Bloomsbury, £7.99, ISBN 978-1-4088-5565-2
Fantasy, 2014 (Reprint)
Well, I’ve been late in the past month or so, so this time, I’m early with this month’s TBR Review Challenge. The theme is “Backlist”, so I am doing it with style… by reviewing something that was in vogue at least a decade ago, by an author that had been cancelled by the usual nitwits on social media because she said something they disagreed with. Not that I have much sympathy for JK Rowling, mind you, because she was more than happy to join in the canceling of the people she disagreed with in the past, when she was cool with the cancel culture mob. You know what they say: you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.
So, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone in the title is switched out for Sorcerer’s Stone for folks in the US, maybe because people in that country may assume that this one is about philosophy or the testicle of a philosopher, and they will recoil because they don’t like philosophy much. Anyway, who cares about the title, let’s see what the story is about.
Wait, do I need to summarize the story? Well, I’m sure there are some people out there, like me, who hadn’t read the books during the peak of Pottermania, so here’s the story. Once upon a time, there is a terrible, menacing villain named Voldemort, who is apparently so horrible that he is referred to as He Who Shall Not Be Named and other similar variations. When the story opens, he has murdered Harry’s parents, but alas, he can’t kill baby Harry because of the brat’s plot armor.
Apparently among the people that can do magic, this is a great thing—the baby’s survival, not the parents’ death—so they all celebrate by shooting fireworks and what not to the extent that even the non-magic users or Muggles notice that things are, er, happier than usual. Yeah, I’m not sure why these people are partying like that, as I’m sure that would just alert He Who Sits a Lot that there are many idiots gathering in one spot and sending out “We’re here!” bat signals for him to direct a magical nuclear bomb at their location, but hey, we’re all about Potter, not plot, here.
Anyway, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Albus Dumbledore, has his big bear of a dude follower, Hagrid, retrieve baby Harry and, to his number two Professor Minerva McGonagall’s dismay, dump that brat at the doorstep of the family that has already disowned Harry’s parents. Albus has a tendency to talk down to McGonagall and insists that the horrid Dursley clan is the best place for Harry to be. As you can guess, Harry grows up being mercilessly bullied and heckled and denigrated 24/7, thanks to this fellow that is supposed to be all sage and what not.
The bulk of this story sees Harry first being bullied to such a point that he was probably lobotomized after one too many injuries to the head, because the poor dear barely has any discernible personality here. His existence is to basically echo and parrot the reader’s thoughts as he discovers the wonderful world of being a teacher’s pet, or, in other cases, says things in order for the author to direct the reader’s thoughts or perception to where she intends them to go. The real “protagonist” of this story is the setting, if you ask me, because Harry is merely a conduit for the setting to unfold.
Mind you, this isn’t a bad approach, at least for a first book that is designed to reel the reader into wanting to read the next few books in the series. While the setting is nowhere original nor logical—why have a school of preteens and teens located next to a dangerous woods, and have shockingly lax security measures?—the author has a simple yet evocative narrative style that keeps me intrigued for the first half or so of this story. There is a nice sense of serendipity as I turn the pages during that first half, like I’m a tourist visiting an enchanting place for the first place.
I’m not sure about that scene in the magic shop in London, though, which sees Harry touching his first wand, a nine-incher, and finding it nice and flexible. He then handles a seven-inch wand, then an eight-and-a-half inch one, before settling for an eleven-inch “nice and supple” one as his personal wand. Seriously, how old is this kid again? Am I supposed to be reading this scene or are the cops coming to arrest me soon? The author is so explicit with the lengths of the wands and how these wands feel in Harry’s hand, I can only wonder, when Harry names his owl Hedwig, whether Hedwig is short for Hedwig’s Angry Inch.
Some of the scenes in this story are set up well, such as the hilarious efforts by the Dursley family to keep Harry from receiving his letter of acceptance into Hogwarts. It seems like the author has placed more thought into creating such scenes than into the entire story, because if I thought even a little about the story, so many things fall apart.
Wait, let me rephrase that: so many things fall apart, unless this story takes a darker route that would have made better sense of these illogical things. For example, Albus could have deliberately set Harry up for a childhood full of abuse to break that lad, so that he would be very grateful to Albus and see that man as some kind of savior—the perfect tool for Albus to use and manipulate in some nefarious plan of conquest, perhaps. Perhaps the magic-users have a culture of letting only the strong survive to adulthood, so it is reasonable for these kids to be put through “lessons”, “games”, and “trials” that can easily lead to disfigurement and death. In its current form, this story has magical rhymes and genuine threats to under-trained kids within the school itself co-existing, and the whole thing doesn’t gel unless it is revealed in a later book that Albus is actually Voldemort all along and this entire set-up has been him trying to figure out the strongest kids in this batch for him to corrupt into being his minions. No, that doesn’t happen, sorry.
Harry could have been a damaged character with all kinds of hidden angst and what not ready to be unleashed, but in this one, he’s just a blank slate. Still, things aren’t so bad at first, as I’ve said. The staff and kids of Hogwarts all idolize him to a ridiculous degree, and for a while, our hero points out the absurdity of this. I actually like this, as this is one important point completely missed out in the movie: the movie acts like it is completely reasonable for even experienced, wiser wizards to fall over gushing in excitement over some boy whose greatest feat is somehow not getting killed by He Who Remains in the Sidelines. Again, this could have been a wonderful set-up for a genuinely compelling arc: Harry cracking under the pressure of having to live up to unrealistic expectations, maybe turning to the dark side as a result. Will that happen in a later book? Who knows… oh wait, it won’t. Sorry.
It doesn’t help that by the second half of the book, the author completely undergoes a tonal shift. She begins having the staff of Hogwarts lovingly throwing at Harry all kinds of convenient plot device, from a new broom to a cloak of invisibility, so that Harry can become the coolest kid in town with the ability to pull convenient solutions out of his rear end because of such favoritism on the staff’s part. This isn’t fun at all. Not only does this favoritism mean that Harry never fully earns his victories in this story, he never undergoes any compelling zero to maybe-a-bit-more-than-zero journey that would have fleshed out his character better. Poor Harry is really a blank slate plot device, that the author has to actually shove a new broom up the poor boy’s plot bunghole instead of making him work to earn that broom, maybe because it’s a British thing to favor your pedigree over your actual merits or something, I don’t know.
Again, this makes sense if the school were deliberately creating a Battle Royale-style playing field, driving his peers to be so jealous of him that they will continuously attempt to kill him, just to test his mettle. Alas, the author plays it straight: anyone who is jealous of Harry getting favorite treatment is a Slytherin meanie, and if you aren’t with Harry, you’re so cancelled, bye.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone could have been the start of dark and disturbing series. The elements are in place. The woo-woo users treat Muggles with disdain, so in actuality, it makes far less sense for them to not be on Team Grindelwald and try to exert dominion over the inferior species. The entire school is a hot bed of “let’s kill off the kids that are too weak to survive the trials” episodes, and for all the lip service they put out, the adult staff members are way too careless about the safety of their students. The lead character is all kinds of crazy waiting to be unleashed, Ron has family and self-esteem issues, and Hermione seems like a mad scientist or fascist tyrant in the making. One reason I suspect why this series is so popular is because one can create interesting alternate universe fanfiction with these characters, with premise and plots that sometimes make more sense than the one presented here. It’s like Superman, who is kind of flat and boring—make him evil, however, and he becomes a hundred times more compelling and even relatable. Harry Potter would make one hell of an anti- or even outright villain.
Anyway, all things considered, this is an alright read. It’s an illogical mess full of concepts that tend to contradict one another, but there is still something about the narrative style that manages to captivate me and keep me reading. Maybe that’s the real magic of this series, I don’t know. Let me read the rest of the books in the series to find out.