“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling (223p)
In 1997 struggling young British author Joanne Rowling saw her first novel about a boy wizard at last published, after no less than twelve rejections. The Harry Potter series, which covers seven novels on the young protagonists struggle against the evil dark wizard Lord Voldemort, would go to become the most successful series of novels in history, and making its author the first and so far only billionaire author. This first in the series introduces Harry to the wizarding world, takes him to his beloved school of Hogwarts, introduces all his friends and enemies, and begins the fight against Lord Voldemort.
It is circa 1981 and the magical world is in celebration at the downfall of the most powerful evil dark wizard to have ever walked the earth, Lord Voldemort. After murdering Lilly and James Potter he set to killing their baby son, Harry, but the killing curse backfires, rebounding off Harry and into Voldemort, destroying his body. It leaves the baby Harry with a noticeable lightning bolt car on his forehead. Meanwhile, he is sent to life with his Muggle (non-magical person) relatives, the Dursley family, until he was to be called back to the wizarding world in ten years time.
The story then jumps to 1991, shortly before Harry’s eleventh birthday. For Harry, life with the Dursley’s is awful, they treat him like a slave and have kept his true past from him. But their picture perfect suburban life comes to a crashing halt when Harry turns eleven and the truth is revealed – the half-giant Hagrid finds him and explains he is a wizard and he had been accepted into Hogwarts in the autumn. Hagrid introduces Harry to his first tastes of the magical world in the wizards district in London where he buys his school equipment, and one month later he takes the train from King’s Cross to Hogwarts, mysteriously located in the north of Britain. On the train he meets Ron Weasley, his closest friend, and Hermione Granger, who takes on a greater role later on. He also encounters future rival Draco Malfoy, a boy who would become an outright enemy beginning when Harry declined his friendship.
At Hogwarts, Harry is placed into Gryffindor House with Ron and begins his lessons as a complete novice. One of his first lessons is flying a broom to which he seems naturally gifted at, so much so that he is put into the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Quidditch is the magical equivalent of football (soccer) and the House Cup, in their eyes, means even more than the FA Cup. In Harry’s first match his broom appears to be jinxed by the baleful Professor Snape, and Hermione distracts him by setting his robes on fire, allowing Harry to catch the snitch1 and win for Gryffindor. Shortly after, it is Christmas, and Harry receives his first ever Christmas present: his fathers old invisibility cloak and uses it to go wandering throughout Hogwarts Castle at night. Thereafter, Harry learns that Nicolas Flamel is the maker of Philosopher’s Stone, stolen from the wizarding bank before the school year, which is a stone that gives the owner eternal life.
While out roaming at night Harry, under the cloak, sees Snape interrogating the weak Professor Quirrell about getting passed Fluffy the huge three-headed dog, confirming Harry’s long running suspicion that Snape is after the Philosopher’s Stone in order to restore Voldemort to power. In between, they are also caught being out at night after assisting Hagrid dispose of an illegal baby dragon, and forced to serve detention in the Forbidden Forest. While in the forest Harry sees a hooded figure drink the blood of an injured unicorn, confirmed by a centaur that the hooded figure was the ghost of Voldemort. They coax a drunk Hagrid into revealing how to get passed Fluffy and set off to get to the stone before it can be stolen to restore Voldemort.
This takes them into the bowels of the castle where the stone is protected by a series of curses and charms, put into the shape of challenges, and only one person can progress into the inner chamber, Harry. In the inner chamber he discovers that it is Quirrell who is after the stone, not Snape. Looking into the Mirror of Erised Quirrell forces Harry to find out where the stone is, but Harry successfully lies and the stone secretly drops into his pocket. Voldemort reveals himself as a ghastly face on the back of Quirrel’s head and tries to attack Harry, but the merest touch proves to be agony. Dumbledore returns in time to save Harry but can’t prevent Voldemort from escaping. As he recovers in the hospital, Dumbledore tells Harry about his mothers sacrifice but promises to only tell him about the real reason why Voldemort tried to kill him when he is older. The novel ends with the end-of-year celebrations and Dumbledore makes some last minute changes to the House Cup scoreboard giving Gryffindor enough points to win it, ending Slytherin’s six-year reign as champions.
I was about to turn twelve when I first read this in 1999. When I was younger, I used to read all the time, but then a particularly unpleasant teacher made me hate reading books from the rubbish she forced down our throats, and I swore off them forever. It still took a few years for me to start reading all the time again, but this is where it began again. Despite what a lot of people may say about the series, I loved it, and I am grateful for what J.K. Rowling brought back to my life.
Of course these books are hardly the peak of high-brow literature and this first one is very much the children’s book it was intended to be. There is nothing special about J.K. Rowling’s writing style nor is there anything exceptional about the overall plot of this first one, but it is still a very good and easy read, one that I have re-read about four times since I first read it in 1999. The characters are rich and very fleshed out, each one has its own identity (Hermione is bright and bossy, Harry is brave yet melancholic, Snape is cynical and sardonic, Dumbledore is worldly and almighty, and so forth), while the imagery of the setting is easily brought to life in the books. Simple and fun, this is the first in a series that brought so much joy and entertainment to hundreds of millions, and all lovers of books should check it out just to see what the fuss is all about. Despite reservations, you’ll find yourself being sucked into Harry’s world very easily indeed.
1 For those who have not read Harry Potter: in Quidditch there are three types of balls, the large red quaffle which is used to score goals by the three chasers; the two black bludgers which are hit by the two beaters toward chasers in possession of the quaffle in defence; and the one golden snitch, which is hunted by the seeker. Whoever catches the snitch first ends the game and scores 150pts for their team, so sometimes catching the snitch may still result in a defeat if the other team is up by 160pts.