The book that started it all…
No, we’re not using the American title. One, the books are British and
it’s good to keep the original title. Two, there is no such thing as a
Sorcerer’s Stone and the US publishers should be ashamed of themselves.
First things first, folks: these posts are going to take a very long time. Be patient with us. Mutual work schedules are not being friendly, it’s very hard to find times we can discuss the books at length, and there is so much to include. Originally we were hoping to manage at least a couple of chapters per post – yeah, no chance. When we started the spork sessions we spent over three hours on Chapter One and only covered half the points we wanted to discuss.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what the people involved say about this book to try and get you to read it. From Rowling’s website that is still horrible to use: …absolutely nothing, there aren’t any blurbs about the HP books as there are for her other works. Okay then.
This is the edition I have, the early UK edition (minus the award signs and so on, but this is the cover art):
From the back cover:
“Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy. He lives with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and cousin Dudley, who make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Then Harry starts receiving mysterious letters and his life is changed for ever. He is whisked away by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!”
Now, this cover and blurb tell the reader two things. One, that this is a children’s book; which it is. It’s hard to pinpoint when the series makes the shift from children’s book to YA and all the problems that entails, but this one is very definitely a children’s book, aimed at probably seven to ten year olds who might be led to expect their own Hogwarts letter in a year or two. As a children’s book, the author has more leeway and certain things are more forgiveable. You can expect a certain amount of silliness and nonsense, and some unlikely plot twists to stop characters being hurt and ensure the protagonist triumphs. Just probably not as much as we actually get.
The second thing this description tells us is that the story is set in a magic school, and that said school is full of ordinary children who’ve been chosen to become wizards. A good old escapist fantasy. I really like the implication here, that the only reason Harry gets to do all these weird things is just because he’s a wizard and all children learning magic get to do crazy and wonderful things. It lets Harry be special and have an extraordinary life without crossing the line into being the Specialist Little Snowflake ever. Sadly that’s not the case in the actual series, of course, but going into this blind we get the impression that we’re going to see the normal experience of a normal student at magic school. That’s what I expected to read, and it isn’t what I got, which is somewhat disappointing.
Interestingly, the title doesn’t really fit. Most of the target audience won’t have heard of the Philosopher’s Stone (just in case any of our American readers are as ignorant as your publishers apparently think you are, it’s a legendary alchemical object that apparently generates immortality and infinite money), and while it is explained in the text later when it becomes relevant to the plot, it’s not something that the average reader is going to guess. Even if you have heard of it, as I had by the time I got around to reading these aged about thirteen, it’s hard to see how it would be relevant to a small boy going to magic school, or to the child-age audience. It wouldn’t have drawn me in and it doesn’t match what the story seems to be about. But that’s okay, it makes the reader curious.
Though it’s hard for me to comment on a first-time reader’s expectations. Not only has it been a scarily long time since I first read them, but when I did read them for the first time I had borrowed the first three books from someone at school and she would only let me have them for a weekend, so I had to speed-read all three over two days in between homework and being dragged out shopping by my parents and all the other fun things that got in the way of my free time back then. I missed a lot of the detail on that first readthrough and in hindsight I missed a lot of the problems as well.
Now for the American version. This is the edition Mitchell had:
From the back cover:
“Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny.”
Well, we’ve lost any sense that Harry’s a normal magic child. The reader is deep in Specialist Little Snowflake territory before they even open the book. I think that’s a shame, personally; it’s a lot harder to identify with a snowflake than it is with an ordinary person put into an extraordinary situation, so to me the US edition loses a bit of its escapism appeal. And, as we’ll see pretty shortly, it’s very hard to be sympathetic with a snowflake who gets everything handed to him on a silver plate.
This description is also less specific about the protagonist’s age. This could be a children’s book, or it could be YA. The cover art suggests children are the target audience, but it’s not as immediately obvious as the UK blurb. If you went into this series expecting YA straight off… the first chapter alone would probably be enough to make you abandon it. The first book does have a lot of Roald Dahl-esque silliness you can’t get away with if you’re writing for older audiences.
The title has the same issue of apparently having nothing to do with the story being described. With the additional small problem of nobody knowing what a sorcerer’s stone is, because it doesn’t exist. The Internet can’t seem to give me a definitive answer on why the title was changed, but the consensus seems to be that ‘sorcerer’ sounds more exciting and magical than ‘philosopher’. Admittedly that’s not a bad reason at all, especially in a children’s book, but that only underscores my earlier point that the title itself doesn’t make too much sense. It’s fine in later books when you know going in that the title will be referencing an important plot point you won’t learn about until half way through the book, but as a way to draw new readers in and persuade them to look at it, this one lacks something.
Also we see very little of the “unique curriculum and colorful faculty“. Rowling managed to write a series about life at a magic school while including as little as possible of the actual school. Given how she portrays the parts she does include, this is probably just as well…
Anyway, that’s all we can learn from looking at the outside of the books. Let’s open them and turn to Chapter One, shall we?