Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Return to Hogwarts … again

I’m opening 2015 by reading the Harry Potter series again. For about the tenth time (I can’t be certain, as I didn’t start scrupulously tracking my reading until 2004). And as I sometimes do when I read a book or series again, I’m going to share a few questions and observations that come up. On re-reading, I often notice things I haven’t noticed before, or that I may have noticed several readings before but have since forgotten. Or that I’ve noticed before but have never shared. I welcome any thoughts you might have on any of this.

So, without further ado, a few scattered comments on the first five chapters of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Yes, by the way, I do use the American title, because that’s the edition I’m reading. Note that page numbers are from the US first edition hardcover.

For some reason, Dudley Dursley’s best friend, Piers Polkiss, jumped out at me this time. Talk about minor characters! But there’s something interesting here. Have any of you ever noticed this? He’s introduced in Chapter Two “The Vanishing Glass”: “Dudley’s best friend, […] Piers Polkiss was a scrawny boy with a face like a rat” (p. 23).

Now I haven’t gotten to the later books again yet, and I’m not going to look ahead for more ammunition here. But the alliterative name Piers Polkiss reminded me of Peter Pettigrew. Even better, Piers is a variant form of Peter. Both are compared to rats, and both are the sidekicks to friends with more forceful personalities. Intentional? Hard to say, but as purposeful as Rowling has shown herself to be, it strikes me as possible. Of course, many of Rowling’s names are alliterative, but two characters whose first and last names both start with P, and who share these other common characteristics? Interesting, eh?

As a side note, I looked at the surnames without turning up much to connect them. Polkiss — I’m not sure that’s actually a genuinely attested name — is probably connected to Polk, and the earlier form Pollock, Bollack, etc. This name is believed to derive from the parish of Pollock in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and that in turn is from Gaelic pollag “a little pool or pond”, diminutive of pol “pool”. That doesn’t seem to have much to do with Piers Polkiss as a character, though who can say? We know so little about him.

Pettigrew on the other hand, derives from French petit cru, typically meaning “a little person” or “little grown” — which seems perfectly appropriate for him. Alternatively, you could read petit cru as “little believed”, with cru as the past participle of croire. That also has potential. Peter Pettigrew was actually much believed at first, to the detriment of Sirius Black, but he was a pathological liar and never taken seriously. Perhaps a better reading would be “little (to be) believed”. This could have been intentional by Rowling as well. We know the name Voldemort was informed by a French meaning. Pettigrew was a French Huguenot name that later migrated to Scotland (among other parts of the British Isles) — so, swimming in the same onomastic waters as Pollock (therefore, perhaps Polkiss), and where Rowling herself wrote the books. But this geographical connection doesn’t tell us much about the characters.

So that’s that. Everything else I’ve got today — just a few orts — comes from Chapter Five “Diagon Alley”.

After Hagrid collects Harry from the Hut-on-the-Rock, Harry, seeing only one boat, asks Hagrid how he got there. Hagrid says he flew (pp. 63–4). What I’m wondering is how. He needed something — a broom, a thestral, a hippogriff, Sirius’s flying motorbike — because it’s only Voldemort who can fly unaided, a point that is made quite clear in The Deathly Hallows (note that the Death Eaters and The Order of the Phoenix can all apparently fly in the film adaptations). Obviously, Hagrid didn’t have a thestral or a hippogriff. Harry would have seen either, and Hagrid wouldn’t have left either behind. The same for Sirius’s motorbike. So, are we to assume he had a broomstick? What broomstick would hold him? And where did he put it? We’re told his coat is full of all kinds of odds and ends, even a fire poker, but a broom that could hold him would have to be hard to conceal in a coat. And why didn’t he use Sirius’s motorbike? In The Deathly Hallows, they use it precisely because it’s one of the means of flight that can escape magical detection (having been previously, and presumably permanently enchanted), so Hagrid could have used it to fly them to London without using magic (as he was forbade to do on the return trip). Of course, they would have been visible, and that would been a problem. Anyoo, how did Hagrid fly to meet Harry? Anyone?

Later, in Diagon Alley, a plump shopper laments that dragon liver is going for seventeen Sickles an ounce (pp. 71–2). Since seventeen Sickles equals one Galleon (p. 75), why wouldn’t she say dragon liver is going for a Galleon an ounce? This would be a bit like saying something cost a hundred cents an ounce, instead of a dollar an ounce. It’s a bit odd, isn’t it?

In Madam Malkin’s robe shop, Draco tells Harry his mother is “up the street looking at wands”, but why? The wand chooses the wizard, but Narcissa is shopping for one without Draco? Now, I’m just assuming she’s shopping for Draco’s wand, and not for a new (replacement) one for herself. I think it’s safe to assume she is shopping at Ollivander’s, because Ollivander recognizes Draco’s wand seven years later when Harry shows it to him at Shell Cottage. He remembers every wand he’s ever sold, and so he has no problem identifying Draco’s. Would he sell a wand for Draco without Draco being present to try it out? It seems out of his character. Maybe the Malfoys bullied him into doing it that way, but it seems unlikely. Maybe Narcissa is just looking at wands while she waits for Draco to join her, but then why? What would be the point of that? So what’s going on here? Just a slip on Rowling’s part?

In the Apothecary, “Harry examined silver unicorn horns at twenty-one Galleons each” (p. 81). Are we to assume these unicorns died of natural causes? But in most mythologies, unicorns are meant to be immortal, aren’t they? I can’t remember what (if anything) Rowling ever says about their lifespans in her world. We learn later in The Sorcerer’s Stone that it’s a terrible crime to kill a unicorn, so the horns for sale in Diagon Alley can’t be like rhino horns on the black market today. And surely they aren’t horns taken from still living unicorns! We also know they’re the horns of adult unicorns (the youngsters are gold, not silver). We know that unicorn tail hairs are one of the few powerful magical cores used in wands, but giving a hair is a lot different from giving the horn. This seemed a bit unusual to me too, just a little bit inconsistent, maybe, with the rest of what we know about the place of unicorns in Rowling’s wizarding world. An awfully rare and special thing to find in Diagon Alley! And for only the cost of three wands? Seems like something you might find in Knockturn Alley, rather.

And finally, when Hagrid leaves Harry after their shopping trip, “Harry wanted to watch Hagrid until he was out of sight; he rose in his seat and pressed his nose against the window, but he blinked and Hagrid had gone” (p. 87). That sounds an awful lot like apparition, doesn’t it? Do we think Hagrid can apparate? There’s never been any hint that he could, and there’s a lot of him to make disappear! I guess it’s possible Hagrid simply hustled out of sight very quickly, but that also seems out of his character. If Hagrid could apparate, wouldn’t he have done so to come collect Harry in the first place (solving the flying problem at the same time)? I just thought this was interesting too.

What do you think? Please don’t think I’m not enjoying these books because I’m picking a few nits. My enjoyment of them is as immense as Hagrid himself! Just a few small things I’ve noticed. Any thoughts?


  1. I know that in a later novel, Hagrid tells Harry (or someone) that he collects unicorn hair that he finds in the branches of the Forbidden Forest. While that makes sense for Hagrid, someone with a deep respect and love for animals, we don't exactly know how unicorn hairs or dragon heartstrings or anything else get obtained for the use of wizards and witches. This has been something I've been wanting to explore and write about for a while.
    As for Hagrid's magic--his flying and seeming apparition-- I think that the shards of his wand in his umbrella are strong enough to help him with those things. And I always thought that even though he isn't technically (or legally?) allowed to work magic, Dumbledore not only lets it slide, but helps him in ways. There's no evidence for this, but Dumbledore is the only one that knows that Hagrid is innocent of the crime that got him expelled from Hogwarts to begin with and continually goes out of his way to help him. I don't know about how he "flew" to the Hut on the Rock, but could it be possible that Dumbledore enchanted his umbrella or something else to help him in his journey to deliver Harry's letter? Or if Hagrid did apparate on his own, maybe he told Harry he "flew" for simplicity.
    I got nothin' on Draco's mom looking at wands. Good catch! I guess one could assume that she could have been just giving Olivander a hard time before Draco met her in the shop.

    1. Hi, Kelly. Your point about dragon heartstrings is well taken. One can easily imagine that unicorns, phoenixes, and even veela could all donate hairs and feathers to wand-makers without sacrificing their lives. But dragon heartstrings surely require the death of the donor. We can only hope it's natural causes, right? Otherwise, there's something very sinister in that.

      But maybe that is part of the story. After all, the dragons in Gringotts are certainly mistreated. And many in the wizarding world mistreat or mistrust house elfs, giants, goblins, centaurs, etc. One can imagine Dolores Umbridge having no problem killing a dragon for its heartstrings.

      You might be right that “up the street looking at wands” really just means harassing Ollivander for her own malicious pleasure. That sounds like the Narcissa of the early years. Of course, she would probably have enjoyed harassing Madam Malkin just as much. It’s probably just a slip.

  2. Given that baby unicorns have different color horns than the adults, is it possible that they shed them periodically, like deer do their antlers?

    1. That's a very interesting idea! It certainly seems plausible to me. Thanks for the contribution. :)

  3. Your point about the unicorns is great and there's really no explanation for it.

    As for Narcissa, I don't think there's any reason to think that she couldn't have been looking for a new wand for herself. A Diagon Alley trip for her son would be a good opportunity to replace an old or faulty wand. Alternatively, she may just be asking Olivander questions, window shopping, or checking what sorts of wands she might like Draco to have.

    As for Hagrid: is it possible he arrived on the motorcycle and then sent it back before entering the hut? If the motorcycle is as powerfully enchanted as is suggested, it would perhaps be able to fly on its own.

    And finally, with respect to his apparition: I think that line was inserted by Rowling to blur the line between magic and the muggle-world, an indication to Harry that things won't be the same again. It's entirely possible that Harry is misinterpreting what he saw because of his new discoveries, or simply that Hagrid was all too suddenly obscured by something. The ambiguity of this sentence is the whole point.

    1. Hi, Hayley. As to your last point, yes, I think you're absolutely right. I think that's exactly what Rowling is doing there. I was taking her literally, but we need not. :)