Born on July 31, 1965, in Gloucestershire, England, Joanne Kathleen Rowling grew up in rural communities in the southwestern part of that country. Her parents, Peter and Anne Rowling, an engineer and laboratory technician respectively, bought books such as The Wind in the Willows to read to their two daughters. Rowling’s childhood experiences shaped her future literary creations. She explored the English countryside, visiting castles and historical sites which inspired her imagination. Although she disliked science and mathematics courses, Rowling excelled in literature classes. She penned funny, fantastical tales to amuse her sister Diana and friends, especially the Potter siblings whose name she later appropriated for her wizardry novels.
The first of the “Harry Potter” books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces readers to Harry Potter on the cusp of his eleventh birthday. Born to a well-respected and much-loved witch and wizard, Harry Potter was orphaned as a baby and left to be taken care of by his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley, along with their son Dudley.
In some ways, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a traditional English boarding school located in the fairy-green countryside well beyond London. The meddlesome caretaker, Mr. Filch, and his cat, Mrs. Norris, carefully monitor the building, and the grounds are well kept by the beloved Keeper of Keys and Grounds (and Hogwarts drop-out) Rubeus Hagrid. During the long-standing tradition of the Sorting Ceremony, first-year Hogwarts students are separated into four houses (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin), each with their own proud history, alumni, and secret traditions. The faculty are respected scholars and authority figures removed from the emotional and interpersonal experiences of their students. The curriculum is carefully structured and deliberately traditional, and residents take classes by year and with students from other houses. Points are given and taken away for academic achievement, behavior and deportation, and athletic competition-all in an effort to win the much-coveted house cup at the end-of-year feast.
Like the setting of the novel, Rowling’s themes and characters are both traditional and off-beat. British to the core, the themes and characters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone contain a delightful blend of classic fantasy and Victorian sentiment minus the tendency towards what a contemporary audience might consider saccharine. Ideally-and at their best-both classic British fantasy and Victorian literature enjoy the great themes of love and death, of good and evil. This is true of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, wherein the title character, our noble hero, having been orphaned and overshadowed by a cruel and ignorant world, continues to battle issues of class and conscience even after he is delivered to a better, more accepting and acceptable, place.
Whether because they offer a natural metaphor for coming-of-age audiences transitioning into the adult world, or because-either in cause or effect-they are generally considered most appropriate for the developmental phases and developing psyche of the young adult, the canonized classics of British fantasy traditionally feature young adult protagonists. “The Sword in the Stone,” Book One of T. H. White’s aforementioned The Once and Future King (1958), searches back through history, legend, and the author’s own boyhood, to expand the Arthurian legend by contributing the story of Arthur’s young adulthood. Appropriately, White, a teacher of young adults, expands Arthurian legend by describing what the young Wart learned in his lessons with Merlin in order to explain the genius of Wart’s later kingship.
In a television interview aired in July of 2000-just prior to the release of the much-anticipated fourth Harry Potter book-eminent children’s and young adult literature critic and scholar Jack Zipes described Rowling’s fiction as formulaic and sexist. Because Zipes was not given the chance to fully support his thesis within the format of the televised sound bite, any response to his thesis must be based, in part, on conjecture. Nevertheless, that Rowling’s Harry Potter books should be described as formulaic is problematic. The “Harry Potter” books are, after all, a series, and, at least thus far, the action takes place during the academic year. Aside from some scattered highlights of Harry’s summer holidays, the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone follows the unchanging rhythm of a highly structured educational calendar. While an academic year provides a useful template by which Rowling may structure her fiction, the description of such a template as formulaic seems unfair and a refusal to acknowledge just how reliant a young adult audience is on the academic calendar-or how useful it is to the plot structure of British fantasy. Indeed, Lewis Carroll’s Alice has her adventures while she is not engaged with her studies in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and throughout C. S. Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles, his young protagonists travel to and from Narnia while on vacation from school.
1. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduces readers to all sorts of interesting magical objects (the Nimbus 2000, the remembrall, magic wands, mail-delivering owls, live chess sets, the invisibility cloak … not to mention the sorcerer’s stone). If you could have and use any one of these objects, which object would it be and why? Can you tell a real story about something that happened to you once when that object might have come in handy? How might the story have gone differently if you had had that object?