Virtually all juvenile books are, at heart, stories of education, testing, and growing up. Little surprise then that the heroes of classic fairy tales and much contemporary YA fiction should resemble each other: “I am not really what I seem, not just another kid. I am special.” Isn’t this how we all feel when young? The insignificant woodcutter’s son actually is a prince; one day the Ugly Duckling awakens a swan. And 11-year-old Harry Potter, the bespectacled, orphaned boy abused by his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley -- not to mention their fat bullying offspring Dudley -- turns out to be very special indeed, though for a long time he doesn’t know it.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — the British Children’s Book of the Year — strikes me as completely unoriginal and absolutely top-notch. Charm counts for a lot in kids’ books, one genre where it’s less important to make everything new than to put in just the right things. In her first novel J.K. Rowling takes a ripping English school story, then adds an account of the education of the young-protagonist-with-special gifts-and-a-mysterious past, a thrilling against-all-odds sports triumph, strange beings who move unseen among us, and an all-powerful object that must not fall into the wrong hands -- or perhaps claws. Her characters are just as conventional: a wise, slightly daft wizard; a gentle Disneyish giant, who speaks haltingly (and names a terrifying three-headed dog Fluffy); a raspy-voiced villain of oily evil (paging Jeremy Irons), and the obligatory snide and snooty classroom rival. We have been here before -- in Roald Dahl, Ursula Le Guin, “Star Wars,” Dune. But in the right hands we’re always happy to make the trip again.
Like many fantasy writers for children, Rowling zestily mixes humor, suspense and action. When our Harry -- who sleeps in a pantry cupboard under the steps at the Dursleys -- finds an envelope addressed to him, he is deeply excited, even a little afraid, never having received a letter before. But an upset Uncle Vernon quickly tears up and burns the tantalizing missive. The next morning, however, two more letters arrive; a day later a dozen; then a score and eventually hundreds; all identical. Uncle Vernon tries to outrun this epistolary blitz by taking everyone to a motel, to a distant forest, to a desolate island. A waste of effort. On the morning of Harry’s 11th birthday, in a run-down shack, during a violent storm, some distance from the mainland, there is a knock at the door.
Outside stands Hagrid, the aforementioned giant, who easily intimidates the cowardly Dursleys. Harry finally gets to read his letter:
“We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment. Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later than July 31.”
When Harry looks puzzled, Hagrid eventually realizes that the awful Dursleys have never told their nephew the truth about his parents. In fact, Harry’s father and mother died fighting a Sauron-like dark sorcerer named Valdemort. Somehow their 1-year-old baby proved strangely unkillable, though Harry still bears a small lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. And, for some reason, Valdemort unexpectedly disappeared after his “defeat” by this mere infant. It doesn’t take an expert in narrative morphology to suspect that the cloaked terminator will be back.
Hogwarts turns out to be a school much like Eton, divided into rival houses. But it is also magical: The portraits talk to one another. Ghosts teach the history of spells. Instead of a reflection a mirror may reveal your most heartfelt desires. The head of all this, Albus Dumbledore, is more than a tad eccentric: “Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
During his first week of classes Harry discovers an unsuspected talent for the dangerous game of Quidditch -- a kind of basketball, with rugby and soccer features, played in mid-air on broomsticks. “There were seven hundred ways of committing a Quidditch foul and . . . all of them had happened during a World Cup match in 1473.”
In short, everything would be highly agreeable to Harry, especially after the Dursleys, were it not for the arrogant Malfoy and the reptilian Professor Snape, who teaches Potions; both star student and master take an instant dislike to our hero. And then truly disturbing things begin to happen: A 12-foot mountain troll invades Hogwarts; somebody tries to penetrate the off-limits corridor on the third floor; a ravenous creature stalks the unicorns of the forest -- and then drinks their blood. Not least, there are rumors about a Sorcerer’s Stone that can grant eternal life and unimaginable riches.
At the novel’s climax, Harry and two of his friends must brave a forbidden zone deep underground, risk their souls to outsmart the tricky magical defenses created by their own wizard teachers, and ultimately confront the unsuspected evil in their midst. All ends satisfyingly, though a sequel is clearly in the works (and has been published in England).
Obviously, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone should make any modern 11-year-old a very happy reader. The novel moves quickly, packs in everything from a boa constrictor that winks to a melancholy Zen-spouting centaur to an owl postal system, and ends with a scary surprise. Yet it is, essentially, a light-hearted thriller, interrupted by occasional seriousness (the implications of Harry’s miserable childhood, a moral about the power of love). Dust jacket blurbs compare Rowling to Roald Dahl, and this seems right: Her genial tone and certain bits in the novel recall Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches. Happily, Rowling avoids the meanness and cruelty that mar so much of Dahl’s work. But she certainly possesses the same level of storytelling wizardry. Perhaps she writes with a wand.
Michael Dirda reviews books for the Washington Post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993.