Sunday, 15 March 2015

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - Reread Review (Mario)

I read Myriam’s reread review before it went up on Shared Universe Reviews and I was delighted to see she wrote different things than I did about the first book. There were, of course, some similarities but as always, different people can like the same thing for different reasons. For the purpose of my post, I’ll focus on the differences between my appreciation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone than Myriam.

One of the great things about rereading a series, especially a fantasy or science fiction series where world building plays a considerable role, is seeing old things with a new perspective. It can be a double edged sword however because world building is something that’s done progressively and sometimes things from earlier on in the series won’t always match up seamlessly with some of the later novels. It’s more problematic for some series and less for others but I have to admit, that Philosopher’s Stone being J. K. Rowling’s first published work, it holds up pretty darn well to a sober second look.

I’ve read most of these books several times; except for the last one which I’ve read only once (I was disappointed with it but more on that later in the reread). I’ve had plenty of opportunities to notice any of the discrepancies in the series caused by additional world building or expository explanations of events. I’m more interested in seeing how well the series holds up for me personally after several years. The seventh book came out in the summer of 2007 and I haven’t attempted a reread of the series since then. Will I still enjoy the book or was my enjoyment of it based on how old I was at the time? I’m a different person now than I was six years ago. That might seem like unnecessary exaggeration but I wasn’t even a teen when I started to read the series and I’m now an adult. The last six years occurred in a turbulent period of time in any young person’s life (moving out on my own, attending and graduating post-secondary, making my way onto the job market, etc.).

I shouldn’t have worried so much. Reread The Philosopher’s Stone was great! There is so much to like here. I no longer unabashedly love every little aspect of Harry Potter but there is far more to enjoy here than there is to dislike. One of the things I liked the most about rereading the book is that I have a better appreciation for what Rowling has done. She tells what could be a difficult story for a large audience to enjoy because of the heavy presence of fantastic and magical elements. A lot of people do not read fantasy because they find it difficult to hold back their sense of disbelief. I know that can be a difficult thing to accept but believe it or not, some people read books for reasons other than escapism. It makes me sad too but I don’t fret over it, those people generally lead pretty mundane and unimaginative lives.

Rowling is able to suspend disbelief in two ways. The first is that the main protagonist is also completely new to the world. We learn with Harry as opposed to learning from him. There aren’t a whole lot of expository paragraphs where Rowling takes advantage and provides the reader with world building info dumps. The discovery of the Wizarding World is done through interactions with other characters. World building through character, that’s brilliant! It’s far more interesting and effective that way. This isn’t a new idea in the fantasy genre but so few books I’ve read actually do it that way. This is combined with a slow transition into the Wizarding World. The story begins with Mr. Dursley while he’s at the office and the reader is progressively taken deeper and deeper into the new world. Because Harry Potter is something I would categorize as urban fantasy, Rowling was able to use a slow progression with her world building.

It’s easier to accept some of the magical elements because it’s grounded in a world we understand. I’m convinced that’s one of the things that help this series reach such a wide audience. Most of the series also takes place in an environment everybody understands: a school. Sure, it’s a very strange and wonderful school but a school nonetheless. There are bullies, there are assholes teachers and there’s also a few teachers that will radically change your outlook on life and influence you years after you’ve graduated. There are also friends, school sports, homework, etc. It’s all things people are familiar with but in a completely different context which still allows the reader to recognize what they are. Homework is homework whether you’re studying potion making or chemistry.

I believe another contributing factor to the success of the series is the formula Rowling established in the first book which she continued to use for the majority of the series. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is, essentially, a whodunit. It’s a mystery story in the fantasy genre. Many people have a curious nature and a mystery directly feeds that curiosity. Unfortunately, the mystery of what is being guarded at Hogwarts never really worked for me. Seriously, who doesn’t know of Nicolas Flamel? My eleven year old self knew of him. Not only that, but this is one of the times where using a real historical person in one of her books, doesn’t work. If he’s a well-documented person in the Muggle World, would Nicolas Flamel not be even better known in the Wizarding World? Maybe his stuff was censored due to the possible ramifications of his research but that’s never even hinted at, so I don’t think it matters. What interested me and kept me reading was the thought that Harry and his friends would catch Snape doing something evil and be able to report it to Dumbledore and prove, without any doubt, that Snape was trying to steal whatever it was that was hidden at Hogwarts. I guess, in the end, Rowling’s mystery fooled me because it was never really about the stone.

Harry Potter series fan art by DeviantArt user palnk. Click on
the image for a larger version

The main thing that makes Harry Potter so popular is that Rowling does a very large amount of world building but she does it in a way that isn’t overly detailed. It’s clear, and her simple but direct writing style helps the reader absorb the detail without feeling overwhelmed. There was a time where I was feeling self-conscious about my love for the Harry Potter series and I would often criticize the style of writing but I was wrong to do so. One of the best things about the series is how accessible it is. It’s very interesting to me that a book about magic doesn’t go into too much detail about magic itself. There isn’t a complicated magic system like in many other popular fantasy series (I’m looking at you, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson).

What’s nice, like Myriam pointed out, is that there are a lot of world building details that also contribute to story that we can spot in the earlier books upon rereading. Things like Harry being a Parselmouth just appear like a strange happening to the reader and the people at the zoo in the first book. But once we’re at the second year of school, heck, something that was just odd now takes on a completely different and darker tone. Other things like the phoenix feather in Harry’s wand or the first encounter with Firenze in the Dark Forest. All these little things that happen in the first book that take on more weight as the series progressed really contributed to the feeling that this is a real world, built from the ground up. A lot of these details, I’m sure, where already established by Rowling by the time she began writing the first book. Maybe she didn’t have a specific plan for Firenze, but at least she knew he was going to appear again. Other things, like Harry being able to speak Parseltongue, were most likely planned in greater detail. Either way it’s impressive and it’s important to the experience of reading the series for a first or fourth time.

However, there is a flip side to the progression of world building in the series when looked at in its entirety. Remember how Harry and other underage witches and wizards are not allowed to use magic during the summer vacation? Well, that particular rule doesn’t seem to really exist for most of the first book. Ron tries to turn Scabbers yellow on the train and just a moment later Hermione shows up and admits to having practiced spells at home. She then fixes Harry’s glasses. If she’s not allowed to use magic after her first year of school, after having received an education in casting spells, why would she be allowed to use magic before ever starting her first year? It seems like that’s when she could potentially be the most dangerous since she’s completely ignorant of the mysteries and laws of magic. Rowling only mentions they aren’t allowed to use magic outside of school at the very end of the first book when one of the characters mentions they’ve all received letters forbidding them to use magic. It’s inconsistent and unclear as to what the guidelines would be in the situations with Ron and Hermione, but that’s ok because the idea gets revisited time and again in later books.

There are a few other moments like that in the first book. One of them is Dumbledore’s decision to fly to the Ministry of Magic instead of disapparating. Is that because it’s something Rowling hadn’t thought about yet? Later on in the series, she mentions that you’re unable to apparate or disapparate out of the Hogwarts grounds. If Dumbledore was in a hurry, the best thing to do was for him to leave the grounds by broom and then apparate to the Ministry. It’s just a small detail though and it doesn’t take very much away from my enjoyment of the first book.

Despite my minor complaints of inaccuracies that can be found in the first book compared to what we Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is an excellent book. Why do I even feel bothered to tell you that? If you’ve ever read books that weren’t assigned to you by an English teacher, chances are you’ve read the Harry Potter series and you know it’s great. Rowling establishes so many things, the world, many characters, the formula she’ll use for most of the book and she makes it all an excellent (though short and breezy) read. I want to end this post with a few random thoughts:
learn later on in the series,

-The first book establishes the formula for most of the books in the series. Yes, it will change here and there but Rowling will stick to this for most of the series. It goes a little something like this: Dursley, some wizards stuff before school (Diagon Alley, Dursley, Quidditch Cup, etc), the start of school with some classes and homework, the mystery is discovered, mischief during the Christmas break, a bit more school before the book goes headlong into the mystery, end of term, and back to the Dursleys.

-It’s interesting to me that wizards celebrate Christmas and Easter. Halloween makes sense and so does Valentine’s Day (witches and wizards fall in love too, right?) but what’s the deal with Christmas? Were Jesus Christ and St. Nicolas wizards? Is Santa Claus a wizard who “employs” house elves? I can’t remember if Rowling ever created wizard-only holidays.

-I also forgot how much Ron and Harry didn’t like Hermione at first. Their budding relationship was one of the most enjoyable story elements to revisit in the first book. They’re all such little darlings at the age of eleven. Hermione’s so awesome; I don’t know why it took the guys so long to become friends with her.

-Rowling writes some really good characters that are part of Hogwarts faculty. Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape are the standouts here, as they are for most of the series. Dumbledore is interesting but he’s too mysterious. We really start to get to know more of him with the second book when Harry first goes to his office.

-Malfoy is a little shit and the less said about him the better.

-Hermione is probably my favourite character in the first book. Hagrid is also great and I like Ron too. Strangely enough, Harry is my least favourite of the main characters.

No comments:

Post a Comment