The following is an excerpt from a post for the Harry Potter Medicinal Re-Read that I wrote about the first two chapters in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Couldn't post the whole thing because it's stupidly long -- if you want to read more, there's a click-through at the bottom.
CHAPTER ONE: THE BOY WHO LIVED
Certain things are always mentioned when anyone talks about why it is that so many people love Harry Potter so very much: the hero’s journey, the fish out of water thing, the wish fulfillment thing (very deliberately not using the word ‘escapism’ here), Harry’s dual role as an Everyman and as The Chosen One, etc. But something that I never really hear people point to in this context is J.K. Rowling’s voice as an author. This is especially astounding to me not only because it’s the very first thing that drew me to this book, but also because it seems to me that her voice is what holds the rest of it together — all those other lovely, constantly shifting pieces of word and story. Right from the very first sentence of the very first chapter of the very first book, it’s obvious:
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
Even as a thirteen year old, this seemed different to me than the usual stuff I read. It was polite yet sassy. It was saying things that were maybe a bit over my head, things about being an adult, but which nonetheless were amusing and stuck with me. Every time that I’ve read it since, though it’s read a bit differently to me each time, it’s never failed to suck me in, to the point where if I accidentally pick the book up and read the first sentence, it’s often not until I reach the end of the chapter that I realize I’m still reading. I have done this on multiple occasions (including the first time I read the book — I found it abandoned on the floor of my sister’s room, picked it up, read the first chapter, and then stole it from her; I still don’t think she realizes I ever did that) . And the way she introduces the Dursleys! Uncle Vernon with his thick beefy neck, Aunt Petunia with her long skinny one, and both of them caring way too much about what other people think of them.
I have always loved that our first glimpse of Harry’s world is through the eyes of his aggressively normal Muggle relations, particularly the expansive Vernon Dursley. We know from later books (more on this in a bit) that while Petunia may certainly pretend a hatred and ignorance of the Wizarding World, she’s not exactly what she appears. But Vernon — yeah, it’s pretty much all on the surface with him. He kisses his priggish wife and chubby son goodbye, and then he spends the rest of his day alternately missing signs of the wonderful that occur practically under his nose, and pushing those he does see under the dusty rug in his brain that is reserved for Things That Cannot Be (“the get-ups you saw on young people!”). But cats reading maps, owls fluttering all over the place, people in cloaks, a whisper of the Potters . . . and then this:
“Mr. Dursley stood rooted to the spot. He had been hugged by a complete stranger. He also thought he had been called a Muggle, whatever that was. He was rattled. He hurried to his car and set off home, hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before, because he didn’t approve of imagination.”
For as much as Vernon Dursley doesn’t approve of imagination, he sure does use it a lot — mostly to pretend things. In fact, both of the Dursleys are champion pretenders, pretending being the main way they get though their days. They pretend Petunia doesn’t have a sister named Lily, who was a witch who went away to Witch and Wizard school and who married a wizard; Vernon pretends here that nothing odd is going on around him, squashing down reality into little bite-sized pieces until it fits into his preconceived notion of What The World Should Be, until he can once again believe that he lives in a world where everyone is just like him. (I’m also thinking of an incident from the beginning of Chamber of Secrets when the Dursleys force Harry to stay shut away in his bedroom “pretending he’s not there” — this could actually describe their entire relationship with him, but there it’s just made more explicit than usual).
Even though I think Mr. and Mrs. Dursley are very entertaining on their own, all that excessive Dursleyishness makes what happens next seem all the more wonderful. After Vernon has finally manage to fall asleep, we meet Albus Dumbledore, who “didn’t seem to realise* that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Dumbledore is the living embodiment of everything the Dursleys work so hard pretending doesn’t exist. As soon as he puts out all the lights on Privet Drive with his ‘Put-Outer,’ we forget all about the Dursleys. And then the cat who’s been sitting on a wall all day, reading maps and upsetting Mr. Dursley with it’s non-cat behavior, turns into a severe looking woman who Dumbledore greets warmly. (“How did you know it was me?” “My dear Professor, I’ve never seen a cat sit so stiffly.”) The interaction that follows does a lot of heavy lifting in a short amount of time. By the time it’s over and everyone except Harry has left Privet Drive, we may not know exactly the details of their lives, but we do know exactly what kind of people they are, and we’ve barely met them.
We also learn the bare bones version of Harry’s story: that the reason owls have been flying around all day and people in strange cloaks ruined Mr. Dursley’s day is that someone called Voldemort has — unbelievably! — gone from the world, that Voldemort was unspeakably evil (to the point where people are reluctant to speak his name), and that according to McGonagall, Dumbledore is the only wizard Voldemort ever feared (“You flatter me . . . Voldemort had powers I’ll never have.” “Only because you’re too — well — noble to use them.”) We learn all of this in an organic fashion, piecing together the bits and pieces of McGonagall and Dumbledore’s, and later, Hagrid’s, conversation. She eases us into the story without resorting to clunky exposition. This is exactly how these characters would talk if this had really happened (WHICH OF COURSE IT DID). We get just enough information to understand what’s going on, and to tempt us to read further to find out more.
But the meat of their conversation isn’t in the veiled clues about Voldemort and Harry, or even the Wizarding World, it’s in the deep human emotions that these people display even from the very first chapter. It’s these same deeply felt emotions that clue us in to their characters:
“It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold hard wall all day, for neither as a cat nor as a woman had she fixed Dumbledore with such a piercing stare as she did now.”
While everyone else was out celebrating, McGonagall — who has to be the most stubborn, immovable woman I’ve ever read about — waited all day to hear news that was only going to devastate her. She is fierce and hard and very contained, and yet she feels things very deeply. It’s a really nice touch that when she starts asking Dumbledore about the rumors, that Lily and James Potter are dead, that Voldemort tried to kill Harry and failed, he can only bow his head. That he was only moments before yammering on about sherbet lemons makes his lack of words here even more notable. There’s real grief under there, grief he doesn’t have the words for at the moment, grief perhaps he doesn’t want to feel quite yet, and so he talks of Muggle sweets and scars shaped like the London Underground. And that’s Dumbledore’s character in a nutshell. Eccentric and kind on the outside, dark and unknowable on the inside. And then there’s Hagrid, a giant of a man who shows up on a flying motorbike with a sleeping baby Harry wrapped up in a blanket. Hagrid, wild and hairy, who gives baby Harry a big whiskery kiss before letting “out a howl like a wounded dog” at the thought of leaving him there. Hagrid, who McGonagall questions, but of whom Dumbledore says, “I would trust hagrid with my life.” (This statements tells us two things: 1) That Hagrid and his appearance are strange even in the world these people come from, and 2) that Dumbledore is the kind of man who places his trust in people the general world mislikes.)
[For the rest of Chapter One and for Chapter Two (and to play along with the rest of the Medicinal Re-Read) click here.]