Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in the US in 1998, though it was published in 1997 in London under its original name–Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I don’t think I read it for the first time until late 1999 or early 2000, but I then proceeded to reread it over 20 times. My parents, the very models of intuition, bought me Harry-Potter-themed sheets, pillow covers, and blankets, and I was even given a Harry Potter official (yeah, official, try beating that!) journal in which I took multiple notes. I still have it somewhere, but I’m pretty sure it says things like, “I wish I could go to Hogwarts” over and over. Because really, I spent the next 4-5 years spending most of my time thinking about how amazing life would be if Hogwarts were real. And that was pretty much most of high school.
So, onto the book! I spent most of my reread thinking about what it is that makes Sorcerer’s Stone (and the series overall) so special. If you really think about this story, there’s not a whole lot of new stuff at work here, or at least there doesn’t seem to be. Our hero is a character who lost both of his parents to an evildoer under mysterious circumstances and grows up with an inherited, innate power. The tragic childhood wrapped in an enigmatic narrative is nothing groundbreaking (which is not to say its not compelling), and the pairing of it with a magical ability that is both connate and unbreakable (despite the Dursley’s many attempts) makes this story sound kind of like a fairy tale, though there are certainly other comparisons one could make. The innate ability that will see Harry through the crappy situation is reminiscent of Oliver Twist, the awful, semi-family upbringing makes me think of Cinderella and her crappy faux-sisters, and the shadowy circumstances surrounding the Potter’s death (and Harry’s own orphan ingress into the narrative) recall texts like Tom Jones or even The Winter’s Tale. I don’t bring any of this up to bag on J.K. Rowling or her books; I’m 100% team Harry Potter. I’m just trying to figure out what makes these books so uniquely amazing and unbelievably compelling, because the structure, as I’ve just suggested, isn’t anything new (at least at the start), and the inclusion of magic in a narrative certainly isn’t the invention of Rowling. So, what’s so great about these books and, more specifically, what is it about this first book that makes it so great at pulling so many readers along for the ride?
I have no goddamn clue. Because the thing is, even though all of the pieces of the story are ones we’ve seen before (even later on, the stuff like Found Family, the team test to reach the last boss, the imposter syndrome Harry feels just before and right away at Hogwarts), they come together in a way that seems both successful and weirdly unique. My thought here (and this could be way off, so please tell me your thoughts) is that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in addition to the series at large, recreated the urban fantasy genre as something not necessarily centered on the spacially urban narrative as much as the tonally urban narrative. That is, the Harry Potter series (and book one specifically) carries some of the urban fantasy stuff people like Laurell K. Hamilton started up, but the real genius of Rowling is the way in which she takes the epic story of magical education, the stuff every little kid dreams about (“I have this special ability–which means I’m special–and I’m going to go to this magical school where everything is awesome and I can fly on brooms), and somehow makes it even more incredible by layering it with the sort of hum-drum coloring that the urban fantasy carries. It’s the distinction between looking at that really cool thing (the Balrog from Lord of the Rings for example) from afar in order to allow it to maintain a sense of mystique and getting so close that you can see the things that make it tangible and codifiable. For instance, the sorting ceremony at Hogwarts should be an enormous and regal sort of thing in this type of narrative, and it is for the most part, but the students are sorted by a dusty old hat that sings. This kind of dramatic undercutting is where Rowling really excels, and it tends to make her books better instead of cheaper, at least for me. I’m not really sure of anyone who has done this kind of thing as well as Rowling, though I can think of several who have since done it a lot worse…*ahem* Jim Butcher *ahem.* What are your thoughts?
I was also really struck this time by the persistent obtuseness of the Dursely’s in terms of Harry’s unique qualities. It’s easy to forget that they know exactly what’s going on with him when he suddenly finds himself on the roof of the school or makes the glass disappear (apparently to let Nagini out?), but all of the punishments he receives for the extraordinary stuff are based on a knowledge that this is not intentional, at least we can suppose that’s the case. Not to draw too large a parallel to our world, but I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which the stubbornly ignorant and obtuse return to the old standard of putting their heads down and pushing with all of their might to fit those people who aren’t like them, the LGBTQ community for example, into a conventional mold. There’s no attempt to understand or appreciate or respect the other person; it’s just a blinders-on kind of situation in which you make them fit the mold you want or else. There is that little story about how Aunt Petunia tried to get Harry to wear a horrific sweater that kept shrinking the harder she tried to fit it around his head, and it struck me as an especially representative example of how the close-minded among us completely ignore every other factor in every situation except their desired effect. I haven’t really thought this comparison through all the way, and I’m sure it probably comes apart on some level, but I do think it can give us a little glimpse into how the willfully ignorant both approach situations of diversity and, similarly, how they fail utterly there. In conclusion: sit on it, Dursleys!
So, for my book one awards:
(My apologies for not having page numbers; I read it on my kindle, so I’ll just leave you with chapter numbers and titles)
Favorite individual character moment:
‘“There are all kinds of courage,” said Dumbledore, smiling. “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”
Someone standing outside the Great Hall might well have thought some sort of explosion had taken place, so loud was the noise that erupted form the Gryffindor table. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stood up to yell and cheer as Neville, white with shock, disappeared under a pile of people hugging him. He had never won so much as a point for Gryffindor before.’
~~Chapter 17, “The Man With Two Faces”
“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
~~Chapter 10, “Halloween”
Chapter 16, “Through the Trapdoor” — We finally get to see the team working together and playing to their strengths. It also becomes painfully clear that our heroic trio is pretty much dependant on the awesomeness of Hermione.
Most Badass Hermione Granger Moment:
‘Hermione let out a great sigh and Harry, amazed, saw that she was smiling, the very last thing he felt like doing.
“Brilliant,” said Hermione. “This isn’t magic — it’s logic — a puzzle. A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”
“But so will we, won’t we?”
“Of course not,” said Hermione’
~~Chapter 16, “Through the Trapdoor”
And why won’t you be stuck in there forever, Harry? Oh yeah, because Hermione is an fantastic witch and she has an awesome brain to back it up!