Oh here we go- into the wonderful (and possibly dangerous for a reviewer) world of Harry Potter… be kind, commentators, be kind!
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US) is the first of the seven novel J.K. Rowling epic generally known as Harry Potter. For most of you (and me too) this is old comforting well read literature, and so rather than discussing the novel ad nausea, I’m just going to give some reactions and thoughts about the book, and later the whole series. For those of you who don’t know the series, or those who need a reminder of the plot book to book here’s a quick synopsis:
Harry Potter is an orphan stuck living with dreadful relatives. On his eleventh birthday, he learns he is a member of an elite secret society: the wizarding world. As a wizard Harry must travel to the top wizard boarding school, learn his craft, and become a functioning member of this new-to-him society. As a young man, he must learn a whole new culture, become accustomed to the idea of friendship, mentorship, love, and support. Oh, and while all of this is happening, he is a legend amongst his peers because of the way his parents died. Then, during Act III to really throw off spring term, the killer pops in for a little visit.
Got it? Okay- lets get to the interesting analysis and stuff!
First let’s start with the title.
I have a little gripe with the American publishing company/industry. Scholastic changed the name from Philosopher’s to Sorcerer’s Stone. A) While those are two regularly used fantasy character types- they are different. One is interpretative and seeks only knowledge, while the other is transformative and often seeks power. B) Are American kids really too stupid to learn a new word or a few new words that are used in Britain? C) I kind of can’t correctly spell or say or conjugate Philosopher (don’t tell my sophomore year Philosophy professor) so I find it helpful, but annoying. In the end, more annoying than helpful, because I would rather just teach kids (and myself) about the little things than dumb them down to an American audience.
Then there’s the slow start.
Harry Potter is an epic- as defined by the literary meaning of the word. It is also awesome as a Middle Reader / YA series- if you can get through the first dozen chapters. The purpose of this book is to build a world for the next six installments, and the novel does its job- but that doesn’t help the fact that you have to slog through the details. I appreciate the difficulty Rowling faced- first you have a main character (along with the readers) thrust into a secret sub-culture- so there’s going to be some explanation necessary, but I often wonder if she bit off more than necessary, knowing it would allow her to gloss over some things later (I don’t have to explain Quidditch in book 3, I did that in 1! Need cash in book 2, 4 and 7? I explained it in 1!)
And a slow plot.
This was intentional. I know it was. The point was to have the curve ball at the end- turning a kids getting into things they shouldn’t story into a meet this evil guy who is going to try to kill you later epic. But intention aside, playing “guess what’s in the parcel” and “let’s break into a hallway” was dragged out. While I appreciate that’s how real detective (and research) works… I rather enjoy the wham-bam answer in an episode investigations of our current culture, and kids who are age appropriate for this book do too.
Followed by a too fast conclusion.
While there is no doubt this book was building up to the next six, I wanted more from the conclusion. Basically the final act feels like they (I think this was an editorial issue, not a writer one) were trying to cram it in without going over, like a kid with a maximum page limit on their Creative Writing class project. I wanted a richer, more in depth experience between Harry and this new (old) arch nemesis. I wanted Harry to come to detest this corrupted soul from his own experience, rather than just that of his parents death. It feels like just as Harry is building up his new found courage and acceptance of his position, a grown up swoops in a saves him, doing a great disservice to his character development and the plot.
All the while Adults are Clueless.
A common trait in middle reader and YA novels is the clueless adult. I get it- good attentive parents know where their kids are, thus eliminating the chance of grand adventures. But really? Guardians (the Dursley’s) fighting sooo hard to resist sending their charge to this place, then one goon (sorry Hagrid) shows up and it’s all over with? And the House Professors are more academic advisors than house moms. Kids can slip out of their secure sleeping quarters, past no adults on guard, and get out the front
door portrait? In a place where magic exists? I’d have magic little bells glued to their magic little butts. And then there’s the issue of Hagrid knowing the kids have been accessing this horribly dangerous and important part of the castle and failing to report it or adequately intervene. Come one adults- these are eleven year old’s, it’s bad enough you okayed having dangerous materials present, you also let them break into the cabinet?
No matter the difficulty, I still love it.
No matter the pacing issues, plot holes, and the unlikely character traits, I still turn to Harry Potter year after year (like every single year). There is a certain comfort of re-reading a contemporary classic, getting the same sort of rush I had at 13, sitting on the docks at the lake lapping up the first three books in preparation for the release of the fourth. There is a certain adoration each time Hagrid knocks down the Dursley’s cabin door, and thrill when Hermione saves the day with her books and studious nature. In many ways this book was the start of my book nation citizenship- and for that I love it. And I know, having gotten through Philosopher’s Stone once, that it opens the doors to all of J.K. Rowling’s greatness- the themes of friendship, family, personal values, and most of love.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Middle Reader, 223 pages)
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Published By: Bloomsbury (UK), Scholastic (US)
Released: June 1997 (UK), September 1998 (US)
Genre: Fantasy, Bildungsroman
Source: Personal Collection (Hardcover Chapters Books Canada / E-book Pottermore)
Pros: Philosopher’s Stone opens the Harry Potter epic. The world and character building are very detailed, giving the reader a deep understanding of the secret sub-culture’s infrastructure and key players in the plot. Rowling also secretly introduces many key details that will come into play later in the series.
Cons: Functions largely as a world building episode, and doesn’t focus enough on the story arc of the Stone, and secret surrounding it. Rowling asks for a lot of suspension of disbelief- even extending into that of real world problems like child abuse, neglect, and the general lack of involvement of adults.
Final Recommendations: Pick it up if you haven’t- because you are behind the times. Know this is an opener, and it gets faster and more auctioned packed as the epic builds to a massive conclusion. Perfect for the reluctant reader, especially for boys looking for more fun and less internal struggle. Ultimately, a book every child (and adult) should read.