|Muggles' Guide to Harry Potter - Major Event|
|The First Downfall of Voldemort|
|Time Period||Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, mentioned;|
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Christmas (relived)
|Important Characters||Voldemort, James Potter, Lily Potter, Harry Potter|
As our story opens, on the evening of Hallowe'en, in what we will find out to be 1981, Lord Voldemort, who apparently has been oppressing the Wizarding population for eleven years, is reported to have attempted to murder the young Harry Potter in Godric's Hollow. The attempt has failed, though it did leave Harry an orphan, and Voldemort apparently was killed by the rebound of his own spell.
The overview, above, is nearly all we learn of the events of the evening when Harry Potter became an orphan until the seventh book. We do learn that the Potter family had been protected by the Fidelius charm, which had been intended to keep them safe from Voldemort. It was initially believed that Sirius Black had been the Secret-Keeper for that charm, and had betrayed the Potters to Voldemort; it was later found to be Peter Pettigrew who was the Secret-Keeper and traitor.
It is at Christmas in Harry's seventh year that we learn more of the events of that night. Harry and Hermione jointly decide to visit Godric's Hollow. They find that the house in which Harry's family had been living has been left untouched since that night, and they can still see where the wall of Harry's room has been destroyed. Before they leave Godric's Hollow, Voldemort is alerted to their presence, and Harry and Hermione barely manage to escape. As Harry, at this point, is carrying the Horcrux, and possibly due to the linkage between Harry and Voldemort caused by Harry's attempted murder sixteen years earlier, Harry finds himself reliving Voldemort's memories of the day Harry was attacked.
In those memories we see Harry's father attempting to face down Voldemort without even his wand. Voldemort kills him, then enters the house. Harry's mother, also wandless, pleads with Voldemort to spare Harry, that she will accept death at his hand if he will spare Harry. Voldemort dismisses her plea and kills her, then attempts to kill Harry. The spell rebounds off Harry and apparently kills Voldemort.
It is this one event that sets up the entire seven-book story arc; one could say that the notable consequence of this event is the entire series.
Being more specific, however: The first notable consequence is that Voldemort is defeated and apparently destroyed. This ends his first reign of terror, which apparently lasted 11 years. This in turn results in the release of a number of wizards who were under the Imperius curse, and recanting of their "dark ways" by a number of wizards who were actually Death Eaters, falsely claiming that they had been under the Imperius curse, to avoid punishment. In the shorter term, it also resulted in a few days of celebration by wizards and witches across Britain, celebrations that actually caused some consternation among Muggles who did not know what was going on.
Another effect was that Harry became a hero. This proved a discomfort for Harry, who was reared in an exclusively and abusively Muggle home, and so was unaware of the fact that wizards and witches even existed, despite being a wizard himself. This also kept him unaware both of the events of that night, and of the esteem the Wizarding community held him in, until he was re-introduced to the Wizarding community on his eleventh birthday. The discovery that he was almost revered, and certainly idolized, by the Wizarding community, for a thing he did not remember doing and that he did with no apparent effort on his own part, left him feeling that the Wizarding world had expectations of him that were too high for anyone to meet, much less himself, with his magical development having been deliberately stunted. This feeling of inadequacy haunts Harry for the entire first book of the series, and returns periodically throughout the next four books.
A minor effect is, of course, the lightning-bolt scar on Harry's forehead, which serves as instant identification. Harry is frequently greeted by stunned recognition from other wizards, as late as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a recognition which leaves him somewhat uneasy and thinking again of his feelings of inadequacy.
The selection of Harry's foster home, unpleasant as it was for Harry, was rendered necessary by this event. Professor Dumbledore, who had taken the effective lead of Voldemort's foes, had investigated Voldemort's youth, when he had been going under the name Tom Riddle, and determined that Tom had been researching Horcruxes. Finding coincidental deaths occurring around Tom, Dumbledore believed that Tom had made a Horcrux, and therefore was likely to survive his own death. Knowing of the specific magic that had saved Harry, Dumbledore knew that, in the event of Voldemort's return, Harry would only remain safe while he was living with a blood relative, and his mother's sister Petunia was the only relative of Harry's still alive. As horrible as Harry's life at Privet Drive was, and despite the large number of Wizarding families who would be more than willing to accept him into their homes, Dumbledore believed that the only chance to rid the world permanently of Voldemort was to ensure Harry grew to adulthood, and for that, protection under the shelter of Lily Potter's blood was required.
It is this protection, springing from the murder attempt, strengthened by Dumbledore, and reinforced by Voldemort himself, that saves Harry's life when he faces Voldemort directly at the end of the story. It is accepted by the Death Eaters at that point that Voldemort has reserved Harry's death for himself. The reader must wonder how much of that was Voldemort's own idea, and how much the idea was fostered by Dumbledore and his lieutenants and spies in the Death Eater organization. Dumbledore must have known that the protection afforded Harry by these events was only good against Voldemort himself, and not against attacks by anyone else, and so had likely set himself the task of preventing other Death Eaters from attempting to win glory for themselves in Voldemort's eyes by killing Harry. Later in the series, we see that it is Dumbledore's chief spy within the Death Eater organization, Snape, who appears most adamant, more so even than the fanatical Bellatrix Lestrange, that Harry remains unscathed by any of them "other than the Dark Lord".
Finally, as we learn late in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the attempt to murder Harry had torn a piece of Voldemort's soul free, and the soul fragment, unable to reattach to the suddenly-deceased Voldemort, had instead attached to Harry. This fragment gives Harry warning of Voldemort's presence, starting from the first book, by causing Harry's scar to pain him. As the series proceeds, the amount of information transferred through this channel increases, until in the fifth book, Voldemort learns of it, at which time he uses it to provide false images to Harry which lead him into a trap. As Voldemort weakens, Harry is able to turn this channel around, and see into Voldemort's mind; this information proves instrumental in bringing Voldemort to a final defeat.
A large piece of the attraction in this series is the realism of Harry's reaction, in the first book, to this event. It is widely accepted in the Wizarding world that Harry has destroyed Voldemort, and he is famous for this. Harry is portrayed as being embarrassed by this fame, and feeling like an impostor because of it. Although it is never stated, we can clearly see that Harry is worried that people will have high expectations of "the boy wizard who defeated Voldemort when he was only one year old." Harry believes that, because of his lack of training, he will fail to meet these expectations, and will disappoint those who have believed in him. This is further highlighted in the second book, when a character is introduced who lives for public acclaim, and believes that anyone famous is similarly motivated. The idea of an accidental hero is foreign to Gilderoy Lockhart, and he persists in trying to drag Harry into the limelight, much to Harry's dismay. Given how little initiative was required on Harry's part for this event, this seems a very realistic portrayal of a sympathetic character.
Having established Harry as a reluctant hero, the author must then be consistent in her portrayal of Harry. It is well worth note that, though Harry's power and self-confidence grow, he never becomes arrogant; as late as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix he remains aware that he did not work on his own, rather receiving assistance from those around him. Harry actually only begins to draw on his own reputation as a hero in the sixth book, when the Ministry attempts to co-opt him for propaganda purposes. Harry tries to use the Ministry desire for his public approval of Ministry policy to force some change in policy; when that fails, he refuses to assist the Ministry.
One of the challenges facing the author of a series like this, in which the protagonists mature, is fitting the battles to the increasing powers of the hero. Given that there is one principal antagonist, Voldemort, we must somehow start the series with Voldemort of approximately equal power with the hero, the schoolboy Harry. Yet, in order to make Harry worth following and the menace he faces reasonable, we must equally make Voldemort a threat to more than just Harry. This initial downfall, happening off stage, is an interesting way to handle this: having Harry be the instrument of Voldemort's first downfall makes Harry a key figure from the start, and Voldemort's recovery from effective death allows the author to incrementally increase his power in step with Harry's.
It is not immediately obvious why the author chose to hold the complete unveiling of this event until so very late in the series. We can speculate that it is a part of the process of Harry's coming to terms with who his father was. In the first four books, Harry had an idealized picture of his father, a picture that was colored more by hero worship than by actual knowledge of the man Harry never knew. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry, illicitly viewing one of Professor Snape's memories, had this image of his father rudely shattered. Despite Lupin's and Sirius' reassurances that James had changed as he matured, Harry still has a very hard time reconciling the boy James in Snape's memory with the man he has been told James became. The revelation of the events on the night James died quite possibly was placed to provide some resolution to this reconciliation; the fact that it occurs immediately after Harry has visited his parents' graves also completes the process of closure with his parents, something that he has been unable to achieve so far and would be unlikely to achieve without better knowledge of his parents. Voldemort's memory of this event, as experienced by Harry, gives him sufficient knowledge of his parents to allow him to move on with his life.
It is entirely possible that, if Harry had experienced these events earlier in the narrative, he would not have felt impelled to visit his parents' graves in Godric's Hollow, and the effort to get him there so that the events in that location could occur would seem very contrived.