Friday, 20 September 2013

Popular Fiction Read-in: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

The story of Harry Potter was a natural choice for me to put on my list of eight books. Many (most?) people I know have read at least one of the books. One friend has become an attender of Potter conferences and reader of Potter fan-fiction.

Younger people in particular have most likely read the book in school, either by desire or by force.  One day at my cellphone store, I watched the TV screen near the customer service desk, which was showing one of the Harry Potter films (I don't know which one), and my family and I discussed the merits of the different famous actors who were in the Harry Potter films (we compared Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes), and my husband (who has read four of the books) was struggling to explain the details of a running joke about the revolving door of professors who teach a particular class at Hogwarts. The young man behind the sales desk helpfully filled in the blanks (the course is Defense Against the Dark Arts).

I don't think I will ever get to the fan-fiction point, and I am not sure that I will even read any of the other books, though I do have a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My husband bought the first four books when the older kids were around, and now only that book remains--the other books have dissipated into the aether, so I am reading a library copy.

I have seen parts of all the movies on television; I know I have seen all of the last film, which is the only one that I went to the theatre to see. The film was grim because the story had reach the point where the iterations of Voldemort had led to a villain able to walk around on his own and use his various acquired resources to attack the heroes full force. Because I saw the last film, the suspense in the first book was slacker than it likely would have been otherwise. I know Snape's secret, for example, and I know that Voldemort will continue to grow strong. I also know who lives and who dies.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of this book. In fact, I liked the book very much.

The first chapters remind me of Roald Dahl's books, with the parents and supervisory adults trying and failing to drive the naturally good child to their level of small-mindedness and cruelty. The book is in favour of family, but it does not assume that all families are created equal--good people stick together, and if a family isn't good, it is not worth supporting wholeheartedly.

Once Harry is on the Hogwarts Express, he leaves the Dahl world. The world of the Muggles is a netherworld or hell, and the world of the wizards is more like the real world. Not everyone is nice, but there are enough nice people around who make life worth living and even make life fun. Each school year, Harry must negotiate hierarchies of students and school staff, and he learns which rules he shouldn't break and which rules he has to break.The book is quite a bit like the books set in schools, such as Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that children like to read; adult versions of this kind of story are called campus novels.

The novel is not a work of realism, though. It borrows from genres of fantasy. Harry comes out of the folk  tradition of the secret prince, a child orphaned early in life and only after a series of adventures learns that he is not an ordinary person at all, but an extraordinary person, by virtue of his parents. His natural superiority makes him noticeable to all those who are able to notice it--at Hogwarts, most people know Harry is superior to them, though a small number of people are resentful (the Malfoys, for example). The Star Wars films have this aspect of folktale about them, too, such that Harry Potter is a version of Luke Skywalker.

For Harry to have turned out so well despite having been treated so badly by his foster family defies plausibility in a work of realism. In a fantasy story with folkish roots, Harry is perfectly consistent, though. The stories are formulaic, since these genres are formulaic (as genres are). In that sense, when I reached the part of the story where Harry and his friends try to find out what is going on below the trapdoor, I had a sense of deja-vu from the bits of the movie versions I have seen. A trusted person turns out to be a villain, or a suspected villain ends up being a person willing to sacrifice himself for Harry.  This deja-vu also comes from folktale formulas that structuralist analyses of folktales by people like Vladimir Propp have revealed . I suspect the Rowling books conform to these formula.

The characters are appealing, even the villains. Harry is good, but not good to a fault. He has cunning, and he knows that he can do things other people can't, so he will break rules to achieve his goals. Hermione is the pure one at the start of the book, but by the end she decides that she needs to work the system in order to achieve meaningful goals--rid the school of evil influence and support her friends.  

Even though I was not expecting a plot surprise, I still had surprises. The novel is full of imaginative details and subplots. I liked the flying keys, and I liked Hagrid's troubles while he tried to raise a baby dragon in his hut. I also liked how the book portrays the children and their normal obsessions: candy, cliques, sports (whether football or quidditch), and the balance between keeping on the right side of authority and getting into trouble. I was also surprised with Rowling's light touch. The movie I saw in full was pretty serious and glum.

I was surprised, but in a disappointed way, that the philosopher's stone didn't make itself more present in this book. Its extreme powerfulness turns out to be too much for even wizards to handle, and, for the sake of happiness and world peace, the inventor agrees to its destruction before anyone really gets to use it.

I worry about reading the other books. I think the books are about a boy who lives in a recurring nightmare in which he spends months of suffering among his cruel family, escapes after much struggle, and spends several more months in a world that has less cruelty and more pleasure, yet which ends with his having to confront the force that destroyed his real family. He achieves victory, but only after some great loss, and then he must return to his cruel family for a space of time so that the nightmare cycle begins. Unlike most books out there, wealth and power isn't everything. Evil is more powerful than good, but moral goodness trumps power.

I suppose that these stories may be a parable about life, but it is not a naive view of life, necessarily, although the overall lightness of the adventures, the giddy silliness of it all, is a way that the novel shows their overall optimism.

I am ready to move to the next book, Fifty Shades of Grey. It is waiting for me at the public library.

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