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Analysing the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Suffice to say, J.K. Rowling planned a lot.

The Harry Potter series is so rich in detail and intricately crafted that every time we revisit it we find new things to appreciate. Seeds were sown from the start, so let’s take a look at the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, ‘The Boy Who Lived’, and see if there’s anything new to discover…

Philosopher’s Stone kicks off with a description of the Dursleys and their general judgemental view of the world. Vernon goes off to work, Petunia tends to baby Dudley and between the three of them they manage to criticise a great number of people – particularly the overjoyed wizards celebrating the demise of Voldemort. Not that they know that.

The Dursley family photo, Dudley is wearing his Smeltings school uniform
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

It’s interesting to note that the Dursleys didn’t ever shake off their blinkered views and by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows this hadn’t really changed. Although, bear in mind that this is very much in keeping with their lifestyle and general attitudes.

When Mr and Mrs Dursley woke up on the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

In ‘The Boy Who Lived’, it’s doubly amusing to see such a tranquil world. The ‘strange and mysterious things’ mentioned in chapter one could be a blanket reference to the incredible journey about to unfold.

While the Dursleys are the first people we meet in Philosopher’s Stone the characters that stick long in the mind are Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall and, of course, Hagrid.

Hagrid flying into Privet Drive with a baby Harry.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

It’s not hard to see why. Dumbledore is twinkly-eyed and playful but with a serious streak, while McGonagall is the right kind of strict. Also, having her by Dumbledore’s side cements their relationship as friends rather than just colleagues rather nicely.

‘My dear Professor, surely a sensible person like yourself can call him by his name? All this “You-Know-Who” nonsense – for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort.’
Professor McGonagall flinched, but Dumbledore, who was unsticking two sherbet lemons, seemed not to notice.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

‘The Boy Who Lived’ contains the first mention of Voldemort in the form of some pretty loaded dialogue. It’s clear he and Dumbledore have history but it’s not explicitly referred to. Still, we get an idea of who Voldemort is – a dark and malevolent force to be reckoned with – and the greatness of his powers just from a few short lines.

‘It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs.’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Madam Pomfrey, the Hogwarts matron, gets a name-check here. To a first-time reader it would seem like a throwaway reference to an unimportant character, but it fits in so well with the continuity that’s established from the very beginning. That is to say, characters whose names you didn’t take note of turn out to have a significant role to play.

Similarly, when Hagrid makes his entrance on his now very familiar motorbike, he says he borrowed it off of ‘young Sirius Black’. What seems like a piece of insignificant information is actually the first mention of Harry’s godfather. Of course, Sirius would go on to become vitally important to Harry.

Sirius Black standing in doorway smiling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

What’s so apparent in the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone is that there’s a sadness hanging over it. What could be some simple world-building is actually a deeply poignant and emotional moment for McGonagall, Dumbledore, Hagrid and even unwitting baby Harry. At the time, we were pulled into the mystery of this chapter, but now we see it’s melancholic value.

‘The Boy Who Lived’ is fascinating because it’s our first step into Harry’s world, and it’s fun to see some of the series’ most important characters, characters who we’ve grown to love, before Harry even went to Hogwarts.

‘Would you care for a sherbet lemon?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Professor McGonagall coldly, as though she didn’t think this was the moment for sherbet lemons.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

A little bit of lightness in dark times is pretty much Harry Potter in a nutshell and handing out sherbet lemons on a tragic evening when there’s an important task at hand is classic Dumbledore. Professor McGonagall’s prickly response is also so typical of her. And, to be honest, you can kind of see her point. Sherbert lemons at a time like this, Dumbledore?

Dumbledore and McGonagall leave baby Harry at Privet Drive
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

A simpler reason for Dumbledore dishing out sweets while delivering the most important child the wizarding world will ever see is that he knows exactly what Harry represents and, essentially, what he will grow up to become. And besides, with Voldemort seemingly six feet under everyone had a legitimate cause for celebration.

‘He’ll have that scar for ever.’
‘Couldn’t you do something about it, Dumbledore?’
‘Even if I could, I wouldn’t. Scars can come in useful. I have one myself above my left knee which is a perfect map of the London Underground.’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

At first glance Dumbledore’s comment on Harry’s scar seems like another one of his little jokes. But on closer inspection it reveals that perhaps Dumbledore knew that Harry’s scar was more than just a cut, and how it represented the link between Harry and Voldemort. Hiding his great wisdom and foresight behind humour was something Dumbledore did more than once, after all. We never did quite find out about that London Underground scar though…

Harry showing his scar to Ron on the Hogwarts Express
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

‘The Boy Who Lived’ is full of little twinkles of subtext that are fun to read after all these years. There are nods to characters we would later fall for, moments of foreshadowing and, of course, humour: because where is Harry Potter without some levity?

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Pottermore will explore themes, moments, characters and much more from the very first Harry Potter story. Come back tomorrow when we look at what Philosopher’s Stone taught us about death.

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