle with many turrets and towers.” The characters don’t get a lot of physical description either. Here’s what we know about what these (mostly major) characters look like:
Ron: “Tall, thin, and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet, and a long nose.” Like all the Weasleys he has “flaming red hair.”
Mrs. Weasley: “Plump.”
Fred and George: No description aside from the hair.
Percy: He “looked like the oldest.”
Hermione: “She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.”
Crabbe and Goyle: “Both of them were thickset and looked extremely mean.”
Rowling has demonstrated in interviews that she knows exactly what her characters look like, even down to their eye color, so it’s surprising that she doesn’t describe them more thoroughly. She seems more focused on presenting their personalities through their dialogue and actions - showing and not telling, which I appreciate. Although she flatly tells us that Crabbe and Goyle are mean, she lets us figure out for ourselves how nasty Malfoy is, and Ron’s description of the Malfoy family’s dodgy history doesn’t come until after we’ve already seen him in action. Likewise, Fred and George’s mischievousness doesn’t get brought up until we’ve watched them goof around at length. The telling reinforces the showing, rather than lazily replacing it. It’s pretty solid character writing.
I wouldn’t mind a bit more description of the environment. Then again, I don’t recall having an issue with that first time I read the books. It’s hard to say if that’s an issue with the writing or if I just want and expect different things as a re-reader. Reading a book the second (or in my case, third) time around is like that. On a first read, the text is fluid; your imagination will insert details and descriptions alongside the canonical ones, without much caring which is which. It isn’t until the re-read when you find out which details you imagined, or were contradicted by other details that you missed. The text is no longer fluid, especially because you know how it ends, which gives each plot point a sense of finality that wasn’t there back when you were still guessing as to the ultimate outcome. So as a re-reader, you’re not just going back over the story; you’re retracing your own steps as a first-time reader.
You’re also spotting details that seemed innocuous at the time that you now know are quite significant, one of the best parts of a re-read. This chapter has two such details: Scabbers the “rat,” and a casual mention of Grindelwald on Dumbledore’s trading card.
Scabbers, of course, is actually the treacherous Peter Pettigrew hiding in plain sight. I’m not entirely sure why he’s been hanging around the Weasleys all this time instead of hightailing it to Patagonia or somewhere; only Sirius Black knows he’s still alive, and he’s locked away in Azkaban. Is he waiting for Voldemort to return? Does anyone besides Quirrell even know that Voldemort is still alive? I can’t recall how well this is explained in the third book, so I guess we’ll have to wait until we get there.
What I find interesting here is that Scabbers/Wormtail actually defends Ron by biting Goyle when he tries to steal Ron’s candy. Perhaps he’s gained some affection for Ron over the years, or maybe he was never a fan of Goyle’s father the Death Eater and decided to take it out on his son. I like to think it’s the latter; that would be a nice little touch.
Grindelwald, I’m pretty sure, won’t be mentioned again until the very last book, although I’ll keep an eye out. I get the sense that Rowling was planning something significant between him and Dumbledore very early on. At this point in the books the most significant thing about him was that Dumbledore defeated him in 1945. Obviously, when a British wizard defeats a German conqueror in 1945, that’s not an accidental choice, although I don’t believe Rowling makes the parallels between Grindelwald and Hitler any more obvious than that. Voldemort has many such parallels too, with his obsession with racial purity and his campaign of fear and domination. More on that later.
Grindelwald’s mention also brings up the fact that Dumbledore is gay, and Grindelwald was his lover, which Rowling has made explicit in interviews but never in the text. This caused some very minor controversy when the last book was released, but by that point fundamentalist Christians had already burned enough Harry Potter books to be bored of the whole deal. Some people - myself included - would have liked to see Dumbledore presented as openly gay on the page. It would have been a daring choice for the world’s most popular books to make. But I’m not going to get up in arms about it; maybe Rowling was intimidated by the potential response, or maybe she just preferred a chaste depiction of her older, wizened characters (no one has ever asked about McGonagall’s sex life, after all. Although, as per Rule 34 of the Internet, I’m sure some of the fan fiction has explored it. Google it yourself, because I’m sure not going to). Either way, that’s how she chose to write him. I could deal with this by spending some time deconstructing whether Dumbledore ever “acts gay,” or I could just move on with my life. I’ll be doing plenty of overanalysis of his dialogue and actions in other respects anyway.
The chapter ends with the first years just about to walk into the Great Hall for the first time. Join us next time for a grand feast and a peculiar hat.