Featured in the August 2020 issue of The Rowling Library Magazine.

Quill to Parchment: The letters that shape Harry Potter

1892 words.
By Demi Schwartz. Illustration by Fausto Giurescu.
Harry Potter Letter - Illustration by Fausto Giurescu
Harry Potter Letter – Illustration by Fausto Giurescu

Harry receives lots of letters throughout the series. From letters from the Ministry for using underage magic outside school to birthday letters and others from Ron and Hermione during summer holidays, Harry is constantly in contact with the Wizarding World through the owl post.

Some letters in the series are more significant than others. Let’s dive into the letters that have the greatest impact on Harry’s life; his Hogwarts Letter, letters from Sirius, and Lily’s letter to Sirius that Harry finds in Grimmauld Place.

Harry’s Hogwarts Letter in Sorcerer’s Stone

Dear Mr. Potter
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later than July 31.
Yours sincerely,
Minerva McGonagall,
Deputy Headmistress

For eleven years, Harry has been stuck with the Dursleys, facing constant mistreatment. Harry, the skinny boy with green eyes, untidy black hair, and a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, has always seemed a bit out of place, especially when odd things happened around him.

During the week leading up to his eleventh birthday, mysterious letters begin to arrive. Unfortunately, Harry’s aunt and uncle keep him from reading any of the letters because, let’s just say, they don’t exactly like magic very much. When Harry and the Dursleys are staying in the shack on the rock and Hagrid breaks down the door when the clock strikes midnight, Harry’s life changes forever.

Hagrid gives Harry his Hogwarts Letter. This very first letter Harry receives fills him with wonder and excitement. Finally, Harry knows the truth about who he is, a wizard. From this point forward, Harry finds his place in the Wizarding World. It’s true, his journey across the series is a roller coaster ride, but along the way, Harry experiences all the moments that shape who he is. From love and friendship to loss and his destiny to defeat Lord Voldemort, Harry embraces what it means to be human and a wizard, and that all starts with his Hogwarts letter.

Sirius’s Letter to Harry in Prisoner of Azkaban

Dear Harry,
I hope this finds you before you reach your aunt and uncle. I don’t know whether they’re used to owl post.
Buckbeak and I are in hiding. I won’t tell you where, in case this falls into the wrong hands. I have some doubt about the owl’s reliability, but he’s the best I could find, and he did seem eager for the job.
I believe the dementors are still searching for me, but they haven’t a hope of finding me here. I am planning to allow some Muggles to glimpse me soon, a long way from Hogwarts, so that the security on the castle will be lifted.
There is something I never got around to telling you during our brief meeting. It was I who sent you the Firebolt. Crookshanks took the order to the Owl Office for me. I used your name but told them to take the gold from Gringotts vault number seven hundred and eleven — my own. Please consider it as thirteen birthdays’ worth of presents from your godfather.
I would also like to apologize for the fright I think I gave you that night last year when you left your uncle’s house. I had only hoped to get a glimpse of you before starting my journey north, but I think the sight of me alarmed you.
I am enclosing something else for you, which I think will make your next year at Hogwarts more enjoyable.
If ever you need me, send word. Your owl will find me.
I’ll write again soon.

The Enclosed Piece of Parchment
I, Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s godfather, hereby give him permission to visit Hogsmeade on weekends.
P.S. I thought your friend Ron might like to keep this owl, as it’s my fault he no longer has a rat.

This is the first letter that Harry receives from Sirius while he’s on the Hogwarts Express at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. In this letter alone, it’s clear how much Sirius cares about Harry. For one thing, he bought Harry his Firebolt, and Sirius ends by giving Harry comfort in knowing that he can write to Sirius if he needs him. To make it even better, on the enclosed piece of parchment, Sirius gives Harry permission to visit Hogsmeade. Sirius also shows his kind heart by basically giving Ron a new pet. Pigwidgeon is way better than Scabbers. Peter Pettigrew had been such a rat, after all.

In Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, Harry writes to Sirius often. He tells Sirius about his scar hurting before he even tells Ron and Hermione. Also, being on the run, Sirius is able to give Harry and his friends information about things going on in the Wizarding World while they’re at school. When Sirius is back at Grimmauld Place, he becomes an even more important correspondent.

Sirius’s letters go much further beyond only providing Harry with information. Sirius gives Harry guidance during the Triwizard Tournament and helps Harry sort through the confusing event of Harry’s name being put in the Goblet of Fire. Also, when Umbridge takes control during Harry’s fifth year, Sirius helps Harry out as well. Some of his letters at this point are simply to set up meetings through the Floo Network, so Harry can speak to him through the fireplace in Gryffindor Tower.

The letters between Harry and Sirius allow the two to become closer. Harry finally has a godfather, someone who is like family, in his life. It’s heartbreaking that Sirius dies in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, but Harry still can look back on the letters they’d sent to one another. Sirius’s love, guidance, and support were crucial during Harry’s fourth and fifth years at Hogwarts, and these letters built up their relationship and gave Harry the comfort of having someone to turn to during all the difficult times he faced.

Lily’s Letter to Sirius in Deathly Hallows

First Page

Dear Padfoot,
Thank you thank you, for Harry’s birthday present! It was his favorite by far. One year old and already zooming along on a toy broomstick, he looked so pleased with himself, I’m enclosing a picture so you can see. You know it only rises about two feet off the ground, but he nearly killed the cat and he smashed a horrible vase Petunia sent me for Christmas (no complaints there). Of course, James thought it was so funny, says he’s going to be a great Quidditch player, but we’ve had to pack away all the ornaments and make sure we don’t take our eyes off him when he gets going.
We had a very quiet birthday tea, just us and old Bathilda, who has always been sweet to us and who dotes on Harry. We were so sorry you couldn’t come, but the Order’s got to come first, and Harry’s not old enough to know it’s his birthday anyway! James is getting a bit frustrated shut up here, he tries not to show it but I can tell — also, Dumbeldore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak, so no chance of little excursions. If you could visit, it would cheer him up so much. Wormy was here last weekend, I thought he seemed down, but that was probably the news about the McKinnons; I cried all evening when I heard.
Bathilda drops in most days, she’s a fascinating old thing with the most amazing stories about Dumbledore, I’m not sure he’d be pleased if he knew! I don’t know how much to believe, actually, because it seems incredible that Dumbledore

It’s clear why this letter means so much to Harry. On first read, Harry notices Lily made her “g”s the same way Harry does. Also, “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.” It’s such a gift for Harry to hold this letter, to have a piece of his mother with him.

As Harry rereads it, he takes in the meaning of Lily’s words and finds out that he and his parents had a cat, Sirius had bought him his first broomstick, and his parents had known Bathilda.
Additionally, parts of the letter fascinate Harry, and the unanswered questions become important later in the book. First, Harry wonders why Dumbledore had James’s Invisibility Cloak because Dumbledore hadn’t needed a cloak to become invisible. Later, Harry pieces this together when the Golden Trio learn about the Deathly Hallows. The Invisibility Cloak is the third Hallow. Also, Harry wonders about the missing second page. Who had taken it and why? Where was it? What did it say? This mystery stays with Harry until he finally reads the second page in the Pensieve. The way the first page ends also makes Harry think about Bathilda and Dumbledore. Later in the book, Dumbledore’s past is revealed when Harry and Hermione get their hands on a copy of The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. It’s so interesting to think about the clues and details intertwined with Lily’s words. The letter is special to Harry for obvious reasons, and he puts it in his mokeskin pouch with the torn photograph of him on the toy broomstick. Still, it goes so much deeper than simply a letter written by his mother, and it’s incredible to see the secrets hidden in the words unfold. When Harry’s questions about the second page of the letter are answered, a whole other door of meaning opens.

Second Page

could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally.
Lots of love,

Before Snape dies, he gives Harry memories to take to the Pensieve. It’s during the Prince’s Tale when Harry learns the truth about Snape and his feelings for Lily. Snape had taken the second page of the letter with Lily’s love, along with the part of the picture that shows Lily laughing. In the Pensieve, Harry not only learns of Snape’s love for Lily but also Snape’s truth, how he’s been on Harry’s side, even if he hadn’t shown it. Lily’s letter ties Harry and Snape together in such a delicate way. In the end, Harry must’ve really seen Snape in a new light because he chooses for his son, Albus, to have “Severus” as his middle name.

It’s fascinating to think that even in the Wizarding World, where magic is at its heart, something as normal as a letter could hold so much significance. Sure, letters are delivered via the owl post, but the letters themselves are such a simple way of communicating. Harry’s Hogwarts Letter, his letters from Sirius, and Lily’s letter play a role in shaping Harry. They allow him to feel like he belongs in the Wizarding World, and they also bring him closer to two of his loved ones, Sirius and Lily. Next time you sit down to write a letter, think back to a wizard Named Harry Potter and remember how much magic a letter can hold.

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