This has been a very long time coming, hasn’t it, folks? I’m sorry. My schedule and Mitchell’s just haven’t been very compatible, it’s been hard to find a few hours uninterrupted by work or relatives. With luck, over the next few weeks we’ll find time to do these much more regularly, but no promises.
Trigger warnings: none. I’ll say this for the Baby Silk Moth of Misogyny and Awfulness, it’s made these books so much more pleasant to write about…
Chapter Eight: The Potions Master (aka the only decently developed character in this whole sorry series)
The chapter art for this is pointless. It’s a book, smoking. This has
nothing to do with anything. Was a cauldron too hard to draw?
The chapter opens with Harry being recognised by literally everyone around him and them all being very shocked by it. For the third time in two chapters. They all heard about him on the train, and then got to stare at him for ten minutes during his Sorting, but the average Hogwarts student has the attention span of a concussed mayfly and they all seem to have forgotten about this overnight. Once again, I ask why any of them would care given that even the seventh years were only around six years old when Voldy was ‘defeated’ and most of the students were toddlers who won’t even remember, yet here they are literally following him around to stare at him.
Harry’s fame and backstory is interesting, in a way. It doesn’t quite fit the standard Chosen One trope. Usually a protagonist is Chosen because of a prophecy that ties into the defining origin myth of their particular world, something that’s been a universally accepted legend in most societies for centuries. That makes it easier, since the entire population has been aware of it for generations and more people are going to believe it than will doubt it. In Harry’s case, the story that makes him Chosen is only ten years old, yet we’re meant to believe it’s somehow permeated the entire world? (As we’ll see later, many other countries are apparently also aware of how amazing Harry Potter is, even though Voldy’s reign never reached beyond Britain.) Subverting tropes is great, but only if it still works.
In addition, Harry’s never talked about in terms of his mythology. He’s not even labelled the Chosen One for several books yet. His title is the Boy Who Lived – his fame is literally simply because he didn’t die. He’s not… I don’t know, Voldykiller, or something more descriptive. It’s not clear if the Hogwarts kids even know why he’s famous and what he’s meant to have done. It’s also worth noting that most wizards think Voldy’s permanently dead, so Harry’s already fulfilled his Chosen One trope – he’s not a potential hero and saviour, he’s done that already. Nobody’s been hoping for him to show up and rescue them from evil, that’s over. The only people who should be excited about Harry’s presence are the very few who believe Voldy’s going to come back and that Harry’s going to defeat him again. One of the Discworld novels says it best – ‘history has a great weight of inertia‘. Most of the population will have moved on. (Especially as Voldy didn’t actually do anything to most people, by all accounts. It wasn’t like the World Wars, no matter how many poorly thought out Nazi analogies Rowling throws in. He wouldn’t have left much of a lasting impression.)
Also, you’d think at least a few people would actually be quite scared of him, assuming they buy into the mythos. This kid supposedly, as an infant, defeated someone who was supposedly the most powerful evil wizard ever. In later books there’s plenty of bullshit with people thinking Harry’s evil, but that’s based on current events and is thrown in purely to try and generate what passes for conflict, but here there’s nothing to indicate it’s possible for people to think that way.
This was a long rant for the opening paragraph of the chapter, wasn’t it. Anyway, Harry wishes people wouldn’t follow him around staring, because he’s got enough to cope with trying to find his way to classes. This segues into a description of just how fucked up Hogwarts is.
‘There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.’
On the one hand, I kind of like this. Magic school should be very weird, and a Muggle-raised child should be fairly disorientated, and this ties into the semi-whimsical feel the Potterverse has at this point before Rowling tries for grimdark and fails; it’s also pretty well written, because credit where it’s due, she’s really good at describing scenery. On the other hand, this is ridiculously impractical – why did the Founders build the castle this way? (And how?) Why has nobody tried to fix it in the centuries since then? Because seriously, it sounds like it would be very easy for a student to get utterly lost and end up starving to death because they’ve been teleported somewhere they can’t get out of. Which might explain why we see so few Muggleborns throughout the series, actually… Also, as we learn later this chapter, at this point Harry hasn’t experienced a Friday here yet, so how does he know some stairs are different then? I suppose someone could have told him (and this is the boy who believed a total stranger telling him to charge headfirst at a brick wall, after all) but there’s been no mention of any kind of orientation for the new students. I’ve mentioned before that my secondary school was in a big stately home, and it was pretty easy to get lost without magic troll stairs, which is why they gave us maps and also had teachers come get us and take us to lessons for the first week. There were also signs in the corridors pointing you towards various departments. At Hogwarts you’re on your own.
As if troll stairs and doors weren’t enough, the ghosts make things worse by frequently drifting through doors the children are trying to open and scaring the shit out of them. Peeves, the poltergeist we met last chapter, openly assaults them as well. You could probably develop a pretty interesting story around theories concerning why nobody’s ever tried to get rid of him. Harry assures us that Filch, the caretaker, is somehow worse than Peeves, though. On their first morning, Filch caught Harry and Ron trying to get through the locked door on the third-floor corridor that they were warned not to go near literally a few hours ago, and not unreasonably wouldn’t believe that they didn’t know where they were. He threatened to lock them up, and somehow this makes him worse than a ghost who throws things at them, tries to trip them up, and randomly grabs them. Harry, you are a fucking idiot. Get some perspective. Quirrell ‘happened’ to be passing at the time and rescued them, which is a really nice subtlety that no first-time reader would remember but that jumps out on subsequent readthroughs – Rowling can do foreshadowing well, accidentally, when she’s not trying to telegraph how clever she thinks she is.
Incidentally, Filch is invariably described every time he shows up throughout the series as ‘wheezing‘, and is heavily implied to be quite elderly. Leaving aside the question of why Hogwarts has a caretaker – let’s put that in the file with Hagrid’s redundant job as well – he’s not exactly a great choice for the post. Especially given what we’ll learn about him later. Also, school janitors don’t actually have the power to even scold students, let alone shout and threaten them or assign punishments (though in a few cases they really ought to). In any case, we get some more inexplicable animal cruelty here – Filch has a cat, Mrs Norris, who is super-intelligent and patrols by herself and brings her master to scenes of trouble, and apparently most of the students want to kick her down the stairs.
I never gave it much thought, but if Mrs Norris is that smart she must be part-Kneazle or something, like Crookshanks. I don’t know where Filch would have got her from if that’s the case. Rowling also doesn’t seem to like cats very much – see Umbridge for further evidence.
Anyway, after blathering on about the staircases and the caretaker, Harry finally gets around to telling us a bit about his lessons.
‘There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.’
Yeah. This line sent Mitchell and me into hysterics. After all, the title of our blog comes from the Harry Potter magic system – point stick, say word. It’s vaguely implied throughout the series that there is a lot more magic can do, but we’ll never see any of it except at a distance, and that rarely. Harry will only ever perform the kind of magic involving waving his stick and saying something in broken quasi-Latin, and no other kinds of magic will ever be explained, nor will we learn any magical theory.
Which sucks, because that’s my favourite part of most fantasy stories. But we’re magic geeks, so we relucantly concede not everyone wants to learn the nerdy stuff. Still, enough people do that we should get something.
The vagueness about how the magic system works could be a positive, as a kind of literary smokescreen to preserve the immersion. In fantasy series that aren’t hyper-focused on magic users, where mages are just side characters, this works pretty well. It’s part of the universe but not a major focus, so it doesn’t need to be picked apart since the main cast have no reason to need to know how it works and it would interrupt the flow of the story. It’s also a good choice for less competent authors, since the fewer details you have, the less chance there is of you fucking up and contradicting yourself or making mistakes.
In a fantasy series where every cast member is a magic user, in a setting designed to teach half the characters how their magic works, it’s just stupid not to include it. And on the very few occasions where Rowling does give us a solid rule about how her magic system operates, she contradicts herself and gets it wrong.
Mitchell adds: let’s have a brief aside to talk about magic systems in fiction, I suppose.
It can be instructive to think about separating the magic system’s transparency to the characters within the story, and its transparency to the reader. There can actually be quite a lot of value in writing in such a way that obscures details to the reader while still making it clear the characters know about them; if nothing else, this is a very good way to preserve the suspension of disbelief. The alternative is making it completely obvious where the Invented Bullshit meets reality, and drawing the reader’s attention to this can catapult them right out of the story (I present as an example Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, throughout which I mostly kept getting distracted by the arbitrariness of the properties he assigned to various metals, and mentally shouting METAL DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY; while there are things I enjoyed in those books, overall they definitely irritated me more often than not). A bit of obfuscation around the specific point of departure is probably a good thing. So, for instance, having the students taking copious notes without actually going into much detail about what the notes contain could be a decent idea. On the other hand, magic systems also need well-defined rules in order to maintain internal consistency in the fictional world (something Rowling’s never seemed to grasp, really), so too much obfuscation causes other problems. As in this case, where she portrays things as ‘point stick, say word’ so consistently that all of her telling us it’s more complicated than that rings hollow.
One way I like to think about magic systems is in terms of the converse of Clarke’s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”. Any story is going to have to fall at some point on the scale of advancement, if you will. How well-informed are the characters about the rules by which their world’s magic operates? It’s definitely possible to do interesting things with magic systems that aren’t well-understood by the characters, nor by the readers; there’s a sense of mystery etc this can provide, which I think is definitely conducive to maintaining a ‘magical’ feel to things (as opposed to the point where magic starts to feel like technology); that said, if the author doesn’t have at least some well-defined rules in mind for how things work, there’s some danger of ending up in the deus-ex-machina failure mode (where it looks to the reader like the author is constantly pulling things out of their arse and making everything up as they go along). So the limitations need to be there even if they aren’t mentioned explicitly in the text; done well, this gives the reader something to puzzle over and speculate about (for that matter, done badly it can do this too, somehow: see how many readers have tried to find a way to make a coherent whole out of what Rowling’s given us). The alternative extreme is to go into incredible detail about how the magic works, which can also work very well at times, but as I said above, one risks killing suspension of disbelief etc in taking this too far (never mind also that there’s a risk of boring readers who aren’t specifically interested in those sort of complexities). The other danger with too much specificity is running into what I’ll call the “video game” failure mode – there’s definitely a risk of ending up with lists of predefined spells with numerical costs that will be deducted from a mana meter, etc.
If you’re going to write a story specifically about characters learning magic (and, especially, if you want to make details of the magic system into plot points later – as Rowling does attempt), you probably want to err at least somewhat on the detailed/’technological’ side of the spectrum, so that there’s actually something you can portray the characters learning. Done well, the reader could feel like they’re learning it alongside the characters, which is also a plus (as Loten said earlier, at least for us that seems to be a lot of the appeal of a setting like this). It’s very difficult to successfully portray an academic setting when the sum total of knowledge the students acquire is a list of words or phrases that could be written on a scrap of paper and memorised over a week-end.
One of the things that I think ends up making the Potterverse so rich as a fanfic setting, actually, is the fact its magic system (well, everything, really, but I’m focusing on magic systems here) is so poorly defined; there’s a skeleton there to work with, enough to provide a bit of consistency and recognition between stories, but each author and/or story has the freedom to flesh it out in a way that will suit the story they want to tell. Of course, this doesn’t really work as a defence of the source material: I’ve said before and will probably say again that the qualities of the Potterverse that make it work well as a fandom don’t actually seem to be the same qualities that would make it a quality story or fictional setting; there’s a certain open-endedness to all of its failures that I think might contribute to making it so compelling to tinker with.
For some reason Harry starts his list with the least interesting subjects. On Wednesday nights they study Astronomy, learning the names of stars and the movements of the planets. When I talked about revising the Hogwarts syllabus in my fic Post Tenebras Lux (shameless promotion is shameless), I removed Astronomy from the core timetable and made it a third-year option, because there’s zero reason for the first-years to study it. We’ll learn later that centaurs can predict the future using the stars and planets, but human prophecy doesn’t work that way and there is literally no connection between human magic and astronomy. What they learn about it in Divination in later books will make it clear that it’s a load of rubbish. Astronomy remains utterly irrelevant for the whole of the series, yet it’s mentioned a few times in every book. I wonder if it’s another of Rowling’s ghost plots that was originally intended to have a purpose? Also, Harry’s going to describe his teachers for all his subjects except Astronomy, for some weird reason. We’ll eventually learn that the teacher is a witch named Aurora Sinistra, but I don’t think we ever get any kind of description.
They have Herbology three times a week, learning to look after magical plants and fungi and studying their uses. This actually makes sense – even if it only really ties in to Potions, it seems like something that would actually be useful in later life, and is information-dense enough to need more lessons to take it all in. It should also be more interesting than the books give it credit for, given that most magical plants seem to be dangerous in some way. Herbology is taught by Professor Sprout, head of Hufflepuff house – ‘a dumpy little witch‘. I find it interesting that ‘dumpy’ is generally not a pleasant word, it implies fat and plain and other ‘negative’ traits, but Rowling generally uses it for characters she sort-of likes such as Molly Weasley. It’s also quite awkward seeing female characters described as witches given all the modern connotations; though it is technically the term for a female magic user in this universe, the masculine ‘wizard’ is the default word in most cases. Maybe she thought ‘mage’ was too geeky.
[Mitchell adds: it continues to bother me that the Potterverse arbitrarily divides the terminology along gendered lines when there is no actual reason to. It’s just yet more sexist language, when there’s no difference between a wizard and a witch except what their gender identity happens to be. It’s also a wasted opportunity of a different kind, because it could have been a good way to have multiple kinds of magic/magic-users in the setting – ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ would be a lot cooler, and a lot less redundant, if witchcraft and wizardry were two different things and we could learn what distinguished them, etc etc. Likewise with other terms, ‘sorcerer’ is definitely thrown about a bit and I think ‘warlock’ makes an appearance too, but Rowling never does anything with them or even suggests they’re anything other than synonyms for ‘wizard’ or ‘witch’.]
Harry’s least favourite subject – so far – is History of Magic, because it’s extremely boring. I’m not sure what he’s basing this on, really, since this is half way through his first week and at most he can only have had maybe two lessons. Also, History of Magic is taught by a ghost – Professor Binns – and a Muggle-raised child is unlikely to be so jaded after only a few days that he’d find this boring regardless of the subject matter. In any case, History of Magic involves taking notes of names and dates as Binns drones on a lot, and it’s easy to mix up what they’re learning (not that we’re told what that actually is). History as a dull list of dry facts by a teacher with a boring voice is an established trope, so I can’t technically fault it here, but this is also an example of the anti-intellectual trend throughout the series. I have no idea why Rowling tried for a school story when she so clearly has no respect for education.
(My history lessons were fairly interesting, actually. Though admittedly a lot of that was because we all knew the history teacher was having an affair with one of the art teachers. The day his daughter, also a pupil at the school, found out was… quite dramatic.)
It’s always seriously annoyed me that History of Magic isn’t given more screen time. It’s used for a plot dump in the next book, and apart from that the only things we’re ever told that they learn about are old witch trials (played for laughs, silly Muggles can’t possibly hurt real wizards) and goblin rebellions that are never relevant to anything. Rowling had the perfect opportunity to use these lessons to tell us about the first wizarding war and explain why we should actually worry about Voldy coming back, to make us care about her villain and want her protagonist to win, and she didn’t bother. This could have been a great vehicle to get us all completely invested in the plot, and she dropped the ball. It would also have been a nice way to explain some of her worldbuilding, but we all know she didn’t do any. (You’d also think that ‘History of Magic’ would actually involve learning about the history of magic, e.g. when various types of magic were discovered or developed, etc… but that would have involved actually developing a magic system. As it stands, the class is really just ‘History, but only the parts Muggles aren’t allowed to know’… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but isn’t really what the name of the class suggests.)
‘Professor Flitwick, the Charms teacher, was a tiny little wizard who had to stand on a pile of books to see over his desk. At the start of their first lesson he took the register, and when he reached Harry’s name he gave an excited squeak and toppled out of sight.’
Sigh. It’s unclear whether Flitwick actually has dwarfism or is just very short – I honestly can’t remember if his being part-goblin is canon or fanon, and I’m too lazy to look it up – but this certainly comes across as ableist. I can easily buy that Hogwarts wouldn’t bother providing appropriate furniture to help him teach without having to balance on piles of books, but the man is a wizard, why on earth doesn’t he give himself a taller chair, a shorter desk, or both? There’s also no reason why just reading Harry’s name would make him literally lose his balance and fall over, even if he is a fanboy for some reason. As far as I know, Flitwick wasn’t particularly involved in the first war – I don’t think he was in the Order, fanon aside, and he’s certainly not involved in the second one – so there’s really no reason for him to care. But I’m surprised it took four subjects for us to see a fanboy teacher, though this attitude won’t reappear and won’t be relevant since Flitwick himself is rarely onscreen.
Professor McGonagall teaches Transfiguration. We’ve talked about what a pointless waste of time that is before; there are really half a dozen basic concepts that can then be adapted to literally anything. It’s a six-week summer course at best, but is unaccountably a compulsory five-year subject. Harry thinks she’s strict and clever; we’ll see many times over the series that she’s not. The first chapter demonstrated that she’s not, and next chapter is going to really hammer this home in infuriating fashion. Her description is actually very consistent throughout the series, unlike a hell of a lot of the cast, but her behaviour never backs it up.
Of course, it’s not her fault. Someone is throwing around liberal amounts of drugs (shameless promotion is still shameless). She never gets a chance to actually use her brain properly; she might well be quite clever for all we know. She does actually bother to give the children a safety talk in the first lesson, which by Hogwarts standards is off-the-charts levels of intelligence, though her subject isn’t particularly dangerous as far as I can tell and if it was so complicated you wouldn’t be trying to teach it to children.
She demonstrates Transfiguration by turning her desk into a pig. To be fair, it doesn’t specify a live pig, but this is still troubling. Throughout the series the students will blithely be turning inanimate objects into living things and vice versa without anyone ever questioning the ethical or philosophical issues behind this. The students take copious notes, though goodness knows what about, before trying to turn a matchstick into a needle. There is zero reason why either of these products would exist in the wizarding world, incidentally. Hermione’s the only one to make any progress by the end of the lesson.
That’s the other reason Transfiguration mildly annoys me; it seems to have been transplanted from another series, because it runs on a completely different magic system. Almost all magic in the Potterverse is absolutely binary; it either works or it doesn’t, and sometimes backfires and does something dangerous instead. But Transfiguration works by degrees – in this case, Hermione manages to make her match change colour and become vaguely pointy, without actually changing it completely into a needle. Nothing else in this universe works this way.
Harry is disappointed by his Defence Against the Dark Arts lessons; apparently it’s the one class everyone was looking forward to, which could make sense (although I would have been looking forward to all of them, because IT’S BLOODY MAGIC SCHOOL), but Quirrell makes them ‘a bit of a joke’. We’re not actually told how, of course; Harry hasn’t bothered to mention the actual content of most of his lessons, and he never will (lazy author is lazy). The classroom smells of garlic, and the students tell each other it’s to ward off a vampire that Quirrell met in Romania and is worried will be coming after him. God knows what this is based on, but I’m disappointed it wasn’t Albania, since that would have been more accurate and thus more effective misdirection. There’s an odd emphasis on vampires throughout the series, actually, and I’m inclined to think it might be another ghost plot because we only ever see one and he’s not exactly plot-relevant.
(This is also a curious detail because, as far as I can tell, garlic will never be mentioned in connection with Potterverse vampires again. Are we meant to suppose this was baseless speculation by the students based on cultural osmosis and the like, or take it as an actual detail about the setting’s vampires?)
Quirrell tells them his turban was a gift from an African prince as a reward for dealing with a zombie. Rowling will decide in later books that zombies don’t exist in her world, and calls them Inferi instead, but she hadn’t planned that far here. Fair enough, but if you can do magic zombies pose exactly zero threat, and even to Muggles they’re not that terrifying. Quirrell should have come up with a better cover story – or better yet, not drawn so much attention to the fucking turban because nobody cares about the origins of his hat. This is what happens when Rowling makes a conscious effort to do foreshadowing.
The students don’t believe him. Seamus asks how he defeated the zombie and Quirrell blushes and changes the subject – no seriously, is this man an idiot? It’s just a zombie. You set fire to it. You picked up a piece of furniture by magic and smashed its head in. (This would have been a really good explanation to use, given what happens in the troll fight later.) You turned it into a rock. Anyway, there’s also a ‘funny smell’ hanging around the turban. I have no idea how the children can tell it’s specifically the turban that’s the origin of the smell; why are they apparently sniffing Quirrell’s head? The Weasley twins, who have no reason to be discussing this with their little brother’s friends, insist the turban is stuffed with garlic for added vampire protection, but Harry didn’t say the funny smell was garlic and he clearly knows what garlic smells like. (Also, what’s causing the smell? We know what’s actually under the turban and I don’t know why it would have a particular odour.)
‘Harry was very relieved to find out that he wasn’t miles behind everyone else. Lots of people had come from Muggle families and, like him, hadn’t had any idea that they were witches and wizards. There was so much to learn that even people like Ron didn’t have much of a head start.’
Ron is a very poor yardstick to be using, Harry. I assume most of these Muggleborns get lost and starve to death, since we only know of four Muggle-raised students in Harry’s year and one of those is Harry himself. And given how often the issue of purebloods having an advantage has been brought up in the book thus far, it’s a little odd that as far as I remember the subject is now going to vanish and will never, ever be raised again.
When Friday of the first week rolls around, Harry and Ron manage to get to breakfast without getting lost for the first time. (Even though apparently some of the staircases go somewhere different today.) Harry asks Ron what they’ve got today, because God forbid he show some initiative and look at his timetable, and Ron says it’s double Potions with the Slytherins.
Why do they only have Potions once a week? Given how many things potions can apparently do in this universe, I would think it was an important enough subject to take up at least as much timetable space as Herbology. And how long is a double lesson? At my school the timetable was broken up into half-hour slots, and most lessons were an hour long, thus double lessons, but is that the case here? Mitchell tells me the American system is much more arbitrary and periods can last anywhere between forty minutes and an hour – and that they often also sensibly include transition times to walk between classes – but it seems likely a double lesson here is probably going to be two hours. Since it appears to be their only subject all day, it could be a lot longer than that, which would make up for the fact that they apparently only get one lesson a week and would also allow them to do longer practical classes involving more time-consuming potions, but you wouldn’t inflict a long lab session on pre-university students.
And why is this class with the Slytherins? Okay, we know why – so Rowling can tell us all that Snape’s evil – but it’s so arbitrary. There’s been no mention so far of any other class being shared with another house. Later we’ll learn they have Herbology with the Hufflepuffs, and Care of Magical Creatures in third year will also be shared with the Slytherins, but every other subject seems to be one-house only. Given the workload Snape would apparently be under if the Potterverse was real, it does actually make sense that his lessons would be combined – so would McGonagall’s, probably, though her lessons would only need to be infrequent single periods, so perhaps not – but there’s never any actual reason given to justify Rowling’s need for petty drama (seriously, would even Hogwarts staff be stupid enough to deliberately pair up the two houses constantly at war with one another? Especially in potentially dangerous lessons?). It makes less sense for classes to be split by house at all, actually; teaching all the first years together for every subject would be more likely, and in later years they’d probably be separated by ability rather than by what bedroom they sleep in.
(We’ll never really be able to make sense of the class scheduling at Hogwarts… to start with, let’s keep in mind that we’re expected to believe a single professor per subject is sufficient to teach seven years of students. Each year is going to require their own syllabus, of course. This would be an insane workload for a single teacher even if we didn’t consider the fact that for many of those years they’ll need multiple sections – if we assume every subject follows the ‘two houses at a time’ model then each professor is somehow teaching fourteen separate classes. And they somehow still have time to do things like patrol the corridors. The only way to make any sense of it (aside from just saying Rowling never considered anything beyond Harry’s schedule) is to assume they’ve all been outfitted with Time-Turners.)
Ron says Snape is head of Slytherin, and that ‘they’ say he always favours them. Who ‘they’ are isn’t clear; I don’t know why he wouldn’t have just said ‘my brothers’ or something. The series will constantly make a huge deal of the fact that Snape favours his own house, but that’s his job. He is their head of house. Of course he favours them. That’s the point. McGonagall favours her own house too, and nobody ever makes a fuss about that. Harry never pays any attention to Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff but if he ever did I’m sure we’d see their heads of house favouring them too. Also, we see very few examples of this supposed favouritism throughout the series. It does happen, but we’re told about it far more often than we actually see it. Like most things in these books.
About a hundred owls sweep into the Great Hall to deliver the post, as they do every morning. Harry assures us blithely that he’s quite used to this now. Yes, because you are so dull and unimaginative it’s taken you less than a week to stop caring about anything at Bloody Magic School (TM). He’s never had post, but today Hedwig brings him a note and starts nibbling his toast. One, owls don’t nibble things, they swallow them whole. Two, don’t let your owl eat toast, she’s not a dog. Anyway, the note is from Hagrid:
‘Dear Harry, (it said, in a very untidy scrawl)
I know you get Friday afternoons off, so would you like to come and have a cup of tea with me around three? I want to hear all about your first week. Send us an answer back with Hedwig.
(This is in a handwritten font face in the US version, as all letters are. I still wish the British version did that.)
Why do they get Friday afternoons off? What kind of school is this? I didn’t start getting free periods on my timetable until I was taking my NEWT-equivalents and was down to four subjects. I suppose boarding schools might work a little differently, I have no idea, but seriously. And if they were going to get free afternoons it ought to be on Wednesdays given that they have Astronomy lessons at midnight that day. In addition, a random staff member asking a young boy to come to his house is fairly questionable. Anyway, Harry naturally says yes – it occurs to me that there’s no reason why he’d know where Hagrid lives at this point, but okay, sure – though he has to borrow Ron’s quill to reply. He’s apparently starting his school day without any of his things, which might make life a little difficult.
This book doesn’t believe in scene breaks, so we move straight into Potions.
‘At the start-of-term banquet, Harry had got the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.’
Potions takes place in the dungeons. Once again, this castle was custom-built as a school, why the fuck does it have dungeons. It’s cold, and there are pickled animals in jars around the walls. This is pretty normal for science classrooms, honestly, but here it’s apparently creepy.
‘Snape, like Flitwick, started the class by taking the register, and like Flitwick, he paused at Harry’s name.’
The fact that this is specifically stated implies that none of the other teachers have bothered taking a register and have no idea whether all the students made it to the lesson without being transported somewhere or murdered by sadistic ghosts or getting stuck in fake stairs. Remind me again how Snape’s meant to be a terrible teacher? He’s already showing more responsibility for his classes than almost all the other staff. Also I think this also demonstrates that Snape’s behaviour in this lesson seems so much worse than it actually is because it’s contrasted with literally every other magical adult we’ve met thinking Harry is fucking amazing. Snape is literally the only one not worshipping him.
He refers to Harry as ‘our new – celebrity.‘ While this is clearly sarcastic, it’s not really an insult. It follows on from what I said earlier about Harry not being treated as a hero, in fact; Harry is being treated like a celebrity. He’s famous for existing, not for having done anything awesome. And it’s pretty ironic that Rowling is so anti-celebrity (Lockhart, anyone?) when she goes on to become one. Draco, Crabbe and Goyle snigger, despite this not actually being funny, but it’s nice that the other two are described as Draco’s friends. They’re treated as his henchmen, his minions, so it’s nice to have it pointed out that there’s more to it.
Snape finishes the register and looks at them; his eyes are described as ‘black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels.’ People don’t have black eyes, generally speaking. Non-Caucasian ethnicities often have extremely dark eyes, but still more brown than black; outside Fantasyland I’ve never heard anyone described as having black eyes. I’m also baffled trying to imagine eyes that make people think of tunnels, because honestly that sounds more like empty eye sockets, or as though he has no irises and oversized pupils, or something. And this is really not an analogy an eleven year old would think of. Though presumably ’empty’ means he’s using Occlumency, which would actually make sense (we know she hadn’t thought of that at this point, but hey, stopped clocks and all that).
Anyway, Snape then makes a short speech by way of introduction to his subject, which I’m quoting in full because it’s fucking awesome:
‘You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potionmaking,’ he began. He spoke in barely more than a whisper, but they caught every word – like Professor McGonagall, Snape had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort. ‘As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses … I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.’
Seriously, how can you not like this guy. Of course, the film had the added benefit of Alan Rickman’s very dangerous voice, but even without that this is just a cool speech. It’s also a blatant challenge to the students to prove him wrong, which is a perfectly legitimate teaching method and – as Hermione’s reaction in particular shows – pretty successful. (Interestingly, ‘dunderheads’ wasn’t Americanised for the US version.) Credit where credit’s due, Rowling does manage to come out with a genuinely well-written passage occasionally.
Snape then starts asking Harry questions about various Potions ingredients, and sneering when he doesn’t know the answers. Technically, this is a legitimate teaching method, since Snape does go on to give the right answers and tells them all to write it down – though what he tells them about the Draught of Living Death is contradicted in book six. In some circumstances, pushing a student to make mistakes and then correcting them does help information stick in the memory, and all the potions and ingredients mentioned here do show up again at various points throughout the series. In particular, Harry being taught about bezoars here in a way that guarantees he’ll remember it ends up saving someone’s life (though sadly just Ron, who by that point we could happily do without).
Though the sneering part isn’t necessary, of course. Obviously Snape’s behaviour is unpleasant. Even his fans mostly don’t try to deny that. It’s horrible, and children are occasionally going to be upset by it, and he really shouldn’t be teaching. But there’s a very large gap between ‘my teacher is a temperamental arsehole’ and ‘my teacher is literal evil and abusive and everyone must be terrified of him and think he wants to summon the Devil and rule the world’, and as we’ll see frequently the narrative always takes the latter option.
Just to demonstrate this, let’s look at Neville for a moment. We won’t really see it for a while yet, but he is absolutely petrified of Snape for the entirety of his time at the school, and there’s absolutely no reason why he would be. Think about what we know of Neville. His relatives tried to kill him on a regular basis for most of his life, and his parents were tortured into insanity. There are two possibilities that would make sense here: either he’s not remotely scared of Snape merely for calling him an idiot, because compared to being thrown out of a window or almost drowned or repeatedly tortured for fun that’s not remotely frightening. Or he’s scared of every single teacher, including Snape, in case they start throwing him out of windows or drowning him or torturing him. Having him be perfectly fine with every teacher – including the supposedly strict McGonagall, who is his head of house and has the actual power to punish him – except one is just nonsense. Once again, Rowling had plenty of options and picked the one that doesn’t work.
Moving on, then. There is a fanon theory that there’s a hidden message in the questions Snape asks; if you look at some of the obscure symbolism behind the various plants he mentions, you get references to regret and lilies and death, and a subsection of the fandom ran with this and decided that Snape was trying to apologise for Lily’s death and turned against Harry when he didn’t understand and therefore accept the apology. It’s an… interesting theory, certainly, and I could believe that Snape knows enough to have come up with something this cryptic, but it’s not remotely in character for him to say it and he’s easily smart enough to know Harry wouldn’t get it. [While there may be something genuinely cool about it, I generally give the side-eye to anything you need to use Bible Code-level techniques to discover. Coincidences do exist.]
During this questioning, Hermione starts acting a little oddly. She knows the answers to all the questions Snape asks, and when he ignores her raised hand she escalates her behaviour to get him to notice her, ending by physically standing up. Obviously she’s meant to be a caricature of the teacher’s-pet stereotype, the really smart showoff kid nobody likes who fawns over all the staff, but she doesn’t act like this most of the time and certainly wouldn’t be doing so five minutes into the first lesson with a strict and intimidating new teacher. When she reaches the point of standing up, Harry answers the next question by saying he doesn’t know but that he thinks Hermione does, why doesn’t Snape ask her? Several children laugh at this, but I have to admit it’s not particularly rude – at least, his voice is described as ‘quiet‘ rather than defiant or sarcastic or something. It’s still not really how you should behave towards a teacher, and as we’ve discussed before Harry ought to be very wary of unfamiliar adults, particularly ones he thinks hate him. Snape responds by snapping at Hermione to sit down, explaining the answers to all his questions to the class, and docking a house point from Harry for cheek.
The students are split into pairs and set to work making Boil-Cure Potion. I don’t know why literally their first lesson is a practical, since Snape – theatrical though he can be 🙂 – isn’t the type to go for flashy demonstrations of how awesome his subject is and just expects people to realise it’s awesome on their own, plus it just plain doesn’t make sense. Let’s believe that Dumbledore, who presumably approves the syllabus since there’s no official body regulating it, vetoed the idea of having the first lesson be a health and safety workshop and an explanation of how to use the equipment. Alternatively, let’s go with the more likely reason that Rowling doesn’t remember how science works, since she never describes a single theory-based Potions lesson. All their lessons are brewing. Also, why would a potion designed to cure boils contain stewed slugs, powdered snake fangs, dried nettles and porcupine quills? I get that Rowling was going for anything that sounded creepy and witchy, but seriously, lay off Macbeth and go for actual healing herbs or something.
Snape compliments Draco on his ingredient preparation at one point, and uses it as an example to the rest of the class of what it’s meant to look like. I think this is meant to demonstrate how he so unfairly favours his own house all the time, but he doesn’t give Draco points for it here or on any future occasions (as far as I remember), and there are a lot of examples throughout the series of most of the rest of the staff throwing points around for any Gryffindor student merely doing what was asked of them. If you want to insist a teacher is unfairly biased, you might want to show him actually being unfairly biased a little more often.
In any case, we don’t dwell on it for long since at this point Neville manages to cause an accident. This is why no teacher anywhere would start brand-new first years on a practical lesson. Neville has managed to completely melt Seamus’ cauldron, creating clouds of nasty-sounding fumes and drenching himself literally from head to foot in caustic liquid that’s causing him a lot of pain, creating boils all over his body and burning holes in nearby students’ shoes.
Firstly, the cauldrons are made of pewter. Depending on the quality and the metals present the melting point of pewter can vary, but is around 170–230 °C (338–446 °F). You’re not going to be able to cause an exothermic reaction strong enough to reach those kinds of temperatures with bits of animals. Secondly, I can’t accept that just adding an ingredient before taking the potion off the heat is enough to completely reverse it so it causes boils instead of curing them. Thirdly, none of the ingredients we’re told about would be remotely corrosive, nor would children this young be allowed in the same room as anything dangerous enough to burn through shoes in seconds, nor would anyone be near anything that dangerous without safety shoes. Fourthly, Neville has absolutely covered himself in this stuff, but his partner Seamus and every other student in the vicinity is miraculously completely untouched until the spill manages to reach their shoes? (and despite the liquid itself being incredibly toxic, the fumes have done nothing?) And how is it travelling that far? How big are these cauldrons? I don’t believe they’re using industrial-sized vats for classroom work.
Basically there’s absolutely nothing about this scenario that’s remotely possible. Literally the only thing Rowling ever learned in chemistry is that some liquids are corrosive. And then she forgot even this much by the time she wrote The Silkworm.
Yes, yes, I know, children’s book. That’s not an excuse for not bothering to research anything.
Snape calls Neville an idiot, instead of being impressed that the boy managed to defy most of the laws of the universe. He does so while cleaning up the spill and getting another student to take Neville to the hospital wing, though. What a bastard, right? Then he turns on Harry and Ron, tells them off for not stopping Neville in time and takes another point off Harry. Yeah, all right, that’s a dick move. But it’s also not the end of the world. It’s two entire points. In fact I’m certain we never see Snape taking more than five points from anyone, ever, and one point is pretty normal for him, whereas the other teachers all seem to work in multiples of ten.
Harry is in low spirits when the lesson finishes an hour later – oh, so a double lesson is about an hour and ten minutes long, then? That doesn’t seem very likely, and no seriously why is this apparently all they do on a Friday. Ron tells him to cheer up, Fred and George are always losing points. We’ll see later that actually most students tend to lose points quite frequently and a whole two points won’t register with anyone; right now I can’t believe Harry’s gone through the week without ever witnessing anyone losing a point for anything. Later when he does actually lose quite a lot of points I can understand him feeling bad, but here it’s just Rowling insisting that Snape’s utter scum instead of mildly unpleasant.
Ron asks if he can go and visit Hagrid too, and Harry accepts. No, Harry. If someone asks you to their house, you don’t randomly decide to bring a friend along. You contact the person and ask if that’s okay. If you were consistently written as not understanding normal social rules thanks to your ‘abusive’ upbringing this would work, but instead you’re just occasionally a rude little shit.
Hagrid lives in a one-room wooden hut on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, complete with open fire (though there’s never any mention of it being very smoky and cold). I can certainly see Dumbledore not caring enough about his staff to provide adequate living quarters, but although it’s repeatedly implied that this post was arbitrarily created just for Hagrid, at one point Molly Weasley refers to a previous groundskeeper; unless said groundskeeper was also forbidden to use magic, why didn’t he make himself a proper house? With insulation? And a bathroom? Rowling’s been spending too much time reading about stereotypical Ye Olde Medieval Peasants, so there are hams and dead pheasants hanging from the ceiling of the hut as well. Pheasants I can accept, even a magic forest probably has lots and it’s not like Hagrid’s a real gamekeeper who would be maintaining the population for rich people to shoot and therefore wouldn’t be allowed to eat them, but where did the hams come from? He doesn’t keep pigs or other livestock (though he does grow vegetables), and there’s no mention of anywhere suitable for butchering large animal carcasses, not to mention that there’s more to smoking meat than hanging it in a room with a fire (alternatively that’s just coincidence and Hagrid doesn’t know you’re meant to preserve meat).
Of course, this begs the question of where meat in general comes from in the wizarding world, and in fact most foodstuffs. I don’t see them going in for farming, or milling grain into flour, or making butter or cheese from milk, or processing cane or beets into sugar, or…
Fuck it, it’s magic. (It certainly can’t be economics, most of them don’t even seem to know how Muggle currency works so I can’t imagine they’re buying any of it!)
Hagrid owns a dog, a massive black boarhound named Fang. Fang is apparently the only dog in the multiverse who doesn’t counter-surf and steal food. If you have a large dog, you probably don’t want to be hanging hams from the ceiling. Especially since a boarhound is another name for a Great Dane – so why the filmmakers used a Neapolitan Mastiff is anyone’s guess, and I don’t know how Harry would know the less common name – and Fang is apparently quite a bit larger than average, so can probably reach the ceiling without even having to rear up. Incidentally this is another reason why Hagrid shouldn’t be living in a wooden hut; they’re in the north of Scotland. It gets very cold. And Great Danes are notorious for hating the cold, and getting pretty cranky and snappy. If you want to be at risk of being bitten by the largest breed of dog in the world, put it somewhere cold with no insulation and only one source of heat that requires a large hole above it letting all the heat out.
Also how big is this ‘one room’ when it can hold a gigantic human, a gigantic dog, some gigantic furniture, an open fire and a kitchen? Where did Hagrid get a Great Dane from anyway?
Harry introduces Ron, who Hagrid identifies as another Weasley; he mentions he spends half his time chasing the twins away from the Forest. This isn’t very likely; why would Fred and George want to go into the forest? They can’t play nasty practical jokes on trees. The boys tell Hagrid about their lessons, while Fang drools on Harry (probably the first and last piece of accurate animal behaviour in the series; Danes do dribble a lot. Most giant breeds do) and Hagrid gives them home made rock cakes that are apparently tooth-breakingly hard and inedible. It amuses me to imagine they’re actual rocks and Hagrid didn’t understand what the name really means.
Hagrid agrees with the boys that Filch is horrible, calling him an ‘old git‘, and says he wants to set Fang on Mrs Norris. No really, why does Rowling hate animals? This isn’t remotely in character for Hagrid the obsessive animal lover. He did mention in an earlier chapter that he doesn’t like cats because he’s allergic to them, but I’m sure that’s easily fixable by magic and even if it isn’t that’s not a reason to dislike an animal. I’m allergic to certain types of tree pollen but I don’t hate trees.
He tells Harry not to worry about Snape because Snape doesn’t like any of his students. This is true, but I don’t know how Hagrid would know, since he seems to have no contact with anyone at the school except Dumbledore and the occasional random Gryffindor. Harry says no, Snape totally hates him specifically, and Hagrid says that’s rubbish but won’t look Harry in the eyes and then changes the subject to ask Ron about his brother Charlie the dragon guy. There are a few hints here that Hagrid knows why Snape doesn’t like Harry, but there’s no way he possibly could know even the reason most people believe, let alone the real one. I suppose since we know the Marauders uncharacteristically made friends with Hagrid they might have ranted about hating Snape in front of him, thus Hagrid would know Snape and James Potter didn’t like each other, but that’s not much to go on and there’s no reason Hagrid would still remember it anyway.
While Ron talks about dragons – offscreen, naturally, because dragons are awesome and interesting and therefore Rowling won’t write about them – Harry looks around and just happens to find a newspaper cutting on the table. Not the newspaper, that he could then idly flick through and happen to stumble on that article, or that was even conveniently left open to that article in particular, but a cutting that there’s no reason for Hagrid to possess. Dumbledore, stop using the invisibility cloak and get out, what you’re doing right now is creepy.
The implausible plot coupon talks about the Gringotts break-in that Ron mentioned on the train, and helpfully tells us that the vault that was broken into had been emptied earlier that day, July 31st. Harry realises this must be the one he visited with Hagrid, that had that mysterious thing wrapped in brown paper in it. (I still say it’s porn.) He mentions this to Hagrid, who avoids his eyes and gives him another horrible cake and doesn’t answer. Harry spends the rest of the chapter brooding about this.
‘Harry thought that none of the lessons he’d had so far had given him as much to think about as tea with Hagrid.’
You have been LEARNING TO DO MAGIC, you stupid little shit. That is about a billion times more interesting than someone failing to steal something.
Sigh. Next chapter is an infuriating one, too.
And to finish, here’s a snippet of trivia I meant to include several chapters ago during the long train rant and completely forgot about – King’s Cross and the surrounding streets became a notorious red-light district as soon as the station was built, and still is to this day. Yes, long-ago wizards, truly that was the perfect location to choose for your children to go to school from.