Harry Potter Reread: The Philosopher’s Stone
I have decided to re-read the Harry Potter series. The first time I read the whole series was in the span of three and a half days, just before my senior year of college; I expect to have a bit different an experience reading them more slowly. With each installment, I will offer some thoughts on the book—plotting, characterization, prose, and so forth. Since all the books have been out for quite some time, I will not be avoiding spoilers at all.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, more properly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—I think the American name for the book is just silly) is a better book on the third read than it was on either of the first two. When I first read it, perhaps a year or two after it came out, I was thoroughly unimpressed—and at 11 or 12, I had little time for books that did not impress me, and so I never read the rest of the series. A major part of that was my hunger for more challenging reading; children’s books did not interest me at all at that point, and Philosopher’s Stone is very much a children’s book.
When I read the whole series through the first time five years ago, I had a bit more favorable impression of the book, but it still did not particularly grab me. I was then more able to take the book on its own terms than I had been a decade earlier: children’s books are children’s books, and should be read as such.
This time, I enjoyed the book quite a bit more. I think a good deal of that is having spent a great deal of time chewing on both Tolkien and Lewis’ thoughts on fantasy and children’s fiction. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” in particular has increased my appreciation for the structure and value of children’s fiction, especially of the fantastical variety. I also suspect that growing older tends to allow us a bit more perspective on the value of less serious things: as life itself becomes more and more droll, a child’s view on the world is a good reminder of just how wondrous this place we live is.
Rowling’s prose here is better than I previously credited, too. It is simple and lively—she may not quite be C. S. Lewis, but there is still a good deal of verve here. It is just that it is verve packaged so that children will enjoy it.
The characterization in the first book is serviceable, rarely brilliant but never terrible. On the one hand, Rowling does a marvelous job introducing each character in a way that immediately paints a vivid sense of his or her personality. Especially noteworthy was Hermione’s introduction: a full paragraph of excited monologue. I have met little girls like this in real life, I feel sure. Perhaps most important for the rest of the series were the little details about Snape, with his profound personal distaste for Harry and his fierce efforts to protect him nonetheless, along with hints that things are more complicated than anyone but he and Dumbledore know.
On the other hand, the characters do not change much in this book; they are all fairly static. One of the things I like best about The Chronicles of Narnia, by contrast, is that every major character has a clearly demarcated journey in each book. Here, Harry gains a bit of confidence, and Hermione becomes a little less of a stickler for the rules. It is a short book, so I do not particularly begrudge Rowling this, and it is worth note that she does have another six (increasingly long) volumes in which to trace fuller characterization. Even so, I will be curious to see whether my previous impression that this is Rowling’s weakest area holds up going forward.
The plot of Philosopher’s Stone is simple enough: it’s basically a mix of a standard escapades-at-boarding-school plot and a mystery. I have no complaints about the plot, but it is not exactly scintillating either. It was workmanlike and got the job done. As I recall (and I will be curious to see if this holds up on this read), Rowling’s plotting improved substantially up through the fourth book, after which it began to suffer from a glut of material, much of which could be cut. Here, that problem is still far away; there is no excess material here, even if there is nothing particularly special about the plot, either.
The worldbuilding is easily the best part of the first book, and Harry’s trip down Diagon Alley is easily the highlight of the whole volume. This was the one place where Rowling’s prose actually shone, and it was also the place where Harry most successfully came alive as a believable character.1 Similarly evocative, though not quite as effective, was Rowling’s depiction of the first years’ first experience of Hogwarts, itself a place with at least as much character as any of the actual characters in the book.
A final note: one thing I think Rowling captured very well was the experience of being an eleven-year-old, from the uncomplicated nature of friendship and dislike, to the simultaneous mental independence and dependence on the adults all around. This is a hard trick to pull off effectively: most authors end up making child characters simply adults, or otherwise completely out of touch with the real world—neither of which is quite right.
Three out of five stars.
- I have a sneaking suspicion that one reason for the books’ popularity is closely tied to what might ordinarily be considered a flaw: the relatively empty palette that is Harry’s character. I will be curious to see if this holds up through the rest of the series, but I think Harry worked well for so many people because they could simply project themselves into him. More on this as I keep reading. ↩