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An image of the bookcover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


Harry Potter and the
Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

J. K. Rowling

Growing up in a small town, Rowling seems to have led a rather unremarkable life. Many of her former teachers said there was nothing they could really remember about her.1 After graduating from the University of Exeter as a French and Classics major, she enrolled in a bilingual secretarial course at the urging of her practical parents. Rowling worked at various secretarial and teaching positions before becoming a full-time writer.

Rowling’s writing

In addition to the Harry Potter books, Rowling has written three children’s works: Quidditch through the Ages under the pseudonym Kennilworthy Whisp, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them under the name Newt Scamander, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a book of 5 fairy tales.

Before writing the Harry Potter books, Rowling wrote two adult novels which were never published.

Rowling became well known for writing chapters of the first Harry Potter books in her brother-in-law’s café, while her baby slept in a carriage beside her.

The Harry Potter series

As of mid 2007, worldwide sales of Rowling’s 7-book series exceeded 325 million copies. Only the Bible has sold more books. The Harry Potter titles are available in more than 200 countries and have been translated into 64 languages.2 The film version of the series has also attracted millions of viewers. By anyone’s measure of success, the Harry Potter series is a true blockbuster, one that is unrivalled in children’s literature.

Some people assume that, because of the hype and Hollywood-style advertising, the books are merely media-driven. Interestingly, the books were highly popular with children long before the high-powered advertising began. Others might assume that if a book appeals to the masses, it is inferior in quality, yet this is not true in general (recall Dickens for example), or in this particular case.

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How the series began

Rowling conceived the idea for the series on a 1990 train ride. From the very beginning, she designed the books as a seven-book series. Rowling spent 5 years planning the plots and refining the characters before she ever started writing. She even wrote complete biographies of her characters prior to writing.3 Rowling is a careful and meticulous author, one who wrote no fewer than 15 drafts of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.4

Rowling did not randomly choose seven as the number of books for her series. Seven is a favourite number in fairy-tales, a number traditionally associated with completion and fulfillment. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series also contains 7 books.

An introduction to the story

The orphan Harry lives with his repulsive aunt and uncle until he is 11 years old. A giant appears unexpectedly, taking Harry away to a school of witchcraft and wizardry. Harry is surprised to learn that he is a wizard, in fact, a famous one. His life in this magical world prepares him for a dramatic meeting with the evil sorcerer who murdered his parents.

What distinguishes the novel is its masterful combination of numerous genres. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a unique blend of fantasy novel, mystery story, school story, adventure novel, humorous story, and epic.

The plot

As a mystery story, the plotting of the novel is highly skilfull. Rowling maintains a perfect balance between providing clues for her readers and maintaining the secret of the novel. Most readers are surprised at the end of the novel, but also wonder how they missed clues that seem obvious with hindsight.

Wit and imagination

Rowling’s sharp wit, humour, and imagination are unrivalled in children’s literature. After Uncle Vernon refuses to give Harry a letter addressed to him, a series of letters somehow find their way into the house, exasperating the uncle. Just after Uncle Vernon reminds Harry that there is no post on Sunday, “something came whizzing down the kitchen chimney as he spoke, and caught him sharply on the back of the head. Next moment, thirty or forty letters came pelting out of the fireplace like bullets.”5

When Uncle Vernon tries to move Harry, the addresses of the letters also change. Letters addressed to “Harry, the Cupboard Under the Stairs,” change to “Harry, the Smallest Bedroom” and finally to “Harry, the Floor, Hut-on-the-Rock, the Sea.”

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Rowling has said that Jane Austen is her favourite author.6 The Harry Potter novels reveal the same shrewd wit and keen eye for humorous incongruities. Rowling frequently juxtaposes lofty magic and mundane reality. The scene is which young wizards try to ride broomsticks but fall off and have accidents is typical of her humour. Similarly the list of school supplies includes items such as “one plain pointed hat (black) for day wear” and advice to parents such as “PARENTS ARE REMINDED THAT FIRST YEARS ARE NOT ALLOWED THEIR OWN BROOMSTICKS.”7

The magical and the ordinary

The Dursleys are the epitome of the ordinary. They lead dull, prosaic lives, and Uncle Vernon hates anything associated with the imagination. By juxtaposing Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon with characters from the magical world, Rowling emphasizes the important of the imagination, a central theme in the series.

Classical underpinning

It is no accident that Professor McGonagall’s first name is Minerva, a name that recalls the Roman goddess of wisdom, or that the caretaker’s name is Argus Filch, a name reminiscent of the hundred-eyed monster created by Hera to spy on Zeus.

Given her classics background, it is not surprising that Rowling underpins the series with mythical references, a technique that gives the novels resonance, depth, and universality. The plot of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone – with the dramatic descent into the castle dungeons past a three-headed monster – echoes Aeneas’s descent into the underworld.

Epic travellers such as Odysseus, Aeneas, Gilgamesh, Dante, and Beowulf visit literal and figurative underworlds, places in which they confront darkness and gain greater awareness of life. These underworld explorers attain new levels of wisdom, self-knowledge, and maturity after delving below the surface. Like his literary ancestors, Harry develops new-found initiative and courage by descending into the dark realm.

Notes

1. Connie Ann Kirk, J. K. Rowling: A Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 50.

2. Contemporary Authors Online. 2008. Literature Resource Center database.

3. Kirk, J.K. Rowling, 66.

4. Kirk, J. K. Rowling, 69.

5. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 35.

6. Kirk, J. K. Rowling, 33.

7. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 53.