It’s my 200th review. Yay! To celebrate both this and my two year anniversary, I’ve decided to do something a little special. Today, I’m going to be looking at one of the novels that I originally said I’d never review. This post is going to focus on the first book of the series only, without reference to its sequels, and is likely to contain major spoilers. You have been warned.
If you haven’t heard of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (published in America as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), where have you been living for the last two decades? Penned by J.K. Rowling and originally published in 1997, it really took the whole world by storm. The story was soon followed by its sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2005) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). In addition to this, Rowling published three short companion books for charity: Quidditch Through the Ages (2001), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001) and The Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008).
Harry Potter has always grown up as an unwanted child. His Aunt and Uncle – Vernon and Petunia Dursley – took him in after his parents were killed but only did so grudgingly. Determined to not spend a penny more than they have to on their unwanted nephew, they force him to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs and watch as they dote over their disgusting son, Dudley.
However, things soon change when Harry receives a letter inviting him to study at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. It turns out that both Harry’s parents were magical and so he’s bound to be as well. It’s not long before he’s whisked off into a world that he never knew existed. He makes his first real friends – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger – as he slowly begins to learn how to cast spells.
But it’s not all fun and games at Hogwarts. There is a secret hidden deep within the school and Harry’s sure that the potions master, Professor Snape, is trying to steal it for himself. As none of the other teachers will believe him, Harry, Ron and Hermione decide that they have no choice but to find out what Snape is up to and put a stop to it.
The quality of Harry Potter series is something that causes regular debates in my household. Nick judges them rather harshly as he feels that they’re highly over-rated while I…
…am still waiting for my Hogwarts letter to arrive. In all honesty, I love this series. I’ve read the books many times and, like many readers, would recommend them over and over. That’s not to say that they’re perfect (I’ll get to that in a moment) but they still hold a special place in my heart and I expect that they always will.
What’s the main draw of Harry Potter? Personally, I think it’s simply its message. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a wholly positive novel. That’s not to say that nothing bad happens in it. It still touches upon some serious themes like bullying and child abuse but the novel doesn’t ever dwell on such things. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a story about hope and friendship and courage. Harry’s childhood is undeniably awful but he never lets it break him. He escapes the abuse of the Dursleys and makes a new family for himself from the vibrant friends that he makes in Hogwarts.
A really good example of the story’s message can be seen in the development of Neville Longbottom; a timid boy who’s not very good at magic and is frequently targeted by Slytherins. While Neville exists to be tormented by them over the first half the story, he’s eventually encouraged to stand up for himself and, in doing so, also gains the confidence to eventually stand up to Harry when he believes that his friend is behaving stupidly. As Dumbledore puts it “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends”, which is a rather lovely message for the reader to take away with them.
The plot is also largely competent, containing a light humor and building a surprisingly complex mystery for a middle grade novel. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t seem a little flimsy in places. The biggest of the issue for me is purely something that I’ve never quite understood. Quirrell discovers how to get past Fluffy significantly before the end of the school year, yet waits for weeks before luring Dumbledore away from Hogwarts so that he can enact his plan. Why does he need to wait for so long?
I also have a few minor issues with her worldbuilding. For example, all of the school bullies are Slytherins. In fact, everyone we see in Slytherin appears to be an upper-class jerk. Where are the Dark Hufflepuffs? Why don’t Slytherins just get expelled from the school as soon as they’re sorted? Yet really, all of these problems are just me splitting hairs. While I don’t agree with people who claim that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a book for all ages (it’s very clearly targeted at middle graders) I do think that it’s a wonderfully whimsical story, brimming with charm and unforgettable moments, and it draws itself to a largely satisfying conclusion.
I do have some issues with the structure of the novel but, for me, these problems are largely dwarfed by the book’s sheer enjoyability. There is no way that I can argue that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an original concept. It’s a blending of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and The Worst Witch. Although Rowling does put her unique mark on certain small details, my favourite of which being Quidditch (oh, how I wish I could play this sport), many elements of her story have been recycled from earlier works.
It’s also not been fantastically written or edited as it breaks all kind of literary rules. Adverbs fly thick and fast and Rowling has a tendency to repeat words in close succession. Only in reading this out loud, I realised how clumsy some passages sounded. There’s a point where she refers to a black chess piece being made out of black stone and another where she repeats the word “pocket” three times in the space of two sentences. I also feel that the book ends incredibly suddenly, wrapping up in only a few pages and feeling almost as though it’s been cut off in mid conversation.
In terms of characterisation, this book is obviously Harry’s story. While Ron and Hermione do get a fair bit of development, the book is mostly told in third person from Harry’s perspective. He’s our everyman – a character who can learn about the wizarding world at the same rate as the reader. While he is a suitably likable character, he does lean towards being a bit of a Gary-Stu and I still object to the way in which he defeats Quirrell. He doesn’t even use any of the skills he’s learned over the course of the novel. Personal gripe, I know, but I wish authors would stop relying on the power of love to save the day.
While none of the other characters really receive any development, they still present a cast of really colourful, imaginative and likable characters. I have a particular love for Hagrid (how could I not?) and Nearly Headless Nick purely because the concept of being “nearly headless” still makes me smile. Snape is also surprisingly enjoyable. He’s just so much fun to hate. There is absolutely nothing about the character to like as he’s horrible to everyone for seemingly no reason. Everyone has had a teacher like that at some point in their life.
The only character that I find really unsettling is Dumbledore. I mean, the man knowingly left a child in what he knew would be an abusive home. And also allowed said child to return to said home at the end of the school year. What kind of monster is he? I just found that I couldn’t view him as being a lovable old man. He’s clearly hiding things from Harry and even sets him up in the hope that he’d confront a dangerous dark wizard by himself. Hermione has every reason to be outraged by his blatant disregard for the safety of his students.
Anyhow, this review is running really long so I just I should round up. Despite its flaws, I just still find it to be really enjoyable and it’s definitely a book I’d recommend. I don’t really agree with the people who claim it’s a novel for all ages but that doesn’t really matter. A good book is a good book, no matter who its target audience is. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a wonderful, heart-warming read that I think everyone should pick up at least once in their lifetime.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk