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.

Ha.

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.

Comments (7)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I actually read and enjoyed the first two books. I know a lot of people like how the books grow steadily more serious in intent as the series progresses, but I liked the two I read precisely because they had an almost guileless quality about them. The third one started with a quidditch final. I’ve always been allergic to watching any sort of sport, or reading about it (magical or otherwise!) so I bailed out. I guess there were a couple of other reasons – I was a man in his late thirties (hardly a typical demographic) and – along with sports – I don’t really like school-based fiction. I feel the same way about campus novels, funnily enough.
    Just wondering if it’s worth giving the series another shot?

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I agree about the sport aspect of the books, and I always find it tiresome when a quidditch match begins. Perhaps it’s meant to represent the sort of heroic field of endeavour you find in fantasy books but can’t have in modern life — the closest thing to going out for a bout of knightly combat. I at first though quidditch was meant to be a parody of cricket and the likes with confusing rules and tiresome traditions (not to mention silly language), but it recurs in the books too much for it to be just a joke. And the fact that all the other players’ goal scoring can be trampled over by someone catching the Golden Snitch seems rather unfair…

    I started re-reading the series partly because someone remarked how much they’d found them better on a re-read, and I’d always been struck by how the whole thing builds up to what I felt was a quite perceptive allegory about the return fascism in a society that ought to know better. Re-reading the first two books has certainly made me feel it’s been worthwhile so far. But I am tempering my reading of the series with other books (Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse at the moment).

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I read ‘Orlando’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ last year, but never got round to ‘The Lighthouse’ (although it’s on my tbr pile). Generally I like to mix SF etc with the odd classic* – the irony being that the classics are often more compulsively readable (e.g. MiddleMarch).

    * no classics on my kindle at the moment, though!

  4. Murray Ewing says:

    I really liked Mrs Dalloway, and read it again shortly after reading it for the first time. Orlando, which I read last year (I think) I just couldn’t get on with. Though it did remind me of late 60s Moorcock!

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think she’s one of those authors you can only read so much of – it’s a bit like working your way through a box of chocolates (if, like me, you have a sweet tooth) – I started with ‘Orlando’, then read ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and did begin ‘The Lighthouse’ only to decide enough was enough. It’s funny you should mention Moorcock, as I automatically thought of ‘Gloriana’ (although I guess you meant the Jerry Cornelius books?).

    Woolfe had a very ambivalent attitude towards Joyce. He was clearly a big influence, yet she also despised him. I read ‘Ulysses’ shortly before reading ‘Mrs Dalloway’; there’s a scene in which the Irish Viceroy travels by carriage from the Viceregal Lodge to Dublin Castle. This is about a third of the way through the book. You’ve been introduced to a whole raft of characters, many of whom are going about their various businesses – out for a stroll, having a singalong in a nearby pub – and who hear and/or see the carriage. This was about ten years before independence, so reactions are mixed – one character ironically doffs his cap, another curses the viceroy under his breath etc, etc. I only mention this because there’s a scene in the middle of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ – the scene in which the car/carriage of some (unspecified) member of the royal family is parked on some busy street: it sounds a bit like Oxford Street, but I’m not sure – and a respectful hush settles over the populace on realising as much.

    I’d see ‘Mrs Dalloway’ as Woolfe’s riposte to Ulysses, and this scene as a riposte to the scene from Ulysses – ie as a case of Woolfe pinning her class loyalties to the mast. But then again, maybe not!

  6. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s fascinating about the Viceroy and the Member of the Royal Family. I’ve not read Ulysses so I’d never have got that, but I love that sort of interaction between works. In my reading of Lighthouse, I’m only managing about five pages before I find myself endless re-reading the same sentence, as Wolf’s sentences in that book are so long, you really have to stay alert just to match the verb to the subject (or is it the object?).

    And yes, I did mean the Jerry Cornelius books. I’ve read Gloriana (a long time ago), and thought it was Moorcock doing his version of Mervyn Peake! (Maybe that was just down to the books I knew at the time.)

  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about ‘Gloriana’, although it must be thirty years since I last read it. I remember a villain who was very similar to Flay (inasmuch as he spent a lot of his time creeping along secret passageways etc).

    I only made it about five pages into ‘The Lighthouse’ too!

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