A Peck of Owls
Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: A Peck of Owls
As Harry struggles to comprehend the Dementor attack and Mrs. Figg's enigmatic announcement, Mrs. Figg reveals she is a Squib and has long been in contact with Albus Dumbledore. Harry has been watched ever since he was left at the Dursley household, and especially this summer. Mundungus Fletcher was supposed to be on duty but left early — the cracking noise Harry had heard was him Disapparating. As they struggle to move Dudley to the house, Mundungus reappears. Mrs. Figg chastises him before sending him to update Dumbledore. Mrs. Figg and Harry reach the Dursleys front door. Mrs. Figg now leaves to await Dumbledore's orders, leaving Harry to face the Dursleys alone.
While Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia berate him about Dudley, an owl letter from the Ministry of Magic arrives, expelling Harry from Hogwarts, and demanding that he await the arrival of a Ministry representative who will break his wand. Harry decides his only option is to become a fugitive, but before he can get past Uncle Vernon, another owl letter arrives from Mr. Weasley, telling him to remain in the house while Dumbledore sorts things out. Harry, accepting this instruction, tries to explain what happened to his aunt and uncle, insisting it was Dementors that attacked Dudley. When Uncle Vernon asks what "Dementoids" are, Aunt Petunia responds, "they are the guards of the Wizard prison, Azkaban." Petunia's shocking revelation stuns everyone, including herself.
As Harry answers questions about the Wizarding world, more owls arrive. A Ministry of Magic owl arrives revoking his expulsion. Harry's fate now rests on a hearing scheduled for "9 A.M. on August 12th." Another one is from his godfather, Sirius Black, telling Harry not to leave the house.
After hearing that Lord Voldemort has returned, Uncle Vernon, recognizing the danger of housing Harry, demands he leave. However, a Howler arrives—surprisingly, for Petunia Dursley. A menacing voice reverberates: "Remember my last, Petunia!" Petunia quickly overrides her husband, insisting that Harry remain at their house.
Even the casual reader will be left with questions after this chapter. The largest unanswered ones are: How did Petunia learn about Dementors, and given that she knows that much, what other knowledge does she possess about the Wizarding world she has never shared? And, someone who was reasonably aware of what was happening in the house probably sent the Howler, possibly because they knew Petunia and Vernon's likely reactions. That person must hold some power over Petunia, considering how quickly she reversed her decision after the Howler uttered its four words; who could that person be? While we can speculate, the true answers are withheld until later in the series.
Petunia's explanation about Dementors and Azkaban not only shocks her family, but shows she knows far more about the Wizarding world than she has ever let on. Her own reaction to her utterance seems to indicate that she has hidden this knowledge even from herself. Based largely on this, Harry leaps to the conclusion that Dumbledore sent her the Howler; this is fueled largely by wishful thinking, as Harry has been unsuccessfully hoping for a communication from Dumbledore all summer. However, if the Howler is from Dumbledore, it implies that he and Petunia have had more contact than has been previously revealed: "Remember my last" implies that there has been more than one previous communication, and the letter left with Harry at the very start of the series is the only message we are aware of that Dumbledore had sent to Petunia. (We note that Dumbledore had said, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, that he would be writing to Harry and Ron's families concerning the episode of the flying car. Later evidence suggests that this letter is not the "last" that this Howler refers to. We do not know whether the author didn't count it as being to Petunia as it was to be addressed to Harry's family, or whether the author simply forgot this letter, as it had no effect on Harry's story.) And though Harry may be unaware of such messages, this is hardly surprising as Petunia, having been Harry's guardian, would need to be informed regarding anything affecting her nephew, regardless what her personal feelings are toward him. Though that does beg the question: why Petunia, and not Vernon, who as head of the household would presumably also need that information? The answer to this question is also withheld until much later in the series.
That Harry would be expelled from school and have his wand broken, without an official inquiry and for such a minor offense, indicates the Ministry of Magic must have some ulterior motive in moving so quickly against him. Obviously, others (apparently including Dumbledore) have intervened on his behalf, and a hearing is scheduled so Harry can defend himself. As is so often the case with Harry, his first response to a difficult situation is to run away or isolate himself, rather than attempt to find a solution or seek help from others. Luckily, he is overridden by Arthur Weasley. We are left to wonder whether Arthur's response is simply instinctive, making sure Harry stays where he can be found and reassuring him that things are being done; or whether Arthur has noticed Harry's tendency to flee this sort of problem.
While Harry has been protected from Voldemort with the magic created by his mother's death, Dumbledore has, as we learned earlier, cast additional protective spells over the house as an extra precaution; this is likely part of why Arthur directed him to stay there. Also, Arabella Figg, a Squib, has apparently been watching Harry ever since he was left at the Dursleys. She explains that her rather mean behavior to him was because she knew if his aunt and uncle suspected he had a friend, she never would have been allowed to occasionally watch him. No doubt others also guard Harry whenever he stays with the Dursleys.
Petunia's rationalization of the need to keep Harry at home, to keep up appearances, is in character, of course. The Dursley family's need to keep up appearances is foremost in her mind at that point, and is probably the only thing she could use that would have any chance of reversing Vernon's decision to throw Harry out.
For reasons revealed later, the reader should particularly note Mrs. Figg's first statement in this chapter.
- Who or what are 'Squibs'?
- How does Petunia know about Dementors and Azkaban prison?
- Why does Uncle Vernon order Harry to leave the house? Who overrules him and why?
- Why would the Ministry of Magic want to break Harry's wand and expel him from Hogwarts without an official inquiry?
- Who sent Petunia the Howler? What does its message say and what might it mean?
- Why does Petunia react so strongly to the Howler?
- How does Petunia know so much about the Wizarding World when she has claimed all these years she knows nothing? What more could she know?
Dumbledore mentions later in the book that the Howler was, as Harry surmised, from him. This, in association with comments Dumbledore makes in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, would indicate he has kept a closer eye on the Dursley household than we have, to date, realized. Mrs. Figg's revelation that the house is being watched, at Dumbledore's instructions, would account for some of the knowledge he has of the Dursleys, but the sort of observation that Mrs. Figg would be capable of likely would not include sufficient detail to allow Dumbledore to understand the need for a Howler at that specific time.
It is interesting that Dumbledore's Howler says "Remember my last" instead of "Remember my letter." The implication here is that there have been more letters than the single one which we have seen, left with Harry on the doorstep at the beginning of the series. It is not until the final book of the series that we learn that Dumbledore had written a letter to Petunia earlier, refusing her entry into Hogwarts. We learn at the same time that much of Petunia's understanding of the Wizarding world actually comes, not from Harry's father, as we would expect given her apparent dislike of "that awful boy", but Severus Snape, who at the time was telling Lily Evans, Petunia's sister and later Harry's mother, what to expect in the Wizarding world. In retrospect this makes sense: we will find out later in this book that Lily spurned James Potter late in their fifth year, so cannot have taken up with him until, at the earliest, their sixth year. By that time, Petunia no doubt has done as much as she could to distance herself from Lily and her magical abilities, and would not care to speak with James in any event.
We never do learn if there has been any ongoing communication between Dumbledore and Petunia, but given the surprise she shows when Harry's Hogwarts letter arrives in the first book, we can safely assume that there has been no communication in the intervening years. As mentioned in the Analysis section above, there is apparently a letter that Dumbledore sends to "Harry's family" following the episode of the flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. That letter, concerned as it must be with disciplinary matters, is unlikely to be the one the Howler here refers to: whatever "last" communication the Howler is talking about, reminding Petunia of its contents is enough to make her change her mind about Harry's eviction quite suddenly, and a letter threatening him with expulsion is unlikely to have such an effect. It is possible that this is a "flint", one of the small errors that have crept into the series; it is also possible that the author felt that a letter addressed to the family (and thus Vernon) does not count towards correspondence with Petunia.
- The letters from the Ministry are signed by one Mafalda Hopkirk. Ms. Hopkirk also penned the letter sent to Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets following Dobby's use of the Hover Charm. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ms. Hopkirk will be one of the Ministry workers that the Trio overpower as they prepare to infiltrate the Ministry.
- This is very nearly the last time we hear from Mrs. Figg, who has been a background presence at the Dursleys' through all the preceding books. We will see her once more, when she is summoned to give evidence at Harry's Ministry hearing.