So here is where it all began. J.K. Rowling first introduced the world to the fabled tale of “The Boy Who Lived” in this marvelous little tome, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Though this first book in the seven-part series is the shortest, and though it is in many ways the most conventional, it still represents a major leap in quality for children’s fantasy. It’s a leap so great that much like a good Pixar film it works even better for adults. With Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lays claim to the crown previously held by Roald Dahl, and she wears it proudly.
Within its pages readers are greeted by an intricately constructed world that never fails to be wondrous and fun. Rowling carries that delightful Dahl sensibility by infusing her novel with a giddy sort of charm, accentuated by funny sounding names and ceaseless possibilities. The opening chapter sets up the mystery surrounding the magical world and the boy named Harry Potter expertly. It’s an opening that revels in the strange and the bizarre and the comedic, but like the rest of the book—and the rest of the series, too—there is an undercurrent of darkness and the unknown that is engaging on a truly gut level.
In the first act, we are introduced to Harry Potter as a soon-to-be eleven year-old boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s home. Petunia and Vernon Dursley, along with their son, Dudley, are the only family Harry has ever known. His parents, according to his aunt and uncle, were killed in a car crash when he was a baby. To call the Dusrleys “terrible caregivers” would be an extraordinary understatement. Connections to Dahl are drawn once again in the comically brutal nature with which they treat Harry. To them he is like nothing more than a frighteningly annoying stain on the wallpaper.
Everything changes, though, when Harry receives a letter; many letters, in fact. Probably thousands. It is finally revealed that Harry is a wizard. And not just any wizard, but “The Boy Who Lived”, the only wizard to have survived the Killing Curse, and he did so when he was just a baby. The dark wizard, Voldemort, killed Harry’s parents, and when Voldemort turned the wand on the baby Harry, his curse backfired, destroying him and leaving Harry with only a single mark of their encounter: a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.
Over the course of the book, Harry learns about Hogwarts, the school for magic, and he meets many, many characters. Hagrid, the gamekeeper at Hogwarts; Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster; Professor Severus Snape, the potions teacher; Draco Malfoy, a fellow student and generally evil git; and Ron Weasely and Hermione Granger, who will become his first and best friends. The cast of characters is huge, and so many aspects of the wizarding world are introduced it can be difficult to keep up.
Notable also is the economy with which Rowling accomplishes all this. Philosopher’s Stone is barely over two hundred pages, but it is filled to the brim with introductions and explanations and mythology and plot. Oh yes, there is a plot here, too. The Philosopher’s Stone, a stone able to grant immortal life, has been hidden beneath Hogwarts for protection. Somebody is attempting to get to it. Harry, Ron and Hermione get caught up in the mystery, leading to a finale where it is revealed that Voldemort is still out there, living as a shadow of his former self, without a body, and hungering for true life.
The mystery is a tad simple, and the inclusion of Voldemort as a presence right off the bat seems like a pretty huge coincidence, but it’s handled reasonably well. In this first book there is no need to overwhelm with a huge mystery. The focus here is on introducing us to the world, the characters and the stakes of Voldemort as Harry’s ultimate rival.
It’s difficult for me to over-stress the greatness of Rowling’s work here. The prose is reasonably simple, making for a great read for kids, but it isn’t dumbed down like so many other novels aimed at children. Rowlng’s cleverness abounds in every detail. There is so much legwork being done to craft a framework of a world for the rest of the series, but it’s done effortlessly and by the time Harry has done his round through Diagon Alley this universe already seems real and filled with more to discover.
Many people look down upon Harry Potter as some childish fantasy book for kids. Those people are missing the mark completely. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone continues the Roald Dahl tradition of great, imaginative fiction for anyone of any age, and it takes that tradition to a new level of world building and mystery. The series of seven novels go on to be more and more epic, but it all starts with this fantastic little book, a book that’s always fun and also offers some depth and emotion to chew on. Anyone who doubts the quality of this series should pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s a quick and easy read, but it also hooks the reader with great charm and it ably hints at the depth and wonder yet to come.