The last few days, I’ve decided to re-introduce myself to the JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. You probaly know that when a topic has the scent of controversy about it, the Christian fundamentalists (far more conservative than my personal religious leanings) usually make some sort of stink about it. I have seen this trend for most of my life: TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons games, Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ—heck, I even remember hearing a sermon preached about Pac-Man, and about Ravel’s Bolero.
So, this is a review, sort of, of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I suppose you’re wondering what I can add to the thousands of reviews written for the seven Harry Potter novels. Frankly, I’m not sure myself. I’d never let a little thing like repetition stop me. You probably know the plot of the Potter novels. You’ve probably seen the films, swore loudly as you stepped on the Lego pieces in the dark, and maybe you’ve even bought the vibrating Nimbus 2000 broomstick—it was pulled from Toys ‘R’ Us shelves, when an alarmed public realized more naughty adults were buying them for themselves than for their children.
Over the years, I’ve come to decide for myself, with Judi’s opinion mattering greatly of course, what is (or is not) appropriate for my eyes, or my children’s. So, in 2001, I picked . This was 10 years ago, to this very month, when Daniel was in first grade. I wanted to see all the fuss for myself. I wanted to introduce Daniel to a genre I loved and, maybe deep inside myself, I wanted to disrespect the decrees of the fundamentalist Morality Cops just a little bit.
I need not have bothered worrying about the Morality cops. Rowling is an amazing writer (Her name, by the way, rhymes with Bowling, not Prowling). I knew, going into the series, that the story was about a boy wizard. I did not expect her adeptness at setting a tone. Take, for example, the opening sentence of this famous novel: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” With less than 25 words, she captures the attention of the reader, sets a stage, and divides her world into two camps: those who are normal, and those who were not. She employs a light irony in her narrative that neither mocks the reader nor her characters. Moreover, this was Rowling’s first novel. Each character introduced—the boorish Dursleys; Hagrid, the hairy motorcycle-riding giant; Professor Dumbledore (a Merlin/Gandalf analogue, if there ever was one); and thin-lipped Professor Minerva Macgonagall, followed by the hero of the series, who is maltreated by his Aunt and Uncle.
We follow the young lad as he meets the wizarding world, and is accepted into Hogwarts, Britain’s foremost school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and confronts the malevolent Lord Voldemort, who created such havoc at the time of Harry’s birth that the magic community still refers to him as “You-Know-Who.” Her sentences are usually pitch perfect, and she has an uncanny way of blending genres with excellent writing.
A word about genre literature in general, and fantasy literature in particular: it is no stretch to find other series (Machale’s Pendragon series, and Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series both spring to mind) written for young adults, where a young person of unknown magical powers are introduced to a world with an evil overlord that only he may slay. I’m okay with this: it’s the mark of genre literature, in the style 12th-century heroic balladeers. The story isn’t the plot, so much as how it is told.
I think I’m letting my head get in front of my fingers a bit as I type, so let me rephrase: genre literature is supposed to be fixed in form. Potter falls neatly into the heroic category, as well as fantasy genre, as well as the bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel). I say this because we expect genre literature to fall inside a genre. We expect Harry to confront The Dark Lord, and probably to lose Dumbledore along the way (in much the same way as George Lucas penned his Star Wars series). We expect him to find allies along the way, and for Potter to make enemies. Rowling does something substantially more: she writes her characters skillfully and believably, in every single page. Harry Potter and his friends are comfortable in their genre skin, in an unforced manner. Hermione is now a famous name because the frizzy-haired, brainy 11-year-old witch was written with letter-perfect precision. Many other authors of Young Adult fiction fail at the same task Rowling set for herself.
I can think of no better endorsement for Rowling and her work than the following anecdote. My son Daniel was unable to read his own name at the beginning of first grade. By Christmas day of that same year, he had completed the first two Harry Potter novel. Say what you will about the witchy, supposedly-non-Christian values of her magical world, she taught my son to read. His blinders were lifted and it set him on a lifelong track that makes this librarian not only proud, but amazed. A person rarely gets to see literacy actually happen in a person. I have JK Rowling, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, to thank for that gift.