Distributed November 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Robert Scholes
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 620 Words

Robert Scholes

Harry Potter and whose stone?

A small change in the American edition of the first Harry Potter book – from philosopher’s stone to sorcerer’s stone – robs the British original of an important connection to the history of human thought. The magic of Harry Potter was designed by author J.K. Rowling to exist alongside “muggle” science.

The Harry Potter books are works of science fantasy. Not simply fantasy but fantasy of a special kind, different from the works of Tolkien, for example. The Lord of the Rings is set in another world – a world with natural laws, to be sure, but clearly another world. The Narnia books begin in this world, but, once through the cupboard door, we are elsewhere and elsewhen, in a world of lawful fantasy.

The Harry Potter books are significantly different from both of these. What J. K. Rowling has done with extraordinary skill is to bring fantasy into our actual world, so that the two sets of laws co-exist on the same planet, or, to put it more precisely, so the laws of magic (which is entirely lawful in Rowling’s formulation) work certain specific and limited exceptions to the laws of nature as understood by the muggles who live on an earth which (a) doesn’t believe in magic and (b) thinks it is the devil’s work. We need not worry too much about the contradiction between (a) and (b), since the muggles are both positivistic and superstitious, which strikes me as a very realistic picture of the world we live in and the people among whom we find ourselves.

In this connection, it is worth noting that the British edition of the first Harry Potter novel was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – which some American marketing genius changed into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, convinced, no doubt that sorcerers would sell a lot more books than philosophers. But the original title makes the important connection between the world of Harry Potter and the world of the alchemists who were the precursors of modern scientific thinkers.

Consider, for example, the following words from the English and American editions of the first Harry Potter volume. They are quoted from “an enormous old book:”

English: The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. . . .

American: The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. . . .

There is only one difference between the two passages, but that one different word makes the first passage true and the second one false. Or, to put it more circumspectly, that word “philosopher,” in the English edition, connects the magic stone to the actual history of human thought in a way that the word “sorcerer” in the American edition does not. Before the attempt to gain power over nature fragmented, in the seventeenth century, into the empirical sciences, on the one hand, and fruitless magic, on the other, the study of alchemy was a kind of magical science. It was the ancestor of modern chemistry and the physical sciences in general, which were called “natural philosophy” for some time before being given their modern names.

What is important here is the way that magic in the Harry Potter books exists alongside science. It is as if, in this universe, when science and magic parted company they did not turn into true and false natural philosophy, but into two true and different visions of the world. As a character remarks in the fourth novel, muggle science is a substitute for magic. My point is that J. K. Rowling is writing not fantasy but science fantasy, and she knows what she is doing. It is a pity her American publisher betrayed her in this instance by replacing the concept of the philosopher’s stone, and all its weight of history and meaning, with the empty expression sorcerer’s stone.

Robert Scholes is professor emeritus of modern culture and media at Brown University. His observations about philosophers and sorcerers are drawn from his recent book, The Crafty Reader (Yale University Press).