Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

This week I’ve been indulging in childhood nostalgia, by re-reading the Harry Potter series. I’ve only reached the second book so far, but I am already falling head over heels in love with the series all over again. I’d always assumed that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the most childish of the series (not that that’s an entirely bad thing: the way the narrator’s understanding advances with Harry’s is admirable), and certain moments, like the scene in which the Dursleys flee to a decrepit shack out at sea, upheld this prejudice. For the most part, though, I was thoroughly and surprisingly impressed by The Philosopher’s Stone.

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J.K. Rowling’s writing is unabashedly sophisticated. The plot is multi-layered, featuring several small but satisfying subplots. Considering the scope of the series as a whole, it’s amazing to appreciate how much is established from the outset; even the smallest, seemingly insignificant details allude to future events in the series. Rowling’s language itself emphasises this sense of intricacy, she inventively crafts terms, such as ‘unDursleyish’, which perfectly matches its meaning. Rowling makes great use of humour, too; several lines in The Philosopher’s Stone made me chuckle out loud. This comedy sets Rowling’s writing apart from other children’s authors:

Friday was an important day for Harry and Ron. They finally managed to find their way down to the Great Hall for breakfast without getting lost once.

Rowling’s characterisation is similarly adept. While the Dursleys appear almost irredeemable, they are not mere caricatures. There’s an underlying darkness, for example, to Petunia’s character, who is so intensely jealous of her sister that she attempts to crush the magic out of her son. This sense of depth is characteristic of Rowling’s writing; like George R.R. Martin, no character is entirely good or entirely evil (though I’d argue that Voldemort is a notable exception).

The popularity of the series has endured because of its underlying adult themes. Although the books are humorous and full of light-hearted moments, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not merely the frivolous story of a boy wizard and a school for magical children, but is instead a series which poses deep and probing questions about friendship, love, bravery and death. This is evident even in the first book: Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised is an astoundingly poignant moment in The Philosopher’s Stone. The fact that Harry is an orphan is not simply a convenient plot mechanism, as it allows for an exploration of Harry’s grief for his parents, which develops throughout the series as he comes to appreciate the magnitude of his loss.

When Dumbledore leaves one-year-old Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep, McGonagall ponders the significance of the night’s events: ‘Every child in our world will know his name!’ J.K. Rowling can’t have fathomed, writing those lines, that one day McGonagall’s prophecy would come true. From this fantastic introduction to the series, however, it’s easy to appreciate the reasons behind Rowling’s phenomenal success.

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6 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

  1. Being too old, I never got to read these with a child’s eye, but still found them wonderful as an adult. At the time I was working in a school for kids with behavioural problems, and these were the only books we could ever interest them in reading… I really hate when people get sniffy about them – she enthused an entire generation.

    • I feel the same about people who are sniffy about the books – a lot of my teachers had that attitude, and complained that children wouldn’t move onto more advanced books after reading them. I’ve always found the opposite to be true: most people I know who love reading now started off with Harry Potter, and still harbour a deep love for the series. I completely agree that Rowling’s writing enthused a generation and did wonders for child literacy.

      Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂

  2. I’m re-reading HP too. I was reluctlant at first because the last time I picked up the series I was a teenager and my idea of a good book changed since then. I was afraid of being disappointed by a story that I remembered amazing, but, after reading again the first couple of chapters with the same enthusiasm I had when I was younger I knew everything was going to be as great as I remembered.

    • It’s always a bit daunting returning to books that you’ve enjoyed before! I’m glad you haven’t been disappointed by HP so far :). I definitely think I’m enjoying the series just as much, if not more, as I did when I read it at first.

      Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂

  3. I just finished reading this book the other day, and, like yourself, I decided to go back through the series again, which I will probably make an annual thing from now on as I love the books so much. The reason why Voldemort is so incapable of love and, therefore, the only character in the book who is out-and-out evil is because he was conceived under the affects of a love potion. I’m sure the fact that his father never truly loved his mother, and, in fact, was quite repulsed by her without the love potion, only stressed the evil residing in him.

    I also noted how early on you are introduced to the seething rivalry between Snape and Harry’s father, James. You learn in the first book that one of the reasons Snape hated James so much was because after all the crap he pulled, he had to save Snape’s life, but you don’t find out why until, I think, The Prisoner of Azkaban. The first book is also when you start to see Harry’s bias toward Snape start to take shape and why things are so questionable and mysterious with him as you delve into later books.

    It’s interesting because Harry overhears a conversation between Snape and Quirrell in the forest where Snape questions where his loyalties lie, and that is basically what Harry is forced to do with Snape throughout the entire series because Snape’s arrangement with Dumbledore and his seeming loyalty to Voldemort (remember the phrase “once a Death Eater, always a Death Eater”) causes a lot of confusion, not just with Harry but with other characters, such as Voldemort himself and even Bellatrix.

    Anyways, I will stop here. Once you get me started on Harry Potter, I could go on for days if you don’t tell me to shut up. Lol. Would love to read more of your thoughts on the other books, as well!

    • I like the idea of returning to the series on an annual basis; I think I’ve re-read Harry Potter more than any other book! I really enjoyed all the revelations about Voldemort in the sixth book. It made his motivations much more understandable and actually made me feel slightly sympathetic towards him, because he was denied the love that Harry enjoyed. I watched an interview with J.K. Rowling (possibly one of the special features on the Deathly Hallows dvd) in which she was discussing her charity work and said that after writing Potter she discovered that the parental love experienced by young children has a massive impact on their brain development as infants. As Voldemort never experienced such love, whole pathways in his brain would have failed to light up. In the same way, being loved powerfully as a child would give someone like Harry a strong and tangible connection. I thought that was kind of amazing when I heard it.

      Rowling introduces the relationship between James and Snape early on and I’m enjoying watching Harry find out more about it as the series progresses (I’m just about to start Goblet of Fire). I remember being incredibly shocked and devastated, though probably not as devastated as Harry, to discover that James actually bullied Snape in Order of the Phoenix.

      I’ve always had mixed feelings towards Snape myself. He’s an amazingly complex character, and probably one of Rowling’s best creations, but I was surprised that Harry named one of his sons after him. Snape’s story is tragic, but I think I find it hard to forgive him for ever willingly becoming a Death Eater and for bullying his students, even after experiencing firsthand how horrendous bullying feels.

      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts! It’s great to hear from a fellow Potter-fan :). I hope you enjoy reading the rest of the series! I don’t think I’ll blog on every book in the series (as I enjoyed Chamber and Azkaban so much I forgot to stop and take notes!) but I’ll definitely be writing on Potter again once I finish :).

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