Filed under: “Reflections”

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.

  1. 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. 

On Writing (and Missed Days)

Anyone who has been paying attention to my little experiment over on Ardent Fidelity will note that the header content (I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.) hasn’t proven to be exactly 100% accurate. I set out with the goal to actually write every day. The first couple weeks went all right, but the last two have been hit or miss.1 There are a number of reasons for that—most of them very good reasons, in fact, like spending time with old friends in town for an evening, or taking care of my wife when she had a particularly depressed evening. Most importantly, the goal has helped me be much more disciplined in my own personal devotions (which have happened much closer to every night than the blog posts have these last two weeks).

Maintaining discipline on any endeavor like this is tough, though. Writing takes mental energy that can be hard to come by at the end of the day, and doing this particular project at the beginning of the day has been a non-starter for me. I find it very difficult to transition from writing to programming (though not the other way around), and since I get paid to develop software but not to write, it only makes sense to start with the software work. Come 9 or 10 pm, though, when I finally have time to start on the devotional writeup, and it has sometimes been difficult to find the emotional, mental, and even physical energy to crank out 500 words.

It’s not that it takes a particularly long time to write 500 words—half an hour at most—but that careful reflection and writing well are simply hard. That, of course, is also part of what makes them so rewarding. Few things that are really worth doing come without some effort; this is no difference. I’m not sure whether I will continue shooting for daily posts when I finish this 6-week session. While I would like to, my family has to come first, and my work and schoolwork both have to get done before pleasure-writing. More, I have two other major creative projects on my plate at the moment, one of them announced and coming along, albeit slowly; the other still in the germination stage, but aiming for a January 2014 launch, which will require a lot of setup. I am going to make a point to write no less than once a week, though, because I have so profoundly enjoyed the discipline of writing regularly.

As I have often found throughout the years, writing helps me see my own thoughts more clearly; indeed, it often helps me forge my thoughts. At the same time, I am now often writing academically, and being “forced” (by my own desires) to write more simply for a non-technical audience is both good for me and pleasurable. In any case, it has been just about 8 years since I started blogging—on Xanga, of all things—and I don’t intend to slow down now.

  1. My respect for folks like Christian super-bloggers Justin Taylor and Tim Challies has gone up substantially, though of course more for their early days than for now, when it’s a part of each of their jobs. 

Writing: always something that isn’t finished yet

I sat down this evening and started working through James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom again – I’d started in on it about a month ago, but have been very busy with my classes for school. In the span of about an hour, it prompted considerable reflection, the vast majority of which is not published below. (I’m sure you’re all thanking me.) There were a few thoughts that simply demanded to be let out, however – not least because the first one prompted me to actually write something again.

Late last year, I started working on the project that was to become – and then not become – The World As It Is, a book that I’m no longer publishing.1 Since that process came to an end, I’ve hardly written a thing. Oh, I’ve published a short post here and there on some technical things over at Designgineering, but I haven’t actually done any real writing to speak of.

There are, I think, basically two reasons for this. One is a sort of mental aimlessness that arose from no longer having that major goal to work toward. Combined with deadlines for work and class that simply made it easy to push that particular bit of writing aside, this malaise meant I simply stopped writing for the most part. An unfortunate turn of events, to say the least, but on my own head be it: sometimes writing simply requires discipline, and I have failed to be as disciplined as writing demands.

A second problem, however, was my lack of surety about where to go next. After reading another book on the arts (one I’ll finally finish reviewing for Mere O sometime in the next week or so), I found myself with a great many thoughts and absolutely no idea how to say them. More: I did not want to say them if I could not say them well and authoritatively. Saying them well is one thing; saying them with authority is another. There is, you see, always another book I could read, always another author with something to add to my perspective. The sheer amount of knowledge available on any given subject is humbling and at times overwhelming. How could I ever say something important without having read everything else others have said about it?

If the question sounds silly, it is – at least, in a way. It came home to me tonight, reading Desiring the Kingdom, because I consciously thought, “I need to incorporate this in whatever I make of The World As It Is.” A number of points Smith makes fit very neatly into some of the categories I was already developing in my manuscript, and his work is already prompting me to reflect in new ways on some of those existing thoughts. This is good.

A moment later, I thought about the thought that had just passed through my mind.2 That experience was catalytic: it is always possible to read something else, always possible to understand more clearly. This is, in some sense, the final, humbling reality that any writer must face. Anything I can ever say will be imperfect, incomplete, insufficiently informed, and at least somewhere erroneous. Inevitably, I will find every piece worthy of modification (at best) or outright redaction (at worst) given sufficient time for reflection after the fact.

Is this not the human experience, though? Words are but a reflection of our lives, and our lives are always a work in progress. We are not static, but ever in flux, ever growing (or shrinking), ever changing and being changed. I know more today than I did yesterday, and will know yet more tomorrow. This post itself stands as a marker not of permanency but of precisely the ephemerality of our states that is intrinsic to our temporality. We are bound by moments.

Yet – and this is the glory of it all – we are also freed by moments. I cannot have the final word; but I need not have the final word. I need but to offer as wise a word as I am able from the vantage I currently hold. If, tomorrow, I may say it better, then I shall endeavor to do just that – but I shall not begrudge my past self his lack of knowledge, only strive to know more and do better the next time. I shall write, and be content not to have all the answers. There is nothing new under the sun, and if God is pleased to let his sun shine and his rain fall on the flowers of these words, that is his business and not mine. My job is merely to do my best to plant flowers and not weeds.

But that means planting, not wondering whether I might somehow first improve the seed.

  1. As it turns out, my work on The World As It Is began, in a very real way, exactly a year a go today. Odd. 
  2. This happens to me more often than is probably healthy for anyone. All too soon, I’m thinking about the fact that I’m thinking about what I thought, and you can see how quickly that heads down the rabbit hole… 

About that book…

So about that book I’ve been working on.

I’m still working on it. Whether it’ll be a book or not, when all is said and done, however, is a bit of a different question. A few things became clear in the last week as I continued discussing and working with the good folks at Cruciform Press — specifically that we had differing visions for the best way to approach the content of the book and the finances of publishing a book like this. (A lot of this falls on me, for not getting clearer details up front on all of the above.) As such, we’ve amicably parted ways. It’s been a pleasure working with their co-founder, Kevin Meath, and I appreciate his giving me a shot along the way.

As for The World As It Is, I don’t know exactly what it will be. What I do know is that I have about eleven thousand words done and a pretty solid plan for another ten to twelve thousand words, and that I’m going to finish writing what I had planned anyway. From there, many opportunities await — the publishing world has seen a resurgence of interest in solid long-form nonfiction essays, and this might slot nicely into that terrain with some revision and restructuring. In any case, it’ll be a fun ride. Of that I have no doubts whatsoever.

A distant, glorious echo

In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien boldy declares his dislike of allegory and notes that, whatever critics and readers have suggested, the novel is most certainly not an allegory. Nonetheless, Christian readers have insisted on finding parallels to Christian theology throughout his works, to the extent that they commonly consider various characters—Gandalf in particular—to be explicitly Christ-figures.


The Tower of Orthanc—Illustration by Alan Lee

Given Tolkien’s adamant rejection of any sort of allegorical reading of his text, we surely cannot admit of an accidental allegory; such a thing would not make sense. More, when we hold The Lord of the Rings up against works that are explicitly allegorical—C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, for example—we note that there is a real and even profound difference between the two in character and tone. We should therefore grant that Tolkien is not to be argued with here and move on.1

Still, Christian ideas keep popping up in his works: the death and resurrection of Gandalf, the unambiguously demonic evil that the heroes oppose in its various incarnations of Sauron or the Balrog, the king returning to claim his throne after a long stewardship, the long-awaited marriage of that triumphant king to a radiant bride, and so forth. While these do not have the sorts of explicit allegorical turns that characterize, for example, Lewis’ explicit identification of Aslan with Jesus, clearly there is something going on here. What is more, Tolkien himself would freely admit it.

The answer is simple enough. What many readers have mistaken for allegory is typology instead. Read on, intrepid explorer →

That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water…

When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”