The Sorcerer's Stone

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Copyright: October 1998
ISBN: 0-590-35340-3
Pages: 309

I should warn up front that when Harry Potter first became popular, I was deluged with so much talk about the books that I got thoroughly sick of the very mention of them. I might, therefore, have a bit of a negative bias, although one of the reasons for waiting this long to read them was to let that die down.

That being said, no matter what sort of expectations I went into this book with, I don't think anything would have prepared me for the sheer hideousness of the beginning.

Let me set the context for you, with information that's all covered in the first few chapters of the book. Harry Potter is the only son of a famous wizard family who survives the attack of an evil wizard who kills his parents when he's only a baby. Initially in the custody of some of the staff of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he is sent to live with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, who hate him and abuse him.

Let's make no bones about this. Harry Potter is an abused child. His guardians routinely lock him in a closet. They punish him if he ever asks questions. They treat him as a domestic slave. He has no friends because his cousin makes sure no one is ever seen with him. He is routinely physically abused by his cousin, and at least verbally abused by his aunt and uncle. All of this is described quite clearly in the book, and yet not only does Harry show no signs whatsoever of the sort of psychological damage that this sort of abuse causes, but this is treated as an annoyance to Harry, something to be born and not really all that bad once he has some friends.

There are some themes that if raised, must be dealt with in an honest fashion. Child abuse is one of them. I have no problems with having an abused kid as the hero, but you simply cannot then treat abuse as something that doesn't really matter. I don't care what age you're targetting a book at -- this sort of fatuous, slapdash treatment is simply wrong. I cannot express how deeply offensive I found the setup of this book. What's the message for children who are starved, imprisoned, and physically abused here? Just bear through it with a smile since it won't actually hurt you and eventually you'll be rescued by magic wizards?

The wizards, as far as I'm concerned, should be locked up with Harry's aunt and uncle as accessories to child abuse. I suppose they're a great analogy for the horror stories about child protective services; despite professing concern for his well-being, they never even bother to check on how he's doing. And when they finally do come to get him, on his birthday, to deliver his invitation to attend Hogwarts, do they see this abuse and do anything about it? Express at least some degree of remorse? No, not at all; the only thing they're upset about is that Harry wasn't taught about magic. And then leave him, in the abusive family, for a month afterwards. And then send him back there after the term in school!

This is beyond disgusting. This is absolutely vile.

But this is how things work in Rowlingverse -- actions do not have consequences. This goes far deeper than just the horrific beginning, which the author doesn't seem to even understand is horrific. Ideas, plot elements, and settings exist only to drive Rowling's superficial rescue fantasy plot, and need make no sense whatsoever outside of that role. The world of wizards is a hodge-podge of cute ideas that have nothing to do with each other and have no unifying theme. Common-sense implications are ignored or shoved under the rug unless Rowling finds them interesting. There is no unifying set of natural laws here, no concept of cause and effect beyond the superficial, and no underlying honesty to the world. In short, there is no world-building here at all, just self-indulgent spewing of pet images. This is children's fiction for people who believe in neither science nor the logic underlying science.

Children's literature doesn't have to be this way. Children can grasp subtleties of right and wrong without having all the characters neatly labelled as good guys and bad guys like they are here. Children can understand underlying basic principles, and can use them to figure out the world and make guesses about what's going on. C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia presented serious moral questions to readers the same age as the age target for this book. The children's novels of Diane Duane or Diana Wynn Jones have coherent world-building to put Rowling to shame. Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series has far more complete and believable characters. If you're looking for random silliness, I highly recommend Helen Cresswell's wonderful Bagthorpe series, which manages the same without insulting the intelligence of its readers. There are hundreds of other children's books, fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream, that are far, far better.

I can see the appeal of this book to people who don't care about world building, universe consistency, or the ethics of thumbing one's nose at the issue of child abuse. Rowling clearly does have talent at the mechanics of writing. The story moves right along, the prose is clear, expressive, and gets out of the way of the story, there's a plot twist at the end, and the book never drags. I was never bored reading it -- angry, disgusted, revolted, and contemptuous, but never bored. I think she does have the capability to write a better book, judging from her grasp of the skill of storytelling. I hope she writes it in one of the later books of this series, since I'm wading through the first four to get to the one that won a Hugo.

This book, though, is simply crap.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Posted: 2004-11-10 16:36 — Why no comments?

While not great works of fiction, I've nonetheless emjoyed the two Potter books which I've read so far. To me, Rowling has done an excellent job of creating a world where things are not as they are in reality, but are as children often perceive them to be.

You note that people who seem to care for Harry do not even seem to notice the terrible conditions under which he is forced to live. That is in keeping with how children often view their own situation: absolutely horrible and the adults simply won't listen.

Rowling's world is simply one viewed through the egocentric, distorting eyes of a child. That this would resonate with other children is no surprise. That it also seems to with adults is somewhat baffling. Certainly others might enjoy it for the same reasons as I, but that hardly explains "Potter-mania".

Perhaps it speaks to all those who imagined a more terrible childhood than they really had.

Posted by Dean Edmonds at 2004-12-04 23:20

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