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A Reader's Guide to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Chapter One:
The Boy Who Lived

 

On this page: The Letters From No One, PS1, by Mary GrandPré

Synopsis by William Silvester
Notes and links by Steve Vander Ark and Michele L. Worley

US hardcover edition: pages 1 - 17
UK paperback edition: pages 7 - 24
Timeframe: 1 November, 1981
(possibly October 31)

In which we meet the Dursleys and learn of the peculiar happenings surrounding the arrival of Harry Potter on their doorstep including a conversation between Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall. We also hear mention of Madam Pomfrey.

 


Interesting facts and notes about the text of this chapter:

This chapter presents one of the few passages of the books which is not told from Harry's point of view. Two of the others are GF1 and the fight in the stands in PS13.

Some of the most important themes of the books come out already in this first chapter: prejudice (as seen in the attitudes of Vernon Dursley), death and sacrifice, and acceptance (Dumbledore's statement about Hagrid: "I would trust Hagrid with my life"). Since it is so pivotal to the series, we'll explore this chapter in somewhat more detail than many of the others.

number four, Privet Drive

The word "privet" is a kind of shrub, used to create hedges in suburban neighborhoods. As street names go, it is common, normal, and a bit boring, which no doubt appeals to the Dursleys very much. Hedges made of privet can be used to shield a house from view or to "hedge" someone in, as happens to Harry for the next ten years. In CS1 we learn that the Dursleys' house actually does have a hedge, since Dobby stares at Harry out of it.

The folks living in Privet Drive are referred to as "boring, law-abiding neighbors." (PA2). Aunt Petunia finds things to gossip about anyway, of course, including "Mrs. Next Door's problems with her daughter," later in this chapter.

When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday our story starts...

So the story starts on a Tuesday. We know that this Tuesday is in 1981 from the Black Family Tree that Rowling made public in early 2006, which notes that Draco Malfoy was born in 1980. Since Harry is the same age as Draco, we know that he was also born in 1980, which confirms the year that is implied in book two. Our Tuesday, then, is in the year 1981.

The specific date is problematic. Canon is very hazy on this subject. It's either October 31 or November 1. The actual "real world" calendar of 1981 isn't much help, since in 1981 October 31 was a Saturday and November 1 a Sunday. We'll talk about this problem a little more as we go through this chapter.

He didn't see the owls swooping past in broad daylight, though people down in the street did; they pointed and gazed open-mouthed as owl after owl sped overhead.

"In Britain there is a superstition that it is unlucky to see an owl by daylight, a superstition I had fun with in the first chapter of Philosopher's Stone where, of course, the sudden explosion of owls flying by daylight represented something very lucky indeed, though the Muggles did not know it." (JKR)

 

Mr. Dursley, however, had a perfectly normal, owl-free morning.

We are introduced to Vernon Dursley in this chapter, and by this we are also introduced to one of the key concepts of the Harry Potter books: that being boring and pigheaded and foolish and prejudiced is a very bad thing to be. Note these telling descriptions:

It is important to note that the Dursleys, particularly Vernon, are not being criticized simply for being Muggles. In PS/f, they are described as "the worst kind of Muggles" because of their objection to imagination and creativity. Muggles in general are not being denigrated in the Harry Potter books, just those who have prejudiced, boring attitudes, who enjoy yelling at other people, and who think it's just wonderful that their child is a spoiled brat. There are wizards who behave in this way too, and McGonagall would probably describe them as "the worst kind of wizards." In fact, Voldemort is described by Dumbledore as having "consorted with the very worst of our kind" (CS18).

"Well, Ted," said the weatherman, "I don't know about that, but it's not only the owls that have been acting oddly today. Viewers as far apart as Kent, Yorkshire, and Dundee have been phoning in to tell me that instead of the rain I promised yesterday, they've had a downpour of shooting stars!...

We learn in a few moments that the fireworks in Kent are probably the work of Dedalus Diggle who "never had much sense," according to McGonagall. Harry meets him in the Leaky Cauldron ten years later (PS5) and remembers having seen him in a shop once. Diggle maybe a bit careless, but he's a valued member of the Order of the Phoenix. During the Second Wizarding War, Diggle removes the Dursley family from Number 4 Privet Drive to a place of safetly (DH3). Kent is to the southeast of London, the part of Britain which extends toward France. Yorkshire is to the north, about in the middle of the country, and Dundee is in Scotland.

...Perhaps people have been celebrating Bonfire Night early -- it's not until next week, folks!...

Here's where the actual date gets a bit complicated to figure out.

If November 1 is on a Tuesday, November 5 will be the Saturday of that same week. Jim is a bit addled from all the owls and shooting stars, perhaps. Bonfire Night the evening of November 5, a holiday in Britain remembering the aborted attempt by a fellow named Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament. It is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. Fawkes the phoenix got his name from the villain of this story. For more information about Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Day, see WEB LINKhttp://www.bonfirenight.net/.

Some have suggested that perhaps the attack in Godric's Hollow happened very early on October 31, so that the Tuesday our story starts is actually Tuesday, October 31. If this were the case, then November 5 would be Sunday, the first day of the next week. The following text is usually quoted to indicate that the attack happened the evening before:

"What they're saying," she pressed on, "is that last night Voldemort turned up in Godric's Hollow. He went to find the Potters. The rumor is that Lily and James Potter are -- are -- that they're -- dead. "

This makes it clear that Voldemort WENT to Godric's Hollow the day before, but it might have been after midnight when the actual attack took place. Also, people tend to refer to events of the night before, regardless of whether they happened before or after midnight, as "last night." If we are to accept Jim McGuffin's comment as accurate, then we must place both the attack on the Potters and the arrival of Dumbledore in Privet Drive on October 31. Considering that fact that he's reporting on a newscast, it seems likely that he's correct.

Fans, however, have accepted November 1 as the day of the events in this chapter. Until we get a definitive answer from Rowling, we'll follow the general fan interpretation. For the rest of the reader's guide for this book, we'll be referring to this Tuesday as November 1, 1981.

"But I can promise a wet night tonight."

Bad luck for Harry, who will be sleeping out on the front porch for the next few hours!

"Their son -- he'd be about Dudley's age now, wouldn't he?"

Dudley's birthday is in June, as we'll see in the next chapter. Harry's birthday is July 31. On this day, Dudley is about 16 months old and Harry is 14 months old. His parents, incidentally, were in their early twenties when they died, since they were born in 1960 (DH16).

"What's his name again? Howard, isn't it?"
"Harry. Nasty, common name, if you ask me."
"Oh, yes," said Mr. Dursley, his heart sinking horribly. "Yes, I quite agree."

Rowling doesn't agree, though. She states in an interview (CR):
Harry is completely imaginary. I took his surname from a family I lived near when I was a child, just because I liked the name and 'Harry' has always been one of my favourite Christian names.

In fact, it was nearly midnight before the cat moved at all.

It is now nearly midnight on November 1. Harry's family was attacked "last night," on October 31, so at this point Harry has been with Hagrid for about twenty-four hours. We are not told where Hagrid went with Harry for all this time. Surely Hagrid hasn't been just flying around Britain for a whole day, waiting to meet Dumbledore on Privet Drive. And what was Dumblefore doing all day? The common assumption among fans is that Dumbledore spent the day preparing things in and around Privet Drive for Harry to be safe there, including stationing Arabella Figg a few streets away. Hagrid, it is reasoned, took Harry to somewhere safe, possibly to Hogwarts, to wait for the signal that all was in readiness.

 

This man's name was Albus Dumbledore.

Dumbledore's name is very appropriate. "Albus" means white in Latin, and "dumbledore" is an old English word for "bumblebee," as Rowling pointed out in her 1999 interview with Borders Online. In the book Conversations With J. K. Rowling, the author quotes Rowling as saying: "In fact, 'Dumbledore' is the Old English word for bumblebee. I chose it because my image is of this benign wizard, always on the move, humming to himself." (page 55). The color white is often associated with the "good guys," and Dumbledore is the leader of the side of good in the books. He is standing in a street where "everything from his name to his boots" are unwelcome. Names are very important to Rowling, as we'll see over and over in the books.

 

But he did seem to realize he was being watched

Harry has this ability too. He senses rather than sees people around him. When running away from home and standing forlorn in Magnolia Crescent, "(h)e had sensed rather than heard it: someone or something was standing in the narrow gap between the garage and the fence behind him." (PA2).

 

He found what he was looking for in his inside pocket. It seemed to be a silver cigarette lighter. He flicked it open, held it up in the air, and clicked it.

The Put-Outer is a very interesting device. Its function -- interfering with electrical equipment -- and its name are atypical of magical devices we encounter later in the series. Cindysphynx has written a very interesting essay about the Put-Outer and what its function may be on Privet Drive. The Put-Outer appears again in Order of the Phoenix, this time used to put out the street lamps in Grimmauld Place. The name of this device was changed for book seven to become the Deluninator. Presumably the references in other books will eventually be changed to match this.

 

"Fancy seeing you here, Professor McGonagall."

Professor Minerva McGonagall's name comes from two rather disparate sources. Minerva, according to the WEB LINKEncyclopedia Mythica, is the "Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, the arts, dyeing, science and trade, but also of war". The surname is borrowed from a most unlikely source. William Topaz McGonagall (see) a nineteenth century Scottish poet who even in his own day was recognized as truly awful. In spite of this, he pressed on, convinced of his muse in the face of ridicule. Like her namesake, Minerva McGonagall certainly takes herself seriously, but she is hardly a figure to be mocked.

 

"I must have passed a dozen feasts and parties on my way here."

If Dumbledore Apparated, how did he pass feasts and parties? Later, in PS16, we discover that Dumbledore "flew off for London." What form of transportation did he use? This same problem comes up with Hagrid's answer to the question of how he got to the Hut on the Rock. It is possible to imagine Dumbledore flying a broom, but Hagrid? It doesn't seem likely.

These questions remained open until Order of the Phoenix, in which Hagrid said at one point that he doesn't fly (meaning, on broomsticks): "Well, look at the size o' me, I don' reckon there's a broomstick that'd hold me." (OP2) What he can use, as Dumbledore does when he doesn't want to Apparate, are thestrals (OP21).

"We've had precious little to celebrate for eleven years."

Voldemort's rise to power, then, began in the early 1970s.

We know that "Snape's 35 or 6," according to Rowling in the Comic Relief interview. That interview happened around the time of the release of Goblet of Fire, so that means Snape was 32 or 33 in PS, when Harry was eleven. Snape, who was in school with James and Lily, is 21 years older than Harry, which means that James and Lily were about 21 years old when Harry was born. Since the attack on the Potters happened a year and two months later, we know that James and Lily were about 22 when they died. Rowling confirmed this when she said that Sirius was "about 22" when he was sent to Azkaban (JKR) The year that Snape as well as Lily and James were born was finally revealed in book seven to be 1960 (DH16).

"Voldemort had powers I will never have."
"It's only because you're too - well - noble to use them."

This is an extremely important point. One of the key themes of the books is that it is our choices that make us what we are. Dumbledore explains this to Harry at the end of the second book:
"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "because I asked not to go in Slytherin..."
"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (CS18)
Here we learn that a wizard's powers are not evil by their nature, but are evil because of the choice the wizard makes of how and when to use them. Professor Binns reinforces this concept in CS9 when his class theorizes that the reason the Chamber of Secrets hasn't been discovered by Dumbledore is that it requires Dark Magic to do so. Binns explains to his class, "Just because a wizard doesn't use Dark Magic doesn't mean he can't..." (CS9) Making the choice not to use powers or abilities for evil is shown here to be evidence of a noble character. The consequences of making the wrong choice are brought home by Dumbledore in his "Remember Cedric Diggory" speech at the end of GF:

"Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory." (GF33)
The clear example of one who made the wrong choice, who went along with evil because it was easy, is Peter Pettigrew.

"(W)hat could I have done? The Dark Lord...you have no idea...he has weapons you can't imagine...I was scared, Sirius, I was never brave like you and Remus and James. I never meant it to happen... He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named forced me...He--he was taking over everywhere! ...Wh--what was there to be gained by refusing him?"
"What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?" said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. "Only innocent lives, Peter!"
"You don't understand!" whined Pettigrew. "He would have killed me, Sirius!"
"THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED!" roared Black. "DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!" (PA19)

When Harry fought the Death Eaters in the Battle of Hogwarts, he uses two of the three Unforgivable Curses, showing that even a good wizard can use Dark Magic when the situation calls for it.

"He'll be famous--a legend--I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future--there will be books written about Harry..."

Hermione, when she meets Harry for the first time, informs him that he is in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century. All Harry can say is a dazed "Am I?" As for a "Harry Potter Day," it's certainly possible (if unlikely, given the long Muggle history of the Hallowe'en tradition) that the reason there's a Hallowe'en Feast every year is to celebrate Harry's defeat of Voldemort.

 

"I would trust Hagrid with my life," said Dumbledore.

This is a particularly intriguing statement. Why does Dumbledore have such faith in Hagrid? Undoubtedly he's a good-hearted soul who wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone, but we see plenty of evidence in the books that he is careless, that he drinks too much, and that he doesn't really understand how dangerous magical creatures can be. Is this the sort of person one trusts one's life to? Apparently so. But it makes one wonder if there is a story behind this unswerving trust. Even as the series ends, we are still not told why Dumbledore has such unswerving faith in Rubeus Hagrid.

 

"They're a kind of Muggle sweet I'm rather fond of"

In the US version, he calls them "lemon drops," while in the British version it's "sherbet lemons." These are by no means the same thing. In CS we see that the password to his tower office is the name of this candy, again being different between the two editions; but in GF Harry guesses "sherbet lemon" in both editions. I guess the editors figured we Americans would be able to figure it out by now. When asked in Sch1 why Dumbledore likes sherbet lemons, Rowling answered, "Because I like sherbet lemons! And he's got good taste."

It is strange to American readers that Dumbledore is unsticking two lemon drops, since it's not particularly likely that lemon drops would stick together. They are hard lemon candies, rather sour, dusted with sugar. If they get a bit moist, say in someone's pocket, they might get a bit sticky from the melted sugar, but even then they probably won't stick to each other. Sherbet lemons, on the other hand, are famous for sticking together once they get out of their dry, sealed jar. Laura Mason, in her 2004 book Sugar-plums and Sherbet - The Prehistory of Sweets, devotes a chapter to the kind of "sherbet" for which this sweet is named. "Sharbat" is an Arabic word for sweetened and spiced rose water or fruit juice, often kept in the form of dry cakes to be dissolved in water. The name for this substance has evolved into "sherbet," and the substance called by that name is a fizzy powder which can be added to water to create a carbonated drink. This kind of sherbet is a lot of fun to eat dry because it tingles on the tongue. Sherbet lemons are hard candies filled with dry sherbet powder.

We'll discuss wizard sweets in more detail when we get to chapter six.

It seemed that Professor McGonagall had reached the point she was most anxious to discuss, the real reason she had been waiting on a cold, hard wall all day...

And notice that this point is not whether Voldemort is really gone or not (see below).

 

"What they're saying," she pressed on, "is that last night Voldemort turned up in Godric's Hollow..."

How interesting that the Potters were living in a house in a Muggle village that happens to bear the name of Godric Gryffindor. We know that Godric's Hollow is a Muggle village because in PA5 we are told that Hogsmeade is the only all-Wizarding village in Britain. In QA4, we learn that Godric's Hollow was also the home of one Bowman Wright, a metalcharmer who invented the Golden Snitch. This tiny winged ball was created to be a replacement for the real thing, a small bird which was coming close to extinction because of the popularity of Quidditch.

Harry doesn't get the chance to visit Godric's Hollow until Christmas Eve, 1997. He discovers his parents' graves, a Muggle war memorial that transforms into a memorial to his family as he walks by, and the ruined cottage where they had lived (DH16, 17)

This is the passage noted above which is used to "prove" that the attack on the Potters happened the day before, making today November 1.

"Lily and James...I can't believe it... I didn't want to believe it..."

This was McGonagall's chief concern with the rumors about the events in Godric's Hollow. Professor McGonagall's gut reaction, unlike that of most people in the wizarding world, is grief at the Potters' untimely death rather than joy at Voldemort's downfall.

In later years, Harry will learn the difference between people who care about him as a person and people who are only impressed by his fame. McGonagall is being established as someone in the first category.

a huge motorcycle fell out of the air and landed on the road in front of them

This flying motorcycle belongs to Sirius Black, according to Hagrid. But how does a normal-sized man ride a motorcycle which is huge enough to be ridden by Hagrid? It is likely we're seeing an example of a magical effect which the Lexicon dubs "wizard space," by which things expand to fit the need. The flying motorcycle also raises the question of why it's okay to fly a motorcycle but not a car. In CS6, Arthur Weasley gets into considerable trouble for enchanting a Ford Anglia to be able to fly.

 

Young Sirius Black lent it to me.

What an innocent statement this seemed the first time we read this book. With the release of the third book, questions about what Sirius was doing in Godric's Hollow, why he gave away his motorcycle, and where he headed next become of prime importance. According to PA10, it was "the next day" when Sirius confronted Pettigrew and was falsely accused of murder. It is unclear if that means November 1, the precise next day after the attack on the Potters, or November 2, the next day after the wizarding world celebrated Voldemort's defeat.

Sirius Black, according to Hagrid in PA10, begged to be given the child, since he was now Harry's legal guardian. Hagrid refused, obeying Dumbledore's command. That's when Sirius offered Hagrid the use of his flying motorcycle. All this happened shortly after the Potters were killed. Hagrid says that he rescued the one-year-old boy from the rubble of the house before the Muggles started swarming all over the place. The Boy Who Lived, © Keith Johnson

"He'll have that scar forever."
"Couldn't you do something about it, Dumbledore?"
"Even if I could, I wouldn't. Scars can come in handy."

Dumbledore, as we and Harry are to learn much later in OP37, realizes the significance of the mark Voldemort has left on Harry, and its relationship to Trelawney's first prediction. The implications of this exchange with McGonagall, however, suggest strongly that she at this point either is unaware of the prediction or has not been made free of the details. As we are to learn in Harry's third year, McGonagall has very little patience with Divination, so even if she had known of the prophecy she might have scoffed, but I would expect the exchange here to have played out with a different subtext of hints if she'd been aware of the prophecy at all. [M.L. Worley]

"I'll be takin' Sirius his bike back..."

This is the original text. In 2004, this was changed to "I best get this bike back" so that the story fits the way the character of Sirius Black developed in subsequent books.

A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen.

We end the chapter with a view of Privet Drive and its hedges, this time clearly symbolizing the orderliness and even monotony of suburban Muggle life, the life which Harry will wake up to.

Characters introduced in this chapter:

Characters mentioned in this chapter:

Settings and locations:

Settings and locations mentioned:

Exceptional character moments:

Spells:

Links and Resources:

Memorable lines:

Strictly British:

Timeline/Calendar of the Chapter

Sunday
Oct 30
Monday
Oct 31
Tuesday
Nov 1
Wednesday
Nov 2
Thursday
Nov 3
Friday
Nov 4
Saturday
Nov 5
 
near midnight:
the Potters are attacked in Godric's Hollow

shortly thereafter:
Hagrid and Sirius Black arrive on the scene and rescue Harry
early morning:
McGonagall arrives in Privet Drive in the form of a tabby cat

near midnight:
Dumbledore arrives, followed by Hagrid on Sirius' motorcycle
     
Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night

As discussed above, the dates for the events in this chapter could instead be Tuesday, October 31, with Guy Fawkes Day then falling on the following Sunday. Until clarification from Rowling, we use the more common fan interpretation of the text, which is what you see on the calendar here.


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Page layout by Lisa Waite Bunker and Steve Vander Ark, banner graphics by Camilla Engelby © 2007.

Primary editor: Steve Vander Ark. Previous editor(s): Steve Vander Ark, Michele Worley.
Synopsis © 2002 William Silvester
original chapter artwork by Mary GrandPré © Warner Bros., used by permission
artwork by Keith Johnson, used with permission

Original page date 18 March 2002; Last page update July 12, 2012 SVA.