Monday, September 13, 2010

Harry Potter Read Thru, 1-1

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J.K. Rowling

Chapter 1 -- The Boy Who Lived

Spoiler Alert: this post contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series as a whole, not just for the book/chapter being discussed. If you have not read the books, and read this post anyway, do not come whining to me that I revealed too much. You have been warned.

Just so everybody knows, I will be using the books from Scholastic instead of Bloomsbury, which means that yes, this is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, not Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. For Sorcerer's Stone, I am using the hard-back 1997 edition. The chapter/cover art I pull was originally done by Mary Grandpre. If I pull in any fan artwork, I will give credit where credit is due.

And now to get down to brass tacks.

The last time I'd read the books was over the year leading up to the release of Deathly Hallows. As such, I've forgotten bits and pieces of the way Sorcerer's Stone actually reads. So it's fun to start over again at the beginning--it's like meeting an old friend ten years later.

Anyway, right off the bat I'm reminded that Rowling truly tried to write her books at the age level that Harry and his friends are in the books--in this case, eleven. The sentence structure is simplistic and straight-forward, and while she does a masterful job of evoking an instant image of what she's describing, the vocabulary is suitable for a 5th or 6th grader.

This chapter differs from every other chapter through out the entire series, in the fact that it has two different points of view. We begin the chapter seeing the world through the eyes of Mr. Dursley. Surprisingly, knowing what we do of him in later books and the way that he, Mrs. Dursley, and Dudley will abuse Harry, Mr. Dursley comes across as a humorous and sympathetic character in the first part of this chapter.

The humor for me with Mr. Dursley stems from how he tries to explain away all the weird things he sees throughout the day. First he espies McGonagall in cat form reading a map.
"For a second, Mr. Dursley didn't realize what he had seen -- then he jerked his head around to look again. There was a tabby cat standing on the corner of Privet Drive, but there wasn't a map in sight. What could he have been thinking of? It must have been a trick of the light."
Then there were all sorts of people in cloaks and other funny clothes running around. At first he thinks it's a new fashion for the young folks, until he sees a gentlemen even older than Mr. Dursley dressed that way.
"But then it struck Mr. Dursley that this was probably some silly stunt -- these people were obviously collecting for something... yes, that would be it."
There are several other instances of this, but the one that made me giggle was after he hears the strangely dressed folks talking about the Potters and their son Harry, and he started convincing himself he was panicking over nothing.
"He put the receiver back down and strokes his mustache, thinking... no, he was being stupid. Potter wasn't such an unusual name. He was sure there were lots of people called Potter who had a son named Harry. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure his nephew was called Harry. He'd never seen the boy. It might have been Harvey. Or Harold. There was no point in worrying Mrs. Dursley; she always got so upset at any mention of her sister."
It's this particular thought process that leads to the sympathy one feels later, when he feels obliged to ask about Mrs. Dursley about the Potters, since he can no longer ignore all the strange things happening that day.

Though he has moments of humor and sympathy, that's not to say that's he a good guy. It's obvious that he's a flawed character. For him, a good morning comprised of:
"...a perfectly normal, owl-free morning. He yelled at five different people. He made several important phone calls and shouted a bit more. He was in a very good mood until lunchtime, when he thought he'd stretch his legs and walk across the road to buy himself a bun from the bakery."
Certainly not a pleasant person.

Once Mr. Dursley goes to bed, the chapter has an abrupt shift from his limited omniscient third-person point of view, to a general third-person point of view with no one's thoughts accessible. It's at this point the chapter loses its charm for me, partly because of the shift in style, and partly because the three Magicals we meet--Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid--seem more like badly-written fanfic versions of themselves than the characters we grow to know and love later.

When Dumbledore notices Cat!McGonagall, he heads over to the wall she's on and greets her by name, to which she replies in a rather put-out way: "How did you know it was me?" Only to have Dumbledore point out that no cat sits that stiffly.

Problem! Problem!

I'm sorry, but McGonagall is the Transfiguration teacher at Hogwarts and can do the Animagus transformation into a cat, and had to register all of her markings with the Ministry of Magic. Dumbledore is the Headmaster at Hogwarts and was the Transfiguration teacher before McGonagall. And McGonagall wonders how he was able to recognize her? Really?

Another part of the exchange between the two professors which made me go "Wait--what?" is when Dumbledore offers her a lemon drop.
"A what?"
"A lemon drop. They're a kind of Muggle sweet I'm rather fond of."
As if McGonagall has never noticed up until that point that Dumbledore has a weakness for sweets--Muggle or Magical. It's consistently referenced through-out the rest of the series. I suppose this could be the beginning of his affection for lemon drops in particular, but it's still a tad jarring for me.

There's also a moment which made me smirk a bit, knowing what I do of Deathly Hallows. At one point Dumbledore points out that Voldemort has powers Dumbledore never will, to which McGonagall replies:
"Only because you're too--well--noble to use them."
Ah, Minerva, if only you knew.

We also learn about the war against Voldemort at this point, how it had not been going well at all, and that currently rumors are flying that Voldemort's gone, Jame and Lily are dead, and Harry somehow survived.

And then the next batch of confusion is introduced.

We know from the beginning of this chapter that McGonagall has been at the Dursley's ever since Mr. Dursley left for work that morning, and that she has been there all day. We also know that she learned from Hagrid that at some point Dumbledore was going to show up at Privet Drive, even though she didn't know when. Dumbledore finally arrives at midnight. When Hagrid eventually arrives with Harry, he's on Sirius Black's (!) motorcycle, and has flown a long distance with little Harry.

What was going on in that time span? Where was Harry? Did it really take Hagrid all day to fly with Harry? If so, how was Hagrid able to tell McGonagall what was going on? Hagrid had to have arrived on the scene at Godric's Hollow pretty quickly after the attack, as shown when Dumbledore asks if Hagrid ran into any problems fetching Harry, and Hagrid replied:
"No, sir -- house was almost destroyed, but I got him [Harry] out all right before the Muggles started swarmin' around. He fell asleep as we was flyin' over Bristol."
We know from later books that Sirius and Hagrid crossed path's at Godric's Hollow, not before. We also know at the end of this chapter that Hagrid was planning on returning the motorcycle to Sirius immediately. Lastly, we know that Dumbledore was unable to go and check out Godric's Hollow himself for whatever reason.

Needless to say, we are introduced to Rowling's sloppy plotting very early.

The chapter ends with our three Magicals leaving a scarred Harry Potter on the Dursley's front step with nothing but a letter explaining what had happened. Admittedly, this was over McGonagall's objections.

Despite what I'm writing here, I have enjoyed restarting the series and reading the first chapter. Rowling does an excellent job of evoking a the colors of a scene for me, making it easy to envision what she describes. I'm eager to move on to later chapters, even though I know there are lots more plot fun/confusion to come.

Tomorrow we'll get our first chance to view the world through the Harry filter. Let the games begin!

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