Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J. K. Rowling

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In some ways, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a traditional English boarding school located in the fairy-green countryside well beyond London. The meddlesome caretaker, Mr. Filch, and his cat, Mrs. Norris, carefully monitor the building, and the grounds are well kept by the beloved Keeper of Keys and Grounds (and Hogwarts drop-out) Rubeus Hagrid. During the long-standing tradition of the Sorting Ceremony, first-year Hogwarts students are separated into four houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin), each with their own proud history, alumni, and secret traditions. The faculty are respected scholars and authority figures removed from the emotional and interpersonal experiences of their students. The curriculum is carefully structured and deliberately traditional, and residents take classes by year and with students from other houses. Points are given and taken away for academic achievement, behavior and deportation, and athletic competition—all in an effort to win the much-coveted house cup at the end-ofyear feast.

And yet, Hogwarts is a world all its own, a non-Muggle world. Students arrive by a train taken from platform nine and threequarters at King's Cross station. During the journey they snack on candies—Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans (including "spinach and liver and tripe"), Cauldron Cakes, Licorice Wands, and Pumpkin Pasties—which they have bought with Sickles and Knuts ("[s]eventeen silver Sickles to a Galleon and twenty-nine Knuts to a Sickle"). They amuse themselves by trading cards of famous witches and wizards (Professor Dumbledore among them) from packages of Chocolate Frogs. The campus is located inside a moat and the building is a castle. The house dormitories are in the four round towers located at the corners of the building and accessed by secret passwords that open portrait holes. The Sorting Ceremony stars a Sorting Cap that reads the new students' minds before assigning them to the appropriate house. Not only do the portraits have a frustrating tendency to visit other paintings in the castle, thereby foiling the adventures of many an erring student, Mr. Filch and Mrs. Norris are not the only "caretakers" to avoid. Peeves the poltergeist will insist on reporting students out of bed after hours, and the other ghosts (Nearly Headless Nick and the Bloody Baron among them) have loyalties to certain houses. The faculty members also have their allegiances— as well as curious (possibly threatening) involvements with the adult, magic world. Course work is difficult and requires much study, whether dry and boring like History of Magic with Professor Binns, "complex and dangerous" like Transfiguration with Professor McGonagall, or disappointingly uninformative like Defense Against the Dark Arts with Professor Quirrell. The sport of choice is Quidditch, a challenging game "that's sort of like basketball on broomsticks with six hoops."

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is set in a comfortingly traditional and delightfully off-beat way—much like the apprentice magic world of the Hogwarts students as compared to the adult magic world for which they are preparing, or like the whole of the magic world as compared to the Muggle world. Accepted Hogwarts students walk through a wall in order to reach platform nine and three-quarters at King's Cross station. Tapping a brick behind the Leaky Cauldron pub three times with your magic wand will open it to Diagon Alley, the shopping center of the magic world, home to Eeylops Owl Emporium, Ollivanders wand shop, and Gringotts the wizard's bank run by goblins. Diagon Alley is also the only place in London where a prospective student can get everything he or she needs, from the uniform (such as "[o]ne pair of protective gloves [dragon hide or...

(This entire section contains 760 words.)

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similar]") to course books (like "Magical Drafts and Potions by Arsenius Jigger") and other equipment ("1 cauldron [pewter, standard size 2]"). The Ministry of Magic works to ensure that Muggles remain ignorant of the actuality of the magic world because '"everyone'd be wantin' magic solutions to their problems . . . we're best left alone'." And the commonplace systems of the Muggle world amaze and confound witches and wizards, for example,

[p]assersby stared a l o t . . . as they walked through the little town to the station. Harry couldn't blame them . . . he kept pointing at perfectly ordinary things like parking meters and saying loudly, "See that Harry? Things these Muggles dream up, eh?"

The layering of experiences and perspectives in Rowling's text work to keep the reader both grounded and aware. As such, the reader enjoys a setting that has been wonderfully and completely imagined, described, and realized by Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Literary Qualities

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Whether because they offer a natural metaphor for coming-of-age audiences transitioning into the adult world, or because— either in cause or effect—they are generally considered most appropriate for the developmental phases and developing psyche of the young adult, the canonized classics of British fantasy traditionally feature young adult protagonists. "The Sword in the Stone," book one of T. H. White's aforementioned The Once and Future King (1965), searches back through history, legend, and the author's own boyhood, to expand the Arthurian legend by contributing the story of Arthur's young adulthood. Appropriately, White, a teacher of young adults, expands Arthurian legend by describing what the young Wart learned in his lessons with Merlin in order to explain the genius of Wart's later kingship.

But T. H. White is simply one of the more recent authors to artfully and respectfully redefine the traditional parameters of the fantasy genre. He follows such great masters as Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis and such beloved characters as Alice Liddell and Lucy Prevensie. In Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872), Carroll describes a series of experiences that mature Alice both emotionally and intellectually in order to prepare her for life as a logical, reasoning, and kind-hearted woman. In the seven books that make up C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), Lucy and the Prevensie children (as well as Polly Plumber, Digory Kirke, Eustace Scrubb, and Jill Pole) accomplish a series of moral tasks that underscore Lewis' and the novels' Christian sentiment and earn the characters a place in heaven.

In accordance with, and in honor of, this proud literary history, Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone begins the story of Harry Potter, age eleven, apprentice wizard and self-doubting hero—a novel that, and a protagonist who, has been inspired by the motifs of classic British fantasy. Clearly, Rowling aspires to further define, and to excel within, the genre of fantasy. In her general examination of the young hero's mentor and his acquisition of wisdom, Rowling's Harry Potter resembles White's young Arthur. Though not privately tutored by Hogwarts headmaster Professor Dumbledore, Harry nevertheless is trained within his school and according to his pedagogic system. And it is at crucial times in the narrative of his training that Harry is given the opportunity to consult with Dumbledore: when he develops a dangerous preoccupation with the Mirror of Erised, when he must negotiate the prudent use of the invisibility cloak, and after he has successfully (and for the second time) defeated "He Who Shall Not Be Named." Additionally, Dumbledore resembles Merlin both personally and physically; he is an avid lover of books and wisdom who wears flowing robes and a long, white beard. This resemblance suggests not only how much White's master wizard has influenced— and continues to influence—audience expectation, but how that influence has determined Rowling's use of classic fantasy motifs.

Rowling also credits Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis through her description, and use, of a reflective device and a train ride to achieve passage into a fantastic other-world. In a manner that suggests a parallel to the rites of passage of young adulthood, Harry Potter boards a train at platform nine and three quarters at King's Cross station. Harry's trip will bring him to the wondrously magical and separate (though whimsically and pointedly parallel) world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After many railway trips, many happy adventures, and the conclusive suggestion that they might be outgrowing such adventures, the Prevensie children of Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia access the kingdom of heaven when they are killed in a train wreck. In Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Alice speeds through the countryside of her own parallel world, the reversed world of "nonsense" on the other side of a mirror, while she is engaged in a giant game of chess that she must win in order to return transformed and victorious to the "real," that is adult, world. Harry passes the preparatory "test" of the Mirror of Erised (with a great deal of help and guidance from Professor Dumbledore), gaining the strength and confidence necessary to help him (along with Ron Weasley) face the challenge of the giant chess game towards the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Alice's success in the chess game, involving the maturity required to eschew the paradoxes (bureaucracy) of the Red Queen and her supporters (political, governmental systems), informs Rowling's description of Harry's and Ron's actions during the giant Chess game, as well as our perceptions of them. Chess, a game of logic requiring patience and experience, tests and proves both the capabilities of reason and fantasy, and Harry and his friends must further establish themselves as heroes by exercising both of these capabilities—much in the way the audience does in the act of reading, in the act of entering a reflective art form.

Thus, as a fellow reader and creating author, in book one of the "Harry Potter" series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Rowling gives due credit to the precedents of her literary forebears and extends a hand to those writers who may hope to follow. And the readers and keepers of the tradition of classic, British fantasy, would do well to acknowledge agreement in Rowling's debt as well as the reader's debt to Rowling.

Social Sensitivity

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In a television interview aired in July of 2000—just prior to the release of the muchanticipated fourth Harry Potter book—eminent children's and young adult literature critic and scholar Jack Zipes described Rowling's fiction as formulaic and sexist. Because Zipes was not given the chance to fully support his thesis within the format of the televised sound bite, any response to his thesis must be based, in part, on conjecture. Nevertheless, that Rowling's Harry Potter books should be described as formulaic is problematic. The "Harry Potter" books are, after all, a series, and, at least thus far, the action takes place during the academic year. Aside from some scattered highlights of Harry's summer holidays, the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone follows the unchanging rhythm of a highly structured educational calendar. While an academic year provides a useful template by which Rowling may structure her fiction, the description of such a template as formulaic seems unfair and a refusal to acknowledge just how reliant a young adult audience is on the academic calendar—or how useful it is to the plot structure of British fantasy. Indeed, Lewis Carroll's Alice has her adventures while she is not engaged with her studies in both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and throughout C. S. Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles, his young protagonists travel to and from Narnia while on vacation from school.

In terms of Rowling's potential sexism, it may be likewise argued that, as she follows and departs from a traditional academic structure in her novels, so too does Rowling follow and depart from traditional gender roles. Mrs. Dursley characterizes the standard housewife in the opening pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, while Mr. Dursley presents us with a mock-image of the bowler-capped British businessman. But it should be noted that Mrs. and Mr. Dursley are not beloved characters (certainly not characters after whom young readers would be inclined to model themselves), and that other characters do not always line up according to standard expectations of gender: Professor McGonagall is a witch and a teacher to be respected and admired, Madame Hooch coaches the (co-ed) Quidditch team, Hermione Granger is as capable of getting herself out (or in) trouble as Ron Weasley or Harry himself; Professor Dumbledore is a homebody, Professor Quirrell is a weak and fearful wizard, and Hagrid has undeniably strong mothering instincts. Ultimately, that some of Rowling's characters inhabit traditional gender roles while others do not may be the best, and most elegant, argument against the enforcement of those roles.

And yet, the defense of Rowling's fiction as formulaic or sexist does raise some interesting considerations regarding social concerns in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Because the novel follows the British school year, there are few—if any—references to non-Christian faiths and practices. Thus, the witches and wizards at Hogwarts celebrate Christmas—even despite their supposedly pagan history. Harry is able to afford Hogwarts because of the large inheritance left to him by his parents, a detail that can serve to example a limited representation of economic stratification. Due to his last name and his red hair, we might assume that Ron Weasley is of Irish descent; such an assumption would then lead us to argue that the depiction Ron's family, poor and well-populated, reveals a prejudice against Irish Catholics in Rowling, Great Britain, or both. Similarly, while several referenced characters represent other races and ethnicities (Lee Jordan, for example, is black), the main protagonists of the novel, the characters in whom readers are most invested, are white.

Considering the anxiety that contemporary audiences and critics have regarding the fair and equal representation of peoples in literature—and particularly in literature for children and young adults—these observations are both legitimate and unavoidable. But, too, readers must consider the transcendent possibilities of fantasy novels. If one of the benefits of fantasy is to remove the reader from an oppressive social reality, and thereby to offer a lens through which he or she might critique and resolve social injustices, critics cannot expect fantasy to perform the same instructional modeling as contemporary realism. This is not an excuse or a justification, and it is not because fantasy does not mirror and model life as does all literature (and all art). It is because, as a genre, fantasy behaves according to its own history, tradition, and purpose. Though it is appropriate to expect contemporary fantasy to fairly and accurately represent social diversity, a more appropriate concern for fantasy may be how well it models the readers' ability to see themselves within their social system and how convincingly it argues for their deserved equality. That Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone does, indeed, reflect and address social diversity, and that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone inspires both young and old readers to see their worlds in new and different ways (ways that may result in social activism and change), offers a strong argument for our acknowledgment of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as fantastic literature worthy of a place in the canon.

For Further Reference

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Cart, Michael. Review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Booklist (September 15,1998). In a glowing review, Cart praises the story of Harry Potter, calling the work "a brilliantly imagined and beautifully written fantasy."

Review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.Kirkus Reviews (September 1,1998). Describing the work as a "hugely enjoyable fantasy," the reviewer predicted that Rowling's fantasy novel will appeal to "action-oriented readers."

Winerip, Michael. Review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York Times Book Review (February 14, 1999). In a lengthy review, Winerip lauds Rowling's "three-dimensional characters" as well as the "wonderful, sly humor" running throughout the book.


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Beahm, George. Muggles and Magic: An Unofficial Guide to J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter Phenomenon. 2d ed. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2006.

Blake, Andrew. The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter: Kid-Lit in a Globalized World. London: Verso, 2002.

Eccleshare, Julia. A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels. London: Continuum, 2002.

Gupta, Suman. Re-Reading Harry Potter. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Heilman, Elizabeth, ed. Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Nel, Philip. J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” Novels: A Reader’s Guide. London: Continuum, 2001

Smith, Sean. J. K. Rowling: A Biography. London: Michael O’Mara, 2001.

Whited, Lana A., ed. The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.




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