A recent outing to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with the score performed by a live orchestra has me falling in love with the Potterverse all over again. Once I’d climbed aboard the Hogwarts Express, I devoured each book as it was released. But it’s been almost ten years since the last book was released and I really haven’t revisited the source material in the intervening years. (Remember those slow torturous pre-e-book days of standing in line at Barnes & Noble at midnight or tackling your UPS man for your Amazon package? Good times.) I thought it would be interesting to see how my perception of the books had changed, since much of my life has, so I decided to go Back to Hogwarts, starting with the first novel.
HPatSS clocks in at about 300 pages and is probably the book I am most familiar with, as it had the most opportunities for rereads in the times between book releases. One of the things that struck me about it right off the bat is what a breezy read it is. This is due, no doubt, to the fact that it was originally intended for an audience matching its protagonists in the beginning. Sweet, innocent JK Rowling had no idea what a phenomenon she’d be starting for kids and adults, lo those nearly 20 years ago. (20 years?!?!?! Anyone else feeling like Nicholas Flamel about now?) Despite being an old lady who tires easily and doesn’t have much free time to read, I was still able to manage this book in about two weeks. I’m sure when I read it my early 20s for the first time I managed it in about 2 days, but this time, knowing what was coming, I was able to pace my reading by setting plot landmarks for me to get to before putting the book down for the night. There is nothing like bingeing on a brand new book you can’t put down, but there is something nice to be said for this reading approach as well, like a nice warm glass of milk before bed. (Have I made it clear yet that I am old?)
There were a couple of things that surprised me about the book upon this reading. One was how much of it is not spent at Hogwarts. Nearly half the book is taken up by Harry’s time at the Dursleys, with Uncle Vernon’s increasingly elaborate schemes to escape the onslaught of letters from Hogwarts. Knowing how terrible Harry’s pre-Hogwarts life is and how much it changes, by the time Hagrid arrives at the Hut-on-the-Rock, an informed re-reader such as myself was thinking “ABOUT TIME, GIANT.” Another thing that struck me was how mean and unfriendly Ron and Harry were towards Hermione during their first few months at school. While I always knew that her know-it-all, goody-two-shoes personality diverged from those of her male friends, my fuzzy memories of the series as a whole paints the three of them as always having been an inseparable trio. I had forgotten how it had taken selfless acts from all three during the troll incident on Halloween to unite them as friends.
The experiences of adult- and parenthood made one detail in particular stick out glaringly to me as never before. I had always known the Dursleys were cruel to Harry, but it had never occurred to me how ignorant they kept him. The most obvious example of this was Harry’s response when Uncle Vernon dropped him off at King’s Cross Station. Vernon asks what platform Harry’s train leaves from and laughs at Harry’s answer. Of course, we readers all know that Platform 9 ¾ is a special place and can recognize it as such just from its name. I’m fairly certain that naming was intended to give a giggle to readers in the age group of the original target audience when they recognized how silly it was. But Harry? Has no clue. He’s completely oblivious to the idea that normal trains leave from platforms numbered only by integers. Not only has he been shielded from knowledge of magic his whole life, he’s been kept from common sense knowledge as well. This revelation made me look even harder at the Dursleys and come to hate them even more as villains. I reexamined their motives and came to see them as an analog for people in modern times who will take in foster children solely to collect the government benefits they are entitled to because of it, who then treat the children as slaves and provide the bare minimum for their survival. You know, basically monsters. It made it extremely difficult for me to see any reason to give them any benefit of the doubt. It made me vehemently disagree with any character who implied that Harry should be with them despite their flaws because of their familial connection. Voldemort and his followers are, of course, the villains of the piece, but these asshats are a close second.
The bulk of the adventures during the school year played out much as I remembered them, though foreknowledge of future events made certain details far more enjoyable. I especially loved the moment when the Weasley twins bewitched snowballs to pelt Quirrell in the back of the head where, unbeknownst to them, Voldemort was hanging out. That is some O.G. shiz right there. On the whole the book made for a nice quick summer read and was like slipping into an old familiar shirt you’ve had forever that always feels comfortable and reminds you of a happy time earlier in life that you associate with it. I look forward to seeing what rereads of the subsequent novels dredge up and seeing where my memory diverges from the actual text. Feel free to read along and I’ll see you next month for as much as I can conquer of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.