Not the least interesting thing about Harry’s possessions is that it is possible to make a virtually complete list of them. This is because he starts with nothing but the blanket he is wrapped in. His material poverty is contrasted with Dudley Dursley’s conspicuous consumption, both literal and metaphorical. Though the four books we actually see how Harry acquires the things he owns, with a couple of interesting exceptions. Many of them are gifts, and, like all gifts, they come with an unspoken message from the giver.
Technically, the first things Harry truly owns are the letters from Hogwarts – mail being legally the property of the recipient. In claiming them, Harry asserts himself for the first time against the Dursleys, as opposed to merely defending himself. Though he does not get these letters, they are responsible for his promotion from the broom-cupboard to a proper bedroom.
His humiliating dependence on the Dursleys is then reversed at a stroke, as he finds that his dead parents have provided for him after all. He is rich, in a nice, satisfying, chunky, gold-coins-heaped-up-in-a-bank-vault kind of way. He uses this money to buy his school clothes, books and equipment, and a trunk to keep them in.
One piece of equipment is highly significant. Harry buys his wand, but really, the wand chooses him. Like Harry, the wand has an enigmatic background, and its closeness to Voldemort’s wand (they are “brother” wands, both having a phoenix feather core from the same phoenix) echoes Harry’s closeness to Voldemort – much remains to be revealed here.
On the same day, Harry receives his first real gift, from his first friend – Hagrid gives him Hedwig. Hagrid functions as Harry’s Fairy Godmother and, having introduced Harry to the wizarding world, now gives him the means to communicate with it. Hedwig reflects, in slightly sterner fashion, Hagrid’s maternal qualities. She is affectionate, but can be disapproving, and gives Harry a nip, now and then, to show it. She looks out for Harry’s interests, flying off unbidden to collect his birthday presents (PA1), and stays with him in the holidays.
Once at Hogwarts, Harry’s exceptional flying talent is recognised by McGonagall’s gift (or perhaps loan) of a broom – itself an exception to the school rules (PS10). In return, she expects him to do well for his House Quidditch team. The rather teacherly message is “Live up to your talents and don’t let the team down”. This broom is later replaced by the far more exciting (and dangerous) Firebolt – the gift of the far more exciting (and dangerous) Sirius Black. A gift of flight from a man in flight, its anonymous presentation causes a rift with the cautious and sensible Hermione. This reflects the giver’s propensity for rule-breaking (that flying motorcycle can’t be legal!) and causing trouble. Interestingly it is McGonagall who gives it back. Hermione foreshadows her eventual, and qualified, acceptance of the broom and the risk-taking it represents with the typically sensible gift of a broomstick servicing kit (PA1), almost as if she were adding “But take care!” to the message of the broom.
Similarly ambiguous is the twice-given Invisibility Cloak – inherited from Harry’s dead (invisible) father, James (PS12). The Potter family was in hiding when the momentous events around Harry’s first birthday separated him from them forever. The message of the cloak, which hides the wearer, seems to be that Harry should hide – at least until he is ready for a final showdown with Voldemort. A lighter note is struck by its appearance as an anonymous Christmas present from Dumbledore, a man with a refreshingly relaxed approach to headmastership. Would anyone give a schoolboy an invisibility cloak and not expect him to use it for breaking bounds, midnight rambles in the corridors and similar shenanigans?
And when shenanigans are afoot, what more useful than the Marauder’s Map, that self-avowed “aid to magical mischief-making” (PA10)? Created by James, Sirius, Lupin and Pettigrew when they were at school, the map is given to Harry by arch-pranksters Fred and George Weasley, for the express purpose of breaking the rules and getting away with it. It proves to have the added bonus of being gratuitously rude to teachers. But its message must be read with care, for it conceals as much as it reveals, identifying “Moody” correctly, but misleadingly, as “Bartemius Crouch” (GF25). The map is confiscated by a sadder, wiser, grown up Lupin (PA14), but is later returned to Harry, who will use it, we hope, with more care in the future.
Perhaps the most poignant gift Harry receives, is the family photograph album, made up for him by Hagrid, who has contacted friends of the Potters for photographs (PS17). If he did nothing else, one would have to love Hagrid for this. He gives Harry a past, as well as a future, providing his only sight of his parents, outside of the dangerous Mirror of Erised. Hagrid, too, has lost his parents and is something of an outcast in the wizarding world. Perhaps only he knows how much it means to Harry to belong.
Hagrid also presents Harry with The Monster Book of Monsters (PA1) – the only school set book Harry doesn’t buy for himself (Lockhart’s oeuvre was immediately passed on to Ginny, CS4). Like Hagrid himself, and the “interestin’ creatures” he loves, the book seems big and fierce and could hurt you, unless you realize that it only wants a bit of kindness – in the book’s case, to be stroked. Hagrid is surprised no-one realizes this (PA6). His tolerant message of courage and kindness is also echoed in the hand-carved wooden flute (PS12) which calms the hell-hound, Fluffy.
Amongst Harry’s minor possessions are a number of birthday and Christmas presents, again, reflecting the givers. Ron, often gloomy, self-doubting and suspicious, gives him the pocket Sneakoscope (“Be on guard!”), which, like most of Ron’s possessions, may not work and has proved of little use so far (PA1). Let us not forget, however, that Harry’s prized collection of Chocolate Frog cards owes its start to Ron’s friendly swaps. Ron’s gifts, like Ron himself, tend to provide Harry with information about the wizarding world. His and Hermione’s gifts of a Quidditch book – Flying with the Cannons – and a useful quill pen, respectively (CS12), nicely contrast their givers’ characters. Similarly, Molly Weasley’s eye-catching home-made jumpers are, like her, warm, practical and slightly embarrassing – the sort of thing that only a mother could give. She allows Harry to be a child when he needs to be (and sometimes when he doesn’t).
Dobby, too, has a line in colourful knitwear which requires a certain kind of courage to wear. His non-matching, hand-knitted socks reflect the house-elf values of homely industry – patterned socks are pretty tricky to knit! The er, Deep Symbolism of the Sock has been investigated elsewhere , but it is perfectly clear what socks mean to Dobby – “Freedom!” One indicator that these socks may be important later is that Moody/Crouch comments on them – “Nice socks, Potter!” (GF23)
Harry has given Dobby the repellent pair of Uncle Vernon’s old socks the Dursleys once give him for his birthday (PS3). Including, as they do, a single tissue (GF23), a fifty-pence piece (PS12), and a wire coat-hanger (PS3), the Dursleys’ gifts say “You are worthless” – a message Harry refuses to accept. It is interesting that those gifts not given with love are passed on to other people who do have a use for them. Ron is intrigued by the Muggle coin, the Weasleys are relieved of the expense of buying Lockhart’s books for Ginny and the unwanted Triwizard Tournament prize is invested in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. This last is Harry’s first attempt to influence the world, and he does it in spite of Molly Weasley’s known opposition. Harry has come a long way since he started out with nothing.
Well, almost nothing. Somewhere along the line, we are not told how, Harry has acquired a watch. When we first see him in the cupboard under the stairs, he wishes he had a watch – so he must have come by it later. Presumably this is a Muggle, clockwork watch, since we know that electronic devices cannot function at Hogwarts, and a magic watch would presumably not have stopped working in the lake, during the Triwizard Tournament. Yet, it is impossible to imagine the Dursleys buying him a watch, or Harry’s having the Muggle money to buy one. Perhaps Mrs Figg bought it for him.
More importantly, because more central to our picture of Harry, we don’t know where his glasses came from. Were the Dursleys shamed by a school nurse into providing them, or are they magical? They have certainly been mended by magic, more than once. Not a typical heroic accoutrement, Harry’s glasses symbolise his humanity and his vulnerability. Spectacles in literature tend, paradoxically, to symbolise an ability to see clearly. This is certainly a quality Harry demonstrates as a Seeker. As so often, the symbolism is ambiguous – other spec-wearers include Dumbledore and McGonagall, but also Rita Skeeter and Sybill Trelawney – at any rate, the last two like to think that they can see what others miss! Interestingly, the only self-indulgent purchase Harry makes is to buy himself a pair of Omnioculars – a kind of super spectacles – at the Quidditch World Cup. A flashy and expensive toy, the Omnioculars give the user an interactive TV-like experience of sports, with zoom, playback and slo-mo features. While Harry plays with the features, he is missing the actual game (GF8). Harry will have to learn to see things clearly in more ways than one.
Finally, though not a possession of gift in the usual sense of those words, there is Harry’s scar. Central to Harry’s mystery, it is, along with Parseltongue, the “gift” of Voldemort. Dumbledore refuses to remove it from Harry’s infant head, remarking that “scars can be useful” (PS1). It is indeed useful, warning Harry with pain whenever Voldemort is near “or feeling particularly murderous” (GF36). We are told that the scar is the only thing that Harry likes about his appearance (PS2), but he usually tries to hide it under his unruly hair, as it brings with it the additional gift, or curse, of unwanted fame. Voldemort has literally marked Harry out, and the whole series is a slow working out of how and why Harry got his scar, and what the consequences will be. We know that the last word of the last book will be “scar”.
If all gifts carry a message, the message is usually “Be like me”. Harry’s possessions murmur or shout this in their different ways. “Be like me, fly!” “Be like me, hide!” “Be like me, courageous!” “Be kind!” “Be free!” “Be careful!” “Be powerful!” “Be like me…”
Which of these messages will Harry heed?
Some of the most important gifts are twice-given. Harry’s mother twice gave him the gift of life. Her message was not “Be like me”. It was, simply, “Be”.