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(August 2000) [Printed in "Reality Module No.17."]


"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by J.K. Rowling1

[Based loosely on: 'E.D.' pp.9789-9790. 18/3/00]

A good book but, despite the praise heaped upon it, not a great one.

Sure it is adventurous & amusing & creative - but it has something missing. I was disappointed.

I mentally compared it with the works of authors I admire - to try and find the missing element.

I compared it with the works of Diana Wynne Jones - some of which ("Witch Week" and "The Time of the Ghost") have been set in schools - and the problems with Harry Potter came sharply into focus.

J. K. Rowling's humour and her characters are of the Roald Dahl sort. The characters are larger than life and there are elements of farce. The whole book is not meant to be taken too seriously and I find that I don't like that that much anymore.2

1Or "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in the USA.
2Though I still have a soft spot for Roald Dahl's "Matilda."

In Diana's books the people are real (well-rounded, three-dimensional) and the problems are real. There is a sense of urgency, suspense that nails your attention to the page. Even at their strangest - there is a sense that what goes on in her books is important. Fundamentally - they have profundity.

Because Harry Potter is essentially light-hearted and the characters are mainly larger-than-life stereotypes3 I cannot identify with any of them (except Hermione & there isn't enough of her in this book) & in a very real way the book doesn't come alive for me. Likewise though there is action - there is little tension for me. (These are cardboard characters in a make-believe world and since they never seem real to me - I don't much care what happens to them.)

Furthermore Harry Potter himself is rather dull - and like Garion in David Eddings' "Belgariad" series seems too small a vessel for his role in the book.

J. K. Rowling has imagination and powers of invention - but likewise these powers are cliched and feeble when compared with the imaginative imaging powers of Diana Wynne Jones, Roger Zelazny (in "A Dark Travelling"4), or even Enid Blyton in "The Magic Faraway Tree."

3Even Diana's larger-than-life characters in "Archer's Goon" are considerably more interesting and less stereotyped than anyone J.K. Rowling has invented.
4"My sister Becky is a witch. My older brother Dave lives in a castle. My father works for a parallel-universe foundation. Myself, I'm a normal fourteen year old werewolf." [BACK COVER]

It fails because the world doesn't feel real. A master writer like Alan Garner can create a thoroughly convincing real world which you can almost touch - and then cast magic into this world such that you are left with an open-mouthed sense of awe and wonder.

J. K. Rowling's book never breaks beyond story to directly engage the imagination. The school is interesting but I have come across more richly described places and "The Worst Witch in the School" has more charm.

The writing is competent (and occasionally amusing) but fails to hold much in the way of poetry.

J. K. Rowling has been described as subversive (always a definite 'plus' in a writer) - good & evil are somewhat muddled, child abuse & death are acknowledged to exist - but I have read far more subversive and profound first novels. Consider, for example, Robert O'Brien's brilliant and mesmerising "The Silver Crown" (1968) where the 10-year-old heroine's entire family are burnt to death in the first chapter, or Victoria Walker's tour-de-force of wonder the criminally-out-of-print "The Winter of Enchantment" (1969).

When I consider such richly imagined and profoundly human novels as Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" (1962), Catherine Storr's "Marianne Dreams" (1958)5, or Diana Wynne Jones' own "Fire And Hemlock"(1985) - I become profoundly aware of just how ordinary, how lacking in genuine originality, or poetry this Harry Potter book is.

It is J. K. Rowling's first book so I should make allowances for her developing talent, and the evidence is that she is willing to "push-the-envelope." I may read this book's sequels in a year or two.

5Filmed as "Paperhouse" in 1988.

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Last Updated: 12 September 2004