A little while ago, I decided to revisit one of the book series that defined my, uh, everything: The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. In seven blog posts, I will look at the seven books in turn, and then perhaps take a look at some of the properties that accompany those seven books.
So, let’s get started with the first book in the series, shall we?
Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Series: Harry Potter
Author: J.K. Rowling
Format: Audiobook, read by Stephen Fry
Published: Bloomsbury, 1997
My Rating: ★★★★★
When a letter arrives for unhappy but ordinary Harry Potter, a decade-old secret is revealed to him that apparently he’s the last to know. His parents were wizards, killed by a Dark Lord’s curse when Harry was just a baby, and which he somehow survived. Leaving his unsympathetic aunt and uncle for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry stumbles upon a sinister mystery when he finds a three-headed dog guarding a room on the third floor. Then he hears of a missing stone with astonishing powers, which could be valuable, dangerous – or both. An incredible adventure is about to begin!
A Series That Lived
I think I’m safe in saying that there’s no quantifying how much of a cultural impact Harry Potter has had, so I won’t even try. But, the series has definitely joined Star Wars in the ranks of series people seem proud not to have touched before. (What’s with that?)
On the flipside, the series is also well known enough that people don’t have to have read the book to have some idea of what their Hogwarts House might be—helpful in the writing Discord server I run, as everyone joins a Hogwarts House. Yep, everyone knows about the wizard boy who heads off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and has to fight the evil Lord Voldemort alongside best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
And first in the series is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (No, not Sorcerer’s Stone. A philosopher’s stone is actually something in legend. Poor unfortunate Americans got shafted by that one, just a little.) Today I’ll be reviewing it. Let’s get started.
“The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
— Albus Dumbledore
The Story From Rowling
Spoilers ahead. (Though, if you don’t know this story then where the heck have you been? Off bragging with the “I’ve never seen Star Wars” folks, I guess.)
The Harry Potter books aren’t really fantasy novels. They’re mystery novels in a fantasy setting. (This not being the case is part of why The Cursed Child doesn’t stack up.) In this first novel, that mystery surrounds the Philosopher’s Stone.
As a baby, Harry’s parents are killed by Lord Voldemort, and somehow Harry defeats him. After being raised for ten years by his cruel aunt and uncle, who much favour his cousin Dudley, Harry learns that he’s a wizard and is off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This year, the school is protecting the Philosopher’s Stone, which can grant immortality. Harry and his friends realise that they have to get to the stone before Voldemort—or his servant, anyway.
These earlier books are a lot lighter in tone than books five onward. The tone is lightest here, and this book is also the most formulaic mystery. You know, “Here’s your MacGuffin, here’s your red herring, here’s your poorly groomed man who lives by the woods.” That’s not to say the mystery in this book is bad by any means—not even close—but it is probably the easiest to work out, and also probably the most full of plot holes.
Those who know how Harry gets hold of the stone may happily wonder what the rest of the whole book was doing there. But whatever.
Regardless, I think this is still a good and entertaining mystery. I think its problems are more easily caught on a second read. The clues are also more easily caught on the second read, but that’s just how mysteries work. It’s just that, as this is the first book, it’s a little more cookie cutter than all the books afterwards—and there are a few more cracks in the foundation.
“Harry—yer a wizard.”
— Rubeus Hagrid
The Reader of the Book
I chose to revisit the series by listening to the audiobooks so that I could listen while I was doing other things on my todo list. It so happened that while I was listening to this one I had a lot of travel, so I got through this one pretty quickly. (Also, I can’t sleep in public accommodation.)
As a kid, I had the Jim Dale versions of … three of the audiobooks, I think. Those are the American versions of the audiobooks, of course. I now have the Stephen Fry versions, thanks to Audible, and I have to say that I much prefer them. Even after one listen, his version has stuck in my head much better. Each character has a distinct voice that suits them perfectly. Oh, and it’s Stephen Fry.
All this is just a personal preference, of course. I’m not interested in the Fry vs. Dale “rivalry,” so much. I would be interested in hearing your preference, though!
I did notice a couple of flubbed lines in the Fry reading. One was enough to take me out of it and confuse me, especially given that this was a remaster. Overall, it was really good, though. It also saved me the difficulty with reading that I’ve been having due to my health.
“I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even put a stopper on death.”
— Severus Snape
The Potions Master, and Other Favourites
I’ve already touched on the mystery aspect of this series. Despite plot holes, Philosopher’s Stone is a strong and engaging mystery. Rowling also shows right here from book one that she has a firm grasp of how children relate to adults, and how children relate to each other. She creates strong, varied, and interesting relationships between her characters. And they may be in a wizarding school, but it’s easy to relate to a lot of what they go through. (Hermione’s experience of being the irritating nerdy girl with no friends is basically my childhood.)
It’s very easy to see, even from this first book, why these characters mean so much to people. I’m not saying that as a third party, either. These characters are a part of my life because they stuck with me, and this first book does a wonderful job of introducing many of the major players of the series. I think it’s fair to criticise Rowling’s work for being a little, shall we say, homogenous, but her characters are still strong. Even Peeves is so full of life that his presence is physically missed from the movies, you know?
(I don’t care what she says, though. I’m one of seven books down and she hasn’t mentioned a single Jewish student so far…)
Do you know the word count of this book? Philosopher’s Stone clocks in at less than eighty thousand words, and yet every environment and action felt vividly described. Rowling was able to do a great deal with very few words and to be honest a lot of the techniques she used have influenced my style of description. It’s not as impressive in this book as it is in some of her later ones, but man … it is skilful.
This series might be one of the leaders in non-diversity, but I’ll have to address that in later properties.
“Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
— Albus Dumbledore
The World with Two Alleys
I think I just want to say this briefly because the castle isn’t explored in great detail until later books, but Rowling has a great sense of how to craft atmosphere. I feel like I know Hogwarts and the other locations in the book. And like I say, sometimes she crafts those locations with just a few words. And sometimes there’s the ceiling in the Great Hall and does anyone else think the common room sounds unreasonably cosy?
“Curious indeed how these things happen. The wand chooses the wizard, remember…I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter… After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things — terrible, yes, but great.”
— Garrick Ollivander
The Journey to Legend
Look, this post is about the book. And this is a really good book. This is especially a really good book for kids. Oh, and a book really enjoyed by adults. My sister just picked it up (well, listened to my audiobook) for the first time at seventeen and she loved it. Rowling has a good sense of pacing, mystery, character, and it’s no wonder that these books have stuck with so many people for so many years.
And I’ll delve into all of these aspects in more detail when I look at later books and these aspects grow and improve. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you follow my Twitter. That’s how you’ll know when my review of Chamber of Secrets is on the horizon!
Thank you for reading my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This one was relatively brief, but we’ll be able to go into more detail when we hit the longer books and expand on some of the points that I made here. In the meantime, let me know in the comments what you think of the first book. I’d love to hear from you.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
— Albus Dumbledore