Hello and welcome to the first review in a seven-part series: The Potter Project. For more info on what the heck I’m doing, follow that link. The TL;DR of it is I’m reviewing all seven of the HP books in a comprehensive and unbiased (mostly) attempt to encourage those who have never read them to do so, or to remind those who already love them why they’re so good. Spoilers will happen from books five-seven because major character deaths, but other than that, these should be pretty straightforward. And without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff.
Note: all GIFs are not mine.
This is an essay? This is definitely an essay. I’m not sorry.
Name a more iconic line, I dare you.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.The Boy Who Lived, page 1
Now, I don’t know about you, but that line gets me every time. I teach a Harry Potter themed yoga workshop every year, and I almost always kick the workshop off with this line. Occasionally, I’ll even read the entire first chapter because it just feels, truly, like you’re taking the first step into a massive world. I’m aiming to make this review as coherent as usual (normally, I’m a babbling mess), and this feels like the perfect place to start.
Truthfully, the first line of the first chapter is not all that astonishing. What really gets me is the chapter title.
The Boy Who Lived
I mean, immediately, you’re left wondering. Well, what did he survive? Why has he been given such a title like this? It’s something full of possibilities, and when, later on in the chapter, we find out that this boy who lived is actually an infant, well shucks! Count me intrigued.
Beyond the chapter title, the first chapter is pretty interesting. We’re introduced to the Dursleys first, this normal
wretched family who have a secret that they’re terrified others will find out about. They’re your typical cookie-cutter family. Mom wearing pearls, perfect awful son, breadwinner dad. They’re the definition of normal and basic.
When Vernon sees people in the streets wearing cloaks, he thinks the nerve of these people. When he later brings it up with Petunia, she cringes at the very idea that they might be associated with that. But associated how?
Now, I promise I’m not going to go as in-detail with every chapter (maybe), but what a perfect beginning this is. By now, we’re not even 10 pages into the story, but we’ve got:
- a “normal” family who has a secret
- strange people celebrating the defeat of “You-Know-Who”
- and a boy who lived
If this were any novel ever, you’d be hooked right away. That is the perfect recipe, in 7 pages no less, to hook your audience. Right away, I’m wanting to know what the secret is, what this evil is that’s been defeated, and who this mysterious boy is. No matter if I’m 7 and it’s my first time reading, or 27 and it’s my fifth, I’m eagerly turning the pages. And that’s before we get to the magic!
Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice.The Boy Who Lived, page 8
OKAY MERLIN. Because truly, no matter who you are, you’ve heard of this kind of wizard. Long robes + ancient beard = the most notable wizard of all time. You know who Merlin is, even if only in passing. So immediately, you read this description, and without Rowling ever actually saying the words wizard or magic, you know where this story is headed.
I need to say this again. 8 pages! It’s been 8 pages, and Rowling has developed more of a world and plot than most authors do in 80. Make no mistake, there are a lot of reasons why Harry Potter did as well as it did when it was first released, but many of those reasons hinge on this chapter. We all know it–a good first line, or first chapter, is your way to success. This is where you have to hook your readers, where you have to convince your audience to stick with you. Sure, some parent might pick this up in the store because ah, magic, my child will love that, but if this first chapter didn’t deliver as well and as quickly as it did, would they keep reading? Probably not.
What skyrocketed the Harry Potter franchise into chaotic fame was this chapter, arguably the most important of the series.
Because as soon as Rowling has hooked you, she starts unraveling it. Who is this You-Know-Who?
“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.”The Boy Who Lived, page 11
Dumbledore then goes on to hint that he’s definitely evil. Because who is this boy who lived? The one person ever to have stopped Voldemort! At the height of his power, Dumbledore tells us, Voldemort came to kill a family, and the only people who survived were not the parents, but the infant boy–Harry Potter.
And how does this all relate to the secret the Dursley’s are keeping? Ah yes, because he’s their nephew.
The world is built, the tension is created, and the audience is left on the edge of their seats in 8 pages flat, and in less than 5 after that, here it is, the story we’re all curious about. The Boy Who Lived.
Recently, on Harry’s birthday (July 31st), I taught a themed yoga class It’s much less involved than my workshops, and basically just means that we listen to music from the movies and I drop a few stories in. But one of those stories was for the people in the room who didn’t know anything about Harry Potter, or weren’t huge fans of the world.
The thing that makes Harry Potter special is not the magic. It’s not Hogwarts. It’s not even really the characters. It’s the story, at its very basic elements. Here is a boy who grows up thinking he doesn’t belong. His aunt, uncle, and cousin all clearly hate him. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs. He has no idea what happened to his parents, other than that they’re dead. Whenever something extraordinary happens (like glass vanishing to free a snake), he’s punished for it. He has an abusive childhood. For me, the saddest scene in the entire series is this:
Vernon has taken the family to a remote island to avoid the constant stream of letters being sent to Harry, who he hasn’t allowed to actually read the letter. It’s storming out, and Harry’s been made to sleep on the ground. He considers that if the roof fell in right now, he’d perhaps be a little warmer. He’s all alone in the world.
In the movie, he draws a cake in the ground as he looks over at his cousin’s watch. He counts down the minutes until his birthday, his birthday, and then blows these fake candles out.
Before we’ve even gotten to the magic, Rowling has made me invested in this little boy’s story. I want him to have a better life. I want him to be celebrated on his birthday. I want him to be surrounded by friends and people that love him. I want joy for him so badly that when Hagrid arrives and reveals everything, it’s such a relief. Finally, this lonely boy is going to find happiness.
This story is about community. It’s about belonging. It’s about finding the people who love and understand you. It’s not about magic. It’s not about prophecies. It’s not even really about Harry. It’s about a boy who has nothing being shown a world where he could have everything, and at the end of the day, the only thing that matters to him is if his people are okay, if his community is safe. When Hagrid says he could stay with the Dursleys if he wants to, Harry gets this look of utter determination on his face. “Alright,” I can almost hear him thinking, “It’s time to take matters into my own hands. These people don’t love me, so I’m going to go find some who do.”
Now, speaking of finding people to love, as soon as Harry’s given the opportunity to enter the wizarding world and does so, he meets two very important people. First, and I’m always sad this delightful scene didn’t make it into the movie, we meet Draco Malfoy in Madam Malkin’s where Harry’s getting his robes for Hogwarts. Draco immediately sticks himself under a stereotype. He’s snotty, calls Hagrid a servant, rattles on about purebloods, and tells Harry to watch out for Muggles.
Harry’s reaction to this is what cements him as one of my all-time favorite characters in all of literature. Because though this is his very first exposure to the wizarding world, he’s instantly put off by Draco. “I think he’s brilliant,” Harry says in response to Draco’s comment about Hagrid. And when Draco asks his surname, implying that only certain wizarding families are better than others, Harry is grateful that his fitting is done so he can get the heck away from this asshat.
The very next chapter, we meet Ron.
I mean, look at that cutie. And Harry, “who found Ron just as interesting as Ron found him,” is instantly enamored with Ron. Here’s this boy who comes from a large, bustling, happy family, who has more brothers than he knows what to do with, a mother who clearly loves him, and a sister who is sad to see him off. It’s everything Harry’s ever dreamed of. Not only that, but as he’s struggling to lift his trunk onto the train, the twins come and help him just because. Harry is baffled by all of it, and when Ron asks if he can sit with him, it’s a turning point in the story.
Already, we’ve seen Harry lonely. We’ve seen him wanting more. We’ve seen him getting that more, and then turning away from someone who thinks he’s so above everyone else just because he has that more already. But Ron? The moment that Harry starts talking to Ron, something so important happens.
“I’m not trying to be brave or anything, saything the name,” said Hary, “I just never knew you shouldn’t. See what I mean? I’ve got loads to learn… I bet,” he added, voicing for the first time something that had been worrying him a lot lately, “I bet I’m the worst in the class.”
“You won’t be. There’s loads of people who come from Muggle families and they learn quick enough.”The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, page 100
Harry’s known Ron for all of five minutes, but already he feels so much more at ease with this boy than the one he met in Madam Malkin’s. Here’s someone Harry understands, someone Harry thinks he could get along with simply because Ron is kind, he’s eager, and he comes from a big family. All Harry’s ever wanted is to belong, and suddenly, he does. It’s not Hogwarts that gives Harry the sense of home. It’s his friends. Later, he’ll meet Hermione, but, and I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, Ron is what it all comes back to.
That feeling of friendship, the craving that we, as humans, get for other people, is identical through every single culture. Every person wants a best friend. Every person wants someone they feel utterly comfortable with. Every person wants someone they would help bury a body for. Ron is Harry’s person.
And Rowling does this so seamlessly. It’s been 100 pages at this point, and we know Harry’s feeling uncertain. Even if he hasn’t explicitly said it, imagine being dropped into this world where everything is different and you know nothing. Of course he feels this way! And not only does Rowling allow Harry to admit these feelings to Ron, but Ron immediately comes back with it’s going to be okay. He doesn’t fall back into idolizing Harry because of who he is. He doesn’t respond like Draco probably would have. He bolsters Harry’s confidence. He tells him that he’s no different from loads of other people going to Hogwarts. He tells him that it might take time, but Harry’s got this. Not because he’s Harry Potter, but simply because Ron has faith in him. Ron knows that it’s possible, and that very simple You won’t be is a moment in their friendship that I will never forget.
Because that moment? It leads to this:
“Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with. It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties, cakes, and candies.”The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters , page 102
Doesn’t your heart just want to burst? Harry, whose very first thought is that hey I’d like to share some candy with my new best friend, uses his newfound money to buy more than enough to keep him and Ron busy for the entire train ride. Ron, who he’s known for less than an hour, but that he already feels a kinship with.
And it’s so believable. The way Rowling writes the beginning of their friendship in those first few pages, I know they’re going to be together until the end of time. I know that Ron is going to stand at Harry’s side no matter what. And it is the exact perfect moment before it. Because, as I said above, we’ve seen the way the Dursleys treat Harry, and we’re rooting for him to find some kind of happiness. We’ve seen him turn away Draco’s awful nature, we’ve seen him watch the Weasleys sadly and fondly all at once. So when Ron walks into the compartment, we know. This is it. This is either where Harry finally finds a friend, or where it all falls apart.
Giving Harry Ron at that exact moment is stellar craftsmanship. We know Harry well enough by now to recognize the kind of person he’d want to associate with, and so it’s almost with bated breath that we wait for these two to start interacting. We’ve started rooting for Harry almost without realizing it, and now, what will become our beloved Golden Trio is slowly being formed with these first wonderful moments.
Hogwarts & Quidditch
We’ve talked about the story. We’ve talked a little about the characters. But perhaps the most incredible thing JK Rowling did with her books is her world.
I want to touch on just two things in this section: Hogwarts & Quidditch.
At this point, we’ve already got a really strong base to work off of. We have an interesting story, characters that we’re rooting for, and the eventuality of magic. But first, there’s everything that the first half of the book has been building up to–Hogwarts. I mean, is there anything more magical than the first view we get of Hogwarts? It happens the same way in the book and movie–the first years are plopped into boats that sail themselves across this giant, glittering black lake, and then, there it is. Rising up out of the mist, with towers and turrets and candles aglow, Hogwarts.
This, at last, is the final piece of Harry’s puzzle. He’s gotten a friend, he’s figuring out how to find happiness, and now he’s got a physical home to fall asleep and feel safe in. And it’s not just this sense of home, but now, as we’re finally getting to Hogwarts, the excitement really starts to settle in. Because it’s not just Hogwarts, it’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s time, finally, for magic!
And it better pay off because Harry has left everything behind, putting his trust in a world he’s never known. Rowling has set herself up for success. The only possible way that this book could go wrong from here is if Harry hated Hogwarts, or if, like his fears, he was turned out. Hogwarts is the piece of the story where we, as readers, find ourselves finally settling in. Okay, we think, this is it. This is where it all starts. We’ve subconsciously tucked in for the long haul. If Rowling can make us believe in Hogwarts, we’re here for whatever she’s got next.
And she does. From the Sorting Hat’s song to the dismal first Potions class with Snape, Rowling’s got us hook, line, and sinker. Magic classes? Sign me the heck up. I don’t care what age you are, it would be The Coolest thing ever to be able to do magic.
Recently, I wore a Hogwarts shirt to a kids yoga class. I wondered if anyone would know what Harry Potter was. It was my generation that grew up on the stories, so I wasn’t sure these seven-twelve-year-olds would know. But the second they spotted my shirt, they all started asking me what House I was in. “Do you know your Patronus?” one of them went so far to ask. “I’m a proud Slytherin,” another one said. “I want to go to Harry Potter World and see Hogwarts so bad,” a third said.
I was shocked! But also not at all surprised. Why? Because of course these kids knew what Harry Potter was. Of course they’d taken online quizzes to sort themselves into their respective Houses. Of course they were just as enamored with this fantastic and magical world Rowling created as I was at their age. Because what eleven-year-old doesn’t want to go to a magical school and belong to something incredible?
See, it all comes back to community. Not only has Rowling given us a wondrous story, she’s given us a place to belong, a community to thrive in, people to freak out with. We all want to have something in common with another person, and Harry Potter is such an uniting force. Everyone at least knows about it, and those who are fans have considered their Houses, or have cried over character deaths, or have argued over who their favorite character is. And it all started with Harry going to Hogwarts, with this little boy seeking something more, something bigger and better than what he had because he believed he deserved it. We all want something more, and Harry gave us that.
Rowling could have ended it there. Not the story, obviously, but the world-building. She could have given us Hogwarts, given us the Houses we would later sort ourselves into, given us magic classes and interesting professors, given us the very basis, and we would have lapped it up eagerly.
She didn’t have to go one step further, but she did.
Then she [McGonagall] suddenly smiled.
“Your father would have been proud,” she said. “He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.”The Midnight Duel, page 152
Oh, there is so much packed into that quote.
We’ve already heard about Quidditch before, and we’ve been told that it’s a wizarding sport. It’s even kind of compared to football/soccer. That alone is cool enough. I am definitely into the idea of a wizarding sport. That sounds leagues better than any other kind of sport I know about. And then, we find out that it takes places on brooms! That fly!
I am Here For It. I’m ready. Give me Quidditch!
Again, Rowling could have ended it there. She didn’t have to make a sport spear straight into our hearts, but she did.
Because your father would have been proud? Okay, thanks, but no thanks. I was not ready to cry over a children’s book only 152 pages in. All Harry has ever wanted, all humans have ever wanted, is community, is to belong. And not only has Rowling given us that and expanded it into something multi-layered, but she’s brought it right back to the one thing that we crave most–family. Whether it’s blood or not, we want that close bond. Harry wants that close bond. And to give him a physical home, friends to love, and a wicked cool sport, all for it to come back to your father would have been proud?
This is what it’s about. It’s the little things that Rowling sneaks in there that make this story worth it, that make it stand the test of time. It’s not the big things. It’s not that Harry eventually defeats Voldemort. Starting the very first book, you know that’s going to happen. That’s the only possible ending there is. But along the way, bits and pieces are going to sneak in there that you’re not quite ready for, but that will stay with you forever. Even as a seven-year-old, I clung to the fact that James Potter also played Quidditch. I couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful it was that Harry got to follow in his footsteps, that he got to have this little piece of his dad when all else had been stripped away.
Before we get to the next part, it must be said. Quidditch is cool. It’s also so intricate, and just trying to imagine creating my own sport for a made-up world makes my brain hurt. Everything else aside, Rowling is talented as heck.
For those of you reading this who have already read Harry Potter, prepare yourselves for a bit of a cry.
Oh, Neville. There is A LOT to love about Neville, but before we get to this ^^^ point in his character, something else happens.
Neville shook his head.
“I don’t want more trouble,” he mumbled.
“You’ve got to stand up to him, Neville!” said Ron. “He’s used to walking all over people, but that’s no reason to lie down in front of him and make it easier.”
“There’s no need to tell me I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor, Malfoy’s already done that,” Neville choked out.Nicolas Flamel, page 219
Now, I want to point out before I continue that by discussing Harry’s reaction to this am I in no way undermining what Neville’s going through right now, but as I’m trying to convince you to read Harry Potter (or just reminding you why it’s excellent), Harry’s reaction to this scene is so quintessentially Harry.
Harry felt in the pocket of his robes and pulled out a Chocolate Frog, the very last one from the box Hermione had given him for Christmas. He gave it to Neville, who looked as though he might cry.
“You’re worth twelve of Malfoy,” Harry said. “The Sorting Hat chose you for Gryffindor, didn’t it? And where’s Malfoy? In stinking Slytherin.”Nicolas Flamel, page 218
There are a lot of things to unpack in this scene. Most importantly, Rowling has given us a situation that a lot of her readers probably know pretty well. I have a crystal clear memory from middle school. I was in the sixth grade, so about 12-years-old. I have a lot of hair. It’s very curly and very thick. I haven’t brushed it in years because brushing curly hair is the worst kind of bad idea. But, back then, I used to. I would brush it out until it resembled a massive, frizzy mess, and then try to restrain it in a low ponytail at about the nape of my neck. It would flare out like a broom at the end, and I hated it, but I didn’t yet know what to do with it.
In all areas of your life, you’re going to encounter a bully. (And if you don’t, it’s probably because you are one.) But in school, they’re a whole other kind of awful. And so, with my broom-hair shame, I remember the moment someone stuck a pencil in my hair and said, “You look like Hagrid.”
I tried to be brave. I remembered Harry defending Hagrid to Malfoy in Madam Malkin’s, and I told them looking like Hagrid was a compliment because he was a wizard, and wizards were cooler than them. They laughed at me. I held back my tears for the rest of class, for the rest of the day, and then I broke down crying when I told my mom what had happened. I begged her to please braid my hair the next morning. I didn’t want it to happen again. I didn’t want to give them an opportunity to make fun of me.
I hadn’t yet learned that you don’t need to give bullies opportunities. They’ll find them no matter what.
I was Neville, in a way. I just wanted to avoid it happening ever again and try to make myself as small as possible. And my mom–a wonderful, kind woman–quietly braided my hair the next morning and told me that she loved my hair whatever way it looked.
“You’re worth twelve of Malfoy,” I heard in my head.
Two things are important in this scene. One, Rowling has given us a character to identify with. I’d wager that a large portion of her fanbase was not orphaned by a terrible accident and then left to be raised by awful relatives, so as much as we can relate to Harry in other aspects, this bit of our childhood is not his. Yes, he’s bullied by Dudley, but Harry has a very different reaction than Neville does to bullying. Harry, in a remarkably predictable response according to his character, often fights back, evades capture, or just generally tries to also make Dudley’s life miserable. He’s never quiet about it. He never just lies down and lets it happen.
But Neville? I know that feeling. I understand just wanting to be small and unnoticeable. I understand not wanting to bring attention to whatever wrongs are being done to me. I’m past that now, and I’d like to think I’m a bit closer to Harry, but I can remember those days so clearly.
And until this scene, there hasn’t been a character, or even another moment with Neville like this, where we feel so strongly for him. In that line, I don’t want more trouble, we’re thrown back into a terrible time in our own youth where we felt like that, where someone else made us feel like that. And the one thing we want most after that? For me, it was my mom telling me that she loved my hair. For Neville, it was Harry telling him he was worth twelve of Malfoy. And even though I didn’t believe my mom and Neville probably didn’t believe Harry, both of those people continued to go out of their way to prove it true. Harry is one of Neville’s biggest supporters, and that is one of the biggest reasons he’s such a likeable protagonist. It’s not his bravery. It’s not his willingness to stand up against what’s wrong. It’s not his determination.
It’s the way he treats his friends.
Is Harry perfect? No. He stood by while Ron said nasty things about Hermione and then forgot about her crying in the bathroom because he was so amazed by the Halloween feast. And I’m not saying that going to save her from the mountain troll erases what he did in the first place. Personally, I would have love an apology from Harry and Ron to Hermione.
We don’t need Harry to be perfect, though. In fact, we need him to make mistakes so that we, too, know that it’s okay when we make mistakes. But we also need him to have moments like this, to boost up his friends for no other reason than because he loves them. And the fact that he does that, having never experienced it himself, immediately shifts him in our minds, even if subconsciously.
Because when Harry roots for Neville, we start rooting for Harry.
And that’s only proven a few pages later, when:
Neville went bright red but turned in his seat to face Malfoy.
“I’m worth twelve of you, Malfoy,” he stammered.Nicolas Flamel, page 223
Are you crying yet? I certainly am.
The House Cup
We are almost at the end of this incredibly long post! And I don’t very well need to talk about the winning of the House cup, but honestly, what would Sorcerer’s Stone be without this iconic scene?
First of all, something I massively appreciate is the fact that Rowling gave each of the Golden Trio something to excel at when going through the protections guarding the Stone. She very easily could have given everything to Hermione, but instead chose to have something that required skilled flying, proficiency at chess, and incredible logic. Thus, we’re allowed to root for all three of them. Yes, it’s called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but as Ron and Hermione remind us earlier:
“But will it cover all three of us?” said Ron.
“All–all three of us?”
“Oh, come off it, you don’t think we’d let you go alone?”
“Of course not,” said Hermione briskly.Through the Trapdoor, page 271
These are never just Harry’s books, which is, in part, what makes them so special. And not only does Rowling remind us of this by giving them each a moment to shine in getting through the protections guarding the Stone, Dumbledore goes one step further. Because yes, Harry is important, but the lesson Harry’s learns in this novel (in the whole series, really) is that nothing is ever worth doing if you’ve got to do it alone. The sheer amount of people that stand by Harry when we get to Deathly Hallows is incredible, but before that can happen, we need to see not just Harry learning this, but someone of high importance, someone respected, someone whose been on the periphery this whole time acknowledge that.
Harry’s not in it alone, nor should he be remembered alone.
When the House Cup needs awarding, Dumbledore steps in to do something incredible. I have a few last-minute points to dish out, he says. Ah, okay, we think. Harry’s surely going to get something for saving them all.
“First–to Mr. Ronald Weasley… for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years.”The Man with Two Faces, page 305
And that’s not where it ends because, if nothing else, Rowling is going out guns a-blazin’, ready to make you weep with joy.
“Second–to Miss Hermione Granger… for the use of cool logic in the face of fire.”The Man with Two Faces, page 305
Of course, Harry does get awarded points, but we’re expecting this. It’d almost be wrong to not award him points. But when he gets the points, that brings Gryffindor up to tie with Slytherin, and all of a sudden, there’s a moment of wait. How does this get resolved?
“I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”The Man with Two Faces, page 306
Merlin’s beard, this could be an essay in and of itself. It’s not going to be, but really, given all the possible endings to this story, and Rowling chooses to end it by honoring not just Harry, but all the people around them? Truthfully, I think that stands on its own. What a perfect ending. It’s not just you, she’s saying. Look around you. Look at everyone holding you up.
Now, I would remiss if I didn’t point out just one tiny thing that I like in the movie over the book.
That line. Oh man. That line encompasses the entire story. When we meet Harry, he’s alone and doesn’t feel like he belongs at all, whether it’s with people or in a place or just in general. He’s lost. He’s sad. He just wants more. And by the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, he not only has friends and a better life, he’s got that more. He’s found home.
The book ends with Harry saying something snarky about magic and Dudley, but this ending, I’m not going home, not really–that’s what this story is all about. And it’s why we’re going to keep reading.
Crikey, if you lasted through this whole thing, you are a hero. I can confirm the rest of this series will get longer with each book simply because there’s more material in each one, so brace yourselves for that. And thank you so much for reading if you did! Did you enjoy this as a review for Sorcerer’s Stone? Are you looking forward to the rest of the series? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!