Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Harry Potter Project: The Beginning

Spinning Straw into GoldWelcome to the grand beginning of the Harry Potter Book Club!

The project has been in the works since late December when I announced my lofty goals for the year, one of which was to read the entire Harry Potter series and blog about my impressions.  The idea was met with considerable enthusiasm.

Almost five months later, here we are!  Jenna of A Light Inside is acting headmistress of the project, but you can find the discussions headquartered here and over at Cyganeria as well.  There promises to be a lot of fun and games in addition to serious scholarship and close reading, and there should be something for everyone.  I hope you'll join us.

Click on the spell bellow to begin at A Light Inside with a more thorough introduction and insights into Chapter 1 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:

Consider it your syllabus to this introductory course in magic.  Then hop back over here for my reflections on the first chapter.  And keep a look-out for the third and final introduction from Masha at Cyganeria toward the end of the week.

Before You Read

Please note that I am reading the American versions because those are the copies to which I have access.  Hence I'll be calling the first book The Sorcerer's Stone, though it's original title is The Philosopher's Stone.  I'd love it if a British reader could share significant differentiations as we go along, however.

Additionally, here are a few things you might like to have for the Harry Potter read-through:

  • some used or cheap copies of the books that you don't mind jotting notes on and stashing into your purse or the glove compartment of your car
  • a small notebook if you can't get access to the above
  • candles for late-night castle reading
  • a Latin-English dictionary for deciphering spells (and making up your own!)
  • a cloak of invisibility for hiding from Muggles while reading
  • wizarding music (soundtrack/playlist--compiled by yours truly--forthcoming)
  • wizard recipes for delicious and subject-appropriate snacks (also forthcoming from Masha!)
  • a mythology or Harry Potter reference book

If there's anything else you think should be on the list, let me know and I'll add it!  Now that that's covered, it's time for . . .

The Beginning

Minaali Haputantri Photography

A wise person once said somewhere that the best place to start is at the beginning.  It's impossible to read the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone without an inkling of what you're getting into:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Methinks the lady dost protest too much.  Right away, we know this story is going to be out-of-the-ordinary.

"The Boy Who Lived" scores well in my book for first impressions.  It's characterization of a boring, straight-laced, rather self-centered English family is affectionately disapproving and puts me in mind of the children's  books of Roald Dahl and his successor Lemony Snicket.  I agree with Jenna that a children's story that only engages children is not a very good children's story, and this chapter engages the reader's curiosity and imagination.

Jenna mentioned that the wizardry in Harry Potter is a spoof, and this too may account for the immediate familiarity and the ease with which I slid into suspension of disbelief.  Short bearded men in cloaks and bespectacled, black-haired, tight-bunned ladies who turn into cats.  Who doesn't have some fond memory of such things, woven in the background of their childhood so intricately and seamlessly as to be almost invisible?  But it's more than that.  The confidence with which the narration is presented is conversational, a kind of "what you are about to hear are real events" tone of storytelling.  I love that, that awareness of story as story.

As someone trained in literature and an amateur writer myself, I noticed things like simple diction, trite turns of phrase, and tendency to rely on adverbs.  But I've never been a fan of the high-brow literary school of critics--why can't plain but clear writing, as much as beauteous writing, be an effective stylistic choice?--and when I try to imagine HP written in a florid post-modern voice, it looses an essential quality I can't quite put my finger on.  Perhaps because the subject of the story is already eccentric.  The simple writing presents what would otherwise be a fantastical account of events in a fairy tale-meets-the-evening-news mode.  It also gives us a sense of the narrator, of ourselves as readers--again, that story-as-a-story effect--that stronger writing would take away by making the characters too immediate and the story too immediately immersive.  Though, don't get me wrong, I expect to be drawn into it more and more as it moves along and I get to know the characters better.

Cory Godbey

Other first impressions:

This Dumbledore is a stand-up kind of guy.  He's not a Gandalf wizard by any stretch, which is refreshing in this age of copycats.  He reminds me more of your favorite high school teacher who pretended not to know what was going on in his classroom when his back was turned to write on the blackboard, but who would surprise you with a knowing and relevant comment in passing when you least expected it.  You sense depths of knowledge and emotions to which you have not yet been granted access in confidence.

While Dumbledore conjures distance under a reserved silliness, McGonagall keeps us at arm's length with her prickly manner.  One thing in particular I didn't like was her comment about even stupid humans noticing all the strange things going on.  Yet after giving it some thought, and Rowling the benefit of the doubt, I considered the following.

Perhaps we are meant to be drawn into the realm of wizardry from the world of the under-ordinary, in the sense that we readers are confidants--even artists.  Our art is in recognizing the mysteriousness and wonder of existence in a way that sets us apart from others.  It is what makes us readers, seekers of fiction, and friends of the imagination.  Our very act of reading initiates us in a sense, while the Muggles are those of us who fail to recognize and seize upon the type of magic in everyday living; who reject imagination and fiction as children's stories, invaluable to the real world; who go about day by day like Mr. Dursley, unable to fathom that perhaps the homeless man at the street corner is a wise and benevolent wizard, much less a dignified human being.

Maybe the wizards in the universe of Harry Potter are those of us who are not blind to the greater struggle going on, outside our self-satisfied, comfortable, and sometimes mundane lives.  I suspect anybody who can be open to the type of love-magic and truths spoken in Harry Potter, or any fairy tale, would be a wizard within its pages.

Last, you have "the boy who lived."  Jenna makes an astute distinction between "lived" and "survived."  That one word turns the meaning of the entire story.  And while I am worried, with Professor McGonagall, about poor Harry growing up among those atrocious relatives; and a bit distanced by the main character already being introduced as not-an-ordinary-person (how do I relate to that?); I feel a bubbling hope with its source in the little baby left on the front step of number four Privet Drive.  Who sleeps peacefully in the night not knowing how important he is or how his being in the world is a sign of hope to so many; and I am reminded of the dark of early Christmas morning, with dancing stars and strange learned men who show reverence in secret, when another little baby came quietly, unobtrusively, to change everything forever.



  1. HAHAHAH! I LOVE it that you linked up via spell. Completely wonderful. :D

    "Dumbledore... reminds me more of your favorite high school teacher who pretended not to know what was going on in his classroom when his back was turned to write on the blackboard, but who would surprise you with a knowing and relevant comment in passing when you least expected it."

    Oh my gosh, you know him already! I love Dumbledore. <3

    McGonagall's remark about the Muggles annoyed me as it did you, but Rowling will be working against that attitude in future installments, and... while I hesitate to tell people which characters they'll like and which they won't, because everyone's different, I wound up loving McGonagall in the long run. :)

    I am now tempted to read by candlelight JUST for the heck of it. And I totally want an invisibility cloak. Although my personality works pretty well as a substitute when I want it to. :P Ooh, and I love that picture of Hagrid on the motorbike. Love it.

    And I love, love, LOVE your last paragraph. It's so beautiful. Chills again!

    This is going to be so awesome!!

    1. Let's make up more spells!

      Dumbledore is immensely likable. I'm sure I would attach myself to him as an aspiring teacher's pet almost immediately. I tend to bond better with male figures of authority (Freud is rolling over in his grave in joy), so I'll keep that in mind before passing judgement on McGonagall.

      Reflecting on this chapter, it became so clear to me that Rowling's setting up Harry a Christ-figure. According to babynames.com, his name means "army ruler." Hm, coincidence? c;

    2. P.S. Cory Godby did the illustration, I love his work! He's an amazing folk-fantasy artist (as opposed to high fantasy, I guess).

    3. Well, I've got the candles down anyway ;) and the notebook! We'll be testing out butterbeers this week..expect recipes and photos at some point..

      Love this! I'm glad you noticed the whole anti-muggle bit..I want to see what you think as the books go on..

  2. I'm in, sounds like a lot of fun!

  3. Your paragraph on who wizards are in our world is so inspiring! I love how you connect the power of reading with magical powers, and saw Harry as a Christ figure.

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