Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J. K. Rowling
Among Harry Potter‘s many acts of wizardry, the most important was that his creator, in setting him loose in the world, ended the fiction drought, at least for me.
That would be the couple of decades or so where I don’t think I read any fiction but mysteries. In the repurposed and reordered words of a literature professor friend (albeit on a separate subject), it was too hard and wasn’t fun anymore.
Then along came Harry, although I was unaware at first. Truth is, I can be pretty oblivious about popular culture and, as a childless 30-something at the time the first novel was published in the US, I was paying even less attention. I probably clued into conversations between parents two or three years later.
That coincided with a lot of life changes including the decision by the then-not-yet-Mrs. AHC to become an elementary schoolteacher. Suddenly, Potter was in the house and I picked up the book in the same cursory way I pick up so many others.
When I first read through the series, our kids had yet to be born. Yet I developed this idea that the series presented a great way to teach lessons about reading and language. I can turn anything into hard work if I try, but maybe I’m looking to justify just how much fun these books are. But when young D expressed an interest, I leapt at the opportunity to see if I was right.
I should say I’m not obsessive enough to have ascertained certain things. Such as whether Rowling had the arc of the series figured out from the beginning. That’s a recurring rumor among the Star Wars crowd, and it would be normal to wonder the same about Potter. I do know that this volume introduces a majority of the characters that will populate the rest of the novels.
At our first encounter with Harry, we already know more about him than he does of himself. That’s because we’ve been treated to a prologue that establishes the frame within which his wizardly life will uncoil. By comparison, all the 11-year old Harry knows is his Diceknsian existence. An unwanted orphan living with uncaring relatives, Harry’s sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, dressed in hand-me-downs and final sale remnants. He functions as a sort of scullery maid/short-order cook. It’s equal parts Cinderella and Oliver Twist.
Then his past intervenes, in the form of a letter, and his world changes. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Dursleys (that’s the family name his mother’s sister, Petunia, took when she married Vernon; they have a son Dudley) at first try to ignore the mail, then run from it. But even a near-Hebridean hideaway can’t ward off the power of the magical world and Harry gets his Get out of Jail Free card in the form of acceptance at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, a sort of enchanted Eton.
That’s the good. The bad and the ugly are the same thing, a demonic wizard so terrible none dare utter his name. Except Harry, who, not having been raised among magical types (we’uns, being non-magical, are known as muggles), didn’t get the memo on proper behavior. And no one will question his naming the demon because Voldemort is responsible both for Harry being an orphan and the scar he bears on his forehead from their near-deadly encounter. Harry’s bravery starts with not agreeing to not name his nemesis.
This is a good point to stop for one of those lessons I mentioned. Harry’s story not only fits the good Proppian model, it has all these English overtones. The hero emerging from second class status is right out of the Arthurian legend. There’s that working for Fagin childhood. Hogwarts is itself, a perfectly recognizable British public school. And then there’s the bad guy’s name. I’m always happy to point out that English is a mash-up of German and French, so how delicious to have a bad guy whose name literally means Flying Death.
Plus, there’s the sorcerer’s stone itself. In this telling, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is the co-creator of the stone along with Nicolas Flamel. Click on that last link and you’ll quickly find out that a) Flamel really existed and b) is the legendary creator of the philosopher’s stone. As I said, the book is just chock full of things that can help you teach children how to read more actively. (In case you’re wondering, Albus means white and Dumbledore is a bumblee in some English dialect, so there’s your old humming guy, too.)