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.
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.