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''Harry Potter'': A Muggle's guide to the books

”Harry Potter”: Get lost in our intense Muggle’s guide to J.K. Rowling’s beloved books

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1. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE

It begins with a wild, bearded giant descending from the sky above Privet Drive in Surrey bearing a baby named Harry Potter. The meaty first chapter — a dense collection of whimsy — casts a long (fore)shadow on the series. We meet Albus Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid, who enters on a roaring motorcycle borrowed from ”young Sirius Black” — a character still two books away from formal introduction. We learn Harry’s origin story, Dickens by way of the Dark Knight: One night, Lord Voldemort, a mage so evil that no one but Dumbledore dares say his name, killed James and Lily Potter, but when the villain moved to slay their son, Harry — poof! — Voldemort vanished amid a discharge of strange energy that branded the babe’s forehead with a lightning-bolt scar. At Dumbledore’s (surprising) direction, Harry was sent to live with his magic-loathing aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, and their spoiled-wretched son, Dudley. They make him sleep in a dank cupboard under the stairs and keep him in the dark about his true heritage. But on his 11th birthday, Hagrid liberates Harry and informs him that he’s due to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Not long after Hagrid takes him back-to-school shopping (wands, robes, and Hedwig, Harry’s trusty message-carrying owl) in the quaint Diagon Alley, Harry boards the Hogwarts Express, a scarlet steam engine berthed at King’s Cross station at platform 9 3/4. (To find it, you have to run headlong into a barrier between platforms 9 and 10 without any doubt of passing through.) Harry meets his soon-to-be best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. He also has an encounter with soon-to-be archenemy Draco Malfoy and flunkies Crabbe and Goyle, and savors for the first time the tricky treat known as Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans.

Coolest Magical Objects The invisibility cloak; the Sorting Hat, which assigns first-year students to one of Hogwarts’ four houses; and the Mirror of Erised, which reflects the deepest desire of the person who gazes upon it. In one poignant moment, Harry uses it to commune with his dead parents.

Big Mystery Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and the sometime fourth Beatle, nervous Neville Longbottom) find a trapdoor at Hogwarts guarded by a monstrous three-headed dog called…Fluffy. Yes, Fluffy. (Hagrid named him, the big softy.) Dangerous intrigue accumulates: A slain unicorn. An attack on Harry during his first Quidditch match. A killer troll loose in the halls. What lies beneath the door? A series of deadly puzzle chambers that lead to the hidden Mirror of Erised, within which Dumbledore has hidden the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Return of Voldemort The book’s true villain isn’t Professor Severus Snape, Harry’s sneering Potions instructor and a former Voldemort follower, but Quirrell, the stuttering, turban-wearing Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Quirrell has been housing Voldemort’s soul inside his addled mind; in fact, the Dark Lord’s pale face has started popping out the back of Quirrell’s head. (Thus, the turban.) Now Voldemort wants to use the Sorcerer’s Stone to grow some new flesh for himself. Harry stops him, Quirrell dies, and Voldemort’s soul slips away to plot a new plan for reincarnation. And the saga begins. — Jeff Jensen