by J.K. Rowling
Published in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This well-publicized name change goes without comment a lot of the time, as though it makes perfect sense that the American public would prefer Sorcerer’s Stone to Philosopher’s Stone. I find it slightly upsetting. Was the problem that Americans were deemed less likely than Brits to be familiar with the medieval notion of the “philosopher’s stone” – a magical substance that could convert lead to gold, and possibly also do any other magic you wanted – and would thus miss out on the meaning of the title? That this is the reason for the change seems unlikely, since Rowling’s “philosopher’s stone” is not, in fact, the lead-to-gold type of philosopher’s stone – it’s some other thing she made up, using a borrowed old name. Her use of the phrase “philosopher’s stone” does not depend on any kind of knowledge of what “philosopher’s stone” means (in fact, knowing what it really means may ultimately confuse the reader) – it only requires a reader to understand that the philosopher’s stone is something of mysterious significance, and yes, possibly magical. It seems to me that the Some Character and the Thing I’ve Never Heard Of construction just about conveys this information in and of itself.
No, it’s much more likely that the title was changed because someone at Scholastic Books thought, “I’m worried that Americans will hear that word ‘philosopher’ and instinctively balk, because before they even try to figure out what kind of book it is, their ‘no fun’ alarm will go off. Americans have much more sensitive ‘no fun’ alarms than you Brits (do you even know what fun is, egghead?), and we are incredibly averse to the very word ‘philosophy,’ regardless of context.” And this bothers me. Not because I think that the US market isn’t anti-intellectual, but because this change seems overeager to cater to that tendency in a case where I really doubt it would have been an issue. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sounds plenty magical to me. It’s not like the book was called Harry Potter and Math.
As with my comment on The Haunting (of Hill House), I’m not saying that publishers should put editorial integrity above sales! I’m saying that regarding title changes, the attitude of “this might not matter, but hell, just in case people are really really stupid, we might as well dumb it down,” is insufficient integrity. Someone show me the marketing data to prove me wrong and I’ll gladly retract this.
That was long but my comments are going to be short.
This was my second time through this book, which I first read very quickly several years ago with the sole intention of “culturally catching up.” This time, I already knew what was going to happen and was, additionally, reading aloud, which is slow going (at least by comparison to the “CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!” speed at which one is inclined to read a book like this), so I was forced to actually stop and take a look around at Ms. Rowling’s handiwork.
After my first read, my mildly anti-hype review to friends was something like “okay, it was fun enough, but so are the Roald Dahl books this reminded me of – there are tons of cute, competent kids’ books out there, and sure, this is one.” I mostly stand by that assessment, though now, at this slow pace (and with several sequels worth of perspective in hand) it was clearer to me that Rowling does not write with much force or consistency, and is actually far outclassed by Roald Dahl and many others.
There are several distinct levels on which fiction needs to work: 1. It must create a reality of events, characters, etc., 2. It must tell a story about them, 3. It must deliver that story dramatically, and 4. It must be constructed out of actual prose. Fiction writers can put their emphasis in any of those strata. The works that satisfy me most are generally those that show off in 2 and 3 and just put something sturdy in 1 and 4. Harry Potter books are mostly about 1, take a calculated practical approach to 3, and are downright lazy about 2 and 4. Rowling’s “plot,” certainly in this first book, is little more than the gradual revealing of her various level 1 inventions. The reader is pretty much invited to ignore the prose, not worry about any storyline, and go straight for the cozy Halloween party goodies – pumpkin juice, chocolate frogs, secret passages, and of course THE WIZARD VERSION OF EVERYTHING, which is a game that can never run out of steam (‘That’s wizard cheese,’ said Ron, ‘made from real wizard cows! It’s like normal cheese except magic!'”). Then, when it turns out that deliberately hidden among the goodies were a few “hints” at a secret, the book feels tight and complete. Good device.
Of course, as the series wears on, J.K. comes up against the problem that if you don’t tell real stories and just make up stuff, it’s hard to carve out a coherent long-form plotline. In the later books she seems to spend a lot of time working out inconsistencies between her various made up stuffs – or tries to extract interest from their interactions (Always a nerdy direction to go – sometimes it starts to feel like just this side of “Who would win in a fight? Dumbledore or Captain Picard?”).
This first book, though, seemed more clear on its intention: to be a book about the pleasures of imagining a wonderful place rather than to be any kind of serious epic. The opening scenes that establish the Harry Potter “backstory” are handled casually, almost distractedly. It doesn’t seem like J.K. thinks any of us are really going to care about this “Voldemort” business she made up, and why should we? It just serves as a device to give sufficient resonance to the main idea of the book, about wizard cheese etc. The initial character-interest setup, where Harry lives under Cinderellian conditions, is familiar and boring, and more importantly, isn’t really in keeping with the comfortably-everyday-except-for-all-the-magic tone of what follows. Rowling doesn’t really hit her modest stride until the kids get on the train for school and start eating candy.
And how clever and cute is her wizard world? Moderately clever, moderately cute. She comes up with semi-viable rules for her wizard sport, and she follows her wizardification project past boring junk like “wizard chess” (the pieces fight? big deal) to somewhat less predictable territory, like wizard back-to-school shopping and wizard detention. That we all, as non-wizards, are in fact “muggles,” – that’s definitely cute. “You-Know-Who” – that’s stupid. I would give her about a 65% success rate on the “cute or stupid?” front.
After reading this the first time, I wrote a little musical “Theme for a Harry Potter Movie” for fun – it was essentially a slightly John Williamsed takeoff on “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” – a skipping, Disney-style whimsical/magical sort of thing. When the actual Harry Potter movie came out, and the actual John Williams took a shot at this assignment, I was dismayed at the spooky music box approach that he took. There’s nothing spooky-music-box about this jelly bean of a book; it’s only in retrospect that Rowling has decided to take her franchise to would-be epic places. The (awful) movie had a better idea of what it had to aim at in the long run (whereas J.K. didn’t have any reason to believe she’d be writing any sequels, when she finished this one, is my understanding), so I suppose I can understand the thinking behind the ominous musical approach.
Hypothetically I’m scheduled to read through all six of the books on the read-aloud plan, so this will probably do for now.
But I do want to call attention to this: just now I was looking for details on the title change, and ended up at what is apparently one of the premier Harry Potter fan sites online, The Harry Potter Lexicon. The site includes an “open letter” to J.K. Rowling, asking her to answer various extremely non-essential questions about the first names and ages of minor characters, etc. Apparently, she has been not unwilling to do this sort of thing. Anyway, the site editor asks her at one point whether a Harry Potter timeline included as an extra on one of the movie DVDs was taken from a timeline that he had speculatively assembled and posted on his site. It sounds like it was. And why not? So then the amusing part, wherein he complains about the mind-boggling problem posed when his fan-created database is used as the source for “official” materials:
But like I said, this is not just an important question for me. It’s an important question for everyone. Think about it. If they did get the timeline from the Lexicon and if Rowling never really gave it a careful look-over, then we can’t treat it as canon. If, however, they used Rowling’s notes as the source, then we CAN treat it as canon. I mean, honestly, how can I call something canon if I’M THE SOURCE?! I need to know if I am.
“How can I call something canon if I’M THE SOURCE” indeed! I know that feeling well. The desire to believe in a canon, to hang out next to it, to number all its drawers and build a steel outline around it and polish the corners until they gleam – this is exactly the desire to NOT be responsible for its content. It’s just like the desire to believe in a higher power – nobody wants to hear that man created the idea of God because it ruins the idea of God by putting it in the same sentence as responsibility. Nobody wants to hear that aesthetic value is culturally relative, that morals are constructed, or any of that other post-modern stuff, but despite what people will say, I don’t think it’s because they really believe otherwise – it’s because their whole relationship with those things is predicated on NOT being responsible for them. Once you realize that not only is J.K. Rowling making it up, but that in fact everyone is making it up and YOUR hands are dirty too, the satisfaction goes out of the enterprise. Nobody wants to uphold a “canon” that’s actually just a bunch of mostly-agreed-upon more-true-than-nots – people want shining, numbered truth that they can’t touch! This is a fundamental human impulse and explains not only why there are so many damn fan databases on the internet, but also why the “intelligent design” debate has managed to grab hold recently: “science” that people just revise as they go isn’t real truth; real truth comes direct from J.K. Rowling and is the only thing that can be called canon, precisely and exclusively because WE ARE NOT THE SOURCE, thank God.
The philosophical answer, in all seriousness, would seem to be that it is in fact possible to know that we ARE THE SOURCE for many things but that we must also take them seriously – that we must be both trusting and skeptical at the same time; that, just as the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of authority is eternal self-doubt. (Or, as one is more likely to feel it, the up-side of eternal self-doubt is the power of authority). The Harry Potter Lexicon fellow ought to take a deep breath, admit that there is no Harry Potter timeline more canonical than his own, acknowledge the power that this places on his shoulders and then, like Spider Man, handle it with great responsibility. And well might we, the human race, all do the same.
But obviously we won’t.
Oops, that was supposed to be the end, but parting thought here about how wikipedia manages, through clean design and thorough self-archiving, to be both absolutely anti-“canon” and at the same time seem even more authoritative than any “mere” consistent source. This perhaps reflects an increasing general sophistication of the culture in dealing with the idea of truth – I know that people who use the word “blogosphere” would like to think so – but I think it’s probably just because the layout is so much more inviting than any free online non-wiki alternative. The unknowability of absolute truth is just a bonus.
But you don’t have to take my word for it!*