Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone will welcome you home like an old friend.
Hypable’s “revisited” series looks back at older pieces of media and attempts to evaluate their meaning today. Are they better or worse than we thought when they were originally released? What have we learned from them and what has their lasting impact been?
At the age of seven, I fell head-over-heels for a funny looking book with a pink cover and a strange name. I had stolen the book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, from my brother, who had shown very little interest in reading it. Curled up in a corner, I recall racing through Harry’s adventures, not least because I couldn’t wait to read them, but I was also acutely aware that my brother, older by four years, might not look so forgivingly on my act of thievery.
The copy of Philosopher’s Stone I read to write this review is that same, old and worn, stolen paperback. I never returned it. I look after my books, but Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has received more love than most. My paperback has the slightly crumpled cover, creased pages, and the tea and tear stains accumulated over many, many rereads to prove it. In the intervening years, I must have read it at least 50 times (not counting all those times I listened to the story via Stephen Fry’s excellent audiobook narrations). I know that opening sentence by heart. Okay, I know a lot of it by heart.
But it almost didn’t happen. I, like all Harry Potter fans, am lucky, because Philosopher’s Stone was very nearly not published at all. Just like many other bestselling novels, including childhood classics Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time, numerous publishers rejected Rowling’s first novel. It was eventually picked up by Bloomsbury, who gave the first book a print run of 500 hardback copies, 300 of which were sent to libraries. In hindsight it is almost impossible to believe, but it was not expected to be a success.
When I first read this book, I was reminded of the many delightful stories by Roald Dahl that saw children triumph over oblivious, cruel, or downright stupid adults. Dahl’s influence is certainly still identifiable, but now I see glimpses of Dickens in the caricatured descriptions of the Dursleys, and touches of Austen in Rowling’s wit (which is often imparted through Harry). The courage of Rowling’s writing also strikes me more clearly than before; I understand the hesitation of publishers who were not confident in publishing a long and complex children’s book that opened with a double murder.
At seven years old, I envied Harry for being invited into the kind of fantastical world I frequently dreamed about. Rowling’s imagination captured my own, and her colourful and vibrant descriptions of Harry’s new life drew me easily into the world she was creating. I disliked the Dursleys, laughed with the Weasleys, and developed an admiration of Hermione Granger that lasts to this day.
What surprises me sixteen years later is the fierce love I feel for Harry himself. The world Rowling has created is as expertly described as I remember and it is easy for me to sink back into this familiar setting. But now I find myself growing more concerned for this young boy. At seven, Harry’s grand age of 11 seemed awfully grown up and I was not at all concerned about him living in his cupboard and chasing danger around Hogwarts. At 23, the neglect and abuse that Harry experiences at the hands of the Dursley’s breaks my heart.
I am more sensitive to the darker elements of Rowling’s novel. These are aspects I have always been aware of, but frequently dismiss in Philosopher’s Stone because I am busy indulging the imagination of my inner child. The familiarity I feel for her work has, in the past, masked these complex narratives; many readers will pinpoint Goblet of Fire as the true beginning of Harry’s saga, but as I read Philosopher’s Stone I am not so sure. Ignoring, for a moment, the murders that bookend this story, what intrigues me most is the racial and social stratification of both Rowling’s England and the wizarding world. Her social commentary is mature and well considered, without overwhelming the whimsy of her narrative.
Objectively, Philosopher’s Stone is not the best of Rowling’s writing. And – this is not an opinion that will make me popular to Potter fans – although her prose does clearly develop over the course of the Harry Potter series, her writing has never amazed me. Rowling’s strengths are many: her dialogue is clever and entertaining, her world building unrivalled, her descriptions of characters pointed, and her novels somehow downright funny and tearjerking.
The weakest point of Philosopher’s Stone is the prose itself, which is readable, but not astounding. This does not diminish my enjoyment of Harry Potter, and should not diminish the importance of her work, which delves into themes worthy of any piece of classic literature. In saying so, I do not mean to disparage this book. After all, at what point did we decide that prose is the most important aspect of a novel?
The plot, characters and setting of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are all first class. Rowling’s clever and subtle foreshadowing is also of particular note, especially when you remember that, superficially at least, this is a children’s book. That Rowling’s writing is undemanding does not take away from the overall enjoyment or skill required in constructing such a story. For me J.K Rowling is not a wonderful writer, but she is, without a doubt, a wonderful author.
If you were lucky enough to get your hands on one of those first 500 copies of Philosopher’s Stone, I hope you held onto it, because one sold in 2011 for $29,875. There have been over 100 million copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold, and the series has been translated into over 70 languages. When Bloomsbury took a chance on that funny looking book, they printed only 500 copies. A decade later, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the series’ American publishers gave the novel an initial print run of 12 million copies.
The books have long been cited by parents and teachers as encouraging children to read and improving literacy skills; a recent study demonstrated a correlation between reading the Harry Potter books and a greater tolerance by children toward minority groups. It is not an exaggeration to say that Harry Potter has had a lasting influence on the world of publishing and children’s literature, as well as millions of readers around the world.
That is the beauty of this book. It is perhaps not the most fully developed or the best written book of the Harry Potter series, but what Philosopher’s Stone does so effectively is draw you under its spell. As I can attest, this ability to enchant is not diluted by an increased familiarity formed through rereading. And if you are lucky enough to be reading it for the first time now, regardless of your age, I have no doubt that you too will be swept away by this magical world.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published on June 26, 1997, and as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States on September 1, 1998.
Today marks the sixteenth anniversary of the book’s United States release. It is also, of course, the day that the Hogwarts Express leaves Platform 9 and 3/4 for Hogwarts.