While reading the Halloween chapter in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I came across this line while Oliver Wood was describing Quidditch to Harry, “He handed Harry a small club, a bit like a short baseball bat.” Baseball bat? I know that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a magical place, but I assumed, rightly so, that the Harry Potter Universe takes place in England. So what is a baseball-bat-like club doing in Harry’s hand?
As many know, the UK version of Rowling’s first Harry Potter book is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, while in the US, Scholastic Books changed the name to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As Rowling wrote on a BBC wechat back in 2001:
They changed the first title, but with my consent. To be honest, I wish I hadn’t agreed now, but it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy…
The general consensus, but one I could not find any documentation for, is that the American publisher thought that US children would be uninterested in reading a book with philosopher in the title. A philosopher’s stone is a real thing, actually, a thing people sought in their study of alchemy.
Robert Scholes points out the difference between a philosopher’s stone and a sorcerer’s stone is that the first is true and the latter is 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.
The title was subsequently changed, even the movie has the Americanized title, and Rowling regrets the change, but as I mentioned earlier this wasn’t the only change in the US version of Rowling’s first book. The baseball bat line was the first that caught my ire, but it was definitely not the first Americanized translation of the first Potter book. The website, The Harry Potter Lexicon, lists plenty of differences. In an essay published in The New York Times, Peter H. Gleick lists three types of American substitutions: spelling, common words or phrases, and “the metamorphoses of truly English experiences or objects into something different, but distinctly American”. Gleick mentions the US “English muffins” opposed to the English “crumpets”.
I got a hold of the UK version of the first Harry Potter book and restarted the Halloween chapter and got to read the following line, “He handed Harry a small club, a bit like a rounders bat.” I was off and reading.
This was my first reading of Rowling’s debut novel. It’s strange reading a book 20 years after its release and one that is so ingrained in the consciousness of the pop culture. I could not help but picturing the various film actors as the characters, but I still found the world enchanting and strange. I enjoyed the book greatly and was only disappointed in the fifteenth chapter where Harry and his cohorts, as part of their detention, are forced to go into the forbidden forest at midnight to find an injured unicorn. This was a rather dangerous punishment for young children and also very much out of character with the book. Still, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a very important book in the history of English literature and, at the very least, a pleasant adventure story for all to read.