This week on Advanced Muggle Studies, we discuss: exemplary cat behavior, names and symbolism, Project Runway: Dumbledore edition, classic literary archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, ring/circle theory, aka chiasmus, passive-aggressive McGonagall, deep and abiding envy of J.K. Rowling’s genius, Dumbledore and misdirection, why Satan sounds like Antonio Banderas, forgiving the Dursleys (?), a market for Smelting sticks, going ‘into the green’ Shakespeare style, Newt-Hagrid fanfic, why Hagrid signals class conflict, what the fuck do wizards even DO for a living, the symbolism of numbers, dissing Hufflepuffs, Ollivander and power, evil Hermione, our own wands, major digressions and high school drama, and how the ever-loving hell we are going to not talk so much next time.
Welcome back to Advanced Muggle Studies, I am Professor Seraphine, and we are starting today with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We know that there are other blogs and podcasts that have done chapter by chapter read-throughs. Having participated in fa few of those myself, I have found that while they were fun they were often lacking in a few things.
C: You know what they were lacking in? Porn jokes.
S: They were lacking in that, and in the kind of terrible language that we use here all the time. But I also felt they were lacking in critical thought. They were much more about fan thought, looking at the books through a fan perspective, — which we’re going to do – but not with a critical eye to look at their influences from history and literature and culture. So that’s what we’re going to do. And we will also swear a lot and tell porn jokes.
C: We are all about the ribald humor.
S: And if you haven’t figured that out by now, come on.
C: What are you doing here? This is the NSFW Harry Potter podcast.
S: We’re recording this right after John Hurt’s death.
C: One more terrible thing in a list of terrible things that have happened so far this year.
S: That is so true. So let’s look at some happy things.
1.1 “The Boy Who Lived”: McGonagall gives zero fucks about your Muggle nonsense
S: Of all book openings, this is by far one of my favorites. I think it must be because it’s funny, but it also reads like a fairy tale. You could easily hear the words ‘Once upon a time’ here.
S: We meet Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, him with a beefy neck, she with twice the usual amount of neck, and Dudley. Oh, Dudley. We get this basic setup. I feel like when she did this first book I think J.K. Rowling wasn’t entirely sure what her approach would be to the rest of this. This is the first time she employs a POV that isn’t focused through Harry. Through the rest of the series, if we see something it’s only because Harry sees it, but it’s not the case here. Out of necessity, we have to start with an omniscient viewpoint, seeing things that don’t directly involve Harry. We get to know what’s going on in others’ heads without having to filter through the lens of Harry. Did you like that? Or did you prefer having Harry’s perspective?
C: I enjoyed the way it starts off, even though the Dursleys are deeply unpleasant people. I enjoyed watching Mr. Dursley growing more and more frantic in this first chapter as odd things start happening, because I dislike him so much, and his pain brings me joy.
S: I feel like you don’t have to reach very far to understand who J.K. Rowling is. She is clearly not a fan of a one-size-fits-all neighborhood, not a fan of people who ignore their children’s flaws just because they’re their kids, clearly not a fan of people hung up on social approval, ‘we can’t let the neighbors know’ – everything the Dursleys are, we get that J.K. can’t stand.
C: Yeah, I agree with that. For sure.
S: Our first real glimmer of anything odd that has happened here are the owls and the cat sitting on the corner of Privet Drive. Which is perfect – if you’re trying to work symbols of magic into your mundane narrative, what better way to do it than with particular symbols we’ve come to associate with magical happenings – owls and cats?
C: I love that the cat was reading a map.
S: And that he knew she was reading it. Moments like that, where Mr. Dursley sees something and then talks himself out of what he saw. “The cat’s reading a map.” That’s the first thing he thinks! And then says, no, that can’t be right. She uses this very ordinary person who’s trying to talk himself out of these extraordinary things around him to signal us that we should pay more attention to the extraordinary things than to what Mr. Dursley is saying. It’s a great way to use a focused viewpoint through a character who we’re supposed to read and think “Whoa, this guy, what is his damage?” And then it piques our interest even more with the little things – people in cloaks, owls, people whispering about the Potters in the shop, a tiny man in a violet cloak who squeaks at Mr. Dursley. We get our first reference to Muggles, and You-Know-Who, and he gets home and the cat’s still there!
One of my favorite lines: “The cat didn’t move. It just gave him a stern look. Was this normal cat behavior?”
C: Actually, I would say yes.
S: I would agree. Clearly he doesn’t know cats. They love looking at you like, “This is my world, and you’re just passing through.”
The little details that she works in – like the fact that Dudley learned a new word: “Won’t!” Well, that tells you everything you need to know about Dudley going forward, doesn’t it?
S: Mr. Dursley is starting to put two and two together, and he poses this particular thought to his wife who is not thrilled to hear about it, and so they change the subject – but unfortunately it patterns with everything else he has heard. Something about the Potters and their son, Harry.
C: “Nasty common name.”
S: Names in this series are a huge deal, and we will look at them much more going forward, but one thing I found interesting is that Rowling names the two sisters Lily and Petunia after flowers, and I believe Petunia is supposed to be the flower of bitterness and envy.
C: Oh, well, that’s apt.
S: Fun. Then we transition from the Dursleys, our POV swivels, and we’re looking at the street where the cat has been waiting for hours. And we have our appearance of a man on the corner. I love this description of Albus Dumbledore.
“Albus Dumbledore didn’t seem to realize that he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome.” Fabulous line.
C: He’s a man wearing high-heeled boots. That’s very fashion forward.
S: Before we get too much farther we should talk about archetypes. A lot of what this is going to be is we know this series follows to a huge degree Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and that this series has borrowed liberally from fantasy literature. You see these same archetypal characters show up repeatedly, and Dumbledore is a fantastic use of an archetype: a combination of the Wise Man, the Sage and the Magician, all rolled into one. This older, Merlin, Gandalf figure, that is all-knowing, has all the secrets, will reveal them at his leisure. And we get this even in this appearance with McGonagall. You get the sense that he knows so much, and chooses his words carefully.
But the way he’s described, these images – he’s constantly associated with the heavens, the moon or the stars. If you look at the things he wears through the series, he’s often wearing midnight blue or something with stars and sparkles, always referencing his half-moon spectacles, midnight colors. These associations are very deliberate. He’s a mystical, powerful figure.
And I like the fact that his nose has been broken at least twice.
C: I bet you we see at least one of those in the Fantastic Beasts movies.
S: Oooh, yeah! I can’t wait to see that.
We see also one of the things that, when I finally got my husband into this series, we watched the movies and I started reading him the books, and when we got to this point he gave me a look and said, “Really? Really?” The point where Dumbledore pulls out what looks like a silver cigarette lighter, flicks it open, holds it in the air and uses it to put out the streetlamps. Which, of course, turns out to be wildly significant all the way forward in Book 7. A tiny detail you disregard at this point – it seems cool, but not important – and it’s not until later that you say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
That speaks to circle theory, which is another thing that J.K. Rowling loves to do. Her entire series is built on circle theory, as is each book. The book is structured in a circle, or a ring. The beginning and end mirror each other. If you pick a point 1/3 of the way in, and pick a point 1/3 of the way back from the end, you’ll generally find that they mirror each other. The story travels in a circle, which is fitting given that the monomyth goes in a cycle as well, and repeats. So it’s great that we’re introduced to something completely ignorable here, until you get to the end of the series. I want to be that good. I will never be that good, but I want to be that good.
C: I would love to see her notes.
S: Can you imagine?
C: All of the planning she did. And I know she changed a little bit here and there, like I remember reading that originally Ron’s dad was supposed to die and she ended up changing that, but I think for the most part she had at least the big stuff down.
S: Didn’t they say she mapped it out on a napkin in a café?
C: Big ass napkin.
S: I would like 1/10th of that amount of talent, please.
We get to meet Professor McGonagall, “a rather severe looking woman with square glasses the exact shape of the markings around her eyes.” A very proper, well-postured professor.
C: McGonagall is the best.
S: Isn’t she? She’s one of my absolute favorites.
C: I love her without reservation.
S: Another thing I love is how much J.K. uses and then defies archetypes, always putting something in that isn’t quite predictable. With a character like McGonagall, you would expect her to be rather severe, restrained – but we also find out that she is one of the coolest and most caring people in the series.
I love this whole thing where she’s trying to get information from Dumbledore without seeming obvious.
C: “Shooting stars down in Kent. I bet that was Dedalus Diggle. He never had any sense.” No clue who Dedalus Diggle is, but McGonagall doesn’t have much use for him and therefore neither do I.
S: And when you meet him finally, that’s what you think of. Stupid Dedalus Diggle with his fireworks down in Kent. And Dumbledore and his lemon drops…
This is where we get this conversation with McGonagall, and our first introduction to You-Know-Who, Dumbledore’s position on it, which will set the tone for our position on it as we go forward in the series. Dumbledore: “Surely a sensible person like yourself can call him by his name. For eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort.”
You know, when I first read this series – I was younger, I grant you – but that kind of chilling feeling, that sort of fear you’re supposed to attach to Voldemort’s name – I really felt that through the way she built this up, with people afraid to say his name, and the way she builds the suspense about him. Was that the case for you?
C: Well, when I first started reading these books – we read them around the same time – I stopped and started a couple of times and really had a hard time getting into it. I actually really like science fiction and fantasy, but I don’t like fantasy novels very often. I don’t like things like elves and dwarves and dragons and nonsense. And so I would get to these names and was just, like, “What the fuck am I reading? I am far too sophisticated to be reading these children’s books with these nonsense names.” So I don’t know what I really thought of the name at first, but you don’t have to be really big into language to look at that and recognize the “mort” part at the end, like mortal, or mortality. That’s enough to give you a little shiver.
S: Exactly. I know that technically it’s supposed to be pronounced Vol-de-mor, because it’s French…I don’t care.
C: But we ain’t French, so who cares?
S: That “t” at the end gives it a nice, satisfying sort of punctuation on the name. There’s something about that you need.
Professor McGonagall has worked Dumbledore up to telling the truth about what actually happened. You know what they’re saying, Dumbledore. They’re saying this this and this… and I’m going to sit here and stare at you until you tell me the truth.
If you don’t know what happened, by now, why are you here? It’s the rumor that Lily and James Potter are dead, and that Voldemort tried to kill the Potters’ son Harry and couldn’t. No one knows why or how. And somehow, Voldemort’s power is gone, because he couldn’t kill a little boy. FANTASTIC HOOK. At this point, if you’re not interested to read more, where is your soul? I ask you! This is such an amazing setup! And I love that she kept us on the hook to find out what actually happened for so long.
C: Yeah, like Godric’s Hollow – how long does it take for that to be brought up again?
S: Godric’s Hollow isn’t brought up again for quite a while. And she reveals what actually happens in drips – you get a bit in this book, a bit in book 2, and then it starts coming forth, a little more each book. But that is also on purpose.
Dumbledore’s idea is that they’re going to bring Harry, who is still alive, back to the Dursleys. More celestial imagery with Dumbledore looking at his very odd pocketwatch that has twelve hands and no numbers, little planets moving around the edge, and it makes sense to him.
Now McGonagall has the best moment as she has a total and complete freak out over the fact that Dumbledore wants to put Harry Potter in this house.
C: “You couldn’t find two people who are less like us. And they’ve got this son! I saw him kicking his mother all the way up the street, screaming for sweets.” How old is he? Two, three maybe?
S: He’s a year older than Harry, so he’s a toddler. Harry was 1 year old when this happened, so Dudley would be 2.
C: Kicking his mother up the street.
S: I would have loved to see Maggie Smith and Richard Harris actually do this scene. To see her on that wall, and then actually jump up, all “You have got to be kidding me!”
Dumbledore’s logic makes sense. He’s worried that if Harry’s in the magical world it will be too much. He’s going to be so incredibly famous. He’s right – we find out later that he has other reasons that he doesn’t care to share at this point. But that’s a fair point. What we find out about Dumbledore later shows understanding on his part. We find out in Book 7 that Dumbledore’s father was involved in a rather public case after attacking the Muggles who attacked Ariana. And Dumbledore had to continue with that legacy. He knows what it’s like to live with something bad your parents were involved in. And he doesn’t want that for Harry.
But also – where would Harry go at this point? Who would take him?
C: Well, you couldn’t give him to Sirius, because they think he’s in on it and throw him into Azkaban.
S: And that hasn’t happened yet. As we find out later, this is about the time Sirius lends Hagrid his motorcycle, and right after this goes off to attack Pettigrew. Sirius is gone within a couple days of this.
C: Yeah, and they wouldn’t let Lupin have him, because Lupin’s a werewolf. Hagrid can’t keep him.
S: Dumbledore wouldn’t. As much as he wants Harry to be cared for, he wouldn’t.
C: I’m sure there are many who would clamor to volunteer, but out of the characters that we know I don’t know who they could have had take him.
S: And I can’t see Dumbledore finding that a very appealing situation – putting Harry with people in the magical world who would treat him like a celebrity and some sort of incredible being, and he would grow up with that. That’s not the best situation. Bad idea all around. Yeah, the Dursleys suck, but he’s also got his reasons for doing this.
Hagrid is bringing him, and McGonagall’s reaction to this tells us a lot about Hagrid. Really? You really want to…do that?
C: And the thing about this is – she’s not totally wrong.
S: She’s not.
C: Hagrid is great, but he gets drunk and tells somebody about how to get past Fluffy later on. He’s great, but he has issues.
S: He does. But Dumbledore trusts him. Then we get this awesome visual of a gigantic man on a motorcycle following out of the air in front of them.
And we get that little mention that doesn’t play out until Book 3, that “young Sirius Black” lent him the motorcycle. I’m going to complain about this sort of thing constantly, because it annoys me how good it is and it’s unfair.
C: She’s got mad skills.
S: And I am so envious and in awe. Now we get our first look at Harry, a baby boy fast asleep. “Under a tuft of jet-black hair they could see a curiously shaped cut like a bolt of lightning.”
I’ve never really asked you what your opinion of Dumbledore is. He comes across as so self-possessed and powerful, and then the next minute he’s talking about a scar on his left knee with a perfect map of the London Underground. What do you think of him?
C: I like him. He’s not perfect, he makes mistakes. He does things that Harry doesn’t agree with, and many readers, I have found, don’t like or agree with. But I get why he did what he did as the books go further along. I appreciate his ability to say things like, “I have one myself above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground,” and make a comment like that to brush aside whatever has been going on that he doesn’t actually want to talk about, and then move on to another subject and leave the person just sort of flummoxed and having to go along with him.
S: That is an excellent point. He does use that dotty humor to disorient people so he doesn’t have to talk about the thing he doesn’t want to talk about without being rude or obvious. You’re right – he does this the very first time when McGonagall asks about Harry’s scar. Which, he may or may not have suspicions what it means, and he doesn’t want to talk about it right now.
Hagrid is bawling, everyone is sad. Even McGonagall blinks furiously with tears. Hagrid goes to return the motorcycle, McGonagall returns to cat form, Dumbledore puts the lights back and vanishes. And I love the way this chapter ends: “the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen.” And that he slept on “not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he’d be woken in a few hours time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream.” I remember getting to the end of this chapter the very first time, like WHOA THIS IS AWESOME.
C: And now we get to a couple of chapters of crap.
S: Before we get there, I have here the chart of the 17 stages of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. The very first is the Call to Adventure. And for that to happen, the hero has to start off in a mundane situation of normality. She takes that to a bit of an extreme, but I think the Dursleys are the epitome of mundanity. And it’s not just being bored, it’s being around people with no intellectual curiosity, no sense of caring beyond themselves.
C: No imagination. No sense of humor.
S: All the things that make people worth being around, the Dursleys do not have any of those things.
1.2 “The Vanishing Glass”: I bet Satan really does sound like Antonio Banderas
S: Jump ahead about 10 years. Privet Drive has not changed. We see photographs of a large pink beach ball wearing different colored bonnets. “The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.” That gives you a lot of preparation for what is to come – the scene we get in the movie, Harry waking up because Petunia wants him to go help cook breakfast for Dudley’s birthday.
One thing I love in this series that we don’t get a lot in the movies is Harry’s dreams. He has a very active dream life, and a lot of times his dreams are significant. I love that our first real encounter with him is him dreaming about a flying motorcycle, it’s a good dream, and he has a funny feeling he’d dreamed it before.
C: A good dream, or terrifying, depending, I guess.
S: And the fact that it’s a good dream, and doesn’t scare him, tells you a lot about Harry.
We get to see Dudley’s presents – computer, 2nd television, a racing bike. I feel like J.K. Rowling gives us her whole theory of parenting in these chapters.
C: Well, it’s definitely a manual for how NOT to parent your kid.
S: So true. We see Harry’s glasses held together with tape, because of all the times Dudley punched him. I have a theory on the glasses. Need to come back to that later. “Don’t ask questions. That was the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys.”
Vernon comes in and shouts at Harry about needing a haircut. Dudley arrives, his very fat pink blond self, and the first thing he does is complain about the presents he didn’t get. You’ve just met him and he’s the worst child you’ve ever met.
We get the setup for our adventure: Mrs. Figg, his usual babysitter, has broken her leg and can’t take Harry. They spend a conversation talking around him, and certainly aren’t going to leave him alone, and finally break down to take Harry with him. The generosity!
We get our first foray into the world away from the mundane setting, and we get some background about the strange things that happen around Harry. I love his logic around these – it’s such an 11-year-old’s logic. Like how he wound up on the roof of the school.
C: “The wind must have caught him mid-jump.”
S: Yes! I can see an 11-year-old concluding that. It’s cute.
C: If that happened to either one of us, we’d have to come up with some kind of way to logic it away.
S: That’s true. We arrive at the zoo. Harry’s having a good day. He gets an ice pop, gets to have some of Dudley’s dessert – but should have known it was too good to last. They arrive at the reptile house.
C: And this is awesome too, because of how it sets up for Chamber of Secrets.
S: She lays the groundwork so well for the following book.
C: And I do feel really bad for this snake, and actually for all animals in zoos. I know they take care of animals in zoos and it’s good, I guess, to try to preserve endangered species and everything, but they don’t have a lot of room to move around.
S: No, they don’t. Dudley looks at this for entertainment value, but Harry has empathy. He looks at the snake and wonders what it must be like to be in there, understanding how that feels. And we have an amazing moment where the snake winks at him, and they start having a conversation about living in Brazil.
Because a lot of J.K. Rowling’s background is in medieval literature and history, there are so many influences from various places but mostly Greek and Roman mythology, 19th Century literature, and a lot of Christian-inspired influences. The fact that we open with our hero talking to snakes? Come on. You and I were both raised in Christian families. Immediately you have to make that connection to that most infamous time this happened and didn’t end well.
S: Last time this happened the whole world went to pot. To me, this is what makes this series so brilliant and why I find these notions of being up in arms – the Potter Panic – about this series being demonic so ridiculous. She takes this idea, this very archetypical moment of a human speaking to a snake, and not only does she play it for humor, bring a little humanity and empathy into it, but she turns it into something the opposite of threatening. It’s not threatening, it’s wondrous. And it’s our hero who can do it, and it’s not a scary thing. She takes all those associations we have and subverts them. For now – that doesn’t mean she won’t confront all of them in the 2nd book. But it’s such a great introduction to what Harry can do, and the fact that what he can do would be seen as threatening, but actually seeing and understanding what is happening is amazing.
C: It’s such a totally normal conversation. “Oh, you’ve never been to Brazil?” Next they’re going to talk about the weather.
S: They are. I love that the glass vanishes, the snake gets out, pauses to tell Harry thank you, and says in an Antonio Banderas accent – “Brazzzzil, here I come. Thankssss, amigo.”
C: “But I must!”
S: “No, it is too sexy!” If you didn’t watch SNL in the 90s, sorry. You won’t get it. You know, off topic, one of the last places I lived we had a friend who sounded exactly like Puss in Boots from Shrek 2. He was so much fun to talk to. He had the deep voice and strong accent, and it sounded like a pronouncement.
C: I would have talked to him all the time. I love it.
S: I do too! Harry lets the snake go accidentally, frustrated with Dudley for ruining the one cool moment he’d had that day, and it looks like it might blow over until they’re back in the car and Piers says that Harry was talking to it. Which sends Vernon into a sputtering spasm, and he locks him in his cupboard.
We get some backstory with Harry, transitioning now to being in Harry’s head and getting some exposition from him about what he remembers, and how he used to dream of some unknown relation coming to take him away in the grand tradition of narratives like Great Expectations – this staple of 19th century British lit. The poor, downtrodden kid in an orphanage or workhouse, and some unknown relative shows up to whisk them away to a happy life. That’s the model we’re working with, and I like that she’s signaling that.
C: Can we talk about one thing?
S: Yeah, I’d love to! You need to talk more.
C: The fact that yes, the Dursleys are terrible, and yes, Harry is treated horribly. But this is a fantasy series, not a realistic sort of series. It’s a regular size hurdle for him to overcome, not something that particularly scars him for life psychologically.
S: And I know why you’re saying that. I’m not going to name drop, but there was another podcast we both listened to that discussed this, and kept getting hung up on this. Again this is where I talk about that fan perspective. They could not get past this, “WHY would Dumbledore leave Harry with these AWFUL people, he’s being ABUSED and it’s TERRIBLE.” To them it indicated a failure on Dumbledore’s part, that he should have put him with a loving family.
Had he done that, Harry would be shit out of luck later on. If he hadn’t had to deal with the Dursleys from an early age, Harry’s approach to life would have been very different.
C: And not to mention the fact that, as we find out later on, Petunia as his blood relative is incredibly important to him surviving to a certain age.
S: It’s a huge deal. And I feel like for a fantasy series there’s a lot of realism. The Dursleys are terrible people, but they’re not evil people. Yes, they neglect Harry, they don’t give him things, they ignore him, they let Dudley pick on him, they take away food as punishment.
C: But the thing about it, too, is – reading this book and finishing this series – who is worse off? Who’s actually losing? They’re losing because they keep themselves strait jacketed so much. Can you imagine if your sister had turned out to be a witch, and you weren’t, and you reacted like this? Or you could react to embrace her, and especially when she was older and could do magic, she could do a few things for you around the house, maybe show you a few things, maybe take you up on a broom, and how amazing that would be. Yeah, you’d have some envy, but it would also be pretty fucking awesome. But they take the complete opposite view, and they suffer so much for their attitude.
S: Think about the difference we talked about last time from someone like Jacob – someone who will never be a wizard. They took the line out of the movie but we all saw it in the preview: “I want to be a wizard!” Which was a touch on the nose. But you have someone who, instead of reacting with fear and envy, embraces it. Just knowing that something like this exists in the world is so fulfilling. And then you have someone like Petunia who can’t get past being left out, turns around and becomes very bitter about it. The good thing about this series is that you understand where everyone is coming from, whether or not you agree. I get that Vernon Dursley actually, for some reason, loves Petunia and wants to make her happy. And what makes her happy is a mundane, socially acceptable existence. And he wants to protect her from the things that make her unhappy – her terribly abnormal family. He wants to keep Harry from being that so it doesn’t infringe on Petunia’s life. Yes, there’s some repression – they don’t want it in their house –
C: But they also think they’re doing Harry a favor.
S: They do. They’re ‘saving’ him, ‘raising him right.’
C: They’re terrible, but they’re really, in their own way, tragic figures in the series.
S: Because they actually are trying to do what they think is the best for Harry. And that’s the thing about villains – everyone thinks they’re right.
C: Yeah, everybody is the hero of their own story. They think Hagrid is a horrible, offensive, abusive beast of a man. And from their perspective, he totally is.
S: And it’s not that they care about Harry – they don’t. But they’re still trying to do the ‘right thing.’ So they’re not all good and not all bad. This is where that kind of reductive analysis of this kind of thing gets annoying.
“But Dumbledore should have known!” Okay, let’s take that the other route. Let’s say he placed Harry in a family like the Weasleys where he was doted on, fed and treated wonderfully. We see how that plays out in Book 7 where Ron is faced with situations he’s never dealt with before. Harry handles a lot of things well because of the bad situations he’s faced in the past. They aren’t HORRIBLE situations, but they were not easy and he had to learn to deal. And as he gets older he copes fairly well because he has perspective.
That’s not to justify this, or say Dumbledore’s decision was right (although personally I think it was), but you can’t be so reductive about it.
C: And to take this back to Star Wars, as I am contractually obligated to do each episode–
C: Luke goes out with Ben and decides to go off and take the droids back to Bail Organa only after his aunt and uncle are killed. And yes, he’s deeply upset by it, but then it’s like, oh well, Owen and Beru are dead, move on. Leia sees Alderaan blown up, it’s terrible – eh, she moves on. And yes, we know in a more realistic setting both of those things are going to be exponentially more awful to deal with, but it’s a fantasy movie and you don’t dwell on it. That’s how the Harry/Dursley situation is in these books.
S: Definitely agree. The Owen and Beru situation wasn’t ideal either. They didn’t let Luke do whatever he wanted, he was living in an isolated place in a difficult environment and living a life he didn’t necessarily love. Are we complaining about that?
S: Granted, the Dursleys are a million times worse. Just saying.
1.3 “The Letters From No One”: Book theory and emancipated tortoises
S: Harry’s been in his cupboard up until summer holidays.
C: Poor old Mrs. Figg!
S: Who again, we meet later on even though you think you’ll never see her again.
C: Yeah, you think she’s just some random character, and it turns out not.
S: No, totally not! But we do get some of my more beloved moments of humor with stupid Smeltings.
C: What a name, by the way. Smeltings.
S: Isn’t that a nod to what would happen at a school like that? Smelting – isn’t that the process by which you take metal and melt it down to get rid of impurities?
S: So Smeltings – a place you’d go to learn conformity? Isn’t that the idea she’s aiming for and making some very pointed comments about the British educational system as well ?
C: And also, its fashion sense: maroon tailcoats and orange knickerbockers.
S: Boater hats, and one of my all-time favorite lines: “They were given knobbly sticks used to hit each other while the teachers weren’t looking. This was supposed to be good training for later life.”
Bloody brilliant, and great commentary on these kind of schools and the kinds of people who become peers of the realm and successful businesspeople.
C: I can only imagine how many people I would have knocked unconscious in school had I carried a stick.
S: You with a Smelting stick would have been terrifying!
C: Yeah. You would have wanted to be my friend.
S: Even in high school, imagining you walking around with one of those.
C: I would have just smacked shit to scare people. Constantly.
S: I am so glad you didn’t have one. There are moments in life when I’m so grateful you didn’t have access to a light saber or a Smelting stick.
C: Or the Force, because can you imagine how many people I would have Force choked? SO MANY.
S: There would have been bodies EVERYWHERE.
I like too that we get to see Harry’s sense of humor. Sassy Harry is the best Harry. That doesn’t come through in the movies quite so much. When Dudley is trying to intimidate him, threatening him with a swirly and Harry says “No, the poor toilet’s never had anything as bad as your head down it, it might be sick.” And then runs off before Dudley can figure it out. Harry is awesome – he’s witty, sassy, smart, resourceful and has a sense of humor.
He gets much sassier as he ages, but even at 11, like with his uniform: “I didn’t realize it had to be so wet.”
He goes to get the mail and you get that moment where you feel like the story is really starting: there’s a letter addressed to him in a very specific way.
C: The Cupboard Under The Stairs.
S: Emerald green ink, wax seal, coat of arms on the back. Harry, I know you are only 11, but you drop that letter off in your cupboard before you go back in the kitchen. Come on.
But no, he takes it into the kitchen with him, and of course Uncle Vernon takes and reads it and it’s the end of the world as we know it. They throw the boys out, and “Harry and Dudley promptly have a furious but silent fight over who can listen at the keyhole.” If you have a sibling you know exactly what that looks like.
Vernon swears ‘we’d stamp out that dangerous nonsense!’
C: That’s the best kind of nonsense!
S: So Vernon tries to buy Harry’s behavior by giving him Dudley’s 2nd bedroom, going to visit him in his cupboard, forcing his face into a smile which looks quite painful.
Harry goes up to the bedroom. I want to mention this now because it will come up a lot. Professor John Granger, “the Hogwarts Professor,” does his own podcast and has written a lot about the symbolism in the series. One of his more interesting theories I’ve enjoyed is the notion that Rowling uses books to signal whether or not a character is good, and that character’s relationship to books and writing tells you a lot about whether that character is good/trustworthy.
If we accept that hypothesis, when Harry goes up to Dudley’s room, we see tons of broken toys and electronics, but it does mention a shelf full of books in Dudley’s room. They’re the only things in the room that look as though they’ve never been touched, but they are there.
C: I think that’s actually really interesting. At what point did Vernon and Petunia realize he was not going to read? Do they continue to buy him books? Are these all picture books from when he was a kid? Are they age and reading level-appropriate?
S: It’s possible. Maybe they were gifts from relatives that he never touched? The Dursleys don’t seem to read much. Vernon reads the paper, but…
C: I could see him reading manuals on how to make drills more efficiently, but they wouldn’t read fiction for pleasure and they wouldn’t read nonfiction to learn, so…
S: Which, if you accept that hypothesis about the function of books, that might indicate that the Dursleys aren’t necessarily bad people, but they’re not interested in a whole lot of knowledge beyond their zone. But I like that Dudley has books, even if untouched, because it signals that he has potential as a character to be good, but has never explored it. Never been forced to.
C: Yeah, he’s 11 or 12, and he is who he is because of how his parents have raised him and how they’ve allowed him to be.
S: He’s allowed to be a spoiled brat. He’s never had a reason not to be.
So we will keep looking at the book stuff through the series, because this hypothesis has some great implications through the series.
Dudley is whining over the loss of his room of broken toys.
C: He threw his tortoise through the greenhouse roof!
S: The mental image of that is awful.
C: Poor tortoise. He was probably relieved to be thrown somewhere so he could escape.
S: That’s probably true. Dudley’s in shock. Nothing is working! None of his terrible tantrums are working! And now there’s another letter, and another of my favorite lines! Vernon runs down the hall for the letter, Harry’s right behind him, Vernon has to wrestle Dudley to get the letter which is made more difficult by the fact that Harry has grabbed Vernon around the neck from behind. “After a minute of confused fighting, in which everyone got hit a lot by the Smelting stick…” Why couldn’t we have these moments in the movie? I would have loved to see the three of them wrestling for a letter while Dudley’s whacking everything in site with that stupid stick.
C: We should manufacture Smelting sticks and sell them for people to spank their children with.
C: I’m torn because on the one hand, I feel like there’s a market, but on the other hand, the people who would use it are the people who would say, “Harry Potter books, witchcraft, the devil!” And they wouldn’t get the joke.
S: Yeah, the main people who would buy them would be HP enthusiasts who would like to say they have a Smelting stick and never actually hit someone with it.
C: I would hit someone with it.
S: Okay, maybe you would. So Harry has a plan to get his letter, which doesn’t work, because Vernon is camped in front of the door, and is slowly unraveling. No matter how much they try to ignore it more letters are coming. First there was 1, then there were 3. On Friday there are 12, coming through the windows. On Saturday, 24 hidden in eggs. On Sunday, Vernon thinks he’s safe, and then we get one of my favorite scenes from the film with the letters pouring out of the chimney.
I know you have problems with that movie and when we do our Drunk Potterwatch it will be awesome, but I still love that scene. And the music is perfect! Hedwig’s Theme!
C: Can we just also point out that as Vernon is nailing things up he’s humming “Tiptoe Through the Tulips?” I find that amusing.
S: And lines like: “He looked so dangerous with half his mustache missing that no one dared argue.” So Vernon decided, we can’t beat this, we’re leaving. Muggles like Vernon have to be the most amusing thing to wizards, thinking he’s so smart, going to do some evasive driving and shake them off.
C: Poor Dudley, he’d never had such a bad day in his life. He missed five television programs he wanted to see! FIVE! It’s a tragedy.
S: And he didn’t have any aliens to blow up! Can you imagine how much worse Dudley would have been if this had been set in the era of smartphones, when he could have his shows and games on the go with him?
C: Let’s not talk about it.
S: They’re getting further from the Dursley’s house. Are you familiar with the Shakespearean convention of going ‘into the green’ or ‘into the woods?’
C: I know that they do it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but that’s most of what I know.
S: That’s actually the quintessential example of this concept. The idea is that the characters must go into the woods for transformation to occur, to find magic, danger, mystery, and to find out who you are, and then you can come out. If you’ve seen the musical “Into The Woods,” that is the notion the whole thing is built around. The woods is where you find yourself, and you only leave once you’ve done that. So A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts in the city with everyone’s problems – in love with the wrong people – they go into the woods, encounter fairies and magic, get signals crossed, but by the time they come out of the woods it has all been sorted and they leave the woods to return to the city for their happily ever after. But going into the woods generally signals conflict, trouble and change.
Even though this is not literally going into the woods, if you’re starting at Privet Drive and slowly getting further and further away, it’s only when they get really far out to Hut-On-The-Rock, The Sea that the magic starts. It’s a similar construction – they have to go ‘into the woods” for Harry to meet Hagrid and his destiny.
They go to a hotel, find about 100 letters, and Vernon gives up and finds a shack on a rock, and they go spend the night in the middle of the ocean on a rainy night. Which I guess must have been comforting to Vernon? I don’t know.
C: You would think he would have taken the hint by this point.
S: But he’s so determined to outsmart this!
Meanwhile, Harry’s awake while everyone’s asleep, and he’s counting down to his birthday….and then BOOM! Hagrid.
C: And now we get to the good stuff.
S: Yes. Because now we’re in the woods, and the actual story can start.
1.4 “The Keeper of the Keys”: Class anxieties and Newt-Hagrid bromance fanfic
S: I don’t think they use that title for Hagrid again after this book. They mainly call him the gamekeeper or groundskeeper. But think of the symbolism of Quidditch, which has a ton of parallels for the structure of the story. The roles a person plays in Quidditch has a lot to do with who that person is. We have no idea if Hagrid played Quidditch in school, but his being associated with being a Keeper tells us something about him.
C: He’s the Keeper for this part of the book of Harry’s past and future as well.
S: Keeper of the Keys literally and figuratively. Keepers on Quidditch are your goalies. They guard the goalposts. They grant access, or not. And there’s a sense of security in a Keeper, because they guard your team and keeps the other team from scoring. Having that inveighs Hagrid with a sense of strength and security. Which is also accomplished by having him as a giant in an overcoat that has mice in the pockets and who carries sausages and teakettles.
C: You don’t carry around sausages and teakettles?
S: Only on rainy days.
C: You have a lot of restraint.
S: Yeah, I do. It’s one of the things I’m the most proud of. We are the only people who think we’re funny, aren’t we?
We meet Hagrid, who is consistently described as wild, with his beetle-black glinting eyes.
C: I wonder if Hagrid has ever met Newt? Because I feel like they would get on famously.
S: They have to have met! They would absolutely get along. You can’t tell me that Newt, with all of his dangerous creatures, has not met Hagrid and they have not spent an evening drinking. It happened. I am saying it now. In the 3rd movie Newt shows up on the Maurauder’s Map! I am calling it now – he was there to see Hagrid.
C: I hope so. Somebody write me that fanfiction!
S: Meeting Hagrid and seeing how he talks really made me think of Great Expectations. Remember when they come to get Pip, who has been living with his Uncle Joe, who is a blacksmith but a very kindly man? He has a low, Cockney / northern accent. In British tradition, we associate one of two things with that accent: low class/low intellect/rough people, or warmth and caregiving. Both are reflective of the English class structure. The northern, Yorkshire, non-patrician, non-public school accents would be associated with the manual labor classes or the servant classes who take care of you. And I find it interesting that Hagrid is the only one here who talks like that.
It’s fun, because he gets a distinct voice, but it’s definitely a reflection there – and Hagrid is, in the wizarding world – of lower class, rough around the edges, compared to the people we meet at Hogwarts. He’s also a caretaker. He’s a lot of British class assumption rolled into one character.
C: Yeah, the only one I can think that talks differently is Seamus Finnegan, but that’s because he’s Irish.
S: Madame Maxime does, because she’s French. Viktor Krum does because he’s Bulgarian. But not a lot of characters get this written change in their dialogue.
But Hagrid is the best. He arrived with a sticky chocolate birthday cake for Harry, which makes him the nicest person ever.
C: And it’s only slightly squashed.
S: I know! He’s wonderful! And he makes his fire and brings out his kettle, they make tea and sausages. It’s wonderful. And then we get to what Hagrid is really here for. Since he is the Keeper of the Keys, he’s here to open up a whole new world to Harry and tell him who he really is. And we get the amazing line everyone loves. You want to do it?
C: It’s not the same as it is in the movie though!
S: I know! “Yer a wizard, Harry!” It’s never quite that good.
C: That’s one thing I can say I prefer how it’s done in the movie versus the book.
S: There’s a lot more explanation in the book and the Dursleys are present for all of it, which feels unnecessary. I like that when Hagrid talks to Harry about Voldemort it’s at a completely separate time, and keeps it short and simple when with the Dursleys.
He gives Harry his letter.
C: Yay McGonagall!
S: I know! In the movie Harry says almost immediately that “I can’t be a wizard. I’m just Harry.” In the book, Hagrid explains how Harry’s parents died, and we get this moment where Harry feels quite sure that there has been a horrible mistake. “I think you must have made a mistake. I don’t think I can be a wizard.” Very important moment which establishes Harry as a hero, because they second step of the Monomyth cycle is the refusal of the call to adventure. The hero must refuse, whether from a sense of obligation, fear, insecurity, duty or inadequacy. He has to say, “I can’t do this.” Luke Skywalker does it. He tells Obi-Wan, “I hate the Empire, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
And that is contrasted so strongly with what we see later when Voldemort is given his own call to the magical world – he doesn’t question it for a moment. His immediate response is, “I knew I was special.” Love it love it love it love it love it. Have I mentioned that I love it? Also I love it.
C: Can you make yourself a little bit more clear?
S: Je t’aime! Oh wait, that’s wrong. I just said I love you.
C: Well that’s true too.
S: It is true…
C: Let’s not tell your husband, though. This is the love that dare not speak its name.
S: J’aime la! There, I did it.
C: Can you say it in Russian?
S я люблю тебя. Oh wait, that’s I love you again.
C: Are you trying to tell me something? You’ve just told me in 3 different languages.
S: We might have to talk about this off the air.
But anyway, Vernon can try to stop him but it’s not going to happen. This is interesting – I’m using the ebook of this one, and on iBooks it has little footnotes they worked in. It mentions that when Hagrid says Harry’s name has been down since he was born, there’s a footnote that explains that in a small, locked tower there is an ancient book at Hogwarts untouched by anyone since the 4 founders placed it there on completion of the castle. Beside the book is a silver inkpot and a quill. It’s called the Book of Acceptance and the Quill of Admittance. They constitute the only process by which students are selected. So I guess it’s a magic book and quill that can tell who is magic and writes their names accordingly?
C: We’ve talked before, and you’ve mentioned, after all of this happened, why do you still have Slytherin? Why not get rid of that house? Not all Slytherins are evil but so many of them are. What would happen, though, if you did? They’re there for a reason. Say you get rid of Slytherin. They don’t fit in these other houses. Then what happens? You have a generation of children – where do they go? What do they do?
S: I feel like you’d have to rebuild the entire system, which is complicated, like you say. We’ll talk more about the Sorting when we get to those chapters next week, but I understand where that comes from, which still leaves you with a serious problem of leaving it there. We’ve had similar problems in our own country, and see where we are now!
I love that Hagrid’s wand is in a pink umbrella. It’s a clear signal that he’s not going to harm you. His retaliation is to try to transfigure Dudley into a pig, and only gives him the tail on accident.
C: “But I suppose he was so much like a pig anyway there wasn’t much left ter do.”
S: We’re getting to the next steps in the Monomyth: Supernatural Aid and Crossing the Threshold. Once a hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his/her guide or magical helper will appear or become known. From there, the hero crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world. I would argue that the Threshold is Platform 9 ¾. But prior to that, we have to get the Supernatural Aid, and we get that in Diagon Alley.
1.5 “Diagon Alley”: Names, numbers, a million digressions, and doesn’t anyone around here work for a living??
S: They spend the night at the hut and go up to London the next morning. Hagrid surreptitiously doing magic when he’s not supposed to.
We learn a little about the world – wizards have a bank called Gringotts, and oh by the way you have money. This is straight up Dickens – 19th century schoolboy narrative style – the downtrodden hero rescued by wealthy relatives and taken into a whole new life which should have been his birthright. So Harry finds out that yes, his parents left him a small fortune.
C: I’m really curious about that. James and Lily died when they were pretty young, and they had been in hiding before that, so when did they have time to make all this money? We never meet any of Harry’s other family. Are we to assume that James’ parents are dead and they left him that money?
S: I always assumed James came from money. We find out James’ pureblood descent goes back a long way, and I think it’s safe to assume his family was rich. Who knows what he did for a living if anything, because it’s hard to tell if people have jobs in this world. Which is also problematic and reflective of British classism and the separated structure of the two worlds in British literature and history.
You’ve got moneyed classes, your ‘gentlemen classes’ – which, to be fair, is most of who this story is centered around. People who don’t have ‘jobs.’ The ones who do work for the government or Hogwarts. Then you’ve got others who have shops, own taverns, etc. It’s an interesting divide.
C: I can understand why Mrs. Weasley just stays home because they have so many kids, but as of Chamber of Secrets her kids are gone for 9 months out of the year. Does she ever get a job, considering how strapped they are for cash?
S: I don’t know. That’s a good question. The economics of the wizarding world are interesting, and there’s a lot of gaps left in the way they’re explained. Which, to be fair, if I were Rowling I wouldn’t have expounded deeply on it, but I’d like to know more. Because if you don’t work for the government or the school, it seems that you have to be a small business owner.
C: Or you go work with dragons, like Charlie Weasley.
S: That is true, you can work abroad.
C: But you can’t do that any more, because Brexit!
S: Fuck you Brexit! Ruining the magical world for everyone.
Circle theory – we see Hagrid warning Harry why it would be mad to try to rob Gringotts, because there are dragons guarding high security vaults. And you’ve got to find your way, because Gringotts is 100s of miles underground. And by book 7, we have come full circle, and Harry tries to rob Gringotts. We learn about Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry, the secrecy, we find out that Hagrid thinks parking meters are brilliant.
They take the train and Harry looks through his letter. I love the way she takes the trappings of superstitions related to witches and transforms them into something more relatable. Like the pointed hats, which they ditched after movie 2; the robes, this medieval look. The wand, the cauldron, the scales, the owl, cat or toad – that’s a witch’s familiar, the animal companion or counterpart that people would use to identify witches back in the day. There’s a cat – burn her, she’s a witch!
She takes these dark things and makes them something else. It’s positive, and allows you to make readers think that maybe all these things from history were just misunderstood.
C: It’s nice. I like it.
S: Also, this booklist. Adalbert Waffling. On a book about theory! Because he can’t make up his mind! HE’S WAFFLING!
C: Phyllida Spore, who wrote A Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi!
S: Transfiguration, by Emeric Switch! Draughts and Potions, by Arsenius Jigger!
C: Like a jigger of whiskey!
S: And Arsenius, like arsenic? Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, WOOHOO! Shout out to Newt Scamander.
And The Dark Forces: A guide to self-protection, by Quentin Trimble.
J.K. Rowling has my sense of humor.
We get out of the underground and go to the tiny, grubby Leaky Cauldron.
C: Which is my kind of place, I have to say.
S: You’d be there all the time.
C: No shit, Sherlock.
S: Has maybe a Muggle-repelling charm to keep Muggles from seeing it. They walk in, and Harry brings the entire place to a grinding halt.
C: “Bless my soul. Harry Potter. What an honor.”
S: I like the scene in the movie, but the book is better because these adults are falling all over themselves. Then we meet Quirrell. There’s an obvious association here that I’m missing.
C: Squirrel. He’s squirrelly.
S: Squirrel, yeah. But I always think of a quiver? But that’s not it.
C: Hang on, let me Google.
S: Well, I Googled him and found out that his name is Quirinus, which I did not know. Also, he has a non-corporeal Patronus. Gee, I wonder why. Couldn’t possibly be because of Voldemort in the back of his fucking head.
C: It’s a crossbow bolt.
S: So I was thinking of that! I was thinking of archery, just in the wrong way! It’s a crossbow bolt. Great, so he’s a tool! Okay.
C: We find out here what actually happened to him. He’s great when he’s in school, then he goes out into the world to get some practical knowledge, and that’s where Voldemort preys on him. If he’d never gone out into the woods, or that particular wood, he would have been fine.
S: Yeah, so we have a character who went into the woods and failed, and came out under someone else’s control. And we get another literal example of that later in the book when they go into the woods.
C: *cough cough Aragog* Could only be worse for me if it was a gigantic cockroach.
S: Spiders are fine when they’re small! The bigger they get the less I like them, and I live in a part of the world where they can get very big! Like, maybe 8-12” big. It’s very disconcerting.
C: Oh good lord! Let’s move on.
S: I’m not kidding! You don’t’ want to know!
Yes, we have poor stammering Quirrell, terrified by everything.
Now we go to Diagon Alley. When you first read this did you like the notion?
C: I didn’t picture it as an alley the way they portrayed it in the movie. I saw it as a big wide main street in a town, sort of? So when I saw it in the movie I thought it was really cramped and small and ugly and dingy and it didn’t do anything for me.
S: I’ll agree – I expected like a Main Street with shops on either side.
C: It’s just so weird because I have no idea how large the population of wizards in Britain actually is, but if you’re to assume that the vast majority of trade in England is in London, there’s not a whole lot of space there in Diagon Alley for everything. And there again, you get into the question of where do people work when they graduate from Hogwarts, if you only have one here, maybe one in Dublin, maybe one in Edinburgh… I don’t know.
S: This is again where I feel like, whether conscious or unconscious, the wizards are very reflective of this classist, moneyed gentry who aren’t expected to go right to work. They have servants, they have house-elves, they have the lower classes for that. There’s an argument to be made that we’re reading a traditional British novel, in that sense. Those novels focused primarily on the upper classes, and to the extent that they did focus on the lower classes – and Dickens is guilty of this – it was always through the lens of an upper-class character who wasn’t supposed to be there.
C: We know that Bill Weasley works for Gringotts, and Charlie Weasley is in Romania working with dragons. What other younger characters do we know who have jobs? Mr. Weasley does, and we know that the professors at Hogwarts have jobs. I don’t know, maybe because everything is so tight third person and doesn’t have anything to do with the story she’s telling, but we never hear about what people do after they graduate Hogwarts. The twins have their joke shop, but again that’s the Weasley family, which is pretty poor, almost destitute. So of course they have to immediately go to work.
S: There’s St.Mungo’s, you could be a Healer. You could work in a shop. But if you’re not with one of the large institutions your options are limited.
But we get to see the cool things in Diagon Alley. Eeylops Owl Emporium, and the brooms, the potions stores, the goblins, the scary rhyme on the door of Gringotts! All banks should be like this. I feel like we’d have fewer housing bubbles. Goblins wouldn’t be super patient with speculative mortgages.
C: It doesn’t say that there’s a Wall Street in the wizarding world.
I know there’s been some debate about the goblins as keepers of money and the notion that that harkens to medieval Jewish stereotypes. Thoughts?
C: I don’t know enough about medieval Jewish stereotypes to have an opinion.
S: Well, some of the physical characteristics are similar to those often associated with Jews in medieval times – long noses and fingers, but mostly that protective, somewhat greedy association with money. I don’t know if it’s unconscious – it’s also a folklorical association – so maybe it’s just an association that was a bit too close for comfort.
We meet Griphook for the first time in Book 1, and won’t see him again until Book 7. We go down into Gringotts and find out the difference between a stalagmite and stalactite.
Harry opens his vault, and he’s rich! Small fortune! He’s good. And why is the wizarding world so inefficient? 29 knuts to a Sickle? Even numbers too Muggle-y?
C: Yeah, I don’t like uneven numbers.
S: And now vault 713. OMG, these numbers.
C: And it has no keyhole. You know what? You know what? All these vaults? AIN’T NONE OF EM LOCKED WITH ALOHOMORA. Come on, future Hermione!
S: You know, you make an amazing point. I imagine if you proposed to a goblin locking something valuable up with a spell that could be reversed with Alohomora, they would laugh and possibly feed you to their dragon. That’s the dumbest, most amateur thing ever.
Oh, I’m going to talk about numbers a lot this series, but the numbers 1, 3 and 7 are individually important, and together it’s big. So that should signal something very important in this vault.
C: Go on? Seven is lucky, one is a prime number. What’s so special about three? The three wise men.
S: A lot of these have religious connotations too, so you have to have that understanding. It’s related to divinity.
C: Oh, THAT crock of things.
S: Seven is the ultimate number, and supposed to mean spiritual or heavenly completeness. God works in 7s.
C: Technically, he worked in 6 and rested on the 7th, so.
S: Six is meant to signal incompleteness. That’s why in the Bible the mark of the Beast is 666 – it’s incompleteness/evil compounded to the third degree, as opposed to divinity. It falls short. Ten is earthly completeness, but 10s don’t figure in so much. She tends to rely on 7, 6 and 3. Threes relate to the idea of a Trinity, a 3-fold cord, three attributes in one. And whether you’re looking at it through a religious lens or not, 3 is a powerful number. There’s something about that number that seems to work for humanity. It’s emphatic, more than just 2. It has strength to it. I see those number patterns in the books themselves.
Are you ready for my big theory?
C: Lay it on me.
S: We have 7 books. Books 1 and 7 are the destiny books. Beginning and end. They center around Harry. I argue that 4 belongs with those, but it’s a bit of an anomaly.
1 and 7 are Harry’s, and to an extent Dumbledore’s, books.
2 and 6 are books about Voldemort and Draco Malfoy. Malfoy plays a huge role, which makes sense since he’s one step short of Harry, as Harry’s nemesis.
C: He’s kind of like what Harry would have been had he been raised in a wizarding family and been coddled and raised and pampered. He’s Harry’s shadow self.
S: Exactly. So it makes perfect sense that 2 and 6 are their books, both Malfoy and Voldemort. Both also focus on Tom Riddle. Both focus on the dark sides of this story, and they focus on those who have fallen short. They’ve had the chance to be good and reach divinity / holiness, and have passed on it.
3 and 5 are Harry’s parents books. They’re about Harry’s parents and their friends. Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix are about Sirius, that generation, and a lot of politics. Those two mirror each other.
So we’re drawing circles around the series. One mirrors 7, 2 mirrors 6, 3 mirrors 5, which leaves you with 4 smack in the middle because 4 is the turning point book. So 4 fits with 1 and 7, to make your beginning, turning point and end.
So you’ve got rings connecting the books, and rings within the books as well.
C: I like it.
S: I was waiting for you to tell me I’d gone off the deep end there honestly.
C: No, I don’t think you have. My specific comment was not about this theory in general, but thinking about what you said about 3 and 5 being his parents’ generation – how interesting it is that things turn out so tragically in Order of the Phoenix because Sirius and Snape can’t get over their shit from when they were kids. And that’s kind of how you know – I’m going to take this back to Star Wars because that’s what I do–
S: Do it!
C: That whole generation can’t get over anything and can’t move on, and that’s why so many of them get wiped off the map. It reminds me of the prequel-era Jedi. They’re the good guys, but they have fallen so far short of what their old ideal was and have become so mired in bureaucracy and beholden to this idea that they’re not even sure what it was anymore that they have to be wiped off completely in order for Luke and now Rey to come in, to do things differently and do it right.
S: And don’t you see echoes of that in the way Yoda and Obi-Wan handle Luke? They have a lot of knowledge about what happened before but neither are willing to give it to him. They tell him bits and pieces they think he needs to hear and withhold a lot of information that might be useful. If you were ever to make these people sit down and explain themselves, you’d find that so much of what they were involved in would be useful to Harry to understand and help him moving forward. Sirius, Lupin, Snape, Harry’s parents – all of their history is significant but he has to fight to find it out. Even then he doesn’t get all his questions answered.
So those stories are in a large way about the next generation having to right the wrongs of the previous generation and having to face the failures of their elders. I don’t think people realized how much Star Wars was about that until the prequels were made. You got the idea that something had gone terribly wrong because of the situation the Rebels were trying to solve, but the prequels really made that clear.
C: Just like real life. Our generation and the one younger than us is going to have to fix the Baby Boomers’ shit. Look at the situation they put us in here, and in Britain, and possibly in France and Germany, although hopefully not? It’s these older people who have a certain point of view and idea of what they deserve, what they are owed, and how it should be, and they see it changing and they react in fear and anger.
S: And we end up with fascist dictators. And then you have the younger generations trying to fix that. And by that time, the next generation will be left trying to patch up the stuff we screwed up while trying to fix the last thing.
That’s one of the things I loved about this series, because it’s like picking up a story in the middle. There’s all this stuff that happened before that’s really important to understand, and you’re dealing with the fallout of a major war and the kids being raised in a society that has screwed up and been damaged in a lot of ways, and has yet to confront the problems in the first place that led to that war.
C: *cough* America *cough*
S: So back to Gringotts, the vault the Sorcerer’s Stone is in – 713 – is opened up, and there’s a grubby little package wrapped in paper on the floor.
C: And you know what that reminds me of, since we’re going Biblical?
S: What? Do it.
C: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the Grail is the plainest cup there.
S: Yes! YESSSSSSSS. And that’s such a Biblical notion, this idea that the thing you expect to be fabulous, otherworldly and incredible is a humble thing. That’s the whole notion behind Jesus. The Jews expected someone to come in with pomp and circumstance, to set up a kingdom and overthrow Roman rule. “That’s what we were waiting for, and you’re saying there’s a carpenter dude over here telling us to love our enemies and whatnot, and we’re supposed to say he’s king? That’s not what we expected.” That notion that things you expect to be grand can in fact be humble, yet powerful. That really shows how Voldemort vs. Harry in a lot of ways – Harry is the kind of person who learns that lesson, that the people you don’t think the flashiest, most obvious choices can be the most powerful allies.
C: NEVILLE LONGBOTTOM.
S: Like Neville! Who is a badass.
C: He’s hot, too!
S: The kind of person ignored by everyone.
C: Hot Neville.
S: SO MUCH hotter than everyone else. I saw pictures from the HP Celebration this weekend of—
C: Was he in his underwear?
S: No, but it was still good. It was him, Tom Felton and Jason Isaacs, all elbowing each other and making faces in pictures. Can I just say I love how much Jason Isaacs loved being in Harry Potter?
C: I mean, how could you not?
S: He loved that Lucius Malfoy wig so much, and he loves having been Lucius Malfoy.
They get their money, Hagrid slips off to the Leaky Cauldron for a shot and Harry goes off on his own to Madam Malkin’s.
C: Which – you know, this is the sort of thing that McGonagall would say, “Dumbledore, this is EXACTLY what I was talking about.”
S: So true! Harry gets fitted for his robes and this is where we first meet Draco and don’t even know. This is a scene they allude to in the movie with the faceoff on the stairs, but I love that Harry meets Draco not knowing who he is, with no context, and judges accordingly. “He reminds me of Dudley, he’s a bully, he’s a jerk.” So much of Draco’s influence on people relies on who he is, and he uses that. But without that, Harry sizes him up and says, I don’t like you.
He’s a snob, calling Hagrid a servant, alluding to the pureblood witch and wizard thing.
We learn about Quidditch and the school houses, we go to Flourish and Blotts.
C: Always insulting Hufflepuffs! I don’t get it.
S: Right? Newt Scamander is making up a lot of ground for Hufflepuffs, who are badass. Hufflepuffs are the only house whose common room Harry never gets into. According to Pottermore, it’s the only school house whose common room has NEVER been entered by a non-Hufflepuff. How awesome is that?
C: You know what the answer probably is? Nobody wants to find it, because it’s Hufflepuff.
S: Screw that! Harry’s just not that good.
C: I bet it’s very warm and snug and comfy. That’s how I imagine Hufflepuff.
S: It has to be. I imagined it being underground.
C: In a nice, cozy cave.
S: Lots of gold, cushy armchairs, nice fire – super cozy.
C: I wonder if we’ll see it in any sort of flashback in Fantastic Beasts?
S: That would be cool. I hope so.
Flourish and Blotts is my dream store and I need it in my life. “Books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk.” I want one!
C: Can you imagine having many leather-bound books in a room that smells of rich mahogany?
S: Books as large as paving stones bound in leather. And again I love that he mentions Dudley: “Even Dudley, who never read anything, would be wild to get his hands on some of these.” Hagrid has to drag him away, although to be fair Harry is looking at books on countercurses and jinxes. Bad Harry.
C: Speaking of these books: “Curses and Countercurses” by Professor Vindictus Viridian.
S: Yes! I love that name.
C: It’s a great name.
S: Hagrid is such a spoilsport, no solid gold cauldron. They get scales, telescope, go the apothecary. “Miniscule glittery black beetle eyes.” How tiny do those have to be?
C: Where do the eyes come from? That’s so mean! Why do they kill the beetles?
S: Because they need them for potions! You don’t like roaches, why are you upset about beetles?
C: That’s true. I don’t know. It just seems…ugh. Can you imagine going to a grocery store in real life and seeing, oh, here’s cow’s eyes for you? Granted, I know you can get different parts of cows, I see tongue all the time. So you can get odd things. But eyeballs?
S: I feel like I’ve seen some here. I’ve definitely seen brain.
C: I’ve seen skulls still covered in meat for tamales. Digression, sorry.
S: Okay, so Hagrid is awesome and gets Harry his owl! He buys him Hedwig! Which is beautiful.
C: “They’re dead useful. Carry your mail and everything.”
S: They are. Hedwig is amazing.
C: So what would you have if you were at Hogwarts?
S: I’d have an owl, no question.
C: I’d have a cat. I love cats.
S: I love Crookshanks, and I can see you having a cat. Me, I like birds, I love owls, and they seem so smart and interesting. And I love Harry’s relationship with Hedwig.
C: I would just borrow your owl to send letters.
S: We’re at the point in the monomyth where our hero gains his magical helper: Ollivanders, makers of fine wands since 382 B.C. I love the description of this shop. “The very dust and silence here seemed to tingle with some secret magic.”
Ollivander remembers Harry’s parents and their wands, gives us our famous line of “The wand chooses the wizard!” And we find out what happened to Hagrid’s wand.
C: Poor Hagrid. “But you don’t use it?” Ollivander knows.
S: It got snapped, and he hid the pieces in his pink umbrella. So they try wands, wands, wands, wands, wands, and Mr. Ollivander seems to be enjoying himself trying to find the right wand. Then they find THE wand: holly and phoenix feather, ten and a half inches, and that’s the one that works. We find out that it is the brother to another wand – yew and phoenix feather, 13 ½ inches – that was Voldemort’s wand that killed Harry’s parents.
Yew trees are historically associated with death and evil, so it makes sense that Voldemort’s wand would be yew. Whereas, holly – goodness, we deck the halls with boughs of holly on Christmas. Holly is a wood that is associated with holly trees, associated with goodness and now, Christianity. And the phoenix feather, symbolic of resurrection. And the fact that Voldemort’s is yew and Harry’s is holly should tell you everything about how this series is going to end.
C: So can we take another slight diversion here?
C: You and I have both signed up on Pottermore. Would you like to talk about our wands?
S: Yes, I’d love to! If you haven’t seen it on our Muggle Studies site, we did an intro post where we told you some about us and our magical fuckery. All right Professor Creed, tell us about your wand.
C: My wand: chestnut, unicorn hair, hard flexibility, 10 ¾ inches. According to Pottermore, chestnut is a “most curious, multi-faceted wood which varies greatly in its character depending on the wand core and takes a great deal of color depending on the person that possesses it. Wands of chestnut are attracted to witches and wizards who are skilled tamers of magical beasts, those who possess great gifts in herbology and those who are natural flyers.” Unicorn hair is consistent magic. Wands with unicorn cores are the most difficult to turn to the Dark Arts. Minor disadvantages: they do not make the most powerful wands, although the wood may compensate, and are prone to melancholy if mishandled. As far as the hardness – flexibility or rigidity denotes the degree of adaptability and willingness to change possessed by the wand and owner pair. What do you think? Do you think that matches me?
S: I do. It talks about you being adept with magical beasts – you are an animal lover, definitely a cat lover – always have been. It seems like the wand of someone who is very steady, not flighty. You as a person haven’t changed all that much in the time I’ve known you. You’re open about how you feel about things, you have strong convictions. Can be prone to melancholy if mishandled, definitely. I feel like it has a lot of resonance. Do you feel like it fits you?
C: We’ve talked about this before that we were both raised religiously. I have since fallen away from it, but I don’t feel that my moral compass has changed too much. It also says wands with unicorn cores can be the most difficult to turn to the Dark Arts. Force lightning and force choking jokes aside, I like to think I have a fairly good moral compass, and I don’t see the world in black and white, but there are certain things that are flat out not acceptable. So between that and the hard flexibility, it takes a lot – if I think something is really not okay, it’s going to take a lot to change my mind about it.
S: Conversely, you’re not an easily persuaded person. If someone is trying to persuade you or use propaganda against you or try to manipulate your thought process, they’re going to have to work for it, because you’re not an easily manipulated person. You used to respond to appeals to emotion more than you do now. Part of that, I think, is just maturing.
C: Appeals to emotion – I’m not going to say they don’t work on me but I can put them in a box, set it aside, consider things logically and make decisions based on that. And I don’t lose my temper as much as I used to.
S: They would never turn you to the Dark Side unless you really wanted to go.
C: I’d have to want to.
S: And if you wanted to go, they wouldn’t be able to stop you.
C: I would be terrifying.
S: You’re essentially Anakin.
C: Oh my god that’s why he’s my favorite! As tragic and horrible as his story is, he is straight up my favorite Star Wars character. Love him.
S: I have no room to criticize over here, because my favorite character in this series is Dumbledore. I think we can allow you Anakin.
My wand is redwood, phoenix feather core, 13 ¾”, rigid flexibility. Apparently redwood is not used for wands much because it’s in short supply, but it is in constant demand because of its reputation for bringing good luck. But apparently that’s not really true. Redwood wands themselves aren’t inherently lucky, but strongly attach themselves to the witch or wizard who “already has the ability to make the right choice, snatch advantage from catastrophe.” Phoenix feather is the rarest core type and capable of the greatest range of magic, although it may take longer to reveal that. They show the most initiative, acting on their own at times, and are picky when it comes to their owners because they’re independent and detached. Which – I don’t know why anyone would think that would apply to me. They’re the hardest to tame, loyalty is hard won – this is nothing like me. I take great offense.
13 ¾” – no reason for that, it’s a longer length I guess.
C: Which is interesting because I think you might be a smidge shorter than me, and I am dead normal size for a woman. Interesting you got one that’s so long.
S: Flexibility – I also found it funny that of the two of us I tend to think of you as being more stubborn than me, but mine is apparently less flexible than yours! Mine is rigid! And apparently either not adaptable or not willing to change. I don’t think it’s adaptability – I’m very adaptable. I think it’s more, I believe what I believe and good luck to you trying to change that if you don’t have damn good evidence and arguments to back it up.
Do you feel like this describes me?
C: I think it describes you excellently. And frankly, now that we’re sitting here talking about it, I think you and I would make an amazing crime fighting duo in the wizarding world.
S: I feel like we should write this series immediately. “Seraphine and Creed, Wizards at Law.” We’d be an amazing crime fighting Auror duo. It would make Law and Order look lame.
C: We would be so good! Speaking of the redwood and how they say it’s not actually lucky – luck is not a thing that actually exists, but to speak of it in a way that it does, you make your own luck because you bust your ass and make opportunities for yourself, and you’re smart and you’re capable. So that fits.
S: I think it does. As I get older I find that situations generally turn out well for me and I guess I always wondered why that was, but maybe it has something to do with how I handle situations. If an opportunity presents itself I’ll generally take it, even if it’s frightening, if I see a good result at the end. And part of that too is that I’m very analytical. You might look at a situation and say “That’s terrifying, how do I handle it?” But for me, if I’m terrified I just shut that part off and look at the situation and make my decision. It has its downsides if you overly compartmentalize, but I guess it helps take advantage of a situation. I always flattered myself that I was smart enough to get out of any situation, but my mom also raised me to believe that no matter what happens you make the best of it and keep going.
But I like it. I am extremely independent and detached and picky, and it is hard to get my friendship, or to win my allegiance, but once you have it I will do pretty much anything for you.
C: And that just makes you and I being friends even more hilarious than it would be normally, because for all of you listeners out there who don’t know, Seraphine and I met as children in elementary school when she moved into where we grew up, and I immediately disliked her because I immediately knew she was smarter than me and I refused to let that be a possibility, even though deep down inside I knew it was true. So I was not very nice to you for a number of years, and you just kind of, dur-de-dur… That kind of sums you up as a child. Dur-de-dur….
S: Yeah, I just went along, and if I had a terrible day I went and hid in the library. Even if it upset me you usually couldn’t tell.
C: And meanwhile I was somebody who was raised to behave a certain way and be a good person, but I was also a little ball of anger and angst who could not control her temper very much, so I will say I bullied you. I was not kind to you. And then in junior high the worm kind of turned because I found myself on the outside looking in on the cool kids because I was like, “Dating? Cheerleading? Makeup? What is this?” And I suddenly lost my foothold in the social hierarchy of our grade, and turned to somebody who was suddenly a fellow outcast, which was you. And instead of being, like, “FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!” which is what I would have done, you were like, “Sure, I’ll talk to you.” So we eventually bonded over X-Men comics, which is hilarious since they are essentially about being outcasts and all of that stuff. And I had gotten into it and you were legitimately the only person I could think of who might not think me a total geek for liking them, so I was like, “Here, I think this is cool, what do you think?” And thank god you thought they were cool too. So then in high school we became closer friends and we’ve been good friends ever since then.
Um, where was I going with this?
S: I guess the fact that my friendship is hard to win. Once you have it, I’m a very loyal person.
C: Yes. I’m not sure how I got it, but you and I are bros for life now. And we have each others’ backs.
S: Yes, we absolutely are. And I’m still not quite sure how that happened – either I’m a forgiving person, or… I’d known you for so long I knew you weren’t bullshitting me, because I knew what it looked like when you were bullshitting me. You harassed me all the time! So when you finally came around all, “I suck, I’m sorry, can we be friends?” I mean – I didn’t have any friends! Everyone hated me. So you came along, I knew you pretty well – as someone who didn’t like me, but – what could possibly happen that could be worse? And you seemed really down. So of course my response was, “Sure, sit down and tell me your problems.”
C: And I was like, “X-Men comics, let me show you them!”
S: And I thought, these are cool! And we got geekier from there. Then Star Wars prequels came out, and it was all over.
C: And then I was crazy about those and would not shut up about them, printed out pictures of those and taped them in various classrooms…
S: You know the downside of telling this story? The people who don’t know us, it won’t matter. But if anyone hears this who does know us? They’re going to know IMMEDIATELY who we actually are.
C: Yeah. Anybody in our general age group, a year or two above or below us or in our grade is going to know exactly who we are.
S: I’m sure you’re all very jealous and wish you could have hung out with us too.
C: And can I just say that in high school you got extremely cool.
S: I did, and that was weird. The only thing I could figure out was that after being an outcast for so long, eventually you become cool. In the lower grades conformity is cool, and it’s terrifying not to fit in. And if you don’t you end up like me. My only friends were the fish.
C: I was LITERALLY just about to say that, but I thought, No one will get that reference but you! And we’ve already gone SO FAR OFF…
S: No one will, but I get it. But yeah, you get to maturing, and people realize they don’t know who they are or what they want, and all of a sudden an outcast looks confident. I’m not sure I really HAD confidence, but at a certain point everyone had hated me so long, I just couldn’t afford to care any more. And in high school, that suddenly became cool as opposed to nerdy.
So yeah, I got weirdly popular in high school and didn’t know how to react to that so I tried to ignore it as much as I could.
C: And it made you COOLER.
S: I guess I was accidentally cool! So all things considered, I guess my wand fits, because I stumble into these situations where it looks like I planned it or like I’m very lucky, when really it’s neither of the two.
C: And phoenix feather is supposed to be super powerful, and you do have powerful intellect, so!
S: Nerds win every time! Before we finish up on this chapter, there was something I found interesting with Mr. Ollivander. It mentions here that Harry never could decide if he actually liked Ollivander because of the way he talked about the wands, particularly Voldemort’s: that he did “great things. Terrible, oh yes. But great.”
C: I love that line.
S: Me too. By the time we get to 7, Harry is reminded again that he’s not sure he likes Ollivander, because he is fascinated by the power of the wands and doesn’t seem to trouble himself altogether much by the morality of the actions performed by the wands, and is much more interested in the wands themselves. To me that felt like a total Ravenclaw thing, which was verified by Pottermore – Ollivander is a Ravenclaw – which makes total sense, because I’ve done that, gotten so compartmentalized about a thing that you ignore the implications of that thing.
Ollivander is purely associated with wands, is the person who hands Harry his supernatural aid, and is only ever seen in reference to wands. So Ollivander is, I think, a fair symbol for wands themselves. Wands, in turn, I think are a fair symbol for power, and that’s explored deeply in Book 7. I always felt that Harry’s relationship with Ollivander mirrors Harry’s relationship with power. He’s not comfortable with it. There are moments where he sees the attraction, but at the same time Harry himself is not interested in power for power’s sake. And people who are, he refuses to relate to. His struggle with Ollivander reflects that struggle within himself.
C: I think that’s very insightful. And we don’t see a lot of Ravenclaws in depth, and not any as far as I can think of who are bad or immoral people, but that sort of thing you’re talking about is why, as brilliant as she is, Hermione is a Gryffindor, not a Ravenclaw.
S: Right, and she doesn’t do that. She can’t. Whereas Luna, a Ravenclaw, looks at things in a sort of detached way. I’ve always admired that about Hermione – that she brings such conviction to whatever she does and doesn’t get lost in her own head, if that makes sense.
If you’re a Ravenclaw and you’re listening to this you may understand what I mean by getting lost in your head, logicking yourself in a circle you can’t get out of.
C: If Hermione ever went bad she could be the most powerful and scary of Dark wizards. If she were a different person.
S: She really would.
C: She wouldn’t because of who she is, but if she didn’t have her heart and moral standing she would be very frightening.
S: Her heart is what really put her in Gryffindor. Her heart and her nerve. That tells you a lot about her.
C: So you are a Ravenclaw and I’m a Gryffindor. When we get to the Sorting chapter we can talk about that more, because I know that you have some mixed feelings about how you were sorted.
S: I do. I have a lot of thoughts about Sorting in general, so we have a lot to talk about.
This chapter wraps up nicely. Harry has to go back to Privet Drive for another month before going to Hogwarts, whereas in the movie it wraps up much more neatly with Hagrid taking Harry directly to King’s Cross the next day.
C: Can you imagine going back to the Dursleys for a whole month after this?
S: After this! I mean, dude. Most awkward month ever.
Harry has to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t understand or remember why he’s famous, and doesn’t know how to handle it. But that’s Harry – he’s humble, and he doesn’t try to claim something that isn’t his. It’s one of the reasons I love him – he’s not a Mary Sue, he’s a fantastic hero character.
So that was Chapters 1-5! I hope this works better for people rather than doing an hour per chapter. On some chapters it works, but on others it turns into this nitpicking-to-death thing, and you miss the larger elements, which I feel is counterproductive.
C: Yeah, especially in these earlier books. When we get to the longer books like 5-7, those are the ones with chapters you could spend an hour on.
S: Yeah, we probably will. But for now, we’re looking at the overall beginning of this thing. And Sorcerer’s Stone is a rather different book from the rest of the series, as after this she starts to get her rhythm. This is not my favorite book in the series but I love it for what it is, and the opening chapter will always be one of my favorite of any book.
So next time, 6-10. We MIGHT make it to 10. If we manage to get Halloween in there it will be impressive, but I get a sense we’re going to start slowing down as we talk about Sorting and Snape.
Until then, I am Professor Seraphine –
C: And I am Professor Creed –
S: And we’ll see you next time on Advanced Muggle Studies!