Clues in the Beginning
Lately, there has been a lot of speculation about future books. Who will be the Half-Blood Prince? How will Harry defeat Voldemort? Will my favorite character die? With all of this prognostication, we’ve forgotten to look backwards on some very important events.
Ms. Rowling left us a big clue that most of us have ignored. When discussing the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the UK), she mentioned that:
The trouble with this chapter was (as so often in a Harry Potter book) I had to give a lot of information yet conceal even more.
This brings up a question: what information was concealed? This is one of those chapters where every word has to be questioned. After all, why would she write such a difficult (and at times boring) chapter if there wasn’t a lot of facts hidden? Using literary techniques, I am going to analyze the first chapter of the first book and find out what might have been concealed.
To begin with, let’s compare Ms. Rowling to another to gain some insight into what were looking for and why were looking for it. Ernest Hemingway (author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and many more) was known for what is called iceberg writing. When you see an iceberg at sea, you only see the very top of it. About 20% is above water and 80% is below. Hemingway’s writing was like this: he gave the reader the minimum amount of knowledge that they needed to understand the story; the real meat of the story was all implied. He did this by writing the story with all of the meaning intact, and then revising. He often took a twenty page manuscript and condensed it to three pages. This meant MANY drafts. Sound familiar? My theory is that by looking at Ms. Rowling’s rhetorical devices (how her sentences are put together) and her literary devices (character, setting, plot) we can discover what she has hidden in the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone. Let’s begin!
The first thing that jumps out at me is that she begins not with Harry Potter, the title character, not with Dumbledore, the wisest man in the book, not even with the murder of Lily and James. Instead, Ms. Rowling follows the Dursleys: a family that we grow to detest. This is why so many readers dropped the book after three pages; the Dursleys are hard to deal with. So why did Ms. Rowling start with them? I believe that the reason is two-fold. First, beginning with an informed character might have dropped too much information. The second reason is irony (irony is the difference between what is expected and what is). The irony of this section is that the seemingly normal family is tied to the Potters and magic. When we read about Mrs. Dursley’s secret, were immediately enthralled. One mystery solved.
Next clue: Mrs. Dursley and Mrs. Potter hadn’t met for several years. I always guessed that Lily and James were at least 23 when they died (five years after graduation). It sounds like Petunia and Lily saw each other after Lily graduated from Hogwarts. Why on earth would two sisters who detested each other meet when they no longer had to be associated? It could be that Petunia attended Lily’s marriage or maybe Lily went to Petunia’s high school graduation. I, however, believe that this had something to do with the infamous “remember my last.” Maybe Lily tried to get Petunia to help with the resistance?
Along the same vein, the Dursleys also know about Harry and he is about a year old. This puts their last contact at no more than one year prior to the date of Lily and James’s deaths. So who told them about Harry? Did Lily tell her sister as a friendly gesture? Or did Dumbledore have something to do with it? Remember, he knows all about the Dursleys. Did he tell the Dursleys not only about Harry, but also about the danger that Lily and James faced?
A few paragraphs later, Mr. Dursley starts to notice some strange things. Granted, Vernon Dursley is suspicious, but he seems a little too aware of what all of this might mean. Although he never directly says that he suspects magic, it is clear that it crosses his mind. In one of these paragraphs, Ms. Rowling’s syntax (the word order and punctuation of her sentences) becomes very interesting. When Mr. Dursley observes the cloaked wizards, there are lots of dashes (–) and ellipses (… ), which indicate frantic thought. To me, this indicates that Mr. Dursley is trying to talk himself out of thinking about magic. He must know that wizards wear cloaks (I assume that he’s met Lily and James), but he’s frantically trying to write the cloaks off as a silly stunt. Has he had warning that something big is happening in the magical community?
The next thing that worries me is that Mrs. Dursley had a normal day. With Mrs. Figg living across the street and with Professor McGonagall (in cat form) watching her, I really would like to know how she had a normal day. Perhaps she had already heard something, but (like Mr. Dursley) did not want to share it.
When Mr. Dursley finally breaks the news to Petunia, she sounds less angry than one would expect. She knows the answers (like Harry’s name) instantly. My cousins are very nice and I get along with them, but when asked what their baby’s name was today, I forgot. It seems odd that Petunia would remember Harry’s name instantly, if she hadn’t recently been in contact with someone who reminded her.
We’ve now basically finished discussing the Dursleys. Let’s move on to McGonagall and Dumbledore’s conversations.
An interesting (but most likely irrelevant) note should be made about Dumbledore’s footwear. In this chapter, he is described as wearing buckled boots. I can’t recall Dumbledore ever wearing boots again. Why did he wear boots on this night? The only possible solution that I can think of is Seven League Boots, but apparation makes those seem a bit useless.
Next question: why does Dumbledore not expect to see Professor McGonagall? One would think that she would be part of this. Instead, Dumbledore picked Hagrid as his partner for this mission. Why? I see two possibilities. First, Professor McGonagall might not have been deputy head mistress in those days. She does seem less informed in this chapter than she is in any other. We’ve never seen her act inquisitive except in this chapter. There is some evidence that McGonagall and Dumbledore aren’t close at this point. She’s surprised that he recognizes her in cat form, which seems odd considering that they work together, that she performs this transformation every year, and that Dumbledore is an expert at Transfigurations. My second alternative is that Dumbledore may not trust McGonagall; he might have even suspected that she was working for Voldemort. Maybe he didn’t trust her until she turned up AFTER Voldemort’s destruction (if she was on the dark side, she wouldnt have been anywhere after her masters death). Keep in mind that these are just thoughts.
Now, here’s where a real clue gets dropped. After McGonagall remarks that Dumbledore was the only one that Voldemort ever feared, Dumbledore answers: Voldemort had powers I will never have McGonagall counters: “Only because youre too–well–noble to use them.”
Noble is italicized and that makes it an important word. Dumbledore is noble. Therefore, he cannot use some of the spells that Voldemort uses. I wonder, is Harry too noble to use these powers? Perhaps Harry’s strength might be imperfection? Or perhaps he too will be noble and will use different powers to triumph? This also begs the questions what powers does Voldemort have that Dumbledore will never have? On first glance, we think the unforgivable curses –duh! I’d say that this is a pretty good guess. Dumbledore will never have these powers because he won’t feel that hate and malice that Bellatrix says is necessary for those curses. On the other hand, this may be a new class of power (notice that he said power, not spell) that we have never heard of.
What I really wonder about is Dumbledore’s pocket watch with the planets moving around the edge. We know that wizards use regular clocks, so why does Dumbledore need this special one? Because stars and planets are often used for divinations, I wonder if this has something to do with destiny. Does Hagrid need to arrive within a certain period for things to turn out correctly? Or does this have something to do with a charm or a spell that has been enacted? Again, I can only offer ideas, not answers. Lastly, of course, is Dumbledore’s refusal to remove the scar on Harrys head. This one, I can answer. Dumbledore must already know that this scar (and this child) will be special. I suspect that he already knows that Voldemort will return and that (as the prophesy states) Harry will have to fight him.
Well, there’s your recap of the first chapter. No wonderful insights, but a lot of good questions that I hope will keep us all busy for some time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to do REAL English homework.