Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Chapter Two
That’s right, it’s me, back again, to stone some philosophers with pots (I’m pretty sure I’m remembering that title correctly). If you missed last week’s opening chapter recap, you can find it right here. Otherwise, on with the show!
It’s a short chapter this week, and we open with a timejump forward to an eleven-year-old Harry being woken from a dream about a flying motorbike by his Aunt Petunia. And this is just a really sad opening, as we see the Dursleys celebrating Dudley:
“The photographs showed a large, blonde boy riding his first bicycle, on a roundabout at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too”.
Fuck me, man, that’s just crushing. The Dursleys are abusive to Harry as a child, that’s not a hot take, just facts, but this depiction of it – a refusal to even acknowledge his existence – makes my heart hurt.
It’s Dudley’s birthday and his family are insistent that everything will be perfect. And, of course, we get another little nod to “fat people are The Worst”, as JK goes out of her way to describe Dudley’s fatness and how it relates to his cruelty of Harry (Harry can escape Dudley’s beatings, because he can outrun him) and brings up Dudley’s fatness no less than three times in two pages that make up his character introduction. Honestly, I give it four to six weeks for the fatness retcon, after, like, three people go “huh, that’s a bit grim, isn’t it?” and the franchise explodes with self-defence eight seconds later.
What follows is the iconic “Dudley has less presents than last year” scene, which has honestly become such a cultural touchstone that I’d forgotten it came from Harry Potter until now. This is super fun and goofy and over-the-top and it’s just entertaining-ass stuff, and it’s a neat backdoor to Harry’s introduction to see him interacting with his family in a way that mitigates their anger towards him. This is a kid always on the defensive, by mere neccessity of his upbringing.
Petunia reveals that the sitter, Mrs Figg, who normally takes care of Harry while they take Dudley out for his birthday is unable to take care of him, and here’s where I make my personal cameo in this book, as Harry quietly celebrates his excitement at not having to go to her house:
“The whole house smelled of cabbage and Mrs Figg made him look at the photographs of every cat she’d ever owned.”
If you replace “cabbage” with “lentil soup”, that is me to an uncanny degree. Harry, you ungrateful swine, I’m a great babysitter and every single one of the (swiftly counting) eighteen cats I’ve owned over the course of my life is fascinating, scintillating, and photograph really well. Look! Look at this one! She’s in a shoe!!!!
Ahem. Anyway. We touch on some of Harry’s magical abilities – shrinking a sweater he didn’t want to wear, managing to regrow his hair in one night – and how his inadvertent use of them has made him even more of a target for the family’s abuse. Oh my God, when I read this as a kid I really didn’t appreciate just how awful that abuse is, and it’s making me so utterly sad seeing all the ways he tries to make do with the complete emotional torment they put him through. When I heard it in Stephen Fry’s voice on the audiobooks (#OG), it just sounded like standard children’s book character-building stuff, but now I’m an adult I would like to beat the Dursleys with nail-studded two-by-fours.
The group (now including a friend of Dudley’s, who gets the other standard children’s book arsehole characterization in the form of being compared to a rat. Which is really unfair, because rats can be very sweet-natured animals and are super-intelligent and I’m not unconvinced they don’t have superpowers (t r i p l e n e g a t i v e). I stan for rats, is what I’m saying.
As the day draws to a close, Harry and the rest of the group attend the reptile house, where Harry encounters a snake who seems to be able to communicate with him. They exchange some comment about the way the Dursleys attempted to wake the snake by banging on the glass. More significantly, and I’m about to get right into it here so hold on to your degrees, they discuss the fact that the snake’s breed is originally from Brazil but the snake itself was bred in the zoo. I’m not saying this is some Grand Metaphor for Harry, but I do think it’s neat that both of them are trapped in places far from natural homes, homes that they have never really been part of or known intimately, and it’s torment by the outsiders from that world that brings them together. There’s some symmetry there, and I’m into it.
Anyhow, when Dudley catches on to what’s happening, he shoves Harry aside and presses his face to the glass. It swiftly vanishes, leaving the snake escaping his exhibit, slithering by Harry as it heads away:
“Brazil here I come….thanksss amigo”
I know I shouldn’t find this funny, but I’m going to. Just imagine the snake as played by Andy Serkis, except they haven’t put the special effects on and he’s just in a mocap suit, pronouncing all three “s” individually. There, funny now, right?
After the snake is contained, the family rush home and Harry is banished to the cupboard for apparently communing with the snake. In the dark, he considers the interactions the magical world has had with him so far, even if he’s not aware that’s what it is: people bowing to him, shaking his hand in the street, and so on. And once again – I don’t know, man, I know Dumbledore has decent reasons for wanting Harry kept from the magical world, but at this point, is it really worth it? Anyone paying the remotest bit of attention can see that he’s being abused (not fed, not allowed out of the house, and regularly assaulted by Dudley and his classmates at school, per this chapter). Yes, the effect of his deified place in the magical world could be overwhelming, but is that more damaging than literally a full decade of emotional and physical abuse? Gives me the boke, man, it really does.
Anyway, that’s us at the end of this chapter! If you enjoyed this recap and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon! You can also find more of my writing on my film site, No But Listen.