Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling

The first Harry Potter cover, by Thomas Taylor

Like Narnia, Oz, and Xanth (with which it also shares the idea of magically-talented people living hidden from un-magical Muggles/Mundanes), J K Rowling’s wizarding world is what I think of as a “cornucopia fantasy”: one that borrows liberally from all traditions of myth, folklore, and fantasy, resulting in a story-world that’s rich in wonder, jokes and imaginative archetype, an adventure playground of familiar-but-remade-as-new things, but that doesn’t feel as consistent and realistic as, say, Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

It’s undoubtedly story that’s the series’ strong point. It’s certainly what brought me back to it, thinking I’d get a better appreciation of Rowling’s more subtle touches of storyish richness a second time round. So, what story is she telling? With fantasy, I usually look to the fantastical elements to see how they spell out a theme — Tolkien’s One Ring embodying the addictive lure of power, for instance, or Peake’s Gormenghast encapsulating the labyrinths of human oddity that wreathe us in gloom and isolation — but with Rowling’s world, I was at first tempted to say the magic exists simply to serve the story, sometimes for a single book, sometimes for a single moment. Rowling plainly ignores Rule One of all those How to Write Fantasy & SF books I used to read: in every one, you’re told to create rules for your magic, and stick to them, or you’ll lose your readers.


eBook cover, by Olly Moss.

In the Harry Potter books, individual spells may have rules (often completely arbitrary ones) such as you can’t apparate in Hogwarts, or that polyjuice potion requires certain hard-to-find ingredients, but those rules are just there to provide the props and constraints of the story, not because they derive from some deeply-thought-out system. You have to get the pronunciation of “wingardium leviosa” exactly right to levitate a feather, but point your wand at a schoolfellow and shout “Eat slugs!” and one of you will soon be eating slugs. That’s not because Rowling has finely-reasoned special cases for her magic system, it’s because she’d rather tell a joke.

I think, though, that with the Harry Potter books the meaning of the fantastic element is in the sheer ability to use magic. Because magic equals power, and (as I said in my Game of Thrones post), so much of fantasy is about power: its use, its misuse, its consequences on others, its effect on oneself. The closest Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone gets to Game of Thrones is when Professor Quirrell says, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” And in Game of Thrones, that’s true, but it’s not true in Harry Potter. I feel that, in the Harry Potter books (and perhaps in life, as well), power is neutral, neither good nor evil, but as soon as you start thinking of it that way, you’ve taken your first steps on the road to evil.

2014 edition, art by Jonny Duddle

And evil is another of the series’ grand themes. That could be said of a lot of fantasy, but I think Rowling handles it better than the crude sort of good-versus-evil, and they’re-evil-because-they’re-born-that-way you might expect from a book with such a gleefully pulpish title as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There’s really only one pure example of either good or evil in the Harry Potter books, and that’s Voldemort. And although we later learn that this evil was once embodied in a human boy called Tom Riddle, in this book we encounter that evil presence in a far more appropriate form:

“See what I have become?” the face said. “Mere shadow and vapour … I have form only when I can share another’s body … but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds …”

Pure evil rarely takes a human form, but it needs to be brought into the world through people. Evil only has the power and agency we lend to it.

In this first book, Harry, Hermione and Ron are all young enough to think in strict good and evil terms, but by the end of Philosopher’s Stone this has proved to be a weakness. Just because Professor Snape is a bully, they assume he’s evil, and so think he’s trying to get the Philosopher’s Stone to bring back Voldemort. But they’re wrong. Snape is a bully, but he’s also got an incredible loyalty to those (few) people who win him over, and fortunately that loyalty has been won by Dumbledore and Lily Potter.

US cover by Brian Selznick

As the series goes on, virtually every good is compromised or fallible, and every evil is humanised, at least partly. The wizarding world itself, at first, seems “good” compared to the ignorant dullness of the Roald Dahl-ish Dursleys, but in the books to come we find it’s riddled with all sorts of petty evils: prejudice, slavery, complacency, and an exploitation of rare magical creatures that puts Chinese medicine to shame. We’ll come to learn of dark sides and fallibilities to many of the “good” characters — Dumbledore, benevolently-bearded Aslan of a headmaster that he is, is all too often absent when he’s needed, puts Harry in considerable danger, doesn’t tell him key bits of information, and is a little too slick with end-of-book wisdom. (“After all, to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Which sounds very nice, but I don’t think being organised is at the core of facing up to death.) And can’t you feel a little bit of sympathy for nasty little Malfoy when, in a later book, he machismo’s himself onto the path of utter evil?

For me, the most unsettling characters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone aren’t Voldemort or Quirrell, but the strictly neutral characters. Ollivander the wand-vendor, for instance, who says:

“He Who Must Not Be Named did great things — terrible, yes, but great.”

Which is perhaps the first truly chilling moment in the series. And then there’s the Sorting Hat (which must have, at some point, sat on a young Voldemort’s head), telling Harry:

“You could be great, you know, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness…”

“Greatness” is what you win with power. Dumbledore is also called great, but it’s most fittingly said by Hagrid:

“…Dumbledore let me stay on as game-keeper. Great man, Dumbledore.”

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

Another thing the Harry Potter books are about — and this first one in particular — is friendship and family, “finding your tribe.” The wizarding world reminds me of the Seerkind in Clive Barker’s Weaveworld: a bunch of creative misfits, talented in strange, wild ways, but fay, and just different enough that the Dursleys of the world want to persecute them, so they hide away.

Harry’s story, aside from being about facing up to the rise of evil, is also about truth. “You’re too nosy to live, Potter,” Quirrell says, while Dumbledore warns Harry away from one of the many misuses of magical power — escapism — in the short-story-like chapter, “The Mirror of Erised”, with the admonition:

“However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth.”

Harry’s story is all about seeking the truth — he is, after all, a born Seeker, in search of the Golden Snitch (“snitch” being a word for one who tells a truth). He seeks the truth about who he is, what happened to his parents and why, who Voldemort is and how he gained so many followers. As his own story about the return of Voldemort moves steadily forward, so does the revelation of its roots in the deeds and misdeeds of the past. This struck me as one of the more powerful aspects of the series, how it tells a tale about the very complex means by which evil can gain a foothold, even in a world that thinks itself well prepared against such a thing.

US Anniversary edition, art by Mary GrandPré

One puzzling aspect of the series I still don’t feel I’ve got a hold on is the theme of fame that runs through it from the start. Harry is famous because he “defeated” Voldemort, and everything he does receives an exaggerated approbation or blame because of this. There’s a peculiar air of everything happening in public that was never a part of fantasies of the past. (Unless you go all the way back to Le Morte Darthur, whose knights were so concerned with “worship”, as they called fame.) I’m not sure how intrinsic this thread is to the series, or whether it’s just a modern touch from our celebrity-obsessed world. Hopefully I’ll make more sense of it as I re-read the series.

Fun as the first book is, I know the Harry Potter books really get into gear later on, but only when enough of the world is established for those story-roots to set in. I’m planning on writing my way through them in future Mewsings.


Big Mister by William Rayner

UK HB. Cover by William Blake.

At the start of William Rayner’s 1974 YA novel Big Mister, its protagonist Simon has just returned to his mother’s Lancashire hometown after living with his parents in Africa. His father, an anthropologist who sees the African people not as people but merely something to study, has decided his son needs to be educated in England (partly because Simon has been having fainting fits), so sends him back to live with his cousin Anne. While in Africa, Simon had dreams of a man standing on a tall rock, stretching out his arms towards him. The family’s African cook, Jonas, took him to a local nganga, or diviner, who interpreted this to mean a “Big Mister” or ancestral spirit was calling to Simon. He gave him a shell ndoro necklace to wear as a token of acceptance of this call, and to protect him from muroi (witches). Afterwards, the fainting fits stopped.

Being shown around the Lancashire town by his cousin Anne, Simon sees the rock from his dreams. It’s known locally as the Owdstane, and is scrawled with graffiti from both modern and olden times. He senses the Big Mister reaching out of the past for him, but is brought back to the real world by Anne. A few moments later, though, both he and Anne suddenly find themselves snatched into the past — to 1823, to be precise — but not by Simon’s Big Mister. They’ve been conjured into this former age by a man called Earl Sylvester, part stage magician, part sorcerer, with “a voice of almost stealthy charm, gliding along the branches of the language like a serpent.” He wants Simon and Anne to take part in a scheme he’s been hired for by a local cotton manufacturer, Mr Hoylake: the murder of Samuel Barraclough, an “agitator” (though when we meet him it’s obvious he’s just a compassionate soul with a belief in the rights of workers in this Hellish world of the early Industrial Revolution).

The magic comes thick and fast. Sylvester hypnotises the two teens so as to use them to get at Barraclough. Anne is taken on a strange journey into a world inside a tapestry by Sylvester’s witch-friend Lady Rose, while Simon gets transformed for a short while into a pig. He also witnesses the first stirrings-to-life of Grimalkin, a magical automaton Sylvester is going to use to deliver the final blow to Barraclough.

Stag Boy, cover art by Michael Heslop

This is a far different book from Rayner’s previous YA novel, Stag Boy, which mixed dreamlike, shamanistic magic with everyday realities, and addressed some tricky issues of masculinity and teenage sexuality head-on. With Big Mister, I felt the author might well have been having more fun, indulging himself with a cast of eloquent, colourful characters and some outright magical adventures, but it doesn’t feel as raw and desperate as Stag Boy, nor is the story quite as compelling. For a long time, Simon and Anne are passive observers, getting to see too large a number of characters and situations before we understand what’s going on, and the action only kicks in at about the two-thirds point. Having Simon and Anne hypnotised (or pretending to be) for so much of the novel, and stuck in the past, makes it all seem so much less immediate. One (quite major) point I don’t remember being answered is why Earl Sylvester felt the need to snatch two kids from the future at all. As they were only there to be hypnotised automatons, surely kids from Sylvester’s time would have done just as well?

Whereas the themes of Stag Boy are strong from the start, and are inseparable from the fantastic elements, Rayner’s theme in Big Mister has to be more explicitly spelled out (which it is, in one particular chapter, where Simon gets a lecture from Sylvester’s rat-familiar), and so ends up feeling a little more theoretical than the previous book’s visceral adolescent angst. Dr Flack, an “economist and philosopher” who spends his days justifying manufacturer Hoylake’s inhuman treatment of his workforce (“I am able to prove conclusively that it is impossible for an employer to injure his workman…”, and “…it is cruel, yes, cruel to the workman to try to alleviate his lot”), is obviously no better, in Rayner’s eyes, than the “infernal conjuror” Earl Sylvester. Simon and Anne’s enslavement through hypnotism is a fantasy parallel to the work-enslavement of the poor of 1823, but it doesn’t feel as powerful an enactment of theme as Jim Hooper’s union with the stag in Stag Boy. Towards the end of the book, Simon is treated to a brief sample of what life was like for poor working children, and it’s a nightmare of narrow chimneys, claustrophobic pit-work, and flagrant abuse. It’s obvious Rayner could have written a far more hard-hitting time-travel novel if he’d wanted. (And he’s keen to point out that, though we might think things have improved in the present, that’s only because we’ve pushed the poverty overseas and out of sight.)

Barraclough, meanwhile, preaches an almost Blakeian message to the town’s workers:

I see you with the eye of the imagination, and I say that each of you is a precious gem. When I look at you, I do not see ‘labour’. I do not see ‘hands’. I see the myriads of eternity, but I see them in chains.”

When I reviewed Stag Boy, I hadn’t been able to find much about William Rayner, but I’ve since located him in a couple of reference books (and created a Wikipedia page for him). He was born in Barnsley in 1929, and became a teacher and lecturer, working in what was then called Rhodesia for the second half of the 1950s. He had a couple of adult novels published at the start of the 1960s, as well as a nonfiction book about the African people (The Tribe and Its Successors: An Account of African Traditional Life and European Settlement in Southern Rhodesia, 1962), which included a chapter on the nganga. More adult novels followed at the end of the 60s, then he tried his hand at YA with Stag Boy and Big Mister. After that, he returned to adult novels, most of which were historical, and quite often set in the American West. (The Trail to Bear Paw Mountain, for instance, follows the Victorian explorer Richard Burton on a trip to the western United States in search of gold.) 1979 and 1980 saw the first two novels of a proposed trilogy set in the same period that Big Mister’s Simon and Anne visit, the early Industrial Revolution, but no third novel seems to have been published. And, as far as I can tell, Rayner hasn’t had anything published since, though he lived till 2006.

It would be interesting to know why Rayner left off writing for young adults. Stag Boy feels like it fits in with other YA books of its time, including those by Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, William Mayne, and the Penelopes Lively and Farmer. Big Mister fits too, with its mix of kitchen sink concerns — mostly class and racism, here — with folkish-feeling magic, though it’s less successful as a novel, particularly one for younger readers who might feel the first half kept introducing more and more colourful characters without establishing a solid plot. It seems to have had no paperback edition, so perhaps it didn’t sell well enough to encourage its author (or his publishers), though he obviously had a flair for pushing the boundaries of teen fiction. And why did he later stop publishing altogether, halfway through a trilogy? That, surely, can’t have been lack of success, as the 1970s saw him publishing ten books, many of them in both the UK and US. Hard to know how I might find out, but it would be interesting to learn more about this author.