So here we are! After all this time, I have finally read Harry Potter!
Or the start of it, anyway.
And what did I, the diehard Tolkien reader think? Well, honestly, that it’s a bit odd people keep comparing the two. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are completely different. Saying they’re alike is the same as saying half the fantasy books written in the last thirty years have threads of Tolkien in them (and they do. I’ve found them without looking. Septimus Heap, The Magic Thief, Shannara, should I continue?). But the tone, the characters, the subject matter, the audience–even the sports, which Tolkien as a rule was never very interested in, from what I hear–comparing Rowling to C.S. Lewis, who happily threw any mythology he liked into his books would be far more accurate if you’re fishing for similar British authors, I think.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. By a lot. So let’s do this properly!
Book: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone/Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by J.K. Rowling
Series: Harry Potter, no. 1
Genre: Middle-grade high fantasy/magic school
Content for the Sensitive Reader: some very mild language, frequent references to mischievous curses/magic spells, vocabulary of “witches” and “wizards” (naturally), mild violence, implied half-possessed character, somewhat ineffective authority figures, should be appropriate for most middle-grade readers.
Format: Audiobook, read by Stephen Fry (English) and Rufus Beck (Deutsch)
Completion Date: June 29 and June 30, respectively.
BookmarkedOne Rating: is at the end. I want you to read the whole thing. Feel free to be grumpy with me.
No Plot-Related Spoilers
You know I read this because for one thing, I had to know what was behind all the hype. Why did everyone love this series? What made it work? What was it? What magic combination could I use in my own writing? Of course I was reading for pleasure, but that critical editor was always buzzing awake in the back of my head, ready to snap upon anything that felt significant.
Did I find it?
I’m honestly not quite sure.
To start with the good:
- Hagrid. I completely adored Hagrid. Definitely Favorite Side Character. There were just too many times I wanted to reach into the pages and give him a hug. I too, have always wanted a dragon since I was a kid. And of course, Stephen Fry’s Cockney accent lifted Hagrid out of the pages and sent him romping about a wet garden somewhere in England, just the way he should be.
- The Weasley Twins: I laughed aloud at a few of their antics and honestly wish the little troublemakers had gotten more time to themselves in the book. I was quite ready to ditch the plot of the Philosopher’s Stone and have them crawling through all the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts itching to be explored. I cannot even begin to tell them apart.
- The Concept: Technically, the book is almost something of urban fantasy, isn’t it? Everything happens in the real world, if you don’t count Hogwarts as its own kind of fairyland. And that, I think, is the best part of what makes this book sing and soar. I’m quite past the target audience age, and yet even I could feel my feet float off the floor a little bit at the thought of an entire magical world, lying just beneath what I can see, as real as my fingerprints, waiting, waiting to be discovered. Waiting for me. All of my other favorite fantasies have either been self-contained, with no potential for world-wandering travelers (i.e. Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Name of the Wind), or they require a strong type of magic in themselves before you can even get to the place where the magic lives and the story can begin (i.e. The Chronicles of Narnia, Inkheart). This was…deeply refreshing in a way I hadn’t realized I needed. No need to take the second star to the right flying through the sky, if Rowling is honest, all one needs to do is wander through London, look for abandoned places, forgotten shops, to find the magic in the world. I find I quite like the idea.
- Quidditch. We’re dreadfully unimaginative when it comes to fantasy sports. Jousting, of course, for those who write the medieval side of things, hunting, martial arts–nothing at all like Quidditch. Perhaps it’s because Tolkien didn’t write sports for most of us to blindly imitate. But after reading about Quidditch, and my brief adventure playing the Rat Puck last year…one must wonder. I’d heard rumor about it, of course, but expected it to be something like broom hockey in the air. It’s refreshingly complicated, and I begin to think I’d quite like trying to play the game, capable of flying a broomstick or not.
- The worldbuilding details: I’ve actually had a wand-seller invite me to his booth and say “Feel free to swish and flick,” so I was looking forward to the wands. And this was actually one detail that didn’t disappoint me. And so many other things are quite inventive–Quidditch, the photographs, the candies, the Sorting Hat–these are the things that makes the little writer in me happily squeal, because I can feel and touch and taste every single detail as if I’m in a world every bit as real as my own. A writer, in this instance, being only an exceptionally practiced reader.
- Rufus Beck singing: This has very little to do with the writing of the book, but it stubbornly remains a favorite part. In the German audiobook version, Beck performs all the voices of a chorus of little Hogwarts students singing that first night. If you’ve ever seen the animated version of the Hobbit or that one scene from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol where the thieves are singing (just me again?), you’ll have an idea of the style. He had no music anybody had given him, he was just throwing himself into it. And the result was perfect. I missed it very much in the English edition. Pity Stephen Fry sounded perhaps too proper to sing. I suppose we can forgive him this one flaw…
- The Ending: This was the only point I began to see similarities to The Lord of the Rings. But frankly, protagonists awake after being unconscious as often as they sneeze in fantasy books. It was charming, either way, in the sort of almost-cliche way I know I should oppose but can’t stop myself from smiling at. The kind that whether you approve of all this “magic” and “witchcraft” in books or not, you have to admit, it feels golden and good.
To admit to the bad…
- Cliches. I cannot understand how Rowling managed to write a world so richly built and delightful and yet leave so many other things unexplained. Yes! We get it! The brooms and cauldrons and bats and ghosts are for ambiance! But why? What’s the story? Must we really fall into the trap that “magic is hidden because otherwise everyone would want their problems solved?” And why on earth do they have ghosts? Ghosts which can apparently interact with physical objects? And who frankly disappear after the first night except for the most irritating of them all?
- The bullies. I get so sick of the school bully stories sometimes I just shut down and don’t want to read them at all. Seriously now, why does everyone have to have a rival? Why do you automatically have someone to fight and compete with? This isn’t orchestra chair auditions. And even in those, everybody goes back to being friends the next day. I still don’t understand why the splitting into houses was needed in the first place. Wasn’t for a major or different style of teaching or anything practical I could find. It’s as if it was just for the purpose of a fight. And I was rather disappointed the story seemed to be “Gryffindor and Slytherin: None of the others really matter.”
- The plot. Okay, the plot was…odd. I appreciated all the time we had to build up, get comfortable with the world, take the train ride, taste the candy, drop little hints as things went along–but I still don’t understand it. Perhaps it came from switching back and forth between the two language editions, but it all felt so very unnecessary. Perhaps I’m thinking too hard. But if three eleven-year-olds are your best bet of saving the world, I have a feeling something has gone terribly wrong. Even if you’ve only mistaken them for Hobbits.
- The characters: From the beginning, I was worried. The Dursleys were all so stiff and flat! I felt as if I were reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all over again, or perhaps some stereotype I wasn’t aware of for “Evil Uncle Family” that should really make me uncomfortable. To be fair, I think the effect was to be over-the-top and a little humorous. So it’s as much my fault for always taking things so seriously. Still, the main three didn’t appeal to me much either, until near the end. Stephen Fry made Hermione’s voice rather irritating at the start, which didn’t help. I think it’s just something I’ll have to get used to, and hope for more depth later.
- The Surprise: Maybe I should have seen it coming. I didn’t. And so I feel a little cheated…but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Perhaps I should appreciate that I underestimated the plot and followed the cliche trail that every other writer would have handed me…perhaps this belongs in the other column after all…
- The Ending: Must the heroes always get everything they want? I know, I know, I know. There are loose ends. They really don’t. They went through enough. The book is intended for children. But I’ve spent too much time looking through all these different angles as I write, reading so many books where the heroes not only get nothing they want, but barely survive in the attempt of doing so, and suffer miserably because life rarely brings you all the happy endings at the same time, wrapped up with a bright red bow…I’m being a bit petty now, I think. Personal taste gives me the license for that.
The end result?
Well, I’m not much better at German than when I started. I’ve picked up a few good words that should prove useful–you’d be surprised how often “owl” and “cloak” and “wizard” come up in everyday conversation. The elusive secret to Rowling’s success remains as foreign to me as one of Hogwarts’ spells.
Oh, did you mean how I liked the book?
BookmarkedOne Rating: 8/10
Am I going to read another one?
Yes. As soon as possible. That’s not really a question at this point. Technically I already am.
Why the eight then, instead of higher? Because I wanted it to be better. Because I wanted more. Because I wanted good characters and a delicious world. Because I wanted a magic system with everything as fascinating and beautiful as building a wand. Because Tolkien has ruined my tastes. Because I want to have my cake and eat it too.
That all being said, it was easily ten times better than The Hound of Rowan, which was a awkward carbon copy in almost every way.
But that, of course, is a story for another day.
As is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Which I’ll be digging my grubby little dragon-claws into quite soon enough.
And the Harry Potter Project,it seems, is to be continued…