Friday, 11 October 2013
Review: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In theory, I should hate this book.
It has a Chosen One and a Dark Lord, for goodness' sake, which is a trope that's been so driven into the ground you can barely see the top of it. The worldbuilding is whimsical and absurd. Half the moments of progress for the protagonist involve luck or coincidence. The heroes are 11 years old and excessively competent. It starts with a prologue (not labelled as such, but it is) all about the dull and ordinary lives of some unpleasant people who aren't even the protagonists.
So why do so many people love it? Why do I love it? Why do we even seek out badly-written fanfiction of it in order to get more?
Here's what I think. On the flip side of the whimsy is a powerful sense of wonder. Harry's dull suburban life at the start is replaced by the wizarding world, which is full of life and colour and fun - and risk and adventure, too. It's exactly that prologue-of-mundanity that sets us up for the world to open out like a tropical flower as Harry and Hagrid enter Diagon Alley, and later Hogwarts. The wizarding world is intense, it's a place where things matter and great issues are at stake, like high school only much more so.
I used to think of J.K. Rowling's great strength as being plotting, because she weaves plots and subplots together so competently. Every book has them: Who will win the House Cup? Who will win at Quidditch? How will the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher be nobbled? Will Harry get caught sneaking round and punished? Will he find out about the mysterious thing? What new method of transport will be used? What will Malfoy plot, and how will he be foiled, and will his father hear about this? Later on, who will snog whom, and will it last, and who else will be jealous? Who will be killed? Will Neville do something courageous and/or stupid?
Now, I look at it in a slightly different way. What Rowling is so very good at is raising questions, like the ones I've just posed, and giving us reasons to care about the answers. Then she staggers questions and answers so that we keep on having a reason to read on.
Very often, the reason we care is that the characters care, and we identify with the characters. Her most important characters are outsiders: Harry, raised by abusive foster parents without knowledge of his heritage; Hermione, too smart to be popular; Ron, from a family without much money or status; Neville, raised by his grandmother and a bit of a nebbish; Luna, eccentric as a brush; even Snape, greasy, bullied, unlucky in love. We see how they're underdogs, and we cheer for the underdogs as they strive and struggle and triumph (and sometimes fail, and pay the cost, and keep fighting anyway).
Her characters have distinct voices. Hagrid's is the most distinctive on the page, but every one of them sounds different, from sarcastic Harry to hoity-toity Hermione to rough-hewn Ron to dreamy Luna. Having seen the films, of course, helps, but even in text, the voices are clear and distinct. A few of the background characters might be interchangeable, but even then, you'd never confuse Seamus with Dean, for example.
And the characters matter to each other. Their relationships, good or bad, have power. They answer the questions together, and those relationships help and hinder and change and develop as they do so.
Not everything about the series, or the writing, is as good as it could be. There are parts you don't want to think too hard about, and sentences that don't bear close inspection. Overall, though, we see relatable characters with important connections to one another, solving multiple overlapping problems that they care about in a world that's vigorous, fresh and alive, and that's what made the author richer than the Queen.
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