Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

by J. K. Rowling
Series: Harry Potter 1
Reviewed date: 2010 Nov 17
Rating: 3
320 pages
Originally entitled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
cover art

I finally broke down and read the first Harry Potter book. While it is clearly a book for children, it is quite good. Rowling doesn't telegraph the ending; well, she appears to, but then she throws in a plot twist that turns everything on its head. There are problems (quidditch is the stupidest invented game ever, and the spells guarding the sorcerer's stone are ludicrously easy) but on the whole it's a more-than-satisfying book.

The Dursleys are bad, bad people
After Voldemort kills his parents, Harry goes to live with his aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley, who are beyond cruel to him. They spoil their son Dudley, but treat Harry like dirt. Harry lives in a cupboard under the stairs. This is pretty bad, right? But maybe they live in a small house and it's the only space for him, right? No, because later the author drops a reference to Dudley's "second bedroom." Dudley has a second bedroom to put all his toys in. And what's more, there is an unused guest bedroom! But Harry lives in the closet under the stairs.

Quidditch is dumb
Imagine an aerial game of soccer where players on broomsticks try to throw a floating ball through giants hoops mounted on poles. Sounds fun? Now imagine that none of that matters, because while six players on each team struggle to score goals for ten points each, a seventh player called the Seeker is chasing a small flying ball called the Golden Snitch. When he catches the Snitch, he scores 150 points for his team and the game is over. The team whose Seeker catches the Golden Snitch always wins, because 150 points is so outrageously disproportional to the value of a goal. A team would have to be ahead by over 15 goals in order to win without catching the Snitch.

Snape is a bad good guy
J. K. Rowling sets Professor Snape up to be the bad guy. He's clearly in league with Voldemort, and is trying to steal the Sorcerer's Stone that Dumbledore has hidden under Hogwarts. Further, Snape is always out to get Harry--picking on him in class, taking away points for minor infractions, and so forth. Snape even tried kill Harry Potter by cursing his broom during a quidditch match. In a twist, it turns out that Snape is a good guy. He wasn't trying to kill Harry at the quidditch match, he was muttering a counter-spell to a curse that Professor Quirrell was casting. It's true that Snape doesn't like Harry; he and Harry's father were bitter rivals. But Snape is working to save Harry's life to repay a debt that he owed to Harry's father.

Wizards must be dumb as rocks
The Sorcerer's Stone is hidden underneath Hogwarts. It's guarded by a giant three-headed dog and a series of wizard spells. Harry, Ron, and Hermione--three first-year students--defeat all the defenses easily: music sooths the dog to sleep, fire from a magic wand stops the Devil's Snare plants, catching a flying key to open a door is trivial for Harry, Hermione plays a game of chess to win through the next level, and finally, a simple logic puzzle lets them figure out which potion to drink to advance unharmed through a wall of fire. I, with absolutely no magic skills, could have defeated those safeguard with only a harmonica, a pack of matches, and a butterfly net. If I had a good singing voice I wouldn't even need the harmonica.

Who cares about the House Cup?
Students at Hogwarts compete all year to earn points for their House. Whoever ends the year with the most points wins the House Cup. This seems to be the single most important thing in everyone's life. But it wouldn't really be that important. I know, because when I was in college, we had a similar contest. Each floor earned points by competing and succeeding in intramural sports. Nobody paid attention to the total points standings until the very last day, when somebody noticed that my floor and a rival floor were in the lead. Both floors turned out en masse to the final event of the years: horseshoes. (We were soundly beaten by a couple of philosophy professors.) But the point is, nobody cared all year. The very last day, only the two floors who happened to be in the lead with a chance to win even bothered to show up at the last event of the year. So the business of every Hogwarts student being completely, utterly, totally enslaved to the idea of winning the House Cup is ridiculous.

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