This is a lightly edited version of the first Really Like This Book podcast script about the very well-known Harry Potter novels. I’ve been observing the rise of Harry Potter studies in my professional life, having graded research papers by students, and sometimes these novels inspire excellent essays. There is a lot to say about these books, so I’m not talking about the films, which are a different set of kettles of fish.
So, the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, first appeared in 1997, and not many people noticed. It took three years for my family to discover Harry Potter, through the CD version of the Chamber of Secrets given as a child’s birthday present, which we listened to obsessively as we drove around France in the summer of 2000. I bought the first of our copies of the books on the ferry on the way back to Britain, and after that we were hooked until the last film came out, eleven years later. When I read the novels aloud to my children when they were very young, as they ate their tea, they ate food they would normally refuse to touch, and they would also eat everything on their plate, such were the superb distraction powers of Harry Potter. I wrote to J K Rowling to thank her. When the later novels came out, we bought them in hardback on the day of publication like millions of others. We had a family agreement that I could read each book in parallel with the children because I was the fastest reader and could read the book while the children were at school. So my reading experience of Harry Potter has been both very slow and careful while reading aloud, noticing every word and how it works on the page and in the voice and mind’s eye, and also reading in a gobbling rush to find out what happens before the book was taken away from me.
Re-reading Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (in the USA and in several other countries it’s called The Sorcerer’s Stone, of course), I was laughing out loud, and found, once again, that I really wanted to read this book rather than do the things I ought to have been doing. The plot of an orphan bullied by his bad family and rescued by entry into a wonderful magical world works on me every time. The early sufferings of Harry with the Dursleys were very attractive to read because we know he escapes, and because he is cushioned from the real world, and real suffering. The Dursleys are not of our time today because there is no internet in their world – it was only just beginning to be used in British homes when Rowling began to write these books – so the outside world is hardly present, and there is no contact with other families, or with school life, or any of the normal suburban life of English families (cub scouts, tennis, babysitting groups, coffee mornings, all that stuff). They exist in a bubble, and so we have nothing to compare them with. This has the happy side-effect of making the stories effectively undateable, despite Dudley’s passion for videos and cine-cameras. We know what the Dursleys think is normal, because they enforce normality so vigorously, and because JK Rowling creates a very careful stage set for their normality that we hardly think to question it. However, Harry’s loneliness is strong enough for us to feel sad at the looming prospect of teenage bullying, and at the inexplicability of his bizarre miserable life. The episode of the disappearing glass, and the snake that wants to go to Brazil, comes as a joyful release. It’s a suddenly-opening door out of the misery, a revelation of glorious possibilities.
Rowling makes us wait for the next instalment of gloriousness, but now we know it’s out there, we are happy to wait. The outbreak of Hogwarts letters is certainly a lot of fun, but it’s more interesting to realise that there is a plot: Mr and Mrs Dursley know what’s going on. For a brief moment Harry and Dudley are allies, or at least on the same side, trying to find out what is going on by jostling and shoving to listen at the door. Mr Dursley’s frantic attempt to evade the owls and the letters by taking his family to a rock in the middle of the sea is straight out of Roald Dahl, and that’s absolutely fine. Rowling has been criticised a lot for cherry-picking events from the great children’s novels of the twentieth century, but since children’s fiction is largely the retelling of myth, she’s got as much right as anyone to tell these stories in whatever patchwork she wants. It all makes good, warm, readable cloth.
The arrival of Hagrid is THE moment. This is when we remember the puzzling episode at the very beginning of the novel, where Hagrid hands over Harry to Dumbledore, and we read the three-way conversation about what had just happened to You Know Who. None of that is recalled while we’re reading about Harry and the Dursleys, because the tone in this part of the novel is different, and we didn’t understand what they were talking about in any case. But now Hagrid will explain, in words and actions, all the way to Diagon Alley, and we are enthralled. The revelation of the magical world’s existence is almost as much delight as we can take. The shopping for magical school supplies and all that it tells us about the depth and detail of this world, how magic replaces Muggle arrangements and practical inventions, the explosion of wonder that is the existence of Hogwarts itself – all this is what makes The Philosopher’s Stone a winner. Rowling doesn’t skimp on her writing style either: she shows what she means, she doesn’t just tell, so her storytelling is economical, and efficient, underneath the marvellous invention. Most cleverly of all, every time a concept or a word or an action appears in the narrative that a child won’t understand, she explains it in the next sentence. Time and again I noticed this when reading the early novels aloud: just when my children twitched an eyebrow or said, ‘but what does that mean …?’, the explanation was in the next line.
So we’ve had the revelation that Harry is not Cinderella, he is a person with a past and a family, and a community who love him and want to welcome him back. This is filling our hearts with warm fuzziness. But we cannot relax, because there is also darkness. Much nastier than Cruelty, Ignorance and Snobbery, as represented by the Dursleys, Harry encounters Bigotry and Arrogance, in Draco Malfoy. There is also Weirdness, with the effusiveness of the witches’ and wizards’ welcome in the Leaky Cauldron, and Deep Strangeness in Gringotts. Hagrid won’t explain or Harry doesn’t ask, which is maddening because there is so much that we want to understand about this world. We can see plot possibilities stretching ahead, quite apart from the question of whether Voldemort is dead or not (we don’t care too much about Voldemort at this point, not having met him personally). Harry’s first act alone in his new world, after being dumped at King’s Cross and abandoned by Uncle Vernon – a real act of cruelty – is to make friends, and so the joyous warm fuzziness returns with Mrs Weasley and a family of surrogate Weasley brothers, and sister. The train is another deep pleasure: I love long train journeys up and down the length of Britain, because of the romance of running through so much different countryside. I’ve always wanted to do it in one go, London to Inverness without any stops, just like the Hogwarts Express. I’ve always assumed that Hogwarts is somewhere near Inverness, which would make it a very long journey indeed, especially beginning at 11 in the morning.
I’ll skip over the joys of the Sorting Hat, the moving staircases and paintings in Hogwarts, the lessons and the teachers, and the daily use of a magic wand – all that is delightful and we know it. I’m interested in the plotting around the mystery, which we do need. It reveals how Harry, Ron and Hermione measure up to their peers and their teachers in skills and moral courage, and opens up the first stage in understanding the greater plot of the series to rational, adult scrutiny. First, the hiding of a world-class deadly secret in a school to be guarded by a giant three-headed dog and a wandering troll, seems downright irresponsible, unless the close proximity of so many Magical Arts teachers was a guarantee of safety.
I have other questions. Was the status of teaching among the magical community particularly high? We don’t hear anything about a magical university, for example, at this very early stage in the Potterverse, and I’ve only just come across a reference to it in the last few months, so do the intellectuals and research-active witches and wizards gravitate naturally to the schools to teach? I also have a problem with the Forest, from which all students are banned (quite rightly, as it is full of seriously deep magic), but why are first-years are taken to patrol it, practically alone, at night, as a detention punishment? That makes no sense at all. Is Hermione really the only swot at Hogwarts? She’s a terrific caricature of the most irritating keen student ever, so perhaps her example warned anyone else in her league to play it cool.
And finally, the feasts, and the food that can be conjured up: it is an axiom of fantasy writing, and also the laws of physics, that nothing can be created from nothing. All matter must come from somewhere to appear somewhere else: Ben Aaronovitch explores this particularly well in his Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, as a direct riposte to Rowling, I think. Similarly, magical food is by definition dangerous: think of all the stories where a character eats something magical and falls asleep for a hundred years, or turns into something odd and strange. Why is the Hogwarts magical food wholesome, delicious and safe? Where do the ingredients for the Hogwarts meals and other feasts and snacks come from, delivered to the house elves in the kitchens, whom we haven’t met yet?
That is probably the best thing about this really excellent novel, that there is so much more to discover about the world and its workings. The films focus on Harry and the Voldemort plot: I’d rather stay in the school and explore that. Which I will do, next week, with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.