Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Millions will disagree with me, but – dare I say it? – I don’t think this book is much good. “Can millions of kids be wrong?” you ask. Well, all I can do is offer my personal opinion.

Harry Potter is a boy who is forced to live with a very nasty aunt and uncle because his parents died in a car-wreck when he was an infant – or so they say. The truth of the matter is that his mum and dad were a witch and wizard who were slain by a powerful dark wizard called Voldemort. Soon, Harry is whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and so begins the transformation from an ordinary downtrodden schoolboy into a young, powerful and very famous wizard.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the initial premise. In fact, kids might be inlined to relate to Harry, in his personal journey out of a horrible life with bad parents and few friends. The trouble is, the story doesn’t contain much in the way of danger to keep the reader interested. Harry walks into his new life, learns this and that, gets into a bit of minor trouble here and there, and it’s very much ho-hum, la-de-dah. The only hint of danger comes from the rumour that Voldemort is still alive somewhere. Rowling waits until the last quarter of the book before she gets this part of the story moving.

The novel also features so many overly used trappings of the fantasy genre. Witches, wizards, pointed hats, magic wands, cauldrens, pet owls, goblins, ghosts, trolls. We’ve seen all these things before, and it’s all tossed into a pretty unoriginal concoction that barely holds together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of far-fetched stories, but when Rowling on one page wants us to treat death as a serious matter (i.e. Harry’s parents), and on another page shows us a comcial ghost called Nearly-headless Nick, her fantasy world starts tearing apart at the seams. Fair enough, maybe kids don’t look at things as critically or seriously as an adult, but I think it’s a writer’s responsibility not to be a lazy storyteller.

More of this laziness is aparent in the structure of the prose, and this is where I really put my writer’s hat on and get critical. Far too often she uses the most ambiguous or needless adverbs like, “he said darkly”, “she said excitedly.” Usually a person’s words say enough about the manner in which something is spoken without the need for additional words. I’ve been taught that when a writer floods their prose with adverbs, it usually because they are afraid the reader won’t understand them – the “timid writer” syndrome. One of the worst was “He stared unblinkingly upwards”. Unblinkingly is a bad enough word in itself, but doesn’t the act of staring presume your eyes are wide open in the first place? You may say I’m nit-picking; you may say kids don’t care about this kind of thing. All I will say is that it’s a writer’s responsibility to write well.

The writing also sucks on a descriptive level. The book exudes about a tenth of the atmosphere of the movie. One example: remember the goblins at Gringott’s Bank in the movie? Rowling desribes only a fraction of their appearance in a mere two lines of prose, and that’s all we get to go on.

People are already hailing this book as a classic, comparable to C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s no doubt that kids took a genuine, honest interest in the Harry Potter series at the beginning, but today I think it’s a living on media hype more than anything. Time will tell whether Harry is here to stay, or whether he’s just a passing fad.