You’re back in the Harry Potter Reread! Swim around a little and get comfy! (I don’t know what you’re swimming in… words?)
Today we’re taking a look at Chapters Three and Four of The Philosopher’s Stone, The Letters From No One and The Keeper of the Keys. Otherwise known as The Dursleys Take an Impromptu Vacation and Your Proper Intro to Hagrid.
Index to the reread can be located here! Other Harry Potter and Potter-related pieces can be found under their appropriate tag. And of course, since we know this is a reread, all posts might contain spoilers for the entire series. If you haven’t read all the Potter books, be warned.
Chapter 3—The Letters From No One
Harry is looking forward to the new school term because he’s headed for a different secondary school from Dudley. He spends most of his summer days out of the house since the Dursleys are still pretty furious over the vanishing act at the zoo.
One day in July, the post arrives and Harry notices a letter addressed to him. (Very specifically addressed, in fact; it knows that he lives under the stairs.) He doesn’t think to hide it from the Dursleys, however, so Vernon quickly pulls it from his reach. That evening, Vernon tells Harry that they’ve decided he should move into Dudley’s spare room. Harry does as he’s told while Dudley has to deal with the horror of having a room taken from him and not being allowed to know what Harry’s letter was about. It’s probably the only time he’s been told no in his life.
Harry tries to intercept the post, but Uncle Vernon is lying in wait by the mail slot the following day. He tries nailing the slot shut, nailing up all the cracks in the house where a letter might come through, relying on the post to not deliver on Sunday. When countless letters begin to shoot in through the fireplace, Vernon packs up the family and leads them on a mad trip by car. Letters finds them in their hotel, so he takes them to a ramshackle cottage on a rock out at sea, convinced that nothing will find them there. Harry lies awake on the floor, counting down the minutes until his eleventh birthday that night. When the clock strikes midnight, there’s a tumultuous knock at the door…
Now that Harry’s punishment phase is over, we can move on from his decidedly un-awesome familial treatment and focus on this delirious chapter that should really be titled, “In Which Vernon Dursley Proves That Logic is A Difficult Thing For Him to Grasp.” There’s something so satisfying about watching his every move get thwarted by an unseen opponent. Then you remember that said opponent is Dumbledore and it’s actually funnier, because can’t you just imagine him sitting in his office, irate and amused by turns? McGonagall is furious because she’s had to charm a quill to write out the same letter over and over; she’s certainly not going to write it by hand hundreds—make that more like thousands—of times.
Where’s a wizard photocopier when you need one?
Also, it is time to welcome the arrival of Sassy Harry. He takes a little time to show up, but once he does, it’s with such disdain and flair:
“What’s this?” he asked Aunt Petunia. Her lips tightened as they always did if he dared to ask a question.
“Your new school uniform,” she said.
Harry looked into the bowl again.
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t realize it had to be so wet.”
ZING. Oh Harry, how I have missed you.
It makes me sad how much films are forced to omit for the sake of pacing because if anything deserved to be filmed the whole way through, it’s Vernon’s consummate breakdown as he tries to run farther and farther away. Watching them all drive in silence, watching Vernon stop and get out of the car and start muttering. Watching them eat their chips and bananas for dinner. It could be it’s own little weirdo short film.
And then there’s the looming date of Harry’s birth, a sure sign that something’s about to happen….
Chapter 4—The Keeper of the Keys
Hagrid, the Hogwarts keeper of keys and grounds, lets himself into the shack to hand deliver Harry’s letter (and a birthday cake). He has the distinction of being the first person from the wizarding world Harry has ever met (or so he thinks). When Hagrid finds out that the Dursleys haven’t just been keeping his letters from him—they’ve been keeping his entire history and heritage from him—he’s understandably angry and does his best to explain what’s going down.
What Harry finds out is that he’s been offered a chance to go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is a legacy he comes by honestly as both his parents were magical. He also learns that there was a terrible war on years back against a dark wizard named Voldemort, and that his parents were in the fight against him. Voldemort murdered them, but when he tried to do the same to Harry, he couldn’t manage it—which is why Harry has the lightning-shaped scar. Harry asks Hagrid if he thinks Voldemort is dead, to which Hagrid truthfully answers that he thinks Voldemort is probably trying to regain strength before making a comeback.
Vernon insists that there’s something abnormal about Harry, but that he won’t allow him to attend the school. Hagrid insists he has no means of stopping him. Petunia insists that her sister Lily was a freak, but their parents were too short-sighted to realize how awful it was to have a witch for a daughter. Harry is in shock, Hagrid is angry with the Dursleys, and Dudley gets a pig’s tail for being a nuisance. Hagrid gives Harry his giant coat to sleep under and promises to take him to get school supplies in the morning.
This chapter is basically a big info dump that is made sweeter by the reappearance of Hagrid. After Vernon’s descent into instability, having the big guy show up is akin to being delivered a cup of hot cocoa and a kindly pat on the head. He just exudes warmth, thanks in no small part to his being instantly associated with those things; he starts a fire in the shack, cooks sausages, brings cake. These associations carry on through the series. When we think of Hagrid we think of someone warm, lovable, and nurturing. A little rough around the edges, sure—the cake is a bit squashed, and he’s got owls and mice in his pockets, and his magic (which he’s not supposed to be doing) is a little iffy in the application—but perfectly reliable and dear.
Petunia’s ill-feeling toward her sister bubbles up in a nasty fashion. What’s interesting here is how fresh the anger seems after all this time. Apparently, having Harry around has kept those wounds wide open. But what sort of relationship did the Dursleys have with the Potters prior to their death? And what’s Vernon and Petunia’s story, more specifically?
Rowling has expanded on the Dursley’s background over at Pottermore, in fact, so we now have a better idea. When Petunia finished secondary school, she took a typing course in the city, then got a job at Grunnings as some sort of administrative assistant. That’s where she met Vernon, who eventually proposed to her in his mother’s living room. (Super romantic.) Petunia told Vernon about her sister while they were on a date in Vernon’s car, eating sausage and parked overlooking the sausage shop itself. (Rowling’s details with these sorts of things are always excellent for a laugh.) Vernon was shocked, but promised never to think less of Petunia because of her weirdo family.
At one point the two couples went on a double date. Vernon tried to impress James with what sort of car he was driving, which got James talking about his racing broom. Vernon started talking money, so James went off about his family fortune in wizard money. Vernon thought James was having a laugh at him, and the Dursleys stormed out of the restaurant while Lily sat there in tears. What I take away from this is that James Potter immediately pegged what sort of guy Vernon Dursley was and had no interest in making friends. I can’t exactly blame him. In fact, I’m doing the exact opposite of blaming him. I am waving a “Go James!” banner obnoxiously in the background.
Petunia wouldn’t let Lily be a bridesmaid in her wedding because she’s didn’t want her little sister outshining her. Vernon proceeded to rudely refer to James as a “magician” within earshot at their reception. The Dursleys did not bother to attend Lily and James’ wedding, which is probably just as well. They had very little contact after that.
So… a lot of bad blood here and we’re only catching the surface of it.
It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Vernon and Dudley both get their behinds handed to them by Hagrid (figuratively and literally, respectively). But more importantly, this is where Harry starts to emerge more as a fully realized character, and that’s all sorts of exciting.
Next stop: Diagon Alley!