I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish in the name of over-analysis. Spoilers ahoy.
The Potions Master
Harry spends his first week at Hogwarts trying to get used to the magical randomness of the school while dealing uncomfortably with the stares and whispers that accompany his fame. His new classes are challenging, but they all pale in comparison to Potions, taught by Snape. Snape is nasty to everyone in the class (except for Malfoy), but singles out Harry for his most pointed abuse. After their classes, Harry and Ron visit Hagrid in his small hut on the edge of the school grounds, where Harry learns that there was an attempted theft at Gringotts on the same day that he and Hagrid were there. He suspects that the small package Hagrid removed from the vault was the thief’s intended target. Thoughts This is a breezy chapter that quickly introduces a few aspects of Hogwarts, some character dynamics, and some soon-to-be-significant plot developments, without stopping for breath. I’m starting to realize now just how much of the look and feel of Hogwarts doesn’t get established until the next few books. Rowling gives us an idea of the character of Hogwarts (the physical building, that is), but not much in the way of actual detail, with the exception of this paragraph:
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were the doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armor could walk.This I like. In fact, I wouldn’t mind another page or two of it, maybe played out as a scene of Harry making his way to a class rather than as a summary. But after that Rowling steps on the gas, taking us through quick rundowns of Harry’s classes before giving us brief scenes in Snape’s dungeon and Hagrid’s hut, all without many visuals. Here’s what we know about Potions class:
Potions lessons took place down in one of the dungeons. It was colder here than up in the main castle, and would have been quite creepy enough without the pickled animals floating in glass jars all around the walls.The detail about the pickled animals is great, but otherwise this is pretty vague - I mean, we all know what a dungeon typically looks like, but I wouldn’t mind something more specific. It’s colder than the main castle, but how cold is that? Why would it be creepy enough without the dead animals? Hagrid’s hut gets a little more description:
Hagrid lived in a small wooden house on the edge of the forbidden forest. A crossbow and a pair of galoshes were outside the front door...There was only one room inside. Hams and pheasants were hanging from the ceiling, a copper kettle was boiling on the open fire, and in the corner stood a massive bed with a patchwork quilt over it.I’m tempted to nitpick here too - how small is “small” for a giant like Hagrid? Is the open fire in a fireplace or is there a fire pit in the middle of the room? - but maybe I’m being too harsh. The thing is, this chapter started to feel like a children’s book again. Which, of course, it is. I’m just still getting used to how much the series grew up over the years. In all fairness, the writing is far from bad. This chapter has one major gem: Rowling has such a strong red herring in Snape that she can shove yet more hints about Quirrell directly under our noses and we still don’t notice. When Harry goes to his Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson, Quirrell’s turban comes up once more:
His turban, he told them, had been given to him by an African prince as a thank-you for getting rid of a troublesome zombie, but they weren’t sure they believed this story...they had noticed that a funny smell hung around the turban, and the Weasley twins insisted that it was stuffed full of garlic as well, so that Quirrell was protected wherever he went.The turban as the purloined letter - impressive, Ms. Rowling. This chapter also establishes or reinforces a few character aspects that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of: Hermione is a teacher’s pet, Snape hates everyone but hates Harry in particular, Malfoy is still a dick. We meet Filch and Mrs. Norris, or at least have them described to us, along with Professors Sprout, Binns, and Flitwick. Harry and Ron’s friendship with Hagrid is getting solidified, something that will affect a great deal of the story down the line. There’s also some fore-fore-foreshadowing in Snape’s mention of a bezoar, which won’t become important until book 6 (I doubt Rowling had that particular plot point in mind so far in advance, but it shows her attention to the specific details of her invented world, which is a large part of why it’s so much fun to re-read these books). Also, there’s stuff about the Gringotts theft at the end. This is probably good for younger readers, to remind them that there’s still going to be threat and conflict in the story even though Harry has escaped the Dursleys, but I wouldn’t have minded a longer break from that in order to take in more of the school environment. Ah well. The next chapter is called “The Midnight Duel,” and I have no memory of any midnight duels in this volume, so I’m quite intrigued. Tune in next time.