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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling, Scholastic, 1997, 309 pp.

Pontificating on the meaning and worth of Harry Potter consumes the time and effort of a number of different groups. Publishers do their level best to encourage the phenomenon, with an eye on the astounding statistic of 100 million copies sold worldwide with four books so far and Rowling's plan to make the series seven books long. Nor did it take long for copycat series to be published. Certain religious groups get worked up over the apparent occult teachings of Harry Potter, the lightning bolt symbol on his forehead, and so forth. Librarians are mostly happy to see kids reading, and have ready-made answers to the question of what to read next. Warner Bros. has a glossy movie version of the first book coming out in a month's time, as of writing, and is already rolling out the merchandise and tie-in deals, with visions of dollar signs and compliant young consumers to keep its corporate master, AOL-TW, happy. As for what readers think of Harry Potter, it becomes harder and harder to separate the hype from the substance. With such a colossal cultural steamroller, the actual merit of the book ceases to matter after a certain point. I'll discuss this issue with the later books in the series, where it is much trickier, as I get to them. In the case of the first Harry Potter book, my judgment is fairly straightforward. Rowling gives us a delightful, warmhearted, and remarkably funny bit of light entertainment. Her writing is an odd amalgam of the modern and the anachronistic, but her descriptions are deft and her scary moments are witty. The book makes me laugh and leaves me wanting more, all in a manner that is polished and enjoyable.

Harry Potter is an orphan, a young boy raised by his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. The Dursleys are Muggles, or the non-magical, and staunch in their disapproval of all things magical. In fact, as Harry grows up he knows nothing of his magical heritage, only that the Dursleys and their son Dudley treat him poorly. They even stop Harry's mail, but there's no stopping mail delivery from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts has invited Harry to attend, and even though the Dursleys camp out on a remote island, Harry gets the word. Hogwarts' gamekeeper, Hagrid, takes Harry shopping for all necessary magical supplies, and Harry still has to suffer through a few weeks of life at the Dursleys. Come September, Harry goes to platform 9 3/4 to get the train to Hogwarts, where he meets his new best friend, Ron, and a know-it-all girl named Hermione. At Hogwarts, the sorting hat puts each new student in the house that suits them best, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all put in the house Gryffindor. Once at Hogwarts, Harry and his friends have a number of adventures, including a troll loose in the school, an intense game of Quidditch (a type of flying ball game), a dangerous mirror, a mysterious alchemist, a baby dragon, an excursion into the Forbidden Forest, and then an exciting showdown between Harry and a force of evil to conclude the book. The book is somewhat breathlessly paced, as adventure follows adventure, although I found that the pace drags when the book focuses on those students who pester Harry.

Harry Potter is a strong and sympathetic character who carries the book gracefully on his back. In this first book at least, he's a helpful viewpoint character, as Harry and the reader learn about magic and the rules at Hogwarts together. I liked Harry's band of friends and how their friendship gradually deepens. The conflict that concludes the book requires help on the part of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and this collaborative contribution reminds me a great deal of the way that Charles de Lint tends to wrap up his books (especially Jack of Kinrowan). I find that Rowling usually overdoes her minor villains, mostly in the way that they constantly pester Harry; this makes for tiresome reading. However, the book's surprise ending makes up for a great deal of that irritation. I'll say no more.

There's not much new or unique in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Wizards, trolls, and centaurs are some of the oldest fixtures in the fantasy genre, and the novel about a young boy at boarding school has been written more than once in the history of British literature. Rowling makes it all a rather smooth package, which is no small achievement. Plus Harry Potter is the lightest of light entertainment, yet it doesn't feel like time wasted. That's quite a balancing act in this age of entertainment as disposable product. The sequels and the movie adaptations... that's another matter.

Also see the review of the movie based on this book.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury, 1998, 251 pp.

Sequels are supposed to provide more of the same, but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a clear case of less of the same. Shorter, less funny, and lacking the same breathless race from one adventure to the next. The book also suffers from another common problem of sequels: too many throwaway moments from the first book are given great significance, while not much new is injected into the story.

Harry Potter is back living with the Dursleys, his Muggle aunt and uncle, for the summer between his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the beginning of his second. Life is crummy, especially when the Dursleys find out that Harry is not allowed to do magic while away from Hogwarts and so they imprison him in his room. Fortunately, he has made friends at Hogwarts, Ron Weasley among them, and Ron and his older brothers come to rescue Harry with their father's flying car. Harry spends a wonderful month in the Weasley household, and then they are off to school. However, for some reason Ron and Harry can't find their way to platform 9 3/4 for the train to Hogwarts, so they take the flying car again, with the result that they are in trouble before the school year even begins. Worse, someone seems to be paralyzing students and people are starting to suspect Harry. Harry is hearing voices, trying to find out what the Chamber of Secrets might be, and trying to protect his friends.

The familiar characters return, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione are better friends than ever. Rowling adds a few new characters, and while they are not villains, they irritate me just as much as the bothersome minor villains in the first book. For example, a boy named Colin idolizes Harry and follows him everywhere, taking pictures at inopportune moments. Another tiresome character who takes up too much narrative time is Gilderoy Lockhart, a new professor at Hogwarts who is vain, incompetent, and quite cowardly. His comeuppance at the end of the book is entirely too predictable.

Also see the review of the movie based on this book.

First posted: October 20, 2001; Last modified: March 24, 2004

Copyright © 2001-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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