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SK König Plauen
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29. November 2001

Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone

When I first saw this book – a couple of years ago – I thought it was in some way about chess (because of the German cover). Therefore I bought it, started to read it but stopped after I realized the error and its mediocrity. Years later the whole world is talking about the book - it has become a universal event; it has shattered the Western world. How is that possible? And is the success justified? And, for God's sake, what has it to do with chess?
No-one can really criticize a 35-million edition any more than one can criticize a flood or an avalanche. What hundreds of millions of people read and watch and even admire is in a certain sense beyond judgement. Such an obscene success says more about our times than about the book itself.


We are talking about "Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone". Harry is a wizard and he frees the world from evil - it's not necessary to know anymore. It's enough to recognize that we all have seen, heard, and encountered the theme many times, and in fact, even in the details it becomes clear that it's nothing more than a collection of ideas from well-known films, comics, books and computer games: Eco, Schwarzenegger, Michael Ende, Tolkien, the Wizard of Oz, diverse fairytales, psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreaming, Bram Stoker, Odysseus, religious myths… to name just a few. All this has been put in a pot, stirred - not enough though to make it unrecognizable - and poured out in words. "Anything goes", is the high principle; in this respect it is a negative example of postmodernism. At random, collected from different stories and discourses, one can find a lot of fantastic figures and things: poltergeists, zombies, werewolves, unicorns, centaurs, trolls, giants, vampires, dragons, magic brooms and wands, the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life and so on. Anything goes, anything which is coloured, striking, exciting. Excitement - in Postmodern-Speak - means alteration, merciless and at any cost. It's a walk through a property store of fantastic ideas and stories. This is by no means based on a bright foundation of knowledge, as rather ridiculous references to "famous Witches and Wizards" indicate: Morgana next to Circe, Agrippa and Paracelsus next to Merlin and Ptolemy or even Dumbledore (p. 77) [1]. Only ignorance makes this bearable. But all this does not explain its overwhelming success.

Because there is no real substance in this one-dimensional story it is necessary to establish a sort of suspense, to invent continuing new little conflicts and excitements. Therefore the author progresses from one struggle to another - always against representatives of evil - without being able to give the reader a clue as to what the sense or the function is - apart from being a fight against evil - for this particular scene or even for the narrative structure itself. She puts together - as a matter of fact as in a film - pictures, and their empty contents are replaced by bombastic effects. Presumably she thinks in film pictures. Seldom has a book so offered itself as film material as much as this one. In fact, the film is nothing other than a primitive but costly reproduction of the book.

From a much broader perspective it all hides a more fundamental problem, for it is an example of a new peak of our anthropological self experiment to confront ourselves with self generated pictures; a process which began 30000 years ago with simple cave pictures and is now out of control with all its destructive consequences in killing our fantasy. We are what we've seen and despite the huge quantity, we are not richer through it, even when the picture producing process changes our budget of ideas in such a way that it can no longer put our inner pictures and fantasies at our disposal. Instead we carry only remembered pictures, things we've seen before. Once, mythical creatures were formed in an artistic and spiritual act, in the free space of the imagination - this space now is empty. We're digesting fantastic carrion.


As a book it is written like a rather good student essay. An essentially childish imagination is presented: and then this and then that happens and then…and then a troll appears and then a magic coat and then a unicorn and then a dragon and then a centaur and then…this is a potentially never-ending process. As an essay it is not badly written, but nearly all the ideas are stolen.


Harry Potter might be something like the conclusion or the sum of that kind of literature and is probably therefore successful: it unashamedly quotes the best ideas from the last decades; it produces very fast video clip-like series of pictures and frees the reader from the burden of having to read the quoted classics. Therefore, school children believe it is the "best book in the world". With that in mind one realises that it is not correct to say Harry Potter might finally encourage the kids to read – to develop a genuine interest in other books. Rather, Harry Potter recommends only itself. Moreover, it offers spoiled children a new dimension of desire: it is even better, more colourful and vivid and for the most part much faster out there. When Hagrid leads Harry into dreamland he promises speed, he introduces a world in which all is bigger and faster, in which more things are available, a world in which one wishes to have eight eyes (56). On the other hand, all is quite known but instead of the new Nintendo 2000 Hogward kids desire the new Nimbus 2000 (a broomstick).


At first glance the book deals with the classic conflict of good and evil. In reality Rowling transforms that conflict into a more up-to-date one, where good becomes exciting and evil becomes boring. This is the secret recipe of the fun world. In a world where even 20 brand-new videogames only produce boredom, where nothing on earth can create excitement - nor dead or naked bodies on TV or the last scandal and gossip - one needs another world to get a thrill, to kindle last fantasies. But at what cost? - Only to become even more boring one day. This will always be the main difference from Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, Grimm's fairytales and all the other substantial texts of which H.P. is just a thin infusion. Potter is only of temporary interest as a simple pop cultural phenomenon and kids will forget about it as they forget their Christmas present on Boxing Day.


Nothing makes the expansion of desire more obvious than the Every-Flavour Beans. And Harry's dreams about becoming a star are the dreams of a whole generation, and in fact, as Harry (Air Jordan) Potter, he flies through the basketball-Quidditch-game and makes the decisive slam-dunk. "I'm famous and I can't even remember what I'm famous for" (66), he says and had Posh Spice or Geri Halliwell said this no one would be wondering about it. We are used to the difference between actual performance and success. The one and only message of importance: "Harry Potter. Our new - celebrity" (101).

In that the book covers relevant school features, so it's not so far-fetched. Potter's wonder world still contains Hamburgers, English breakfast, Ketchup, Pokemon and West Ham United.

Almost all of this holds true for the chess scenes. During the long winter nights Harry and Ron, his best friend, are playing chess: "Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. This was exactly like Muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battles"(146). Now, chess looks like a literary motive and later on Harry has to struggle in the giant chess game but in fact it's just a new idea, a new picture which crossed Rowling's mind. And where does the idea come from? Quite clearly it derives from "Battle chess", the famous computer game. What "Battle chess" couldn't achieve "Fritz" did in later years by offering the player advice and warnings, like Harry's pieces do: "He wasn't a very good player yet and they (the pieces) kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing: ‚Don't send me there, can't you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him'"(147).

The whole story culminates in the hunt for the philosopher's stone and leads into the chess boardroom: "They were standing on the edge of a huge chessboard, behind the black chessmen, which were all taller than they were and carved from what looked like black stone. Facing them, way across the chamber, were the white pieces. Harry, Ron and Hermione shivered slightly - the towering white chessmen had no faces. ‚Now what do we do?' Harry whispered.‚It's obvious, isn't it?' said Ron. ‚We've got to play our way across the room. '"(204). This honours little Ron as a chess maniac but eventually the easier way would have been simply walking through. In short, they take over the roles of chess pieces and play a game: Harry as bishop, Hermione as a rook and Ron as a knight. There even is something to learn about the game: "White always plays first in chess"(205). Then the game starts, "a white pawn had moved forward two squares". Sounds O.K. so far but when Ron shouts "Harry - move diagonally four squares to the right", it becomes more suspect: Bishop from f8 to b4 is it what it means, but, that’s quite unusual as a first move, isn't it? "Their first real shock came when their other knight was taken. The white queen smashed him to the floor and dragged him of the board, where he lay quite still, face down", is typically "Battle chess". And so on: "the white pieces showed no mercy".


But all this has no internal sense and provides only some pleasant pictures and snapshots. Very touching and full of symbolism and didactically worthy, Ron sacrifices himself to clear the way for Harry's checkmate to the enemy king and final victory against evil. "'That's chess!' snapped Ron: You've got to make some sacrifices!" (205) - can anyone doubt that this is a Hollywood phrase?


The little details are revealing again: another proof for the fundamental half education of the author. They often say "spaces" instead of "squares" and "castle" instead of "rook" and so on …

[1] J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone. London 1997


Copyright © 2002 by Christian Hörr