Harry Potter is hard to classify as a single genre – it's more like a recipe. For excitement. The primary ingredient is probably Children's Literature. Yet, while it's got youthful protagonists and age-appropriate themes and characters, the book's wide readership and cult-like fan following keeps it from being considered solely Children's Literature, or even Young Adult. Next, the magical content and context give it a strong dash of Fantasy – how can a text about wizards and magic be seen as anything else? Once the Children's Literature and Fantasy elements have been combined, then we've got the adventurous elements, mixed through and stirred with all the aspects of a classic Quest. Bake in the oven for approximately three hundred pages and enjoy!
This title lets us know right away that we're in for a fun ride. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone sounds exciting and magical. It reminds us that we're clearly in the fantasy genre (with the idea of sorcerers) and lets us know right away who our hero is (Harry Potter).
There are at least two big things to take away from this title. The first is how it sets the tone for the rest of the Harry Potter series. Each of Rowling's following, bestselling books includes the phrasing Harry Potter and the... [BLANK]. As the series progresses, the BLANKS get tougher and tougher, finishing up in the Deathly Hallows. The Sorcerer's Stone doesn't have quite as mature – we could almost say as dark – an association. In Book 1, Harry's eleven, he's just found out he's a wizard, and he's only beginning to dip his toes into the well of magic. Sure, there's mystery, excitement, and plenty of danger, but there's also lots of joyous discovery about the magical world of Hogwarts and its existence within the Muggle society.
The second thing about the title is, perhaps surprisingly, that this wasn't the original title in the UK. That's right; the first Harry Potter book was actually called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone instead of Sorcerer's Stone. The use of Philosopher in the title doesn't stress magic as much as the revised version does. You could even say the use of Sorcerer reduces the original title's emphasis on education: Philosopher reminds us of the study and quest for (magical) knowledge, while Sorcerer reminds us of magic itself. Others words were also changed to make it sound more American. We don't usually think of British English being that different from American English, but there are tons of little differences. For example, the characters in the Americanized version say "sweater" instead of "jumper."
Critic Philip Nel thinks all this changing of words is a bad idea. He writes, "during its transformation to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone loses the most in translation. The almost total disappearance of the word 'Mum' is a case in point, illustrating how acts of translation efface cultural specificity" (269). (Source: Philip Nel, "You say 'Jelly,' I say 'Jell-O'? Harry Potter and the Transfiguration of Language," in The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon [ed. Lana A. Whited], Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002: 261-284.) Check out The Harry Potter Lexicon for a list of all the changes.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, good conquers evil on many levels. Most obviously, Harry – with the help of his friends – keeps Voldemort from taking the Sorcerer's Stone. By doing so, they stop the Dark Lord from getting eternal life. Phew! While not a full, resounding defeat of the bad guy, it's a new victory for the good guy. Harry is rewarded with the knowledge that his parents' love will protect him, even though he never got the chance to know them. He also learns more about his parents and even gets magic photographs of them.
In addition, because of this triumph, Harry and the other first-year Gryffindors propel their house to success in the race for the house cup. This second triumph is particularly sweet because Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Neville regain the points that they (with the exception of Ron) had lost sneaking around the castle. Not only do they make up for this loss, they catch up to and pass the house with the most points: Slytherin. Gryffindor victory over Slytherin is as innocent and glorious as Harry's temporary victory over Voldemort is solemn and foreboding. Next year there will be another house cup to win, and other battles to be won. Challenges and troubles lurk on the horizon, but so do new enchantments, potential victories, and hope.
One of the coolest aspects of the Harry Potter series is that we get access to two – count 'em – two worlds. And all for the price of one. While Hogwarts, the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is the place where Harry spends most of his time in each book, at the beginning of each story we find him stuck at the Dursleys' house in Little Whinging – the Muggle world. That's right, folks, we learn through Harry that the Muggle world and the wizarding world co-exist (though the Muggle world doesn't know about the wizarding world). The wizarding world is folded into the Muggle world as magically as eggs into cake batter.
Book 1 is different from the other books in the Harry Potter series, because, at first, Harry doesn't know about the awesomeness of Hogwarts, or about the possibility of something beyond the Muggle world. Let's face it, like us when we open Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry doesn't even know what Muggles are or that he's been stuck living among them.
The first several chapters of the book take place at the Dursleys' prim house on Privet Drive. The Dursleys' home may look polite and regular, with its "tidy front garden" (2.1) and its inhabitants' emphasis on behaving just like everyone else, but that doesn't make it a nice or welcoming place to live. In a way, it has just as much darkness and unhappiness as you might expect from a magical landscape. Nephew Harry is forced to live in a "cupboard under the stairs" (2.13) while the son of the house, Dudley, enjoys two bedrooms to himself. The Dursleys' house might look cheerful from the outside, but inside Harry sees only bleakness. Let's not forget that Whinging, in British English, means whining. Even the town they live in is annoying.
Along with Harry, we're introduced the magical world for the first time. And it's no wonder that Harry's so excited to get to Hogwarts, which is a school inside an actual castle. Whoa. When Harry and the other first-years first approach Hogwarts by boat, they get an intimidating and majestic sight:
Perched atop a high mountain on the other side [of a black lake], its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers. (6.276)
The castle is massive: "[t]he entrance hall was so big you could have fit the whole of the Dursleys' house in it" (7.4). Inside, the students are welcomed into a vast enclave full of intellectual treasures and secret passageways. It takes the students forever just to figure out where to go when:
There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones, narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with a vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. […] It was also very hard to remember where anything was, because it all seemed to move around a lot. (8.8)
The halls are full of classrooms, secret corridors, and trapdoors, and some parts of the castle are even forbidden. And yet, Harry feels at home here in ways he never did at the Dursleys' house, eating the best food and having the best experiences of his life. He's finally found a community.
There's only one wizarding school in England: Hogwarts. Because it has such a large student body, and because there are no nearby schools which could serve as friendly competitors in games and academics, Hogwarts is internally divided into four groups, or houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. The houses serve as a way of breaking the students up into academic classes within their years, a way of parceling them out into dormitories, and a way of dividing them into teams competing for points: success in academics, conduct, and Quidditch.
The houses are students' homes away from home at Hogwarts, and their companions within their houses become like family. This is particularly true for lonely people like Harry, who has no family to speak of, or Muggle-born wizards like Hermione and Dean, whose families don't really understand the other world their children are participating in.
Because our hero, Harry, and his good friends Ron and Hermione want to be Gryffindors, the Gryffindor house sometimes seems like the best one to be in. Likewise, because Malfoy and his goons are placed in Slytherin, and because all the dark wizards at Hogwarts were Slytherins, it seems like the worst house to be in. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the focus is mainly on these first two houses, and Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff get kind of cheated. Later in the series, we learn more about the characters from both of those houses and why they are important.
So what differentiates these houses? According to the Sorting Hat's song, Gryffindors are "brave" and full of "daring, nerve, and chivalry" (7.33). Hufflepuffs are "just and loyal," "patient" and "unafraid of toil" (7.33). Ravenclaws are "wise" with "ready minds" and full of "wit and learning" (7.33). And Slytherins are "cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends" (7.33). Put this way, it seems like Slytherins are at a clear disadvantage compared to the rest. Yet if we look at things mathematically, we realize that not everyone can be Gryffindors. The houses need to be filled equally from students in every class.
Wands represent individual personality and character. Each magically talented person in the book has a wand tailored to fit his or her personality, and each wizard or witch's wand is an extension of the self. Remember how Harry spends so long in Mr. Ollivander's shop, trying to find the perfect wand? That's because every wizard needs a wand that meshes with how he/she works in order to produce the best possible magic. It's harder to do magic with someone else's wand, and even harder to do magic without any wand at all.
Each wand in Ollivander's shop is completely individual, made with very specific magic elements, each resulting in a unique combination. For example, Harry's wand is holly and phoenix feather (phoenixes symbolize rebirth, which could show that he – and Voldemort – is hard to kill). Rowling herself explains:
"[H]olly has certain connotations that were perfect for Harry, particularly when contrasted with the traditional associations of yew, from which Voldemort's wand is made. European tradition has it that the holly tree (the name comes from 'holy') repels evil, while yew, which can achieve astonishing longevity (there are British yew trees over two thousand years old), can symbolise both death and resurrection; the sap is also poisonous." (source)
The fact that Harry chooses a wand with phoenix feather core in it shows how his path is already tied to Voldemort's, since Voldemort also chose a wand with the same core (or rather, the same wand also chose him).
All students entering Hogwarts must try on the Sorting Hat. To the new first-years, it seems like it holds the potential for a trying ordeal – the idea of being "Sorted" carries with it all kinds of creepy, science-fiction implications. Ron, and his fellow first-years, is relieved when they find out that all they have to do is try on the Hat, but Harry is still uneasy. While waiting to be Sorted Harry thinks,
[T]rying on the hat was a lot better than having to do a spell, but he did wish they could have tried it on without everyone watching. The hat seemed to be asking rather a lot; Harry didn't feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. (7.36)
The Hat tells them, "Try me on and I will tell you / Where you ought to be" (7.33). In other words, after putting on the Hat, each student will know the house to which he or she belongs. While this seems true for all the other first-years, who put on the Hat and hear it yell out different house names, it's a little different in Harry's case. The Hat says it will determine which House each student "ought to be" in, but it offers Harry a choice. When Harry thinks at the Hat, "Not Slytherin, not Slytherin" (7.68), the Hat responds,
"Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that – no? Well, if you're sure – better be GRYFFINDOR!" (7.69)
Here, the student's preference for one house over another is just as significant as the personality traits that qualify him for those houses.
Want to know what house you belong in. Take this quiz! Or maybe this quiz. Heck, you might as well take this quiz too!
The Sorcerer's Stone is a mythical-sounding object that does two things: 1) transforms base metals into gold; 2) creates an immortality potion (the Elixir of Life). Here's what Hermione learns about the Stone from a book from the Hogwarts library:
"The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer's Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal." (13.50)
But alchemy isn't something that Rowling made up; the idea of Nicholas Flamel using the Sorcerer's Stone (more often called the "Philosopher's Stone") is actually based in legend and fact. Here's what Rowling has to say about Flamel on her website:
Nicholas Flamel is a historical character. Flamel lived in France in the fourteenth century and is supposed to have discovered how to make a philosopher's stone. There are mentions of sightings of him through the centuries because he was supposed to have gained immortality. There are still streets named after Flamel and his wife Perenelle in Paris. (source)
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the characters aren't nearly as interested in the Stone's potential for making gold as they are in its capacity to bestow eternal life. Most specifically, Voldemort desires the Stone as a means of restoring himself to his former glory – using the Stone, it seems, has far less terrible side effects than drinking unicorn blood. As Dumbledore points out, however, both riches and immortality cause nothing but problems:
"You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them." (17.107)