Analysis: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
February 27th, 2022 6:19 PM
I mentioned in a previous blog post that I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series to my daughters every night before bed. We’re not as disciplined a family as we perhaps ought to be, and, even though we’ve managed to read virtually every night for the past several months, there has not been any measurable bit of consistency in terms of how much we read each night. I typically spend anywhere from half an hour to an hour reading, and those sessions are often punctuated with questions from my daughters (and sometimes from myself).
They ask me mostly about definitions.
Whether they hear a new word or a familiar word that’s being used in a new way, they typically ask, and I encourage that, even if it means we read a little bit less that night. Quite often, too, more interesting and philosophical questions arise. We’ve talked at length about why the characters might choose to break rules (when Harry did so for the good of others, it was sacrificial and brave; when Fred and George did it to earn some prize money, it leaned more toward being foolish). We’ve talked about some of the characters’ emotional responses (why Harry got so angry at Aunt Marge, and whether his actions were justified or if he could have handled the situation in a better way). We’ve talked about sports and school and even things that don’t make a ton of sense yet to my daughters (like the parallels of slavery and discrimination in the book and the way certain mindsets can be applied to real-life situations to combat hateful, fearful, bigoted behavior).
As an author who’s still got many books to write (and who’s already received some negative feedback for his own missteps), I sympathize to some extent with J. K. Rowling, but I also categorically disagree with her assertions about the transgender community. Her comments honestly baffled me (as I know they did to many others). Her books advocate for inclusivity and open-mindedness in many ways. I know the books don’t always do this perfectly by any means, and I know they’ve drawn criticism for their shortfalls in these endeavors, but, having read them so young myself, I can almost credit them with some of the ways I open-mindedly view the world today. Had it not been for the lessons I learned in Harry Potter, I very likely would’ve been quicker to adopt much of the hateful, close-minded rhetoric that was presented to me in abundance as I was growing up. I understand and believe that Rowling did—and still does—have a responsibility as one of the world’s most beloved and prominent authors. There’s no question (at least in my humble opinion) that she faltered in both an ethical and a professional capacity, and, beyond that, she and I have differing beliefs.
If I could summarize my feelings about Rowling as succinctly as possible, I'd say this: I wish she would view other people with the same open mind she featured countless times in her books.
I disagree with her, but I still enjoy the story she wrote. I think it’s okay to separate a creator from her creation to some degree. I say, “to some degree” because we’ll never be able to look at Harry Potter and not think about Rowling’s transphobic words again—especially since she’s still doubling down. Novelists change, but their novels do not. More importantly, I’ve said before that what makes a story great is not its writer but its readers. It was the readers who took Harry Potter and made it into what it is today, and the way its readers hold that story in their hearts can never be changed, no matter what Rowling says or does.
Bearing in mind all this prerequisite information, I’ll begin now to analyze the first installment of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
This first novel sets the stage for an immensely rewarding and high-stakes coming-of-age journey. This will not exactly be a spoiler-free analysis, so proceed with caution if you’ve never read these novels before. Despite Rowling’s comments and other popular criticisms about these books, I still highly encourage people to read them if they haven’t. The Sorcerer’s Stone appeals so well to imagination, it offers fun, humor, and escapism in copious amounts, and it skillfully manages tension in two scopes: the first being the way it manages tension within the novel itself; the second being the way it manages tension within the overarching narrative of the series. While the book has its own driving, self-contained plot (which concludes with a satisfying victory), it also poses a multitude of questions and leaves the reader wanting to return again with Harry to Hogwarts for another exciting year.
In terms of plot, I’d say that this is a masterclass in telling a gripping story. Strange happenings unfold in an otherwise quaint housing allotment, and when a motorcycle-riding half-giant, a shapeshifting cat-and-witch-in-one, and a Merlinesque wizard audaciously named Albus Dumbledore leave the infant Harry Potter on his aunt and uncle’s doorstep, we understand only that he, Harry, is the “boy who lived.” This first taste of the story highlights its ominous nature and its outlandishness (I mean, the man’s name is Dumbledore). We go on to meet the dreadful Dursleys, and already we’re in poor Harry’s corner. Made to witness Harry's terrible life, the reader feels almost at once that the boy needs something—anything—to go his way.
And then things do go his way. Very much so.
There’s never really a question about who the hero of the story is. We don’t ever fear that Harry’s going to die. We don’t foresee twists like that. And that’s alright, especially considering this was written for children, who probably need the stability of such a story. Instead of such fateful twists, we are treated to more subtle surprises, to things that challenge our assumptions about who people really are. We’re given the meek Professor Quirrell and the ominous, imperious Professor Snape, and when we’re so sure that Snape is the “bad” guy, the story delivers a gut-punch on par with some of fiction’s greatest reveals. It was Quirrell all along! But rather than reveal at once that Snape is, in fact, a “good” guy (or at least that he aligns more closely with the side portrayed as heroes), we are left to wonder further what his motives are.
Every chapter feels useful, as though each contributes significantly to the overall plot of the book; there is little that feels like frippery or filler. The smallest of details might be brought up later on so that the reader says, “Oh, so that’s why that happened.” It’s truly dazzling in its plotting, and since it’s all tempered so well with ludicrous creatures, eccentric witches and wizards, cozy castle mornings, and delightfully magical food, we enjoy the entire ride instead of feeling like we’re researching some morbidly dull tome.
This is mostly a plot-driven story, but the characterization is good, too. Every character feels distinct and unique. It could be (and likely has been) argued that some of the characters end up falling too neatly into boxes with labels like “the smart one,” “the care-free one,” or “the brave one.” Hermione’s love of books sometimes shows up too frequently, making her appear as little more than that sole trait of hers. Ron’s constant jokes and flippant attitude likewise reduce him. Neville is almost the only one who’s forgetting things or tripping publicly. Draco’s always sneering and his voice is always drawling. Despite all these characters’ identifiable quirks, each of them shows the propensity to actually be more than what they appear to be at a surface level (and this only grows truer as the series progresses).
I think this novel, especially on this third reading with my daughters, has taught me plenty about how to skillfully plot (again, the smallest of details can—and arguably should—have impacts later on). It showed me characters who felt real and lovable and unlovable, too. They’re good examples of what characters can and should be, though they do offer, in a small dose, that warning to not reduce one’s characters to only a handful of those characters’ traits.
The book skillfully employs humor and manages to keep a light tone (mostly) throughout, and this is no small feat. Since it never takes itself quite too seriously (except when being serious really counts), the reader can approach the tale with leisure and without apprehension. It’s a masterclass in the management of voice/tone, too.
Finally, I’d say one of its other greatest strengths (and one of the things I’d say would-be writers should take away from it) is its ability to use symbols, and I’m not talking about symbolism so much, though there’s a good deal of that to be found here, too. There are so many iconic symbols that appear throughout just this first book (and infinitely more so throughout the rest of the series). You’ve got Sirius Black’s flying motorcycle, the Hogwarts acceptance letter, Platform nine-and-three-quarters, the Hogwarts Express, the Sorting Hat, the Hogwarts Coat of Arms and the four House Symbols, Hedwig, the Nimbus 2000, the Golden Snitch, the Mirror of Erised, and so, so much more. Every one of these elements contributes to a powerful picture; each of these symbols lends itself to Rowling’s intricate, astounding, and undeniably enchanting world. Because there are so many of these elements and each of them feels so distinct and so realized, the world nearly jumps off the page, meaning that the reader only needs to take a pleasant stroll through its alleys, corridors, and fields.
There will always be a special place in my heart for this book. I know I’m not alone. As I said above, this book is about what I took from it, who I’ve become, in part, because of its influence. It’s not about Rowling. If her books offered so many lessons for aspiring writers, then let Rowling herself offer another one. See how people struggle to divorce the writer from her novels, and realize that the two are always somewhat inseparable. Some have chosen to ignore Rowling’s involvement with the series altogether, but many others have been unable to do so. I understand then that who I am as a person can and will have an affect on how my writing is perceived, whether my stories are a safe haven for those who need such a place, whether my readers look forward to new books or question the validity of old ones, whether my characters will be beloved friends or haunting specters. I’ll never be blameless, and I’d never pretend otherwise. However, I do hope I’m fortunate enough to leave a legacy—no matter how small it may be—of love, acceptance, mercy, and sacrifice.