Today I’m going to start a series talking about each canon source, giving my thoughts about it and maybe sharing some memories from my twenty years of being a Harry Potter fan.
We’ll start with book one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Now you’ll notice I used the American title because that’s how I first discovered the book. I was a librarian at the time and many of my fellow librarians excitedly recommended that I read this new book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They just knew I’d love it. At first, I mistook it for another book which came about the same time called Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm. I read that book and honestly couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Sure, it was a cute little picture book but hardly something that others would be breathlessly recommending.
It didn’t take long for me to discover my error and read the real book. This was in 1998. I loved it, of course, and read it over several times. More like five or six time.
Since the first book – first TWO books, actually – came out a year later in the US than in the UK, I heard rumors about the second book shortly after reading the first and I seriously doubted that I would like it. For one thing, it seemed to have a flying car in it. That didn’t bode well. It didn’t fit in my image of the world of Hogwarts.
In a way, I was relieved. The way I get into a fantasy book series like this overwhelms my life. I start taking notes and I debate plot points and details of the world with others. I really didn’t have time to start doing that with this new Harry Potter thing. So I was perfectly fine with NOT liking book two.
But I read it, and my worst fears were confirmed. It was delightful. And I started taking notes.
Back to book one.
When I go back and re-read Philosopher’s Stone, I’m struck by the whimsical nature of the writing. It’s sort of a cross between the quirky dark humor of James and the Giant Peach and the poetic whimsy of Winnie the Pooh. The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, even in the darkest moments, and all the time we feel like the threat is not really all THAT dangerous. The big reveal with Quirrell hosting Voldemort’s face on the back of his head is surprising, but still not all that threatening.
You might point out that a villain’s face growing out of the back of someone’s head is horrific and gruesome and terrifying, and you’d be right – if it was portrayed the way the chest-burster scene was portrayed in “Alien.” Rowling doesn’t write it that way. Voldemort isn’t free and flying around and covered in blood, he’s stuck in place, unable to do anything but scream insults and commands. Quirrell never comes across as a terrifying villain but more as a bumbling patsy. And through the entire book, the build-up to the final encounter never reaches the terror level of, say, the attack by a hundred Dementors in book three or the truly gruesome rebirth of Voldemort in book four.
I get the feeling all through book one that Rowling is consciously writing for children. She’s emphasizing the school days part of the story and letting the mystery sneak up on us while we watch Quidditch matches and make friends with Hermione wonder how Harry is going to outsmart that mean Draco Malfoy.
Rowling doesn’t stick with this tone through the rest of the series. Each book is edgier than the last, building up to the big break point at the end of book four. From that point on, all whimsy is gone as Rowling writes not for children but for young adults.
In Rowling’s plan, the first book has one main job: to introduce us, through Harry’s eyes, to the wizarding world and, just incidentally, to its underlying tension. We begin to get the sense that there is a deep threat which most do not see and our first limited encounter with that threat serves make us sit up and take notice. The world we’re discovering and falling in love with is wonderful in many ways, but beware. There are thorns in this wonderful, whimsical garden.
In the Harry Potter Lexicon Minute podcast you’ll hear the voices of our editors sharing some of the many little things which delight us about the Wizarding World. In each podcast, just a couple of minutes in length, we’ll talk about anything from cool trivia and interesting canon passages to the latest Wizarding World news. We hope you’ll join us! And we’d love to hear from you as well. Feel free to use the comment section on the blogpost for each podcast to post your thoughts.
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Music: "Winter Chimes" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License