Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (Book 1, Harry Potter)

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling book cover
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) is the first book in J. K. Rowling’s best-selling series. Here the reader is introduced to Harry Potter, an unassuming orphan who lives with his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, and their son Dudley, in the leafy county of Surrey. The Dursleys treat Harry’s presence in their home as a gross inconvenience but, when Harry turns 11, he gets a welcome surprise: an invitation to attend Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry. Discovering that he is a wizard, Harry is drawn into a magical world he had no idea existed. Not only does Harry learn that he is a wizard but also that his parents were not killed in a car crash, as he had previously believed, but were murdered by a great dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, who had also tried to kill Harry; his failure to do so leading to his instant demise. At Hogwarts Harry quickly befriends the affable Ron and the intelligent Hermione, not to mention the giant groundskeeper, Hagrid. But there are enemies too; the greasy potions master Snape, the snidey Draco Malfoy, and of course he who must not be named himself, Lord Voldemort. The reader is swept up in the magical world, transported, with Harry, to a place of wonders and old world sensibilities. But all is not well at Hogwarts, and before the year is out Harry Potter will once more come face to face with the most terrible wizard who ever lived.

One of the greatest appeals of the series, perhaps most to a global audience, is Rowling’s ability to pull together a modern sensibility and fantasy lore with the elements of old England that retain a cosy appeal, from the steam engine that carries the students to Hogwarts, to the school itself, which features many of the characteristics of a traditional British boarding school. Indeed, even Rowling’s writing style lends itself to this appeal, slightly old-fashioned as it is.

Friendship and family are important throughout the series, and here this idea is introduced, with Harry finding far greater companionship and support at Hogwarts than in Privet Drive with the Dursleys – proving that blood counts for very little when compared to the actions of individuals – an idea which is extended as the series develops through the idea of ‘pure blood’ wizards. In Rowling’s world, the choices a person makes defines them and not their birth or any other pre-determining factors. Of course, nothing can replace the bonds of love from one’s own family, but friendship is highly prized, as is teamwork, and without Ron and Hermione, Harry could not achieve all that he does in his first year. Love is critically important though – not only does Lily’s love protect Harry, but Harry’s own love and generosity helps build the support network that surrounds him at Hogwarts.

As Harry strives to succeed in this new world, Rowling also sets the standard for the long-running themes of courage in the face of adversity, and having the strength to the stand up for what one believes in, qualities which are all too human, and as valuable to the reader as to the wizard characters. Of course, at the book's heart is the fundamental struggle between good and evil, and a strict morality runs through the story.

Despite all his triumphs and successes during the first year Harry retains a sense of humility, indeed this helps him achieve many of his feats. This endears Harry to the reader as much as to his fellow students, but Harry and his friends are more than well-behaved and constantly pleasant children – they know the value of breaking rules when it’s necessary to do so, and the reader empathises as they get into scrapes with the school’s teachers, their largest rebellion leading to the rescue of the philosopher’s stone.

Harry deals with the burden placed on him manfully, and never allows himself to be swept up in his own success or fall in with the wrong crowd. As the Mirror of Erised, which reflects back a person's desires, so perfectly demonstrates, desire is not necessarily a force for ill, it is how one interacts with it that defines it. Harry, unlike the greedy Dudley, or the power-hungry Voldemort, learns to control his desires and act upon them in a healthy way. Voldemort’s pursuit of immortality, in particular, is shown as unnatural, and the idea that death is a natural part of life and not to be feared is instilled in Harry by Dumbledore.

The plot, particularly when compared to later books in the series, is fairly simplistic and focuses more on creating the wizarding world than really building the characters or developing a more complex plot. The Philosopher’s Stone introduces the reader to Rowling’s eccentric, intoxicating world of wizards, populated with a menagerie of colourful and interesting characters, smoothly integrating magical lore into the reader's consciousness: often the beauty is in the detail, from wizard sweets to the rules of the most popular wizarding sport, Quidditch. As a consequence the story fairly races by, with key moments expanded upon sufficiently, but much skimmed over – Rowling’s richness and assured style of writing not yet evident as she works her way into the world and cast of characters that she is creating.

As a character Harry is fundamentally pretty boring, and even later in the series when he develops into a more complex personality he is essentially the reader’s view into a foreign world and an archetype; the good, compassionate, but undoubtedly bland hero – an everyman, or everychild, who transports the reader effortlessly into the world of witchcraft and wizardry. Happily, Harry is surrounded by a cast of wonderful characters who, whilst often being drawn as melodramatic caricatures, give the story its heart.

The writing is not of the highest quality and undoubtedly there are moments where the reader is asked to suspend disbelief beyond a reasonable level, but these are rarely on issues central to the plot and will pass most younger readers by altogether. What Rowling does really well is keep the emotions on an understandable level, never being overwhelmed by the fantasy elements. One might suggest that the prose develops across the series as the young characters age, but in truth this feels more a coincidence than an intended device.

As an entry into the world of Harry Potter, The Philosopher’s Stone is fun, involving, but ultimately a little unsatisfying. The writing is significantly weaker than in later books as is the plot, and yet this is still a story that will delight readers, young and old.

This is rough but bursting with ideas. The start of an obscenely successful fantastic series, I can forgive it almost anything knowing where Rowling takes the books.


Useful Links
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on Amazon (US)  

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4 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

One of the biggest criticisms of Rowling’s early books is that they are greatly derivative. For me, this is an incredibly lazy argument, often made by readers who themselves appear to be poorly read and who can draw on only a limited number of examples. All novels, but fantasy novels in particular, draw significantly on the heritage and tradition of the genre and their forbears, and one might argue that significant knowledge of what has gone before is to Rowling’s credit, more than anything.

Works of true originality are very rare, but unless the author in some way implies that this is what they believe their own work to be then there is no reason to hold them to such a standard – otherwise one might strike off the majority of the canon as being derivative and thus lacking any value.

Petra said...

Nicely said. I agree especially with what makes the HP series so appealing. The way she puts together "modern sensibility and fantasy lore with the elements of old England". Very true.
I also like the sense of humour in HP. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, that's true. Although I think the sense of humour in the films might be a little better than in the books :)

Petra said...

True, and I think with all the great actors it's quite understandable. :)