Monday 23 January 2012

... read Harry Potter

SPOILER WARNING: the following blog post contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. But then again, so does the entire internet.

It was in 2008, when I stood blinking and nervous before a classroom of American teenagers, as part of my summer school teaching duties for Oxbridge Programs, that I was first made aware of a massive lacuna in my literary education. Yes, despite having completed an English degree at Oxford, read or seen all of Shakespeare's plays, and waded through Beowulf and Chaucer in the original, along with hundreds of other “canon” authors – I had never read Harry Potter.

My students simply could not believe it: to them, the Potter cycle was synonymous with childhood; for some, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorceror's Stone was the first book they could remember reading – and I, an educated person, an adult, a Brit, standing not 200 metres from Christ Church (where the Great Hall sequences are filmed) – I hadn't read a word of any of the books! Was it possible? How had I missed them? How could anyone survive adolescence without them? Was I even a person, or some sort of soulless English replicant, recently thawed after fifty years' dormancy in tundral ice?

Not my childhood.
 I was 21 years old when the first Potter was published, and well into my quarter-century by the time this series of children's books became such a cultural phenomenon that adults were allowed – even expected – to read them. Harsh though it is, I grew up without Harry Potter. I am of a pre-Rowling generation: my childhood classics were Blyton, Carroll, E. Nesbit, Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones (to whom Rowling owes an acknowledged debt) and lots and lots of Golden Age sci-fi.

I'm sure I would have loved all seven Potter novels had they been available when I was 13, but I don't feel that my early life was a barren wasteland deprived of their magic. There, I've said it. Over the years, I've absorbed a bit of general knowledge about Harry and Hogwarts by osmosis (cultural references in other media, plus accidentally catching the second half of Goblet of Fire on TV – twice), but basically, I'm a Potter virgin. And to be honest, unless I was in front of a class of gobsmacked Americans, this hasn't bothered me unduly.

However, when there's a lot of fuss about something it's always worth setting aside the hype to experience it for yourself, so this week I've been reading the first in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and here's my book report.

Length and depth: 7/10
The first unexpected element is the length of the thing. Having been under the impression that most of Rowling's output requires a sturdy Bag for Life and gym-honed Yummy Mummy biceps to drag back from the bookshop, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Book One in the series comes in at only 223 (fairly closely-printed) pages. It's slim, slight, svelte; easy to drop into a bag or pocket and carry around to read on the bus. I thoroughly approved of this (apparently the long-windedness only sets in around Book Four) because it meant I could race through it in a couple of days (mostly, yes, on the bus), leaving plenty of time to think and write about it.

Secondly – well, although much has been made of the darker, adult elements of the later books, the first one really is for kids, isn't it? The first fifty pages or so, which are all about Harry's improbably miserable life living in the cupboard under the stairs at the home of the Dursleys, his improbably horrible uncle and aunt, certainly are. Lucky Harry also has an improbably spoilt cousin called Dudley, a fat bully who picks on him, and all in all you know you're in fantasy-land because in the real world a Surrey social worker would almost certainly have prosecuted Harry's guardians for improbable cruelty years ago. It's all pretty cartoonish, down to the names (Aunt Petunia) – and yet it's nominally set in our own world – the world of Muggle (non-magical) folk.

Cool shit happens to orphans: 9/10
But hey, that's children's literature for you: you can't be a protagonist unless you're an orphan, and the Law of Fairytale states that any parental substitute (evil stepmother, wicked uncle, etc.) will be at best inadequate, and at worst actively plotting to kill you. The Dursleys' neglect and beastliness stems from the fact that they know (as does the reader, of course) although Harry doesn't, that he is special: a wizard, in fact. So far, so back-jacket blurb. Mysterious letters start arriving for Harry and despite his uncle's desperate attempts to stop him learning what's in them, Harry's eventually informed he has a place at Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and whisked away to London by magical man-mountain Hagrid. Thank goodness for that.

This is, basically, where the slightly painful set-up melts away and the good stuff kicks in  (Chapter 5, Diagon Alley) and if you're pushed for time this is where you should start reading. Once in this secret, magical street, with a shedload of gold from Gringotts goblin bank, Harry is living the eleven-year-old's wet dream: he's rich, parentless, a sort of wizarding celebrity, and has piles of cash to spend on cool shit. Cue a montage of robe, cauldron, owl and wand-buying, a quick canter through the history of the magical versus Muggle world (for his benefit and ours) and then back on the train to the Dursleys' to wait a month until the beginning of term.

How do you solve a problem like Petunia?  5/10
A little sidebar about the Dursleys, while I'm here: it occurs to me that in saddling Harry with a nasty step-family who nonetheless have not been removed (yet) by divine or indeed profane intervention, Rowling has painted herself into a corner somewhat. There's no getting away from the fact that while Hogwarts may be his world in term-time, at “home” he's pretty much surrounded by people who hate and fear him, and that, I feel, is a problem.

IMHO, there are two ways to go with this: reconciliation (the Dursleys grow to understand, value and appreciate Harry, perhaps when he uses his powers – albeit reluctantly – to save them from serious peril) or full separation (the Dursleys are tricked or persuaded into endangering him, thus invalidating them as caregivers and immediately removing them from his family sphere: perhaps another, sympathetic relative will show up, or else Harry will be adopted by Hagrid). Not sure which it will be, or when, but I bet it's one of the two – unless Voldemort (murderer of Harry's parents and would-be assassin of Harry) manages to kill the Dursleys in trying to get to Harry and our hero has to move in with the Weasleys.

More cool shit: 8/10
That's all in the future, however. Here and now, once Harry gets on the train from platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross (which implies, according to the British railway map, that Hogwarts is somewhere in the North of England, along the line connecting London and Edinburgh) – it's all gravy. The Great British Boarding School Novel has begun, and this time it's magic.

One of the most delightful things about reading this book for the first time is the inventive and entertaining details with which Rowling scatters her world: even wizard money and wizard sweets are different – though somehow reminiscent – of their Muggle equivalents. Chocolate Frogs contain trading cards of famous wizards and witches: Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans are Jelly Bellies with an element of Russian Roulette (you really can get every flavour, from strawberry to bacon via earwax). Wizard photographs move and wave to you; owls deliver post; portraits talk, and the halls of Hogwarts are stalked by ghosts, poltergeists and the students' familiars (cats, toads or owls again). Not to mention Fluffy the three-headed dog, and (briefly) Hagrid's Norwegian Ridgeback dragon ...

Houses and Demographics: 6/10
The Sorting Hat was my third surprise: for some reason I'd got the impression that Harry, Ron and Hermione were all in different school houses, what with having different strengths. The four personality types into which the Sorting Hat divides you are, basically:

Brave (Gryffindor, confusingly represented not by a griffin but a lion)
Loyal (Hufflepuff – a dog symbol, surely? Nope, it's a badger …)
Clever (Ravenclaw – an eagle. Because eagles are well-known for their brains) and, drum roll please ...
EVIL (Slytherin, whose animal figurehead is a snake)

All right, I exaggerate slightly: the kids of Slytherin House are technically “ambitious” rather than evil, but as Harry's student nemesis and crashing snob Draco Malfoy and his sidekicks belong to it, and sinister Potions Master Severus Snape is head of it, these amount to pretty much the same thing. I'd have thought that to obviate the vast majority of strife, bullying, terrorism and attempted murder in Hogwarts, the school authorities would simply reject anyone assigned to Slytherin – but apparently there's some sort of quota system going on, and headmaster Dumbledore is not allowed to bounce the snaky ones to schools in other catchment areas. Shame.

As it goes, Harry, Hermione, Ron and Neville (the lovable loser of the bunch) are all in Gryffindor. Interestingly, according to my calculations based on bedcount of the new first-year intake (five boys' beds, double this for the girls = 10 new kids in Gryffindor, x 4 houses = 40 new kids per year, x 7 years) means there are fewer than 300 kids at Hogwarts – I'd got the impression from the descriptions that it was bigger, with around 500 students.

Anyway, of these 280, 2 ½ of them (or less than 1%) are not white. (This may, and I suspect will, change in later books). The half/not sure is the mysterious “Lee Jackson” who has dreadlocks (not exclusive to black people, of course), a name oddly reminiscent of the Cosby Show, and is generally considered to be cool. I'm not sure whether, by giving him all these characteristics, Rowling wishes Lee to be read as black without explicitly stating the fact, but let's charitably assume so. The other two (although only one of them ever appears more than once or says anything) are the presumably Asian Patil twins. Sorry minorities, that's your lot. Have fun at school! It seems that in terms of ethnic diversity, Hogwarts is not far off Midsomer Murders or rural Finland.

And yet, and yet … the constant threat of oppression by an outside world which does not recognise or understand their culture … the wizarding kids' almost total ignorance of the Muggle world around them (Ron is astonished to see a fifty-pence piece, and can't believe Muggle photos don't move) … is Hogwarts, perhaps, some sort of metaphor for ghettoised racial or religious communities, forced into secrecy and isolation by the threat of being crushed by the less enlightened, but far more numerous “Other” surrounding them? No, probably not. Moving on ..

Best bits
The Mirror of Erised – a rather brilliant object this, a mirror which shows “not your face, but your heart's desire”: when Harry looks into it, he sees the faces of his parents for the first time, and it's rather a touching scene. It's also pivotal in Harry's recovering the Philosopher's Stone later on (see below).

Professor Quirrell as villain. There, I've spoiled the end for you. Told you I would. Someone's trying to steal the Philosopher's Stone from its closely-guarded home underneath Hogwarts, and Harry and his friends are utterly convinced throughout that it's Snape – but it turns out to be stuttering, feeble Defence Against the Dark Arts master Quirrell, who's secretly in thrall to Big Bad Voldemort.
Where's Voldemort? OH MY GOD he's living in the back of Quirrell's head!!! A proper EEK moment when Quirrell takes off his turban and turns around, to show Harry Voldemort's face in the back of his skull.

Your Crimes Against Fashion Master welcomes you
The spells guarding the Stone. Every hero has to face obstacles, but the variety of traps and riddles Harry and friends have to get through is somewhat reminiscent of The Crystal Maze. All you need is Richard O'Brien going on about Mumsie and you've got yourself an early-90s gameshow. From live chess to a poisonous logic puzzle, though, they're fun and challenging – and, crucially, allow Ron and Hermione to help Harry significantly on his way.

The Quidditch scoring system: I won't bore you with a full rundown of the rules, but essentially, Quidditch can be, and usually is, won by a single player catching a single ball. There are several other players whose job it is to score with much less important balls, but given that the Golden Snitch is so ridiculously valuable that whoever catches it wins the game, it made me wonder why the rest of the team don't just toss their broomsticks aside and sod off the pitch, muttering “why bother?”

House point devaluation – House points are used to threaten and set Harry back at various points in the book, when he's caught breaking rules (pretty much every chapter). It starts off small, with Snape deducting one or two points for insolence in Potions class – but by Chapter 15, Professor McGonagall is stripping Harry & Co. of 50 points each for sneaking around the school after lights-out. The devaluation of the currency here is reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and moreover the number of points lost for a given misdemeanour seems to be completely random and decided by the demands of the plot.

How Harry gets the Stone – Dumbledore is particularly pleased with charming the Mirror of Erised so that only someone who wants to get the stone – but not use it personally to gain wealth or immortality – is able to wish it out of the mirror. But Professor Quirrell also wants the stone … not for money, or the Elixir of Life, but to give it to his master Voldemort. Just because he's planning to pass it on to Voldemort and Harry wants to give it back to Dumbledore should make no difference: neither desires it for himself, so technically Quirrell (who looks in the mirror first) should get it. Although obviously that would completely screw up the book's ending. But still.

However, nitpicking aside, I did really enjoy reading HP1, and I don't think I can sign off more aptly than by quoting the eerily prescient words of Professor McGonagall in Chapter 1:

“He'll be famous – a legend … there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!”

Amen to that, sister.


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