The following is an extended analysis on the debut novel in the famous Harry Potter series that took the world by storm in 1997. All images featured here are licensed under Creative Commons.
The themes, subplot and symbolism within Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone combine to make it one of the most popular book series in history. The juxtaposition of “normal” characters and tribulations (students that go to class, take tests, do homework and grow up, like Harry and his crew) with fantastic characters and settings (wand-wielding teachers, dragons, trolls and a school in the shape of a castle next to a mysterious forest inhabited by unicorns) provides the reader with enough familiarity to allow them to relate to the story, but enough fantasy to allow them to be interested by the nuances of a new world.
An example of this juxtaposition is Harry’s experience at the train station. As he arrives, Harry sees Ron and his multiple brothers getting dropped off by their parents — a perfectly normal and physically appreciable sight. In a matter of fact way, however, Ron and his brothers crash through a brick wall to get to the Hogwarts Express, creating the juxtaposition between the realistic and the fantastical — “all you have to do is walk straight at the barrier between platforms nine and ten. Don’t stop and don’t be scared you’ll crash into it … Go on, go now …”
The whole situation is akin to a student’s first day of school, with the real life equivalent of Ron and his brothers crashing through the wall possibly being a teacher rounding up the students and walking them, in a line, to homeroom.
That’s the Harry Potter formula to success: posit a relatable childhood or adolescent characteristic and discuss it in a fantastical manner. Take the Mirror of Erised, which uses fantastic means to disguise Harry’s longing for his late parents. Instead of narrating Harry’s desire to be with his real family again, the author chooses to use a magical device to convey this emotion, shown when Harry enters the empty classroom and stares into the mirror — “The Potters smiled and waved at Harry … his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them”.
Another instance is Harry and Ron’s adventure to save Hermione from the troll during Halloween — it’s similar to three kids acing a hard final exam after a study session together and bonding over the accomplishment, only more fantastical.
Some of the novels’ subplots also describe relatable themes. An example of this is the segment of the story that involves Hagrid and his dragon. Harry and company come to the conclusion, along with Hagrid, that Hagrid’s dragon has got to go. Harry and Hermione decide to play hooky and end up getting caught by Filch. Typically, “hooky” is “played” out of a childish desire to be rebellious or mischievous, but Harry and Hermione’s illicit actions stand a on a higher plane of morality — they do it only because they’re saving a creature’s life, cementing the value of their midnight excursion as a righteous crusade that Filch, Professor McGonagall, and the malevolent Malfoy simply won’t understand — “You don’t understand, Professor. Harry Potter’s coming — he’s got a dragon!”
The theme of good versus evil is present throughout the novel as explored through the value system of a growing boy and his friends. The actions that land Harry and his friends in trouble are almost never done maliciously (though a notable exception is Harry sneaking out of his dormitory to duel Draco Malfoy — who doesn’t show up — and landing himself in trouble); rather, they’re almost always in the spirit of benign exploration or in the active pursuit of something worthwhile (like Harry’s parents or the Sorcerer’s Stone). The narrator’s and/or Harry’s contemporaries’ failure to really question Harry’s actions indicate that what Harry’s doing is what’s “right” (except for Harry, who “flatly” and half-heartedly says “we’ve done enough poking around” the day before serving their detention). For example, upon learning that the evil Voldemort is after the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry decides — and his company agrees — that he must secure the stone before Voldemort. Harry’s authority figures’ recommendation to stay away from the Stone and all it entails take a backseat to Harry’s clear rectitude.
In fact, the adult authority figures in the novel illustrate the childhood dilemma of learning who to respect and who to dislike. It’s clear, for example, that Harry quickly garners a dislike for Severus Snape based, subjectively, on cold intuition and physically on Snape’s dark appearance and his menacing warnings — “Be warned, Potter — any more nighttime wanderings and I will personally make sure you are expelled”.
But much like the naive teenager who finds that his strict and mean teacher actually cared the most for his education and career prospects, it’s revealed that Severus Snape is actually the good guy while the pushover Quirrell is the bad guy — “Snape was trying to save me”?
Children and developing adolescents are sometimes judgmental and narrow-minded when deciding on the value of an authority figure, a characteristic that arises not so much from an earnest desire to be that way but rather from a general naiveté about how to look beyond a figure’s surface personality. The arc of development that Severus Snape is put through from Harry’s perspective represents a coming of age for Harry.
This growth is compounded by the fact that controlled egomania is also a theme in this book. At various points throughout Harry’s “firsts” in the world of magic — aboard the train, when donning the Sorting Hat, and in his classes — he wishes he wouldn’t be there and that others not laud him as much as they do, namely because he’s afraid of not living up to his potential. The reaction is best summarized by a character in the popular Metal Gear Solid video game series. In one of the games, the character Solid Snake, upon meeting his number one fan, says “The reality is no match for the legend, I’m afraid”. This is the way Harry initially feels, but as he begins to discover the untapped magical prowess he always had, the humility gives way to egomania that ultimately convinces him of his ability to take on the three-headed dog and stave off Voldemort’s malevolence — after all, Harry’s bare existence, and his mother’s love was enough to stave him off when he was but a baby. The scar symbolically demonstrates this, and Dumbledore speaks of the power of love — “to have been loved so deeply … will give us some protection forever.” What problem would he encounter fending off Voldermort now that he’s in the company of his good friends?
The sum of all these parables is a book series that captures the imagination of an audience who relates to the characters’ plights and imperfections, for they too are going through the same ordeals — just not in a magic school. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastical has provided a winning formula for the book series that has led to its widespread popularity and standing as one of, if not the, most popular book series in history.