Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Chapter 1
Welcome to my first Harry Potter post! Like any child of the 90s I have loved the Harry Potter books for a long time. I have read them many times and can discuss them endlessly. Obviously these books have been discussed ad nauseam in podcasts, blogs, book reviews, etc. and I don’t think that I have anything new or profound to add to the conversation, I just love to read and talk about them.
Because of that I am mostly going to go through discussing the things that I particularly find interesting in these books, not necessarily covering every detail. They aren’t going to be spoiler free, is there even such a thing for for HP anymore? I will mostly talk about the chapter(s) at hand but will bring in some future things that I feel are relevant, especially in the “first mentions” section where I will discuss when seeds for plot developments in future books are planted or large themes/running threads are introduced.
The Two Worlds
Within the Harry Potter series there exists two worlds: the wizarding world and the muggle world. This first chapter introduces us to both of those worlds and how separated they are. The Dursleys are as plain and non-magical as you can be. Dumbledore is completely out of place in the muggle world. The muggles of course have no idea of the existence of the wizarding world, and though wizards are aware of muggles, many of them don’t know how to act around them. They don’t know the right clothes to wear or the right lingo.
This separation of the two worlds is something that is very important in the series. How each wizard experiences the magical world is shaped by their experience (or lack thereof) of the other world. There are those that grow up in the muggle world but enter the wizarding world when they turn 11 (Harry, Hermione) and those that are born into it (Ron). Those that are born into it often have no concept of anything else. This is getting ahead of the first chapter, but as we go through it is something that defines the core three characters. Harry doesn’t learn about the magical world until Chapter 4, but he has a legacy and a history with it that define him and his journey through the series, whether he wants it or not. Hermione was born into a muggle family so the entire world to her is new. Ron has only ever experienced the world with magic and can’t imagine how people get through life without it.
The Dursleys vs. The Wizards
The first chapter is divided into two parts. The first is from Vernon Dursely’s point of view and the second from Dumbledore and McGonagall. The Dursleys are set up in stark contrast to the wizards. They are not just muggles, they are as far from magical as one can be. They have no imagination and are overly concerned with appearances.T heir physical descriptions match their personalities, something Rowling does a lot. Vernon is described as having “hardly any neck” and his wife, Petunia, has having “twice the usual amount of neck”. So basically they are both horrible, but perfect for each other. They don’t talk to or about Petunia’s sister, Lily, because she is “strange”. It is interesting that even in this first chapter, that isn’t from Harry’s point-of-view, that the words “wizard” and “magic” are never spoken. This is to make the reveal in Chapter 4 a surprise to both Harry and the reader, though any adult reading this has certainly picked up on it.
As we switch into the second half of the chapter, there is a lot of exposition as McGonagall talks to Dumbledore about what has happened. She asks him if it is really true that You-Know-Who is gone to which Dumbledore reminds her that his name is Voldemort and they shouldn’t be afraid to say his name. This is a big theme throughout the series, saying Voldemort’s name is a sign of bravery, shown by very few people. Harry having grown up with muggles has never known to be afraid of saying it. He constantly forgets that other people don’t want to hear it and will either half say his name before remembering or just tell people to get over it.
Dumbledore has decided that it is best for Harry to grow up away from all of the fame and to live as normally for as long as possible. He can find out the truth when he is ready. Dumbledore is of course the one that determines when Harry is ready to learn things and these decisions will be a major source of tension later in the series. Dumbledore makes these decisions mostly out of concern for Harry, but as we will later learn it is also part of his strategy to bring down Voldemort. For most of the series Harry trusts that Dumbledore knows what he is doing but there are times that he definitely questions why Dumbledore couldn’t have been more open with him. From a storytelling perspective it makes sense, we can’t have all of the information at the beginning, that is a terrible way to write a book. But his decisions are not always good ones, Harry growing up with the Dursley’s is arguably worse for him than knowing fame at a young age.
To what extent J.K. Rowling had these books planned out from this early on is unknown. It is fairly obvious she had a rough sketch of what was going to happen. Either she had a lot planned out or she was pretty good at picking up small details from early in the series and making them important later on. There are several first mentions of characters and things that will come back later (in some cases not for many books) which could have been initially meant as random details that didn’t really matter, or she always knew. The most important is the mention of Sirius Black. Hagrid says he got the flying motorbike from Sirius and that is all that is ever said. So she certainly could have already had a plan for Sirius at this point or it could be a random detail that she later decided to expand on. Though it seems a little too specific to be random. And it fits well with what we learn later. Sirius was already on the scene when Hagrid arrived to get Harry and though Sirius wanted to take Harry as he was supposed to, he always listened to Dumbledore and so he gave Harry and the bike to Hagrid.
There are some other smaller things such as the mention of Dedalus Diggle, a future Order of the Phoenix member, though he is never all that important. They also mention Godric’s Hollow being where Harry’s parents lived (a fact that I don’t think is mentioned again until Book 7). And we also get the first indication of Dumbledore’s love of sweets. He is very interested in those lemon drops. Finally, Professor McGonagall’s ability to transform into a cat (she is an animagus) is a very rare skill which isn’t really addressed until Book 3.
Overall I think this first chapter is fantastic. For most of this first book I will be covering multiple chapters per post since most of it is just introducing us to characters and setting up the rest of the series. But this first chapter has so much to unpack in it I wanted to discuss on its own. It does a great job introducing us to both worlds, major themes, and the genesis of the series, Voldemort’s inability to kill Harry. It hooks you from the very beginning and you just want to keep reading. Rowling gives a lot of half information so you have to keep reading to find out the whole story. Some of these questions will be answered later in the book, some not until much later.