Book Review: The Philosopher’s Stone (Illustrated)

On the 20th anniversary of the first publication of The Philosopher’s Stone, I was due to start reading a new book and thought it would be appropriate to reread the first Harry Potter book.  It’s not the first time I’ve reread it, though:  it’s probably the tenth.  It could be more.  I’ve actually lost count!  I reread all of them at irregular intervals, mostly all at once, like a single, giant book, which is really what it feels like, each book being another “part.”

This was, however, the first time I had reread the illustrated version.  When I first got it, I paged through it with wonder, having already oohed and aahed over it in a bookshop.  Despite having all the Harry Potter books on my shelf (only five of which from a matching set), I had to have this.  It was the first time I had ever seen illustrations of the Harry Potter world that actually came close to the ones in my imagination.  The movies are WAY off.  They don’t even scrape the surface.  But it’s more than the accuracy of Jim Kay’s depictions, it’s the stunning artwork itself.  His watercolours are breathtaking.  I have so many favourites, it’s hard to chose the best one.  I love Hagrid’s cabin:  this is EXACTLY what it looks like, not the sterile, perfect log cabin in the movie.  Here it’s an upturned boat and is smothered with vines and ivy with gardens nestling right up to the front door.  It takes hours to get past the Diagon Alley chapter because there are two whole pages to peruse at close quarters, the detail so intense that you see something new each time.  THIS is what Diagon Alley looks like!  Cluttered and old and full of peculiar things.  The pictures are full of quirks and oddities, like a glimpse down Oil Can Alley:  the illustrator not only has a fine grasp of the Harry Potter universe, but has allowed his imagination to stray further.

I particularly love the way each page looks like a sheet of watercolour paper with blobs and blots and spillages of watercolour paint.  Many of the paintings are dreamy with beauty:  Hagrid zooming across the night sky on a (tiny) motorbike;  Hagrid and Harry crossing the sea in a (tiny) boat (Hagrid’s teeny tiny pink umbrella/wand is hysterical);  the glowing white unicorn in a midnight Forbidden Forest;  the doors of Hogwarts slightly ajar, with a glow of golden light from within and a black cat sitting on the step.  The characters are perfect too:  Harry looks just right, particularly in a rather tender drawing towards the back of the book.  Dumbledore, Hagrid, Professor McGonagall, Draco … all their portraits are ideal.  Naturally I’ve wished for more:  Gringotts, the dormitory, a rather better depiction of a Quidditch match, Harry’s parents in the Mirror of Erised.  One can only dream how Jim Kay might have painted these and other aspects of the story.

It’s funny how with each rereading you pick up another tiny detail that you didn’t notice before:  Hagrid FLIES to the outcrop of rock to find Harry and deliver his Hogwarts letter.  How did I not notice this before?  And if Hagrid really did fly (one presumes he might have been joking), HOW did he fly?  He’s a giant with little magical training.  No other character that I can recall can fly without assistance (a broom, a bewitched motorbike, a thestral etc etc) except Voldemort.  So did Hagrid really fly?!

This first book in the series is very young with the author coming between the reader and the characters quite often in the way that writers for young children often do:  it’s just a style of storytelling which is perfectly all right but a relief when it gets dropped in the about the third book (I think) and you’re allowed much further inside Harry’s head.  One presumes also that as a character, Harry is going to get more interesting as he gets older too, as more and more of his story is revealed.

I was working in a bookshop in 1999 when The Prisoner of Azkaban came out.  I remember the tremendous fuss and the THOUSANDS of copies of the first two books being re-ordered.  They TOWERED in the bookshop, piled in piles so high they were like walls around the tills.  I was faintly amazed by all this.  I had absolutely no interest in children’s fiction, being a reader of hard sci-fi at the time, and couldn’t understand the popularity of these twee little books.  And then one day I was sitting at the till, dying of boredom, when I noticed The Philosopher’s Stone on the counter.  It had been abandoned there for some or other reason and I did just what we had been commanded never to do:  I opened it and began to read.  I read it surreptitiously so that no one would notice.  No one did.  I finished the first chapter in about ten minutes and my first thought was:  shit, this kid is really suffering.  I then read the book properly and with every reread, my favourite scene never changes.  Hagrid says:  “Harry, yer a wizard.”  Tears every time.

Hagrid and Harry

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About susannahjbell

I am a writer of science fiction and other strange and surreal works. I mostly write novels and the occasional novelette. My published works include A Doorway into Ultra, the Fleet Quintet and the Exodus Sequence. I live in London in an attic flat but really want to live in a tree. I wanted to be an astrophysicist but would settle for an alien abduction. I write because I don’t know what to read.
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