Like most of the greatest heroes in the world, Harry is both ordinary and extraordinary. He’s an eleven-year-old skinny kid, with unruly black hair and a weird scar on his forehead. He’s also an orphan who doesn’t remember his parents and is stuck living with the obnoxious Dursleys – his Muggle aunt, uncle, and cousin. Though the Dursleys spoil their son Dudley, Harry is stuck living in the spider-infested closet under the stairs. Because of the Dursleys, he’s had to grow up fast and learn to look after himself.
But Harry’s not your everyday kid, and he’s not even your everyday wizard. Harry’s surrounded by mystery. He’s the one person Voldemort (one of the evilest and most powerful wizards) could not kill, and he’s the only known survivor of a “powerful, evil curse” (4.107). Nobody knows why Voldemort’s magic didn’t work on Harry, or how he survived a curse that killed both his parents and destroyed his house. For that matter, no one seems to know why Voldemort was after Harry in the first place. Even though he was just a baby when Voldemort attack him, his survival makes him an instant celebrity in the wizarding world. Though he grows up ignored and mistreated by the Dursleys, he’s famous in the wizarding world as The Boy Who Lived.
Harry, the Superstar
Here are some of the things we know about Harry. First off, Harry is a celebrity. In the first year of his life alone, he’s becomes a celebrated hero amongst wizards and witches. As McGonagall tells Dumbledore,
“He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter day in the future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!” (1.82)
McGonagall’s right, too – as soon as eleven-year-old Harry walks into the Leaky Cauldron, or gets on the Hogwarts Express, people recognize him instantly. When Malfoy doesn’t recognize him in Madame Malkin’s robe shop, it’s a rare exception to this rule. With the famous lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, Harry is immediately recognizable to those in the know, which, in the wizard world, is practically everybody.
Yet, Harry is modest. For the first ten years of his life, he didn’t realize he had anything special to brag about. Dumbledore is responsible for this fact – it was his decision to place Harry in the hands of the wizard-hating Dursleys. Dumbledore thought this would keep Harry from getting a big head: as he informs McGonagall,
“It would be enough to turn any boy’s head. … Famous for something he won’t even remember! Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that until he’s ready to take it?” (1.83)
It’s true, growing up with the Dursleys has definitely kept Harry modest – if anything, he has to work to gain his confidence. Although Hagrid tells Harry that he’s been signed up for Hogwarts ever since he was born, Harry’s still worried about whether he’ll do well at school or whether he’ll even fit in. On the ride in to Hogwarts, he tells his new friend Ron about his fears: “I’ve got loads to learn…. I bet […] I bet I’m the worst in the class” (6.159). Harry’s worried because he hasn’t known about his magical powers until now, but as Ron reassures him, that’s the kind of thing that can be taught.
Harry, the Jock
While flying is something that’s taught at Hogwarts, too, not everybody is equally skilled at it. But Harry’s a natural. He’s worried about using a broomstick just like he is about any other magical thing. As soon as he takes off, though, he realizes he has a knack for it:
[I]n a rush of fierce joy he realized he’d found something he could do without being taught – this was easy, this was wonderful. (9.48)
He’s also got an natural talent for the game of Quidditch, even though he’s never even watched the wizard sport before, let alone played it. Turns out this athletic ability is a trait he inherits from his dad. Since he knows so little about his parents, Harry treasures small nuggets of information about them, such as McGonagall’s remark that his “father would have been proud” of Harry because “[h]e was an excellent Quidditch player himself” (9.88-90).
Harry, the Brave and True
Harry is also a brave and loyal friend. He stands up for those who’ve been kind to him, like Hagrid and Ron, and those who he thinks are getting a bad rap, like Neville and Hermione. Having been an underdog and having dealt with a bully like Dudley Dursley all by himself, Harry’s ready to keep up that same kind of defense at Hogwarts; only now, he’s extending that defense to his friends. (While tagging along with Harry can sometimes get them in trouble, his friends stick by Harry too.) Harry’s modesty doesn’t prevent him from being courageous, or believing that he can do his part to help Dumbledore protect the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even though in many ways he’s still just a young boy, by going up against an enemy like Quirrell, Harry shows bravery that few people can match.
Harry, the Orphan
Finally, Harry misses his family. When he looks into the Mirror of Erised, which shows you your heart’s desire, he sees the parents he never knew and the family he never had. This look into the mirror is super powerful when we realize that it’s Harry’s first glimpse of his parents. We don’t think Dumbledore intended the Dursleys to keep all knowledge of Harry’s parents a secret – that’s a much worse kind of ignorance than not knowing about one’s fame. Faced with the Mirror of Erised, it’s as though Harry never wants to stop looking: he “stare[s] hungrily back at” his family and feels “half joy, half terrible sadness” (12.127-128).
In some ways, this hunger for family makes the mirror even more dangerous for Harry than for other people, as it shows him the heart’s desire that is also something he can never have. That’s why the album of wizard photographs, Hagrid’s present to him at the end of the book, is so meaningful: “Smiling and waving at [Harry] from every page were his mother and father” (17.175). The album is less dangerous than the Mirror, but it provides some of the same sort of comfort – and may just give him that same combination of “joy” and “terrible sadness.” Until Harry makes a new family of his own, he has these pictures to help him remember the family that he lost.