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Here I answer some of the common questions asked on Quora about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first entry in the series written by J.K. Rowling, which I have also reviewed here.
NB: As this is a Q&A post it will contain spoilers for the book, make sure that you have read it before proceeding and you can pick up a copy on Amazon here.
How can you explain Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone briefly?
In Harry Potter’s first adventure, Harry discovers he is a famous wizard on his 11th birthday who vanquished a dark wizard called Lord Voldemort and made him disappear.
He is whisked away from his mean non-magical uncle and aunt to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he meets Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Together the three uncover a plot to steal the Philosopher’s Stone which is being hidden inside Hogwarts and restore Voldemort to power.
The three successfully defeat the plot where it is revealed their Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, Professor Quirrell was in fact possessed by a heavily weakened Voldemort – who has latched onto him with his face stuck to the back of Quirrell’s.
The main plot does contain far more complexities and events but this is the core plot of the book.
Why is the book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone in the US?
In the US, the Harry Potter books were published by Scholastic (in the UK it was Bloomsbury). The head of Scholastic in 1997, Arthur Levine, felt the word “Philosopher” was too archaic for American readers to understand when they purchased the US rights to the book for $105,000 in April 1997.
The book went through several name changes before it’s first printing (including at one point being called Harry Potter and the School of Magic). Eventually, Scholastic settled on the name Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the September 1998 US release, which was also Rowling’s suggestion for the book’s title.
What are the ethical and moral questions in the book?
In the Philosopher’s Stone, there are quite a few moral and ethical questions raised in the book.
The power of friendship
Harry, Ron and Hermione’s friendship forms the backbone of the story and shows how friendships can be formed despite differences. The book also begins to question their loyalties to each other and how far they are willing to got to help each other out, a question which is continually raised in later novels in the series.
The morality of power
The Philosopher’s Stone is an object which grants immortality to whoever possesses it, with Voldermort being someone who wants it for dark purposes. This raises a question about the responsible use of power and using it for personal gain.
House prejudice and stereotyping
Early on we learn Hogwarts is divided into four houses, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Each student is sorted into a house based on the Sorting Hat’s opinion of their morality and personality traits. This ultimately leads to group think with people with similar ideas being put together in the same house. It also leads to stereotyping and questions whether such systems are fair. This is further explored in later entries where many of the adult characters who went to Hogwarts carry prejudices against other adult characters, based on the houses they were sorted into as children.
This also raises question about nature vs nuture as it suggests many witches and wizards have their moral compass full realised at the age of 11 when most people that age will develop this over time.
Care of Magical Creatures
The book does have some questions about the treatment of magical creatures. From the caged dragon at Gringotts to Fluffy being used as a guard dog, as well as the chapter with Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback – their are plenty of magical creatures in this story and we start to learn how witches and wizards treat these creatures – something which is further explored in later entries to the series.
Truth and Transparency
The mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone and Nicholas Flamel is largely kept from Harry, Ron and Hermione who have to solve the mystery themselves. This ultimately raises a quesiton about whether Dumbledore is right to keep the students in the dark, especially when it places them in increasingly dangerous situations. Dumbledore also hints when he speaks to Harry at the end there is more things that he needs to tell him when he is older – something which arguably sets the events in the later entries into motion as he keeps crucial information from him.
What was guarding the Philosopher’s Stone before the Mirror of Erised?
This question probably arises from some cut content from the book in the movie adaptation.
In the book after the chess game, Ron is injured and Harry and Hermione progress on without him to Snape’s challenge. Upon entry to his room both doors onward and backward are set alight by magical flames.
Snape’s challenge is a complicated riddle involving 10 different vials of potions, one will send the person onwards, another will send the person back and of the remainder, some are nettle wine and some are poison, with the riddle helping to identify which is which:
“Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead,
Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
Choose, unless you wish to stay here for evermore,
To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
You will always find some on nettle wine’s left side;
Second, different are those who stand at either end,
But if you would move onwards, neither is your friend;
Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
Fourth, the second left and the second on the right
Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.”
Hermione figures out the riddle and determines which potion is which. However Harry sends Hermione back through in order to help Ron whilst he goes onwards.
In the movie this challenge was complete cut, instead Hermione stays with Ron after the chess scene and Harry goes straight down to find Professor Quirrell trying to get the stone instead of Snape, who the trio have suspected throughout.
Why is Harry able to burn Professor Quirrell with his bare hands?
In the final chapter, Professor Quirrell attempts to kill Harry with his bare hands but on touching him, he starts to burn. Dumbledore reveals that when his mother died he left Harry with a protective field through love, something which is extremely harmful to Quirrell as he has been consumed by Voldermort’s dark soul.
Why didn’t Dumbledore realise Quirrell was evil?
One interesting factor in the story is Dumbledore is placed on a very high pedestal as one of the greatest wizards in the world, so why does he not notice Quirrell’s intentions? There are a couple of possible reasons why:
Masking of intentions
A skilled dark wizard like Voldermort is very good at deceit and manipulation – something which allowed him to influence Quirrell and ultimately hide himself from Dumbledore whilst he carried out his evil scheme.
One of Dumbledore’s flaws is he sometimes sees the best in people even when there is no good in someone so he may have not realised Quirrell had changed.
In the book, Quirrell is quite a timid and nervous character, making it even more shocking when he is revealed as the villain of the story. It is also not established how long he has been at Hogwarts or how long he has been like this so it is possible the teachers had got used to his personality, even if it was a ruse.
Dumbledore’s Limited Interaction
Throughout the book, Dumbledore has a relatively small presence which also suggests he doesn’t spend much time with his teachers so probably didn’t notice the change in Quirrell.
The complexity of the situation
The events in the wizarding world leading to Voldermort’s return are multi-faceted and complex so it is possible that with Dumbledore dealing with so many threats simultaneously Quirrell was allowed to slip under the radar. This does become clearer in later entries where we learn what Dumbledore has tried to do to stop Voldermort’s return.
Hopefully you have enjoyed this dive into questions surrounding Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If you have anymore questions, or perhaps your own thoughts, let me know down in the comments below.