• Gregory Loselle

On Sirius' cycle

I'd been prepared, when I first started listening to the Potter books, to acknowledge that they were of differing quality and depth, and that they changed, one from another, over the span of their composition; I'd read reviews of the third and fourth books in the series, when they were published, that pointed out their increasing length and growing complexities in plot and moral depth. I'd also been interested to note that Harry Potter is a topic for avid conversation for those encountering a first-time reader, and that I'd been repeatedly assured that the books 'got better'--as if I were in need of reassurance, as if the first books were, somehow, slightly embarrassing, even--as they went along. One of the emergent themes of this blog has been the joys and sorrows of the reading experience as the author, starting with the third book, takes on greater fictional authority (not always with greater grace), and produces the more weighty installments in the series. There is much to enjoy--and much to quibble about--in that.

In fact, the increasing complexities of the Potter books can be seen, without even reading, in their length, so that a photograph meant to sell an edition of the series makes obvious the observation that they must, one by one, cover more material (or at least dilate at greater length), as each accomplishes its narrative task: each is, simply put, bigger than the previous volume, and the number of chapters (eighteen in the first book, thirty-seven in the fourth, with individual chapters growing in length from the simple episodes of the first books) mirror the growing complexities of each installment. Voila:

(My nephew recently told me that his son, now six and perhaps a little young for the series) lost interest during the third volume; that seems about right: the first two books form a sort of matched pair, then the materials seems to expand rapidly in the telling.)

At first, it seems reasonable that Rowling was writing on the model of genre fiction: the first books contain discrete plot-arcs which are resolved without much reference to future events; they are contained segments, and function episodically, like other series books meant for children. In structure and theme, they mirror the Hardy Boys books of my youth, or the Nancy Drew mysteries--both of which, I was once disillusioned to learn, were written by the same female author. (Somehow, to my pre-adolescent self, schooled in the gender disparities inherent in both of the series, that just wasn't right.) The characters of Rowling's first two books lack development, emotional depth is not a feature in the plot, and the plots are all, in general outline, similar. More on this later.

But one detail emerges, for a reader like myself, who has already seen the movies--a detail that would have passed by with only minor puzzlement, at most, in the experience the books' initial readers. This single detail offers a delightful revelation and speaks volumes (pardon the pun) about Rowling's conception of the series as a whole, and allows us a glimpse into her creation of the Potter saga.

When Harry arrives at the start of his heroic quest, it's in the arms of the half-giant Hagrid, who drops out of the sky on an enormous motorcycle, looking something like the stork's idea of a Hell's Angel. As Dumbledore and MacGonnegal observe,

A low rumbling sound had broken the silence around them. It grew steadily louder as they looked up and down the street for some sign of a headlight; it swelled to a roar as they both looked up at the sky — and a huge motorcycle fell out of the air and landed on the road in front of them.

If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins. In his vast, muscular arms he was holding a bundle of blankets.

So much for making an entrance. Another detail, however, is more to the purpose at the moment: note the source of Hagrid's vehicle:

“Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, sounding relieved. “At last. And where did you get that motorcycle?”

“Borrowed it, Professor Dumbledore, sir,” said the giant, climbing carefully off the motorcycle as he spoke. “Young Sirius Black lent it to me. I’ve got him, sir.” “No problems, were there?”

“No, sir — house was almost destroyed, but I got him out all right before the Muggles started swarmin’ around. He fell asleep as we was flyin’ over Bristol.”

Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall bent forward over the bundle of blankets. Inside, just visible, was a baby boy, fast asleep. Under a tuft of jet-black hair over his forehead they could see a cu- riously shaped cut, like a bolt of lightning.

“Is that where — ?” whispered Professor McGonagall.

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “He’ll have that scar forever.”

Ignore for a moment the od infelicity of the description of Hagrid's feet--like baby dolphins?--to consider his first words. If I've belabored the increasing complexity of the Harry Potter books, then this one fact--that Hagrid has borrowed Sirius Black's motorcycle--ought to give us pause. Sirius Black will not appear, in person or by name, until the third book. In fact, a few hundred pages will elapse before we hear of him again, and even more before we meet him and, eventually, understand him as a character in Harry's story. Yet here he is, in reference, in a way that shows us that Rowling had already fleshed out his character (he could certainly own a motorcycle, we realize in retrospect). I find this fascinating.

For all I've carped about the overall story of the books growing beyond Rowling's ability to tell it gracefully (and I do maintain, firmly, that the third book is an overstuffed armchair of a narrative, creaking audibly and about to burst even as we sit on it); for all I've complained about the awkward denouements of the Potter books--particularly Dumbledore's long, plot-altering monologues at the conclusion of several of the books--and as much as I've lost sleep over the editorial infelicities of what began, at least, as children's stories, this one bit of information points to something wonderful: Rowling must have conceived the story as a whole, proportioned it out over several books (was the magic number seven significant?), then sat down to write a tale she had already envisioned, perhaps start-to-finish, in advance.

(I offer no apologies for that sentence.)

One alternative--that the author had finished the third book by the time (at least, and at the latest) that the first was in galley-proofs, and that she had then gone back and, using a trick as old as revision, seeded a future detail into a preliminary volume--is also possible. However, I doubt that: the expanding universe in which the stories take place, complete with growing authorial aptitude and maturing characters, may have been less-fully anticipated at the start of the series than we might want (otherwise, the plots in the middle books would have worked themselves out more ably), but I have absolutely no doubt that the pre-writing of the Harry Potter series was an accomplished fact as the text of the first book took shape. Additional research will be needed--and no doubt the material is out there--but I will, for the moment, die on this hill.

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©2019 by Gregory Loselle

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