I have some rather mixed feelings. First of all, there are things that Rowling does extremely well. On the other hand I’ve read better books by almost any metric. I’ve always been puzzled at the success of the Harry Potter series because it seems to be unsure of it’s intentions. In particular this book can’t seem to decide if it’s going to be a farcical slapstick comedy or a dark fantasy about a boy meeting his destiny in a dark lord.
Rowling knows her audience. This book speaks right to the heart of how pre-teens feel. Harry lives with the Dursley’s and they hate him and pick on him, then Harry gets to go to a magical place where he will become, not only a celebrity, but the hero. In fact the story reads like a laundry list of childhood fantasies. Harry seems to have a knack for finding amazing adventures. He wanders the halls at night, breaks the rules left and right, sneaks into the forbidden section of the library, drops some eaves, uncovers secrets and defeats puzzles that were designed to deter very powerful wizards.
I get the feeling that everybody else at Hogwarts lives a much duller life, mostly doing homework, being students, things like that. Harry, who is terrified of being sent back to live with the Dursley’s ignores the threat of expulsion and larks about all over the castle at any hour of the night — no mention is made of needing to sleep.
The behavior of Dumbledore, who is supposed to be very wise and powerful, seemed extremely irresponsible. We are led to believe, in the end, that he expected Harry, Ron and Hermione to go after the Stone and fight Voldemort… and he went to London anyway. To be fair his character is more than a little bit of a loon as his speeches and other interactions suggest. In fact it seems like a charge of negligence could be leveled at any of the teachers at the school except for Snape, who is the only one who holds the children to any kind of standards (and we are told to despise him for doing so). Harry and friends get caught running around at night and their punishment — determined by McGonagall — is to do detention with Hagrid in the Forbidden Forest which is off-limits to students because it is too dangerous. “For not going to bed you must go swimming in eel infested waters.”
The world the Dursley’s live in feels like a strange shadow of our world, like a reflection on clouded glass where the characters of Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams come face to face with trying to be taken seriously. This is in sharp contrast to the focused depth of the magical world where everything feels crisp and real and slightly off kilter — but sensical.
I think my biggest problem with the book is Harry’s quiet arrogance about himself and his friends. In the beginning of the book we hear nothing about anybody Harry knows except how stupid they are — mostly because they pick on Harry. When he gets to Hogwarts he immediately decides who the villain is based simply on the fact that Snape doesn’t like Harry, therefore Snape must be evil. Hermione actually wants to learn something and take her new opportunity seriously and so she is dismissed as a nuisance, until Harry realizes that he’s offended her and she might actually be useful after all.
Finally, the ending. I had a hard time with this. After defeating a series of troublingly simple obstacles Harry walks into a room and confronts Voldemort. Voldemort, it turns out, can’t hurt Harry because Harry’s mother loved him. That’s it. Apparently Harry’s mother loved him so much more than any of the mothers of all the other people Voldemort killed, including Harry’s own parents (and doesn’t Harry have any grandparents?), that it makes all the difference. In fact it was so powerful that Harry, as a baby, obliterated Voldemort’s body and left him decimated and weak. I get the message, here. Love is the greatest thing — except maybe a nice BLT. But did Voldemort only pick on orphans before he tried to kill Harry? Why didn’t anybody else destroy him with a hug of burning love?
I enjoyed the book. There are things that don’t make sense but I can understand how people might ignore them — I staunchly ignore any questions that arise about Star Wars because I still want to love it –, sometimes it’s more fun to just go with it. I will read the next one, but not right away.