A Butterbeer for Aunt Petunia
By Texas Lupine
Stephen King warned me. Two weeks before Harry
Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the stores, he posted a column advising
fans to stock up on Kleenex. No matter which side triumphed, whether Harry
lived or died, the story was approaching its end. We would all have to say
farewell to characters we've come to know and love, that kids of a certain age
have literally grown up with. And that, King said, was going to hurt.1
How right he was. I miss Potter & Company so much,
I've started thinking kindly of characters I never even liked. Today I'm
thinking of Petunia Dursley, Harry's Muggle aunt.
Like most characters in the Harry Potter saga, Aunt
Petunia is more complicated than she appeared at first. She isn't a person I'd
enjoy spending time with. But compared to Voldemort and his minions, she really
doesn't seem such a bad sort.
Sure, she never went out of her way to provide Harry
with a happy home life ’ but when you stop to think about it, Harry didn't do
much for hers, either. He brought magic into her house when Petunia wanted
nothing to do with magic. He attracted elves, messenger owls, and other odd
creatures to her quiet suburban neighborhood where they didn't belong. None of
this was exactly Harry's fault. He never asked to be orphaned at fifteen months
and farmed out to relatives who didn't want him. He couldn't help who he was.
Still, his presence in the house was a link to the world of witches and
wizards, a world Petunia had tried hard to leave behind.
In Deathly Hallows, readers learned something
of her early encounters with that world. For me, those brief glimpses explain a
lot about Petunia's later attitudes and behavior.
The aunt that Harry knew in childhood craved a neat,
predictable life. She kept an immaculate kitchen.2 She and
Uncle Vernon were proud of their well-groomed lawn.3 Petunia
lacked imagination, but she did have a nosy streak.4 Perhaps
she spied on neighbors out of a need to assure herself that their lives were no
more interesting than hers. I'm tempted to call her stingy and cold-hearted,
but that wouldn't be fair. She was generous to a fault, as protective as a
mother bear, where her dear son Dudley was concerned.
Petunia was the elder sister of Lily, Harry's mom.
Stored memories, brought magically to life in Professor Dumbledore's Pensieve,
suggest the girls were reasonably close as kids. They played together; if they
disagreed on occasion, well, siblings often do. Petunia, as we might expect,
was a stuffy, Goody Two-Shoes type. She tried hard to keep her kid sister out
of trouble, and that wasn't always easy. Lily had an adventurous streak, and
she occasionally did something Petunia couldn't explain, and therefore didn't
approve of ’ something like jumping from a high swing and landing more lightly
than any child had a right to.5
Big sisters typically have a sense of responsibility,
a desire to protect younger members of the pack. As we've already seen, the
protective instinct was quite strong in Petunia. I think her reaction to Lily's
magic was based partly on fear. She feared what she didn't understand, and
perhaps she also worried that her sister's tricks would get her into trouble.
If that's what Petunia thought, her worry wasn't entirely misplaced. The Muggle
world hasn't always been friendly to people caught doing magic.
Big sisters are also prone to jealousy, especially
when a younger sibling is better looking, more popular, or talented in some way
that the elder is not. It galled Petunia that she couldn't do what Lily did.6
When Lily found a friend who had the same peculiar talent, Petunia felt even
more left out.
Severus Snape wasn't the sort of boy Petunia would
invite home for dinner. He lived in a bad neighborhood. He dressed funny. And
Petunia was sure he'd been lurking in the bushes for some time, spying on them,
before he leapt out and gave her a fright.7 In the months
that followed, Petunia and Snape engaged in a kind of tug-of-war for Lily's
affection. Snape made it plain that he didn't think much of "Muggles." He
claimed to be a wizard, and insisted Lily was a witch. Balderdash, of course ¦
but Petunia had seen enough to harbor a nagging fear that it just might be
got her letter of invitation from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,
Petunia felt sure no good would come of it. Their parents took a different
view, and Petunia resented that. "I was the only one who saw her for what she
was ’ a freak!" she would say years later. "But for my mother and father, oh
no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the
family!" 9 And yet, Petunia wrote to the headmaster of
Hogwarts and begged him to accept her, too.10
Her reasons, I suspect, were convoluted. Maybe she
hoped to make her parents as proud of her as they were of Lily. Maybe she
didn't like the idea of putting the kid sister on a train to who-knows-where
with no family to look after her. Maybe she thought if she studied hard, she
could learn a few spells and turn Snape into something even Lily couldn't love.
Perhaps it was all of those things.
Professor Dumbledore answered her letter. I'm sure he
used every bit of his considerable tact, but of course he said no.11
Petunia at Hogwarts would have been like Cinderella's stepsister trying to
wedge her foot into the glass slipper. Stairways that wouldn't stay put! Ghosts
roaming the halls!! Owls swooping over the breakfast table!!! She wouldn't have
lasted a week.
Denied entry to Hogwarts, Petunia cried sour grapes.
If she couldn't have magic, it wasn't worth having. If Hogwarts wouldn't take
her, no decent person would want to go there anyway.
And then, just before Lily boarded the train, Petunia
discovered to her horror and humiliation that the little witch knew about her
correspondence with Dumbledore. She and her greasy-haired friend had found his
letter and read it.12
So the sisters parted on bad terms, and they were
never friends again. Lily grew up and married James Potter, a pureblood wizard
from a well-to-do family. Petunia married Vernon Dursley, a Muggle with even
less imagination than she had, and pursued a militantly normal, drearily
As we all know, she didn't get that, either. Ten years
after rejecting her application to Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore wrote Petunia
a second letter. He left it on her doorstep, in a basket that also contained little
The letter brought bad news. Her sister was dead. Lily
and James had been murdered by a terrible Dark wizard. The wizard had also
tried to kill their son, who now had no mum or dad to take care of him. There
was a lot of mumbo-jumbo about sacrifice, protective magic, and a family
bloodline that would give Harry a chance at growing up safe, if Petunia would
only take him in.14
She didn't want the kid. She had her own son to raise.
But Albus Dumbledore was a hard man to refuse. And when Petunia looked into
Harry's little face, she saw the eyes of the baby sister she had once loved ’ a
sight that, I'm sure, filled her with an uncomfortable blend of resentment and
Readers aren't privy to the conversation that took
place in the Dursley home that day. I'll bet it was a doozy. Petunia and Vernon reached a
decision. The nephew could stay, but they would raise him as a Muggle, telling
him nothing of witches and wizards or how his parents really died. This was
mostly for their own convenience, but in some twisted way, Petunia may also
have thought they were doing what was best for Harry.
The way she saw it, magic had done nothing to improve
her life. It had soured her relationship with her only sister, captured an
unfair share of their parents' attention, and left Petunia to grow up unloved
and unappreciated. In the end, magic hadn't done Lily any good either, had it?
Here she was, dead at twenty-one, leaving this scar-faced toddler for somebody
else to raise. If Petunia was going to get stuck with that job, she'd do Harry
a favor and keep him away from all that.
In the weeks or months that followed, it may have
occurred to Petunia that she now had a family much like the one she grew up in:
a couple with two kids, one normal, one (possibly) some kind of freak. And she
vowed that her true son, her precious Diddykins, would not wind up feeling like
the odd one out. Every slight, every insult, every over-the-top punishment the
Dursleys inflicted on their nephew was an unfortunate by-product of two
priorities: assuring Dudley of his honored
place, and obliterating any spark of magic that appeared in Harry.
Of course they overcompensated by indulging Dudley beyond all reason. It's worth noting that this
lopsided treatment wasn't fair to either boy. Dumbledore (who just wouldn't
stay out of Petunia's life!) said something about that when he stopped in for a
visit the summer Harry turned sixteen. The venerable headmaster, usually so
tolerant of human faults and failings, gave the Dursleys a piece of his mind
about the way they'd treated their foster son. Then he added, "he has at least
escaped the appalling damage you have inflicted upon the unfortunate boy
sitting between you." 15 Uncle Vernon looked furious. Dudley looked confused. Petunia became "oddly flushed'
as if she had some idea what Dumbledore was talking about.16
Lily and Petunia, sisters after all, were both
fiercely protective moms. Lily intercepted a Killing Curse meant for Harry. I
have no doubt Petunia would have done the same for Dudley.
And you know what? If some thug had broken into 4 Privet Drive and pointed a gun ’ or a
wand ’ at her unwanted nephew, I'm not sure she wouldn't have taken a bullet
for Harry. When she found him in that basket on her porch, no one ’ not even
Dumbledore ’ knew for sure that his protective spells would hold. I think
Petunia knew she was putting her whole family's lives on the line when she
chose to bring him in the house.
To be honest, I probably have more in common with Petunia
than with Harry, Hermione and all their friends at Hogwarts. I am, after all, a
Muggle. I'm a Big sister. I have, on occasion, been saddled with tasks that I
didn't want, and have gone about them with something less than wholehearted
enthusiasm. This doesn't make me a hero, but I like to think the world is
better for my having done the work, however imperfectly, than if nobody had
done it at all.
Unpleasant as it was, Harry's life with the Dursleys
gave him a few advantages. As a frequent target of Dudley and his gang, he
acquired survival skills. He developed a keen appreciation for the plight of
the underdog, which would serve him well in dealings with house-elves and
hippogriffs. He found shelter at Petunia's house, and that was no small gift. Thanks
to his mother's magic and his aunt's grudging hospitality, he spent ten years
of childhood and all the summers of his adolescence in the only place on earth
where Voldemort couldn't touch him.
So tonight, I'll drink a butterbeer to Aunt Petunia.
She was drafted to serve in a war she never wanted any part of. She wasn't the
best soldier, but when all is said and done, I have to conclude that she fought
for the right side.
1. King, "Goodbye, Harry."
Rowling, Order of the Phoenix,
37 & 50.
Ibid, Sorcerer's Stone, 1 & 6.
5. Ibid, Deathly Hallows, 663-664.
6. Ibid, 664.
7. Ibid, 664-665.
8. Ibid, 665-668.
9. Ibid, Sorcerer's Stone, 53.
10. Ibid, Deathly Hallows,
13. Ibid, Sorcerer's Stone, 16.
14. Ibid, Order of the Phoenix, 835-836.
15. Ibid, Half-Blood Prince, 55.
16. Ibid, 56.
King, Stephen. "Goodbye, Harry." EW.com
from Entertainment Weekly, July 5, 2007. www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20044682,00.html
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the
Deathly Hallows. New York:
Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
”””. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood
Prince. New York:
Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic,
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
”””. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone. New York:
Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997.