You’ve just watched Eddie Redmayne reading Chapter Three of the first Harry Potter book, which is named ‘The Letters from No One’. You will have noticed Harry’s desperation, quite understandably, to get his hands on one of the letters addressed to Mr H. Potter. These unopened, mysterious letters hold enormous power, not just over Harry but over the entire Dursley family. They send Uncle Vernon into a frenzy. Not only does he sleep under the letterbox, but he also boards up all possible gaps for the letters to slip through and takes time off work to ensure nothing gets past him.
For Harry, the letters become so important that he doesn’t even care that he is now allowed to move out of the cupboard under the stairs and into a real bedroom. It comes, perhaps, partly from the fact that Harry feels ‘seen’ for the first time in his life. Somebody knows where he sleeps, and somebody has sent him – the boy who wears Dudley’s old clothes ¬– a letter that is entirely his. ‘I want to read it,’ said Harry furiously, ‘as it’s mine.’ And let’s not forget that by the end of Chapter Three, the Dursleys have actually left their home to flee the letters addressed to their nephew ¬– it is the only real power Harry has ever had over them.
How many of us have dreamed about receiving our letter from Hogwarts? Part of its power, for Muggle-borns, is that it arrives without warning – a life-changing surprise right through their letterboxes. And even without knowing its whole significance, there is an undeniable magic in that very first line:
‘Dear Mr Potter, We are pleased to inform you that you have a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.’
And for Harry, whose life with the Dursleys is nothing short of miserable, the power of the Hogwarts letter, first and foremost, is that glimpse of his new life. A life – just like the forbidden letters – that is entirely his. For Harry, the letter is also the first link between him and his parents. They too attended this school, and the Hogwarts letter sheds a light both backwards and forwards for him – on his wizarding past and on his wizarding future.
A Howler first makes an appearance in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and its power lies, not necessarily in its message, but in the way that message is communicated. Arriving in an angry scarlet envelope, once opened the letter booms with the voice of the writer which is magnified beyond all belief. Usually, letters are private, read by the person named on the outside of the envelope, but the power of the Howler is that it takes that private experience and makes it public. The Howler shares written secrets, and often causes intense embarrassment in the process. Oh, and if you don’t open it? It explodes. Imagine sitting in school assembly and receiving a Howler like the one Ron did in the Great Hall, Mrs Weasley’s voice ringing out:
‘… LETTER FROM DUMBLEDORE LAST NIGHT, I THOUGHT YOUR FATHER WOULD DIE OF SHAME, WE DIDN’T BRING YOU UP TO BEHAVE LIKE THIS’
On one memorable occasion, Petunia Dursley receives a Howler. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Dursleys are terrified by the smoking red envelope. ‘You can open it if you like,’ said Harry, ‘but I’ll hear what it says anyway. That’s a Howler.’ Again, what would have been private echoes around the room intended for everyone to hear: ‘Remember my last, Petunia.’ She is then questioned by both Harry and Uncle Vernon about the meaning of the message but refuses to answer. Although as a result of the power of the Howler, Vernon and Harry both realise that Petunia is more involved with the wizarding world than they knew.
Speaking of Howlers, would you like to learn how to make one? You can watch our video tutorial here.
The power of Sirius’ letters to Harry is multi-faceted. First, it gives Harry an adult guardian other than the Dursleys, and within the wizarding world itself. In his first ever letter to Harry, Sirius encloses a piece of parchment saying:
‘I, Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s godfather, hereby give himpermisison to visit Hogsmeade at weekends.’
Inability to get the Dursleys to sign his Hogsmeade form caused Harry all kinds of anger and irritation, and in a simple line, Sirius shows the power he can wield as Harry’s godfather, the doors he can open for him.
But the power of the letters from Sirius were also that they allowed the godfather and godson to get to know each other, whilst Sirius was still on the run. It allowed Sirius to advise Harry during the Triwizard Tournament and Umbridge’s reign and allowed Harry to communicate with someone outside of Hogwarts, outside of Ron and Hermione, about his problems. After all, it was Sirius who Harry wrote to first about his scar hurting ¬– not Hermione, not Ron. But most of all it allowed Harry to feel the kind of love he might have felt from James and Lily. That fierce, unrequited love that Sirius had for him was something Harry had always been missing – and it was something that was able to shine through in their letters to each other.
The power of this letter – and all letters from those we have loved and lost – is the ability to hear their voice again through the words on the page. And for Harry, who was only a baby when his mother was killed, this letter was a way to hear her talking about him in a past he couldn’t remember:
‘The letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son’.
Harry doesn’t find the missing second page in Grimmauld Place – it is with someone else, and for him it holds as much power as it does for Harry. That second part of the letter which contains, ‘Lots of love, Lily’ enabled him to take ‘Lily’s signature, and her love’, and tuck it inside his robes for safe keeping...
If you’d like to watch Eddie Redmayne read Chapter Three of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone you can find ‘The Letters from No One’ here.
Visit the Harry Potter At Home hub for more chapter readings!