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Harry Potter and the Reread Project: Ickle Firsties!

Last month, when I announced that I was going to do a Harry Potter reread for Fandom Following I also

confessed that I was quite apprehensive about said reread. A long, long time has passed since I first read Harry Potter and I have, among other things, become more politically aware since then. I have also become aware of the issues the Harry Potter books have, like the glaring lack of diversity in the books, and I was apprehensive that rereading Harry Potter with these issues in mind would make me love Harry Potter less.

Fortunately enough, it didn’t. I still love Harry Potter and I thoroughly enjoyed rereading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, although there are of course some things that stuck out to me.

Maybe one of the first things to acknowledge is that, for a children’s book, Harry Potter is pretty dark and deals with some pretty heavy themes right from the very beginning. Apart from some scenes that were quite intense to read and probably seemed very scary to nine year old me, like the scene in the Forbidden Forest when Harry meets Quirrelmort drinking the unicorn’s blood and the face off between Quirrelmort and Harry in front of the Mirror of Erised, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone includes a child being neglected and verbally abused by their legal guardians and bullied almost from the get go. I’m not lying or exaggerating when I say that reading how Harry describes his life with the Dursleys in the first chapters almost made me cry.

I mean, Harry was forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs despite the fact that the family lived in a four bedroom house, he was treated like some sort of servant, continuously insulted, he was never allowed to go anywhere but the school, Mrs. Figg’s house, and the Dursley’s and he was never treated with even the tiniest bit of kindness or consideration. And it doesn’t seem believable to me that Dumbledore had no idea about any of this, considering that Mrs. Figg was meant to keep an eye on Harry, and the fact that Dumbledore did nothing about the way Harry was treated makes him far less sympathetic to me.

At the same time, Dumbledore is clearly meant to be sympathetic – he’s the kind of stereotypical wise old wizard who is also very kind but sort of eccentric and weird. Of course, knowing everything I know about Dumbledore, this portrayal falls kind of flat, especially if you then also read bits of dialogue like this:

“Do you think he meant you to do it?” said Ron. “Sending you your father’s Cloak and everything?”
Well,” Hermione exploded, “if he did – I mean to say – that’s terrible – you could have been killed.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Harry thoughtfully. He’s a funny man, Dumbledore. I think he sort of wanted to give me a chance. […] It’s almost like he thought I had the right to face Voldemort if I could.”

To be honest, I had completely forgotten about this scene, but to me, it kind of seems like JKR not-so-subtly waving a giant neon sign reading “Yes, this is exactly what happened!”. Which makes Dumbledore an even more suspect and troubling character, because Harry, Ron, and Hermione are eleven year old children in the first year of their magical education and could have easily died trying to take on the remnants of a dark wizard and multiple magical tests to save the Philosopher’s Stone, and no amount of Dumbledore being scared about Harry almost – dying can change that.

Another thing that made me distrust Dumbledore was how little Dumbledore seemed to care about Snape favoring Slytherin, especially Malfoy, and bullying other students, mainly Neville and Harry. Not only does Snape verbally abuse Neville during their first potions class, he also takes points from Gryffindor for absurd reasons and embarrasses Harry in front of the whole Potions class by asking him questions that are far too hard for a first year in his very first Potions lessons. It’s also hinted at that Snape used Legilimency on Harry in the first book when Harry finds out about the Philosopher’s Stone and Snape starts keeping a closer eye on Harry and following him around. And then there’s the fact that Snape’s way of teaching is just bad pedagogy: He gives a grandiose speech without indicating to his students that they should be taking notes, then snaps at them for not copying the information he gives them down. Snape simply isn’t a good teacher, no matter how well written he is as a character.

At the same time, I have to give JKR credit for making the perception of Snape in the first book – where he starts out seemingly like the big bad, then turning out to actually be on the good side – mirror the development of him throughout all of the books. I really liked the revelation that it had actually been Quirrel all along who was evil, not Snape, because, on the one hand, certain hints that it was Quirrel were there – like his presence in Diagon Alley on the day of the break in at Gringotts – but the hints that it was Snape are just as existent and far more prominent because Harry is more focused on them.

I also liked was Professor McGonagall, who spends the day that the rest of the Wizarding World spends celebrating the death of Voldemort sitting around in Privet Drive and keeping an eye on the Dursleys because she heard rumors that Lily and James Potter are dead and suspects Dumbledore to come and drop of their son with the people that live there. This woman really cares a lot, but she still makes an effort to punish Harry fairly when she catches him breaking the rules.

Another character that really cares about Harry is Hagrid, who is also the first person that we see be nice to Harry. His entrance into Harry’s life is such a well-done contrast: It’s in the middle of the night, in a small hut on a deserted island during a thunderstorm, everybody but Harry is asleep and then there’s a loud knock on the door and wild-looking giant breaks down the door to the hut – and then that giant is just the nicest person anyone’s ever met, with a heart the size of a small island. On the other hand, we also have to acknowledge that Hagrid is kind of irresponsible, considering that he gets himself a dragon despite living in a wooden hut close to a gigantic forest (not to mention that keeping a dragon is literally illegal), then babies said dragon despite it hurting his friends and pupils and has to be talked into getting rid of said dragon by Harry, Ron and Hermione, who then also have to actually take care of getting rid of the dragon safely despite the fact that this could get them expelled from school.

Then again, there are quite a few irresponsible things going on at Hogwarts, for example pupils participating in a sport that could very easily led to them being hurt without their parents being notified or asked permission, a school that continuously moves and is inhabited by one hostile ghost trying to get the students hurt and, of course, pupils being sent into the Forbidden Forest at night for detention as a punishment for being out of beds in the night. To be honest, the blame for how illogical and disproportionate this punishment is probably has to be laid at JKR’s door, considering that 1) such excessive punishment did not feature in the books again, as far as I can remember and 2) it seems like JKR just needed to get Harry into the Forbidden Forest to witness Quirrelmort drinking unicorn blood there and sacrificed logic to make something happen that the plot needed to happen.

However, JKR makes the plot fit together really well: Nothing unimportant or superfluous happens on the pages of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, instead even seemingly insignificant things advance the overall plot in a way thatseems absolutely believable. For example, Draco Malfoy uses the Leg Locker curse on Neville, who has to hop back to the Gryffindor tower, where Ron tells him that he needs to start standing up to others – which Neville starts doing when he realizes that Ron, Hermione and Harry are sneaking out of the Gryffindor tower, something that leads to him being awarded ten points for Gryffindor, winning them the House Cup.

Plus, I still really enjoy JKR’s writing style. It’s easy to read without ever becoming boring and her descriptions make it easy to visualize and imagine things. I also like the fact again and again, important objects, like the Philosopher’s Stone or the Sorting Hat seem completely ordinary and sometimes even a bit shabby. And JKR foreshadowed some things ridiculously early in the books, for example with these two quotes:

“Some say he [Voldemort] died. Codswallop, if you ask me. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.“

and

“Wizards have banks?“
“Just the one. Gringotts. Run by goblins.“
“Goblins?“
“Yeah. So yeh‘d be mad ter try an‘ rob it. I‘ll tell yeh that. Never mess with Goblins, Harry.”

On the other hand, JKR doesn’t quite manage to stick to writing the books from only Harry’s perspective even after the first chapter. This is most obvious during the two Quidditch games that we see Harry play when we also learn about things that happen to Ron, Hermione and Neville in the stands which Harry had no way of knowing. To be honest, I’m not sure if I enjoy or dislike

these instances inconsistent narrative perspective or how to explain them, because we could have still found out about the fact that Snape was apparently jinxing Harry’s broom and only stopped because Hermione set him on fire if we had just had Harry’s perspective because his friends would have later told him about it.

Which directly brings me to my next point: Hermione Granger. I still really like this character and I believe it’s important that a girl like her – smart, ambitious, brave, dedicated, caring and loyal – exists on paper because she can be an important role model for girls all over the world, but at the same time, I worry about the fact that her ruthlessness and manipulative streak are never really criticized or treated as a flaw. For example, there’s this scene where the Golden Trio is trying to find out what else apart from Fluffy is protecting the Philosopher’s Stone and Hagrid refuses to tell them until Hermione flatters him into talking about which other teachers helped set up protection mechanisms for the Stone. She states:

“Oh, come on, Hagrid, you might not want to tell us, but you do know, you know everything that goes on around here,” said Hermione in a warm, flattering voice. […] “We only wondered who had done the guarding, really.” […] “We wondered who Dumbledore trusted enough to help him, apart from you.”

Not only is she changing her voice to appeal to Hagrid, she’s also very deliberately praised him for things she knew he was proud of. It’s classic manipulation and it’s worrisome that this is framed as a good thing in the novel because it gets the Trio the information they want/need. Then again, Hermione does a few morally grey or simply wrong things over the course of the novels that never get treated as such – I guess because JKR loved her too much to treat her character critically.

Another thing that I noticed about Hermione is that she, like many other characters, is described in fairly vague terms that leave her race open to interpretation, as are most of the other characters. On the one hand, I think this could be a good thing because it leaves more room for people headcanoning these characters however the hell they want – I’ve read some beautiful posts on Tumblr about Indian!Harry, for example – but on the other hand, it others characters of color like Padma Patil, whose not-whiteness is mostly communicated to the reader through her name. And then there’s of course the fact that many people still see white as a default and automatically headcanon every character whose race/ethnicity isn’t specified as white (and everyone who wasn’t explicitly a person of color was cast as white in the movies), so not making the ethnicities of the characters visible was, in my opinion, a mistake.

Speaking about JKR’s mistakes, I’m sure most of us remember her claiming that there was “mutual respect and a sense of kinship between all wizards, no matter what their race” on Twitter. I know that this was a statement she made concerning American wizards, but considering that she wrote all wizards, I guess this is meant to apply British wizards, too. And while I can imagine that, on the one hand, there was indeed a stronger sense of kinship between wizards because they had to hide from Muggles, wizards are, on the other hand, shown to massively judgmental not just with regards to blood status, but also with regards to class, social status and magical abilities, it makes no sense that wizards wouldn’t be racist. I mean, look at Draco Malfoy, for example, who talks about wanting to not letting “the other sort” into Hogwarts, calls Hagrid “a savage” and constantly mocks Ron for how poor his family is – do you really expect me to believe that he wouldn’t make racist comments about Parvati Patil, for example, just because she happens to be a witch? I really don’t believe that.

Generally speaking, Draco is a massively unpleasant character and I say that as someone who used to really like him, though right now I can’t remember why. Maybe my opinion on him will change again when I’m rereading book 6 and 7, but right now, Draco is nothing but a cruel, cowardly bully who is rightfully compared to Dudley, who is also a cruel bully.

At the same time, something I didn’t quite understand was why Hagrid hexes Dudley in the books and not Vernon Dursley. I mean, in the movie, we see Dudley secretly gorge himself on the birthday cake that Hagrid made for Harry, but in the books, he isn’t doing anything while his father is threathening Harry and Hagrid and insulting Dumbledore. I mean, I think Dudley deserved to be humiliated, but it still doesn’t make sense to me that Hagrid hexed him because Vernon was pissing him off.

I think it’s funny how Ron is almost the polar opposite of both Dudley and Draco, who are their parents’ only child, who have a ton of money and constantly get lots of new stuff, though Ron also manages to be astoundingly cruel to Hermione just because she was right. At the same time, it’s no wonder the boy has a giant inferiority complex and can’t really handle being corrected, considering that he seemingly doesn’t have anything that belongs to him and constantly has to live in his brothers’ shadow. I still don’t click with Ron as much as I do with the other characters, though, and I can’t explain why. There’s nothing about his character that bothers me or that I really dislike, but I just don’t care as much about him as I care about Hermione and Harry.

Harry is a perfect cinnamon roll, though. He really is and I love him. He’s a genuinely nice kid, who gives the last of the chocolate

frogs he got for Chrismas to another kid because said kid was being bullied and buys a ton of sweets to share with a boy he literally just met. He’s also really witty, curious, and enthusiastic, not to mention incredibly brave and morally upright. But he still makes me incredibly sad – I mean, he spends three nights sitting in front of the Mirror of Erised just because it shows him his family and when he wakes up the morning after Hagrid has told him that he’s a wizard, he spents the first ten lines or so thinking about how none of it really happened and preparing himself for another average day of being abused by the Dursleys. (Thinking about this makes me angry at Dumbledore all over again, by the way.) It’s no wonder he’s such a massively influential figure in today’s pop culture – he’s a really appealing literary character, in my opinion, and reading his story again made me wonder why people dislike him all over again.

Ultimately, I can only say that rereading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone definitely was a good decision. It doesn’t seem as magical to me anymore as it used to when I was younger, but many, many things about these books are still incredibly dear to me, and I can’t wait to read on.

Claire
Written By

Claire is a student with a focus on English literature and a bit of Linguistics and Anthropology on the side. Harry Potter remains her first and probably most intense obsession, followed by cute animals and caffeine.

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