The Boy Who Lived

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
So reads the first sentence of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the book, published in 1997, which began Pottermania, a phenomenon which has yet to run its course; if it subsides, it will be following the release of the second half of the film version of The Deathly Hallows (in 2011) and the official Potter encyclopaedia which J. K. Rowling plans to publish.

For ten years the Harry Potter books have been the stupor mundi of publishing, and, no doubt, they continue to sell well.

Leading up to the November release of the first part of The Deathly Hallows, I shall be reading (and commenting upon) all seven of the main Harry Potter books, beginning, of course, with The Philosopher's Stone.

References in this post (and in all future posts about Harry Potter) to the books are to the Bloomsbury (U.K.)/Raincoast (Canada) hardcover editions.

Let's write in the margins on Harry Potter's style.

The Literary Style
I have a friend who prefers the later books of the series to that of the earlier books. I myself quite like the earlier books. A close examination of the earlier books might reveal whether there is anything to dislike about them (assuming one is predisposed to enjoy them in the first place). Rowling's treatment of themes in The Philosopher's Stone I will set aside for now. First I'll note (if I were reading the book, I would underline them and make a note in the margins) some passages where, I think, Rowling's style slips.
[Mr Dursley] yawned and turned over. It couldn't affect them... How very wrong he was [p. 12].
[H]is nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice [p. 12; italics mine for emphasis].
Uncle Vernon didn't go to work that day. He stayed at home and nailed up the letter-box.
'See,' he explained to Aunt Petunia through a mouthful of nails, 'if they can't deliver them they'll just give up.'
'I'm not sure that'll work, Vernon.'
'Oh, these people's minds work in strange ways, Petunia, they're not like you and me,' said Uncle Vernon, trying to knock in a nail with the piece of fruit cake Aunt Petunia had just brought him [p.34].
Hagrid looked at Harry with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes [p. 47][.]
[E]ven a troll will notice if you stick a long bit of wood up its nose [p. 130][.]
They hadn't realised what a racket they had been making, but of course, someone downstairs must have heard the crashes and the troll's roars [p. 130].
But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them [p. 132].
It [finding out about Nicolas Flamel] didn't seem very important any more. Who cared what the three-headed dog was guarding? What did it matter if Snape stole it, really [p. 154]?
But then, he thought... it had been quite a personal question [p. 157].
'Nicolas Flamel,' [Hermione] whispered dramatically, 'is the only known maker of the Philosopher's Stone [italics original]!'
This didn't have quite the effect she'd expected [p. 161].
Ron's nerves were already stretched to breaking point with anxiety about Harry. ... Ron snapped [p. 164].
'Jus' lookin',' [Hagrid] said, in a shifty voice that got their interest at once [p. 168].
[The centaur Firenze] looked carefully at Harry, his eyes lingering on the scar which stood out, livid, on Harry's forehead [p. 187].
In years to come, Harry would never quite remember how he had managed to get through his exams when he half expected Voldemort to come bursting through the door at any moment [p. 191].
Neville appeared... clutching Trevor the toad, who looked as though he'd been making another bid for freedom [p. 198].
They watched the birds soaring overhead, glittering - glittering [p. 203, italics original]?
Not for nothing, though, was Harry the youngest Seeker in a century. He had a knack for spotting things other people didn't [ibid.].
It was one of those rare occasions when the true story is even more strange and exciting than the wild rumours [p. 218].
Harry couldn't speak, but Hagrid understood [p. 220].
Also a lapse in style (although too long to quote in full) is Harry's impassioned speech about doing something to stop Voldemort stealing the Stone, despite the risk of expulsion from Hogwarts (pp. 196-7). No doubt at this point Harry needs to say something to (literally) encourage Ron and Hermione, but what he does say is rather artificial (compare it, for example, to his much more effective speeches in The Order of the Phoenix on much the same topic), or, more precisely, rather authorial.

In a number of places, also, Rowling uses adverbs to modify or describe actions (usually speech) where she need not (or where, had the speech been written differently, it would have got the tone across which Rowling relies upon the adverb to do).

It can be seen that these lapses have, for the most part, an authorial character; that is, they feel like an intrusion by the author's voice into the story. I did not screen a large part of the book (from about page 30 to about page 130) for similar lapses. No doubt they occur.

One reason, I suspect, for my friend's preference for the later books is that they are more ably written than the earlier ones (on the whole). Certainly, The Philosopher's Stone at many points could have been better served by less authorial (as it were) meddling.

For instance, the reference to Dumbledore's nose looking like it had been broken in the first chapter could have been omitted, and then either made as an observation of Harry's when he sees Dumbledore for the first time, or placed on someone's lips. Meanwhile, the explanation for the beginning of Harry and Ron's friendship with Hermione is about as awkward as the relationship it is conveying. After a chapter or two of Harry and Ron chumming with Hermione, it shouldn't take long for readers to realise that they are now friends, without it having to be stated as Rowling does.

To be fair, the lapses for the most part are not that bad, and some (such as the bathetic pronunciation on Flamel and the Philosopher's Stone by Hermione) get across, if poorly, what they were supposed to convey.
It is worth asking what is the style from which Rowling occasionally lapses. Obviously, Rowling is not so poor a writer so as to be stylistically monotonous. At times, her writing can be droll:
[Uncle Vernon] took both Harry and Dudley by the scruffs of their necks and threw them into the hall, slamming the kitchen door behind them. Harry and Dudley promptly had a furious but silent fight over who would listen at the keyhole [p. 31][.]

The students all hated [Argus Filch] and it was the dearest ambition of many to give Mrs Norris a good kick [p. 99].
At times it can be whimsical:
'Delighted, Mr Potter, just can't tell you. Diggle's the name, Dedalus Diggle.'
'I've seen you before!' said Harry, as Dedalus Diggle's top hat fell off in his excitement. 'You bowed to me oncein a shop.'
'He remembers!' cried Dedalus Diggle, looking around at everyone. 'Did you hear that? He remembers me [pp. 54-5]!'

'Welcome!' [Dumbledore] said. 'Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts! Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you [pp. 91-2]!'

Harry had caught Ron prodding Dean's poster of West Ham football team, trying to make the players move [p. 107].
At times, dramatic and even frightening:
A bush on the edge of the clearing quivered ... Then, out of the shadows, a hooded figure came crawling across the ground like some stalking beast [p. 187]. [The effect of this passage is ruined somewhat by Rowling quoting Malfoy's scream as '"AAAAAAAAAAARGH!"', when she could have omitted that and just written, as she did write, 'Malfoy let out a terrible scream and bolted'.]

'He is with me wherever I go,' said Quirrell quietly [p. 211]. [Unlike Harry's impassioned yet unlikely speech, referred to above, Quirrell's speech which follows this quote is well done.]

Harry felt as if Devil's Snare was rooting him to the spot. He couldn't move a muscle. Petrified, he watched as Quirrell reached up and began to unwrap his turban. What was going on? The turban fell away. Quirrell's head looked strangely small without it. Then he turned slowly on the spot.
Harry would have screamed, but he couldn't make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell's head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk-white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake [p. 212].
Harry's life-or-death struggle with Quirrell on pp. 213-4 also exemplifies this stylistic element. (As an aside, it is much better done in the book than in the movie, whose climactic battle betrays a ridiculous inconsistency in that Quirrell is able to choke Harry with his hands, but Harry burns him up by touching his face with his hands.)

The passage on p. 212 is especially good. The first paragraph consists largely of short, sharp sentences, and its first half emphasises Harry's paralysis and fear. The second half ratchets up the tension by emphasising both Harry's and the reader's confusion. Although astute readers by this point know that Voldemort is in some fashion on the back of Quirrell's head, we still get right into the feeling of the moment. And, in contrast to Rowling's ineffective use of a scream in the encounter with Quirrell in the Forbidden Forest, here fear has so taken hold of Harry that he cannot utter a cry at all. It is also noteworthy as the first physical appearance of Voldemort in the series.

Another stylistic element of which to take note is how the characters speak. Rowling's use of speech patterns are effective, although it would take a better analyst than I to demarcate the differences between each character's speech. Obviously Hagrid and Seamus Finnigan (and, for that matter, Quirrell both fearful and determined) have distinct accents, as it were. Dumbledore, meanwhile, is at once the most verbally whimsical (q.v. the citation from pp. 91-2) and the most noble-sounding of the characters ('However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible [p. 157].'). And so on.

Speaking of whimsy (an example both poignant and excellent of Dumbledore's whimsy being found on p. 157 when he answer's the quite personal question of Harry's), I think it is with this element that Rowling has the most difficulty maintaining control over the material. That Harry lives in a cupboard we can just accept, as a lighter form of abuse (more realistic forms of abuse being too dark, or else hitting too close to home, for many children); Uncle Vernon pulling out his moustache and trying to hammer nails with a slice of fruit cake goes beyond the pale, as do a number of other whimsical touches. Not surprisingly, as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is one of the most whimsical of the books, it provides the most opportunities for Rowling to stumble stylistically, and it is unfortunate that she so often does.

There are also a few things which may be said in the most general sense about the literary style of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. First, the vocabulary is simple, but not woefully so. Children will not have trouble reading the book, but are still likely to encounter words which they will have never encountered before, such as 'alchemy' and 'alchemist', 'glory', 'stopper', 'asphodel' and 'wormwood', 'scarlet', and even 'ajar'; this is not considering the names of spells and other terms unique to the magical world (e.g., Muggle, Quidditch, &c.). Sentences run from simple to complex; this example (from p. 152) conveniently displays both:
It looked like a disused classroom. [A simple sentence.] The dark shapes of desks and chairs were piled against walls and there was an upturned waste-paper basket - but propped against the wall facing him [Harry] was something that didn't look as if it belonged here, something that looked as if someone had just put it there to keep it out of the way.
In the book itself the second sentence (grammatically complex, naturally), occupies nearly five lines and nearly the whole of the paragraph. It is not a difficult sentence, to be sure, but it displays Rowling's skillfulness at describing a scene pithily (and is one of her more adept uses of the authorial voice, since the significance of the as-yet unknown 'something' is made plain to the reader by the narrator but the realisation of this significance ascribed indirectly to Harry) and is a sentence more complex than even children Harry's age are likely able to write.

One of the evident strength's of Rowling's style, as the above example shows, is her ability to describe a person, place, or thing in such a way to evoke the reader's imagination. The disused classroom appears in the mind's eye with desks and chairs stacked or piled erratically, with dust everywhere. The description of the classroom occupies perhaps two lines, but is evocative (I mean this literally as opposed to the word being a vague substitute for 'good'). The first physical description of eleven year-old Harry Potter (on p. 20), for example, occupies one paragraph of the book, and this is for the main character of the series. Dudley's appearance (on p. 21) is described masterfully: '[Dudley] had a large, pink face, not much neck, small, watery blue eyes and thick, blond hair that lay smoothly on his thick, fat head. Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel - Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.' Another good description is that of Voldemort upon his first appearance (q.v.), his monstrous nature being emphasised by his being sort of at once Quirrell's Janus-face, shadow-side, and vestigial twin. I would venture to say that, for the most part, Rowling's descriptions are uniformly good, marred sometimes only by what amount to parenthetical, authorial comments (demonstrated by the comment about Dumbledore's nose).

Stylistically, then, Rowling does quite well in The Philosopher's Stone, although we did underline (as it were) a number of lapses (the list not being exhaustive). It remains to be asked whether her treatment of the book's themes is as good as her literary style.

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