So, before we get rolling, a little bit of housekeeping. I’ve read these books many, many times, but this is the first time in about three years (at a guess) that I’ve picked them up. So I’m approaching them with the eye of an adult- but I know I still love them. I’ll be posting from the point of view of a fan, so I’ll be assuming my readers will have read the books or at least seen the movies. It hardly seems necessary to state, but there will be spoilers. At the end of each review I’ll be posting a short footnote on where I got my book and how, purely for nostalgia.
Are we all sitting comfortably? Let’s venture into a world of magic, just inches away from our own…
Harry Potter is a ten year old boy who lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin. He’s an orphan, and his parents supposedly died in a car crash when he was only a baby. Despite taking him in, his guardians are as horribly and pointlessly abusive as only adults in children’s books can be. They force him to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, let their son bully him and generally treat him as a dangerous nuisance.
But on Harry’s eleventh birthday, salvation comes. It turns out he’s a wizard, like his parents, and has been enrolled into Hogwarts, Britain’s premier magical boarding school. Harry soon finds himself among friends, happy for the first time ever- but why is the corridor on the third floor out of bounds?
So that’s The Philosopher’s Stone in a nutshell. It’s definitely a children’s book, unlike the later novels, which have the depth of adult works, but that is not to take away from its successes. Although JK Rowling faced a long slog to get it published, it’s hard to imagine publishers not seeing its potential. With the outlandish inventiveness of Dahl and the unputdownability of Blyton, no wonder Harry captured the world’s imagination.
JK Rowling tapped into something that is fundamental in children, something that all good children’s writers can see; whether it’s CS Lewis sending his wartime evacuees through the wardrobe or Roald Dahl rescuing James from his horrid aunts with a peach. Children dream of magic (and so do a lot of adults, whether they admit it or not). They do not know enough of the world yet to know that there are some things are impossible. Like the children they read about in books or see on TV, it could all be around the corner, yet to be discovered.
It’s also why so many kids in these stories are orphans, even in today’s much longer-lived society; or why they are living with outlandishly cruel relatives. If you have nothing much to miss on this side of the supernatural equation, you won’t hesitate to go through the magic door.
JK Rowling is following in a proud line of writers in giving us a brave, yet ordinary little boy who becomes a hero in a strange world. Indeed, many elements of the story are as familiar as Cinderella, but Rowling puts her own, lavishly detailed spin on things and succeeds in creating something new. Case in point; not long before I picked up Harry, I had devoured Enid Blyton’s school stories. I wanted to go to Malory Towers, and no amount of dissuasion from my friend’s mother (who attended one run by nuns!) would persuade me that boarding school was, in reality, terrible. The point was moot, as my parents were more likely to send me to astronaut school on Cape Canaveral. But after Harry, midnight feasts and skittish French teachers were driven from my mind. I wanted to go to Hogwarts.
The Philosopher’s Stone is in some ways the purest of the Harry Potter books. It’s a simple story of a boy going into a magic world, confronting an evil and defeating it. Harry’s life will never be so easy again.
The book is a joy from start to finish. The beginning indicates something more complex is in store for the rest of the series; not starting with Harry as you might expect, it begins with Vernon Dursley. We follow this rather unpleasant man as he has a strange day, our interest piqued by his unease at the mere mention of his in-laws and their son Harry. “Nasty, common name,” as his wife, Harry’s aunt Petunia, says. Their reluctance to allow their infant son socialise with another infant child skewers the mores of the repressed, class-conscious Little Englanders that Rowling attempted to satirise in The Casual Vacancy. She succeeded somewhat despite that novel’s flaws, but she would never get it as right as she did in a couple of chapters with the Dursleys.
Of course, snobbishness and discrimination are not limited to the Muggle world. Rescued by Hagrid, Hogwarts’ enormous gamekeeper (and one of the series’ most beloved characters) Harry encounters Draco Malfoy in London, and within minutes, Malfoy is saying kids with non-magical parents shouldn’t be allowed in Hogwarts. This is something that is barely touched on in this book, but becomes a central theme later on. Discrimination is possibly the central theme of the whole series.
There are a few dark moments too, especially when you know what’s to come. Knowing who Scabbers the rat really is tends to lend a sourness to Ron’s attempts to turn him yellow; knowing what happened to Neville’s parents makes Malfoy’s bullying harder to bear. I also found the idea of Voldemort leeching off Quirrell’s skull a lot more disgusting than I did as a kid.
I had thought that Quirrell made more of an impact, but really he’s just threaded through here and there. The revelation that he is the one who tried to steal the Stone and kill Harry is not as shocking as the identity of the fake Mad-Eye Moody in the fourth book.
Hermione, too, is not a big a feature as she would become. In the early part of the book she has literally no redeeming characteristics, but after the troll incident, she becomes friends with Harry and Ron and loosens up considerably. But she is very, very different to the character who will finish The Deathly Hallows. Of the three leads, she is the one that changes the most.
A children’s book it is, but like all the best kids’ books, it’s one that can be read and enjoyed by adults. There’s some powerful words of wisdom too, mostly from Dumbledore. A sample: “Humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them”, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” and “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
Stepping back into Hogwarts after so long is akin to having a luxurious bubble bath. Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone sets up what Hogwarts is; a place with a wise, good humoured principal, four poster beds and warm fires; mice in the Christmas crackers and endless good dinners, friendly ghosts and centaurs in the forest. What’s not to love?
Notes on my copy: Not starting too well here. I first picked up a copy from the library; after a number of years and missing book number one, I picked this up from the local newsagents. I did translate the message from the Mirror of Erised in the back cover though, so there’s that. I also adore the cover art for the original Bloomsbury edition; Harry at King’s Cross, while the Hogwarts Express, a bright red steam engine, blows starry steam. Just in sight is an ordinary British Rail train, the type that used to take me and my mother from London to Kent to visit my grandmother back in the ’90s; it captures the transition from Harry’s Muggle life to Hogwarts perfectly.