The BOOKPRESS April 1999

A Whiz of a Wiz


Jamie Lewis

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
J.K. Rowling.
Scholastic, 1998.
309 pages, $16.95 cloth.

Anyone who works in retail will tell you what a joy it is to deal with the general public during the Holiday season. As rewarding as working in a bookstore can be, it’s a prime site for furrowed yuletide brows and the screams of disappointed children (ages 5-65). You dole out the latest thrillers and biographies, have purchases snatched from your hand, loose change hurled at you like caltrops, and have to patiently explain to university staff that you can’t really justify putting forty dollars worth of Garfield books on the departmental account. And what do you say at the end of the sale? Merry Christmas? Happy Hannukah? Cheerful Kwanza?

This past year wasn’t too bad; everyone was reasonably well behaved for the first couple of weeks, but then something went horribly wrong around December 10th. Newspapers and public radio started to rave about a children’s book from the United Kingdom. Daniel Pinkwater gushed over it like an over-ripe melon and Shel Silverstein said he liked it and smiled long enough for a picture to be taken of him that didn’t make him look like an assault-rifle-wielding religious zealot. Needless to say, there was a stampede.

We weren’t the only ones caught off guard. Scholastic, the publisher, found itself with no copies left to sell to retailers and frantically restarted the presses to supplement their initially small run. It was the closest thing we’d ever seen to literary hysteria. We had parents sobbing in the store, people phoning back every couple of hours to see whether copies had arrived and empty-handed patrons roaring that it was available on Amazon.com and they’d be buying their copy there (actually, it wasn’t, they’d sold out too but continued to take orders).

So, what was all the fuss about? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The title still causes an involuntary shudder. It was written by J.K.Rowling, a divorced, single mother from Scotland, as she sat in a greasy spoon with her toddler contemplating the joyful existence that is living on the dole in Edinburgh. On the strength of her initial drafts, The Scottish Arts Council had given her a grant to finish the book and "hey presto!" It won a loch-full of book awards and shot to the top of the book charts.

Normally, America pays very little attention to cultural phenomena in England, but within a couple of weeks, the distribution rights had been snapped up by Scholastic and Warner Brothers had sent Ms. Rowling a six-figure offer for the movie rights. You could almost hear the plaintive howls of her ex-husband.

At first, I wasn’t that interested, despite coming from that part of the world. Then I noticed that every member of staff in the store was quietly borrowing the book and reading it. Customers who’d managed to get a copy were coming back in to thank us for selling it to them! All very strange. Setting aside my cultural snobbery (which is quite an achievement for a Brit) I took the book home and read it when no-one else was about.

Harry Potter is introduced to us a baby. He’s being delivered to his Aunt and Uncle Dursley after the mysterious death of both his parents. A group of eccentric professors leave him on the doorstep with a short note and vanish, literally. Ten years on and Harry is still living with the Dursleys. His Aunt and Uncle make him live under the stairs and lavish all their attention on their colossal brat of a son, Dudley. They inflict fairytale cruelty on Harry, refusing to let him go out, attend a decent school, or even celebrate his birthday.

Despite all of this, Harry is a very well-adjusted boy. The only thing that worries him, and Uncle Vernon, is that strange people in cloaks keep waving and grinning at the two of them on the streets. Upon closer investigation, these people simply disappear. The portents and omens continue until a mysterious letter arrives. Not at all happy about Harry receiving mail, Uncle Vernon refuses to let him have it and destroys it. Then another arrives, then another and another. All addressed to Harry, sometimes so specifically that they stipulate the very room he’s in.

Having read one of the letters, Uncle Vernon is extremely agitated, but won’t reveal the contents. Instead, he gathers up his family (and Harry) and drags them off on a road trip to evade the mail. This fails spectacularly, and they end up in a windswept cottage with Uncle Vernon barricading the doors and windows.

Enter Hagrid, a magical motorcycle messenger. When Hagrid finally catches up with them he ignores Vernon’s protests and hands Harry a copy of the letter which invites him to attend "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." Naturally, Dudley sulks and Vernon refuses to let him go, but as Hagrid is the size of a mail truck and has the temperament of a constipated grizzly bear, Vernon quickly acquieses.

The next day, Hagrid takes a shocked, but excited, Harry to London and begins to reveal some of the things we’d suspected all along. Harry is the son of two of the greatest wizards of all time. They were attacked and killed by an evil wizard, Voldemort, when they refused to join his suspicious cult. Voldemort had tried to kill baby Harry too, but failed, leaving only a lightning bolt-shaped scar on Harry’s forehead. Sure enough, Harry’s parents left him a serious chunk of change and he’s already a celebrity of the world of magic thanks to his apparent defeat of Voldemort. We also learn that wizards and witches quietly keep the rest of the world running on a daily basis without being spotted by mere ordinary folk, or "muggles" as they affectionately refer to us.

Once outfitted with a wand, broomstick, and cloak, Harry is whisked off to King’s Cross train station and catches the Hogwarts Express from platform 9 3/4. Thus begins the really great stuff, as Harry finally finds a world in which he feels comfortable and Rowling introduces us to the beautifully twisted world of Hogwarts. He makes new friends, starts taking lessons in potions and the Dark Arts, and discovers that he’s quite the whiz (surely "wiz?") at a broomstick-bound version of aerial polo called Quidditch.

But all is not well at Hogwarts. Harry and the other members of his school house, "Gryffindor," are constantly bullied by the evil little sorcerers in rival house "Slytherin." Professor Snape, lecturer in potions and ex-member of Slytherin, has got it in for him, and Harry has a nasty suspicion that Voldemort didn’t simply retire after he failed to finish him off all those years ago. Add to that the fact that Harry and his friends discover that the eponymous Sorcerer’s Stone is hidden somewhere in the school building and that it will provide a convenient gateway for Voldemort to return to take over the world.

No one, it seems, except Harry and his chums, have realized the danger, so it’s up to them to solve the mystery, defeat the bad guys and pass their exams.

Comparisons have already been drawn to Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis, but Rowling’s influences go much deeper than that. Her style is a glorious cauldron full of British classroom subjects. The character names are straight out of the Charles Dickens study guide. Old Charlie had a habit of giving the game away when he introduced you to characters—"Miss Nice," the hard-done-by, orphaned scullery maid with a heart of gold, or "Mr. Complete-Bastard," the local mill owner. Not much room for doubt there. Rowling does the same. You just know that Professor Dumbledore is a rolypoly, lovable old pedagogue with apparent memory problems, and that Peeves the Poltergeist is going to be a thorough pain in the ectoplasmic rear-end.

Harry is the epitome of Byron’s romantic hero, making his differences his strengths and openly admitting his naivete. He even has the interesting-but-not-disfiguring scar (club-foot seems to have lost its windswept charm over the past few centuries, and sounds way too much like a mediterranean resort for podiatrists). Then again, along with the book’s penchant for cloaks and dragons it could be claimed that the 33-year-old author merely loves Rick Wakeman-era Yes. And the Ziggy Stardust lightning-bolt motif? Dead giveaway. So maybe he’s more Bowie than Byron, but a fop is a fop is a fop.

The theme of the downtrodden, unloved-yet-lovable hero is to Dahl what the Frankenstein myth is to Michael Crichton, but Rowling manages to make Harry Potter all the more human by granting him flashes of anger, frustration and crippling self-doubt about his identity. It takes the intervention of Dumbledore and a magic mirror just to convince Harry that Voldemort didn’t leave more than a nice scar with him on that fateful night. Demonic possession isn’t usually the stuff of children’s books, but Rowling handles this (and all the other supernatural bugbears) with sufficient humor to prevent junior from wetting the bed at three in the morning and insisting that there’s a wyvern in his closet trying on his tighty whiteys.

And that’s the key to this book. It’s written as much for adults as it is for children. Rowling has obviously been weaned on Monty Python, Blackadder, and a grimness of existence that demands humor. The Slytherins and Snapes of the book are in essence comedic bullies, nasty enough to make you cheer for the good guys and familiar enough that young ’uns will go back to their muggle school feeling a bit more empowered in the morning. None of the characters are cyphers. You get to know everyone at Hogwarts pretty well, without sacrificing pace or losing the interest of the younger reader.

The one criticism I did have concerned the inclusion of a couple of sub-plots that don’t have much relevance to the story. Upon reading an imported copy of the sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (apparently one of the best-selling import titles of all time), they make sense, but as the second book isn’t due for release over here until September 1999, you could find yourself wondering why they were included. Rowling is planning seven books in all, and claims to have the last chapter of the seventh finished. She now merely needs to fill in a five-volume gap. The third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, will be released in July in the UK, so we probably won’t see it until the next millennium.

Even armed with this information, don’t be surprised if the titles change when they come across the Atlantic. The first book is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Europe, but Scholastic’s U.S. offices changed it because they thought the concept of philosophy would "put off" American audiences. Wasn’t Scholasticism a dominant school of thought that espoused religious philosophy for 800 years? Oh, well... what’s in a name?

The first two are already children’s classics, and that’s no exaggeration. With a book planned for each year Harry spends at Hogwarts (is he going for his doctorate?), it’s going to be interesting to see how he grows along with his intended audience. We can expect to see Harry Potter and the Predatory Prefect, Harry Potter and the Dropping Crystal Balls, and end with Harry Potter and the Degree of Disillusionment.

These days I read my copy proudly in public and I’m attempting to convince my wife that the book is good enough reason for us to procreate. Put down your literary theory and cognitive science for a couple of evenings and read a great children’s book out loud to yourself or to your offspring. I guarantee the kids will like it more than the Walter Benjamin.

Jamie Lewis is, among other things, a writer, actor, and director living in Ithaca.

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