The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.
We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.
The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.
Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.
The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.
Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.
“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.
Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:
“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.
He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.
Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):
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.
And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.
A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.
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Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:
He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.
Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?
It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.