If there is one defining characteristic of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it is an overwhelming feeling of awe and wonder. Sure, the rest of the series exhibits wondrous magic and locations, but never is that sensation so distilled as in the very first entry. One could off-handedly attribute this to the fact that Philosopher’s Stone is, in fact, the first entry in a series set in a fantasy universe and wonderment comes with the territory. I suppose this is somewhat true, though I do also think that J.K. Rowling’s ability to relay that universe to the reader is remarkably adept and puts Harry Potter one notch above most other children’s fantasy. Still, I do believe there is something more at work here. Something that goes beneath the merely superficial concept of “new=awe”. No, I think even in at this early stage, Rowling is ever mindful of the thematic underpinnings of her prose. The wonder on display in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is essential to the idea of a young boy moving into the next stage of his life; a stage in which anything is possible and the world is there to discover.
The Harry Potter series explores many themes and concepts, but one of the most fascinating is its exploration of the transition from childhood to adulthood. Each book in the series advances the characters through their lives year by year, encompassing all those subtle changes that happen over time and that ultimately shape them for the rest of their lives. Harry in particular is the most developed, not just because he is the main character, but also because the books are generally told in the third-person subjective. Nearly everything we see and experience is through Harry’s eyes. As readers we grow with Harry as he grows; as he moves through the wizarding world and his years at Hogwarts we gain an insight into his development as a character and as a constantly changing human being.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the first step into the world of magic for both Harry and the reader. We are quickly introduced to Harry in the second chapter. Rowling very wisely leaves out a lot of personality in her descriptions of him. We understand that he is in many ways a sad boy, and he is often meek, though he sometimes stands up for himself in protest, but all this is barely more than a blank slate. His character to this point is mostly a by-product and reaction to his upbringing in the Dursley household. And though there is some nuance given to his character, unlike, say, Bella Swan in the Twilight series, he still remains unformed in a way that allows the same kind of reader investment and empathy as illustrated by Bella Swan. It’s easy to see us in Harry’s shoes, and also to see ourselves feeling and behaving in the same ways he does.
Rowling uses this near-blank slate as a jumping-off point. We are there, right beside Harry, feeling and understanding the same things he is. Then we are introduced to a whole new world we know little-to-nothing about. Obviously the sense of awe will be overwhelming. So much is new and wonderful, and so much of it is warm and welcoming and exciting. Even the darker aspects, like the back-story of Voldemort, are imbued with enough mystery to keep that awe alive. But all this serves a purpose, and it isn’t only to make the book fun to read. Rowling infuses the book with wonder because she understands what it is really like to be a child growing up.
Moving on to the next stage of life is always daunting, but as a child, moving into those precocious years where the world seems as conquerable as it is vast, learning and experiencing new and exciting things is what makes it special. Harry Potter gets to roam around shops all by himself, he gets to withdraw money from the bank, he gets to go to a big school and meet all manner of new people. And sure, he does get to experience all this in the heightened, fantasy world of Rowling’s unending imagination, but it all still exists as an analog to the real world and real life experiences. Think back to the first time you got to open a bank account or go into stores at the mall on your own. These are the kind of world-expanding things we all do that seem huge as a child. They also tend to happen around the same age as Harry is in Philosopher’s Stone.
When Harry and his friends jump down the trapdoor and into mortal danger they are simply going through those same childhood adventures we all get into at that young age. Our three-headed dogs might be the neighbourhood pit bull; our flying to catch a key might be our jumping across a shallow creek; our living chess match might be our intense game of Monopoly; figuring out the riddle to a deadly set of potions can be our feeble attempts at making cookies. It’s all representative of the adventure that is childhood.
Rowling, through her account of Harry’s years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, regales us with the stories that reflect our shared experience of growing up. The Harry Potter series is above all else an extremely dense coming-of-age tale, and in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the first steps of that long journey are taken. Where other books in the series deal with issues such as young love, loss, and rebellion, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is most of all a tale of entering young-adulthood and all the awe, mystery and wonder that comes along with it.