After seeing the Harry Potter movies, I was reluctant to read the books because I didn’t quite accept J.K. Rowling’s approach to world-building in the series. The setting of Harry Potter never seemed “real” in the way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth did, with a rich history and convincing plot progression. Harry Potter has all sorts of inconsistencies, plot holes, or in-jokes that broke my suspension of disbelief.
After reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I still think I understood Rowling’s world-building, but didn’t quite appreciate its effect on readers. Structurally, those things I’d previously viewed as “problems” actually do serve a purpose in the book. It’s a different type of world-building that seems deliberately crafted to introduce readers to this magical world.
First, let me explain my original concerns about the world-building in Harry Potter. Quite frankly, the wizarding world never seemed to make any sense. Why, for example, would wizards set up platform 9¾ in a very busy train station and require students to walk through a brick wall to reach it if they want to avoid being seen by non-magical folk (“muggles”)? Would Hogwarts really give teachers the power to add or deduct points from students, especially when they are also members of the school houses? That’d be a clear conflict of interest. Why would wizards use Owls to send messages, which seem pretty inefficient compared to cell phones or email? Sometimes the names Rowling gives to her characters are a bit too cute, basically using Latin or Greek equivalents of their personalities. A wizard called “Vindictus” even wrote a book about revenge.
Some of these issues might seem nit-picky. After all, these are small points and generally not central to the story. To some extent, it’s also a matter of preference. I admit that I tend to prefer stories that create a sense of verisimilitudeness. I usually find plot holes and contrivances very distracting. After all, if the characters don’t seem to behave like real people – to take the same precautions and have the same desires as real people – how can I become invested in them? Why would an author choose to take such a haphazard approach to world-building?
The answer that Rowling provides in Sorcerer’s Stone is twofold, dealing with both the emotional effect of the book and the overall structure of the Harry Potter series.
In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien argued that fantasy literature enables readers to “recover” a sense of childlike wonder about the world. The world-building in Sorcerer’s Stone seems designed to do that far more than to create a believable world. By loosening the logic of Hogwarts, Rowling is able to sprinkle little surprises throughout the books. Yes, it’s highly unlikely that there would be a wizard called Vindictus, and that he would happen to write a book about revenge. Yet, those little jokes create the sense that in Harry Potter there’s something bizarre or funny – or, dare I say, “magical” – about mundane. These quirks train readers to expect to find surprising things anywhere and everywhere in this world, even in the title of a book or in a train station.
The stylized world-building in Sorcerer’s Stone also helps readers understand the world from a child’s point of view. To kids, many things about the real world still do evoke a sense of wonder. Even something as common as a train station can seem a large and intimidating place. Likewise, to kids, teachers can often seem distant, arbitrary, and mean. How many times did we as kids feel that a teacher disciplined us unfairly just as Snape did to Harry? Of course, real teachers at a real Hogwarts would not behave like Snape in Sorcerer’s Stone, but the exaggerated characterizations probably better capture what it feels like to be a young child in a school.
This recovery of how it feels to be a child is actually a crucial part of Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve sometimes heard fans of the series claim that Rowling “improved” as a writer over the course of the Harry Potter series. I think that undersells her earlier books. The series as a whole seems designed to mimic the process of maturation. The first book starts off with a relatively carefree adventure that focuses on the wonder and magic of life. Events and people are seen through a very childlike perspective, and mostly in black-and-white. Just as children don’t understand all the rules of the world, the world-building is left somewhat vague and at times seemingly illogical.
As the series progresses, Harry Potter matures, and so does the reading experience. As Harry begins to understand the shades of grey in the world, so too do the later books reveal layers of complexity to the reader. We’re even invited to take a more nuanced view of Snape, Harry’s father, and other characters whom Harry – and we as readers – had already categorized as “good” or “evil.” The later books also focus more on tightening up the logic of the world-building. We learn that there are specific rules that prohibit the use of electricity and modern technology in Hogwarts. As adolescents, Harry and the reader become aware of government, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, which regulates uses of magic and undoes any damage caused by improper use of magic near muggles.
I definitely enjoyed this book much more than I’d thought. Given the choice, I still prefer more intricate, realistic world-building of The Lord of the Rings and Dune. The Harry Potter books will probably never be favorites of mine, but I can certainly appreciate how Rowling’s style works for the story she’s telling. Sorcerer’s Stone is not so much a book telling the story of a kid in a magical world so much as evoking the feeling of being a kid in a magical world.
Next week, I review Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in the Harry Potter series…