J K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
What can one say about the first of the Harry Potter books that hasn’t already been said, whether in praise or in some kind of disparaging commentary? I’m not certain whether my two penn’orth here will either enlighten anyone or even excuse or endorse anything already stated, but I offer it here as my modest contribution; in a sense, my purse of secondhand opinions is bottomless.
So: a young orphan, badly treated, visibly different, naturally gifted but full of anger and self-doubt, is bullied, thrust into danger, tested almost beyond his abilities. How is he to cope? The answer, as ever, is social resilience, bolstered by support from the surrogate family that is the school community, from loyal close friends and sympathetic teachers looking out for him. Above all, by the knowledge that he not only is, but was, loved. As Albus Dumbledore says,
“If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin.”
— Chapter Seventeen
Love, as anyone who has read through the whole Harry Potter series, is the leitmotif that runs through each and every instalment.
My memory of this, as the series grew with the protagonists and got darker, is that there was more of a childish obsession with sweets and chocolates, but it may be that I was retaining impressions from the slightly cloying first film: now, however, the sheer nastiness of the Dursleys’ treatment of Harry is what strikes me. It’s hard to imagine that people could be so unpleasant and vindictive until one remembers the extreme abuse meted out on individuals via social media these days. In the palindromic year of 1991 — before Harry sets off for Hogwarts — such abuse was definitely upfront and in-your-face. In the late 20th-century issues around bullying and the psychological damage caused were just starting to be publicly discussed, and in some way Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone helped to bring them more out into the open. As a contrast to the leitmotif mentioned above it made the point rather well.
For children and adults alike there is much to be enjoyed, especially in the puns and witty names. You will have noticed the superfluity of flower- and plant-related names given to characters in the series — Lily, Petunia, Lupin, Sprout, Narcissa and Moaning Myrtle for example — but there are also animal names, real or concealed: Dumbledore is another name for a bumblebee, for instance, Rita Skeeter may owe her nature to the mosquito, and Horace Slughorn (the last name is related to the word slogan) could be a pun for a snail. (The Weasleys however are anything but ‘weaselly’.)
I mention all this because the ambiguous figure of Professor Quirrell has a surname which doesn’t actually exist, either as a name or a word. However, like the similar-sounding verb ‘squirrel’ he has something to hide, and when his true character is finally revealed he is shown to be extremely querulous and quick to quarrel with Harry.
And now we come to the magic that the books are renowned for: pointless it is to dissect how it works, and whence it comes, and how the laws of physics are routinely broken, any more than we should ponder how the Force works in the Star Wars universe. But it is worth considering the wise words of Dumbledore (who will turn out to be a more human Aslan than C S Lewis could imagine) on one particular occasion:
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!”
Sadly the occasion is a rather atonal, even aleatoric, rendering of the school hymn…
As a story arc stretching from one summer to the next Harry Potter and the Philopher’s Stone sets a pattern for future novels in the series. As for plotting and pace there is much to satisfy, though one senses the odd plot hole: as an example, why does Dumbledore, who is otherwise a good judge of character, not suspect Quirrell of being other than he appears? And how is it that Harry, Ron and Hermione have so much trouble identifying who Nicholas Flamel is, or rather was? I suppose there were no Muggle reference books in Hogwarts library but, if so, however were the Muggle Studies teachers instructing their charges?
Speaking of Muggles, Jo Rowling, like many authors, interweaved details of her own life into the life of her fictional young hero. We all know that Harry shares the same birthday as her, that Michael, David and Mark Potter were older contemporaries of hers at her primary school in Winterbourne near Bristol, and that her parents first met on a train travelling from Kings Cross Station to Scotland.
It’s that melding of real life (including the author having a degree in French and classics) and an unbridled imagination that helps give the book series such strong foundations. Embedded in an easy-to-assimilate text are novel spins on a host of tropes: the basic plot of Voyage and Return added to that of Overcoming the Monster; the classic boarding school milieu twinned with the Gothick castle memeplex; elements of the detective novel but with clues being wrongly interpreted; there’s even the cliffhanger ending typical of thrillers hinting that further mysteries are yet to be resolved.
My final observation concerns the Gryffindor trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione (with outliers like Neville and Hagrid hovering at the edge of one’s vision). Despite some initially shaky dynamics (further threatened later in the series) this grouping represents the heart and soul of Rowling’s creation. If Harry is the confused pre-pubescent, his personality is complemented by Hermione’s organised and principled mind and Ron’s impulsive, scattergun approach. It’s hard for the sensitive reader not to feel at least a bit of empathy for one or more of these three friends. And to hate with a will the sociopath who is (say his name) Voldemort.
With hindsight, we also know what to think of Severus Snape — but not yet, not yet.
In the Low Fantasy category for May’s Wyrd & Wonder reading event