The First Spell: ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Part I

Sam,

While researching for the first post of this Perusing Potter series, I read up on the rankings of each of the Potter books. What I found was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was received as the weakest (at the bottom three) in a majority of the lists. There were reasons of “most childish,” “simplest plot,” and “fairly predictable.” Despite all the dismissal, this book was published first, the book that fulfilled the dream of a single mother after years of writing, the book that swayed Arthur Levine at Scholastic to bid the most anyone ever had for a children’s story. I wish to look into the opening chapters of Stone and find that spark that enchanted a generation of readers and writers.

The editors at Scholastic Inc. knew what they were doing when presenting the first three chapters of Stone. Two things in the US edition (the one I’m most familiar with) stood out to me on the very first page. The first was how quickly J. K. Rowling created a distinct personality in Vernon and Petunia Dursley: traditional and straightforward. It’s something we can grasp. The second, more telling, was some sort of secret they have and their fear of anybody finding out about it. The last sentence on the opening page carries us through the chapter: (1) What is their secret, and (2) why are they so afraid of it? If this paranoia of the Dursleys was mentioned on the next page or the third, it would not have had the same effect for the reader to pursue an answer.

  • Fun Fact: In the US edition, Chapter One ends on the seventeenth page, showing Scholastic’s knowledge of the number’s significance back in the first installment of the series.

Throughout the rest of Chapter One, Jo lays out the breadcrumbs of the mystery building itself page by page. So too was the growing presence of strange and—dare I say—magical curiosities. Every question which sprouted to mind, I drew a blue beside the line; every instance the Dursleys would disapprove of (the magical curiosities) I highlighted in green. By the end of the third page there was quite a bit of blue and green. Jo has chosen the correct lens to expose the fringes of her magical world.

The Dursleys.

It’s good writing advice to begin stories set in our world (but won’t stay there) with a great sense of normalcy. She needs to establish that this is OUR Britain and not some other one in a parallel universe, for example. The rules of the world need to be laid out plain to see, so the reader is pleasantly surprised when the unexpected arrives in the form of owls swooping in broad daylight, cloaked adults chatting on sidewalks, and a cat reading a map. Because at this point (when it’s your first time reading it), we are as much of a Muggle as the Dursleys. Therefore, it would make perfect sense to have the point of view from someone who would think the aforementioned unexpected as strange and unusual, because it is. As much as we may be on the same plane the Dursleys, it doesn’t last for long.

In case you didn’t like them by the time they went to sleep, you will with the arrival of Albus Dumbledore. Within the second paragraph of his introduction, it is plainly stated that “he had just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome” (9). This bearded, high-heel boot wearing man simply walks down the pavement, and Jo already tells us he is not wanted by the inhabitants of Privet Drive. He hasn’t even done anything! She may have told us he’s unwelcome, but it’s also a way of showing us that these people are very judgmental, superficial, and exclusive – all of which we have seen from the actions of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley.

Firmly extricating ourselves from the Dursley/Muggle camp by the end of Chapter One, we needed somebody else to root for. Luckily, the prime candidate has been whispered about since the second page, a candidate who is the literal anti-Dursley: the Potter family.

Having answered what the Dursley’s are afraid of (people finding out about the magical Potter family), the next big question becomes why Voldemort killed the Potters, and why does even saying his name cause a shrewd woman like Professor McGonagall to flinch? This question partners with Harry’s mistreatment by the Dursleys to create our sympathy for the orphan. Chapter Two reveals how Harry does things without even meaning to do them: hair growing back after being cut, jumping so high from bullies that he ended up on a chimney, and (most notably) releasing a boa constrictor from behind vanishing glass. As I mentioned before about laying out the rules of the world, telling and showing us Harry’s unexplainable happenings helps us believe what Hagrid tells him in the hut on the rock. Of course he’s a wizard!

Speaking of which, allow me to deliberate on which event is the actual inciting incident of the story in Part II.

Cheers.

***This post is part of my Perusing Potter – a series of exploring the known and not-so-known aspects of the Harry Potter Series***

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