Monday, June 26, 2017

A New World

Twenty years ago, Bloomsbury Press let loose a first novel by an unemployed single mother, and a whole lot of things happened because of it. The writer was J. K. Rowling and her children's book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Four years after the book came the first movie, which made international stars of Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry, and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger. Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley, has kept working as an actor but has a lower profile than his former castmates.

Stone, which swapped Philosopher for Sorcerer when it crossed the Atlantic to the United States (that anniversary will be next year), was the first of seven books telling the story of Harry, "the boy who lived." As an infant, he survived a magical attack by the evil Lord Voldemort that killed his parents. In order to keep him safe from Voldemort -- who seems to have disappeared, but no one is sure -- Harry is kept out of the world of magic and magicians, and given to his non-magical or "Muggle" aunt and uncle. But when he turns 11 and comes of age to study magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, school officials summon him to begin, and he takes his first step into a much larger world than he dreamed existed.

Harry also learns of the evil Voldemort and his role in the deaths of Harry's parents. He meets Hermione and Ron and school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, as well as antagonists like Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. Rowling has a number of delightful scenes showcasing Hogwarts' quirky take on the English boarding school and succeeds in making her central trio of friends utterly charming young people who are easy to root for as they learn and grow through their own courage and determination.

Stone is often classified as a "young adult" book, but it's a better fit in the children's section. The character names telegraph character -- Malfoy's associates are named Crabbe and Goyle, and the teacher who is hardest on Harry is named Snape -- and both the action and the pace are more fit for late tween and early teen readers. The epic conflict that comes in later books is only hinted at in this first one, which fits well because the bulk of the protagonists are themselves 11 and 12. Rowling does an excellent job of giving them properly "childish" roles and adventures in this great struggle -- the extremes and high stakes of the later books would ring untrue with these characters on stage.

But by the same token, Stone shows one of the bricks that will be used to build the character of the people who confront Voldemort more directly as they get older and more powerful. Intentionally or not, Rowling pitches each book at a little bit more mature level as the thinking and responsibility of her main characters matures. The later books don't lose her central vision of what it takes to confront the reality of evil although they do have to haul around the extra pounds of their bestseller's bloat.

Harry and his friends probably helped keep more kids than we can count interested in the idea of reading instead of diving into a screen somewhere. Although others have done it with more art and a smaller page count, Rowling presents a vision of how building good character in the young helps them confront the challenges they face as they enter adulthood -- even if that challenge is the most powerful evil wizard in centuries and taking him on might cost you everything.

No comments: