Settling in to re-read Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone, for our American friends) this week, it occurs to me that my last re-read of the first three Harry Potter books would have been almost a decade ago. In fact, as I think hard upon the timeline, it would have been in the lead up to the 2007 release of Deathly Hallows.
Why, as a self-proclaimed Potterverse fan, have I not read and reread these novels with the same frequency that I extend to, say, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Bryson’s Down Under? What has changed in the years since I first read and reread Harry’s early years at Hogwarts to this present day?
The answer, it would seem, is…. me.
Reading The Philsopher’s Stone now, in my thirties, when I am more engrossed in the fictional world George R. R. Martin has brought to the page, or the characters of Stranger Things and Orphan Black have brought to the screen, I now realize that Philosopher’s Stone is… actually not that good. It’s full of plot holes and clunky exposition that a child reader may breeze past unnoticed, but causes the adult reader to cry out “Oh, come ON!” with alarming frequency.
Let’s assess some of these moments, shall we?
First and most obvious, a large majority of the characters are very black and white, to the point of being two dimensional. Vernon Dursley, Argus Filch, the kids selected for Slytherin house, they are all victims of goodie-versus-baddie lines drawn very early. Even Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy, by their very names and early actions, are robbed of the character complexity that reveals itself in future years as Rowling’s writing matures, along with her readers. For now, instead, we’re left with blatant profiling – the personas of the school houses, anyone? – and awkwardly obvious names (Severe? Dragon? Malicious? Sigh.)
Also, the “Alohomora” charm bothers me. Hermione, a girl of barely 12 who has known about her magical abilities for only a few months, wields it with ease in Chapter 9. It doesn’t matter here that Hermione is the smartest and best of her generation – it’s likely that just about anybody can use that charm to the same easy effect of unlocking just about any door, ever!! What do these wizards do about privacy and security?? No wonder the evil minds of wizard-kind decide to skip past petty larceny and go straight for world domination instead. Breaking and entering is child’s play!
On the exposition side, Rowling is careful to make sure every last clue to the solving of the final who-how-when mystery is concealed within her pages. It is Agatha Christie-level detail, but while some are masterfully subtle (the first mention of Nicholas Flamel, Quirrell hovering beside Snape each time Harry feels his scar twinge), other moments are blindingly obvious. On the mirror of Erised (Chapter 12), for instance, does it not occur to Harry to read the writing right-to-left? Also the revealing coverage of the Gringotts robbery in The Daily Prophet (Chapter 9) — no wonder a trio of pesky pre-teens were able to solve this mystery!
As a novel for young children, it’s superb and thoroughly deserving of its legion of lifelong fans and their (our) fervent dedication. The opening line is adorable, down to the “thank you very much”. Funny throw-away lines are scattered throughout; one notable favorite is the description of the school brooms, vibrating if you fly too high and always flying a little to the left. Teehee!
From an adult perspective, though, you begin to wonder how the Wizarding World can really manage to keep their gossip as detailed and up-to-the-minute as Chapter 1 suggests it is, with nothing but a pack of flying birds to spread the information. Another plot hole that reveals itself as the book series carries on: the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts professor is revealed to have changed hands annually ever since Tom Riddle was denied the position, yet Professor Quirrell seems, within these pages, to have had the job for several years?
To conclude, I’m somewhat relieved I first read these books when barely 20, or I may have completely missed being part of those dozen HP-mad years. I may not have met some of my best friends, I may not have been able to include myself in the last sixteen years of random fangirl conversations. But I’m now definitely too old, or have moved too far beyond, these early books now. I think.
That’s #1 down. Stay tuned next week as I reread Chamber of Secrets!
O.W.L Report Card
Moments when Muggle technology could’ve saved the day:
Dumbledore is “summoned to London” the day the secret villain attacks the hidden treasure — wouldn’t a quick telephone call have been a handy way of bringing him back sooner?!!
Moments Hermione was the real hero in this saga:
That impressive logic puzzle set by Snape in the series of trials protecting the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry would have withered, died, and turned into a bleached skeleton if he’d tried to escape that room alone!
Moments the movie did better:
Speed in general. Hurrying through the first six chapters prior to Harry reaching Hogwarts in barely 20 minutes, skipping though Hagrid’s dull Norbert storyline… You have to appreciate the efficiency!
Final Grade: A (for Acceptable in the O.W.Ls)