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Susan’s Bookshelves: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series, in 1997 because people were beginning to talk about it. And, always professionally interested in children’s and YA fiction, I was curious.

I could see that it would appeal to many people but fantasy leaves me pretty cold. I get irritated by broomsticks, dragons and spells and yearn to read about real people in real situations so I was quite glad when I’d finished it –  duty done. Later I had to read a couple of the later titles for work reasons and reacted in the same way. And I saw (sort of) the first film – without the sound track – on the flight home from a press trip to Egypt and that was quite enough. I’ve never seen the stage show either.

Recently, like many people, I’ve thought a lot about JK Rowling (whose adult crime fiction as Robert Galbraith I adore, by the way) and how much she’s done to make the world a better place. She got a whole generation of children reading avidly at same time as the Internet grew which was an extraordinary accomplishment. She has given a great deal of money to charity. Indirectly the films based on her books created life changing opportunities for the children who starred in them –  the same three who, as adults, are now all multimillionaires but who decry Ms Rowling for her attachment to free speech.

From where I’m standing, she has said nothing remotely unreasonable and even if she had I would still defend her right to express her views. Instead there has been public vilification and death threats.

Reflecting on all this decided me that perhaps, 25 years on, I should revisit Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and see what I think in 2022 – partly, but not entirely, as a public demonstration of support for its author.

The first thing that struck me is that it was successful because it’s so familiar. We start with orphaned, misfit Harry as an abused, unwanted, unhappy child in the home of foul relatives – it’s the world of Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Snow White, James and the Giant Peach, David Copperfield and many more. Straightaway, we have someone to root for in horror. Then it’s off to boarding school with nice staff, nasty staff, nice students and nasty ones and suddenly it’s Malory Towers, Tom Brown’s Schooldays or almost anything by Angela Brazil. And yet – Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch books notwithstanding – Rowling puts a totally original spin on all this. The boarding school details (names of lessons, books etc) are thought out in convincing detail and the plotting is tight with a good crime novel style twist at the end.

It’s also clever at another level. I chortled at the use of Latin in names such as Voldemort and the Hogwarts motto.  The names in general are good too, in a quasi-Dickensian way: Hagrid, Filch, Snape and the rest. Then there are literary allusions which no primary school reader is going to notice. A vicious cat called Mrs Norris, named after the nastiest woman Jane Austen ever created (Mansfield Park) is satisfying, for example.  And Fluffy, the drooling terrifying three-headed dog is obviously modelled on Cerberus.

Rowling also understands, as Enid Blyton did, what children want to dream of – and taste.  When they sit down to Christmas dinner it consists of “a hundred fat, roasted turkeys, mountains of roast and boiled potatoes, platters of fat chipolatas, tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce …” I suspect she’s chuckling again and that this is an oblique, tongue-in-cheek reference to lashings of ginger beer.

And what fun she must have had with the devising of Quidditch. With its arcane, eccentric rules it’s reminiscent of many a British game (cricket, golf and polo for instance) but totally different from any of them. No wonder it’s gone on to have an almost independent  life of its own.

Another stroke of near genius was to write a seven volume school series following Harry right through secondary school with the books getting more complex each year – so that the reader who is 11 at the start grows up with the series. It’s almost a course in reading development.

In short, I enjoyed this open-minded reread more than I expected to and I unequivocally admire the achievement. Nonetheless I shan’t be going on to read the other six. There are too many books about real life calling for my attention.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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