This is the longest chapter so far, and it’s so. Good. It perfectly encapsulates all the overwhelming joy and wonder of the wizarding world, both for Harry and for us as readers. Here’s how Diagon Alley is introduced:
“Welcome,” said Hagrid, “to Diagon Alley.”
He grinned at Harry’s amazement. They stepped through the archway. Harry looked quickly over his shoulder and saw the archway shrink instantly back into solid wall.
The sun shone brightly on a stack of cauldrons outside the nearest shop. Cauldrons – All Sizes – Copper, Brass, Pewter, Silver Self-Stirring – Collapsible said a sign hanging over them.
“Yeah, you’ll be needin’ one,” said Hagrid, “but we gotta get yer money first.”
Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping. A plump woman outside an apothecary’s was shaking her head as they passed, saying, “Dragon liver, seventeen Sickles an ounce, they’re mad …”
A low, soft hooting came from a dark shop with a sign saying Eeylops Owl Emporium – Tawny, Screech, Barn, Brown and Snowy. Several boys of about Harry’s age had their noses pressed against a window with broomsticks in it. “Look,” Harry heard one of them say, “the new Nimbus Two Thousand – fastest ever -” There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon …
How much would you give to be able to spend time there? Even just a day? Even just an hour? I would give a lot. And can you imagine what it was like for Harry to suddenly be bombarded with all this, only a handful of hours after learning that magic was a real thing? The mental whiplash he must have experienced. I love everything about Diagon Alley so much that I have to make myself not think about it, or I’ll break down in actual tears over not being able to go there and be a part of this world. This is the thing I’ve always praised JKR for–even if I don’t love her writing, her worldbuilding is spectacular from book one.
And can we also talk about Flourish and Blotts, which is described like this:
They bought Harry’s school books in a shop called Flourish and Blotts where the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all. Even Dudley, who never read anything, would have been wild to get his hands on some of these.
Take me there, I wanna go there. This is where my Ravenclaw comes out most strongly, because I am more excited about this one bookshop than anything else in the entire shopping district. But really, all the wizarding world’s knowledge is contained in there, all the spells and potions and plant lore and dark arts and histories. Plus, I could finally find out the answer to the question that has plagued me for years, which is whether or not the wizarding world has poets and novelists and, if it does, why we never hear about them. So anyway, bookshops. They’re great, right?
What is not great is Malfoy. In just the one scene with him at Madam Malkins, he manages to insult Hagrid, display his anti-Muggle bias, brag about his mad Quidditch skills, and give the first (but far from last) evidence of what a spoiled brat he is. He’s the very definition of a privileged white (or, more importantly in this world, wizarding) boy who has never had to question his views because he’s never been exposed to anyone or anything outside of them. All he knows of Muggles comes from his parents, and especially his father, and even after he goes to Hogwarts and is around Muggle-borns, he still never has to really confront the reality of their humanity and their lives. That would be an interesting fanfic, Malfoy has to live in the Muggle world without magic for a period of time and finally gets some perspective. I’m sure it’s been written.
Aside from all the Diagon Alley specific stuff, there are a couple of interesting but troubling things Hagrid says that I wanted to mention. The first is when they’re in the boat on the way to land (which brings up the question of how the Dursleys got off the rock the hut was on), about separating wizarding people from Muggles.
“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”
“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”
“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”
I mean. That’s not true though, is it? Muggle-borns’ families find out about witches and wizards, and as far as we know from the books, there’s not an influx of Muggle parents and siblings demanding magical solutions to their problems. I get that it’s not on the same scale as if the entire Muggle population knew, but still, I feel like this is a pretty flimsy justification for segregation and it lends a lot of weight to the “the treatment of Muggles = racism” interpretation. It also doesn’t give Muggles much credit and furthers the othering of them done by wizarding people and, yeah, it’s pretty all-around bad. Really, all wizards would need to do is show Muggles the way their society is run and Muggles would realize they’re better off trying to solve their own problems.
The other troubling thing is this, after Harry talks to Malfoy:
“And what are Slytherin and Hufflepuff?”
“School houses. There’s four. Everyone says Hufflepuff are a lot o’ duffers, but -”
“I bet I’m in Hufflepuff,” said Harry gloomily.
“Better Hufflepuff than Slytherin,” said Hagrid darkly. “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. You-Know-Who was one.”
First of all, the fact that Voldemort was in Slytherin doesn’t mean that every Slytherin is Voldemort-level evil. Second, I find it unlikely that every single dark witch or wizard was a Slytherin. Just, statistically, that seems improbable. And third, even if it were true, it doesn’t follow that every single Slytherin is bad. If JKR really does want me to buy this, then I also have to point out that maybe the reason all Slytherins go bad is because they’re all painted with the same brush from moment one of becoming a Slytherin, always automatically assumed to be Voldemort sympathizers or even possible Voldemort successors, always treated unfairly and more harshly than any of the other houses just because of the possibility that they’ll end up turning to the dark arts later in life. This is so irritating, and remains so throughout the series. Give me nuance or give me death.
Next up, we’re on our way to Hogwarts. Finally!