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A Peck of Owls

- Chapter 2

"You can't give a Dementor the old one-two."
-- Harry Potter (OP2)

OP2: A Peck of Owls

Harry is expelled from Hogwarts, Uncle Vernon swears, Aunt Petunia reveals knowledge of the wizarding world, Dumbledore intercedes and Harry is no longer expelled but is suspended pending a Ministry of Magic disciplinary hearing.

Calendar and Dates

The action of this chapter takes place later during the same night as that of the previous chapter.

Interesting facts and notes

The chapter title comes from a mispronunciation by Vernon, who was trying to say "a pack of owls" (see remarks below).

This chapter serves partly to recap the main points of the previous books, but the exposition is handled in a way that dovetails with one of the overall threads of the book: that of Harry's world being turned upside down, that few things are quite what they appeared to be, and people behaving in unexpected ways because they were more complicated than they previously seemed. In short, Harry recaps the story so far because the Dursleys - despite their dislike of anything to do with magic - demand an explanation for the state Dudley has gotten into after the Dementor attack.

"Left to see someone about a batch of cauldrons that fell off the back of a broom!"

Thanks to Mrs. Figg, we learn quite a few wizarding slang expresssions in this chapter.

The expression "fell off the back of a broom" is analogous to the Muggle expression "fell off the back of a truck," and is used to refer to something that is being sold suspiciously cheaply, indicating that it has been stolen from a store's inventory (hence the reference to a truck in the Muggle expression).

We'll see a little more of the results of Mundungus's cauldron transaction when he tries to store them at number 12, Grimmauld Place later on (OP6).

"...but luckily I'd stationed Mr. Tibbles under a car just in case..."

Mr. Tibbles is, of course, the "cat" who shot out from under the parked car in the previous chapter; we learned his name before Harry's first trip to a zoo, as he rejoiced that it would be a whole year before he would once again have to look at pictures of all the cats Mrs. Figg had ever owned (PS2).

In fact, Mr. Tibbles isn't properly a cat at all, but a cat/kneazle cross; Mrs. Figg breeds part-kneazles for a living (JKR).

"...and Mr Tibbles came and warned me..."

Apparently Mrs. Figg communicates with her part-kneazles in the same mysterious way that Filch communicates with Mrs. Norris.

"...we might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg."

This is analogous to the Muggle expression about being "hanged for a sheep as a lamb". The sense of it is that if one is to be punished severely for a minor offence, one might as well go ahead, do the thing properly, and commit a more serious offence that won't be punished much more severely. In this case, Harry is already in danger of expulsion from having defended himself in front of a Muggle, so he might as well keep himself prepared for an attack.

"Oh, it's just Mr. Prentice..."

According to (JKR), Mr. Prentice isn't a wizard; Mrs. Figg is just keeping a sense of priorities here.

"- how could Mundungus have left, he was supposed to be on duty until midnight -"

The Order of the Phoenix has been kept very busy this summer, in fact, since they've had to keep round-the-clock watch over both Harry and the entrance to the Department of Mysteries.

"...the Ministry have their own ways of detecting underage magic, they'll know already, you mark my words."

Mrs. Figg is quite right, as we'll see shortly.

There was a loud crack...

This sound always seems to accompany Apparition; Disapparating tends to be accompanied by a small pop instead. The louder noise of Apparition might be due to some sort of small sonic boom.

...and a strong smell of drink and stale tobacco filled the air as a squat, unshaven man in a tattered overcoat materialized right in front of them.

See Mundungus entry for comments about the source of his name.

He had short, bandy legs, long straggly ginger hair and bloodshot, baggy eyes that gave him the doleful look of a basset hound.

It really is a coincidence that the description (bandy legs, ginger hair) somewhat resembles that of Crookshanks; for one thing, they're both present in OP6.

He was also clutching a silvery bundle that Harry recognized at once as an invisibility cloak.

Apart from his own cloak, Harry has seen the invisibility cloak used by the fake Mad-Eye Moody the previous year (GF35); all three look pretty much the same.

"...well, it's no good crying over spilt potion..."

Analogous to the Muggle expression about spilt milk; see also the murtlap scene later on (OP15).

"...but the cat's among the pixies now..."

Analogous to the Muggle expression, "cat among the pigeons" (which Agatha Christie used as the title of one of her books).

"Did you expect him to let you wander around on your own after what happened in June?"

Mrs. Figg is referring to the night of the Third Task (GF31, GF32, GF33 and GF34).

"Did Mrs. Polkiss give you something foreign for tea?"

This remark is yet another indication that Vernon isn't just prejudiced against magic, but against anything he labels as "different," and especially non-British. 

The scrupulously clean kitchen had an oddly unreal glitter after the darkness outside.

In fact, the relentless sterility and ordinariness of life at number four and its separation from the magical world is maintained by a pretense with the strength of a soap bubble, as Harry is about to have driven home to him.

"Was it - was it you-know-what, darling? Did he use - his thing?"

Petunia won't even use the words 'magic' or 'wand' in asking her question, which helps show just what a dirty little secret she considers Harry's magical abilities to be.

But at that precise moment a screech owl swooped in through the kitchen window.

This is the owl bearing the evening's first official message from the Improper Use of Magic office, so presumably the screech owl is a Ministry owl rather than Hopkirk's personal owl.

"OWLS!" bellowed Uncle Vernon, the well-worn vein in his temple pulsing angrily...

Vernon is doing far more damage to himself than to Harry by raising his blood pressure this way, of course.

...as he slammed the kitchen window shut.

Unfortunately for the next owl to arrive, see below.

Dear Mr. Potter,

Notice that the tone of the letter is that of a form letter: [formal greeting], [precise time and nature of the incident], [nature of punishment given offence], [formal closing with signature]. Some wizarding equivalent of an automated system may be in use here.

We have received intelligence that you performed the Patronus Charm at twenty-three minutes past nine this evening...

For those who live in more southerly latitudes than Britain, it is worth mentioning that the text is quite accurate in showing the sun setting at about nine in the evening in early August.

The severity of this breach of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery

MLW, for one, finds this highly ironic. Punishing a youngster for saving not only his own life and soul but those of a helpless third party strikes her as a quite unreasonable restriction on underage sorcery.

As you have already received an official warning for a previous offence under Section 13 of the International Confederation of Warlocks' Statute of Secrecy

Another of life's little ironies is that the official warning was received not for blowing up Aunt Marge - something Harry was actually guilty of (PA2) - but for the pudding incident engineered by Dobby (CS2). Harry is now paying a price for never trying to set the official record straight about Dobby's activities on Privet Drive.

...a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic at 9 a.m. on the twelfth of August.

That pesky number twelve again...

A resounding CRACK filled the kitchen.

The noise is explained in the next sentence, see below.

...for the third time that night Harry was searching for the source of a disturbance he had not made.

The first time was caused by Mundungus Disapparating when he left his post, which led directly to Harry's first argument with Vernon, while the second was the Dementor attack (OP1).

He spotted it at once: a dazed and ruffled-looking barn owl was sitting outside on the kitchen sill, having just collided with the closed window.

Although this owl carries a message from Arthur Weasley, and has had an Errol-like accident, this can't be Errol himself, who is a Great Grey (JKR). Presumably this is another of the Ministry's owls, since the accompanying message indicates that Arthur was at the Ministry rather than at home as he wrote it.

Dumbledore's just arrived at the Ministry

If Arthur hadn't been at the Ministry himself, he would have said that Dumbledore had gone to the Ministry, not arrived at.

A small shoot of hope burgeoned in Harry's chest

Interesting, that Harry is thinking in plant imagery here.

"AHA!" roared Uncle Vernon, slamming his fist down on top of the fridge, which sprang open...

It's disturbing that Vernon resorts to physical violence in extreme anger (even though it's directed at an inanimate object). Note that he must have hit the refrigerator very, very hard indeed.

...several of Dudley's low-fat snacks toppled out and burst on the floor.

Dudley's diet appears to have taken a far more rational turn than the previous summer's quarter-of-a-grapefruit-for-breakfast regimen. Dudley seems to have permanently changed his eating habits as part of keeping in training for boxing, since he is still eating a low-fat diet instead of burgers and chocolate bars as he used to.

If their least favourite thing in the world was magic - closely followed by neighbours who cheated more than they did on the hosepipe ban -

In other words, Vernon's little display of temper against Mr. Next-Door's cheating on the hosepipe ban in the previous chapter wasn't caused by virtuous indignation, but because the Dursleys do it themselves.

- people who heard voices were definitely in the bottom ten.

See also Reader's Guide to GF28 - The Madness of Mr. Crouch.

"What sort of things did you hear, popkin?" breathed Aunt Petunia...

"Popkin" is derived from "poppet", an old-fashioned word for a little doll. It's ironic that magic-hating Petunia calls Dudley this, since "poppet" was also the Salem witchcraft trial-era word for what in modern times is more commonly referred to as a voodoo doll.

Two seconds of ringing silence followed these words before Aunt Petunia clapped her hand over her mouth as though she had let slip a disgusting swear word.

Petunia slips, OP2, by Marta T.

"I heard - that awful boy - telling her about them - years ago," she said jerkily.

The 'awful boy' is Severus Snape. Petunia was eavesdropping on a conversation between Snape and Lily during the summer before they each turned eleven (probably 1970) (DH33).

Just for interest's sake, take a look at what we wrote before book seven came out. It's fun to read the speculation now that we have the whole story. Those were heady days indeed...

Since Lily and Petunia avoided each other after Lily's marriage (which seems to have taken place very shortly after she left school), and since Petunia is referring to James Potter as a boy, let's assume that this incident happened before Lily's graduation from Hogwarts. According to Remus Lupin, Lily only started going out with James in their seventh year (OP28), so we may tentatively date this incident at some point during Lily's final year at Hogwarts. Since Petunia was present, it seems quite possible that Lily may have still been living with their parents at the time.

Given Petunia's nosiness, in fact, she may have been eavesdropping on a private conversation between James and Lily.

During that time period, the first war against Voldemort was at its height. It would be interesting to know why James was talking to Lily about Azkaban at all. Given the wizarding attitude toward Dementors, they don't seem likely to have been mentioned by name in a casual conversation. The staff of the Knight Bus, for instance, referred to them only as the "Azkaban guards" (PA3).

"Do your lot have the death penalty?" he asked as a hopeful afterthought.

Muggle Britain did away with the death penalty in the mid-twentieth century, but since wizarding law operates as a separate system, this is actually a quite intelligent question.

...roared Uncle Vernon, pulling great clumps of hair out of his moustache, something he hadn't been driven to do in a long time...

The letters from no one (PS3), for instance, drove him to do this.

"...a peck, I mean, a pack of owls shooting in and out of my house."

One of the meanings of "peck" is a unit of measurement for capacity, and by extension it is sometimes used to mean "a large amount/number of something" (for example, a peck of trouble), so Vernon wasn't quite so far off in saying "peck" to refer to a large number of owls.

Incidentally, several terms can be used collectively for a gathering of owls, but peck is not normally one of them; a more usual term is "a parliament of owls." The title of this chapter may be a rather indirect reference to "A Parliament of Owls," the title of chapter four of C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. In that story, however, the gathering was being held to plan a necessary bit of upcoming rule-breaking rather than coping with the consequences of a rule already broken, and the authority whose rules were being broken was just (although strict).

How could it be coincidence that they had arrived in the alleyway where Harry was? Had they been sent?

In fact, they were sent by Dolores Umbridge, as we shall learn much later, whose attitude was that she alone had actually taken decisive action to deal with Harry while everyone else around Fudge merely whimpered about the need to silence him (OP32).

He seemed to be swelling, his great purple face stretching before Harry's eyes.

Hands up, everybody who thought for a split second of the Aunt Marge incident (PA2) when they first read this...

"I should have done this years ago! Owls treating the place like a rest home, puddings exploding..."

See CS2.

"...half the lounge destroyed..."

See GF4.

"...Dudley's tail..."

See PS4.

"...Marge bobbing around on the ceiling..."

See PA2.

"...and that flying Ford Anglia...."

See CS3.

...too late - the envelope burst into flames.

This is the first time we've seen what happens when the recipient of a Howler tries to ignore it rather than opening it. The Dursleys have just been flamed by mail, in fact.

"Remember my last, Petunia."

As we learn much later, Dumbledore sent this (OP37).

Exceptional character moments

Petunia, who makes clear that she considers Harry's magic to be a dirty family secret when she can't even bring herself to use the word 'magic' in questioning her son.

Petunia's comment about Dementors, then her reaction after saying it.

Mrs. Figg laying into Mundungus for skiving off. [one of MLW's favourite scenes, as read by Jim Dale]

Harry, who despite his extreme state of panic manages to trust HarryArthur Weasley and Albus Dumbledore to sort things out.

Vernon, asking hopefully if wizarding Britain has the death penalty when he learns that Harry faces a disciplinary hearing.

Vernon, who never pauses to think that the murder of Harry's parents might be a painful topic for him to discuss.

Harry's frustration at the amount of explaining he has to do to give the Dursleys the context surrounding the Dementor attack: a very typical reaction of a stressed-out expert explaining something to an annoying novice.

Memorable lines

"Ministry of Magic?" bellowed Uncle Vernon. "People like you in government? Oh, this explains everything, everything, no wonder the country's going to the dogs -"

If their least favourite thing in the world was magic - closely followed by neighbours who cheated more than they did on the hosepipe ban - people who heard voices were definitely in the bottom ten.

"You can't give a Dementor the old one-two," said Harry through clenched teeth.

Words and phrases

Other Canon Notes

Dementor referred to as dementy-whatsits, demenders, dementoids, demembers



Characters Introduced


Pensieve (Comments)

Tags: anger cold crack curious dark darkness defence defense discipline expelled faint ginger hearing horror justice kiss letters safety swearing temper warnings

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