Harry Potter Book Club: Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 13-15

Good morning, magical friends! It's sunny, I'm wearing my Hufflepuff outfit—minus the fishnets—and it's time to talk about monsters and fame and unicorns and planets and Harry! Before we do, though, here's last week's recap and a mini-essay... I have a feeling those will be common henceforth:

Masha posted first with a beautiful drawing by her husband—seriously, you should follow her for Seth's artwork as well as her own commentary—and some tender thoughts on Ron's inner hungers and strengths as seen through his Mirror of Erised experience. Meanwhile, Christie posted pictures of her attempt at our first butterbeer recipe, which looks tasty, even if, as she said, chocolate wine made it not beery enough. She also expounded upon on some of the particulars of Dumbledore's conversation with Harry, to lovely effect.

Masha also linked two well-known anti-Potter articles in her post, coming from two entirely different directions, and here comes the mini-essay.

Mini-Essay #1: A Brief and Inadequate Reply to the Two Main Varieties of Serious Potter Critic

Surviving the World: Lesson 447 by Dante Shepherd

Anti-Potter article number one is one of the most famous among Potter fans: Harold Bloom's 2000 piece titled "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." Professor Bloom—of Yale—is a very well-known literary critic, author of The Western Canon as well as many other books, and certainly not someone whose literary understanding can be thrown away lightly. He's had a very interesting career, judging by a quick scroll through Wikipedia (yeah, I know), and I confess to respecting him more after looking at his achievements than I did after reading his article.

This response is inadequate on several levels; I don't have time to go point by point, and I don't begin to have comparable education, let alone experience. Others have done better. My difficulty with Bloom's piece is simple: he and I have totally different perspectives on something, and I'm not sure whether the point of profound disagreement is centered in the evaluation of literature itself or in the definition of what it means for reading to "enrich mind or spirit or personality." But we certainly have inconsonant opinions on the latter.*

Art by el-grimlock
Anti-Potter article number two is too recent to have gained the kind of widespread internet contradiction that it would have in the heyday of Potter fandom. Obviously, Michael O'Brien has gained widespread contradiction enough to put him on the defensive, however, and the whole tone of the piece is affected by this. To be fair, the piece is an interview with him on the very subject of his critics: Steve Jalsevac's "Michael O'Brien responds to his critics re: Harry Potter" at LifeSiteNews.

O'Brien, author of the controversial A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind as well as the Father Elijah books and many others, has achieved something of a cult following for his detailed, religious-based criticism of various fantasy works. I hate to even give it the vague honorific "religious-based", since as a Catholic, he should know that there's no one-holy-Catholic-and-apostolic interpretation of any fictional work. The relationship of fiction to dogma is even fuzzier than the relationship of fiction to reality.

The inadequacy of my response is in how little space and time I have to devote to it at present. I'd love to go point by point, as displayed in my overexuberant reaction in Masha's combox. But I'll keep myself to the base problems with O'Brien's critical technique, which are twofold.

First, he treats symbolism as if each symbol is a neat container for a single positive or negative idea. This is simply not true. Snakes, for instance, are not universally irredeemable symbols of evil. They're not even treated that way in the Bible. With no appeal to the context of a given symbol's portrayal, O'Brien is doomed to miss the point of the story, and he consistently does.

Second, his understanding of the moral universe of Harry Potter is so baffling as to make me think of the ever-popular Internet aphorism, casually attributed on Goodreads to both Edmund Wilson and Diana Tixier Herald—goodness only knows with whom it actually originated—which states that "No two persons ever read the same book." If he'd read the same story I had, he could never have said this:
"In Potter world, the saving of the world comes through acquiring secret knowledge and perfecting supernatural powers, while never really developing significant character or virtues such as those we can so clearly see in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s heroes."
There are reasonable criticisms to be made of the Harry Potter stories, and he makes some, but that's certainly not one of them. He's wrong on all three points there, demonstrably wrong:
  • "the saving of the world comes through acquiring secret knowledge" The idea that "secret knowledge" and the power thereof can save either world or individual is Voldemort's mistake, not Harry's.
  • "and perfecting supernatural powers" Every last conflict between Harry and Voldemort is a David and Goliath scenario, as far as magical skill is concerned. It's also explicitly stated numerous times by a certain character that love, not magic, is Harry's sole hope of standing against his archenemy.
  • "while never really developing significant character or virtues" I just don't understand how it's possible to read Deathly Hallows and come away thinking this. Love. Courage, both physical and moral. Forgiveness. Compassion, even for an enemy. Respect. Harry makes visible, remarkable progress in all of these areas.
That last point, in particular, is farcical. If anything, Rowling is clearer in her symbolism and her direct emphasis on virtue than Tolkien was.

* * *

This Week in Reading Harry

Read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapters 13-15

It's hard to focus on single discussion points in these chapters; there are so many events to think over. Neville's character gets some development, and it would be hard not to end up loving him. Hermione and Harry manage to leave the Invisibility Cloak behind while sneaking around the castle at night, which has never made any sense to me, since Hermione is quick-thinking and cautious, and since the cloak is the only thing Harry has that was his father's. Harry's scar acts up in one of the most horrific scenes the books possess, and he's rescued by a centaur named after Florence, Italy (in Italian, the name is Firenze). Hagrid proves to be a valuable source of information, while cooing to a baby dragon and calling himself "Mommy".

Hagrid is so much fun. I just love him.

Some Other Potential Discussion Points:

1. Nicolas Flamel. This historical character—yes, he was real—has had long-standing legendary (and probably not real) status as an alchemist. A successful one; that is, he's said to have made the philosopher's stone. Rowling put the legend into play for her first mystery, and the sorcerer's stone, from which comes the Elixir of Life, is guarded underground at Hogwarts behind a series of enchantments and, appropriately, Cerberus.

This is only going to get more fun in the next chapters.

2. "Our kind have to keep putting spells on Muggles" Ron's offhand remark about the Ministry of Magic's handling of Muggle sightings of dragons is one of the first revelations of unethical Wizarding practices surrounding the Statute of Secrecy (the law preventing wizards from revealing themselves and their world to non-magical humans.)

3. Popular opinion. Rowling knows how fame treats a person now, knows it firsthand, but she apparently had a perfectly good understanding of it from the outset. Hogwarts students as a group vacillate between lionizing and demonizing Harry, and as far as I know, every famous person suffers this.

Ron was probably my favorite character in book one, and his loyalty to Harry in this section was part of that.

Art by wallace
4. Legality and mercy. Harry and Hermione get into trouble saving Hagrid from the law and himself. Hagrid is good-hearted, but not at all likely to pay much attention to seemingly arbitrary regulations about monster-keeping. And his confidence in his monster-managing skills—this is just the beginning of it, we haven't met Aragog or Grawp or the Blast-Ended Skrewts yet—is hyperconfidence; he's hiding a baby dragon in a wooden house.

Even law-abiding Hermione doesn't hesitate to help Harry get the dragon safely off to someone who has the wherewithal to keep it, though it means breaking a lot of school rules—and when she's caught, she doesn't betray Hagrid even to lessen her punishment. Nor does Harry.

This sort of ethical dilemma is generally resolved by Rowling with an eye to compassion rather than judgment, to mercy rather than straight-up justice. Ethicists and moralists will be arguing till the end of time over which virtue is more important in which case, but I think it's within the bounds of Catholic freedom to believe that both mercy and justice—as well as both compassion and judgment—are important, and that humility and wisdom and respect are prerequisites for good decision-making wherever the two seem to conflict.

In this case, going to Dumbledore would've been the best way to protect Hagrid, but Harry's just an eleven-year-old newcomer who doesn't yet know his headmaster. He handles it like a well-meaning eleven-year-old kid would, and suffers the consequences.

5. "Mars is bright tonight" The centaurs are reading the signs of war in the sky—and being infuriating in the process, which is mostly what the centaurs in Harry Potter do.

6. "Always the innocent are the first victims" Ronan's sighed philosophy strikes me as something to contemplate, but I'd need to put more time into it than I've got this afternoon. Anyone who wants to unpack his statement, feel free.

Art by Amy C. Reed
7. Unicorn blood. Firenze explains: "...it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn... Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips."

This paragraph sets up the—if you'll pardon the wordplay—crux of the entire Potter saga. The conflict on which the whole story turns is this conflict between defenseless innocence and selfishness taken all the way to monstrosity.

Voldemort sets himself up as a god again and again throughout the story, sometimes coming off as a temperamental Grecian-style deity, but sometimes as something more sinister. Whether Rowling intended it or not, Voldemort's portrayal is often Luciferish, often a direct inversion of the Christ-image. This is one of the latter moments. Eucharistic imagery is inverted here as, instead of the divine self-sacrifice, we have a demoniac sacrifice of the innocent Other. And Firenze sets the passionate tone of righteous response:
"Do you not see that unicorn?" Firenze bellowed at Bane. "Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must."
As for what else stands between the defenseless innocent and the selfish monster, we'll get into that in chapter seventeen. But it's worth noting that both Harry and Voldemort are set up symbolically as representatives of our inner self. This becomes very clear in, if I remember correctly, books five and six—but if I say more about that, there will be spoilers....


* I was SO tempted to find a random trash can picture on the internet and caption it "The Dustbin of the Ages". Juvenile, I know, but that phrase just kills me.

** All right, Latinists. This is me using Google Translate; feel free to tell me I'm using the wrong word for the imperative "Discuss!", and that I'm liable to wind up smashed under a stack of hardbound doctoral theses....


  1. The symbolism thing is, I think, what trips me up. When O'Brien gets on that it makes sense to me . . . and then I realize that the practical application of that would mean a Puritain like way of viewing art and beauty, and that's just not the God I know. But I'm comfortable with the idea of definite truths, and am wondering if some symbols can fall into that category.

    More later!

    1. I'm comfortable with the idea of definite truths, too! Very much so. Just not with the idea that because definite truths exist, EVERYTHING is either definitely true or definitely false... or with the hard-lining reduction of symbols to plain, non-negotiable moral meanings.

      After all, the swastika means totally different things to West and East nowadays, and the Western understanding isn't particularly connected to the symbol's core meaning at all. For the foreseeable future, that image will evoke powerful horror to anyone raised with our awareness of the Nazis. Yet, in the right context, use of that symbol as an auspicious sign wouldn't be remotely subversive.

      Masha said it better below, though. I will look forward to your future thoughts!

  2. Christie~
    I know what you mean..and I think it's because he is right, in a limited sense..in that symbols are sort of completely non-fluid at their base level..like dragons - which can't be re-invented - in any honest, legitimate sense - outside the basic connection to cunning/wisdom and power; or vampires who are essentially symbols of lust..and the symbol can be played with within that sphere..but it can't break out of that sphere without becoming something it's not...And ALL symbols - whether of Lust or of Wisdom can be used in a way that raises up the reader (if the symbol is used artistically - to praise..even in a bleak sense), or to degrade the reader (if the symbol is used crummily). .. Oscar Wilde is right, really, when he says "there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, books are well written or badly written." Flannery O Connor says something similar, if I can find it..and a part of the ability to write well is to have an authentic relationship to your symbols..which doesn't mean you can't write a popular book with failed symbolism..Dan Brown's books do wonderfully, and I don't know of too many authors with a worse sense of symbolism..actually, I'd say that in a completely relativistic culture - you'd sell better with false symbols, because your audience wants to be lied to in a sense..but that might just be me being negative..;)

    What do you think?? I mean..symbols are sort of a passion of mine, but at the same time, I know my symbols..I relied on Seth a lot with the dragon concept because he has a better understanding of the whole difference between dragons in the East and dragons in the West..which is another place I think O'Brien is weak..he completely neglects the role of dragons in Eastern symbolism..and doing so, sort of implies that most of the Asian world is essentially satanic..:p Eh.. Thoughts?

    1. Is it one of the O'Connor quotes you used in this post?

      I'd love a better understanding of the Eastern use of dragons; they're everywhere over there, and I think it's fascinating. Symbols are one of my passions, too, and I don't understand them nearly as well as I'd like to... I think I could learn a lot from you on that. :)

    2. No..but that's a good one too!!!

      It's this one:

      "you don't have to rely on the virtue of prudence..you must first and anyway rely on the virtue of art. Pornography and sentimentality and anything else in excess are all sins against form, and I think they ought to be approached as sins against art rather than sins against morality...The pious style is a great stumbling block to Catholics who want to talk to the modern world."

      you see!! I think O'Brien would have been on much firmer footing if he'd come at Rowling from something more like O'Connor's perspective toward writing..but then of course he'd probably be a completely different sort of person with a completely different set of criticisms for the series..and not Michael O Brien at all. :)

    3. Fascinating. Wow. It's a new idea to me to think of addressing porn as a sin against art rather than against morality... I'll have to put some thought into that. But obviously it IS bad form. As is sentimentality, even if I DO love that one Nick Sparks novel. :P

      So, are you going to come at Rowling from that perspective? Her work doesn't strike me as sentimental (and it's obviously not sexual), but I'm sure you can find some other sins against art. ;)

    4. I think I probably tend along that way when I read her..I think she tends toward the overly emotional..but I don't know..she's sort of all over the place really. There's some really good aspects (the castle itself in book 1, some of her characters, certain spoilers), and some aspects that are definite sins against art (most of which are Spoilers that I think tend to fall in the mistreatment of emotion..so kind of like sentimentality) and some aspects are a combination of AMAZING IDEA + Moral Relativism, which always = bad art..in my mind anyway..I have to say though, that I'm finding a lot more to like this time around..and reading O' Brien's response to Lewis' That Hideous Strength (he hates Merlin), was a good reminder that it's helpful sometimes to just enjoy something first, and then criticize from the point of that enjoyment..if that makes sense. If I was less of a pagan, and less obsessed with sins against art than leading little minds astray, I could be as cheerlessly puritanical..umm..I mean, as well-meaningly intrusive into the reading of others..;)

      BUT..BTW, there is a Harry Potter Convention near us in 2015...wanna go???????????

    5. What? What convention? Where? When? I tried to Google it, and wasn't successful!! Details!!!!!!

      Considering that I tend toward the overly emotional, I wouldn't be prone to noticing Rowling's mistakes in that regard. :P But I will be looking forward to your thoughts on all of that! They sound fascinating... and since I'm finding more to criticize this time around, while still loving the books wholeheartedly of course, I'd say we're pretty darn good at this whole dialectic thing. ;)

    6. http://www.misti-con.org/

      Laconia, New Hampshire!! Next one's in 2015.

      I'mma get myself a Hufflepuff scarf and WEAR IT AROUND

      THIS IS REAL, we can make it happen!

    7. Um. That sounds AWESOME.

      I wonder if I could knit myself a Hufflepuff scarf by 2015??? :D

  3. I would totally start a 100% fannish pop culture blog called "The Dustbin of the Ages" if I had a non-lazy bone in my body. Otherwise, I don't know if I agree with M. on the permanence of symbols, but I'm going to have to be somewhere other than this campsite arcade to write about it, if I end up writing about it at all.

    Well, <3 <3 <3 Hagrid, anyway.

    1. And I would totally read that blog. :D


  4. Reading the O'Brien article, all I can say is, There's a lot of truth in what he says. There's also a lot of misinformation. Also, if it is true that John Granger strains at the series to find redeemable qualities, then it is equally true that Michael O'Brien strains to find reasons to find the series irredeemable.

    Well, there is actually a lot more I could say about the article, but that is all I will say.

    1. Oh, and I will also say that almost every one of his criticisms about the series has been addressed & debated among serious Potter fans who love the books.

    2. Yes, you're absolutely right about all of that. The original Michael Spencer defense (and an article he linked, by someone whose name I don't recall) that convinced me to give Harry a chance wasn't directed at O'Brien, but it addressed some of the same basic concerns, I think.


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