Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne
We’ll look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the series, which set the pace and standard for the others to follow.
Certainly the book’s success partly reflects readers’ love of wizards, ghosts, monsters, old-fashioned school settings (though Hogwarts with its numerous shadowy corridors, banqueting hall, etc., seems to surpass most of them for sheer dramatic effect), horrible characters, funny characters, inter-house rivalry, sporting rivalry (Quidditch), paternal headmaster, both evil and good teachers, the eternal struggle between good and evil, a central mystery to the plot, and last, but certainly not least, a central child character who at first seems ordinary and is even mistreated by those around him, but soon discovers his aristocratic (wizarding) background.
But lots of tales out there already have these storytelling attributes, and yet pale into insignificance beside this story. So what makes this one so successful? There are several reasons, but let’s explore just one amongst them to make our point.
The story’s background detail creates more than a simple fill-in for the physical description and backstory of the wizarding world, though it performs that task very well. Rowling’s well-developed and imaginative details help give the story a pulse, which in turn creates tension and pushes the pace; it often familiarises the reader with the unusual; and without doubt much of it adds humour, charm and a never ending amount of surprises.
Let’s look at some examples.
A world not unlike our own
Here is a great example where the background detail familiarises the reader with the unusual.
When Harry is getting his first wand, Ollivander, the shop’s owner, says to him, “Your father, on the other hand, favoured a mahogany wand. Eleven inches. Pliable. A little more power and excellent for transfiguration.”
Harry is discovering a little about his father here but also a whole lot about wands as he learns that ‘every Ollivander wand has a core of a powerful magical substance: unicorn hairs, phoenix tailfeathers and the heartstrings of dragons. No two Ollivander wands are the same…’ He finds out that wands are made of beechwood and dragon heartstring, maple and Phoenix feather, ebony and unicorn hair, and lots of other combinations.
Harry must try many wands before finding the one right for him. But not only Harry, the reader, too, is receiving an education in the immense and marvellous detail of the world of wands.
However, what makes this scene really special and memorable is that it reminds us of our own experiences in buying our first school uniform or a brand new musical instrument, for example, which we couldn’t yet play. The memory of the smell and feel of my first school blazer returned to me here. Just like with Harry, on first entering the school clothing shop, the back of my neck prickled with expectation as soon as I saw those ‘narrow boxes piled neatly high’ and felt the dust and silence everywhere. Only with the tailor’s appearance and his show of enthusiasm in wanting to make sure I got exactly what was right for me did my unease disappear.
Harry is measured ‘from shoulder to finger, then wrist to elbow, shoulder to floor, knee to armpit and round his head’. The tape measure doing all the measuring by itself is an extra charming and surprising touch.
The magical elements of the scene weave in and out easily with this familiar real world setting. It is because of this similarity with our own experiences that we feel we know this shop and what Harry is going through. So we are right there with him as he gets fitted out for his new wand.
It’s like everything’s alive
What a surprise for Ron to find out that in the Muggle world nobody moves in a photo and what a surprise for Harry to find out the opposite happens in the wizarding world. But not only photos move in the wizarding world, of course. The people in the portraits keep going to visit each other and Harry is sure that suits of armour can walk about. The moving portraits give rise to lots of funny moments. One in particular is where Hermione wants to get back into Gryffindor Tower late one night. But the fat lady in the portrait has gone on a night-time visit, so Hermione can’t give her the password to get back in and instead stands facing an empty painting.
Then there is chess where the figures are alive, ‘which made it a lot like directing troops in battle’. Ron has an old chess set and knows his chessmen so well ‘he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted’. Having borrowed some chessmen to play with and not being much of a player yet, Harry discovers that the chessmen have little time for him and shout out confusing advice during play, ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.’
In the Restricted Section of the library, Harry feels the books might be whispering about him, as though they know he’s trespassing. When he opens a large black and silver book it lets out a blood-curdling shriek which continues even after he snaps the book shut. Despite events like this happening frequently, the screaming book still took me by surprise and I laughed at Harry’s reaction to it.
Even Hogwarts itself seems to be restless with staircases leading to different places on a Friday; doors that won’t open unless you ask politely, or tickle them in exactly the right place. Then there are solid walls just pretending to have doors in them. Harry found it hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot.
These little details about photos, paintings, chessmen, books and Hogwarts castle help to create a sense of unease in the story. You have the feeling of always needing to be on your guard and wondering what is coming next. These details help give the story a strong pulse, heighten tension and quicken pace. They conjure up a metaphor of a cauldron always bubbling away with some mysterious spell in the making. But is it a good or a bad spell? At Hogwarts it won’t be long before you find out.
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