No warnings this chapter, unless you’re triggered by copious amounts of fail, in which case this is not the series for you. It’s another very long one…
Chapter Six: The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters
Why yes, the disturbing smile is indeed foreshadowing for the rest of the book.
(The frog’s or Dumbledore’s? You decide!)
Somehow both Harry and the Dursleys have made it back to Privet Drive despite the chaos of the previous chapter and no indication of how they did so, and we open with Harry complaining that his last month at home isn’t fun because his traumatised cousin is too scared to stay in the same room as him and his ‘half-terrified, half-furious’ aunt and uncle pretend he isn’t there. This is apparently depressing; obviously our hero really preferred it when he was being bullied and abused.
He allegedly spends his time reading his school books (if this is true it will be the only time throughout his school career that he ever bothers, though at this point we don’t know that yet; discounting that, it seems a normal reaction) in the company of his new owl, who he names Hedwig after someone mentioned in his history textbook. Proving that he should absolutely not be allowed to have any sort of pet, she keeps bringing back dead mice because apparently Rowling doesn’t know you’re meant to feed your pets yourself; that said, at least it means he’s letting her fly around instead of sitting in her cage all the time. I don’t know why Hedwig is bringing mice back, though, since owls swallow their prey as soon as they catch it unless they have nestlings to raise. Maybe she thinks Harry’s an incompetent owl chick. We’re told Petunia won’t come into Harry’s room to clean it any more – wait, she cleans up after him? Yet another cross through the poor-abused-Cinderella theory – which means Harry gets the fun job of clearing up owl shit and small pellets of bones and fur. I hope he likes the stink of half-digested mouse.
On the last day of August he realises that he hasn’t actually bothered to plan how he’s going to get to school, so with a few hours’ notice he goes to speak to the Dursleys. Not to ask them about anything, you understand, just to speak to them. Dudley screams and runs out of the room; isn’t post-traumatic stress funny? Petunia may as well not be in this scene since she’s not permitted to speak; Harry ignores her completely and sort-of-asks Vernon to take him to King’s Cross tomorrow morning. Without saying please or otherwise conceding that this is a big favour they have no reason to want to pay. He does at least say thank you when Vernon grunts in answer. Then Vernon makes a brilliant point:
“Funny way to get to a wizards’ school, the train. Magic carpets all got punctures, have they?”
Harry doesn’t answer this, because there is no answer. The school train makes no fucking sense on any level, as we’ll be discussing throughout this post. Vernon follows up with another sensible point, asking just where this school is, and Harry realises he doesn’t know. He’s had an entire month to think about going to magic school and it’s only now that it occurs to him that he hasn’t got a clue where it is.
Now, if someone showed up and told you that you were going to a special school but neglected to give you an address or any sort of evidence of its existence beyond a handwritten letter, wouldn’t you be the tiniest bit fucking suspicious? Yes, you would, because you are smarter than Harry Potter. There are rotten vegetables smarter than Harry Potter.
Anyway, he looks at his train ticket and reports that he just has to take the train from platform nine and three-quarters at eleven o’clock the next morning. (A normal child would have assumed this was some sort of typo or prank, but not our hero.) The Dursleys stare at him, tell him not to talk rubbish and then tell him that he’s barking mad. We’ll see in a later book that Petunia would have known about the platform already and been right to the entrance to it with her sister, but at this point Rowling hadn’t planned that part. In any case the Dursleys have bigger problems to worry about and give no fucks, and Vernon agrees to take Harry to King’s Cross since they’re going to London tomorrow anyway so Dudley can have his tail surgically removed. (This is a seriously implausible coincidence, honestly, and a lazy contrivance on Rowling’s part; one would think they’d have tried to deal with that sooner, and Harry would apparently have been seriously screwed if they hadn’t chosen a surgeon in London and gotten an appointment that specific day…)
I wonder what they told the various doctors they’d have to have seen to arrange this. And why it didn’t make the news. Because seriously, a kid with an actual tail would hit the headlines, feature in several medical papers, and would probably end up starring in a documentary.
Harry wakes up at five the next morning, too excited to sleep. Well done, Harry, a normal emotional reaction, those are very rare coming from you. Try to keep it up. They leave two hours later, after Petunia has had to persuade poor Dudley to get into the car with Harry, and arrive at King’s Cross at half past ten. Three and a half hours from Surrey to London is about right, though it does mean they were very very lucky with rush-hour traffic on the M25. Vernon helps Harry get his stuff into the station, which is a good idea because the car park at King’s Cross is actually across a quite busy road from the station itself (we’ll have quite a bit more to say on this in the next book, when we eventually get there). Vernon then points to platforms nine and ten, observes that they don’t seem to have built Harry’s platform yet, laughs and fucks off – if this was chapter one this would be horrible, but given everything the man’s been through in the last five chapters it’s completely understandable. Besides, as I mentioned previously, Petunia knows he’ll be fine once he figures it out (though Rowling surely didn’t know that at the time of writing).
Harry apparently manages to see his relatives drive away laughing, meaning that he’s developed X-ray vision and can see through several walls and across the road to the car. In case you hadn’t realised yet, King’s Cross was an extremely poor choice of station to set this in. Apart from anything else, in order to access the part of the station where the platforms are, you need to go through a ticket barrier (which is why the mock-platform where everyone takes photos, and the attached gift shop, is actually in a different area of the station on a different wall). Either wizards are capable of creating a parchment ticket that will fool a Muggle ticket barrier even though they can’t possibly know how those work, or they insist that every single student buys a useless Muggle train ticket just to access the damned train. And why do they have tickets for the Hogwarts train anyway? It’s not as if there’s a ticket inspector and the only place it goes is Hogwarts.
Disregarding this, Harry is somehow now on the platforms, wandering aimlessly around and starting to panic. He stops a guard but doesn’t dare ask about the clearly imaginary platform; he asks about trains to Hogwarts, but he can’t tell the guard what part of the country it’s in, so this doesn’t work. Next he tries asking for the eleven o’clock train, but apparently there isn’t one. I find this unlikely, since there were eleven platforms back then (there are twelve now) and it’s one of the biggest and busiest stations in the country; chances are there will be at least one train leaving at eleven. There also don’t seem to be any other Hogwarts students in view.
I like this bit. Harry’s trying to work things out for himself and trying to find answers, and he’s being surprisingly logical about it. But let’s stop a minute to talk about King’s Cross Station in more detail…
It’s a big station in the heart of London, in one of the busiest areas, and as mentioned had eleven platforms in the 90s. It is directly across the road from St Pancras Station, which is probably the biggest train station in Britain and is a massive international hub. King’s Cross and St Pancras share a single Underground station which is a hub for six lines. As mentioned before, the car park is across another road, because it’s a crowded part of the city and space is pretty limited. At any given time of the day or night, this area is pretty busy; at mid-morning it’s absolutely mobbed. There is no quiet space for people to arrive by magic unnoticed.
At a very conservative estimate, there are about 150-200 students at Hogwarts, and if the population was worked out realistically then it’s probably a lot more. If each single student or group of siblings is only accompanied by one adult and no other family, that’s still 300 people or so all converging on the station at once and trying to get to one platform. This is logistically very, very stupid. And would also be painfully obvious, since all these kids are hauling old fashioned trunks and half of them have owls or cats with them and as we’ll see in later books most wizards have no idea how to wear inconspicuous Muggle clothing. Yet nobody takes any notice of Harry with his trunk and his owl, nor does he see anyone else clearly on their way to Hogwarts at this point.
It doesn’t make any sense for Hogwarts to have a train anyway. If parents can get their children to London from all over the UK, they can get them directly to the school gates, and the Muggleborns can get to the nearest Muggle station and then maybe Hogwarts could have a small line from there to Hogsmeade. I always thought that about Severus and Lily, as one of the few examples where we have a location; they lived in the north of England, so they would have had to travel a good four or five hours south into central London only to then travel back north again, which seems annoying and pointless and probably expensive. Particularly since for most of Hogwarts’ existence there were no cars, and it wasn’t until around the 1980s that it started to become normal for most families to own a car.
In addition, the first steam train running on rails was invented in 1803, and it didn’t become a viable means of passenger travel until at least 1825 (and it would have been slow as hell and taken a couple of days to get from London to Scotland), and King’s Cross Station didn’t open until 1852. So what did the school do before then, why the hell did they think a steam train was a better idea, and why has nobody in the almost two hundred years since thought of a smarter option? I can see that they might have wanted to try the train when it was first invented, because it was a really fucking huge deal and everyone in the developed world went nuts for trains because nothing like it had ever existed before, and even wizards might have wanted some of this action, but it can’t have taken them long to realise that literally any other means of transport except possibly pony trekking would be more sensible.
Besides, if they can operate a steam train and apparently think it’s better than a magical alternative, why is there no other machinery? Aside from maybe Gringotts’ inexplicable rollercoaster, which seems to work by being tapped by a goblin rather than any sort of mechanism?
So really we’re forced to two conclusions here. One is that Platform Nine and Three-Quarters is not in King’s Cross at all, the entrance must be a teleporter to somewhere that makes marginally more sense. And two is that Rowling wanted her characters to travel by train to boarding school because that’s an established trope in the school stories that her generation (and ours) read growing up, and she was so determined to do it that she never paused to realise IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE. Or she did realise it and just gave no fucks, which given the state of the worldbuilding in this entire series is very plausible.
While we’re on the subject of train nonsense, there’s one more point I’d like to make before we thankfully abandon the subject until next book. It’s fun with maths time again!
The Hogwarts Express leaves London at 11 a.m. and arrives in Hogsmeade… eventually. We’re not actually told what time, but it must be about an hour or so before the evening meal, to allow for the students to get there and the newbies to be sorted into their houses before they settle down to the start of term feast. So let’s say somewhere between 5 and 7 p.m., meaning a travel time of 6 to 8 hours. We don’t know exactly where Hogwarts is, of course, but let’s take one of the most northerly major Scottish stations as a rough reference – Inverness. (There’s another line going further north from Inverness to Thurso, but based on the weather we see in the books, Hogwarts isn’t that far north.)
A quick Google search tells me the average speed of a passenger steam train is about 60 to 85 miles an hour. We don’t know the exact route the train takes either; the distance from London to Inverness as the crow flies is 550 miles, which would take about 9 hours, so given that they can’t go in a straight line it’s probably at least 10 hours and maybe longer. So the kids actually wouldn’t arrive until at least 9 p.m., and then have to travel to the castle and go through the sorting ceremony before they can eat and go to bed. That’s fine for most of the older students, but given that five years out of seven the first lesson is going to be at 9 the next morning it’s a hell of a shock to the system for the younger ones.
We also don’t know how many carriages this train is pulling, but there seem to be enough for every single little clique of students to have their own compartment and for many of the loners to have a compartment to themselves, plus extra space for toilets, luggage storage and the random sweet trolley we’ll see shortly. The more carriages you add, the slower the train will move.
Harry does look out of the windows when he’s on the train, but it’s certainly never mentioned that they’re going past or through Muggle places, only random trees and fields, and you’d seriously struggle to get a railway laid from London to the Scottish Highlands that doesn’t go through any other settlement or pass under or over a motorway. Particularly one that is apparently entirely separate from the actual railway network. It certainly wouldn’t be a direct enough line to get all the way to Hogwarts in about six hours.
For comparison, modern British trains travel at anywhere between 60 and 120 miles an hour depending on how many stops they make and the specific line they’re on; London to Inverness takes 8 hours, which would probably come down to 7 if it ran directly without stopping as the Hogwarts train does. So if Rowling bothered to do any research on this, she has just assumed that steam trains are as fast as modern trains.
Witches and wizards in the Potterverse can teleport. In fact they have four separate ways of teleporting (Apparition, Portkeys, Floo powder and phoenix superpowers), and two means of flying by magical objects (brooms and flying carpets, although the latter is illegal in wizarding Britain), and at least three species of flying animal able to carry passengers (Thestrals, hippogryphs, and more ordinary winged horses), and above a certain power level it’s possible to fly entirely of your own accord either directly or by being an Animagus with a winged form. They also have a huge magic teleporting bus that seems to work by yet another method. And as a last resort many wizards can drive, although I certainly wouldn’t trust any of them behind the wheel of a car.
Given all these alternatives, who the fuck would think that a slow steam train from a station that’s a logistical nightmare is the best option to get these kids to school?
Meanwhile, back with what passes for the plot, Harry is panicking after the guard gets tired of stupid questions and walks off. It’s ten to eleven and he doesn’t know how to get to the platform that he’s convinced exists despite all evidence to the contrary and he doesn’t know what to do now, maybe he should start poking the wall with his wand to see if it works the way the entrance to Diagon Alley does? This is actually a very good reaction, he’s showing actual intelligence and logic despite panicking. So naturally Rowling immediately spoils it by handing him the solution on a plate after he panics for just two short paragraphs. A group of people walk past him and he hears one of them mention that the station is packed with Muggles. Hey, a wizard word! They must be wizards! He looks around and yes, they have an owl with them too, so he follows them. This too is nicely reasoned and on its own this scene works well, but as part of seven bloody books where Harry gets answers conveniently handed to him in ever more implausible ways, it’s just tiresome.
The people he’s following are ‘a plump woman’ and a large group of children, all with red hair because Rowling doesn’t know how genetics work and has forgotten that red hair is a double recessive allele. Meet Molly Weasley, everyone – she’s described as ‘the plump woman’ three times in a single page, but since she’s on Team Harry she at least escapes being compared to various animals. Molly’s an interesting character – she’s pretty terrible as described in the books, but for some reason I’ve built up a headcanon version of her where she’s actually pretty cool, and I’m not entirely sure why.
The woman stops and has a helpfully loud and detailed discussion with her children about what number the platform is. Secrecy, what secrecy? Regardless of Molly’s various issues, at no point in the series does she come across as stupid, so I’m guessing here that she’s spotted Harry following them and recognises him and knows damned well that he hasn’t got a clue about these things. Most of this chapter is set up absolutely perfectly to ensure that Harry befriends the Weasley family, and it’s so perfectly done that it’s tempting to think perhaps someone – maybe Dumbles, maybe someone else – planned the whole thing. (Upon reflection it’s not really that surprising that this fandom ended up having so many conspiracy-theorist fanfics…)
There is one girl in this family (the youngest, Ginny), and her dialogue makes her sound about four or five years old. Which is worrying, because she’s going to come to Hogwarts next book, so she’s actually ten. As Harry watches, the woman sends the eldest boy, Percy, onto the platform – but people walk in the way, and he doesn’t see how the boy does it. Next she sends a pair of twin boys, Fred and George, after a bit involving them pretending she’s got them muddled up, which is actually quite a nice touch and sounds like an old joke worn very thin. Though if you read it another way it could also be suggesting it’s a genuine mistake on her part, which is unlikely given that the twins are around thirteen or so. In any case, enjoy what you see, because sooner or later the twins are going to be revealed as absolutely terrible people whose popularity amongst fans is utterly bewildering.
Harry still can’t see just how the boys are managing to vanish into the wall between the two platforms, so he walks up to them and gets their attention. Molly greets him and recognises that he’s a newbie, and introduces her final son as another newbie – Ron. Harry admits he doesn’t know how to get onto the platform, which Molly treats as perfectly understandable – her voice when she speaks to Harry is described invariably as ‘kind’; her voice when speaking to any other character gets no description at all – and she explains that you literally just walk through the wall, adding that he should do it at a run if he’s nervous.
A total stranger has just told Harry to charge head first into a brick wall. To get to a platform that doesn’t seem to exist, in order to go to a magic school that he doesn’t know the location of. And he does it. Not only that, but while he’s running towards the wall he’s telling himself that it’s not going to work and he’s just going to crash, yet he doesn’t slow down or stop or even flinch and in fact he closes his eyes so he won’t see if it works or not.
Of course, it does work, and when he opens his eyes he’s on a platform absolutely rammed with families – somehow he didn’t run straight into any of them – and there’s a big shiny nonsensical bright red steam train. The description of the atmosphere is nice though, it’s really busy and everyone’s talking to one another and the owls are complaining and cats are wandering around loose.
Don’t ask how the barrier works, by the way. Harry certainly never does, and it never gets explained. (Let us also note that while we’re given at least a modicum of explanation how to get from King’s Cross to the platform, we’re never told anything at all about how one might get back… again, more on that next book.)
He drags his heavy trunk and caged owl along the platform until he finds an implausibly empty compartment, passing enough people that we get two random snippets of conversation – a boy named Neville is with his grandmother and has lost his toad, and a boy named Lee who has dreadlocks and therefore may potentially be our first non-white character has something creepy and hairy in a box.
Having found his empty seat, Harry struggles to get his heavy luggage onto the train, and the twins spot him and come over to help. This is very out of character for Fred and George. Once they’ve dragged Harry’s trunk on board he thanks them and conveniently pushes his hair out of his eyes, letting them see the magical pony-scar. Despite having only been maybe two years old when Voldy snuffed it, the twins too know exactly what that is and what it means, and start fanboying at him until their mother calls them back to the platform to say goodbye and Harry sits down to eavesdrop.
Molly tries to clean something off Ron’s face, and the twins mock him for it. Percy shows up in his uniform, with a prefect’s badge, and the twins mock him for it. Molly then wastes her breath telling the twins to behave themselves, and while they give her cheek about it they make fun of Ron again. They then tell the family that the boy they helped is Harry Potter, omg, and for some reason Molly is surprised by this even though she knew James and Lily pretty well and should have recognised their son a mile off even without the special scar of specialness (given his supposed resemblance to James). Ginny promptly starts fangirling, hopping up and down and begging to be allowed to go onto the train and look at him, which when you know what happens in later books is actually a really fucking creepy reaction. Molly tells her Harry’s not a zoo exhibit – the wizarding world has zoos? – and asks the twins how they know, and they say they saw the scar that they shouldn’t know anything about. Molly seems sympathetic, and warns the twins sternly not to hassle Harry over it, forbidding them to do anything stupid like ask him what You-Know-Who looks like. That’s nice of her.
Ginny starts crying when they get on the train without her. This is probably an odd reaction to most people, but like most pureblood kids the Weasleys are homeschooled and for her entire life she’s had at least one brother at home with her; now she’s got most of a year on her own for the first time. It’s strange because if you follow this line of thought she and Ron ought to be extremely close, since as twins Fred and George will have spent all their time together to the exclusion of everyone else and the other boys are quite a bit older, yet as we’ll see in later books Ron mostly completely ignores his little sister and she doesn’t seem bothered about it.
The train leaves, and Harry feels excited and happy that it’s really happening and he’s really going even if he’s not sure where. Then Ron and the twins show up, because everywhere else on the impossibly huge train is full, and after introducing themselves the twins disappear to go find Dreadlocks Lee and his thing-in-a-box, which turns out to be a tarantula. Background detail is only ever mentioned if it’s going to appear again later, remember that. Ron sits down, and after a few minutes asks if Harry is really Harry Potter despite this having been confirmed multiple times in the last five minutes. Admittedly he says he thought it might have been one of the twins’ jokes, which is fair enough because seriously he has no reason to believe anything they’ve ever told him. Ignoring his mother’s instructions he continues to harp on about it, asking if Harry’s really got the scar, talking about how much Harry remembers of You-Know-Who and generally displaying all the sensitivity and tact of the stereotypical bull in a china shop. This will be his main character trait for seven years, so brace yourselves. He follows this up with saying ‘wow’ and staring at Harry for a few minutes, presumably while his brain reboots. Ron, you are three months older than Harry, what the fuck do you care about something that happened when you were a baby. Stop it. Bad sidekick, no biscuit.
Harry once again forgets that his upbringing should have left him with no real social skills and changes the subject to ask if all Ron’s family are wizards (I meant to mention in a much earlier post how annoying it is that the default term is the masculine ‘wizard’ instead of just saying something gender-neutral like ‘magical’), and Ron says he thinks so and then contradicts it by saying his mother has a second cousin who’s an accountant, but they don’t talk about him. We will never hear about him again. Please note that even the supposedly progressive liberal Weasleys automatically cut off Squib relatives and pretend they don’t exist. Ah, hypocrisy. Ron asks about the Muggles he heard Harry lives with (who told him? This all seems part of someone’s master plan…) and Harry promptly says they’re horrible, glossing over all the many reasons why they might be like that around him, before adding that he wishes he had three wizard brothers. And a sister, Harry, remember? You should probably keep reminding yourself that she exists.
In one of the best parts of his characterisation we’ll ever see, Ron answers ‘gloomily’ that he actually has five wizard brothers and that he has a lot to live up to, because brother Bill was Head Boy, brother Charlie was Quidditch Captain, now brother Percy is a Prefect (which should not be capitalised goddamnit; this isn’t Pokémon, and if it were, Farla would be yelling at you) and even though the twins mess around all the time they get really good marks and everyone likes them. (Rowling seems to have forgotten some of this later, given that some ado is made of the twins failing miserably at their OWLs, though it’s implied to be a conscious choice on their part rather than lack of ability.)
“Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.”
If only the books had stuck to this portrayal of Ron. He could have been a much better character, and exploring this would have explained all his worst traits and made him much more tolerable and realistic. Instead, as you’ll see later, he’s not. He goes on to complain about how you never get anything new if you’re the youngest, and he’s got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand (in complete defiance of what we were told last chapter about how wands work and how little they cost, and while we’re at it why isn’t Charlie still using it?) and Percy’s old pet rat (that is not on the list of approved pets we also saw last chapter).
He then pulls said rat out of his pocket to demonstrate, and tells us this is Scabbers and he’s useless and sleeps all the time. Quite what ‘use’ Ron expects a pet rat to have is beyond me, but of course he sleeps a lot, you idiot, most rodents are nocturnal. And at this point in the series Scabbers is just a rat. Anything that may or may not occur in later books had clearly not been thought of here. Ron goes on to say that Percy got an owl when he was made a prefect but they couldn’t afford one for him too – er, Ron, the twins don’t have owls either and Percy only got his as a reward for achieving something, why would you have expected one? Shut up. Even rich families would struggle to put seven kids through boarding school, so of course most of them won’t have many new things. (Also, why would getting a new pet mean Percy had to abandon his previous one? People usually become attached to their pets…)
Continuing to display mystifying social awareness, Harry cheers his new friend up by talking about how he was always poor too and had to wear his cousin’s old clothes and never got proper birthday presents. This is nice, because at this point we haven’t seen just how screwed up the Weasleys’ level of poverty actually is and we haven’t seen enough magic to realise that the notion of any purebloods being ‘poor’ by our modern standards is ludicrous. Harry goes on to say that until Hagrid showed up he had no idea about being a wizard or about his parents or Voldemort, and Ron is horrified and impressed that omg you said You-Know-Who’s name!!!!
You have to wonder how Ron, or any of the other post-war kids, learned the name in the first place if everyone’s too scared to say it. (I suppose maybe this could have been the first time Ron heard the name, and figured out who it had to have been from context?)
Harry replies logically that it’s not about bravery or anything, he just never knew you shouldn’t say it and keeps forgetting because he doesn’t know anything. And this is a good point – Hagrid never said the name was taboo, just that he personally didn’t like saying it. Ollivander only ever says He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, which could be referring to anyone – his dog? Satan? Aberforth? It would be amusing if You-Know-Who and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named were two different people, wouldn’t it? Okay, from context we can figure out that Ollivander meant Voldy, but it’s not said directly. This is really the first time Harry’s been explicitly told that absolutely nobody says the name. Yet he doesn’t ask why…
Anyway, Harry adds that see, he doesn’t know anything, he bets he’ll be the worst in the class. It’s obviously been preying on his mind a lot, so it would be nice to see more evidence that he’s naturally insecure and doesn’t think much of himself, instead of just having this same conversation being raised time and time again out of nowhere. Ron becomes the latest person to reassure him that no, loads of people come from Muggle families and they learn just fine – er, Ron, how do you know? You’ve never been to Hogwarts before. You’ve certainly never met a Muggleborn student before. (Luckily for the student.)
The conversation cuts off abruptly here, so we never find out how he knows, and they sit and stare out of the windows silently until half past twelve before their next visitor shows up – a witch pushing a trolley full of sweets. One, I’m surprised there’s actually an adult on this train aside from the driver, because until now it seems like the children are left to run wild – and in fact I think after the third book this woman is never seen again. Two, why is there no other food on offer? Yes, children like sweets, but the ticket didn’t say they had to bring their own food and I expect most of the first years are pretty hungry. Besides, I associate a candy fetish with younger children. But Rowling really, really likes talking about sweets, so for the next two and a half pages that’s pretty much all we get, and most of them are a blatant ripoff of Willy Wonka products.
Harry remembers briefly that he’s been deprived of treats most of his life and that he’s never had spending money before, and goes mad and spends a sizeable pile of silver coins on some of everything. The woman doesn’t try to stop him doing this, so it’s a good job he’s not diabetic or allergic to anything. Ron doesn’t buy anything because his mother made him corned beef sandwiches, which she didn’t remember that he doesn’t like, and I’ll stop you there Ron because corned beef is a Muggle product and how the hell does your family even know what it is let alone be able to buy it regularly enough to have an opinion of it? (This would make a lot more sense in the version of the Potterverse where wizards live alongside Muggles in Muggle society, rather than being a completely separate culture, but Rowling never seems to be able to remember which one she’s writing.)
Anyway, Harry then forgets his deprived upbringing again and shares with his new friend. With most children this is a perfectly fine reaction, but Harry’s spent his entire life only getting Dudley’s leftovers and with having things snatched off him all the time, as well as apparently not having much to eat and certainly no sugary treats. He should have no concept of sharing. He should also be far more food-fixated than he is, and right now should be stuffing down as much of this as he can without being sick and cramming the rest into his pockets and his trunk to save for later in expectation of never getting food like this again. It’s also pretty bad taste to pull out fistfuls of money and spend the lot on something frivolous right in front of someone who’s just been complaining about being poor; either Harry’s socially aware enough to avoid mistakes of this type or he’s not, you can’t have both.
Of course, a lot of the sweet-fixation here is to lead onto a specific conversation about Chocolate Frogs (I’m assuming this is a brand name so they can keep their wonky capitalisation), which in the books are just frog-shaped chocolates that come with trading cards of famous witches and wizards. Ron forgets that he’s meant to be poor and claims to own about five hundred of these cards, which is a lot of chocolate for one kid in a family who are apparently infamous for being poverty-stricken. The card in the first frog Harry opens, inevitably, shows Albus bloody Dumbledore.
“Albus Dumbledore, currently Headmaster of Hogwarts. Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Professor Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling.”
The US edition of the books formats this as though it’s on an actual trading card, similar to the way they format the letters. I like that, wish the British books did it. Now, this bit is often cited as one of Rowling’s best pieces of foreshadowing – and to be fair when I first read the books I did totally miss it – but if she really wanted to be clever she should have quoted a couple of the other cards the boys find in later frogs too instead of singling out this particular one. That would also be less fanboyish and Dumbles-is-amazing, which would have been nice.
Why does the card mention ten-pin bowling, anyway? How many wizards do you suppose actually know what that is? I also don’t believe for one second that Dumbles has ever been bowling. (Let’s also note that this is the last we ever hear anything about the twelve uses of dragon’s blood; remember, every detail is important!)
Anyway, Harry discovers at this point that wizard photos move, because the little trading card picture has buggered off. Sadly the only one here is Ron, who can’t possibly explain why even if Harry bothered to ask, and our hero presumably forgets all about it after this because nobody will ever explain how this works. Is there only one photograph that makes its way through every Chocolate Frog card in existence? Are they as aware as the paintings we’ll see later? How the hell is this possible? We’ll never know. Meanwhile Ron is amazed that Muggle photos can’t do that, which is decent as a culture-shock moment but makes no bloody sense.
Now we’re done with the plot-relevant chocolate, we move on to most of a page dealing with Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. I don’t know why. They’re the first thing Rowling dwells on that will never be plot-relevant, so clearly she was very proud of herself for thinking of them. They’re jellybeans that come in all your standard candy flavours but also random things like spinach, grass, fish and so on, though aside from snot and earwax they are all still edible flavours. There’s no mention of ones tasting of, say, copper, or mud, or that nasty glue they use for stamps and envelopes, or the taste you get when you accidentally chew on a leaking pen and end up dyeing half your mouth blue which I have totally never done. In any case, why do these exist? Why would anyone buy a brand of sweets where only about half the packet will taste nice and you’ve got no way of knowing which half? (Why the hell do they actually now exist in our world for fans to buy? Who is buying them and what is wrong with you?)
They get yet another visitor, a ’round-faced’ boy Harry saw on the platform, asking if they’ve seen his toad. He is also a future member of Team Harry, hence the lack of mocking animal-related descriptions. He looks tearful, sounds miserable, and gets upset when they say they haven’t seen it, because normal children care about their pets. Since our hero and his new sidekick give no fucks, he departs still toadless and without getting an introduction, and hopefully he makes it out of earshot before Ron says callously, “Don’t know why he’s so bothered, if I’d brought a toad I’d lose it as quick as I could” before referring again to how useless Scabbers is. He tried to turn the rat yellow yesterday but the spell didn’t work.
Let me repeat that. He tried to use magic on his pet to turn it a different colour. Hey, remember when the narrative described Dudley abusing animals and implied that it was a bad thing? Harry sure doesn’t. It’s also a pretty weird writing choice to have one of the heroes of a children’s book being so dismissive of his pet and scornful of other pets, because that’s not how most children think.
Ron offers to show Harry and gets his wand out of his trunk. Because it’s a hand-me-down, the wand is battered and chipped and the unicorn-hair core is poking out at one end. What the fuck did Charlie do to it? Also, it’s a stick, I would assume it would snap if it was treated this badly. He’s about to try to cast a spell again when yet another visitor shows up, the first female student we’ve seen compared to seven – about to be nine within the next two pages – males. She gets fractionally more description than Draco, Neville, Lee and most of the Weasleys did, at least, though as you can see – “she had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth” – this is not something we should commend Rowling for. She has Neville with her and is helping him look for his toad, which instantly makes her a better person than the boys.
I like Hermione, okay? I know a lot of the fandom shits on her, and it is occasionally justified because she does make some pretty poor decisions from time to time, but overall she’s still a better and more human character than 90% of the rest of the cast. She’s also more interesting than a lot of them just because she’s Muggleborn – and intelligent, which is depressingly rare. Rowling has claimed that Hermione’s her self-insert; excuse me while I laugh hysterically, because seriously, no. No, she’s not.
Anyway, she sees that Ron has his wand out and is obviously about to do magic, and asks to watch. Ron then spouts some absolute doggerel that nobody would think was a real spell, especially someone who’s grown up around actual spells: ‘Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.’ Turns out George taught it to him, and for some reason Ron believed him. Strangely enough, it doesn’t work, and the girl asks if it’s actually a real spell before telling them that she’s tried some spells at home that always seemed to work, and nobody in her family is magical so they were all very excited when she got her letter –
…wait. Letter? I assumed an actual person would have to show up to explain things to Muggle families. I believe this is retconned later since I’ve always had it in my head that she mentions McGonagall visiting her family, and that must have come from somewhere.
Anyway, she carries on talking excitedly about how she’s heard Hogwarts is the best magic school there is (God help the rest of the magical world if that’s true) and how she’s memorised all their textbooks and hopefully that will be good enough and by the way her name is Hermione Granger and what are their names, and this is just cute. This is how an actual socially awkward child behaves when they’re going to somewhere as exciting as magic school. Even if you’re not a fan of Hermione, you have to admit that in half a page she shows more personality and better reactions than Harry has in six chapters. In just this brief scene we’ve learned she babbles when she’s excited or anxious, she helps people, she tries probably too hard at more or less everything, she’s bossy and she might have an eidetic memory. Likewise, we’ve learned that Ron is pretty self-conscious, he doesn’t much like his family and feels guilty about it, he doesn’t like animals, he has no sensitivity or tact and can be a bit self-pitying. What do we know about Harry’s personality by this point? He hasn’t got one. He just reacts the way the book needs him to react.
Harry and Ron introduce themselves when she stops to breathe, and she recognises Harry’s name and tells them she’s read all about him because, unlike our hero, she bothered to buy books that weren’t on the school list and actually tried to learn more about this new world before going there, and apparently he’s in loads of books. Harry is surprised at this and Hermione says she’d have found out everything she could if it had been her. Good point, Hermione. Harry, you’re an idiot. She changes the subject to talk about what houses they might be in and we learn of the third and fourth houses; Gryffindor, which she has been told is the best and is the house Dumbledore was in, and she hopes she’s in that one although Ravenclaw, the final option, ‘wouldn’t be too bad’.
Okay. Allow me to quote a fanfic.
“In what weird alternative universe would that girl not be Sorted into Ravenclaw? If Hermione Granger didn’t go to Ravenclaw then there was no good reason for Ravenclaw House to exist.”
That is a line from Methods of Rationality, on FFN under the author Less Wrong, which I’m sure a few of you have heard of. I’m not going to link to it because in my opinion it’s not really worth it. The first fifteen or so chapters were very good but it’s just gone downhill from there, jumping multiple sharks en route, and will finally be crashing to some sort of implausible ending this month at over a hundred chapters. [Mitchell adds: my opinion of it is a bit more conflicted; I really loved a lot of the early parts of it and thought they were brilliant, until Yudkowsky started taking it too seriously. I honestly can’t give it an unequivocal recommendation, but I don’t feel comfortable encouraging people to avoid it either. Hooray, ambivalence.]
In any case, that one line right there is perfect. Hermione as presented to us would absolutely choose the book house over anything else if she had to crawl over broken glass and give up a couple of limbs to get in. Later on in the series the brainwashing has taken hold and she would probably sadly waste herself in Gryffindor, but at this point she hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid and this is just ridiculous. If a different author had been writing these books, Our Hero would have gone to the amazing-hero house, and his sidekick would have gone to the loyal hardworking house, and Hermione would have gone to the super-smart house, leaving our (hopefully much better written) antagonist to go to the politicking and plotting house. But no.
That line about Gryffindor being the best house because Dumbles was in it might not be as bad as it sounds, if we bear in mind Hermione doesn’t know anything about the wizarding world at that point except what she’s read. If she got hold of something written by a Gryffindor it stands to reason she’d be left with the impression that house was by far the best. First-year Hermione struck me as mostly inclined to believe what adults tell her; she didn’t really learn cynicism for a couple of years. Nonetheless, it’s still bloody stupid.
Hermione takes Neville off to continue searching for his toad, and just as when Neville left them earlier, hopefully they get out of earshot before Ron’s nasty comment: “Whatever house I’m in, I hope she’s not in it.” So do I, Ron, so do I. But not for the reasons you do. Harry asks what houses Ron’s brothers are in now he finally has the names of all four of them, and surprise surprise, every last one of them was in Gryffindor, and so were their parents, and Ron’s worried about what they’ll say if he doesn’t get in. He agrees Ravenclaw wouldn’t be that bad – Ron, it’ll snow on the Sun before you get into Ravenclaw – but shudders at the prospect of going into Slytherin, because eeeeeeviiiiillll. Shut up, Ron.
Harry changes the subject to ask what Ron’s older relatives do, because he wants to know what wizards do when they leave school. Ron says Charlie is in Romania farming dragon-chickens, and Bill does something vague for Gringotts, and by the way did you know that someone broke into Gringotts last month? They haven’t been caught and they don’t appear to have stolen anything but they must be a wicked bad dark wizard and I think I hear the Foreshadowing Fairy’s little bells again. He then promptly changes the subject to ask what Quidditch team Harry supports.
Presumably resisting the urge to facepalm and repeat for the umpteenth time that he doesn’t know anything about the wizarding world, Harry replies patiently that he doesn’t know any teams, and Ron goes off into a long speech about the game that we are mercifully spared since Harry’s apparently not listening. Though it does include a list of the famous matches he’s been to with his brothers. Ron, you’re meant to be poor, remember? (Let’s also note that Ron’s reaction here is bloody weird: “I don’t know any teams” does not mean the same thing as “what the fuck is Quidditch?” and he seems to be responding to the latter.)
They’re interrupted by yet more visitors, good grief. It’s ‘the pale boy’ Harry met in Diagon Alley, who is described in these exact words four times on one page, accompanied by two other boys who are ‘thickset and extremely mean-looking’ and therefore clearly not future members of Team Harry but just normal evil fat people, and in fact they’ll never get any more description or characterisation than fat, mean and stupid. Draco says that people all down the train are talking about how Harry Potter’s in this compartment – in which case you’d think most of the school would have come to have a look at him, wouldn’t you – and asks if it’s true before introducting the other boys as Crabbe and Goyle and giving his name, finally, as Draco Malfoy.
For some reason Ron sniggers. I don’t see why. His middle name is Bilious and his sister is Ginevra, he is fully aware of how stupid wizarding names can be and Draco is totally reasonable compared to that. Though the Weasleys do mostly have more Muggle names, which is somewhat strange when you consider that Molly’s brothers were named Fabian and Gideon. Understandably annoyed at this unprovoked rudeness, Draco snaps that he doesn’t need to ask Ron’s name because his father told him all Weasleys have red hair, freckles and more children than they can afford, before adding that Harry will realise sooner or later that some wizarding families are better than others and he can help him.
Eleven year old boys don’t talk like this. It’s just phrased really oddly. It’s also worth noting that Draco’s stance here is about lower class riff-raff, not blood purity, so that clearly isn’t a thing at this point in the series. Anyway, Harry responds that he can tell the wrong sort for himself, and refuses to shake hands. I can understand wanting to defend his new friend at this point, but his antipathy towards Draco started in their first meeting for no reason. (Let’s also note that Draco’s made a basic logical fallacy here, which really bugs me – “all Weasleys have red hair and freckles” does not entail “all people with red hair and freckles are Weasleys”, though in this universe the latter does seem to be true because Rowling can’t logic either.)
Draco then apparently forgets that when they first met he apologised on hearing that Harry’s parents were dead, since he decides to react by saying that if Harry’s not careful he’ll go the same way they did because they didn’t know what was good for them either. And then he picked up a white fluffy cat and went looking for a spinning chair to sit in while practising his evil laugh, because seriously what the fuck. He’s gone from sucking up to death threats in a single paragraph and isn’t behaving anything like he did when we first met him. Rowling just wants us to hate him.
Harry and Ron stand up and challenge the three of them to a fight, because that’s the sensible and appropriate response when someone’s a bit rude. Understandably not remotely threatened by this, Goyle reaches for some of their sweets instead and Scabbers bites his finger and hangs on.
This entire scene is ludicrous. Rowling wrote them having an argument, then wasn’t sure how to end it, so she resorted to slapstick. Goyle screams and flails a lot, which makes sense because rat bites hurt and can carry a lot of nasty diseases; Scabbers loses his grip and goes flying, slamming into the window and falling to the floor and thus breaking numerous bones, and for some reason Draco and his friends run away in apparent terror. From one rat, who’s now badly hurt and possibly dead.
Hermione shows up again, apparently drawn by the noises, and asks what the fuck happened. Ron ignores her, casually picks up his injured rat by the tail – DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU OWN A RAT. This is how you pick up wild rats that might bite you if you really truly have no other way to move them; it’s an absolute last resort and it can seriously injure them – and says nope, he’s fine, he’s gone back to sleep. No, Ron, he’s unconscious and hurt and will probably die, you are a terrible child. Still ignoring Hermione, he and Harry have a conversation about Harry’s first meeting with Draco and it turns out Ron’s heard about their family from his father and Malfoy Senior is clearly totes eeeeeviiilll.
Finally he acknowledges Hermione’s presence and she says they should get changed because the driver says they’re almost there, and asks if they’ve been fighting because they’ll get into trouble before even getting to school. Ron blames his rat and tells her to leave; she shrugs this off, tells him that he has dirt on his nose and does so. You go girl.
The boys get changed, and Harry notices that Ron’s robes are too short for him and you can see his trainers underneath. (This was changed to sneakers in the US version.) Two things. One, why does Ron have trainers, those are Muggle shoes. Two, his mother’s meant to be a domestic goddess and she can use magic, why can’t she alter the damned robes. My mother once made me a uniform from scratch in two days because the school suppliers fucked up and couldn’t get my stuff to me before term started, and she couldn’t Transfigure stuff with a magic stick. The main indicator of poverty in this series is the condition of one’s clothes; no, Rowling, that doesn’t indicate poverty, it indicates laziness or lack of magical competence.
A magic voice from nowhere tells them that their luggage will be taken to the school by magic – fuck knows what happens to all the cats running around loose – and the train stops. Harry and Ron get off and hear Hagrid yelling for the first years to follow him; he greets Harry by name because showing favouritism to a random kid is never a bad idea ever, then tells all of them to follow him and his single tiny lantern into a pitch-dark forest. He doesn’t bother taking a register, by the way, so he’s got no idea if they’re all there and since none of them can see he’s also clearly not bothered if any of them get lost en route.
They walk down a steep, narrow, dark path to the edge of a huge lake, where there are lots of tiny little boats waiting for them, and everyone piles in. There’s no sign of Draco and his friends, but Harry does notice Neville sniffing unhappily off to one side, and Hermione’s still with him. That’s nice, those two should be friends. Once they’re all in the boats, Hagrid yells ‘Forward!’ and they all somehow start moving, and they sail across the lake towards a castle.
No, this makes no sense either, does it. I suspect Rowling dreamed it and thought it was a cool image. If there’s any in-universe justification at all, maybe they just want to make sure the rest of the students get to the school and settle down before the first years arrive so the sorting ceremony goes smoothly, or maybe just to make sure everyone can stare at the newbies and scare the shit out of them.
Hagrid yells for all the small children to duck as they go into an ivy-covered tunnel in the cliff that the castle stands on – er, Hagrid, if they need to duck, no way in hell are you fitting through – and even though there’s no mention of light Harry can see that they sail through this tunnel right underneath the castle to an underground harbour.
The geography here makes no sense. The Slytherin common room is under the lake, so I can’t see how the castle can stand on top of a huge cliff that far above the lake and I’ve always pictured it being not far from the shore. As if this wasn’t odd enough to imagine, from the harbour the children all climb through another tunnel to a grassy area outside the castle they were apparently just underneath. Hagrid still hasn’t taken a register and checked that nobody’s fallen out and drowned or that they all made it. Also the grass here is described as ‘smooth‘, which is weird and I don’t know what it’s meant to look like.
In the meantime, Hagrid’s somehow managed to find Neville’s toad, which the poor boy is thrilled about. His name is Trevor. That’s sweet. No idea how Hagrid managed to find him, but okay.
And the chapter ends with Hagrid knocking on the big impressive castle doors. Let us note here that we have met exactly one female student and seen exactly one possibly-coloured student.
Holy hell, that was a long one.
To fix this chapter, get rid of the fucking train. Most of the students go directly to Hogsmeade and make their own way to the castle once a teacher has checked their name off a list. First years have to wait and all be taken up together, and not in magic boats. Muggleborns and Muggle-raised kids like Harry could travel to whatever the nearest Muggle train station is and take a short train ride from there to Hogsmeade on the magic steam train, which provides the trope and the imagery and gives the kids time to meet one another and have the necessary conversations while still making some sort of sense.
Most of the conversations are fine. There’s some exposition in there and some future plot points and the personalities of most of the kids start to show through quite nicely, most of it only needs minor tweaks. Change some of the things Draco says, he’s quite capable of making enemies of Harry and Ron without spouting awkward classist nonsense or turning into a Bond villain; let them have a normal argument that ends with Draco and his friends storming off, no stupid rat attack.
Though actually under this system Draco and Ron aren’t there, nor is Neville, so of the kids we’ve seen so far the only ones present would be Harry and Hermione.That’s a good thing. They’re both totally new to this world and totally out of their depth and I think they could have had some really interesting conversations, discussing things Hermione’s found out and trying to puzzle out the answers to questions they’ve both thought up. There’s at least two other Muggleborns in their year, who we haven’t met yet (unfortunately both boys, the gender ratio is waaaaaay off here) and they could join in too.
I feel that would have turned out better for all concerned, personally, but okay, let’s see. They sit around in Hogsmeade for a while waiting for all the first years to arrive, so that gives them some time to talk to the others and have their argument and infodump and whatever. And I suppose for Harry and Ron to make friends, though I can’t say I’d mind if that didn’t happen. Once they’re all there and have all been checked off the list, they’re taken to the school in some appropriately magical way, maybe the ‘horseless’ carriages they use for the regular students, giving them time to finish anything they didn’t get around to before.
And in other news, since clearly I’m not tormenting myself enough with exposure to Rowling’s failures, I picked up a copy of The Silkworm. Book 2 of Cormoran Strike’s romantic drama, with some sort of crime plot trying to happen in the background. So there will be a few posts on that over the next month or two, I expect, as well as more HP posts.