Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: The Boy Who Lived
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.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
Vernon Dursley notices strange events on his way to work: a cat on Privet Drive appears to be reading a map, and people wearing colourful robes are wandering the streets. Mr Dursley attempts to ignore these oddities, but during his lunch break, he sees more such curiously-clad people. He overhears some mentioning the Potters and their son, Harry; one even stops Mr Dursley, telling him that he must be overjoyed that "You Know Who" is gone. All this reminds Vernon that the Dursleys have a shameful secret, and why they pretend the Potters never existed. Arriving home, Mr Dursley hears TV news reports about unforeseen shooting stars and owls flying during the daytime. Previously unwilling to discuss the Potters with his wife, Petunia, he finally verifies that their nephew's name is Harry. Vernon Dursley sleeps uneasily.
Late that night, a mysterious figure appears in Privet Drive. Albus Dumbledore, a wizard, uses an object called a Put-Outer to extinguish all the street lamps. Dumbledore addresses the cat, who transforms into a witch named Professor McGonagall. They discuss how recent celebrations have left "Muggles" inquisitive. Dumbledore confirms that James and Lily Potter were murdered the night before (October 31) by the Dark wizard, Lord Voldemort. He also tried to kill their one-year-old son, Harry, who is somehow involved in causing the Dark Lord's demise. Voldemort is often also referred to as "You-Know-Who" by those fearing to speak his name. Harry, according to Dumbledore, is being brought to Privet Drive by someone named Hagrid.
Soon after, the gigantic Hagrid arrives on a flying motorbike with a snugly wrapped baby tucked into his arm. Dumbledore places the infant on Number Four's doorstep with a letter addressed to Petunia Dursley. McGonagall despairs that baby Harry, an instant celebrity, must spend his childhood with such people. Hagrid re-mounts his motorcycle, McGonagall transforms back into a cat, and Dumbledore re-illuminates the streetlights; all three quietly depart.
Harry Potter enters the story when he is brought to the most seemingly normal family in all Britain—the Dursleys. Not only are they "normal", they are apparently also quite mundane, boring, and averse to anything even remotely out-of-the-ordinary in their dull, routine lives, though there may be a particular reason for some of their behaviour. Only gradually do readers become aware that a magical world populated by witches and wizards secretly co-exists alongside non-magical humans, known as "Muggles". The odd characters wandering the streets dressed in rather outlandish clothing are the first hint to this hidden society. Little is revealed about what has recently happened, though it has created some noticeable activity that has spilled over into the Muggle world. The scar on baby Harry's forehead will clearly be a lasting reminder that sinister events must have occurred, resulting in the infant being orphaned. Dumbledore's, McGonagall's, and Hagrid's actions lead us to believe that Harry is far more special than a mere orphan needing a home, though little is explained here. And while Professor Dumbledore does leave a letter with the infant, presumably explaining everything to the Dursleys, whatever information it contains is withheld, for now, from readers. We, like Harry, will gradually discover what has transpired and learn about this remarkable hidden world in small bits, though this chapter's title, "The Boy Who Lived", in addition to baby Harry's scar, indicates he must have had some near-fatal experience. Judging by Vernon Dursley's behaviour, he may already know more about this hidden world than readers are initially led to believe.
The conversation between Minerva McGonagall and Albus Dumbledore in this chapter is designed to bring several points of information to the reader without having to explicitly state them. One of the basic tenets of writing is "show, don't tell," which can make it difficult to illuminate backstory that is necessary to understanding. In particular, we need to know of the existence of Voldemort, and of his downfall, and this is communicated to us by this conversation. We also need to know that there is a reason for Dumbledore's placing Harry with his relatives, and the conversation is also tailored to inform us that there is a reason, but that it is not to be divulged just yet. Additionally, this conversation establishes the character of both McGonagall and Dumbledore, and the relationship between them, as director and trusted aide. The student could well profit by study of this one short interaction and all that it tells us.
Other commentators have noted that the author is very strong in what is called the "set-up and pay-off": creating a situation, then suddenly resolving it. Sometimes the set-up and pay-off are contained in a single chapter, other times they span multiple chapters or even multiple books. This chapter, in fact, is one example of a set-up (the list of strange things that occur in the vicinity of the Dursleys, and the discovery that they are connected to the Dursley family) and pay-off (revelation of the reason for the events and the arrival of the infant Harry). Students are encouraged to examine the work for set-ups and pay-offs, and determine how they enhance the "holding power" of the book and of the series as a whole. We will note that while the set-up and pay-off is a staple of writing for the film industry, the Harry Potter films are not as rich in this as the books; we believe this is because of the amount of material that must be elided from a novel to fit into two hours of film. In order to keep the necessary story elements, some of the less-important set-up events had to be dropped.
We will learn about the Wizarding world through Harry's eyes: in the entire series there are only five chapters, including this one, that are written apart from his point-of-view. These chapters are at each book's beginning, and provides us information that is still unknown to Harry. The other chapters are: Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. These are the only times readers are privy to information that Harry is not. Generally, we see events only when and how Harry experiences them.
Evidence indicates that Harry was born on 31 July, 1980, and orphaned on 31 October, 1981 — Hallowe'en night — when he is one year and three months old. Critics point out a lack of "trick-or-treating" and similar festivities on Privet Drive that night, but it should be mentioned that we never actually see Privet Drive on the 31st; it is the 1st of November when Vernon Dursley leaves for work, and later that same night when Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid arrive.
Evidence also suggests that there is a day between when Harry's parents died, and his arrival at Privet Drive; Harry is orphaned on 31 October, 1981, and the story opens with Vernon Dursley leaving for work on the morning of 1 November. This has sparked speculation amongst readers; is there an accident of dates, or is the "missing day" a purposeful addition by the author? It was believed by many readers that the occurrences during that day would be important, possibly even pivotal, to events in the seventh book.
There is also a contradiction: 1 November, 1981 was, in reality, a Sunday, and the book states that that day is a Tuesday. There are similar minor internal conflicts throughout the series. These errors or oversights do not detract from the sweep of the story, so while they may be mentioned, they are provided more as a curiosity than as something for the readers to concern themselves with.
Readers should also note the TV news reports about flying owls being spotted during daylight. This is an early reference to the Wizarding world's owl postal system. Voldemort's death likely prompted a huge flurry of wizard mail being carried by owls which was noticed by Muggles.
- Why would the Dursleys consider being related to the Potters a "shameful secret"?
- Who are the robed people Mr. Dursley sees in the streets?
- What exactly is the cat on Privet Drive?
- Who might "You-Know-Who" be? Why isn't this person referred to by a given name?
- Why does Dumbledore believe the celebrations may be premature?
- How did Harry's parents die?
- Why is Harry left with the Dursleys rather than a Wizard family?
- Why does McGonagall seem concerned about Harry being raised by the Dursleys?
The framework that is echoed throughout the series is established here: the contrast between the magical Wizarding realm and the more mundane Muggle world. By contrasting these two worlds, Muggle and Magic, an ongoing theme is seen throughout the series - prejudice, suspicion, and intolerance of anything or anyone different from ourselves. Vernon and his wife, Petunia, represent the great divide that exists between the magical and non-magical realms. Their constant fear, disdain, and hostility toward Harry's world shows how most Muggles would likely react if they knew wizards existed, though these two very different populations do occasionally collide. And as will be seen shortly, these fears and prejudices also exists within wizard society. Albus Dumbledore is the antithesis of Vernon Dursley, and each man becomes the figurehead for his respective world. Whereas Dumbledore, a powerful Wizard, is eccentric, unpredictable, and colourful, the blustery Muggle, Vernon, is conventional, regimented, and bland.
The specific events resulting in Harry's being orphaned, rather than revealed in this chapter, are gradually uncovered throughout the series. They are included here by way of reference.
After partially hearing a prophecy connecting him to Harry Potter, a Dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, tipped off by an informer, located Harry's wizard parents, Lily and James Potter. Voldemort attacked the Potters' house in Godric's Hollow, a tiny village, killing James before Lily and Harry could escape. Lily was also killed, her desperate pleas to spare her and her son's lives mercilessly ignored. Voldemort then cast a lethal curse at Harry that ricocheted off the toddler, fatally striking Voldemort instead.
During Harry's first year at Hogwarts, he encounters the disembodied Voldemort, who states that Harry's mother need not have died. It was Lily's sacrificial attempt to save Harry that created an ancient and protective magic, causing the deadly curse to rebound off Harry onto Voldemort. This act formed an as yet unknown connection between attacker and victim, during which Voldemort's powers were partially transferred to the infant, leaving a lightning-bolt shaped scar on Harry's forehead. The protection that Lily gave her son — which Albus Dumbledore later explains as her love for Harry — destroyed Voldemort's physical body and would have killed him completely had it not been for the Dark magic he previously used to splinter his soul into shards called Horcruxes. Voldemort's downfall renders Harry into a celebrated figure in the Wizarding world, hailed as a hero and the only person known to have survived the Killing curse.
It is entirely possible that, due to the Fidelius charm that was meant to protect the Potters from Voldemort still being active, Hagrid would have been unable to find their house until one of those privy to the secret of the Potters' location arrived on the scene. We can safely assume that Sirius Black, as one of James' closest friends, would have been one of them. Sirius does say in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that he "saw the bodies and the house's destruction", so he must have been let into the secret by Peter Pettigrew (who we will meet in the third book), probably at James Potter's direct request. It has been conjectured that Hagrid was unable to enter the house's remains to recover Harry, and it may have been Black who actually removed Harry from the wreckage and passed him to Hagrid to carry back to Little Whinging. Hagrid does say, however, in Chapter 4, that he took Harry from the wreckage, so we have to assume that either Hagrid was also privy to the secret, or else the Fidelius charm ends automatically when the secret it is designed to protect (in this case, James and Lily's whereabouts) is no longer operative. We could speculate as to which it is, but given that the house is apparently visible to all wizards by the seventh book, it is most likely that the charm expired either upon Lily's death, even though baby Harry was left alive; or upon removal of Harry from the house.
There is no little bit of debate about the expression "house was almost destroyed" used in this chapter, and the similar terms "destruction," "wreckage," "rubble," and "debris" used to describe the Potter house after the events of 31 October. We have since discovered that the destruction was confined to Harry's nursery where Lily was killed and Harry was sleeping. We will find later that curses, if they miss, cause destruction; but the Killing Curse does not affect objects, only people, and so does not leave wreckage if it hits its target. On the other two occasions when a killing curse rebounds, in the Forbidden Forest and in the Great Hall during the series' final battle, there were no explosions or damage to anything outside Voldemort. It has been pointed out that these two cases were different, in the first as Voldemort did not actually get struck by the full force of the rebound, and in both cases because the wand Voldemort was using was not truly his own. Some weight is given the theory that the destruction occurred at the time the spell rebounded by Voldemort's recollections of that event, where he remembers having to flee the "rubble" of the failed attack, but as he had just been killed by his own spell, it is possible that the rubble in question was purely in the remains of his own mind.
There was some speculation, before the release of the seventh book, that the house could have been damaged in Voldemort's encounter with James. Voldemort's memories of that event reveal that the "duel" with James did not damage anything in the house. Likewise, Voldemort's dispatching of Lily did not result in any damage to the house, so any damage that occurred must have been either when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, or afterwards. Thus, following Voldemort's attack on Harry, there would remain a standing house (possibly with a large hole in the second story), and three dead bodies. Added to this, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Voldemort regained his original wand, and we are led to conclude that someone had accompanied Voldemort, witnessed his downfall, recovered his wand (and perhaps concealed his body), and probably damaged the house. This may have been an act of revenge or frustration, but whoever did this left Harry unscathed, perhaps fearing that whatever felled Voldemort could also kill anyone attacking Harry. As it is Pettigrew who restores Voldemort's wand to him, it is a safe assumption that Pettigrew was the unknown third party. From Pettigrew's personality as revealed in later books, we can safely expect that, if he followed Voldemort into the house and found his corpse, he would be too scared to do anything except get out of there as quickly as possible, which would include blasting a hole through the wall to escape proximity to Harry. That Voldemort, in his memory of that night as viewed in the seventh book, does not recall Pettigrew accompanying him is inconclusive. Voldemort generally pays little attention to his minions unless they have failed him or were merely in his way.
Hagrid having seen the wreckage, and having taken Harry out of the house himself, indicates that Hagrid was trusted enough to be privy to the secret of the Potters' whereabouts. While this is never mentioned, it is possible that Hagrid is already "Keeper of the Keys and Grounds" at Hogwarts at that point. We will later discover that, when Harry enters Hogwarts, Hagrid is about 60 years old; so, when James and Lily entered Hogwarts, he would have been about 40, and likely would have held that job already for several years — it is possible Dumbledore started him assisting the then incumbent in that position when he was expelled from Hogwarts, in his third year at age 14. Harry trusts Hagrid, within the limits of his understanding of Hagrid's abilities; it is not a great stretch to believe that James trusted him as much.
Also of note: The flying motorbike Hagrid arrives on actually belongs to Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, who was falsely implicated in and later imprisoned for the Potters', Peter Pettigrew's, and twelve Muggle bystanders' deaths. Though mentioned here, Sirius appears later in book 3.
One of the characteristics of this series of books that makes it interesting is the connections throughout the series; seemingly insignificant characters or objects appearing in one book that are then referred to in another. These indicate that the entire seven-book arc had been to a large extent planned out before pen first hit paper. In the interests of highlighting these areas where connections are made throughout the story arc, many chapters will contain a Connections section like this one, in which those characters and items that connect from earlier books, to later books, or within the same book can be detailed.
This first chapter of the story, of course, sets up the entire story arc, with its mentions of the evil Voldemort, our hero Harry who survived his attack, his relatives the Dursleys, and the Wizarding world. However, the following specific items, which reappear later in our story, should be specifically mentioned:
- Sirius Black will reappear as the putative villain of the third story in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He will then play roles in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
- Sirius Black's flying motorcycle will appear again in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where it will carry Harry away from Privet Drive. It will eventually crash, and the wreckage will be transferred to Arthur Weasley's home, where he will attempt to reconstruct it.
- The "Put-outer" will appear again in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Alastor Moody will use it to extinguish street lights as the Advance Guard takes Harry into Headquarters. Renamed a Deluminator, it will be bequeathed to Ron in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Ron will discover that apart from its effects on lights, it also has the ability to pick up conversations in which its owner is named, and transport its owner to the conversation's location. It will be used to help Ron and Harry escape from Malfoy Manor in that book also.
- McGonagall's changing shape from human to cat and back will be revisited in in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where we learn that this is a very difficult bit of magic called the Animagus transform. This transformation will have additional connections and ramifications, which will be discussed in that chapter.
- We will find in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Petunia had applied for admission to Hogwarts and been declined. This rejection very likely formed a large part of her attitude towards magic, including her denial of Harry's magic coupled with a surprising amount of awareness of the magical world.