I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Sorting Hat
Harry and the rest of the first years enter Hogwarts for the first time. In front of the whole school, each of them gets placed into one of Hogwart’s four houses by the magical, talking Sorting Hat. Harry is relieved to be placed in Gryffindor, after worrying that he might end up in Slytherin, Voldemort’s old house. The first years join their new houses for a sumptuous meal. During the meal Harry catches sight of a mean-looking professor and finds that his scar starts burning ominously as soon as the professor looks at him. After dessert, he and the rest of the Gryffindor students make their way to their dormitory tower. Harry falls into an exhausted sleep, and has a darkly portentous dream.
Rowling really knows how to make a reader hungry. The Hogwarts feast is probably the first time the book really got its hooks in me. Good fantasy has to bring you into its world, and the only way it can do that is to offset its high-flying impossibilities - magic, dragons, what have you - with the familiar trappings of our own world. Sure, I’d love to be able to levitate things and teleport and fly on a broomstick, but if I’m going to vicariously live in Rowling’s wizarding world, they had better have some good food. And Hogwarts doesn’t disappoint.
The description of the feast is a good example of how much more specific Rowling’s writing is getting. Hogwarts didn’t get much description from the outside but now it’s really starting to take shape; the Great Hall, with its thousands of floating candles and its magical sky-ceiling, is the first location in the book that really sticks.
Keeping with the important grounding-in-reality approach, Harry’s emotions as he enters Hogwarts should be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever had a first day at school. His legs feel “like lead,” he’s incredibly nervous, and he’s utterly convinced that he’s there by mistake and that at any moment someone will discover his ruse and kick him out. He also feels everyone’s eyes on him, staring and judging, although unlike most of us Harry is not just using his imagination; everyone is staring at him, because he’s a celebrity. This part should theoretically be hard to relate to if you’re a non-celebrity like most people, but it fits in so cleanly with Harry’s general sense of nervousness that I barely thought about it. Everyone feels like they’re conspicuous and different on their first day of school, whether they actually are or not.
The matter of Harry being selected for Gryffindor will come up again, at the end of this book and even later. Harry has already learned that he has some strange connections to Voldemort and the last thing he wants is to end up in his old house. Yet he clearly fears that he will, powerless to do anything about it. It’s heavily implied later on that the Sorting Hat doesn’t really choose the house; the student does, so Harry naturally gets his wish. But that fear of being drawn to darkness is telling. It’s a good quality for a hero to have, which is why it’s such a common trope: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and Odysseus all had to gaze into the abyss and confront their own evil impulses before they could complete their respective journeys. Harry will have to do the same, literally (in the form of the Horcrux he carries with him) and more figuratively (in growing up and putting his emotional baggage behind him).
Speaking of the houses, I still don’t get the sense that Slytherin is anything other than the “evil” house, something that’s always bugged me. Gryffindor is for the brave, Hufflepuff is for the loyal and hard-working, Ravenclaw is for the studious (it always seemed like Hermione should’ve ended up there, doesn’t it?), and Slytherin is for “cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends.” That could almost apply to Fred and George, but it’s still a pretty unconvincing euphemism for “these people would paint a house with your blood if they really liked the color.” I tried to remember if anyone ever came out of it who was basically good but just really ambitious to the point of ruthlessness; the closest I could get was Professor Slughorn, who’s not evil but still a pretty slimy bastard, and…
Snape! Why there he is, that perennial red herring and morally ambiguous double agent, sitting with the rest of the teachers and throwing Harry the first of many nasty looks. I’m a fan of Snape, and I’m glad to see him appear. That’s not to say I like Snape, but since Rowling tends to paint her evil characters with pretty broad, sometimes vaudevillian strokes, it’s nice to have at least one character whose motives are complex, and who can be a major unsung (until the end) hero of the series while still being a petty, reprehensible twit most of the time. He’s far and away the most complicated character in the books.
So the first thing he does when he spots Harry is give him a dirty look, since he sees the face of his young tormentor James Potter looking back at him. But then Harry gets his telltale oh-crap-it’s-Voldemort burning sensation in his scar. Of course if we read closely:
The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell's turban straight into Harry's eyes...
Aha, very clever, Ms. Rowling. Yes, Quirrell is now sporting the turban that hides the fact that Voldemort has taken up residence on the back of his head. It’s a much more obvious hint than I remembered; Rowling points it out and calls it “ridiculous” as soon as Harry recognizes Quirrell, and later Harry has a dream in which he’s very meaningfully threatened by a giant version of the turban. And now, I guess Voldemort was looking at Harry through the turban at that moment too, or maybe his nasty thoughts jumped onto Snape’s glance and hitched a ride, or maybe I’m overthinking things. It’s misdirection, and surprisingly effective misdirection at that; did anyone actually peg Quirrell as the villain before the reveal? I certainly didn’t. But the clues are right there.
Other stray thoughts:
- Dumbledore's often-overlooked goofiness gets a few nice moments here, particularly in this segment, which has always been a favorite of mine:
Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!Dumbledore's not crazy by any stretch, but he seems like he could attend the Mad Hatter and March Hare's tea party and have a lovely time while he was there.
- A good number of other side characters get introduced: Lavender Brown, the Patil twins, Dean Thomas, Seamus Finnegan. Some of the other first years' names sounded familiar although I wasn't sure if they appeared later. And of course the ghosts: Nearly Headless Nick, the Bloody Baron, and Peeves the Poltergeist. They're not major players but they give Hogwarts a really nice bit of otherworldly color.
- Harry certainly has a lot of meaningful dreams over the course of the series. Rowling overuses this device a bit, although not nearly as much as someone like Stephen King.
Stay tuned, because our first real introduction to Snape is still to come.