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.
It is this better place, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the magic world more generally, that inspires and insists Harry learn from his orphaned status-that he grow into his own great person rather than be beaten down for being different and for having fewer “normal” advantages. Understandably preoccupied as the orphan is with death, Harry’s hero’s adventure suitably involves the quest to find, to recover, and to restore the Sorcerer’s Stone by which the Elixir of Life can be manufactured and immortality achieved. It is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, and Harry risks his own life in order to ensure the quality of the lives of others.
In the end, Harry Potter accepts and promotes what Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts and co-creator of the Sorcerer’s Stone, so eloquently explains: “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” With this acceptance comes additional emotional support. Harry’s parents are dead, yes, but this is more of a shift in fate than it is an irreparable loss. In her characteristic layering style, Rowling points out that not only have Harry’s parents left the gift of Harry behind, but they have left Harry with a gift. At the novel’s end, when Harry asks Professor Dumbledore why Quirrell, the evil wizard Voldemort’s accomplice, could not touch him, Dumbledore replies:
Your mother died to save you. If there’s one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.
Thus Harry is not only scarred literally and figuratively by his orphaned status, he is also, alternatively, positively marked by it. And this is something that we hope the young adult audience, the intended audience for Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, might learn to recognize as a theme in the real magic of their own lives.
It is the students of Hogwarts, the fictional contemporaries and peers of the intended audience, who demonstrate that these great themes-love and death, good and evil-are part and parcel of every life lived. Whether that student be the quintessential bully, as is Draco Malfoy (and his henchmen Crabbe and Goyle), or the overweight, clumsy, and somewhat untalented but nevertheless good-hearted Neville Longbottom, each individual’s psyche and personality is shaped by how they perceive and respond to the great themes in their own lives. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling’s characters are complex, dimensional, and interesting, because they perceive and respond to the signature notes of these themes in their own lives.
Indeed, the bully Draco Malfoy suffers from feelings of inferiority due, in part, to the success, expectations, and snobbery of his father. Neville Longbottom, raised by his grandmother and unpopular for the resulting lack of style this upbringing has caused, carries his own, similar yet distinct, sense of illegitimacy. Ron Weasley is one of seven children (including five boys ahead of him), all of whom have met with great success while studying at Hogwarts-be it as head boy, Quidditch captain, house prefect, or wildly popular pranksters. Hermione Granger negotiates the stress of being a Type-A overachiever from a Muggle family.
The adults of the magic world, too, are not above the struggle to commandeer their lives and worlds-a facet of Rowling’s fiction that may account for the literary success of the Harry Potter books in the real, adult world. Professor Snape struggles with the guilt and frustration of not being able to repay his arch-rival, Harry’s (now dead) father, for saving his life. Rubeus Hagrid has been shamed by being expelled from Hogwarts, by having had his wand broken in half and forbidden to use magic thereby leaving him an obvious misfit in the Muggle world as well as one marginalized within the non-Muggle world. Even the wise Professor Dumbledore, a near-perfect man and wizard, must come to terms with the foibles and disappointments that color the human experience. When asked what he sees in the Mirror of Erised-a bewitched mirror that not only bears the inscription, “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi” (I show not your face but your heart’s desire), but also reveals Harry’s family to him and shows Ron Weasley himself as head boy holding the Quidditch cup-Professor Dumbledore replies: “I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks…. One can never have enough socks…. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.” However tongue-in-cheek it may be, Professor Dumbledore’s remark nevertheless speaks a greater truth: in recognizing our great ability to want what we do not have, we just might stumble across an appreciation for what we have been given. It is, ultimately, a restatement of what our young protagonist has learned from the loss of his parents and one that benefits both Rowling’s characters and audience-young or old.