Magic.

Magic.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

What is there to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said? It’s the book that changed the world. I don’t even know if it’s worth giving a synopsis to this one. By now, most people have read this and the following books and even if you haven’t, you’ll have heard of it. Harry Potter appeared in the world eighteen years ago, back in 1997, a time when Tony Blair had just been elected, Princess Diana had died, and Bill Clinton had just been inaugarated for his second term. They were strange days, where the Internet was still scary, mobile phones were rare, and a Game Boy Colour was the height of playground sophistication.

And then along came this book, quietly at first. The first print run was just five hundred copies, and most of those went to libraries. Still, someone was interested and word spread. The story of how J K Rowling was at the time penniless and writing on napkins has been told repeatedly, and I’m not going to delve into it again here, but how little she knew at the time about what mark her novels would leave on the world. The series went on to spawn every kind of merchandise possible, as well as a series of video games and, of course, eight films.

I haven’t read the Harry Potter books in a long time, although I have been a fan since 1997, one of the few who read it the year it arrived. Or rather, it was read to me. Introduced to my class by a favourite teacher of mine, he shared chapters of it with us and I was so captivated one weekend he let me borrow it so I could read on and finish it, so desperate I was to find out how it ended. The last time I read any of them was probably 2010, when I re-read the final book in preparation for the film – this one hasn’t been read for a good decade, I reckon. I thought it was time to go back, and see why I loved them so much and, indeed, if I still did.

The short answer is that I do, of course, but reading them now in the context of the series being finished gives one an entirely different grounding for what’s going on. If it hasn’t already been made clear, this post is now going to contain spoilers for the six people left who don’t know what happens throughout the series. You’ve been warned. For example, it strikes me that everything that ended up mattering in the later books (particularly the events of the final book) are present in the first seven or so chapters here. Griphook turns up in a very minor role, Sirius Black is mentioned just ten pages in (although he won’t turn up until the third book), and Harry’s ability to talk to snakes is displayed. Even the facts that Gringotts uses dragons to guard some of its vaults, and Albus Dumbledore was responsible for the defeat of Grindelwald are in here, shown in plain sight, although how anyone was supposed to remember any of this after seven books and ten years is beyond me. It just goes to prove though that Rowling is hugely thorough in her abilities – the entire thing is plotted with absolute precision and from day one she knew exactly what she was doing. Hell, looking at it now, even horcruxes turn up in this bit, when Hagrid suggests that he doesn’t believe Voldemort is dead. His reasoning? “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.”

One I even noticed this time around that I’ve never seen anyone pick up on before is how Hagrid says he got to the Hut-on-the-Rock. He gives his reason as “flew”, but since we’re seeing this through Harry’s eyes, are we seeing the word correctly? Did Hagrid mean he used the Floo network, an interconnected set of fireplaces that wizards use to travel through. Usually the traveller arrives in the fireplace, but Hagrid is nearly nine feet tall, so it’s fair to assume that maybe he turned up on top of the chimney or nearby, rather than directly in the hearth.

Badass eleven-year-old wizard.

Badass eleven-year-old wizard.

The starkest change is simply how differently this book reads to later ones. It’s commonly noted that the books get darker as they progress, but this one seems clearly aimed at children far more than the others. I think that’s why people have difficulty coming to the series later in life – you have to get through this one to get to the good stuff. I’m not saying this book isn’t good, it certainly is, but this one reads more like Roald Dahl, doesn’t waste much time on exposition, meaning we get to explore this new world at the same confusing pace as Harry, and hurtles through the plot, not wasting a line. It’s also notable for taking us out of Harry’s head now and again, once with Ron when he fights the troll, and again during a Quidditch match when we stay with Ron, Hermione and Neville in the stands, while Harry is out being Seeker. Sure, we see other points of view in later books, but only in specially dedicated chapters. This feels strange, here.

People who insist on calling these children’s books though are missing the point with their attempts at being disparaging. Some claimed they were too scary, but if Dahl in particular taught us anything (and as mentioned, there’s definitely a fair comparasion to be made between his work and this novel, if not the following six) it’s that children like to be scared. It is important for them to know that there is evil in the world, but more importantly they should know that that evil can be beaten. Besides, what’s light about this book? It opens with the double murder of a young couple leaving a baby orphaned and continues with abusive guardians, bullying teachers, the fickleness of fame and children believing so firmly in something that they are willing to die for it. Sure there are some funny-named sweets and a joke character in Neville (for now; he becomes anything but), but this is not a book that is going to tell you that life is easy or fair.

Flaws? Sure. You never see Dean Thomas get Sorted, although I suppose the suggestion is that he came right after Harry who was too busy being congratulated by the Weasleys for getting into Gryffindor to notice. How exactly did Quirrell get two trolls into Hogwarts unnoticed? Did Dumbledore ask Hagrid to find Fluffy, or did Hagrid already have him? Why do we only see one flying lesson; do they ever have another one? Did Fred and George ever realise they had thrown snowballs at Voldemort’s face? What exactly was in Dumbledore’s letter to the Dursleys? Why did McGonagall allow Vernon to see her reading a map while she was disguised as a cat? Where did the Potter family get all their money from? How does Dumbledore make himself invisible without an invisibility cloak? These questions never get answered, but no matter. Maybe one day Rowling will furnish us with the answers. After all, if her track record since the series’ completion is anything to go by, she knows absolutely everything about this world.

Although she may not have known that the series would go on to become a phenomenon that changed the world and made reading “cool” again (something that I will forever love her for), Professor McGonagall certainly did, as on page fifteen of this very important book, she says these words to Dumbledore: “Every child in our world will know his name.”

Indeed they do. And it’s a much finer world because of it.

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