Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone

by J. K. Rowling, 1997

I might as well admit it: I saw the first Harry Potter film before I read the book. Not that I didn’t want to read it, I did – mostly in order to see what all the fuss was about – but…

I always give a book a chance. 50 pages. If it hasn’t caught my attention by then, I give up. I gave up on Rowling’s "Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone". I know I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I found Rowling a rather tedious writer, making so many of a green author’s mistakes.

Sure, I’m a very critical reader, but I just couldn’t get through that book without picturing a Daniel Radcliffe, a Richard Harris, a Rupert Grint and an Alan Rickman etc. acting out the parts. So for me it was the actors of the film who made it possible for me to finally get through the book, four years after it was first published.

What I found was an oddly familiar story of Harry Potter, a young orphan boy who is brought up by his uncle and aunt in a way that makes the lives of Oliver Twist and Cinderella seem like a bed of roses. At the age of 11 Harry learns that he is a famous wizard, the only one to have survived the attack of the evil Lord Voldemort, who had killed his parents.

Harry enters Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Here he meets the brilliant but loony Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, the loathed Professor Snape and the gigantic gamekeeper Hagrid among others. He makes friends (and enemies) with fellow-students such as the nasty Draco, the clumsy Neville and the bossy know-it-all Hermione as well as the gang of Weasley brothers, young Ron Weasley becoming his best friend.

I guess I have to hand it to J. K. Rowling. The Potter universe is interesting, but what strikes me as her greatest feat is this: It is unbelievable how Rowling gets away with "borrowing" plots, protagonists, ideas etc. from others and mixing them together. Because nothing in the book is really hers.

The first thing I thought when reading "Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone" was that Rowling had nicked the idea from "The Worst Witch" series by Jill Murphy, whose early books I adored as a kid. When reading on I found that "The Worst Witch" was not the only one that she had borrowed ideas from. Others included books like "The Legend of Rah and the Muggles" and "Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly" by Nancy K. Stouffer, "Ender’s Game" by Orson Scott Card and the comic book series "The Books of Magic" by Neil Gaiman, just to mention a few.

And it’s not like she’s just borrowed minor details. No, we’re talking about Harry Potter’s name, looks etc. and the main plot of a child attending a school of wizardry, playing wizard sports (Quidditch) and fighting against evil. Other things in the book has been conveniently lifted from folklore and mythology, the Bible etc. etc.

All writers stand on each other’s shoulders – or rather books – but Rowling has built a veritable Babel Tower of other people’s stories and ideas and the tower didn’t crumble under the wrath of God. Instead she is hailed as a Goddess herself. Now that’s an achievement and it proves that stealing DOES pay!

Apart from my dislike of Rowling borrowing everything from others, the thing that ruined the book for me the first time was the intro with Harry living with the Dursleys (his aunt, uncle and cousin). Rowling tries so hard to make us feel sorry for Harry, but it doesn’t work. It is too grotesque and Harry’s upbringing seems more unreal than the world of the wizards. Besides, it is way too long and – frankly – boring.

Adding Harry to the long line of Dickensian orphans didn’t pass the test and I never got to the "real" story at Hogwarts when trying to read the book the first time. At least after having seen the film I knew there were other things to come, so the second time I endured the pain of reading the first third of the book.

After that the narrative picks up a bit with the introduction of the Weasley family, a wizard family boasting six sons and a daughter. As the daughter is too young to attend Hogwarts and the two oldest brothers have already finished school, we mostly hear about Harry’s friend, the 11 year old Ron, the twins Fred and George (13 years old) and the stickler Percy (15 years old). The pranks and quick wit of the twins helped me get through the book the second time around. They are by far the best characters in the book along with the ambiguous Professor Snape.

Still, the thing with Rowling is that she doesn’t really seem to know how to write. The first rule of writing is "show, don’t tell", but the book is full of long, boring descriptions of people and places. Added to that we have to endure Harry’s tedious, repetitious inner monologues that have very little content. He’s not exactly the world’s most interesting protagonist!

Another rule is "kill your darlings", but Rowling doesn’t. There are so many diversions in the shape of dragons, centaurs etc. that you almost forget what the story is about. On top of that Rowling doesn’t check her details. I mean, there are so many mistakes, like for instance, Harry’s book "One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi" suddenly being called "One Hundred Magical Herbs and Fungi".

Even the use of narrator seems to confuse Rowling. In the beginning of the book she uses an explicit narrator to make personal comments on the protagonists and the progress of the story. She even uses the word "our" in order to include both herself and her readers in the book. As the story progresses she forgets about it and switches to an implicit narrator, then jumps back to the explicit one etc. etc., thereby ruining the illusion of the narrative.

The use of the word "our" is probably there in order to cater to younger readers, but it doesn’t work. Instead it feels patronising, like somebody talking down to you. "I know you’re daft, my friend, so let me take you by the hand and lead you into our story." No thanks!

This (probably unintentional) patronising tone can be found all through the book, as Rowling struggles to write in a way that kids will understand. She fails, especially in the first third of the book, where she tries to be ever so funny, but in the way that grown-ups try to be funny when they talk to children; again patronising and not funny at all.

Maybe Rowling doesn’t know how kids really are, because the way she describes Harry you wouldn’t think that he is 11 years old. One minute he acts like a little boy aged 6, the next like a teenager aged 16, but never as a boy his own age. The same thing goes for the rest of the (mostly stereotype) students at Hogwarts.

What annoys me the most, however, is that "Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone" seems to lack a plot. The book is boasting description upon description, scene upon scene and introductions to new people, places and school subjects, so in the end you wonder if Rowling has forgotten that a book needs both a story and a plot.

The plot doesn’t show itself until 2/3 into the book and even then it only proceeds very slowly. Although hints of the plot have been scattered all through the book, you have no way of catching on to them, until you’ve read the entire volume. It’s like leaving clues in detective fiction, but it being impossible for the readers to detect those clues. You can’t help but feel a little cheated.

Even when the plot becomes evident, it doesn’t get really exciting until the last couple of chapters and here you feel Lewis Carroll’s "Through the Looking Glass" breathing down your neck with chess games, magic mirrors and everything. And again, it is much too long.

Am I impressed with the book? No. Am I wrong? I don’t think so. Compared to other books for children that age, I don’t really get what the fuss is about. I get it when it comes to the film based on the book, but the book itself? It’s rather flimsy, isn’t it?

Do kids love it? Yes. And it’s always great to see kids take an interest in reading. I only wish that the book had been more original and written by a better author, that’s all. So my last words have to be: long live the Weasleys! Rowling did a fine job on them. But as for Harry Potter…who really cares?

Two out of five stars: **

@ Lise Lyng Falkenberg, 2001