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Complete, detailed, and amazing Reader's Guides
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Chapter Eight:
The Potions Master

NOTES | CHARACTERS | SETTINGS | TIMELINE / CALENDAR
EXCEPTIONAL CHARACTER MOMENTS
SPELLS | LINKS & RESOURCES | MEMORABLE LINES | STRICTLY BRITISH

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

US hardcover edition: pages 131 - 142
UK hardcover edition: pages 98 - 106
UK paperback edition: pages 144 - 156
Timeframe: Monday 2 September - Friday 6 September, 1991 [Y11]

In which Harry is pointed out and stared at by everyone in the school as he starts his first day of classes and meets his teachers, visits Hagrid, and learns about the Gringotts break-in.

The Potions Master, PS8, by Mary GrandPré

Interesting facts and notes about the text of this chapter:

The main events of this chapter - apart from an overview of Harry's first week of classes - are Harry's first Potions lesson (and as part of that, his first real introduction to Snape) and tea with Hagrid, when Harry introduces his first two friends to each other.

Whispers followed Harry from the moment he left his dormitory the next day.

Since the Hogwarts Express ran on 1 September, this is 2 September.

Harry wished they wouldn't, because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes.

There is a discrepancy of days of the week between Harry's birthday (31 July) having been a Tuesday and 2 September having been a weekday. Since 31 July was a Tuesday, 2 September should have been a Sunday (1990 and 2007 are examples of years for which 31 July was a Tuesday). If Y11 was 1991, 31 July should have been a Wednesday, not a Tuesday as stated in PS3, in which case 2 September would have been a Monday.

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts...

We don't seem to have encountered more than a fraction of these as of HBP. Among those we know about are:
  • the marble staircase leading up from the Entrance Hall
  • the two staircases (boys' and girls') in Gryffindor Tower
  • (presumably) two staircases in Ravenclaw Tower
  • (presumably) two staircases in the Slytherin dormitories
  • (presumably) two staircases in the Hufflepuff dormitories
  • the Headmaster's staircase
  • the spiral staircase leading up to Trelawney's classroom at the top of North Tower

wide, sweeping [staircases]; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump.

Until book six there were no moving staircases mentioned in the books; they were a film invention. In book six, a swiveling staircase is mentioned, but from the reference it's clear that there is only one of them. The staircase with the vanishing step is likely the one that Neville stepped on and became stuck in on his way up to Gryffindor Tower in GF12, the same one that trapped Harry when he was out of his dormitory with the golden egg (GF25).

Then there were doors that wouldn't open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place,

The door to the kitchens is one such door. You have to tickle the pear in the painting on the wall to get the door to open. There must be more such doors, of course, since Harry can't have been down to the kitchens at this point. His first visit to the kitchens is described in GF21.

...and doors that weren't really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending.

In HBP19, Harry uses one of these types of doors:
"Anyway - sorry, got to go - there's McLaggen coming for a talk about Quidditch," said Harry hurriedly, and he dashed sideways through a door pretending to be solid wall...

It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.

The changeable floorplan of Hogwarts was devised by Rowena Ravenclaw, according to her Famous Wizard Card information. It is actually a matter of convenience for Rowling, who has an automatic out if she happens to get a location wrong inside the castle from one book to another. Surprisingly, given the vast scope of the story she's telling, Rowling has made very few such errors.

Filch found them trying to force their way through a door which unluckily turned out to be the entrance to the out-of-bounds corridor on the third floor.

Since first-years are bound to get lost a lot at the beginning of term, at first glance it seems awfully lax of the teachers to have left this door unprotected from the outside - not because of any danger to the Stone, but because of the danger that a youngster might get in there innocently, as Harry and Ron tried to. As we will see later, however, nobody can get through the door unless he or she can open it magically, which more or less ensures that a beginning first year can't get in.

...they were rescued by Professor Quirrell, who was passing.

On first reading, this seems innocent enough. Only later does the significance of Quirrell having been in the vicinity of the forbidden corridor become apparent.

it was the dearest ambition of many to give Mrs. Norris a good kick.

On their way to the chambers of the Stone at the end of this school year, Ron begs Harry to let him kick Mrs. Norris "just this once" when they're travelling around under the invisibility cloak (PS16). Hagrid, as we'll see later in this chapter, would like to "introduce her to Fang sometime" because Mrs. Norris follows him around when he comes into the castle.

They had to study the night skies through their telescopes every Wednesday at midnight and learn the names of different stars and the movements of the planets.

This is the first concrete information we have been given about Harry's timetable for his first year. Since Harry had an astronomy lesson during his first week of classes, and since 2 September was a weekday because classes were held that day, we know that 2 September was a Monday, a Tuesday, or a Wednesday.

Three times a week they went out to the greenhouses behind the castle to study Herbology...

"Three times a week" suggests that Herbology class for first-year Gryffindors takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but this can't be the case because the first-years only have Potions on Friday mornings, and have Friday afternoons off.

The location of the greenhouses "behind the castle" is somewhat vague at this point, but at least gives a general location for them somewhere on the side of Hogwarts castle opposite to the Entrance Hall. In Harry's first Herbology lesson during his second year (CS6), we will learn that all his first-year Herbology lessons took place in greenhouse one.

Easily the most boring lesson was History of Magic, which was the only class taught by a ghost.

We have not been told when History of Magic lessons take place or how often.

Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball

We don't know much about Emeric the Evil, but good old Uric is a bit more familiar. His biographer, Radolphus Pittman, has written much about Uric, including the fact that he wore a jellyfish for a hat on one occasion. The fact that Harry and Ron had trouble remembering someone as weirdly interesting as Uric the Oddball testifies to the tediousness of this class. (Although it's possible that JKR was trying to say that Binns was getting his lecture notes mixed up rather than that the students were getting muddled.)

Professor Flitwick, the Charms teacher, was a tiny little wizard who had to stand on a pile of books to see over his desk. At the start of their first lesson he took the register...

We have not been told when Charms lessons take place or how often.

Professor McGonagall was again different. Harry had been quite right to think she wasn't a teacher to cross. Strict and clever, she gave them a talking-to the moment they had sat down in her first class.

We have not yet been told when Transfiguration lessons take place or how often, but a little information can be derived. The order in which the classes are described suggests that the first Transfiguration lesson took place after Harry had already attended his first History of Magic and Charms lessons.

"Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts," she said.

One error in PS/f is that the first-year Slytherins and Gryffindors are shown together in Transfiguration class; we're told in PS9 that the two groups did not share any classes other than Potions before their first flying lesson.

In fact, since Transfiguration is considered a very dangerous subject - something that will be emphasized more strongly in later years when Harry and his friends begin learning about Animagi - it would make sense for Transfiguration's class sizes to be kept as small as possible, so that McGonagall can keep track of what the students are doing and prevent accidents. That is, it would make sense if no two Houses share a first-year Transfiguration class - let alone Slytherin and Gryffindor.

they were each given a match and started trying to turn it into a needle.

Rowling uses a concept called "sympathetic magic" here. It's the same form of logic which suggests that if you poke a pin into a doll representing some specific person, that person will feel pain in the corresponding location in his or her body. Transfiguration intricately connects the form of the object being transformed and the object it's changing into. Consequently, a matchstick being changed into a needle is a very simple transformation because they have similar shapes, even though the material change from wood to metal would be very complicated from a scientific standpoint. Later, we see hedgehogs changed into pincushions for the same reason. Strangely enough, we even see guinea pigs being changed into guinea fowl, presumably because they have nearly identical names! The logic of magic is utterly different from the logic of science.

By the end of the lesson, only Hermione Granger had made any difference to her match; Professor McGonagall showed the class how it had gone all silver and pointy.

Hermione is successful because she internalizes the logic of magic. For a Muggle-born student - indoctrinated with Muggle logic for eleven years - to catch on so quickly is certainly unusual, which indicates just how intelligent she really is. Harry has more trouble with this new logic, although as we have seen, he did manage to suspend his Muggle sensibilities enough to make it through the barrier onto Platform Nine and Three Quarters.

The class everyone had really been looking forward to was Defence Against the Dark Arts, but Professor Quirrell's lessons turned out to be a bit of a joke.

This gives a whole new spin to the expression, "Wait until next year," doesn't it?

His classroom smelled strongly of garlic, which everyone said was to ward off a vampire he'd met in Romania and was afraid would be coming back to get him one of these days.

This is the second mention of vampires (the first having been by Hagrid when Quirrell was first introduced to Harry), and the first indication that in the Harry Potter universe, garlic is an effective weapon against vampires.

His turban, he told them, had been given to him by an African prince as a thank-you for getting rid of a troublesome zombie, but they weren't sure they believed this story. For one thing, when Seamus Finnegan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather...

This is the first indication that zombies exist in the wizarding world, although as of HBP we don't know if they're just another name for Inferi or if they are something else. The kids' doubt of Quirrell's story is clearly due to their evaluation of his character, not to any question of whether zombies exist. Seamus, as we learnt in the previous chapter, has a witch mother and has been brought up in the wizarding world, so his acceptance of the existence of zombies is good supporting evidence.

...for another, they had noticed that a funny smell hung around the turban...

It's possible that Quirrell's ostentatious use of garlic in his classroom is as much to help cover up this smell as to support his image as "p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell" (PS17).

...and the Weasley twins insisted that it was stuffed full of garlic too, so that Quirrell was protected wherever he went.

Well, he's certainly accompanied by something wherever he goes...

Harry was very relieved to find out that he wasn't miles behind everyone else. Lots of people had come from Muggle families and, like him, hadn't had any idea that they were witches and wizards. There was so much to learn that even people like Ron didn't have much of a head start.

We see here how important magical education is. Even little Kevin could use his dad's wand to inflate a slug (GF7), but that kind of magic is purely instinctive. To be able to manage and control those natural abilities, wizarding children need careful training. Rowling has stated that all children with magical ability are welcome to come to Hogwarts. This is very likely for the protection of the community at large as much as for the benefit of the child. Imagine an entire culture made up of untrained witches and wizards. However, it is a bit difficult to imagine someone like Stan Shunpike passing one of McGonagall's Transfiguration classes.

Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way to the Great Hall for breakfast without getting lost once.

Since Harry and Ron's discussion of their timetable over breakfast takes place on Friday morning, we can fill in some of the question marks on their schedule about which classes take place on what days of the week.

"Double Potions with the Slytherins," said Ron. "Snape's Head of Slytherin House. They say he always favours them - we'll be able to see if it's true."

This tells us that the first-year Gryffindors have only one class on Fridays - double Potions. Since they haven't yet had a class with Snape, Potions evidently meets only once a week.

"Double" is ambiguous here; since two Houses are taking the class together, it could be interpreted as referring to a class in which students from two Houses are taught together. Instead, though, as we shall see, it appears to be used to indicate a class that is taught over two normal class periods instead of one.

"Wish McGonagall favoured us," said Harry. Professor McGonagall was head of Gryffindor house, but it hadn't stopped her from giving them a huge pile of homework the day before.

Ah. This tells us that first-year Transfiguration definitely meets on Thursdays. From the scheduling of flying lessons in the next chapter, we can refine that a little to figure out that Transfiguration on Thursdays takes place either in the morning or during the first afternoon period. The Potions Master, (c) Keith Johnson

"Ah, yes," he said softly, "Harry Potter. Our new - celebrity."

This remark tells us more about Snape - and his opinion of Harry's father, James - than it does about Harry's own attitude toward fame.

A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.

Bezoars are mentioned again briefly in Harry's fourth year (GF22) and figure prominently in book six. In one of Slughorn's Potions classes, when asked to brew an antidote to an unmarked phial of potion, he consulted the Half-Blood Prince's book. There, in a list of antidotes was the Half-Blood Prince's advice to "[j]ust shove a bezoar down their throats," which Harry produced at the end of class when Slughorn inspected the students' work. Later, Harry remembered the little shriveled 'stone' and dug it out of Slughorn's kit when Ron had been poisoned in the professor's office, thereby saving his best friend's life. (HBP18)

clearing the spilled potion away with one wave of his wand

Judging by similar clean-up magic used during Potions class in subsequent years, this is likely an Evanesco spell.

an enormous black boarhound

A boarhound is a Great Dane. The films, on the other hand, have so far used a Neopolitan mastiff, quite a different breed.

rock cakes

Rock cakes are a Scottish baked good (WEB LINKhttp://www.fife.50megs.com/rock-cakes.htm). They are hard, fruity buns made with sultanas (similar to raisins). Of course, Hagrid's version of rock cakes live up to their name and nearly break Harry's teeth when he bites into them.

"How's yer brother Charlie? Hagrid asked Ron. "I liked him a lot - great with animals."

If we accept the timetable given by Rowling, Charlie had left Hogwarts only two months before this conversation. This statement of Hagrid's isn't inaccurate exactly, but it does give the impression that Hagrid is reminiscing about someone he hasn't seen for quite some time. Very likely, Rowling hadn't worked out the exact ages of the various Weasley siblings when she wrote this book. We'll see other problematic passages in later chapters.

...the break-in at Gringotts on 31 July... that Gringotts break-in happened on my birthday!

These two phrases verify that Harry's birthday is 31 July, which is also Rowling's own birthday.

Characters introduced in this chapter:

Characters returning in this chapter:

Characters mentioned in this chapter:

Settings and locations introduced or returning in this chapter:

Settings and locations mentioned in this chapter:

Exceptional character moments:

  • Binns, who evidently reads from his notes without interacting with his students (as will be demonstrated more clearly during Harry's second year).

  • Hermione's desperation to demonstrate her intelligence in Potions class, once challenged by Snape's opening speech.

  • McGonagall and Snape, who are both noted for being able to keep order without effort.

  • Snape, who appears to have a genuine passion for Potions, and who is definitely an expert. (Only a true expert could so easily diagnose exactly where a student must have gone wrong to get a given result, as Snape did with Neville's first attempt at a potion.)

Spells:

Links and Resources:

Memorable lines:

  • "You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making," he began. He spoke in barely more than a whisper, but they caught every word - like Professor McGonagall, Snape had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort. "As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don't expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses...I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death..."

Strictly British:

Timelines/Calendar:

This chapter begins on 2 September, which is the first day of classes, and ends on Friday of the same week.

Sunday, September 1 Monday, September 2 Tuesday, September 3 Wednesday, September 4 Thursday, September 5 Friday, September 6 Saturday, September 7
Harry takes the Hogwarts Express for the first time; the Sorting. Herbology (morning)   Astronomy lesson at midnight Transfiguration
2nd afternoon period free
Potions (both morning periods)
3 p.m. tea with Hagrid
 
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