I love reading the first chapter of a Harry Potter book and watching the magical world slowly come into focus. Incidentally, as a kid reading them for the first time, I didn’t feel that way. I was impatient. I wanted to see Harry and his friends again, not an old muggle gardener who might be connected to Voldemort’s parents, or the Prime Minister’s meeting with Cornelius Fudge. But now, in hindsight, the slow descent back into Harry’s world is one of the best parts.
You could read the first page of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and not even be sure you picked up the right book. What does a fictional Prime Minister having a horrible week have to do with anything? But as the details begin to fill in, it becomes obvious that not only is the man’s awful week very relevant, it’s a first look at how the war against Voldemort is starting to affect even the muggle world. And when a portrait in the corner starts to talk, you know you’re back in the wizarding world – or, at least, you’re seeing a glimpse of it through the eyes of a muggle. The details start to creep through into the text. Things that may have meant nothing to the fictional Prime Minister mean everything to a Harry Potter fan. Such a chapter could easily be dry and boring, just something to get through or skip on re-reads, but written in Rowling’s engaging style, it comes to life.
All but one of the Harry Potter books begin in the muggle world. Sorcerer’s Stone introduces the Dursleys first, and slowly reveals the magical world over the course of the first several chapters. The next two books, as well as Order of the Phoenix, introduce Harry at once and tell us early on that he’s a wizard, but bring magic into Privet Drive before following Harry to Hogwarts. Goblet of Fire opens on an old muggle man eavesdropping on Voldemort, while Half-Blood Prince goes from the muggle Prime Minister to a secret meeting at Spinner’s End, before returning to Harry and Privet Drive. It is only Deathly Hallows that plunges the reader headfirst into the magical world.
The first chapter of Deathly Hallows is a jarring reintroduction. We see the magical world in its most sinister form, as Voldemort meets with his followers, plans to take over the Ministry, and murders a teacher from Hogwarts. There isn’t even – unlike in the beginning of Goblet of Fire – an innocent bystander whose point of view it’s shown through. We are alone with the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. The second and third chapters are more like the beginnings of the other Harry Potter books, but I think the dark, abrupt nature of the first chapter must be intentional. It certainly fits with the tone of Deathly Hallows, which – for the first time – ceases to revolve around school and growing up, and throws its main characters straight into a war. Not only do Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to be adults at only seventeen, they have to persevere through difficulties and dangers that most adults would not be able to face.
Sorcerer’s Stone gives its readers just a glimpse of magic before letting them discover it as Harry does. The next five books each, in their own way, ease the reader back into the wizarding world. But Deathly Hallows begins with Voldemort, and that sends a very clear message: no one is safe this year. The places that were once safe – the mundane Privet Drive, warm and welcoming Burrow, creepy but well-hidden Grimmauld Place, and especially Hogwarts, the magical school which was the primary setting of all six previous books – all later appear, they are not the sanctuaries they once were. This is war.