The door to the magical world has broken down. Literally. It is here that readers recognize that they have officially crossed the threshold into a new world. The information presented before was exposition. It set up and created an established world where we as readers felt comfortable. It defined the structures and the norms of the world. This is perhaps the first threshold that we pass through. It is a conceptual one, rather than a physical one.
As we listen to Hagrid, we gain more insight into what the wizarding world is. He confirms that there is a wizarding school, that these magical folk do actually exist, and we learn what truly happens to Harry’s parents. For me, J.K. Rowling is still allowing her readers to gain access into this world that she will drop us in later. She is paving the way, first by presenting the reader with ideas, which are later reinforced by the actual presence of Hogwarts castle.
While I don’t plan to study the movies at any length, I find it incredibly ridiculous that Hagrid can possibly mistake Dudley for Harry. It is here that we are first given those magic words: you look like your father, but you have your mother’s eyes. How in the world could Hagrid make such a mistake in the movie? But I digress.
What I find interesting here in the stylistic nature of J.K. Rowling’s writing is that there are so many perspectives that occur in Harry Potter. As a first time reader, we know nothing about the world. We are reliant on the characters and the narrative to guide us through. We immediately believe that it is credible. As anyone who is familiar with Harry Potter, we know that this is not the case. We can’t trust any one account over the next.
In a basic way, J.K. Rowling introduces that to us here. This is the first time that there really seem to be competing viewpoints. On first glance, everything comes from Hagrid. He has the story to tell. But what we get is a little more complicated than that. Hagrid is indeed the main focus of this chapter. It is called the Keeper of the Keys for a reason. He presents to the reader his viewpoint of what happened. James and Lily Potter were a pair of the greatest witches/wizards he’s ever known. Voldemort came to their house and killed them, presumably afraid of the power that they held against him. We are told that not only is Harry magical, but he’s special. It’s because of him the Dark Lord vanquished. All of this holds some semblance of truth, partially because Hagrid believes it, but also because by proximity to the wizarding world, he was a witness.
Petunia’s version of the story is quite different. According to Petunia, Lily was a freak. Their parents lavished attention and praise on unwarranted, abnormal traits and talents. Petunia describes Lily as running off to a freak school, marrying someone just as abnormal and freaky. “And then she went and got herself blown up.”
We know and can infer that Harry must have his own opinions of his parents. Surely he must have a vision of them which is different than what Hagrid and Petunia constructed. Harry remembers a flash of green light. He remembers his mother’s scream. He has manufactured some version of a car crash.
On a basic level, we recognize that this is how people respond and act. We all have our own view of what has happened and the stories we tell ourselves. J.K. Rowling uses to distract the reader, to lure the reader into a false sense of reality. We automatically want to believe that Hagrid is correct because as far as we have seen, he is the authority on this new magical world. What the tells us on the other hand, is potentially misleading. It also encourages Harry’s perspective of his parents, specifically his father. What Harry comes to believe about his father from Hagrid and from others who mention him in later books is skewed by these perspectives and viewpoints.
We must never take characters at their word. We must constantly look at what each character’s motives are and parse together the truth
The Letters From No One is a chapter that continues to integrate the reader into the way the book will continue to play out. It works hard to create a comfortable setting for the reader. Up through this chapter, the author’s main goal is to ensure the the reader feels good. Do they understand? Can they relate? How much information do I provide to them?
All of these questions must be considered at the beginning of the book. J.K. Rowling over chapters one through three takes this into consideration. In chapter three the reader is drawn in to the daily life of a ten year old boy. There is summer vacation, getting ready for school, seeing the school uniform for the first time. All of these things are normal. In keeping with what the reader understands about Dudley and the Dursley’s, this chapter continues to show how spoilt and “freakishly normal” these people are.
When Vernon tells Harry to go fetch the mail, it doesn’t seem odd. It is normal, universal. Lulled into the security of daily life, the reader is a bit confused, if not shocked at Mr. Dursley’s response to Harry’s letter. What could it be? Why is this so important? What does it mean?
Without the banality of the mail, it is impossible to reach this state. If a wizard appears in front of the Dursley’s and says Harry, you’re a wizard, there is no tension. Keeping with a pretty “muggle” means of communication allows the reader not only to be curious about what is so special about a piece of mail, but it also allows the reader to connect. It gives us another level of understanding into this world. No one has to work hard to understand what a letter is (though maybe with the onslaught of email, that might change).
By using letters, J.K. Rowling seems to impress the importance of what is written in these letters. Letters are intimate forms of communication. Letters have lived through ancient civilizations to modern philosophers, writers, and lovers. There is a weight to letters not always apparent in today’s digital age. While it is important to remember that this book was published in the late 90s, the history and gravitas of the letter can’t be denied. There is romance, in letter writing, a magical nostalgia that add to this notion of other-worldly.
It is interesting to see what J.K. Rowling chooses to be advanced, say Mrs. Weasley’s magical clock, vs what is kept normal. How does magical technology and muggle technology work together? On basic level, it is a strong representation of that parallel universe that always influences and reinforces itself.
The Vanishing Glass is the embodiment of everything we’ve seen so far in the first two chapters of Harry Potter. It is a wall, a barrier between this world and the magical world. A world that one can look through, but never sees.
When we meet Harry ten years in the future, he’s living in a cupboard. He is ostracized from the world. We see a clear divide between him and Dudley. Dudley is normal and because of that, he’s rewarded. He’s well fed, given gifts, taken on trips. His parents give him everything. In contrast, Harry is the other. He’s locked away, left at neighbor’s houses, forbidden to display any act that might make it clear to the world that he is different. Dudley and his friends beat him and that is okay. The Dursley’s never punish their son and his friends for treating Harry like a punching bag. In this world, the world before the vanishing glass, difference is wrong.
When Harry talks about flying motorcycles, Vernon shoots him down. It doesn’t matter that it’s a dream. When Harry’s hair grows back after Petunia seems to shave his head, he’s punished. The unexplained is unwelcome and Harry feels as if he’s alone.
When we get to the reptile room, we begin to see a shift. Harry stands in front of the snake’s aquarium and it is his difference that builds a connection. He can talk to snakes. For the first moment, the reader sees the possibility beyond the barrier. It reinforces what we learnt in the first chapter. There are others out there who are different. There is a world that runs parallel to this one where oddity is at least normal if not embraced. But for Harry, we obtain a sense of hope about his future. It is his difference that builds connections with this snake. It is what makes him special that allows him to free something else that lives in captivity. It is their isolation that brings them together.
It is after the glass vanishes, in those final sentences of the chapter, we are told how connected Harry is to the rest of the world. Random strangers approach him on the street. Weird strangers in cloaks. They tell us, you are welcome here. You are needed here. What makes you different, an oddity to the muggles, is the very reason why we adore you, why we need you. You are welcome.
From this chapter onward, we begin to see that magic creeps into everyday life. Difference is not something to hide from. The barrier that exists between the normal and the abnormal is a sheet of glass. It can and it will vanish.
I can’t pretend that I haven’t read this whole series multiple times. To try to come at the books as a new person, unaware of what lies ahead would be foolish and completely disingenuous. I think that in a way, it would also lose some depth. I assume that you have read Harry Potter before and that you’re looking for a new way to read it, or new things to see in the text. These are my observations, so if you disagree feel free to let me know what I’ve missed. I wrote a brief description of the series Here.
The first chapter of this book, is seventeen pages. At times, the sentences are clunky and the descriptions are stiff, but as one progresses through the chapter, it is amazing what is actually said.
It has been said that J.K. Rowling rewrote this first chapter countless times (I’ve seen some report around fifteen times) and I can understand why. The first chapter, like all first chapters exists to set up everything that will come after it. One must establish characters, introduce a standard or normative setting, foreshadow plot, and hook the reader. The first seventeen pages of this novel give the reader so much information, it’s almost hard to take it all in.
J.K. Rowling sets up the normal world. Mr. And Mrs Dursley live at a normal address, normal occupations, a typical lifestyle. We see that Mrs. Dursley is a stay at home mom raising a son and watching her neighbours. Mr. Dursley comes off as a bit domineering. Their son is a brat. They are average people who live boring lives.
Immediately, we are also told that this normal world runs parallel to something completely different. There are owls flying around during the daylight, a cat reads a map, people in cloaks roam the streets. We learn the word ‘Muggle’ for the first time.
We can begin to see the parallelism of the world. Unlike in stories where a character leaves one world and enters another, Rowling tells the reader that her worlds run parallel. What happens in the muggle world also happens to some degree in this other world. People and events move seamlessly between both of these worlds. We can see this idea play out later in Prisoner of Azkaban when Sirius Black makes the news and in more detail in The Half Blood Prince with the “other minister”.
Rowling sets the beginning of a structure that will span all seven books. References to what happens in this first chapter come back again and again as the series plays out.
J.K. Rowling introduces some of the most important players to this story within these seventeen pages. We meet the Dursley’s and while we have heavy amounts of description, we are already interested in them. By the end of the first page, we are already aware that they have a secret. What is it? We’ll have to turn the page to find out.
We are also introduced to Professor McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore. The fact that Dumbledore calls her Professor gives us a reason to believe that a school. What is interesting is that the Dursley’s are often described in a very concrete way: Mrs. Dursley likes to watch her neighbors, Mr. Dursley works a drill company, and Dudley kicks his mother. In contrast, we learn about magical people rather indirectly. It is as if Rowling adds a second layer of mystery on top of her characters by having them referred to by others.
We do not meet Professor McGonagall upfront. Instead we meet her has a cat. It is easy to think that she must have cat like features, and in a way, we learn that she does. She’s an intellectual, astute, serious, and what Dumbledore calls stiff. We can see that she’s dedicated to her duties by watching her sit on a wall all day. She cares deeply, her concern over whether Hagrid is trustworthy is also clear. We see her as questioning, cautious, caring, and by the book. We start to see her as a bit strict and more practical than emotional as she chastises Hagrid‘s wailing tears.
The Potter‘s are also refered to indirectly. We learn about them from the eyes of Vernon Dursley who receives his information from his wife. They are very different from the Dursley’s. Vernon refers to them as “their lot” as if to say, not one of us. As a result, it’s unsurprising that by the time Harry arrives at 4 Privet Drive, we can already feel sorry for him. We already care because we can see the type of people Petunia and Vernon are.
You-Know- Who makes his entrance in this chapter too. We learn his name and what type of things he did. We feel safer knowing of his defeat and confused by the fact it took only a little boy who did it. We learn about Dumbledore from what McGonagall says about You-Know-Who. Dumbledore says that Voldemort has powers he will never use. McGonagall replies, “Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.” We see the beginning of a foil here. Dumbledore vs Voldemort. Whose philosophy will hold out? Surely there is something deeper under the surface.
We hear Sirius Black’s name even though he doesn’t appear for a while. At this point we cannot know his significance. Who is this throw away character and why do we care that he leant his motorcycle to Hagrid? What does it matter? I am sure that many of us forgot about Sirius until Prisoner of Azkaban appeared in our hands. Even then, I bet some us forgot.
We also see the beginning of Hagrid’s love for Harry. This is where the relationship starts. Dumbledore tasks Hagrid with the boy’s life. A special love grows as Hagrid transports Harry over Bristol. Hagrid is willing to protect the boy with his life. We see a similar flight play out in the Deathly Hallows.
We can’t forget to mention Dedalus Diggle, the Put-Outer, the reliance on owls, and the ability to become an animagus all make an apperance here.
One of the things that J.K. Rowling does well is redirecting attention away from what is happening. We get bits and pieces of redirection in this chapter. She introduces magical phenomena in muggle terms instead of what they are: magic. We see news broadcasts about owls and shooting stars. Because we relate to the normalcy J.K. Rowling describes, we can only believe her. We took act like Vernon Dursley who questions whether he saw that cat reading a sign. Cats don’t read signs. But in this world they do.
It isn’t until the reveal when Dumbledore arrives that we begin to realise it isn’t what we thought. J.K Rowling tells us one thing, but what happens underneath is the true story. From now on, we will pay closer attention to what is not said. We will have to look for subtle clues and try to figure out answers ourselves. This is only the beginning of the detective fantasy novel. We got a reveal here, but that was only a test. Our detective skills will be tested.
This chapter does a lot in such a short time. It invites us to a whole new world and lets us know we need to start thinking. There are clues scattered throughout the work and we can piece them together. This chapter introduces us to our characters. It encourages us to root for our hero, Harry even if we don’t know why yet. It gives us a mystery to solve and we’re going to go out and solve it.
Length: 431 Words:
Word(s) not to mention:the bird.
In the beginning there were people. They were there by the hundreds: fishermen, tourists, housewives, and teachers. By the end, there was only the silence they left behind. It seems that without support, everything crumbles. At first the foundation cracks. Then the walls decay. They could have built levies; they could have, but they didn’t. They said there was nothing that they could do. It was inevitable and in the end, there was no way to prevent it.
They said the water came without warning, but that was not true. It came with a warning they didn’t wish to see. Instead they filled their heads with senseless things. They talked about the quality of fish and the prices they sought. They talked about the long hours and their unfair wages.
It didn’t matter to us. As they survived, so did we. We lived on Big Macs and Whoppers stolen from the green bins they left outside. We snuck french fries from the hands of toddlers. Sometimes we circled abandoned picnic blankets in summer. We liked fried clams and chicken nuggets, stale bread and cotton candy and so like them, we ignored it. What did we have to worry about in a world that was inevitable.
The water rose. Not a little at a time, but a flood that filled the streets with brackish water. They shut down the schools to keep their children safe. They held press conferences and meetings, argued and cried, but then the water receded. For awhile all was quiet. But it happened again. And then again and still they remained shocked.
The streets stopped draining and what was once a week long crisis became an indefinite massacre. We watched the world from above. We flew across the rooftops and watched those green bins sink with our precious cargo left inside. When the water rose, it took their family homes. It took their children; it took their pride. Then the winds picked up and still the water rose. One flooded street became two. Two streets became three until one house remained standing.
If only someone had seen it coming. If only someone knew.
We flocked together, gathered our survivors, and our wounded. We took one last look across the bay. The black water below scraped against the rocks as our roost creaked. Soon this too would be underwater. The waves left only mud in its wake. For the final time, we circled the air. Everyone watched, some even cared, but still no one came. Instead the humans left. They piled into their automobiles and disappeared for dryer shores.
This is our first read with me, so I hope you enjoy the experience. Starting next week, I will be going chapter by chapter through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to take a deeper look at the characters, plot, and themes. We will look at some historical references, mythology, and anything else that seems interesting.
I will be making my way through the book as both a reader and a writer, taking note of anything from word choice, character development, to questioning character motives and readability.
As our first Read With Me, I hope Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone will be accessible to everyone. Its a big task to provide a fresh look at a book so well loved and read.
We will begin with chapter one: The Boy Who Lived on Thursday!