May 15th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone* by J.K. Rowling

Well, it took me 14 years to read the most wildly loved children’s book of my generation. Partly because I just never got around to it, partly because I’m not a big fan of fantasy, partly because the Harry Potter zealots are so obnoxious. “You’ve never read Harry Potter?? But you love books!” one such specimen remarked. Humph.

I finally read it because someone I respect asked me to very gently, and I’m glad she did because J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone is truly charming, very funny, and sweet as pie.

On the front flap of the book, it says that HP&tPS won the 1997 Smarties Gold for 9 to 11 years, and this truly is a dream book for that set. The first 3.5 chapters are a hilarious sendup of awful British bourgeois family values, complete with privet hedges, vicious capitalist dad, smarmy mom and spoiled child. And a spider-filled cupboard under the stairs where they hide even the gentlest, most innocuous weirdness in their lives, orphaned cousin Harry Potter.

The horrible hinjinx of the Dursleys, including vicious assault on innocent loveable Harry, is cringy and funny simultaneously. As the book goes on, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the world the Dursleys inhabit is meant to be our own or not and, if it is, where is child services. But if I were 9, I wouldn’t care; I would only laugh gleefully over passages like this, where awful Dudley Dursley, brat and bully, cannot have his way:

“He’d screamed, whacked his father with his Smeltings stick, been sick on purpose, kicked his mother and thrown his tortoise through the greenhouse roof and still he did not have his room back.”

I think it’s the British-ism of “been sick on purpose” that makes this so funny, but I can’t really be sure–it’s just so hyperbolically *evil*. Someone told me that the American version of HP is rather bastardized to get out those Britishisms–I wonder if that version says “thrown up”? I have the Canadian, Raincoast edition, and it seems to have retain all the Britsy cadences (“to hospital,” “give it here”) as well as more obvious references like the West Ham football team (I don’t quite know what that is, but I can guess). Then again, having not read the original Brit edition, I don’t know what I’m missing.

Sorry for the digression–as I was saying, so Harry is a lonely and miserable orphan at his aunt and uncle’s until one day a letter arrives, admitting him to Hogwarts, a school for wizards and witches. The aunt and uncle try some very amusing stunts to prevent Harry from going, motivations on this being somewhat unclear as they purport to hate having him in their home.

In the end, Harry is spirited away by Hagrid, the loveable gameskeeper from Hogwarts. Hagrid also introduces Harry to his legacy–his parents were powerful and well-respected wizards, killed by an wizard gone back. That bad wizard, named Voldemort, tried to kill Harry too, when he was but a very tiny baby. He couldn’t; baby Harry was powerful enough to defeat this bad dude and save himself when his parents couldn’t. Even better, his triumph sent Volemort packing, and no one’s seen him since.

Harry Potter has become famous as a hero in the magic world, while the non-magic world (the world of “Muggles” in the language of the book) thought he was just a loser who had to sleep with the spiders. Moreover, his parents had wealth and social position, all of which he is now entitled to. Hagrid takes him shopping for all sorts of wonderful magical paraphenalia, and since Harry is finally in possession of his inheritance, he can afford whatever he likes.

The delights continue when he heads off to Hogwarts where his fame, and that of his parents, is well-known, and Harry is the immediate object of interest and admiration. He has never had friends before, but he picks up a few quite easily. He has never played the magic world’s premier sport, Quidditch, before but he is a natural and easily makes the team.

This is, without a doubt, the best possible fantasy for the 9-11 set, and much older besides. I loved all the descriptions of the beautiful old castle Harry moves into, the delicious foods they have the welcome banquet, the sporting equipment and spooky labs (not mentioned in the book: who pays the tuition here?) The dream of finding out that one is not as dull and ordinary as one appears is as old as time, and Rowling does it superbly. And the invention of Quidditch, and making the very complex descriptions perfectly clear in my mind is the act of a superlative creative force.

But…does it make me sound snobby to say this really is a book for children, and very young children at that? The first half of the book is entirely devoted to Harry’s life with the Dursley’s, his passage to and arrival at Hogswart’s. The second half is a series of adventures that lead Harry and his friends to discover a mystery at the school, and then to solving it.

The whole second half is one self-contained adventure after another, although in retrospect, HP and co usually discover a clue to the ongoing mystery in their seemingly unrelated scrapes and mistakes. They are thwarted by a very bad bully named Draco Malfoy, and annoyed then befriended by a know-it-all girl named Hermione Granger (all the names in this book are wonderful). There is no character development to speak of–good people are very very good, bad people are very very bad (often for no reason) and there’s no good saying anyone might reform because they won’t.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for you to say that everything works out awesome in the end, Harry becomes more of a hero than ever, and the reader is very glad that this is so. Rowling crafts a simple, elegant tale. Even though there’s no real suspense (there’s six more books; I know no one dies now) I was very eager to keep reading and to find out what exactly happened.

And now that I know, I’m quite satisfied, but feel no particularly burning urge for book 2.

7 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone* by J.K. Rowling”

  • Frederique says:

    “You’ve never read Harry Potter?? But you love books!”


  • Scott Watson says:

    I had been lent the first three books from my sister years ago. What impressed me was the gradual reading scale of the series (it grows with the reader), well that and the fantastical elements. I can’t say I kept reading for the plot or writing, but rather for the characters who I had gotten fond of.

    I don’t understand the “but you love books” comments. I appreciate that we live in a sea of questionable quality books (mostly due to volume) and to read them all is impossible, but the Harry Potter series is a cultural marker (like Shakespeare, Life of Pi, Da Vinci Code, Zadie Smith, Stephen King, the Infinite Jest, Salman Rushdie etc). It’s what people talk about.
    I would argue its a gateway book. I have a couple of friends who got into reading because they read the HP series and I could offer them similar books, bringing them deeper into woods so to speak. If I hadn’t read them, I don’t think I could have convninced them to try other things.

    That said, I can’t say I’m fan of zealots, but I know what its like to be the only person in the room who loves something and that give me pause when I meet such passion.

  • meg says:

    The books do get a bit more sophisticated as the series progresses, though the plotlines stay fairly simple. Mainly it’s that the characters get a bit more complicated and multi-dimensional, especially in the final three books. Books 2-4 are quite similar to Philosopher’s Stone in terms of simplicity of plot and ability to be read as stand-alone novels.

  • KM says:

    there’s six more books; I know no one dies now

    Ah ha ha ha ha! Obviously you haven’t read Harry Potter spoilers either, because there is so much death. As meg said, the first four books basically follow the pattern of this one (with the fourth being the most developed, and, IMO, best) but there was a hiatus between those and the final three during which the direction of the series kind of swerved.

    I’m laughing with you and not at you, though, because I was surprised, based on reading the first four books, by how many people died and how horribly in the last three. That was not what I thought I was signing up for.

  • Rebecca says:

    meg and KM, It does seem neat to me that the books grow up with the readers, and that if read over a period of years they will all be age appropriate. I don’t know that I’ve run across another series that does that; all the series I read as a kid, either some books were above my grasp when I started, or super-simple by the time I’d been reading for a while.

    I think Rowling is very talented, but I just not tempted to read the other books, especially now that I know about the horrible deaths!

  • Nathalie says:

    I follow Kristen den Hartog’s blog about mother-daughter reading, and she just posted about Harry Potter.
    I loved the books, then loved them again when I read them to my boys.

  • Minerva says:

    As has been said the books grow with the characters. Which is ingenious by the way. You see characters as very very good and very very bad because this is how Harry sees and categorises people at that age. By the end of the series you’ll realise there is no truly “good” or “evil” person in the books (aside from Voldemort according to JK herself, but I’m sure he was different in his youth too).

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