Are There Monsters in Harry Potter?
In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we are introduced to a well developed and rich world in which humans, monsters, and marvels of all varieties live together, in a place tied together with magic. There are seemingly regular people, wizards, witches, ghosts, goblins, serpents, dark lords, and more. Harry is brought into this world as an eleven year old boy with no background in this world, which gives the reader someone to relate to—which is a nice way of saying that he’s the one we receive all our obvious exposition through. Monsters in the text are portrayed in a very roundabout and creative way in this work, in that everybody has a different reaction to them—rather than monsters being universally feared, such as in Beowulf or Bisclavret, certain characters that are monstrous to Harry, or his friends, or his family, or even to us, aren’t considered monstrous to others. This ties into Jeffrey Cohen’s fourth thesis in his essay Monster Culture: (Seven Theses), an excerpt from Monster Theory: Reading Culture, wherein he theorizes that monsters thrive at the edge of difference; that monsters are created in the grey area between the familiar and the foreign. In Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, the monstrosity of certain characters is defined by their familiarity with the characters they interact with: this is seen in the characters of Hagrid, Fluffy, and the Dursleys.
The first example of this can be shown in one of the first monsters Harry interacts with: Hagrid. Most readers of the book wouldn’t think of Hagrid as being very monstrous. After all, Harry thinks he’s all right, and so would most people in Hogwarts, but the Dursleys would beg to differ. When they first meet, Harry’s uncle, Vernon Dursley, responds by grabbing a rifle and demanding he leave: “‘I demand that you leave at once, sir!’ he said. ‘You are breaking and entering!’”. Hagrid easily overpowers him, removing the gun from his hands, and “[bending] it into a knot as easily as if it had been made of rubber,” (Rowling 30). Vernon Dursley’s reaction is in contrast to Harry’s. While Harry’s immediate reaction isn’t written, he patiently listens to what he has to say, and very gratefully accepts the gifts he brings. Vernon doesn’t ease up; he continues to berate Hagrid throughout the chapter, however briefly: “Uncle Vernon seemed to have got back his courage. He was glaring at Hagrid and his fists were clenched,” (Rowling 35). Here, he confronts Hagrid directly, threatening him with physical violence. Hagrid calls his bluff, threatening him with the sharp end of a large umbrella, and Vernon stands down once again. While Vernon’s attempts at threatening Hagrid are unsuccessful, it’s obvious he sees Hagrid as a threat. Hagrid is trying to bring magic into Harry’s life, and Vernon sees magic as threatening—it’s what killed Harry’s parents, and forced Harry into his regular, boring life. Vernon is scared of magic, because it’s out of the ordinary, and he hates things that are unfamiliar to him. This ties in very directly with Cohen’s fourth monster theory, where he writes: “The monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us. […] the monster is an incorporation of the Outside, the Beyond,” (7). This line from Cohen’s essay encapsulates Vernon Dursley’s situation rather literally—Harry is a physical and real manifestation of the magical world that has actually come to live and dwell among them, which scares him. So while Hagrid is viewed favorably by Harry, who he becomes good friends with throughout the novel, Hagrid is seen as monstrous to Vernon Dursley, who views all magic as threatening to his way of life.
Another monster we see in the text we are introduced to much later, and that is Fluffy, the three-headed dog. Fluffy is the first of many monsters and precautionary measures within a secret chamber which contains the Sorcerer’s Stone. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione first stumble across Fluffy, they are obviously frightened to death:
They weren’t in a room, as he had supposed. They were in a corridor. The forbidden corridor on the third floor. And now they knew why it was forbidden.
They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. [ … ] It was standing quite still, all six eyes staring at them, and Harry knew that the only reason they weren’t already dead was that their sudden appearance had taken it by surprise. (Rowling 96)
They are terrified of the monster for obvious reasons—dogs typically aren’t large enough to fill an entire corridor space, and are typically only one headed. And this comes after they have been told repeatedly by many of the Hogwarts staff that if they enter the forbidden corridor, they will “die a very painful death,” (Rowling 76). So not only are they terrified of the monstrous sight before them, they are also terrified of the fact that they know Fluffy is every bit as deadly as he looks—which is confirmed to them later personally. Harry is looking for Professor Snape, and he finds him in the staffroom, tending to a wound on his leg—this comes shortly after they see Snape walking towards the forbidden chamber during a lockdown—and Snape complains, “Blasted thing, how are you supposed to keep your eyes on all three heads at once?” (Rowling 108). This shows Harry and his friends directly how real of a threat the three-headed dog creates. However, Fluffy isn’t monstrous to Hagrid. Fluffy is among one of the pets Hagrid keeps during the novel. When Harry mentions him to Hagrid, not knowing this, Hagrid replies, “Yeah—he’s mine—bought him off a Greek chappie I met in the pub las’ year,” (Rowling 113). He describes Fluffy as if he’s just a regular guard dog, like a pit bull. He knows Fluffy’s Achilles Heel, so he isn’t frightening to him. To Hagrid, Fluffy isn’t a monster at all. So while the three headed dog is monstrous to Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Professor Snape, Fluffy is just a big dog to Hagrid.
A third example of a monster in the text is Harry’s foster family, the Dursleys. They don’t treat Harry like a member of the family, or even like a human in many cases, blaming him for events he has no control over. During their visit to the zoo for Dudley’s birthday, a boa constrictor mysteriously gets out of its cage when the protective glass disappears, which Vernon blames Harry for: “Uncle Vernon waited until Piers was safely out of the house before starting on Harry. He was so angry he could hardly speak. He managed to say, ‘Go—cupboard—stay—no meals,’ before he collapsed into a chair,” (Rowling 20). With little context or explanation, Vernon assumes that Harry intentionally let the boa constrictor loose, and indefinitely revokes his dinner. Other characters have a strong negative reaction to the Dursleys as well. Towards the end of the text, when everyone is leaving the train station after the school year, Hermione Granger notices the Dursleys. Hermione, who Harry befriends throughout the school year, who presumably hears all about the Dursleys from Harry, is even caught off guard with how generally awful they are:
It was Uncle Vernon, still purple-faced, still mustached, still looking furious at the nerve of Harry, carrying an owl in a cage in a station full of people. […] “Hope you have—er—a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly at Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant. (Rowling 181)
Even after seeing them for what can’t be more than thirty seconds, Hermione finds them revolting. But not everyone sees them that way; Dudley has a small group of friends. Make no mistake, his friends are very rude and awful people to Harry too—frequently punching him for no reason—but in a way that brings them together. While they act monstrously to Harry, they are reasonably friendly to each other. We don’t see much of their friendship in the novel, as Harry is the main character, but we are told that “Everybody knew that Dudley’s gang hated that odd Harry Potter in his baggy old clothes and broken glasses, and nobody liked to disagree with Dudley’s gang,” (Rowling 20). This implies that Dudley’s gang of friends use Harry as a way of banding together, how they find common ground. They act monstrous to Harry, but to Dudley’s best friend Piers, the Dursleys treat them very nice. They took him to the zoo, bought him ice cream, and spent the day together. So even the Dursleys, who are repulsive, horrible people to Harry and to all of his friends, can be nice and friendly to others. This is especially notable because the Dursleys are all human characters. Because in a world where what we would call monsters work together with humans at a bank, or at a school, or in a shop, our human definition of monster no longer holds true. In a world of magical and mystical creatures, the biggest monsters Harry overcomes in the text are the ones he lived with for ten years, before he was a wizard at all.
All in all, the numerous characters in the Harry Potter universe are all well developed and well rounded, their diverse relationships shifting and redefining themselves throughout the text, for better and for worse. Hagrid appears as monstrous to the Dursleys for bringing magic back into their lives after trying to separate themselves from it for ten years, but is seen as a great friend of Harry. Fluffy, the three-headed dog, is seen as monstrous to Harry, his friends, and Professor Snape, but a pet to Hagrid. And the Dursleys themselves are seen as monstrous, awful people to Harry and his friends, but normal and even friendly people to Dudley’s group of friends. There aren’t very many monsters in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—the monsters are all within the eye of the beholder. After all, no one believes they’re the monster, or strives to be a monster. Some people are just trying to fit in, and some people are giant three-headed dogs.