[DWJ] Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (spoilers, like you care)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Wed Jul 11 01:19:02 EDT 2007

(Note: All page number references come from _Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone_, first Scholastic trade pb printing, 1999.  I do own the UK edition
of this one, but the US was more convenient to read as it came in a boxed
set with two others.  However, I much prefer the *real* title and will use
it whenever possible, because...well, crap, people, there never WAS such a
thing as a "Sorcerer's Stone"!)

The first thing that strikes me about _Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone_ is what a weird mix of literary elements it is, particularly the ones
that distinguish a juvenile book from a YA.  The subject of genre and
age-level classification is too broad to address here in any detail, but one
item in particular is relevant to this discussion.

In some juvenile fiction (books aimed at readers ages 8 to 12), one's
willing suspension of disbelief about events or ideas is asked to stretch a
lot further than if the same events or ideas were presented in an adult or
young adult novel.  Thus, for example, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's upside-down
house is a charming novelty rather than something that in a YA or adult
novel would have to be justified and explained and possibly have readers
demanding to see the building permit.  Or, for a more egregious example, the
citizens of Jahnna N. Malcolm's Jewel Kingdom think nothing of being ruled
by four prepubescent girls whose only qualification for governing is that
they were born to very silly parents.  Such elements are not universal in
juvenile fiction, but they are natural to it.  Young adult fiction, which as
I have asserted before is supposed to be *about* the experience of being a
young adult rather than simply aimed at a readership of 13- to 18-year-olds,
is correspondingly more like adult fiction than juvenile.  Readers expect
unusual events or ideas to be supported by the text, or at least
acknowledged as a problem.  As long as a reader knows what kind of book
she's reading, this isn't a difficulty.  But _Philosopher's Stone_ has
enough elements of a YA book that it's hard to comfortably read it as one
thing or the other.

The first chapter, "The Boy Who Lived," was almost certainly written
separately from the rest of the book, possibly by the spirit of Roald Dahl.
In the first thematic section of _Philosopher's Stone_ (Harry's life with
the Dursleys up to his eleventh birthday) J.K. Rowling returns often to the
sort of absurdism that Dahl was famous for, though not to the same extremes
he did.  It's a technique that falls solidly within the realm of juvenile
literature.  Not everyone enjoys this sort of story, but it would at least
have been consistent if she'd stuck with it.  I think there are hints that
she was still playing with the idea as far as the adult wizards outside
Hogwarts are concerned; some of them are fairly goofy.  But from the point
that Harry learns he's a wizard, Rowling shucks the absurdism in favor of a
more straightforward fantasy tale.  While there are still elements of the
absurd within Hogwarts, the students and most of the teachers react to
events and to one another normally (as far as "normally" is defined within
the wizarding world) and nobody is expected to treat those elements as

Still, that's not a great way to start off.  The reader's expectations are
formed one way and then--that's not how the story is going to go at all. And
since the bulk of the story fits into this later mold, the beginning is
suddenly what's suspect.  The Dursleys, instead of being humorous
caricatures, are abusive bullies who should have been reported to Child
Protective Services.  As a fan of Dahl and his ridiculous adult figures, I
thought Rowling did that first bit very well--reading it from that
perspective.  But it's hard to maintain that attitude and simultaneously
read the other five-sixths of the book in a completely different way.

But let's set that aside for now and look at the rest of the book--what I am
tempted to refer to as the "real" book, as it's pretty well consistent
throughout.  I don't know what makes the Harry Potter series so
mindblowingly popular, but I think some part of it has to be that Rowling
comes up with these ideas that you just wish could be true.  And I don't
mean the "my real parents were magic and so am I" plot.  I mean all those
kinds of candy.  The plates that clean themselves and the food that
magically appears and disappears.  Flying broomsticks.  Invisibility cloaks.
I should have made a list while I was reading last night, because there was
just so much of it.  Rowling stays on the juvenile side by not exploring all
the implications of her creations--except possibly the invisibility
cloak--but for that crowd, it's enough...and for me as an adult reader,
there's plenty of room to imagine things for myself.  (I could never, never
eat a Chocolate Frog if they moved even a tiny bit.  Imagine if they were
filled with nougat and you bit the head off....)

The story is simple enough, there's just the one main plot, characters tend
to have a single defining characteristic that in the minor characters verges
on stereotype, so I read this as a juvenile story.  But there are moments
where I'm just not sure.  Take, for example, this throwaway moment in front
of the Dursleys' house when Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid have just
left baby Harry on the doorstep:

"Is that where--?" whispered Professor McGonagall.
"Yes," said Dumbledore.  "He'll have that scar forever."
"Couldn't you do something about it, Dumbledore?"
"Even if I could, I wouldn't.  Scars can come in handy.  I have one myself
above my left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground." (p.15)

This comes in the middle of an otherwise straighforwardly dramatic moment
and I almost couldn't believe I'd read it.  That's the sort of mixing up of
expectations that my college creative writing teacher always said was
crucial to good literature.

There are a lot of moments like this.  One was pointed out to me by a young
man who was complaining that it had been unnecessarily changed in the movie:
"It doesn't make sense if Hagrid gets Fluffy from an *Irish* bloke in the
pub," he said. "Cerberus is Greek; that's why it's a *Greek* guy in the
book." (See p.192)  Now that one I *knew* was a wink and a nod to older
readers, or maybe just Rowling amusing herself, because I've seen Kate
McMullan do the same thing in her Myth-O-Mania series (highly recommended
BTW, if you can find it), and my kids never picked up on stuff like that.
Also, Fluffy's real name is never mentioned in _Philosopher's Stone_, which
makes the joke even less obvious to a juvenile reader. 

Others come through in dialogue.  Take the moment on the Hogwarts Express
when Fred and George have cornered Harry about his identity, asking if he
isn't Harry Potter, and Harry momentarily refers to himself in the third
person (p.95).  Or the rapid-fire sequence when Harry tells Ron and Hermione
that Snape will be refereeing a Quidditch match and thus probably trying to
kill him (p.217).  There's almost no wasted space on expository dialogue
that isn't also entertaining, unlike many new writers who never met an
infodump they didn't like.

Rowling's ability with dialogue is fortunate for her, because stylistically
I can't really praise her.  There are some awkward prose moments that can't
be put off on the proofreaders or typesetters, and the best that can be
said, I think, is that she's not *awful*.  I could be more critical than
that if I chose, but my feeling is that unless a writer is exceptionally
good or exceptionally bad at their prose style, or they're relying on it as
their primary literary strength, there isn't a lot of point going over it.
Since I was mostly able to read without being jerked out of the story by
some egregious misuse of the English language, I'll let it go.

And then there's the ending, and we're back to that problematic question of
how to read the book.  From the juvenile side, it's perfectly reasonable
that Harry and his friends face the Dark Lord themselves and that the adults
around them are clueless; in a juvenile novel, there's never any question
that the hero will live and the villain will be defeated.  But this book has
danced around the question of what kind of novel it is just enough to keep
us from defaulting to that reading.  And from a YA perspective, all sorts of
questions pop up.  Like, why did all those wizards rely so heavily on their
traps to protect the Philosopher's Stone?  Especially traps that could be
circumvented by smart kids?  Why did Dumbledore send Harry back to the
Dursleys, of all people?

I don't know the answer to those questions.  On the other hand, since I read
it as a juvenile novel, those questions didn't come up until I deliberately
re-read the ending from a different point of view.  And the truth is that
whatever reservations I had, whatever discrepancies I saw in the text, in
the end I believe this book is supposed to be read as a juvenile--with
everything that implies.  Yes, you can approach it differently, read the
ending as problematic, even dislike it for those shortcomings.  I certainly
don't expect every reader to enjoy it, and given the age range it's aimed
at, I'm always a little surprised when older readers *do*.  But I also
believe it is unfair to criticize the *book* for not being something is
isn't, and wasn't designed to be.  

If I'm disappointed about anything, it's that Rowling wasn't able to write
the book this could have been.  My final analysis is that she didn't know
what she wanted the book to be, and ended up with a strange mixture of
styles that has got to be annoying to experienced readers of fantasy.  It's
probably fortunate that it *is* a juvenile, because that age group is less
likely to be put off by conflicting elements; they take things as they
appear.  For the older reader...well, my opinion is still what it was when I
first read the book: I don't know why everyone got so rabid about it, but I
liked it well enough to read on.  And there were moments I really enjoyed.

Next up:  _Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets_.

Melissa Proffitt

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