Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizards N’ Whatnot * 1997 (1998 in the U.S.)
Every once in a great while, someone comes up with a perfect idea and all you can do is shrug and accept their superiority and give them all the money in the world. There’s a common misperception that things which are popular cannot also be good. There’s plenty of incredibly popular trash out there that would seem to bolster this particular worldview. Twilight exists, after all, and Big Bang Theory is the number one comedy on television pretty much every year so I hear you, champions of culture. Sometimes, though, a bit of popular culture bubbles up and transcends mere trends and torrid cultural affairs with subpar art. Remember when The Da Vinci Code was a whole thing? No, I’m talking about the landmark, quality works of popular fantasy that become not just iconic, but fundamental to a culture. Oh, you think I’m hyperbolizing this? All told this series has sold more than 400 million copies. Books, mind you. With pages and everything. They don’t even light up. This particular book came out twenty years ago, and we are still going to theme parks and discussing how Dumbledore is actually a jerk sometimes. These are generational works. Kids will always love Harry Potter. This because the idea is perfect, and Rowling has the talent to execute the idea.
The only other foundational work of fantasy I can think of with a further reach than Harry Potter is Lord of the Rings, and even then Potter’s popularity as a book has always been greater. The only reason I’d say LotR is more foundational is because of its wide-reaching influence on all modern fantasy. Basically everything dubbed “high fantasy” is in debt to the structures Tolkien put into place. Everything from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft to just about every cheap TOR paperback you’ve ever read rely on Tolkien’s work. Harry Potter can’t claim that kind of ongoing influence, even if the source material is way more accessible and arguably more widely beloved. If Tolkien’s world-building is top-tier – and it is, even if his prose is dense and minutia of his invented histories and languages are overwhelming – Rowling’s is right up there with him. Perhaps her greatest achievement is creating an entire new world out of nothing, and cementing it in the popular imagination with a breezy 309 pages.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read through the series. So long, in fact, that I’ve misremembered details and forgot which plot points happen when. As I make my way through these books, I’ll often remember a thing maybe three pages before it actually happens and I’m like “oh yeah, that thing. Weird.” However, the long absence from this world has allowed me to come back and appreciate it all over again. In the past I’ve made the mistake of dismissing the first two books as inessential, that the series “doesn’t get good until the end of book three.” I’m happy to report that no, in fact, these books are good right away. The differences between the first few novels and the ending of the series are stark, of course. Most of this has to do with tone. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is an introduction to a brand new fantasy world in which the protagonist is introduced to this magical new world alongside the reader. This character is also eleven years old, and as such is ready to accept this new reality in which an entire hidden society exists alongside the more mundane reality in which he’s lived his whole life. Harry brings with him all the enthusiasm and wonderment of an eleven year old kid. The book carries that feeling throughout.
It’s tempting to dismiss Sorcerer’s Stone (or if you must be endlessly pedantic, Philosopher’s Stone) as a kid’s book since compared to the later books the tone is much lighter. However, it’s pretty clear from the onset that Rowling knows what she’s setting up. This first book sets the structure for the entire series, while simultaneously building a world. Everything that happens to Harry feels natural, from his miserable existence with the Dursley family (I know the abused black sheep is a trope, especially in British fiction, but someone call child services, dang) to his awkward-at-first friendships with Ron and Hermione. Everything we need to know about this world are taught to us here, right away. There are hints at the wizard-racism that becomes important later, alongside the more fun aspects of the wizarding world like Quidditch and Diagon Alley. With Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling pretty much drops a fully realized world in your lap like it’s no big deal. If that doesn’t impress you, then back to reruns of Big Bang Theory for you, I guess.
So far, I haven’t talked much about the actual story of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Part of the reason is because I’m assuming anyone reading this is familiar with the Harry Potter universe, and probably loves it as much as me and the rest of humanity. I’m having a hard time envisioning anyone who’s never been into Harry Potter suddenly having a desire to dive in now. I know there’s plenty of people out there who go “Wizards? Feh, I hate fun and delight and joy.” They’re not reading this. Nah, anyone here knows what’s up. If you’re hazy on the plot of this first book, it’s one where the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is that wiener Quirrell and has Voldemort on the back of his head and our Heroic Trio have to utilize their skills to get past some obstacles before Harry saves the day by straight up murdering Quirrell. No really, at eleven years old Harry takes a life. He’s a stone cold killer, and it barely phases him. This is also the introduction to the nearly series-long red herring that is Severus Snape.
You know the story, then, which begs the question: what does this have to do with apocalyptic fiction? Well, if you’re familiar with the entire series arc, you wouldn’t be asking that. However, here in this introduction to this world, the stakes are much lower. Yeah, Voldemort is threatening to come back, but at this stage in the game we don’t have any real idea as to what that means. In the context of the story, the bad times were before Harry was even born (since it was baby Harry who ended them in the first place) and so there’s no first-hand experience with the darkness of Voldemort’s reign of terror. That comes later. Meanwhile, by the end of this first book, Voldemort is seemingly banished and everyone is free to continue their idyllic and quirky wizard existence.
It’s the idea of this alternate universe which is so compelling, and I’m pretty sure is the reason that this series is so universally popular. I don’t know if you know this, but the modern world can be a huge bummer. It’s a paradox of human nature that we can continually improve our quality of life through technology and continue to be unhappy about it. Living in a civilized, modern country is obviously an easier life than it would have been 1000 years ago, but contentment is elusive. It’s no accident I’m reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents alongside these novels, because in that work he fully explores the psychological reasoning behind our dissatisfaction with our own society. There’s an abstract sterility which comes with civilization, and the more we rely on rapid technological advances the more abstract our relationships with other become and as a result we become less happy. Harry Potter is emblematic of this discontent, because here comes this kid’s book with its fully realized universe and provokes your imagination to wonder: what if?
What if, just out of sight, is an entire world that has refused to move in tandem with technology? A whole society that functions on magic and an unending sense of wonder? A society that considers nothing to be impossible? That idea speaks to the modern reader at a fundamental level. All fantasy does this, of course, but because the world of Harry Potter is so well realized, the pull of the fiction works for just about everyone. Unlike something like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Potter’s world is within reach. It takes place here, on this very planet, juuust out of sight. These books tap into that latent human desire to believe in something greater than technology. That belief that somewhere, somehow, there’s a place that just does it better. And despite the manifold problematic issues that society has – all of which are distinctly human – the wizarding world is exactly that.
A Brief Note on the Movie
As I complete my read-through of the series, I’m also watching the film adaptations. Aside from a few minutes here and there, I also haven’t seen many of these in years. Now, before watching the first movie, I had even more reservations than I did about the book. As we’ve seen, the book is still solid – fundamental, even. The first couple of Harry Potter movies don’t have a great reputation, I don’t think. However, the movie is doing the same work the book is doing and establishing an entirely new world. Chris Columbus was tasked with creating an entirely new visual language to try and evoke Rowling’s superb world, and I think he did a pretty good job with it. The plot is simplistic enough that not many sacrifices were made in regards to the plot and characters, and the many details that pop up throughout are vital to making Hogwarts a believable space. That said, yeah, this is a kid’s movie. Proceed accordingly.