Nearly as Good as Battlefield Earth

A review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

posted 7/06/05

You may be forgiven for thinking that one of the world's best-selling pieces of fiction, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, is, in the parlance of it's target audience, “all that”. It's not.

Those reviewers and sundry laypersons that have endlessly hyped and praised this book's inventiveness, originality, and other stellar qualities should be pitied for their shortcomings, which are different than yet in some ways reflections of those of the book itself. Let us begin, appropriately enough, at the beginning, shall we?

There is nothing new about this book. In a just world it would carry a notice on the front cover, in large letters: Contains 75% Recycled Cardboard. Child wizards were an old conceit when Diana Wynne Jones wrote of them back before J.K. Rowling hit puberty. The young hero who lives in drudgery and obscurity, yet who is the one person who can save the known world from Ultimate Evil, was a tired plot device when George Lucas used it in Star Wars... and when Tad Williams retold Lucas' epic in his opus Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

In fact, many of the clichés of these books and movies, and the genre itself - the funny-looking, funny-talking sidekick, the one and singular, slightly elitist female protagonist, the use of vague omens and portents as convenient plot devices - are alive and well in Harry Potter, recycled yet more time by a writer short on originality.

One of the most important rules of writing a fantasy-genre novel is to make the fantasy world believable, and to help, or at least permit, the reader to suspend disbelief. God, as they say, is in the details; alas for the youth of the world, the details of the world of Harry Potter hide only Bacchus, or perhaps Annoia.

This book, we are led to believe, takes place in a reasonably modern Great Britain not much unlike our own, only one where magic works and dragons roam Wales and Scotland, but the government covers it all up. Somewhere thru the looking glass is Faeryland in the form of Hogwarts, an unconvincing cardboard caricature of the stereotypical English boarding school that alternately tries to be awe-inspiring and vaguely sinister, and generally manages no more than ill-reasoned silliness. The much-underappreciated Caroline Stevermeyer did a much more convincing school-of-magic years ago in her aptly titled novel College of Magic, so it's not as if it can't be done.

The magic that spans these two worlds is particularly poorly thought out; in particular, the laws of conservation of energy and mass seem not to apply, and there would appear to be a quite literally infinite amount of the stuff floating around, a logic and plot shortcoming well-known back in Gary Gygax's heyday. One-third nineteenth-century cabalism, one-third faux alchemy, and one third uniquely English approach to all things education (that is to say, rote memorization), magic in Harry Potter's world is little more than an inconsistent and overly-convenient crutch for the author to rely upon when unable to write her way out of a plot dead-end thru conventional means.

Much effort is spent on Rowling's part to make Harry out to be the quintessential outcast, a permanent hard-luck case whose life outside Hogwarts is nothing but unpleasantness. In this the book seems curiously out of touch with the times; it feels in places as if it could almost have been a propaganda piece for British schoolchildren of the 1980's. Buck up, it seems to say, you think you've got it bad? As in so many things in this book, the over-the-top hardship misses it's mark and is ultimately unbelievable.

Two of the biggest obstacles to belief in this book have to do with money. The first is the grievously ill-thought-out currency of Hogwarts and faeryland; twenty-nine Knots, the smallest denomination, equal one silver Sickle, and seventeen Sickles equal one Galleon. The obvious idea here is to make the currency seem foreign and alien. Yet there's a very good reason indeed that exchange rates between coins in a given currency system are never odd numbers, and certainly not prime numbers; in Rowling's world, one cannot have a half-Sickle coin, nor a third-Sickle, quarter-sickle, or any fraction of a Sickle save one twenty-ninth. This is likely the most user-unfriendly system of currency ever invented in children's fiction. For purposes of impressing her readership with a confusing and slightly foreign set of currency, Britain's pre-decimal coinage system would have both been more than adequate and far more believable.

The second money-related shortcoming is a poorly thought-out bit where Rowling is trying to emphasize just how much of an outsider Harry is. In it, Harry gets a fifty-pence piece in the mail as a birthday present from his relatives. One of his best friends looks at it in wonder, not believing that it's “money”... despite, as far as I can tell, having grown up in Britain.

Stylistic nuisances abound. The book choppily alternates between short paragraphs of even shorter sentences and short paragraphs of rather longer but still lackluster prose, as if it was half-assedly rewritten somewhere along the way to dumb it down and make it more “approachable” to the target market of snot-nosed juveniles. Oh, a note to Ms. Rowling - one very short sentence does not a paragraph make. Character names are largely awful, half-heartedly attempting to be either funny or mysterious, but generally failing. Most are vaguely English, with a few stereotypically Irish and Scottish ones thrown in for flavor, and one or two clearly meant to be Indian.

As books by British writers so often are, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is rife with class-consciousness. Witchcraft and Wizardry, we see, is almost exclusively the domain of well-to-do white Anglo-Saxons, largely males, often with hyphenated surnames. Like any good upper-crust club, there are of course a handful of women permitted, and even fewer non-whites, including, in Hogwarts, the obligatory token black.

It is surprising, then, given the book's cultural bias, to discover the complete and utter lack of religion in any shape or form therein. Witchcraft at Hogwarts apparently consists of little more than alchemy, with no invocations to Isis or Diana, no thought given to the cycle of the seasons or the moon. Despite all their other abuses of Harry, his relatives never drag him from his cupboard at 5am on Sunday to attend Mass. No mention is ever made of prayer, and if Hogwarts even has a chapel, it's never mentioned.

These and other foibles must be attributed to the psyche of Ms. Rowling herself. Consider for a moment the character of Professor McGonagall. In a school of wizards, she is the only female Professor, and Rowling never lets us forget this. In her dozens of appearances, never once is she referred to simply by her surname, as every other professor is; no, her every appearance is “Professor McGonagall this” and “Professor McGonagall that”. What this says about Rowling's subconscious, I leave to psychologists to figure out.

It's inherent flaws, shortcomings of writing and language, and idiosyncrasies aside, this is still a very lackluster book. At its heart it's a rather trite, preachy, and predictable tale of Good versus Evil. Good, in the form of Mr. Potter, achieves a lackluster victory of sorts only by the grace of Deus ex machina. Dumbledore's lengthy exposition at the dénouement, attempting to ravel together the plot's skein of loose ends, is inept and raises more questions than it answers. Much as when watching the last fifteen minutes of any episode ever of Star Trek, my repeated comment throughout this conclusion was “how convenient”. Proposing that the most ignoble of characters were secretly acting with the noblest of motives and intentions, and sappily insisting that love and friendship conquer all else, it is the perfectly unspectacular ending to a perfectly unspectacular book.

Why is it, for all its flaws and shortcomings, so popular? Probably, I would guess, because of its unchallenging vapidity. Eminently approachable and able to be followed by today's crop of marginally-literate schoolchildren completely lacking in critical reading or thinking skills, it provides recreational reading materiel to a generation weaned on the electric teats of television, movies, and video games, and who have been conditioned to expect nothing more than fast-paced emptiness from their passive entertainment.


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