Love leaves its mark

Gothic revival Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

J K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Bloomsbury 1997

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

My other Potterverse reviews (so far) include Tales of Beedle the Bard and Fantastic Beasts … the screenplay

The first Harry Potter book is the fourth most reviewed book on LibraryThing and the top most-catalogued title, while J K Rowling is way ahead of Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Tolkien in terms of listed authors

36 thoughts on “Love leaves its mark

    1. Nothing wrong with that at all, Stefy! I’m resistant to all sorts of things, especially if their allure is based on being a current fad or fashion or if they have a whiff of being mere commercial promotion. But just occasionally I find there’s something substantial (even if hard to define) behind the superficial popularity, and for me the Harry Potter series had it. You may just have to take my word for it… 😁

      Liked by 2 people

  1. earthbalm

    I loved the series of books and the films, though I was nearly derailed by the rather Roald-Dahlesqueness (to me) of the writing style of the first book. I’m always impressed by the narrative arc and the obvious time and care that the author took to plan out events so that sub plots in earlier books are resolved or returned to in later books.

    On the Dumbledore front, I wonder if it might be the (fictional) case that Dumbledore know well who or what Quirrell might be but used it as to be the initial test (and relationship cementer) for HP and his friends. After all, in later books, Dumbledore is content to sacrifice characters (including himself) for the ‘greater good’.

    On the personal reading front, I’ve finished ‘The Word for World is Forest” (and watched Avatar so as to view the film version – small attempt at humour) and I’m thoroughly enjoying “Cider with Rosie” that I was able to purchase brand new from a charity shop for a pound and twenty five pence.

    Thanks for posting. Enjoy the Bank Holiday Chris!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that Dahl-like quality was what rang in my head before this reread, Dale, especially the Willy Wonka and awful in loco parentis adult figures. This time around though I was struck more by the clever prefiguring of what would emerge later in the series, as you’ve also noted, and particularly by the early focus on love and compassion that I’ve dwelt on here in this review.

      If Dumbledore was indeed putting Harry in harm’s way for ‘the greater good’ (I nearly typed ‘the greater god’, which is an interesting slip!) that would be really reprehensible and morally dubious, I would have thought. But I have to keep reminding myself this is fantasy, and one of the prerequisites of much fantasy is the trope of Fate or Destiny prefigured by some sort of prophecy. (We’ll meet that prophecy in a future book, you’ll remember, the one in which Sirius leaves us.) The prophecy/fate complex is one that shared with myth and many religions, a siren-call that’s powerful but only if we succumb to it… 😁

      Ha, Avatar and TWFWIF, I did allow myself a small chuckle on your reminding me! And, yes, Cider with Rosie is another of those classics I really should seek out…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        It’s quite strange that though I’m a child of the 60s, so much of ‘Rosie’ seems similar to my own childhood. Of course, back then, Ystrad Mynach was almost rural 🙂 Returned home from Bristol today with Gibson’s “The Difference Engine” and Christopher Priest’s “Inverted World” amongst others. Fair rubbing my palms together, I is!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Rural Ystrad Mynach is certainly not now! (Though at least the hills and moorland around are slowly greening up, despite determined attempts to disfigure them with fly-tipping.)

          You’ve reminded me I’ve yet to open my copy of Neuromancer. My next Priest will be The Gradual, the blurb for which promises a mix of speculative fiction and music—sounds like more palm-rubbing is called for on my part!

          By the way, do I detect a hint of Bristolian in your final throwaway comment?!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Love leaves its mark — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. What a lovely post! I discovered Harry Potter early on, when they published the paperback of the first book in an adult version with a rather noirish befogged steam train on the front cover. I largely agree with Earthbalm on the Quirrell question but would add that Dumbledore would want to keep tabs on him in the way that Michael Corleone said “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your Godfather quote awoke another series of ideas about Quirrel in my head, Annabel, the way my grasshopper mind usually works! Remembering that a ‘quarrel’ is another name for a crossbow bolt I recalled the famous William Tell story where Gessler asks (just after the apple on the son’s head is split) why Tell had a spare quarrel under his belt: the hero says it was to slay Gessler if the son had accidentally been killed. I know there is no exact fit but to me the quarrel/Quirrell similarity is suggestive…

      I did like the ‘adult’ editions of novels which publishers initially aimed at a younger market (His Dark Materials also springs to mind) and we got the last three HP novels in hardback with their darker dust jackets, but I also liked the paperback covers such as the one you mention. (I wonder if I can retro-engineer new covers for the earlier books in the series… hmm.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Irritatingly – my HP set is so mixed up – the adult paperbacks of the first three, the main HB editions of the next two (couldn’t get the adult ones locally – should have ordered!) and then the darker hardbacks of the last two. But it’s what’s between the covers that ultimately counts (unless you have 1st ed of the first book 😀 )

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Sadly we only have a 30th print run copy, but that’s a relief in a way, imagine the anxiety and the thought of having to ensure (because what grasping philistine would want to sell it except as a last resort?)!

          Speaking of animal names, had you noticed that Harry and Ginny’s son, named after two of the adult heroes of the books, has initials that spell ASP? Is it an indication of the house he will be joining?!

          Liked by 2 people

  4. I reread this first book several months ago. Initially, I rushed through the first three books to ‘catch up’ and I think I missed how mistreated Harry was. It was serious abuse. I have always wondered why Rowling went so far? But this is the path of the hero, isn’t it, in starting with a difficult origin story, in this case the orphan placed in an abusive home, and then overcoming that to rise to further heights?

    “If Harry is the confused pre-pubescent, his personality is complemented by Hermione’s organised and principled mind and Ron’s impulsive, scattergun approach.” This is a good description of the trio, who managed to change and grow together through so many years.

    Some of my favorite parts of the series involved the course descriptions for the Hogwart classes and their book list. I always wished that Hogwarts had an adult education department 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad you too are an aficionado of fictional book titles, Laurie! They’re the very best, aren’t they? I wrote a post recently about fictional titles and occasionally wish I could summon up the energy to design and market dust jackets for them that one could wrap around preexisting but nondescript works. Perhaps someone has already done that? Would come in handy for that adult education course… 😁

      Psychologically there must be some way to account for how Harry could survive nearly a decade of mistreatment by the Dursley and yet remain relatively well-balanced. You have to hope that his primary school environment was more supportive than Privet Drive ever was.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I was always kind of miffed about Rowling’s treatment of Dursleys. They seem so stereotypically mean it hurts; and yet Harry was raised by them, cared for (albeit in a limited way, but still – glasses, dentist, etc.) and provided for (even if for the “price” of various chores). In addition, if he were really such a neglected, abused child, would he truly be able to look at the world in such a positive, trusting, moral way? One year of love doesn’t seem to be enough; but maybe he’s a modern saint, our Harry of hopeless causes 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I replied to Laurie above with the same thoughts as you, Ola, and wondering how Harry hadn’t become bitter and twisted by those formative years. Other than this following the fairytale trope of the hero/ine imbued with a generous heart (or the awful medieval folktale of Patient Griselda) there’s little to explain how Harry hadn’t already become an axe-murderer. As you say, one year of love doesn’t seem enough, so let’s just resort to magic: Lily’s love for Harry was magically amplified, enough not only to mostly contain Voldemort’s psychopathy but to keep Harry on the straight and narrow. 😁

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yet if we follow that train of thought, that’s exactly where HP loses its charm 😉 Instead of inclusiveness and belief that all people are inherently good (which is quite pervasive throughout the whole series) we get the stereotypical butt of all Muggle-related jokes in the form of Dursley family… Call me contrarian, Chris, but I would really like more subtlety and ambiguity in their portrayal. However, it may be the 11-year-old way of seeing things, as in the last book that view becomes somewhat mitigated.

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  6. You’ve reviewed one of those books that I’ve wanted to like, but failed to engage with. My eldest niece loved them, queued for them, and is a regular visitor to the Potter-centre/experience thing.

    I trudged through the first novel, and failed to finish the second. Perhaps I should try again, but there are so many other books waiting to be found. You do make this one sound more interesting than I remember, though. Nice review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cath. You’re right, it’s so much more important to not waste time with things you’ve tried and found wanting—I’m learning to do it more and more.

      When my other half and I discovered the series, a couple of years after the books had started appearing, I was coming to the end of my tether teaching in a school where senior management and an inspection regime seemed more interested in finding fault (apparently ‘satisfactory’ no longer meant precisely that but ‘next-to-useless’ or even ‘unsatisfactory’) than in a Platonic education (now replaced by a strict pedagogy according to tick box); at the same time my wife was doing a PhD on appearance and bullying, so we both had a vested interest in bullying because of perceived difference. The Harry Potter books proved to be a timely accompaniment to our involvement in the issue even though set in a fantasy.

      So, my reread is an attempt twenty years on to see if the books stand up on their own merit as fiction rather than yet another source document! What I do think, quite apart from the series’ disputed merits as good literature or our own professional interest in the real-world issues raised, is that Rowling was ingenious in intertwining multiple strands throughout the course of seven books while simultaneously appealing to what young readers are obsessed with: bullying, friendship, loyalty, the nature of death, the wonders that lie beyond their experience, along with jokes, puns, food, school life and hobbies. You know, the sort of things that may appeal to the child in all of us… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ah, if only I could resist some of the other books that I know aren’t worth bothering with. This is one series I do seem to be immune to. I like her Strike books, though.

        Platonic is a style that I would have responded to at school. It sounds to me like the standards are moving backwards, rather than forwards.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I’ve only watched the Strike tv adaptations but have the first novel waiting. Then maybe the next one…

          I’ll pass on further comments about the state of British, and particularly English, education as it would necessitate a very long rant in which I would very likely make a fool of myself.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Chris. As for Quirrel, I’m more inclined to think that Dumbledore is ever-ready to give everyone and anyone the benefit of the doubt. Consider his treatment of the young Tom Riddell, as well as his patience with practically every Slitherin student. (But also knowing about the curse on the Dark Arts instructor, he may have thought that he’d be rid of Quirrel before the man could cause any trouble.)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Ah, the trio–just like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy! 🙂 But that’s the fun of the trio–you can spread characteristics about a little for balance.

    LOL that music line! Dumbledore did have some moments like that, though, where he loved the oddball thing. I think that helped make him human–old human, I should say–to us. (For grandparents often love the odd things, don’t they?)

    And the treatment of Harry by the Dursleys was, I think, one of the great sins of the cinema–that is, that the film adaptations practically gave up on portraying those early moments of Harry’s summer breaks before returning to school. It’s a shame, too, because even Dudley Dursley had an arc I could appreciate: he went from a bullying spoiled brat to a bullying wuss to a guy who actually gave a toss about the cousin who had saved his life, and now wished him well. Petunia, so embittered that she shared none of the magic of her sister, was never going to change, and Vernon…hmmm. I don’t know about him. Meeting his sister in the third book certainly showed a shared prejudice for all things they deemed unseemly. I suppose his prejudice is what drew Petunia to him?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Grandparents often love the odd things…’ You’ve got me in one, Jean!

      Yes, I want to be particularly conscious of people like the Dursley, especially as the films — for all their close alignment with Rowling’s text — were often unable or hesitant to explore its nuances, such as characterisation. Things such as Hermione’s concern and solidarity with Hogwart’s house elves (which paralleled Jo’s own leftish leanings) just didn’t get a look in.

      And I like your analysis of the strengths of a fictional trio. Far from three being a crowd, the device allows for a greater play of opinions, agreements and disagreements as well as courses of action. Interesting that Jo backpedalled a bit on Ron and Hermione in favour of Harry and Hermione getting together — wonder how that would have played out, as it feels so wrong in retrospect!

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      1. gransparent? Gah, that’s what I get for typing before sunrise. 🙂 I think as a kid, we see sources of enjoyment among the elderly as weird or strange–like my grandpa playing polka at all hours, the old lady I was required to visit on our street preferring needlepoint in the dimmest room of the house–heck, there was that one elderly squib on Harry’s street Dumbledore had asked to watch Harry. Didn’t she have a thing about photo albums and cats? And as a kid, that’s the last thing you want to sit and stare at. 🙂
        The Trek Trio, I think, provides a pretty clear divide of personalities–the pure passion (McCoy), the pure logic (Spock), and the balance (Kirk). You’re spot on, I think, that Ron and Hermoine had this kind of opposites-contrast with Harry being a balance in the middle. It really would have been bizarre if H & H got together…I think they’d have driven each other crazy, to be honest. It’s almost a Little Women move, don’t you think? Teddy always knew he belonged to the March Family, but it wasn’t the way he originally thought….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “gransparent” was my mistype, not yours, corrected now…

          Yes, my grandma (probably at the same age as I am now) smoked like a chimney, had no teeth, was stunted (possibly from having rickets as a child in India) and wore a head scarf that made her look like a Russian babooshka. To my eyes she was definitely weird and strange.

          The better have has a copy of Little Women somewhere, I think, I ought to dig it out…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s one of those classics I think I’ll finally try reading this year. I probably mentioned this before, but I was dragged to the Winona Ryder adaptation of the story as a kid with my mom and aunt while the “men” of the family got to see the coooool movie–Highlander 3.
            I’ve been told I came out ahead on that one….

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