The novel is preceded by two epigraphs. The first, a passage from Aeschylus’s play The Libation Bearers, laments the violent death and torment that humans are subject to, but holds out the hope that the children of those who suffer may live to triumph.
The second epigraph comes from William Penn’s More Fruits of Solitude and states that friendship is immortal, able to survive the death of one of the friends.
Snape and the Death Eater Yaxley meet outside of Lucius Malfoy’s house and proceed inside, taking seats at a table where Voldemort and his followers are already assembled. A bound figure dangles upside down above the center of the table, hanging by a rope.
Snape tells Voldemort that Harry Potter is to be moved from his place of safety on the next Saturday at nightfall. Yaxley claims that he has heard contradictory intelligence, and that Harry is to be moved later, on the thirtieth of the month. Voldemort indicates that he knows the source of Snape’s intelligence, and he makes it plain that he believes Snape rather than Yaxley.
Yaxley, still seeking Voldemort’s approval, reveals that he has corrupted a member of the Ministry of Magic, a wizard named Pius Thicknesse. Yaxley reports that several Death Eaters are also positioned within the department of Magical Transport, making them better able to track Harry if he tries to travel by magical means. Voldemort announces that he plans to capture Harry while he is being transported.
A loud wailing, seemingly arising from below the floor, interrupts the gathering. Voldemort sends Wormtail out of the room to quiet “the prisoner” (presumably not the one above the table, since the sound comes from below and Wormtail has to leave the room to quiet the prisoner in question).
Voldemort makes Lucius Malfoy lend him his wand. Voldemort taunts Lucius and the rest of the Malfoy family, accusing them of being uncomfortable with his presence. Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy’s sister, declares that his presence is the greatest possible pleasure, but Voldemort taunts all of them about the fact that Narcissa and Bellatrix’s niece (Nymphadora Tonks) has just married Remus Lupin, the werewolf.
Finally, Voldemort turns the room’s attention to the bound prisoner above the table, revealing it to be Charity Burbage, a Hogwarts professor who taught Muggle Studies and promoted the view that Muggles are not so different from Wizards, and that the increasing prevalence of Mudbloods is a good thing. Charity Burbage appeals to Snape, who does nothing to help her, and Voldemort kills her with the Killing Curse.
The two epigraphs are a startling way for the book to begin, because they’re not what we might expect of the Harry Potter series. While the books in the series have steadily evolved, with the first three being clearly children’s literature, and the subsequent ones being longer, darker, and featuring more challenging and ambitious themes, the epigraph from Aeschylus goes a step further in this direction, associating the new book with great literature, specifically tragedy. The series has not abandoned its roots, and it will indeed contain a lot of action, with wizards in black masks zipping around on broomsticks, shooting green death rays that miss Harry by millimeters. But the epigraphs alert us to the fact that the book presents themes and conflicts that run deeper than the action-oriented plot, and the epigraphs tell us exactly what those themes are.
As in the Aeschylus passage, Harry will have to confront the death and suffering of those he loves and struggle with the question of whether that suffering can somehow be redeemed by his own struggles. Harry has already lost very close friends, most notably Dumbledore and Sirius, and he will spend much of the book wrestling with the question of whether those friendships have been extinguished forever, or if he can somehow commune with the dead. The quote from William Penn clearly expresses that dead friends are not lost to us—though it will not be clear to Harry for a long while how to achieve the perfect communion that Penn describes, which truly seems to banish death.
The first chapter shines a spotlight on Severus Snape, that most fascinating of characters in the series. Throughout the previous books, Snape has intrigued us by showing contradictions that have never really been resolved. He has always seemed to hate Harry, and he cuts a very villainish figure, with his icy manner and association with Slytherin House. Later, we find out that he was a Death Eater—a servant of Voldemort. Yet he saved Harry’s life in the first book, and we’ve seen that Dumbledore’s trust in him was virtually unshakable, and that he supposedly spied for Dumbledore on Voldemort. At the end of the last book, we saw Snape kill Dumbledore, apparently settling the question once and for all. And yet we expect more of this mysterious and complex character—we feel that we don’t know him and the reasons for his actions, as compared with clear-cut villains like Bellatrix Lestrange.
The first chapter follows Snape’s point of view but does not take us inside Snape’s mind or show us his emotions. Snape’s actions seem straightforwardly evil: he delivers excellent and damaging intelligence against Harry and the Order of the Phoenix, he is treated as Voldemort’s most trusted servant, and he lifts no finger to save his fellow Hogwarts professor. But because his point of view is presented objectively—from outside of his head—we are left to speculate what his motives are, and whether he still might not be what he seems.
The casual humiliation of the Malfoys is a final feature of the first chapter. This family (Draco’s parents) has always seemed rich, powerful, protected, sinister, and not particularly secretive about their longing for Voldemort’s return to power. But in the first of many reversals of this book in relation to the other books, the Malfoys, having gotten what they wanted, have had their house taken over and are themselves humiliated and disrespected, taunted about their discomfort and about their relative’s marriage to Lupin. Apparently, being a Death Eater does not pay. Voldemort himself is obeyed only out of fear, but he seems almost insecure about this fact, berating his followers for their lack of true loyalty and accusing them of disliking him or being uncomfortable in his presence. We know from previous books that the major thing distinguishing Voldemort from Harry is that Harry has love—he loves others and is loved back. Voldemort cannot love, and no one loves him, and he does not seem particularly comfortable with this arrangement.