Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Rediscovering "Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone" via Audio Book

I first discovered audio books well over a decade ago, when travelling with friends who enjoyed listening to them on the car radio. I did, too, but for some reason never adopted the medium beyond that one experience.

Recently, however, I sustained an injury to my eye, one which has made any sort of reading and screen work very difficult. Even now, it's only slowly coming right enough to write this post, and as you can imagine, with a life bereft of books, television, and the internet ("I know"  grave extremes indeed!) it did not take long for my mind to return to audio books.

As I was not feeling particularly well, my first choice was to opt for an old favorite, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone*.  From the outset, I found myself in love all over again  I believe thanks to the change of medium, from reading (with the risk of skimming if time is short or looking ahead if the suspense cannot be borne) to listening to every word.

What good words they are, too. I found myself consciously enjoying JK Rowling's gift for creating suspense through the opening atmosphere of mystery and the marvel of Harry's survival. The immediate contrast with the mundane world of the Dursleys and 4 Privet Drive, not only in the sense of building Harry's character (as well as his circumstances) works, too, as the reader is introduced to the wonders, but also dangers, of the wizarding world through Harry's marveling eyes.

 I felt, listening to the presence of the magical world unfold within the mundane, from Diagon Alley, Gringotts, and Platform 9 3/4, to Hogwarts and the Forbidden Forest, that the heart of JK Rowling's success with the Harry Potter series lies with the truly magical world she has created  and the fact that as reader or listener you believe in it so implicitly.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is delight: we cannot help but feel delighted as the layers of the extraordinary and mystical, the absurd and the dangerous unfold. Elements such as the description of the school feasts and quidditch matches add texture that makes the world feel even more believable and real.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is not all about the worldbuilding, though. The Dursleys might be close to slapstick characters in some ways, but the central players of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, feel real and human. As readers, or in this case listeners, we can readily identify with their hopes and doubts, mistakes and successes. Supporting characters such as Neville, the Weasley twins, and Hagrid are all similarly real, while the apparent malevolence of Professor Snape is masterful.

Severus Snape
Arguably, worldbuilding and characters are enough to make any Fantasy story rock. I felt there was one further element, though, that really stood out for me when listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Hermione herself says it, when leaving Harry to seek help at the end of the book:  "...friendship, and bravery and  oh Harry ..."  Hermione is in a hurry, so she doesn't add "kindness", and "generosity" to that list, but I think it could be included in her "and " that precedes "oh Harry."

The friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione is the heart of this book. Notably, the three of them are kind to Neville, in particular, when they could as easily ridicule and ostracize his social awkwardness and ineptitude. It is kindness, too, that sends Harry and Ron to rescue Hermione from the troll, when they haven't particularly liked her up until that point. And Harry, who has been emotionally and physically deprived by the Dursleys, is generous in sharing what he has, both in terms of time and energy, but including giving his last chocolate frog to a distressed Neville.

Harry, Ron, Hermione

There weren't many listening moments when I felt my suspension of disbelief tested and I think the main instance (which I don't recall having struck me at all when first reading the book) was Harry and Hermione leaving the invisibility cloak on the top of the tower. "Yeah," I thought, "that's definitely a 'nah' for me..." I found it hard to believe that something as valued and vital as the invisibility cloak, together with the consequences of being caught, could allow it to be so easily forgotten.

Dudley Dursley
Also, although Dudley Dursley is essentially a 'broadbrush' take on a boy who is spoiled and encouraged to be selfish, greedy, mean-spirited and cruel, one of his most significant negative attributes in the story is that he is fat. Personally, I have known several overweight and even very large people who are kind, generous, intelligent, witty, and as morally courageous (in their "muggle" ways, of course) as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. So, children's book or not — or perhaps because it is a children's book  it struck me that equating weight with qualities of character was unfortunate.

In terms of other moments of difficulty, these were not with the story itself but with the adult reflections it sparked. I say "adult" deliberately because of course Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a story written for children. So in that sense, the Dursleys' absurdity works, not least in that it softens the extent of their cruelty to Harry. Yet having recently heard of the specific case of a foster child who was subjected to a very similar from of emotional and physical deprivation as Harry in the early chapters of Sorcerer's Stone, as well as the terrible emotional and psychological effects on this very young individual, I found myself very conscious of our everyday world's realities while listening. I wished, too, that such instances might be confined to the pages of children's literature, with a Hagrid always there to ride to the rescue and the safety of a Hogwarts waiting, only Platform 9 3/4 and a ride on the Hogwarts Express away.

To return, though, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, overall I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering it through the medium of audio books and may well listen to The Chamber of Secrets very soon...

* In the UK, and also in Australia and New Zealand (where I live) the book was published as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone drawing on the medieval tradition of a stone that could turn base metals into gold, i.e. alchemy. In the Middle Ages, and in fact well into the Renaissance and pre-Industrial eras, alchemy, like astrology, was considered a proper field of inquiry for philosophers. 

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night, Book Three) is Helen's most recent book and she is currently working on the fourth and final novel in The Wall Of Night series. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we


Kim Falconer said...

Helen, I hope you are recovering quickly! Meanwhile, what an inspirational post!

Thank you :)

PS I so love the 'philosopher's stone' reference to alchemy. Odd that the USA didn't go for it.

Helen Lowe said...

The way I first heard it was that US audiences supposedly wouldn't "get" the "Philosopher's Stone" but I find that hard to believe.

Glad you enjoyed the post.