Morally bankrupt characters, violence, and magic wrapped in an engaging tale.
Note: First published in the U.K under the title "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone."
On his eleventh birthday, orphan Harry Potter discovers that he has magical abilities and has been offered a place at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry soon learns that there is a good deal more to his past that his unloving relatives, the Dursleys, have kept from him. For one thing, he's famous in the wizarding world as the sole survivor of an attack that killed both his parents.
As the semester progresses, Harry makes friends--and enemies--and discovers that someone is out to steal an item being protected at the school. As the story catapults toward its climax, Harry and his friends race the clock to stop the criminal from stealing the item, but will they be too late, or will the evil that destroyed Harry's family be returned to full power?
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Harry Potter books is its lack of moral clarity. Moral relativism is the best that one can hope for in these books, as lying, cheating, rule-breaking, and other illegal activities are rampant, as revealed in the following examples:
On the first day of broomstick riding instruction, when the teacher must leave the class to see an injured boy to the hospital wing, she very clearly tells the students that anyone attempting to fly a broom in her absence will be expelled. When Harry defies this rule, not only is he not punished, he is rewarded by his Head of House with a coveted spot on one of the school's sports teams, as well as being given one of the most expensive sports brooms available.
Later, Harry agrees to an illicit after-hours duel with the disagreeable Draco Malfoy, thereby breaking two more school rules, against using magic between classes and against being out of his dormitory after hours. Harry promises Draco it will be a "wands-only, no contact" duel. Yet when Harry asks his best friend Ron what he should do if he waves his wand and nothing happens, Ron's advice is to "Drop it and punch him on the nose."
Hermione lies to professor McGonagall about going after a troll in order to get Harry and Ron out of trouble. As far as the reader can tell, however, there was never any reason for her to lie. The boys came to find her because they knew she might be in danger. While they should not have gone after her, but rather told a teacher, it's doubtful any of them would have been in more trouble had she told the truth, which was that she hadn't gone after the troll, but was crying in the bathroom.
After this incident we are told that Hermione, a fairly uptight character who has been nagging at heroes Harry and Ron, becomes "much nicer" once she becomes less concerned about rule-breaking.
When Harry notices that despised Professor Snape is limping, he wonders aloud what's wrong with it. His friend Ron says, "I don't know, but I hope it's really hurting him."
When one of the Slytherin sports team's players is hit by a ball during a match, the commentator, who supports the opposing team, says, "Hope it broke his nose."
Lying is common in this book. In fact, it seems to be the first thing Harry thinks of in several situations. Consider the following:
When trying to decide what to tell his friend Hagrid, the school gamekeeper, about why he suspects a professor of wrongdoing, "Harry decided on the truth." Shouldn't that have been his initial instinct? Why does he have to "decide on" it?
At one point Harry sneaks into the restricted section of the school library, where books on "dark magic" are kept, so that he can research something he and his friends are curious about.
Hagrid hatches an illegal dragon, involves three students in it, and then colludes with some adults to smuggle it out of the country to cover it up.
When Neville Longbottom, a bumbling and insecure friend of Harry's, tries to stand up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, whom he's caught preparing for more rule-breaking, he says, "You were the one who told me to stand up to people." Ron's response is, "Yes, but not to us."
Magic and learning how to use it is a major theme of every book in the series. Many names from myth and history appear in the books, including Gaelic goddess Cliodna, who is mentioned as being a druidess.
One troubling aspect of the series is the way in which Harry's relatives, the Dursleys, are depicted. They have always treated Harry badly, housing him in a cupboard under the stairs for his first ten years with them. That in and of itself is a reasonable character choice, but coupled with their dislike of magic, Rowling gives the reader the impression that anyone who would speak out against magic is narrow minded and cruel. The Dursleys become angry when Harry performs magic (even when he doesn't mean to), they say that they had promised when they took him in that they wouldn't let the practice of magic continue, and they try to prevent Harry from attending Hogwarts. Throughout, their objections are shoved aside. In point of fact, many of the Dursleys views about magic are consistent with Biblical views, but they are such an unlikeable lot that their objections are all too easy to ignore.
Hagrid uses magic illegally to give Vernon's son Dudley a pig's tail in retaliation for something Vernon has said. Later Dudley has to go to the hospital for a presumably painful surgery to have it removed. Hagrid goes further, asking Harry not to mention this act, because Hagrid was expelled from school years ago and it's illegal for him to practice magic.
Children at the school are each allowed to bring one animal with them: a cat, and owl, or a toad. Harry has an owl, Ron brings a rat. These creatures give the impression of being familiars to the young witches and wizards, animal partners reputed in actual magickal tradition to be used in the practice of magick.
The students are in regular contact with the spirits of the dead, in the form of school ghosts and a poltergeist, or malevolent spirit.
The students attend classes to learn the movements of the stars and planets. While Rowling consistently refers to these studies as Astronomy, it's clear that astrology is really what's taking place. Later in the story, we meet some centaurs, who themselves study the movement of the planets.
Harry's brutish cousin Dudley likes to beat Harry up. His favorite game is called "Harry Hunting".
When Harry talks back to his uncle, Uncle Vernon tells Dudley to "Poke him with your Smeltings stick (part of Dudley's new school uniform)."
One of the school ghosts, Nearly Headless Nick, demonstrates how he was killed by flipping his head to one side off his neck, from which it is not quite severed.
One of the books in the restricted section is covered in what look like bloodstains, and starts to scream when Harry opens it.
An evil character drinks unicorn blood to gain strength: "Unicorn blood was dribbling down its front."
Chess pieces in the story come alive and fight each other violently. A giant one knocks out a main character.
One character's skin burns wherever Harry touches him.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Hagrid drinks to excess. On the positive side, this behavior leads him to make a serious and dangerous error with severe consequences later in the story. Hagrid says he'll never drink again. Unfortunately, those who continue in the series know that he does not keep this resolution.
We are told that infant dragons can be raised on brandy mixed with chicken blood.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
Dudley tells Harry that at the public school, they shove people's head into a toilet on the first day. Fred and George Weasley, pranksters of the series, are involved in a couple of mild jokes involving a toilet seat.
The word "d**n" is used once. "Shut up" appears several times. Peeves, a poltergeist, "curses" and writes "rude words" on a chalkboard.
While literary critics may disagree on the stylistic merit of Rowling's work, there is no doubt that the woman can weave an engaging and enthralling tale, complete with fascinating characters and whimsical story elements. Unfortunately, the focus on magical practice, the violence (which becomes much more severe in later volumes), and the serious moral flaws in her heroes, makes the book a highly questionable read.