A note before we start: these posts are written by myself, Loten, using notes assembled during discussions between Mitchell and me. So ‘I’ and ‘we’ are used pretty interchangeably. It’s highly unlikely that we’re going to remember which of us made each specific point.
Chapter One: The Boy Who Lived
Chapter One opens at Number 4 Privet Drive in an imaginary small town in Surrey, which for non-Brits is a small semi-rural county in the south of England that’s mostly upper-middle-class. Here we meet the Dursleys; Vernon, his wife Petunia, and their young son Dudley. The narrative will spend all seven books insisting that you hate them. They’re very ordinary people, not very attractive (this shouldn’t matter, but these books are very clear: UGLY=EVIL. You’ll see this later) and not very observant, proud of being ordinary. As Vernon leaves for work and goes about his day he starts to see odd things, there is weird stuff going on involving owls and people in funny cloaks; something strange has happened that they don’t know about. There’s a cat reading a map at the end of their street, and he keeps overhearing conversations containing funny words he doesn’t recognise.
We’re given very unflattering, exaggerated descriptions for both Vernon and Petunia. This can work as a stylistic thing in some kinds of children’s literature, as a sort of absurdist humour (particularly authors like Roald Dahl, who is going to crop up as an example a lot), when applied with equal opportunity to most if not all characters. Here it mostly comes across as judgemental, though.
It’s interesting that the narrative hates Vernon for being fat, while simultaneously hating Petunia for being thin. (I’m not sure whether to praise it for at least not being solely fat-hating, as much of the series will be later, or to wonder how there’s any way to win at all in Rowling’s world other than being ‘normal’ – which is nicely ironic since we’re talking about the Dursleys here, and the narrative simultaneously hates them for their supposed normality and here is carping on about the abnormality of their appearances…) It’s also worth noting that there’s a gendered aspect to this as well – Petunia’s long neck, in particular, is used to shame her because it supposedly aids her in spying on her neighbours for gossipy purposes (a typically feminised pursuit).
Vernon’s pretty observant for someone who’s explicitly described as being unobservant and dim, paying attention to all the things the narrative wants him to (such as where a cat is looking). It’s not necessarily implausible that a person would notice such things, and I think the narrative’s goal here is to present a sort of uncanny atmosphere – here are a bunch of things that are maybe a little weird but not noteworthy in themselves, but taken together something weird is going on and it’s unnerving him – except after the cat it goes immediately into ludicrous things like him just happening to overhear the exact snippet of a conversation in which someone name-drops Harry Potter and nothing else, wizards behaving as if there are no laws about secrecy at all (someone calls him a Muggle, and loads of people are wearing cloaks for no explicable reason), and it just gets more ludicrous from there. Convenient name-drops are one of the main ways the plot is prodded into lumbering on a few steps in this series. Over the course of all these little revelations we learn that there’s something mysterious and not right about Petunia’s sister Lily and her husband James Potter, that they have a son Dudley’s age named Harry, and that the Dursleys don’t see them or speak to them.
Then a wizard named Albus Dumbledore shows up outside the Dursley house that night, and the plot instantly derails.
His first action is to put the street lights out via a magic cigarette lighter. This is neat. If only there was ever any more magic like this in the entire series. And if only it didn’t have such a stupid name as the Put-Outer. Still, he looks like a proper wizard, he wears robes and has a long beard. We approve. He speaks to the map-reading cat Vernon saw earlier, who changes shape into a witch named Minerva McGonagall (the first of many alliterative names we’re going to encounter) and starts talking to him. We approve of this, too, but despite shape-changing being a) very useful and b) bloody awesome she’s one of only five minor characters who bother to do it throughout the series, mostly offscreen and never for a sensible helpful reason. Throughout their conversation we learn that Lily and James are dead under nasty circumstances and that Harry’s being brought to live here by someone called Hagrid, because he’s somehow going to be very famous for… not dying… and will be better off being raised by ordinary people for a while. There are vague references to someone known only as You-Know-Who (we’ll find out later his real name is Voldemort), who is apparently dead but might not be. Ah, that new-plot smell…
Hagrid shows up very subtly and stealthily on a giant flying motorbike, carrying the aforementioned Harry. There’s a lot of circular discussion that ends with them dumping baby Harry on his relatives’ doorstep and wandering off to wait for Chapter Two.
The major problem here, one I didn’t notice throughout my years of reading these books until starting this spork and one I’ve never seen discussed before, is that the timeline just makes no sense. Vernon Dursley has just experienced the first day after Voldemort’s fall, November 1st 1981, when the wizarding world is in chaos. Harry isn’t delivered to the Dursleys until later that night, or possibly early in the morning on November 2nd. So where the hell is he while Vernon’s at work wondering what’s going on? Voldy snuffed it on Halloween. He must be with Hagrid, presumably, but does Hagrid know what to feed a one year old, or how to change a nappy? I doubt it. We’re missing a day here, anyway.
Also, how does the wizarding world know Harry has survived? He was apparently picked up from the wreckage of the Potters’ house before anyone showed up and according to Hagrid the Muggles got there first. McGonagall clearly knows of Dumbledore’s ‘leave Harry with the Muggles’ plan (for new readers, a Muggle is someone without magic; fun fact, it’s also 1970s slang for someone who uses marjiuana) since she spent an entire day sitting on their wall watching Petunia, but how? We have to conclude Dumbles knew the Potters wouldn’t make it but that the boy would, because there simply wasn’t time to make this plan before McGonagall showed up on Privet Drive only a few hours after Voldy exploded. She must have known in advance.
Assuming for the sake of argument that she didn’t, that she’s so blindly devoted to Dumbles that when he proposed this plan she just went along with it, how did she know where the Dursleys were? How did anyone? Dumbles knew Petunia existed but he had no reason to keep track of her, she was just a random Muggle to him. Even when he learned something would probably happen to Lily, he had no reason to think her son would survive, so Harry wouldn’t need a relative to look after him. Incidentally, I find it somewhat unlikely that every single other relative on both sides is dead, given how old Lily and James are at this point, particularly since most pureblood families seem to be interrelated. I’m 27 and three of my four grandparents are still alive and well and likely to stay that way for a few years yet; James and Lily are six years younger than me and very young to inexplicably both be orphans, especially since James’ parents are a witch and a wizard and thus should be very long-lived anyway. No other relatives will ever be mentioned, though, because Fantasyland protagonists aren’t allowed families until after their Happy Ending.
Scratch all that. Reading on, it’s clear that McGonagall has no idea what’s happened. She asks Dumbledore if all the rumours are true, it’s her first line of the series. So why the hell is she there? Dumbles says Hagrid told her he’d be there, but when? Why? She’s spent all day watching Harry’s relatives without knowing that’s necessary, she didn’t know for sure he’d been attacked, let alone that he’d survived. As far as she’s concerned, Hagrid told her Dumbles would be outside a random Muggle’s house at some point, so she sat there all day instead of trying to find out if these rumours were true or doing something useful.
(Also it’s a Tuesday at the end of October. At least, the text says it’s a Tuesday, though Halloween 1981 was actually on a weekend. She should be teaching. The wizarding world doesn’t have the half-term holidays that Muggle British schools do.)
The Doylist explanation is that Rowling needs an infodump and couldn’t be bothered to justify it. But the only Watsonian explanation is that McGonagall’s had her memory modified or something. Her behaviour makes no sense on any level.
Anyway. There’s some oddly flirtatious dialogue between Dumbledore and McGonagall (well, it’s hardly flirtatious, but I think we’re meant to see it that way), which aside from being rather inappropriate for the circumstances makes you wonder exactly when Rowling decided that he was gay. Incidentally, no, that doesn’t count. You can’t declare once a series is over that “oh by the way everyone this character was totally gay, look how progressive and inclusive I am!” in a story where that character is completely asexual and where there’s not even a hint of homosexuality, aside from various inexplicable encounters in bathrooms. It’s also weird because this conversation comes across as being between two people who don’t know each other that well – they’re calling each other ‘Professor’, etc., rather than using first names – and we’ve already remarked on how little McGonagall knows of things she really ought to be aware of. It’s pretty obvious that Rowling hadn’t really hammered out the characters’ roles yet, at the very least McGonagall’s.
It’s interesting to contrast that with the name-drop of Sirius Black, when Hagrid says where he got the motorcycle; it’s not clear whether that was just something she randomly dropped in and later decided to turn into a major plot point, or whether she’d already had an idea of who Black was and that he’d play a significant role in later books. (For new readers, feel free to forget all about him since he won’t be showing up for several books. Be thankful.) That said, the motorcycle’s size also makes very little sense (are we supposed to believe Hagrid was capable of enlarging the thing, or are we instead to suppose that it’s either always been of a size for Hagrid to ride – in which case, what was Black thinking, compensating for something? – or that Black took the time to enlarge it for Hagrid before he buggered off?). Speaking of which, I’m also left wondering how Hagrid got to the crime scene in the first place and how he was planning to transport Harry if he hadn’t conveniently encountered Black.
Apropos of nothing much, Harry’s cousin Dudley is a really precocious child. He’s only a month or so older than Harry and yet he’s described as
“kicking his mother up the street, screaming for sweets.”
Yet we observe that Harry is clearly incapable of even crawling away from his doorstep, let alone getting up and walking. He’s clearly backward.
Despite having her memory scrambled, McGonagall is sensible and objects to Dumbles dumping the child and running away leaving a note to explain. Bloody persuasive note, I must say; Petunia Dursley has apparently had no contact with the wizarding world for years, it’s doubtful she knew anything about the war, and then she finds her baby nephew on her doorstep. Let’s imagine for a moment what that note might say:
Dear Mrs Dursley
Hope you are well. Here is your nephew Harry who you’ve never seen. Your sister and her husband are dead, they were killed by some evil wizard guy you’ve never heard of who may or may not also be dead, it’s complicated. You now have to adopt this kid because reasons. No really monsters will get him if he doesn’t live with you. They might get him anyway, but I’m sure you’ll be fine. By the way, we’ll be watching to make sure you keep him, though naturally we won’t help with child support in any way or help you deal with it when his magic starts causing problems that you have no way of coping with.
Yours sincerely, some wizard that at this point in the narrative we have no reason to believe you’ve ever heard of.
Yet nobody really seriously objects to leaving the baby on a doorstep in November to die of exposure – I don’t know how long it would take a baby to freeze to death, but I suspect not very long. Seriously, someone at least ring the damned doorbell before you leave.
Hagrid then breaks down because a) the Potters are dead, and b) Harry has to live with Muggles. These tragedies are apparently equal. Have you all grasped the notion that Muggles are scum yet? It doesn’t matter if you haven’t, the point will be beaten into you at great length throughout the series.
Legally there’s no way Petunia would be able to just adopt Harry like this, anyway. As far as the Muggles know, James and Lily had heart attacks when their house exploded and Harry vanished. He then somehow shows up a few days later with his aunt, and… that’s not a legal basis for an adoption. Especially when said aunt clearly doesn’t want him and has a letter (probably) threatening her with gruesome and scary things if she doesn’t do it.
As an aside, for Hagrid to have been flying over Bristol on the way to Surrey as he claims, he’d have to be coming via South Wales, which is… not where Godric’s Hollow is, I don’t think. (We’re not given an actual location, true, but there’s no indication it’s outside England.) I suppose since he’s apparently spent a day with Harry at this point it’s not unreasonable, they could have been anywhere, but you’d think Hogwarts might make more sense.
We also note the Muggles apparently didn’t hear a giant-sized motorbike suddenly landing in the street in the middle of the night. Which Hagrid couldn’t steer due to holding the baby in both arms, instead of a sling like a sensible person. He also couldn’t see to land it, since Dumbles put out the street lights when he first showed up and this entire scene has taken place in pitch blackness. (There could theoretically have been a decent moon, I can’t be bothered to look up the full moon dates, but Britain in November? It’s much, much more likely to be raining and overcast.)
Anyway. We have now met the Dursleys and three others. Dumbledore is apparently a clever eccentric who doesn’t mean any harm but also doesn’t seem to think things through very clearly; this is not really true. McGonagall is apparently somewhat flaky and panicky but basically sensible if we overlook her Muggle-stalking; this is more or less true. And Hagrid is… apparently some kind of mutant. Seriously. His description:
“almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide… hands the size of dustbin lids and his feet… were like baby dolphins.”
He’ll change sizes – frequently – later, but right now he is literally a huge sphere with a beard, sitting on top of two baby dolphins. I picture him looking something like Kirby. And I’m begging someone to draw it.
Let’s do some maths, shall we? Let’s assume an average human is something like 5’6″ tall and 2′ wide. This would make Hagrid roughly eleven feet tall… and for his width, well, that sentence is ambiguously worded and I see two ways of interpreting it. Either he’s “five times as wide [as an average human]”, in which case he’s around 10-11 feet wide also and is essentially spherical, or he’s “five times as wide [as he is tall]”, in which case he most resembles an enormous disc (and I am imagining him as a sort of flying saucer). The first interpretation is probably what’s meant here, admittedly, but all that suggests is that it’s a good time to break out the spherical cow jokes. (Or he’s just been eaten by Kirby.)
We don’t know who any of these people are, either. Dumbledore and McGonagall address one another as ‘Professor’ but there’s no mention of the school, or their respective titles. They could just be random people in academia as far as the reader knows; we don’t know what their connection is to anything.
And the cool magical devices here? Dumbles’ nifty watch with multiple hands and small planets never shows up again and we never learn what it does. Unfortunately, the Put-Outer does reappear – and we’ll wish it hadn’t. But that’s another story.
The chapter concludes with Harry falling asleep on the doorstep, which is the first sign that hypothermia is setting in,
“not knowing that he was special.”
Oh, he’s special all right…
Now to try to rewrite this chapter to fix these problems:
James and Lily do not live anywhere where Muggles can find out what happened, for a start. (In an ideal world they don’t live anywhere Voldemort can find them, but there wouldn’t be much plot that way, and as we’ll see later Dumbles made absolutely no actual effort to protect them. Frankly James and Lily could have done a lot more to protect themselves, too.)
Anyway, start with Dumbles and McGonagall (and Hagrid I suppose, though losing him wouldn’t affect the narrative at all) at James and Lily’s house in the direct aftermath of the attack. They rescue Harry from the wreckage and have a discussion about what’s happened and what they’re going to do with Harry, more or less as it is in the book. They walk away while they’re talking about it because other wizards are showing up and finding out what’s happened. The conversation ends with Dumbles saying Harry’s better off growing up away from the fame until he’s ready.
Then cut to Vernon going about his day and noticing all the strange things going on, experiencing the wizarding world reacting to Voldemort’s apparent death. The same as the book, but in a way that makes more sense chronologically. When he gets home from work, Petunia meets him at the door looking very upset and holding two kids instead of one.
Alternatively, frame it as being “the last ‘normal’ day of the Dursleys’ life”, or something, as the initial hook to get the reader’s interest, then have the weird events pick up in intensity as Vernon’s day goes on until he gets home from work to find baby Harry on his doorstep (if we have to keep that silliness – it is something of a trope, especially in fairy tales, so I can kind of understand why Rowling wanted to use it; I’ll also admit it shouts Moses imagery to me and it’s one of the reasons I suspect the series of having religious subtext). At least let’s not have the stupidity of leaving him there all night when he’s already ambulatory, dropping him off shortly before he’d be likely to be found makes much more sense. We can then have some kind of flashback to the midnight meeting (which would make much more sense to have happened the night before) in which the wizards are discussing what happened and making plans, explaining why they’re leaving Harry and so on.
I’m not sure either of these options are that much better, really, but at least it avoids the mysterious missing day and doesn’t make any character come across as either brain-damaged or brainwashed…