Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (the first one)


Orphan boy from abusive home discovers that he is a powerful wizard and is taken away to a special school for magic, yadda yadda yadda.

The Prose

I have mentioned before in this series my homegrown concept of “viscosity,” the extent to which writing puts up a fight against the reader. Viscous prose, regardless of its merit, is hard to read. J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and setting are jolly enough, and often rather engaging, but what compels you forward is less a sense of “I must read another chapter!” than “Why not read another chapter?” In Sorcerer’s Stone, reading is so effortless as to require no real investment.

This ultralow viscosity goes a long way toward explaining why the Potter books have been so often lugged about by children who weigh less than they do. What I have not figured out – the most magical aspect of the books, for sure – is how Rowlings does it. I hope that there are teams of applied linguists, rhetoriticians, grammarians, and what? epistomologists? studying her work. Her mastery of language at the sentence level is something to behold.

I would also concur with literary critic Dad5000, however, that “there’s something jumpy about the style.” Rowling’s pacing is in fact all over the map. Critical episodes are often dispensed with in a few short sentences, while kid-friendly banalities (odd candies, quidditch) get a disproportionate share of attention. After the opening chapters – the best written of the book – there is seldom time for anything like suspense or description, as the characters merely careen from crisis to crisis.

Every crisis, moreover, is presented with a uniform emotional weight, regardless of whether it is a matter of jockeying for adolescent social status, a matter of life and death, or part of an epic struggle between good and evil. Doubtless this kid’s-eye-view lack of perspective is part of what has made the series so popular among children. But is it writing that is well crafted for its intended audience, or is it just pandering? You be the judge.

The Characters (such as they are)

Characterization is easily the greatest weakness in Sorcerer’s Stone, to the extent that it exists at all. There are basically five characters who are anything more than scenery or plot machinery. We are shown very little about any of them through their decisions or dialogue, and what we are shown often contradicts what we are told about them.

Malfoy : A petty bully, Malfoy is a child who makes mocking comments to his schoolfellows, may or may not indulge in petty theft, and occasionally shoves someone. You are familiar with the type – indeed, you may well have been the type, as this is the profile of an extremely common sort of unhappy child. The text, however, treats the lad as an embodiment of malice and evil. Rowlings is, moreover, at pains that we should dislike him because of his family background: he is, unforgivably, well off.

Hermione: What we are shown in Hermione is a child who is hard-working, intelligent, outgoing, respectful, and charitable. What we are told, for the first half of the book anyway, is that she is an insufferable prig. The other characters treat her with unabashed resentment. Then they stop. It’s weird.

Hagrid: We are meant to see Hagrid, a employee of the school of magic, as a bumbling but essentially virtuous and trustworthy adult who is especially good with kids. He is certainly bumbling. He is in fact so guileless around children, whose lives he routinely jeopardizes through egregiously foolish actions and by spouting highly sensitive information to them, as to suggest a fairly serious IQ deficit. He seems oblivious to the need for even the most basic rules in an institution entrusted with the lives of children. Parents: if your local school employs a warm, avuncular figure of Hagrid’s type, have your attorney contact the school board and keep the kids home until everyone connected with the hiring decision has been sacked.

Ron/Harry: Certainly the weirdest thing about this first “Harry Potter” book is the lack of any meaningful Harry Potter. He is the cipher at the center of the story, a boy with no apparent personality whatsoever. Again, I don’t know if this is an intentional aspect of this piece of children’s literature – a point-of-view character left essentially blank so that the child reader can project him or herself into the void? If so, it’s nicely done. If not, it’s a rather glaring missing piece of the story.

In so much as he exists at all, Harry is crafted of the same basic stuff as his pal Ron. A great deal of emphasis is put on their poverty and humble home lives, which is clearly meant to ennoble them. They also frequently exhibit the virtues of cleverness and bravery. On the other hand, they are also shown to have the emotional self-control of toddlers. Prideful and subject to hair-trigger sensitivity, they let Malfoy play them like a pair of fiddles, frequently returning words with blows like the worst kind of fool. They have a casual contempt for the rules of their school and the instructions of their elders that borders on the pathological. They are, finally, indifferent students, wanting the power and pleasure of magic but sullen about having to work for it. It is in a sense fortunate that these young men are not better realized as characters, as the little we are shown about them is far from flattering.


Everything negative that I have pointed out above could be said to come from the same source: the need to set up an alternative reality and set a complex plot in motion, all in a shorthand form that renders it compact enough for a child reader. A simpler plot would have left room for better pacing and characterization. The alternative, a longer book, would not have been realistic for a children’s book by a first time author at the time Sorcerer’s Stone was written. What I am curious to see, as I venture towards the thicker books of the series, is this: do the chapter-level elements of the writing improve as Rowling is given more room to work with and is relieved of the need to establish first principles? Or, does she expand the complexity of the plot to fit the available real estate? No doubt you, gentle reader, already know the answer to this question. I, eventually, will find out.


Elaine said...

I actually enjoyed the first book--all the little jokes, names, etc. It's hardly _Watership Down_, but still... I could not keep up interest in the subsequent books, and abandoned the series.

After a long life as a teacher and parent, I am sorry to tell you that the children are realistically characterized. Remember, Shirley Jackson entitled her book about her family life, _Life Among the Savages._ Too true!

Yankee in England said...

The original title and the one used in the UK is HP and the Philosophers Stone. Publishers in the US were worried no one would get it. In the UK we also have two differnt cover designs for each book. One for adults and one for children, the adult ones are cooler needless to say. Wiki shows the childrens cover for all 7 books


I personally don't like the first two books as much as the last five, some of it is reason you have listed above. It also seems the JK wrote the stories to grow up with those reading it, the books were written over a 10 year period and the last book is not something I would read to a 10 year old,where the first one I would.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Witches ain't shit but ho's and tricks.

d said...

i liked the hp books because they felt like they were written from a kid's perspective. at least the first few. once you get to the 4th one, things change pretty drastically.

but in the first few, it's fun to sort of imagine being in harry's place. to kids, every problem is a MAJOR CRISIS and people are seen in relatively simple terms. so, personally, i thought it was kind of genius for her to write that way.

i d k. maybe i am giving her too much credit and in the beginning she just kind of was technically a crappy writer. at any rate, she spins a pretty damn good yarn. especially for something made up to appease her kids at bed time.

Chuckdaddy said...


Big fan of the whole series. It's been a while since I read the first, but I do remember some aspects that hooked me: the scene with the mail having to its way to Harry, the fantasy regulars (flying brooms) mixed with the new (the dementors), and Harry's story- one of the better rags to riches (bullied boy living in a closet makes it to #1 Magician status, come on, that's pretty good).

Interestingly, even as a happy reader of all, I have trouble keeping track of what happened in them. A weird thing starts to take place, where you start following the pattern of the books, and each book's twist on them, over the new book itself. As you'll see, it goes: bad summer with uncle/aunt, train ride to Hog Warts, new classes (and defence of dark arts teacher), new major issue, early quidditch matches, finals, championship, resolve major new issue.

That should be a criticism, but I think the repetiveness is part of its strength. Just as her prose smoothly whisks you through each oage, the comfortingly familiar plot glides you from station to station to the end.

And about the "casual contempt for the rules of their school", as a reason to dislike them, you were joking, right?

Chance said...

I'm with Elaine. The first book was good for a debut --- heavy on the Roald Dahl and Joseph Campbell Hero archetype but good --- but the series bored me. Too many silly plot holes and, as you say, careening from crisis to crisis. But then, I'm not 12.

Elaine said...

Hey, thanks for the back-up vote, Chance!-- (are we sure that is not a pipe?)!
Mostly, life does seem to careen from crisis to crisis....but then that makes us grateful for the relative calms....
At Sixty-something, I am hoping that things are going to slow down...soon.

Rebel said...

skipping the comments, so sorry if it's been said... but yes, the book is written more-or-less from Harry's poing of view so that all the character descriptions come from his opinions. If they are a bit black & white, or lacking in mature discernment... that's why.

I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I think you're missing the point by getting overly analytical at this stage. In fact, I would avoid analyzing the writing until after you've finished the story. But that's me, I'm not fond of literary analysis.

I agree with Yankee's assessment that the story grows up with the kids. As their perspectives grow, and their own personalities develop, you get a more mature and well developed story.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: Oh, I enjoyed it well enough. We're probably about on the same page; I liked it, but wouldn't feel any particular interest in continuing on if the series hadn't been assigned to me.

@Yank: ...and I hope to agree with you. It would of course be nice to be progressively more impressed as the series goes on.

@Dr. Ken: OK, that kind of cracked me up.

@d: Yeah, I'm perfectly willing to believe that she's really good at portraying the word from a kids-eye view. But as an adult -- or, maybe, just as me -- I have little interest in who makes the quiddich team when there's an epic struggle between good and evil going on.

@ChuckDaddy: Oh, I agree that the initial setup is brilliant. The first chapter is terrific, and I thought I was going to immediately fall in love with the series. But although all subsequent chapters were just fine, none were half as fun as that one.

Joking? No. I'm not talking about casual contempt like, skipping classes to hang out at the Taco Bell. I'm talking about casual contempt like, skipping classes in order to embroil themselves violently and naively in the affairs of adults. If you took Harry and his posse into real life, they would overhear that the school was threatened by funding cuts and respond by assassinating the entire school board.

@Rebel: I'm quite sure I finished the story, the story being Harry Potter and the Whatever Stone. It's perfectly reasonable to expect the first book of a trilogy to stand on its own merits. Ol' J.K. had no guarantee that she'd have the opportunity to get a part II published, nor do I think that the series was planned in advance as an organic whole. And really, come to think of it, I don't see any reason not to get analytical from the very first sentence. Surely you don't finish every book you start?

Jenners said...

Are you seriously telling me you are JUST NOW reading all the Harry Potter books? Really???? Well, they totally rock. I read the first one so long ago that I don't know whether to argue with you or not. They do get significantly longer. You do get to know the characters ... but they the broad brushstrokes you describe are pretty much what you'll get. The magic of these books is Rowling's enviable and amazing imagination...I am in AWE of all the cool stuff she came up with and the world she created. These books freakin' rock!