Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Source: None via Katherine on Pinterest
It's been a long time since I did a book review, so I'll get back to it with one you've probably heard of.  Chances are good that the vast majority of my blog readers have already read and enjoyed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling.  But, as I noticed when I first began teaching at a Christian school years ago, the Harry Potter series is one of the deep lines of division among modern Christians.  I would never endorse children reading something against the wishes of their parents, and if that is your situation, kids, I encourage you to cheerfully honor your parents in this.  But this post is designed to convince you, parents, that you should read this book and consider sharing its richness with your children.  Christianity Today recently published an article on the Harry Potter phenomenon and its enduring literary merit which you might find helpful.  No doubt about it, Harry has shaped our culture, and mostly for the better.  The common objections are still there, but have died down somewhat now that the series has been brought to a conclusion that remains faithful to classic ideals of what is True, Good, and Beautiful.

In this first book of the seven, Rowling creates a character who is almost a stock feature of children's literature: the neglected orphan, despised by his remaining relations, who nonetheless has a special destiny.  In fact, she almost overdoes it, exaggerating Harry's hardships (bullied by his cousin, forced to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs) for fantastic and comic effect.  A large part of Rowling's genius is in her ability to take recognizable literary archetypes and tweak them so that they are fresh and funny.  This is basically a school story, and we have the stock characters: the overindulged child, the aristocratic bully, the teachers' pet, the klutz, the class clowns (they're twins), and the adults who are coincidentally absent when the kids are in the midst of danger, so as to make the story more exciting and immediate.  The only difference is the setting, which just happens to be a school of magic.

Let me assure you, on my honor as a Latin teacher, that none of the "spells" in any of the Harry Potter books are capable of doing anything real, whether harmful or beneficial, other than perhaps making Latin a little more interesting.  Every once in a while I'll be able to tell exactly who in my classes has read the books, just based on their reactions to a single vocabulary word in the list.  Most of the spells are dog Latin rather than the real thing, but with enough similarity to start those kids who are so inclined down the path to classicism.  This would be a good point to mention Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, the elegant Latin translation, which played a significant role in helping me improve my own Latin knowledge.

Themes of this book: friendship, loyalty, perseverance, kindness to the downtrodden, and a willingness to assume responsibility even in difficult matters.  Also love that endures beyond death, particularly the self-sacrificial love of a parent.  Good vs. evil, which is a theme of all fantasy to some extent, is of course present as well.  There are some characters who are completely evil, but they are not always the ones we expect.  Many characters are, just as in real life, deeply flawed but capable of rising to the occasion to do the decent thing.  While this is not a book that specifically inculcates a Christian worldview, there are redemptive themes in,with, and under it, and I recommend it for that reason.  And because it is a rip-roaring fun read that will inspire young people, especially boys, to pick up a book more frequently.  And because I'm convinced I'm a distant relation of Hermione Granger's, and

Cautions: Much has been made of the "occult" themes of witches and wizards.  If you would object to the Oz books because of the good witches, Casper the friendly ghost, or the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, this is probably not the book for you... but the real occult is much darker and more insidious; this is implied in Rowling's books, despite what her detractors may say -- truly evil characters are truly horrible, and the good characters are repulsed by them.  I also felt that Harry is a very postmodern hero with regard to his attitudes toward authority: for example, the orphan Oliver Twist naively blundered into trouble just for asking, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"  But Harry dishes out wisecracks and insults as good as he gets from his oppressors, and frequently breaks school rules when he believes it's necessary for the greater good.  This is why I believe parents and children should read the book at the same time, or parents first, and discuss it.  Also, since this is the first of seven books, and since Harry gets older and the forces of darkness get darker with each book, many parents who had no objections to the first 2 or 3 books of the series will want to wait until their kids are teens before allowing them to read books 4 and beyond.

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