Nikki 's Reviews > Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
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Oct 02, 2008

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bookshelves: fantasy, children-s-and-ya
Read in October, 2001

EDIT NOTE in 2012: Since this apparently isn't obvious, I wrote the review years ago. I do not necessarily have those opinions now. I wouldn't know; I haven't read Harry Potter since. With a degree and five more birthdays behind me I do not necessarily agree with everything I said when I was seventeen years old. I'm happy to chat about the definition of literature with you, or what I think about the Harry Potter phenomenon now or whatever, but try and be civil and don't attack me right out of the gate.

EDIT NOTE in 2011: I've edited this review to take out some teenage arrogance, but the rest is as-is. A few years later and with a degree in hand, including modules in Children's Lit, I could probably write a better review, but people seem to like this one!


I really don't like Harry Potter. It's one of those little concealed but apparently not widely known facts about me, which shocks everyone when I say I love books and they're all, "yeah, rite, Harry Potter is so awesum rite?" and I say "...no, it really isn't." I confess: when I was eleven or twelve or so, I read them. I also read the Sabrina the Teenage Witch novels. I read everything and wasn't very discriminating about it. I did enjoy them. I continued to enjoy them until I got to Order of the Phoenix, and then I decided that all the hype aside, I just wasn't interested anymore. Bear in mind, then, for the rest of this "essay", that I have only read up to and including The Goblet of Fire.

Cue a few years of irritation while everyone insisted I must read the rest of the books, and how dare I prefer Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin (and later, Susan Cooper). I have really no objection to people reading the books and enjoying them, taking part in the fandom that surrounds them, dressing up in witchy costumes to go and pick up the most recently released volume at midnight. Have fun with that! As far as I'm concerned you're welcome to. I'm even quite happy to concede that yes, Harry Potter did get more people reading. Whether it got them reading literature or not is another matter: how many people, I wonder, have discovered a mania for reading after reading Harry Potter and then gone onto the likes of Crime and Punishment and War and Peace, or even Lord of the Rings? Not that many, I'll bet. I think they're probably reading Twilight and the like, more often than not. Not that it matters -- as long as people are reading.

But in any case, I. Don't. Have. To. Read. Them. Just because I like books, does not mean I like those books. And I detest it every time someone shoves them in my face as 'great literature'. I actually had to study Harry Potter, for my English Lit/Lang A Level (for those unfamiliar with our system: A Levels are exams you take when you're about eighteen, which among other things determine whether you can go to university). One of the questions we had to figure out how to answer was whether we thought Harry Potter was good literature, whether we thought it would stand the test of time, and how it was suited to the time it's currently in.

It was then that I figured out that, yeah, there are things wrong with Harry Potter beyond just the hype that was irritating me so much and the feeling that Rowling in no way matched up to the giants of fantasy and sci-fi, like Tolkien. I studied it alongside Tom Brown's Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes. Do note that I didn't like that book either. But it's a well written, well shaped, well considered book -- and it doesn't use the same cheap tricks as Harry Potter does. I'm not going to say much about that, since it's not a book I liked: if I'm going to compare/contrast, I'll compare with my favourite book that is also supposed to be for younger readers, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising.

There's nothing wrong with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone being an amateur first novel. 'cause that's what it is. I'm sure many people's first novels don't even see the light of day, and yet Harry Potter somehow made it to a publisher's and was accepted. The thing is, people mostly refuse to recognise that and the cheap tricks J. K. Rowling uses. For example, her character's names. 'Draco Malfoy'. Mal, the French for bad, immediately obvious. 'Draco', suggesting dragon? Or perhaps 'draconian', which has negative connotations aplenty (not that I'd necessarily attribute those particular ones to Draco). Not very subtle, is it? 'Dumbledore'. Who doesn't get the image of a well-meaning, if strange, old man? 'Minerva', straight out of Greek myth: a goddess of knowledge. Gee, I wonder why Rowling chose that for a female teacher... 'Remus Lupin', 'Sirius Black', 'Mad-Eye Moody'... Do I even have to say anything?

And 'Harry Potter'. Nothing striking about that: perfectly ordinary, as names go, right?

Yeah. And that's the point. Harry Potter himself is not a real character -- certainly not at first. He's a cypher, a convenient space into which a kid can very easily insert himself or even herself. He's brave. Okay, generic hero characteristic. He has doubts. Again, the same. He has a Tragic Past. Don't we all? Or don't we all like to think we do? Look at the Mary Sues/self inserts people write in fandom -- so often they're people with incredibly dark, melodramatic pasts that they rise above. Harry Potter is a convenient place to insert yourself. The other characters are archetypes more than anything -- Hermione, the know it all girl; Ron, the loyal friend; Dumbledore, the mentor; Malfoy, the rival...

All of that is actually what makes Harry Potter a highly readable, enjoyable book, for young people and even adults. It's targeted very precisely toward the readership of today. Maybe that makes J. K. Rowling a better author than I might paint her as, that she can know her audience so well -- there's that view, I'm sure. But it's all very basic, and I tend to look on it as cheap tricks. The whole chapter, in the first book, about the Mirror of Erised -- how sad does it make you feel for Harry? It's sentimental, it's sad -- and it's meant to do that, very obviously. There's a whole chapter written just to enforce the love between the members of Harry Potter's family.

Susan Cooper does it in a single paragraph that makes me want to cry every single time I read it, coming after all the build up of guilt and pain in the relationship. "Bran went to [his father] and put his arm round his waist, and stood close. It was the first gesture of affection between the two that Will had ever seen. And wondering, loving surprise woke in Owen Davies's worn face as he looked down at the boy's white head, and the two stood there, waiting."

That paragraph does for me what Rowling's whole chapter cannot. It's so effective, actually, because Cooper spends a whole book leading up to it, showing us Owen and Bran's relationship. Rowling shows us Harry's parents, but in an unsubtle way that actually throws me out of it because I think, "Oh, yeah, this is the chapter in which we're supposed to feel very sorry for Harry."

There's also a very easy, blunt misdirection. You're supposed to hate Snape, supposed to believe he's the one to blame for everything, and at the end, you're supposed to be as surprised as Harry when it's Quirrel waiting there for him. At the age of eleven, I think I went right along with that, but when I reread it for A Level, I had to wince at how heavy-handed the misdirection was. I understand that later in the series Snape comes into it more, and I don't know whether the misdirection turns out to be not that misdirected when it comes down to the real truth: but in the first book, you're meant to believe it's Snape all along, and I don't think J. K. Rowling does a very good job of giving us clues that it's not actually Snape, because she's so busy blackening him to lead people astray.

It's also very black-and-white. Questions aren't raised, by this story -- and that's a thing I think is actually important in literature. Raise questions, discuss issues, end with a question. I don't know what to call stories that don't fit into that, really. I'm going to go with 'novels' as opposed to literature. Harry Potter is a novel. It's a story. I don't think it has any real lasting values. Susan Cooper's books, while also quite basic, discussing the Light and the Dark, do end with a question. If man is left on earth, to do as man will, will man be Light or Dark? The immortals leave earth, and say that the world -- for better or worse -- belongs to humans. Right now, a lot of people think the answer to that question would be 'worse'. But Harry Potter does not raise this question, does not raise any question, and does not answer one either. That's why I don't think it will last except perhaps as a phenomenon to be studied: the 'Potter mania' and what caused it.

That's why I don't like Rowling's writing. It's not particularly refined, it's unsubtle -- and that's okay, you know, I'm not saying you can't enjoy that, can't find it refreshing. I don't. I'm also not saying that 'novels' are bad -- they're good, they can provide valuable escapism, they can be incredibly rich fodder for the imagination, and I suspect Harry Potter is, for many children. But I don't call it literature, and I myself don't like it.

Note: the three star rating is because honestly, when I first read it, I did love it.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 125) (125 new)


Susan If you think this was heavy-handed, try Xanth (anything, really) by Piers Anthony.

If IMHO the archetype of the Harry Potter character was developed by (and stolen whole-cloth by Rowling) Neil Gaiman for the Books of Magic comic series (the first one, the mini-series)

S


Ethan The Talkative One :D Harry Potter rocks!!!


Nikki I'm glad you find it enjoyable, I don't now.


Rebecca I'm bemused you had to study this for A Level.
What were the other texts?



Nikki For that module, Tom Brown's School Days. It was "The Changing Language of Literature", I believe. I think they may have been the only books in my whole A Level... two modules relied on coursework, one was linguistics, one was an anthology of poetry and prose, one was "unseen" poetry, and the sixth was Harry Potter vs. Tom Brown.


message 6: by Afsana (last edited Nov 01, 2009 09:42AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Afsana I have just read your review and you comment re the names and for example Malfoy Draco and meaning but if you think that a lot of these readers are children so I don't think the names meaning would be so obvious to them.

I think it was meant more for a light read then a serious read and indepth analysis

I am shocked that they made you read this for A levels- I had to read Great Gatsby and Shakespear and room with a view etc...





Nikki It was obvious to me when I was a child, but I suppose I did have a big vocabulary, etc.

And yes, I agree, but at the same time it's become such a huge, huge phenomenon that it's worth examining. If it doesn't stand up to such inspection, which to my mind, it doesn't, then you've got to wonder why it's considered so good in the first place, and I think my review kind of touches on why some people like it.

Oh, A Level is nothing. If I pick the wrong module, I'll be studying it again in my degree.


Rady I liked your review for the bright analysis of the books' pros and cons. I well understand your points and agree with many of them.


Nikki Looks like I've signed up to study this book again... "introduction to children's literature", woo...


message 10: by Suna (new)

Suna I am happy that your review is here.

A true lover of these books, I'm thoroughly sick of fellow Potter-lovers indiscriminately worshiping it. Voices of reason are much needed.

I read them from my early twenties onwards and they picked me up through a rough time and carried me straight to happy land.
So I am acutely aware that the emotional value mostly outweighs my literary appreciation...I tend to suspend my 'hang abouts that doesn't make sense' for the duration and simply ride along in merry escapism.

And, guilty as charged: I lived overseas in Michigan for awhile, where me and a girlfriend did indeed dress up, attended the Deathly Hallows Ball and got ourselves a midnight copy.
We ended up playing with children literally twenty years our junior, 'Crucio!'s and 'Stupefy!'s flying through the air,dodging bookcases, driving the store-clerks to hair-pulling distraction.
It was bedlam and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

As for actual literary value, some of the plot is decidedly rickety,notably in the Goblet of Fire and, most annoyingly, Deathly Hallows.
On one of the most pivotal aspects of the story, too. Drat.
She had to bend over backwards to make the whole Master of the Elder Wand thing work at the very end and didn't succeed to make it flow. It does grate.

But these books are a pleasure to me, also because they have given children yet another, in my opinion much-needed, angle on death and flawed adults.
Considering that you are absolutely right that a lot of kids won't read much else, that's good.

I came at the genre backwards, too: I had not discovered Diana Wynne-Jones or Susan Cooper -infinitely superior without a shadow of a doubt- while I read most of the Potter books.

Therefore I have to admit to a rather disillusioned "Ah...."-moment when I read those ladies' works.
Eva Ibbotson of course is a stalwart of the genre as well, I absolutely love her kooky humour and she's much more inventive.

Not so clever and more plagiarist than I would like then, JK Rowling. Or rather, with all her smarts, I should now conclude that it could have been so much more original and edgy. And that is a shame.

I am heartily fond of the series, however, warts and all.

So, I can only wish you the best of luck if you are now set to read the lot for your course studies.
I expect you will be quite miffed with the way most plot threads are resolved, with the possible exception of Snape. I am saying that with the utmost caution, because I don't wish to shove any opinions down your throat.
In any case I will be very curious to hear your opinion.




Nikki I used to adore the books too, don't get me wrong. I loved Prisoner of Azkaban in particular -- I read that book about twice a day over the course of a week long holiday in France, because I hadn't packed any other book.

(Although that might have sped my disillusionment with them.)

Someday, I do plan to pick up all the books and read them again as pure escapism. I'm sure that'll actually be fun. My main complaint with the fans, though, is that they seem to think they're some pinnacle of literary achievement. Which they're plainly not.

I haven't had the book thrown at me to study again yet -- I think it comes up about Week 7. We'll see how I react then... I think it'll be just the first book, not the whole series. Probably a good thing.


message 12: by Suna (new)

Suna I agree on all counts!


message 13: by Nikki (last edited Mar 10, 2010 05:40AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nikki I read J.R.R. Tolkien's work at the age of ten, myself. Also, I'm not saying that Harry Potter has to be a work of art, but I am saying that I don't have to enjoy it. I've read them, when I was a child and I didn't care about the flaws; I'm twenty years old now and I prefer my fiction to have a bit of subtlety and style. Apparently you did not fully read this review, since I stated that "the three star rating is because honestly, when I first read it, I did love it" and the entire point of this review is to point out that it is not great literature, or required reading.

Edit: The person I was responding to here has deleted their comment, for reasons unknown.


message 14: by Suna (new)

Suna Neither do I consider them a literary work of extraordinary accomplishment.
I think we are both saying the same thing, as I mentioned that I had no intention of shoving opinions down your throat. I am assuming you are speaking to me, although considering that I did in fact agree with you, your reaction seems somewhat incongruous?...^^

Have you had to go back to them for your course studies yet?


Nikki Suna, there was another response here which has apparently been deleted.

I did, but I didn't reread them, trusting my memory for it... Heh. They're on my ereader to get to... someday.


message 16: by Suna (new)

Suna Also,to my confusion, your comment came up as 'Emily' having made a comment... glitch in the Matrix perhaps...who knows.

Just for clarity's sake, this is still my opinion:

"I am happy that your review is here.

A true lover of these books, I'm thoroughly sick of fellow Potter-lovers indiscriminately worshiping it. Voices of reason are much needed."


message 17: by Suna (new)

Suna Oh, my I just saw your comment...this could run and run!


Nikki Haha, yes. I hate it when people delete comments, for whatever reason. It causes confusion aplenty.


Emily I'm sorry but I have disagree on your point about Harry being a 'self-insert' character. Rather, that self insert, he is what you would call releatable b/c who doesns't dream of being taken away from a bad/montonous life for something spectacular? If you want a truly flat self-insert character who stays that way throughout her series, check out Bella Swan from Twilight. And OF COURSE you're going to find archtypes in the book, every fantasy story has them, it's how the genre is. And if you think about it, HP has many of the same plot lines as Spider-Man. So really, no story can be completely original.


Nikki No, not all fantasy stories have archetypes: a lot of the best ones do not. I read a lot of fantasy. Trust me on this one.

There are only seven basic plotlines, they say. So? Some books do far better than others in making them feel fresh.

I didn't mean 'self-insert' in the way you do. Harry is a cypher; a character anyone can relate to, not necessarily an ideal (at least in the first book). Bella Swan is an ideal.


Rosie You seem to think that J. K. Rowling is a copier for having an older person be a mentor for a main character. Add in the fact that he's a wizard, and, Oh MY! She's copying J. R. R. Tolkein. I respect Tolkien's writing very much, but I know that all authors take bits and pieces of their favorite books and use them in their work. As long as they're not literally copying the whole story, then why is there a problem? You could say that dementors are very similar to ring wraiths, but I've seen many other authors create shroudy, dead looking monsters. For instance, there are the Ra'zac from Eragon by Christopher Paolini, the Nightmares from Inkheart by Corneilia Funke, and the Things from Septimus heap by Angie Sage. I don't know if you've read all those, but i assure you that they are still really good, in my opinion. You can think what you want, but it doesn't seem fair to say that she is a copier.


Nikki I don't think I said anything about Rowling being a copier, though she certainly is. I'm puzzled by you appearing to admit she's a copier and then saying it's not fair to say so -- if she is, she is, and if you say everyone does it, then surely there's nothing wrong with pointing out who her influences are?


message 23: by Rosie (last edited May 15, 2011 08:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rosie Nikki wrote: "I don't think I said anything about Rowling being a copier, though she certainly is. I'm puzzled by you appearing to admit she's a copier and then saying it's not fair to say so -- if she is, she i..."

Oops! I commented on the wrong review! Sorry about that! Stupid mouse... :D Disregard what I said.


Elinor  Loredan Though I'm a die-hard Potter fan (dont worry, I won't rail you for not liking it), I really like your review, and your reasons for not liking the series are very legitimate. It's just that I don't mind the things that annoy you. I like archetypal characters as long as they're lovable, and I enjoyed noticing Rowling's use of latin for spells and names, even if it is obvious.
But again, good review.
If we all loved the same books, the world wouldn't be as interesting, right? :)


Nikki I'd probably like it more if I reread it now -- when I wrote this review, I was heartily sick of having it forced down my throat. I really loved the books when I was younger: it'd be nice to recapture some of that, if I can.

But maybe not yet. After studying the first book both at A Level and during my degree, I need a bit more of a break. *grin*


message 26: by Dirk (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dirk Grobbelaar Well said indeed in this review.


message 27: by sjams (new)

sjams I got this in my email updates because you edited it, and thank you for this. I have never an HP fan but I've also never thought about why not. I bet some of the reasons you outline here are part of it.


Maree Yeah, I thought the names were pretty obvious as well.

I read an article about how J.K. Rowling went about getting the books published and that a lot of adults read the books and said “meh.” But it was the children who were enchanted, which was why the first book won a lot of the kid’s choice awards but no awards chosen by adults.

I’ve had friends who have written their thesis on Harry Potter as well as taken a class that thoroughly discussed many aspects of the book at Uni and while I very much enjoy the books and adventures, I too wouldn’t count it as great literature. It has the same timeless themes included, but it’s not amazing writing in particular, though after so many books I definitely think you’re able to relate to the characters so that what they’re going through means a lot more to you than it would if you read it flat out.


Nikki Mostly, I compared it to The Dark is Rising, if you read my review properly: a fantasy novel aimed at a similar age group, albeit slightly less recent.

I don't think you and I have the same definitions of "opening one's mind".


message 30: by Lord (new)

Lord Maybe not. The similar audience is split into different worlds into which one has interests.


Maree I'm assuming there was another deleted comment somewhere in the mix here?


Nikki Yes, there was. Not sure why it was deleted.


message 33: by Lord (new)

Lord I think you have to have Harry Potter as your childhood memory to really understand it's powers. Like me with Tolkien


Nikki Um, if you read my review properly, you'll notice I did read it as a child.

I also read Tolkien as a child, mind you.


message 35: by Tristine (new) - added it

Tristine hey nicki I don't care who you are but don't you ever dis harry potter again


Elinor  Loredan And I don't know who you are, but I hope you're joking, because it's obvious that you're way out of line. Nikki is entitled to like or dislike whatever she pleases. As a lifelong Potter fan I don't go around insulting people when they don't like it too(sorry for butting in Nikki!).


Nikki Tristine, I don't know you from Adam, but please spell my name right when it's right in front of you -- thanks. As for your comment, anyone can like or dislike anything and state their opinion as much as they like in their own space, with or without reasoning. This space is, you might have noticed, mine, and I justified my opinions.

(Incidentally, don't consider a career in English Literature. You wouldn't believe the things people say about Harry Potter at university.)


Nikki Elinor, that's okay! Nice to see sane Harry Potter fans. (Joking. I know most are.)


Elinor  Loredan Partially sane, anyway :)
So out of curiosity, what kind of things do people say about Potter at university?


Nikki They usually criticise it, if they're English Lit students. Last year several people got forbidden to write their dissertations on it because it "got boring". There are actual fans among our number, but even they didn't pretend it was above criticism. I mean, we critique everyone else, why not Rowling?


Maree Nothing is above criticism for English Lit! ;) But there have been a lot of interesting papers and articles written about the ideas and themes of the books. Some complimentary and some not so much so.


Nikki Oh yes, agreed, but it's been a while since anyone came up with a new idea for a dissertation on Harry Potter, it seems. Our children's lit expert just threw in the towel as far as that goes for a few years.

(Luckily, I don't think the book for my Master's degree thesis topic has been overdone. It's been written about four times in English, and one of those was me.)


Maree Lol Nikki! Are you doing something Arthurian in Welsh?


Nikki Close! Arthurian, but German, in translation. (Most of the Welsh stuff is fairly well commented on, because it's the origins of Arthur.)


Marina Schulz boo hoo poor you! *sarcasm* no offence intended but reading HP for school is hardly what i call torture.
i study in portugal we have to study "0s Lusiadas" wich happens to be ababcc or something all ryhming, maybe 500 pages or soo of 16th centuryportuguese. yes, it is ginius. but it is total torutre as well.


Nikki I say in return: boo hoo, poor you! I have graduated with a BA Hons in English Literature, which means I read such ~total torture~ as Beowulf (in Anglo-Saxon) and Brennu-Njáls saga (in Icelandic) -- and I've translated sections of those and others. They're genius, and they're actually what I think of as literature -- unlike Harry Potter.


Daniel You had me at Susan Cooper: I adored her Dark Is Rising books.


Reynard "Cue a few years of irritation while everyone insisted I must read the rest of the books, and how dare I prefer Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin (and later, Susan Cooper)."

Well said. I can't agree more! =) And I should also take note, now that you've piqued my interest in getting to Susan Cooper's works. I only began to read fantasy books at the beginning of my undergraduate. Perhaps luckily, I started with Tolkien and was totally captivated. By that time HP was a trend so I tried it out of curiosity. I guess Philosopher's Stone was a test-the-water kind of book. Secret Chamber was boring to my taste. I enjoyed the 3rd book the most, somehow. To me the series went downhill after that. My most serious disdain for HP is that he has nothing for anyone to give a damn about. Everything which happens in the story simply circles around his destiny, his prophecy. From his tragedy to his fights, it's always obvious that he's the Chosen One. I can't believe she managed to pull 7 books on that wasteland of characters.


message 49: by Lily (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lily What cheap tricks does harry potter use? how can u even use a cheap trick in a book? I think your basing this review based on books that have stood the test of time and have been read by a few generations such as catcher in the rye and the great gatsby, first of all that is not fair to compare harry potter to those books since harry potter is a new book and has only been out since the 90's secondly you said you did love it when you first read it so i think that you now dont like it because you had to study it. Books arent written to be studied and ripped apart, they are for the joy of the reader, any book that is throughly taken apart like that will of course eventually become tedious and boring, so i am sad that you had to do that to such a great book,I dont think J.K. Rowling was looking to make harry potter "important literature" its just a kids book that is enjoyed by grownups, teenagers, kids, elderly whatever. Also you say it is very black and white, i also disagree with this because the book is a coming of age story, a kids life no matter if its real or not is never going to be just black and white, too much changes. You have thoroughly ripped this book to shreds, taken it outside and beaten it with a hose, as i said before, harry potter probably wasnt written to be the next big book of the century, it was written as an escape to a magical world, i cant understand how something like that can be boring or not refreshing, most of the books that are considered popular and mind blowing are exceedingly dull and are only a glimpse of the real life, its like acting, see how real your book can be. Plus i dont get any of this "last man on earth light and dark stuff....what does that have to do with harry potter and why in gods name should we be asking ourselves that questions everytime we read a book...?


Nikki Lily: I suggest you reread my review, it will answer several of your questions if read properly. For example, I used The Dark is Rising as an example, not saying that all books should ask exactly the same question, but that books that are going to stand the test of time should ask some kind of question. I'm not sure if I completely agree with that anymore, but that was my idea when I wrote this review.

As for some of your other points: no, study will never ruin a good book. It only deepens one's appreciation of it, as I've found when studying The Lord of the Rings, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf, or A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court. English Literature would be a pretty horrible subject if study actually ruined a book.

I gave an example of 'cheap tricks' in the review.


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