Friday, December 23, 2011

Series Criticism: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998) by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series is like a wave. Everybody (and by that I mean people who have the chance to live in first world countries and to read) knows about it, knows the little guy with the circular glasses on the cover above this writing, with his orphan-status, his sad state of affairs living with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, and his entrance into the magical world of witchcraft and wizardry. That one is kind of a main point for this series, wouldn't you say?

I'm actually going to be rereading all of the Harry Potter books, and I will be looking at them from, I think, a unique perspective. I was a crazy little person in love with this series from around the time I was eleven until I hit about eighteen, when the final book of the series came out. I was really into the books for about the same amount of time that Harry Potter was in his magical school having his tales told to us... but then the seventh book happened as well as all of the abortions that call themselves films, and I became jaded and cynical. I had a deep and terrible falling out with the Harry Potter series. I started hating the world. The ending of the Harry Potter series along with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the fourth Indiana Jones film, and Futurama and Firefly being cancelled all helped to create the jaded and cynical madman writing this review. Sure, there were probably other reasons, like maybe possible mental imbalance and a massive overload of psychological horror films (and Jacob's Ladder), college, House of Leaves, and massive overdoses of caffeine, but those are totally not the point of this review.

This review is about the first book of the Harry Potter series as reviewed by a person who can no longer stand Harry Potter. I say this because I lived in the years of this book series. I was ten or eleven when I read the first book and all of eighteen when I read the final abomination of the English language, but you know, I'm going to be fair here, not letting my own personal history hating the Harry Potter books get in the way of an honest and reliable review for all of you who might want that. I will be rereading the books, even the ones that make me angrier than I've ever been, bringing me to the verge of a heart-attack and a massive brain aneurysm together making a double-hatred death... but I will do this, mostly because I love torturing myself, and partially because I feel like I should give the series another chance, let it try its best to redeem itself in my eyes. And well, I wrote this introduction before reading the first book, so everything that follows will be my honest opinion of the book twelve years after first reading it, taking into consideration that I am no longer ten, and pretending very strongly I have never read the books before. Expect a large review, full of plot analysis. I will be going all out here. I will be looking at the five musts of book writing as well: tone, theme, plot, characters, and setting, and will also drive a focus on writing style and skill, trying to accurately describe my experience. Anyway, this will be a ride-and-a-half and I hope to get it all done before the end of summer, so sit back and enjoy this sucker. I hope I do too!

Okay, I did not finish the book by the end of the summer. Hey, you get busy, it happens. Then my October reviews came along and college, blasted college, and I've been playing catch up for a while now, but here it is: my crown jewel reviews, the ones that I am really looking forward to. This first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Also subtitled as Philosopher's Stone in most other markets that aren't America... and that would make more sense too. The Sorcerer's Stone isn't anything, while the Philosopher's Stone is what is featured in this book as used by Nicholas Flamel and desired by Voldemort and his "host" Prof. Quirrell.) Oh, by the way, expect spoilers. I say this after I just wrote a major one, but I am heavily expecting only people who know about Harry Potter to read this. If you don't, it's been out for over ten years! I think I can spoil something that was spoiled over ten years ago, you hypothetical stupid git.

Okay, I'm going to start with plot and plot analysis first because the plot here is pretty meaningful to the book. It starts off years before with an opening prologue discussing the recent deaths of certain characters we won't see again for some time. These characters include Harry Potter's parents as well as Voldemort, the great evil wizard who has it out for the wizard world because he's evil and terrible and likes death and pain and he's evil. Did I mention that he's evil? Because he is evil.

Well, we are introduced in the prologue to Dumbledore and McGonagall, a wizard and a witch who respectfully work as the headmaster and Transfigurations professor (and deputy headmistress) at Hogwarts, a school for witchcraft and wizardry. Oh, God... this is hurting to write. You all should know this already if you're reading this review... Anyway, eventually a hairy big dude named Hagrid comes down from a flying motorcycle thing owned by one Sirius Black with a hairy potter in his arms... uh... wait... I mean, Harry Potter, the titular character of the series in his arms. Harry's a baby by the way and he has this wicked lightning scar on his forehead, surviving the spell of death, which his parents had succumbed to, and vanquishing Lord Voldemort (he's evil by the way) because he's a baby who's pure and innocent and bleh. I get it, book. I get it. Evil versus good. Fight!

So, little Harry Potter is given to his aunt and uncle because he has no other family to speak of. They happen to be horrible guardians of this unnatural  ilk, often treating him as one might treat a dog or a cat rather than a sensitive young person who needs to be nurtured and made into a hipster. Wait... look, he's treated pretty awfully, to the point of it being incredibly fairy-tale-like. And I have to say, it's pretty well done. You sympathize with him. You want him to get out of his bad situation. And yet you know that he's stuck there, stuck there with no way out, under the thumbs of guardians who can't stand him and a cousin who uses him like a punching bag. He has no friends to speak of, rarely goes outside, and is basically stuck in a cupboard constantly. In short, he has a pretty horrid life.

This is all written in a highly convincing manner. Certainly there are some amateurish parts here and there, but you can certainly feel what's going on. The language is not superb, but it is well done and sufficient to get the point across. There is a little while spent on Harry being weird, doing stuff no normal person should be able to do, disappearing glass, talking with a snake... you know, the usual. And then he starts receiving the letters, the letters of his acceptance to Hogwarts. Well, the Dursleys, his aunt and uncle, are incredibly unhappy about this, going so far as to nail things shut and never go outside so that the letters will not reach their nephew. They eventually flee to a house on a rock in the middle of a body of water and are confronted by an angry Hagrid, telling them off for not saying that Harry Potter is a................. WIZARD.

Most of the introductory chapters are written in an almost surreal fashion. It is extremely over-the-top, but not unenjoyable. I could compare it to Roald Dahl and some of his more absurdist books that I read when I was younger. James and the Giant Peach and  Matilda really stick out, both having somewhat similar feelings and even plots to this book in the very beginning of it. And yet... it's enjoyable. It's fun. You like the main character of Harry Potter. Hagrid is new and interesting. The Dursleys are horrible people, petty and antagonistic in some ways, and Harry's goal is one of being accepted, growing in a nurturing environment rather than being stifled and stepped-upon. And it works. The tone is fitting, the plot interesting, the characters, while not three-dimensional, are engaging and mystifying.

And then the book gets better.

Think about all the possibilities that a normal kid, treated in a subpar way, can think of after this. The scenarios, the everything... it's mindboggling. And this giant, Hagrid, basically kidnaps Harry away to a sleazy alley. Oh... oh God... Hagrid... I hope this isn't going where I seriously don't want it to go. No. No, of course not. Hagrid's a good person, which is very good, and the sleazy alley is Diagon Alley, the mall of the wizards. I have no idea if British people... I can call the British, British people, right? Well, I have no idea if they even have malls or if those malls are all set up like this, but where I'm from it sounds like some kind of cozy little seedy mall. And I like it. The feeling here is somewhat claustrophobic and hectic, but neither feeling is wrong in this circumstance.

Hagrid leads Harry to Gringotts, a wizard bank, and learns that his parents were fairly well off before they died. Harry takes out as much money as he'll need and goes off to get the things he'll need for the upcoming school year. He gets a wand, robes, books, and... well, of course, a pet owl from Hagrid because owls are where it is at. Hedwig becomes Harry's friend throughout his adventures, a stalwart and constant companion. Anyway, Harry also meets a few other people in his adventure in Diagon Alley, including one little blond boy named Draco Malfoy and scores of strange characters.

Well, the story has to keep moving on. Harry is brought back home by Hagrid and Harry has to wait for a while until school starts up. He feels like a prisoner and a villain within his house and is glad when he gets to leave for school. He's eventually, after the long summer, dropped off at the train station with everything in hand, only to discover, OH NO! The platform that he needs is nine-and-three-quarters. Well, that's strange and kind of weird and probably doesn't exist. Harry's been duped! And the rest of the story is him getting legal action on Hagrid for fraud.

No, I'm yanking your chain, foolish reader. Harry just has to believe in it. Yes, he starts doubting, but then a family of friendly gingers come and board the platform, helping Harry out because they are simply very nice people. Harry meets Mrs. Weasley and some of her children, namely Ron (a new student like Harry), Percy, a prefect, twins George and Fred, and the young lady who is not old enough for school yet, Ginny.

Well, it's all very interesting. Harry and Ron become fast friends as Ron explains to Harry the knowledge of Hogwarts that he has gained whilst being in an actual wizard family. Some shenanigans ensue, Draco Malfoy is met again, this time clearly disliking Ron and very much desirous of Harry's friendship, which Harry does not seem to want to give.

The story moves on then. Hogwarts is seen, the Sorting Hat sorts the kids into one of four different houses in the school... uh... kind of like how you might have been in different teams in middle school or something. Each house has its own flavor and only certain personalities go into a certain house. Gryffindor is populated by smug, self-righteous people who think they're better than the rest of the school population. I suppose they are supposed to be courageous or something, but that's not always entirely true and seems vaguely stupid. Ravenclaw is full of know-it-alls and clever people even though nothing interesting ever seems to ever come out of Ravenclaw. Slytherin is made up of evil people and bullies, which seems kind of smart if you want a way to get rid of them all quickly, but really stupid if you have a house made up of the biggest pricks of the school population just reinforcing their own shoddy ideas. And then there's Hufflepuff that... uh... I still have no idea what Hufflepuff does. I think they're the rejects or something...

The rest of the story is about Harry and Ron learning about their studies, learning about their classmates, and finding adventure in the worst places. Harry joins a sports team as their seeker, which is him basically playing a big game of hide-and-seek with a small golden ball called a snitch, while the others on the team play the actual game. Quidditch sounds interesting, I suppose, if impractical. Ron and Harry meet a girl named Hermione eventually, who is Gryffindor and a know-it-all, which shouldn't be the case given the rules for the houses, but... okay, I guess? Anyway, she becomes their friend as well and they get into all sorts of trouble with an invisible cloak that they, for some reason, can all fit underneath, a baby dragon, and detention in the forest which leads Harry to start looking for some great Unicorn killing villain. Also, there's Neville Longbottom, who has one of the most unfortunate names in history and is treated like a butt-monkey throughout the book by our lead characters and others despite being a fairly good person. Let's yell our praises to the heroes for that, huh?

I like the Christmas scene for some reason. I feel that it is incredibly appropriate to the feeling of the book as a whole. Characters opening presents and being happy on a day that should be happy is kind of neat. Harry's awkwardness around Christmas also expands upon his character quite a bit. He has never really had a good Christmas and... well, it works here. It is very effective.

The forest scenes, though, are some of the best of the book, equal parts mystery and creepy. Harry being forced to share the scene with Draco makes it all the more interesting as the two characters act as interesting foils for one another even this early in the series. Draco is somewhat selfish and somewhat cowardly, but is only eleven years old, whereas Harry is much more brave and willing to put himself in harm's way to do something good.

The story moves on and reaches its climax as Harry suspects that Severus Snape, his Potions professor, is up to no good. Ron, Harry, and Hermione go and explore a labyrinth of tests to reach a magical mirror introduced earlier in the novel. They solve these tests saying once again that one should not design an impregnable labyrinth to be solves by an eleven year old. Well, solved it is and the figure at the maze is none other than cowardly and stuttering Professor Quirrel who wore a turban to disguise the fact that he had Voldemort on the back of his head. Huh, that's an incredibly odd climax to this book, I have to say.

Well, Harry defeats Voldemort with the power of his mother's love somehow and ends up happy and alive in the end while Dumbledore praises him all over. Then Harry goes home and... that's it.

Well, the book was certainly fairly good for a while. The earlier half of the book is incredibly well thought out and well paced. Once the train is boarded though, it seems as if the pacing goes all to hell and the story starts making some peculiar choices. The houses being made up of the stereotypes I mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. Why are there no math classes here at Hogwarts? Isn't math important? What about literature classes? Or... anything really? How can an entire society be absolutely removed from the "muggle" (non-magical) world? I guess that always confused me. It still does, especially with what little we see of actual magical society. They seem completely removed from the muggles, almost a completely separate offshoot of humanity, ignorant of our life as we are ignorant of theirs... but that makes no sense. Certainly it makes sense in something like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere because it's all happening underground or secretly, but that's because they can't get back up into the real world. They're stuck beneath society, forgotten. The magical society though, is right next to the muggle one, right in the same area, and everything and yet... they don't meet, or at least rarely do. I don't quite get it and it doesn't seem right to me.

The latter half of the book, besides the forest part and Christmas, mostly feels too quick-paced and unneeded for my taste. There's a lot of hints for the ending of the story, what with fluffy, the mirror, and Quirrel, but they are absolutely superfluous and just seem to make the story longer without any real character or plot development to speak of. Honestly, besides the Quidditch matches, classes, Christmas, and the forest, there is very little development of anything in the latter half of the story. With such an interesting opening, the ending of the book feels very much stagnant and dry.

Certainly there are some other set pieces that work well, like Harry and Ron saving Hermione from a mountain troll in the girls' bathroom, and some of the scenes that Neville gets kicked around in. I have a lot of sympathy for Neville and also for Draco. Both characters are very well characterized, but mostly seemed very undeveloped, used instead as comic relief, butt-monkeys, or as a distinct bully character. Both have the issue of not appearing three-dimensional despite the reader's desire to want to make them three-dimensional. It almost seems as if J. K. Rowling had an issue with both character types.

The fantasy elements are mostly well put together, if a little amateurish, and the school itself very much feels like home after just a little while there. There's something cozy about it, something very much warm about its atmosphere except in the very depths of night. That being said, the writing for the most part is well done for a young adult/kid's book, and for the most part flows very well from beginning to end even in the more extraneous parts. The tone is fairly consistent throughout, with a fairly dark feeling that emanates from every corner of the story. The characters are mostly fairly strong except those that are very one-sided, like Snape, Draco, Neville, and most of the side characters. Only Harry, Dumbledore, and perhaps Hermione have any real depth to them, something that becomes more apparent over the course of the series rather than less apparent. 

Anyway, I have to end this review now. It's taken a long time to get this one out because of the complicated nature of the material and also the fact that I have a dark history with the Harry Potter series. It took a lot of cajoling to get me to read this book again, and... the second half of it I wasn't very happy at all. The main characters solving the puzzles despite being eleven seems to be a particularly glaring example of lazy writing all around. Why would the school even do that? It seems so dumb and ridiculous. Yes, the story is fairly ridiculous already, but come on, you know exactly what I mean here.

In the end, I found this book to be satisfactory. It's nothing incredibly special, but it is certainly not terrible. The beginning is very well put together and the character of Harry Potter is both complex and interesting. I guess the next book beckons.

God help me.
God help us all.
Six books left and I could barely get through this one. Somebody help me. Somebody shake me and tell me "No!"

*Sigh* I do this for the writing, readers. I do this because I want my voice to be read by somebody and maybe, just maybe, I'll have somebody agreeing with me... or people screaming at me telling me that the story is perfect, how dare I say anything critical about such a masterpiece... I don't really care what people say. These are my thoughts and opinions and... well, first book down...


  1. Surprisingly good read. Review was spot on, and well written. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks! I really want to go and do a review of the second book, but time is not really on my side right now. Maybe eventually.

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