I read the ending of The Philosopher’s Stone the other day (again). And I was reminded, again, about how J.K. so effectively tailored her stories to the level of sophistication of her target audience.
As we all know, one of the most impressive things about Rowling’s seven-book series is that the maturity of each successive novel increases as her readers mature: the first novel is, in essence, a children’s book; the middle novels are designed for teens and young adults; and the final book, especially, is a complex, mature adult work.
There’s an easy way to see the difference between the simplicity of the early novels and the relative complexity of the later novels. Just look at how Rowling deals with two extremely similar situations near the ends of the first novel, The Philosopher’s Stone, and of the sixth book, The Half-Blood Prince.
When we get to the climax of The Philosopher’s Stone, we find our hero trio testing themselves against the various protections that have been put in place to defend the philosopher’s stone itself. They face Fluffy, Devil’s Snare, the flying keys, the Mountain Troll, the chess game, the bottle puzzle and finally the Mirror of Erised. After that, of course, Harry must take on Quirrell and Voldemort but let’s leave that aside for the moment.
Now this is a children’s book, remember, so none of the challenges can be too scary or too difficult. The tension must exist but it cannot be terrifying and, even more important, the protections they must get past have to be beatable. By them. As 12-year-olds.
In fact, since they are so new to magic as a whole, Rowling ensures that the solution to each protection is available to them, even if it is completely unrealistic that the people who put the protections in place would make them so easily overcome.
So Fluffy goes to sleep if you play him a bit of music. Devil’s Snare retracts from heat and light. Flitwick kindly leaves a set of broomsticks nearby to help them catch the needed key. The troll is already out cold. The chess game is winnable and the bottle puzzle provides sufficient information for a smart-enough witch or wizard to figure out how to move on safely.
Think about all of that for a moment. The professors of Hogwarts have taken on the task of ensuring the most powerful dark wizard in history, Voldemort, cannot steal the philosopher’s stone and use it to come back to full power. And yet they have designed each of their protections in such a way that it can be beaten. By children.
It makes no sense from a dramatic point of view, until you remember that this is a children’s book.
Okay, now fast forward to book six, The Half-Blood Prince. Dumbledore and Harry set out to steal the locket Horcrux from the cave. In this case, it is Voldemort who has set up a series of protections to keep intruders away from his precious possession. Does he set up his protections so that they can easily be beaten? Does he provide hints, clues or aids to help people get past his protections? No way.
First, he chooses a hiding place that no one should know about or suspect. It is only the fact that Dumbledore learned of the orphanage’s annual trips to the coast when he first visited the young Tom Riddle that allows Dumbledore to find out the general location of the cave.
Second, even though an intruder must know where to look and have the wherewithal to swim through turbulent seas to get into the cliffside cave, Voldemort hides the entrance to the inner cave using strong magic. As Dumbledore points out, only someone capable of seeing the minute traces left by a magical spell has any chance of finding that entrance. Once found, the intruder must then puzzle out how to make the entrance appear and open up, with no clues provided. If an intruder manages to get into the inner cave, he faces the lake, the inferi, the hidden boat, the killer potion, the inferi again, etc. etc. etc. etc.
Voldemort makes nothing easy. The only reason it is at all possible to get to the locket is because Voldemort himself may need to retrieve it at some point in the future. And I’m willing to wager that only a wizard as powerful and capable as Dumbledore, who does his homework and prepares meticulously for the task, could be successful at stealing the locket.
The first novel is a children’s book, so the challenges are manageable and even fun. The sixth novel is for mature teens and adults, so the challenges are extreme and terrifying.
Two very similar situations; two very different approaches.
I sometimes get frustrated with The Philospher’s Stone when I am faced, once again, with the fact that the protectors of the stone actually designed their protections to be defeatable. I have to remind myself that Rowling was writing for kids at that point and that her decisions in this regard are completely defensible.
When she was writing for adults, she treats the scenario in a much more realistic manner. It is clear that only Dumbledore is capable of breaching Voldemort’s defenses and, in fact, that he ends up dying in the attempt.