“Harry, yer a wizard:” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

August 6, 2010

I jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon back in 1998 when my uncle sent a copy to the house and, after several weeks of my sister and I ignoring it, my mom proposed what has been known since as “the Harry Potter test,” namely, that she would read us the first chapter out loud and if we didn’t want to continue after that we wouldn’t.  Unsurprisingly, we clamored for more, made short work of the first two books and were left waiting with baited breath for the third.  I’m not at all sure of the number of times I’ve read the early books since then.  I certainly read the series through from the beginning before starting each of the last five books.  But this is the first time I’ve read it since finishing Deathly Hallows and I’ve noticed a few things with fresh eyes:

Foreshadowing 101

Each time I read this book I’m blown away by the foreshadowing and, still more, by the way Rowling seeded the whole book with important people, places and concepts that won’t be brought back for many books.  I remember setting down Prisoner of Azkaban to ask ‘wait, Sirius Black? We’ve heard that name before.  Wasn’t he they guy who lent Hagrid his motorcycle in the first chapter of the first book?  Wow.’  But after reading to the end of the series its hard to turn a page without being amazed at the way key concepts come up in throw away lines and minor plot twists throughout the early books!

Just to pick a particular “for instance”, there are the centaurs; they have a seemingly peripheral role during the detention in the Forbidden Forest, but the brief encounter Harry has with three of them does so much.

  • It shows us the conflict between wizards and other magical creatures, which will later be fleshed out to include house elves, goblins, giants, merpeople etc, and the resentment and antagonism that many of them feel toward all wizards.
  • Specifically it sets up the important plot device at the end of the fifth book where Hermione gets rid of Umbridge by leading her into the forest and into insulting the centaurs AND the way her plan backfires when the centaurs resent being used that way.
  • Plus … what DO the stars say about Harry and Lord Voldemort?  Might it be that they say He’s coming back and that Harry is going to die at his hands.  It seems likely.
  • But in the context of this first book, all it does is introduce us to another fun facet of the magical world – ‘Ooh, there are centaurs in the forest’ – and give Harry someone who isn’t a teacher or a student to point out to him that it might be Voldemort killing unicorns … and therefor lurking around trying to get to the stone.

Never let Good Sense Stand in the way of a Good Plan

We learn right away in this first book that Harry Potter is brave and determined and … kinda reckless and crazy, traits he never really grows out of. I have to agree with Professor McGonagall, who thinks its ridiculous that a bunch of eleven year olds are “harder to get past than a pack of enchantments.” They are not at all sure they’ve even passed the exams set by these very skilled teachers aiming to protect a hugely valuable object from the Dark Lord, himself!  But …

“Well, that’s it then, isn’t it?” Harry said.

The other two stared at him.  He was pale and his eyes were glittering.

“I’m going out of here tonight and I’m going to try and get to the Stone first.”

“You’re mad!” said Ron.

I love Harry, Ron and Hermione and I believe that they grow into all their achievements as the years progress.  They do actually manage to get past the “pack of enchantments” through teamwork and a lot of good luck.  (Although why the stone was guarded by protections a bunch of kids could walk through is another question.) But its completely crazy that they even try.  They don’t know that all they’ll have to do is play a game of chess to get to the Stone.  But … I just have to love it.  Faith precedes the miracle.

An Eruption of Lies from his Lie-Volcano

The other thing that really struck me is how wildly Albus Dumbledore misleads and misdirects young Harry during that first Hospital wing meeting.  At the end of the series he apologizes to Harry, telling him that he didn’t want to hurt or unnecessarily frighten a little boy who’d just been through so much.  I was sort of nodding along at the time: ‘yes, how do you explain all this to an eleven year old?’   But then I re-read the actual scene and he tells some absolute whoppers, as well as dispensing some spectacularly bad advice.

” I shall answer your questions unless I have a very good reason not to, in which I beg you’ll forgive me.  I shall not, of course, lie.”

We’ll see about that.

“… he hasn’t gone, has he?”

“No, Harry, he has not.  […] Nevertheless, Harry, while you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time – and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”

What? I can understand why Dumbledore doesn’t want to sit down on the edge of Harry’s hospital bed and tell him that, by the way, neither can live while the other survives … that means YOU, kid.  But this is pretty far from the truth.  He could at least have set up the idea that some unspecified person was going to have fight Voldemort some day, perhaps even sacrifice himself in the process.  This just seems like wishful thinking from a man who knows that prophecy off by heart.

“Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

OK, but what if, as in the first war and again after Voldemort’s return the name is jinxed to betray the location of the speaker.  Good, brave and sensible people were calling him You Know Who for a reason!

“Quirrell said [Snape] hates me because he hated my father.  Is that true?”

“Well, they did rather detest each other.  Not unlike yourself and Mr. Malfoy.  And then, you father did something Snape could never forgive.”

“What?”

“He saved his life.”

“What?”

“Yes …” said Dumbledore dreamily.  “Funny, the way people’s mind work, isn’t it?  Professor Snape couldn’t bear being in your father’s debt. … I do believe he worked so hard to protect you this year because he felt that would make him and your father even.  Then he could go back to hating your father’s memory in peace …”

Really, because Harry and Draco basically just insult and try to get each other in trouble with the teachers.  Young James and Severus worked to publicly humiliate each other, were rivals for the love of the same girl and ultimately ended up as soldiers in opposing armies.  Plus I don’t think Snape ever felt that James had saved his life … and he was working to save Harry for Lily’s sake not James’.  All of which Dumbledore knew very well indeed.  This explanation causes a lot of trouble for Harry and Snape down the line and it all seems so terribly unnecessary.  What was he thinking!

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