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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s
Stone emerged from the creative mind
of J. K. (Joanna Kathleen) Rowling on a train ride from Manchester
to London in 1990. Rowling was a single mother
of an infant daughter and living on welfare in Edinburgh, Scotland,
when she began the novel. Putting pen to paper in a café while her
baby, Jessica, napped, Rowling soon skyrocketed to fame and fortune.
While she received an advance of only £2,500 (approximately
$3,500 American) for
the novel from her British publisher, Bloomsbury, she has since
become one of the richest women in the United Kingdom. Her first
book was published under the original title Harry Potter
and the Philosopher’s Stone (the book’s American publishers
feared that mention of philosophers would scare away young readers
and changed the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s
Stone). The book garnered rave reviews in the United Kingdom,
where it won the British Book Award’s Children’s Book of the Year
prize, as well as the Smarties Book Prize. Critics have compared
her to classic children’s writers such as Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis,
and J. R. R. Tolkien, who also fused the traditional adventure story
with fantastic elements drawn from myth and legend.
Soon after the British release of Harry Potter
and the Philosopher’s Stone, Arthur Levine, an editorial
director for Scholastic Books, bought the American rights to the
novel for the impressive sum of $105,000.
This money allowed Rowling to retire from a teaching job and devote
herself entirely to writing. When it was released in America, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone almost immediately became
a publishing sensation, holding the top spot on the New York Times
Best-Seller List for several months. The book was unique in attracting
both young and adult readers; indeed, the British publisher issued
an edition with a less colorful cover for grown-ups to read on trains
without having to hide the novel behind a newspaper. Spurred by
the success of her first book, Rowling produced a number of sequels,
which have won the Smarties Book Prize so often (in three consecutive
years) that Rowling has requested that her books no longer be considered
candidates for the prize. To date, the Harry Potter empire includes
four books in the Potter series, a couple of related works written
by Rowling for charity (Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastical
Beasts and Where to Find Them), and a major motion picture
produced by Warner Brothers.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone draws
on a long tradition of English fantasy works that seem to be for
children but are in fact deep allegories of the human condition.
Rowling herself has stated that her book is really about imagination
and that practicing wizardry is only a metaphor for developing one’s
full potential. On one level, the story is a thriller with a criminal
plot (the planned theft of the Sorcerer’s Stone) that is thwarted
by a group of brave students, just as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books—childhood
favorites of Rowling’s—are about children who explore a strange
land and perform heroic deeds. But on a deeper level, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, like the Narnia books,
illustrates the challenges and adventures of growing up. Rowling’s
book outlines every child’s ordeal of becoming an individual, winning
respect from peers, learning about loyalty, discovering the difference
between forgivable vices and unforgivable sins, and believing in
something bigger than oneself. Harry’s transformation from a forgotten
orphan living under the stairs into a publicly recognized individual
(symbolized by the magical, adultlike letters addressed to him),
and then finally into a renowned hero represents the successful
entry into the public world wished for by every child. Harry’s escape
from misery to a new place where he has friends, respect, and a
useful role in the world is a projection of every child’s ideal
life. Most important, Harry’s discovery that there is something
uniquely valuable inside him represents the dream of innumerable
people—children and adults alike—who enjoy indulging their imaginations.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone!