Diagon Alley is the first physical threshold that Harry crosses on his journey. Up until this point, Harry remains pretty well enmeshed in the normal world. As discussed in the previous posts, strange things happen to Harry, but in this chapter the reader moves beyond the conceptual. In this chapter, the reader does not hear about magic, but gets to be involved in it.
The reason that so many young people fell in love with Harry Potter at first is because of this chapter. Stepping through the Leaky Cauldron into Diagon Alley is like joining an elite club. They, the wizards and witches, know about muggles, but muggles can’t (won’t) see the witches and wizards. The reader gets the keen sense that these witches and wizard are special.
The structure of his chapter is deliberate. As Harry reads his school letter, so does the reader. Both see a checklist of items and a goal to reach by the end of the chapter. It is immersive. As Harry becomes indoctrinated, so does the reader. Both the protagonist and the reader needs a set of robes, a pewter cauldron, scales, books, and most important, a wand.
It is important that the wand comes last. Everyone knows what it is like to get school books, a school uniform, some pens and paper, but the wand is special. It is that last piece which says, you (Harry and the reader) belong here. You are one of us.
What it is fascinating is J.K. Rowling’s ability to provide passive information to the reader that is important to the story. For instance, why is it that we as readers are okay with a half giant coming to take Harry away on some journey? A young reader might be scared of this person. Hagrid is very different, his size is intimidating, his ability to knock down doors is impressive.
I would argue that it is because we have seen Hagrid before this. We as readers recognise that that this is the same person who brought baby Harry to the Dursley’s and then cried. By seeing this character in the first chapter, the reader remembers and connects to him. Without that first glimpse, the reader cannot be sure he’s safe.
Harry’s encounter with the boy in Madam Malkin’s Robe shop works in a similar way. To an untrained eye, this encounter is banal. A snobby boy makes elitist comments to Harry and then leaves. Who cares, right? Well, The author does and by extent, so should the reader.
This interaction is the reader’s first glimpse that the magical world might not be all that safe. Here the reader sees a young boy talking about “the other sort” by which he means muggles. He calls Hagrid a savage and we get a sense that being different in this world might be as bad as it was in Harry’s world. In these few sentences, the reader begins to see a hierarchy forming. There are those who were born to witches and wizards and those who were not. There are those who think they are better than others, and those who feel comfortable with people who are different.
While the reader does not know it yet, we learn who this boy is later on down the line. Just as the reader’s first introduction to Hagrid colours our opinions of him, so too does Harry’s first impression of this boy. We learn in a later chapter exactly who the boy is. It is this contact that determines the way the relationship develops.
Finally, it is interesting that Hagrid gets Harry an owl as a pet. Of course, on the surface of the gesture, no one wants a toad and Harry doesn’t seem like a cat person. From a literary standpoint, Hedwig is a story telling device. She provides Harry with a means of communicating with others throughout the books. But the owl is an interesting animal with so much myth and symbolism that it’s a shame not to look deeper.
While associated with wisdom, owls have other meanings as well. Biblical references often link owls to desolate places and isolation. The Ancient Greeks associated owls with prophecy. In some Native American cultures, owls symbolise oncoming death. They are known for their keen eyesight and their ability to see beyond what is to the truth.
As a result, Hagrid may have provided Harry with the most representative pet possible. Hedwig comes to symbolise Harry’s loneliness, the prophecy that changed his life, the deaths which haunt him, and the need to see through the Dark Lord’s deceptions.