Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Alchemist’s Tale” first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Touchstone.
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The Alchemist’s Tale
Harry Potter & the Alchemical Tradition in English Literature
by John Granger
In her Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling looks at the world diagonally and sees its magic. I believe this diagonal vision springs from her classical education and its ideas of truth, love, and beauty, and her consequent discomfort with modernity and with modern ideas and institutions. She conveys the world’s magic as a traditional English writer writing within the traditions of her genre. And one of these traditions is the use of alchemical symbolism to convey spiritual realities.
We think of symbolism, after being trained by mechanical teachers and lifeless texts, as cardboard signs saying, “this represents that.” “The white whale is a symbol for God, Mrs. Johnson,” we all learned to say in tenth-grade English. An authentic symbol, however, is a means of passage and of grace between the shadow-world of time and space in which we live and what is real. As Martin Lings, a student and friend of C. S. Lewis’s, wrote in his book on mysticism and alchemy in Shakespeare’s plays:
The reason many of the great authors of the English tradition used alchemical symbols—Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Donne, Blake, Joyce, and Lewis, for example—is that they are what Lings calls “the best symbols,” “the clearest reflections . . . of the higher reality.”2 These symbols do the job literature and drama set out to do.
Understanding the Harry Potter books as alchemical writing in the tradition of the English “Greats” will explain otherwise bizarre events, plot turns, and names in the novels. It will also help explain the worldwide popularity of these books (because they speak to deep spiritual desires), in what way Christian objections to them are ironic (because they miss Rowling’s point), and why the almost uniform approach of scholars to the books as cultural artifacts to be dissected is a typically modern mistake (ditto).
So I have three tasks. First, I briefly explain what alchemy is and what it isn’t, then explain why its imagery is so fit to express spiritual themes and meanings, and last, explain how Rowling uses alchemy in the Harry Potter novels. Readers should know that the following will give away some of the plot and requires a little knowledge of the five books published so far, though no more than someone who has never read the books will have gathered from all the news stories about them.
What Alchemy Is
What modern people know of alchemy in my experience is almost inevitably wrong, so wrong that the use of alchemical imagery in English literature must seem absurd. One of the first things you learn in chemistry classes is that chemistry grew out of a kind of medieval voodoo called alchemy, a pseu-doscience whose goal was to try to isolate a philosopher’s stone that could turn lead (meaning base metals) into gold and bestow immortality on the alchemist.
This is still the predominant idea of alchemy in the popular mind: “Alchemy is stupid chemistry.” The second misconception about alchemy is that it was a fraud or quackery; the third is that it is a kind of witchcraft; and the fourth, coming to us from the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is that it presents the archetypes in the collective consciousness of humanity and the dreams of individuals.3
If alchemy wasn’t “chemistry for idiots,” a con game, witchcraft, or a path into the unconscious mind, what was it? In its best and most representative form, it was a spiritual path to return fallen man to his Edenic perfection. (The history of alchemy is a complicated one, with its share of quacks, frauds, and lunatics, but I am referring to the sort of alchemy the English Greats used in their writings. Alchemies were also to be found in Jewish and Islamic areas as well as Christian ones.4)
To understand how a science of metallurgy and physical bodies could advance the purification and perfection of the alchemist, body and soul, requires turning the modern worldview upside down. The alchemist, like all traditional or non-modern people, understood man to be essentially spirit (as man is created by the Spirit), then soul, then physical body, rather than the reverse. He believed the obvious, i.e., that the lesser thing comes from the greater thing, never the greater from the lesser.5
His personhood or humanity he knew to be a joining of soul and body without seam—and his tragedy was that he was fallen, i.e., that he had lost his spiritual capacity or intellectus, by means of which Adam walked and talked with God in the garden. Alchemy was the means, in conjunction with the mysteries of the Church, by which he could regain this lost capacity. The substance changing from lead to gold was his soul, and the riches he would glean were spiritual riches—holiness and immortality. (Gold was considered the most perfect of metals, not just for its beauty but also because it did not rust or tarnish.)
The alchemist was helped in doing this by effecting a similar change in metals. Because the traditional worldview does not hold that there is a chasm between subject and object, that is, that objects do not have independent existence from their observers and vice versa, an alchemist understood the substances with which he worked as being related to him. This relationship amounted to a correspondence; as he purified himself in obedience to the work, the work would advance and his soul or bodily consciousness would go through corresponding changes.
This was not magic or work independent of nature, but an accelerating of the natural work by observance of supernatural, even contra-natural principles. Titus Burckhardt, who with Mircea Eliade is the authority on the history and meaning of alchemy, called alchemy
The Great Work
Alchemy is summed up in the adage, “To make of the body a spirit and of the spirit a body,” as Burckhardt noted elsewhere:
As metals changed from rough ores and solid states to more and more pure conditions by change of states (from solid to liquid and gas and back again to solid, a process repeated several times) and by combination with catalysts and purifying agents, the alchemist affected changes in himself by corresponding changes in his bodily consciousness while attempting the work.
In other words, alchemy had a soteriological role for the alchemist.9 It is essentially a super-conscious or spiritual work that happens through correspondence with archetypes that are above, not below, individual consciousness.10
So what was alchemy? It was a traditional or sacred science, supporting the work of the revealed tradition and its means of grace, for the purification and perfection of the alchemist’s soul in correspondence with the metallurgical perfection of a base metal into gold. It requires a view of man and of creation or cosmology that is opposite and contradictory to that of the physical scientist and chemist of today, for whom alchemists had only disdain; they thought of men who were interested in matter only for its manipulation as “charcoal burners” and anything but wise. To an alchemist, the chemist neglects the greater thing in the lesser thing—and in himself.
This science went into precipitous decline and corruption at the end of the Renaissance and especially at the Enlightenment, when it was eclipsed by the materialist view and priorities of modern chemistry. But it was kept alive by writers who found in its imagery and symbolism a powerful way of communicating Christian truth.
If English Literature from its beginning to Rowling is front-loaded with alchemical devices and images, why is this so? What is the connection between alchemy and literature that makes these images such useful tools for writers?
I think the connection is probably most clear in drama. Eliade even suggested that alchemical work grew out of the initiatory dramas of the Greek Mystery religions.11 Shakespeare doesn’t just make asides to alchemy in his plays; many if not most of them are written on alchemical skeletons and themes. The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, and The Merchant of Venice come to mind.12 Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory argued persuasively that Shakespeare built the Globe Theatre on alchemical principles for the proper staging of his alchemical dramas.13 Why?
If you recall your Aristotle on what happens in a proper tragedy, the audience identifies with the hero in his agony and shares in his passion. This identification and shared passion is effectively the same as the experience of the event; the audience experiences katharsis or “purification” in correspondence with the actors. Shakespeare and Jonson, among others, used alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of the theater in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the work of alchemy in that same transformation. The alchemical work was claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience in the theater, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations was the same in both.
Alchemical language and themes are a shorthand. The success of an artist following this tradition is measured by the edification of his audience. By means of traditional methods and symbols, the alchemical artist offers our souls delight and dramatic release through archetypal and purifying experiences.
That may be harder for some of us than the idea of alchemy as a sacred science. If you are like me, you grew up with the idea that reading was entertainment and diversion, and anything but life-changing. This idea, really only in currency for the last seventy or eighty years, is a gross misconception. Anthropologists, historians of religion, and professors of literature will tell you that the rule in traditional cultures, and even in profane cultures such as ours, is that Story, in whatever form, instructs and initiates.
In his The Sacred and The Profane, Eliade argued that entertainments serve a religious function, especially in a profane culture. They remove us from our ego-bound consciousness for an experience or immersion in another world. C. S. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, asserted that this is the traditional understanding of the best writers, namely, that their role in culture is “to instruct while delighting.”
Alchemy and literature are a match because they both endeavor (in their undegenerate or orthodox state) to transform the human person.
Now to the third matter: how does Rowling use alchemical symbolism in her books? To answer this question, two other questions must be answered: (1) Is she intentionally using alchemical imagery? (2) How does understanding the alchemical themes and images of the series improve our understanding of the books and their power to charm and delight young and old around the world?
To the first question. Although Rowling has not said that she is writing in the alchemical tradition of English literature, she has insisted that she is a Christian and that her faith is important in understanding her work.14 If the author has not said that alchemy is at least part of the Harry Potter books, how can we know if it is or isn’t? I suggest the following tests:
1. The evidence should be fairly clear (which is to say, the author should give fairly obvious hints).
2. The books should show both a design akin and parallel to the stages of the alchemical work and a bevy of imagery and symbols that are taken from this same work.
3. This evidence should not have another as likely or believable explanation from traditional or conventional literature.
Test one: Is the evidence fairly clear? I think it is. Here are three pieces of evidence: the direct references to alchemy in two of the titles, the alchemical characters as revealed by their names, and Harry’s alchemical transformations.
First, the book titles. The title of the first book is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (retitled Sorcerer’s Stone by the American publisher). And Warner Bros. has reserved the title Harry Potter and the Alchemist’s Cell for the sixth or seventh novel.
Second, the alchemical characters. We learn early in the first book that Hogwarts’s headmaster and Harry’s mentor Albus Dumbledore is an alchemist of some renown, even a partner of the famous alchemist Nicolas Flamel, which distinction (listed on his chocolate frog trading card) he treasures above all his titles. (Flamel was a real and famous alchemist who lived in fourteenth-century Paris.)
Hermione Granger’s name has an especially obvious alchemical reference in it, as do several of the names in the books. “Hermione” is the feminine form of “Hermes,” who, besides being the Greek messenger god (Mercury), was also the name of the great alchemist Hermes Trismegistos, in whose name countless alchemical works were written through the centuries. Harry’s father is named James, the name of the patron saint of alchemists, and his mother is named Lily, a symbol for the second, purifying stage of the alchemical work.15
Third, Harry’s transformations from lead to gold: The alchemical work is about changing the soul from lead to gold, from failing to virtue; is this evident in the title character’s transformations in each book? Yes, it is.
In the first, Philosopher’s Stone, the orphaned Harry lives in fear of his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, and without any knowledge or delight in who he is. By book’s end, he shows himself a champion of remarkable courage and daring, and has become reconciled both to his parents’ deaths at the hands of the sorcerer Voldemort and to his own destiny as a wizard. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry begins the book as a prisoner both of the Dursleys and of his own self-doubts and self-pity. At the heroic finish, he risks his own life to liberate a young girl and vanquish the villain, who is an incarnation of selfishness and self-importance.
Harry blows up his Aunt Marge because he cannot overlook her slights of his parents at the beginning of Prisoner of Azkaban. At the end, he rescues the man who betrayed his parents to Voldemort by offering his own life as a shield to him. He goes from unforgiving judgment to mercy in a year. In the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, Harry begins by being consumed by thoughts of what others think of him, his external person. By book’s end, after trials with his best friend, the Hogwarts student body, and a dragon, he is able to shrug off a front-page hatchet job in the wizarding world’s main newspaper.
Finally, in Order of the Phoenix, Harry is consumed by a desire for news. He struggles to listen to television, agonizes over the lack of reports from friends, and wanders his neighborhood in search of newspapers in trashcans. At the end, he is aware of his need to turn inward and to discover and strengthen his inner life, and he knows that his dependence on the outer world and its events was his point of vulnerability, by which Voldemort manipulated him, and of the weakness that helped cause his godfather’s death.
So Rowling seems to have given the reader lots of obvious hints that the books use alchemical symbols. This takes us to test two: Are both the design and predominant imagery of the books alchemical? They are.
First, the design. Let me give three examples. The first is the analogy of the roles of sulfur and mercury in alchemy with the roles of Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione in the books. The alchemical work purifies a base metal by dissolving and recongealing the metal using two principal reagents or catalysts. These reagents reflect the masculine and feminine polarities of existence. “Alchemical sulfur” represents the masculine, impulsive, and red pole, while “quicksilver” or “alchemical mercury” represents the feminine and cool complement. Together and separately these reagents advance the base metal to gold.
Harry’s two closest friends are Ron Weasley, the redheaded, passionate boy, and Hermione Granger, the brilliant, cool young woman. They are also living symbols of alchemical sulfur (Ron) and mercury (Hermione). Together, and more obviously, in their disagreements and separation, Harry’s friendships with Ron and Hermione transform him from lead to gold. Sulfur and quicksilver are frequently called “the quarreling couple,” an apt name for Ron and Hermione.
The second example is the way the stages of alchemy are illustrated in the cycle of each book. What has often been described as Harry’s annual hero journey is in fact the cycle of the alchemical transformation—and each stage of the work, in case you need a road sign, has a character named for it in the Harry Potter books. (I am using Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery to describe the stages and their traditional imagery.)
The first stage of the alchemical work is dissolution, usually called the nigredo or the black stage. In this black, initial stage, “the body of the impure metal, the matter for the Stone, or the old, outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied, and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form.” Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, is named for this stage of the work.
The second stage is purification, usually called the albedo or white work. It follows the ablution or washing of the prima materia, which causes it to turn a brilliant white. “When the matter reaches the albedo, it has become pure and spotless.” Albus Dumbledore (albus is Latin for “white, resplendent”) is named for this stage of the work. Frequently used symbols of the albedo stage of the work in pictorial representations and descriptions of it are the moon (Luna in Latin), the name of one of Harry’s friends in the fifth book, and a lily, the name of his mother, who gave her life to save his.
The third and last stage of the chemical work is recongealing or the perfection, usually called the rubedo or the red stage. The purified matter is now
Rubeus Hagrid (rubeus is Latin for red) is named for this stage. A common symbol of the red work and the Philosopher’s Stone is the red lion.16
Each book thus far is a trip through these stages. The black work or dissolution is the work done on Harry at Privet Drive by the Dursleys and in the classroom at Hogwarts by a teacher, Snape, who hates him. The white work or purification is Harry’s year at Hogwarts under the watchful eye of the white alchemist, Albus Dumbledore, in combination with painful separation from Ron, Hermione, or both. The red work or rubedo is the climactic crucible scene, so far always underground or in a graveyard, in which Harry always dies a figurative death and is saved by love in the presence of a Christological symbol.
The resurrection at story’s end each year is the culmination of that year’s cycle and transformation. The cycle then closes with congratulations and explanations from the master alchemist and a return to the Dursleys for another trip through the cycle.17
The third example is the way alchemy explains the structure and bizarre events of the latest book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. From its hot and dry beginnings in Harry’s sojourn in the House of Black to his time at Hogwarts under the police state of Dolores Umbridge (a fascinating cryptonym, which may mean “grieving resentment,” “grievous shadow,” or “a woman who blocks the sun”) to the death of his godfather at the end, Order of the Phoenix is the nigredo volume of the series.
Harry is burnt up, broken down or dissolved, and bled until everything that he thought he was—star Quidditch player, his best friend’s superior, pet of the headmaster, lover of his school, son and spitting image of a great man, victim of the Dursleys, valiant enemy of Snape, even his being the hero and man of action in time of crisis—is taken from him or revealed as falsehood. The boundaries of his world collapse; magical enemies come to his home with the Dursleys, and Aunt Petunia knows about them. The Dursleys’ house is no longer a sanctuary, however miserable, and Hogwarts is no longer edifying or any joy to him.
The world is no longer separated into good guys and bad guys. Harry has been reduced to his formless elements. Whether the white stage is to follow this black novel, however, and a climax to follow in the seventh and final book turning on Hagrid the Red, Order of the Phoenix is Rowling’s nigredo volume.
Imagery & Symbolism
I hope this description of the design of the books will suffice at least as an argument, if not a demonstration or proof (which is hardly possible short of Rowling’s confession) that the Harry Potter books are built on an alchemical formula or structure. What do the books’ imagery and symbolism tell us? Here are three quick examples: the alchemical images in Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix and the use of doppelgangers in all the books.
First, the alchemical images in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Harry’s preparation for each trial in the Tri-Wizard Tournament by fire, water, or labyrinth are each from the alchemical work. Dragons symbolize matter at the beginning of the work being resolved into philosophical sulfur and mercury. The bath is “the secret, inner, invisible fire that dissolves and kills, cleanses and resurrects the matter of the Stone in the vessel,” while immersion in water and floods symbolizes “the dissolution and putrefaction of the matter of the Stone during the black nigredo stage.”18
In his “dangerous journey” through the labyrinth, a symbol of the alchemical work, “illusion and confusion reign and the alchemist is in danger of losing all connection and clarity.” The climactic confrontation with Voldemort happens in a graveyard, and the grave is “the alchemist’s vessel during the nigredo.” All the alchemical images of Harry’s four Tri-Wizard tasks are preparatory for the black stage or nigredo of the great work, to come in Order of the Phoenix.
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry has been undone by his experiences: He knows his parents aren’t gods; he can’t play quidditch; his lack of self-awareness and his resentment and self-pity cause his godfather’s death; he can’t act at will; he can’t get information; his mentor Dumbledore is strangely absent; the world hates him; he suffers privately for the truth (“I will not tell lies”); and his friends are honored before him. This dissolution, though, is not his purification, and so we are left at book’s end with only the formless dregs of Harry’s character, which, frankly, are not pretty.
There are other alchemical symbols in Order of the Phoenix as well—the black king, for example. Kingsley Shacklebolt is not a token black character but an alchemical reference to the “black king.” The king of the alchemical work must die, usually by drowning, and “at this stage the matter is at its blackest black and is known as the black king.”19
His new friend Luna is another alchemical symbol. “Luna is the bride, the white queen, consort of King Sol. She is the moist, cold, receptive principle which must be united with Sol, the dry, hot, active principle in the chemical wedding.” A girlfriend for the hot and dry—burned to a cinder—Harry? Luna “symbolizes the attainment of the perfect white stage, the albedo, where the matter of the Stone reaches absolute purity.”20 (Look for Harry and Luna to be a couple in the sixth book—much to Hermione’s and Professor McGonagall’s disgust.)
One of the weirder images of Order of the Phoenix is the heads of dead house elves lining the stairway at the House of Black (“house,” by the way, is alchemical language for alembic or vessel). I first thought Rowling was pointing graphically to the sufferings of house elves (which leads to horrible consequences for everyone). She may well be doing so, but “head of the dead” is also a symbol for “the initial stage of the opus, the black nigredo.”21 How appropriate for wall hangings in the House of Black!
Harry’s parents, James Potter and Lily Evans, at last become three-dimensional in Order of the Phoenix, and we get to see the reason, or at least one reason, why Snape hates Harry so much. Harry gets to watch his 15-year-old father, of whom he is almost a mirror image, and learns that his dad was a conceited bully whom his mother at that age despised. “Lily” is synonymous in the alchemical work with “Luna.”22 No doubt we will learn in the next books how James was tried in the fire to win the lily that reflects the achievement of the second stage of the work.
And how about the sacrificial bird in the title of this book, the loyal hero? The phoenix is an alchemical “symbol of renewal and resurrection signifying the philosopher’s stone, especially the red stone attained at the rubedo, capable of transmuting base metals into pure gold.”23
There are many more alchemical images. A quick run through one alchemical imagery dictionary threw light on all the following subjects and symbols featured in the Potter series, each of which has an alchemical meaning that deepens Rowling’s decision to use them in her story: bee (Dumbledore), blood, bolthead, castle, cervus fugitivus (stag), raven (raven’s head), cupid, eagle, griffin, lazy Henry (Harry), house, melancholia, metamorphosis, night, orphan, red man and white woman (Ron and Hermione), king, serpent, ship, Sol, skeleton, sulphur, quicksilver, tears, toad, unicorn, wolf, and worm.
The third example of alchemical imagery in the books is Rowling’s frequent use of doppelgangers. A doppelganger is a creature’s complementary figure or shadow, which reveals aspects of its character otherwise invisible. Think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
Many of Rowling’s characters are “animagi,” who can change into an animal shape (James, Sirius, Peter, Minerva, Rita—and I’ll add Dumbledore, who I bet is the tawny owl that appears in several places). Nymphadora Tonks is a “metamorphmagus” or shape-changer. Others characters are “half-breeds” or children of non-magical parents (Hagrid, Olympe, Fleur, Lily, Tom Riddle, Hermione, Remus, Tonks, and Snape, assuming he is a vampire). Harry, because he grew up as a Muggle, has an honorary membership here.
The books also include several “threshold characters,” whom scholars call “liminal” (Snape, Dobby the house elf, Firenze, Hagrid, Remus, Peter, Neville, the squibs Argus and Arabella, Mundungus, and Percy, who seems to have crossed the threshold in Phoenix). These live in two worlds or so far to the periphery of their own world that they cannot fit into the usual categories (good guy or bad guy, insider or outsider, for instance).
Many twins, pairs, and brothers appear in the books as well (George and Fred, the Weasley troop, Hagrid and Grawp, Sirius and James, Ron and Hermione, Slytherine and Gryffindor, Lily and Petunia, Peter and Neville, as a cross-generational pair of look-alikes, and Harry and Neville, who are joined by the prophecy).24 Double-natured creatures include centaurs, griffins, hippogriffs, and the sphinx, with a special mention due to the phoenix, thestral, and unicorn, because they are not what they seem, namely, bird or horse or even bird/horse/dragon.
And finally, the books hinge on the relation of Harry and Voldemort. Order of the Phoenix begins with three mentions of Harry’s feeling that his skull has been split in two, and one has to imagine it must crack right down that jagged scar. It turns out that Harry’s head really is divided and he has an unwelcome guest. He isn’t carrying a passenger like Quirrell, nor is he possessed as was Ginny but Harry has a double nature or shadow in his link to Voldemort—and his inability to turn inward and confront this shadow is the cause of the tragedy at the book’s end. Like his dad at fifteen, he was willingly blind to the “back of his front.”
This pairing or unity in division is a central theme of the Harry Potter books, and it has an alchemical meaning. The activity of alchemy is the chemical marriage of the imbalanced “arguing couple” of masculine sulfur and feminine quicksilver. These antipodal qualities have to be reconciled and resolved, “die” and be “reborn,” after conjunction before recongealing in a perfected golden unity.
Certainly, the similarity of this language to the Christian spiritual path is remarkable—and understandably so, because the symbols of the completion of the alchemical work are also traditional ciphers for Christ, the God/Man, in whose sinless two natures Christians are called to perfection in his Mystical Body, the Church. Dumbledore uses the language of Chalcedon in Order of the Phoenix (chapter 21), in fact, to distinguish the two natures and essence of Harry and Voldemort.
But the old and the new man cannot live together in the same person or world—and this is Harry’s war with his doppelganger or twin-in-spirit, Lord Voldemort. Love has overcome death in each of the books’ endings thus far; I expect this will be the series’ end as well.
I discussed four principal themes in The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: prejudice, death, choice, and change. How do these themes appear in the light of alchemy? I think Rowling’s meaning crystallizes around the alchemical perspective of these ideas.
Every Harry Potter book is a rewrite of “pride and prejudice.” These vices are the defining qualities of those characters who despise the double-natured creatures about them and who are blind to the leaden soul or “old man” within themselves. Rowling’s signature surprise endings, in which the good guy is revealed to be a bad one and vice versa, alongside her hateful renderings of the prejudiced, are meant to awaken in us some awareness of our own pride, prejudice, and need for purification.
Death is a necessary part of the alchemical work; only in the death of one thing, from the alchemical perspective, is the greater thing born. (Alchemists frequently cited John 12:24 and Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.25) But Love, the action of contraries and their resolution, transcends death. Love brings life out of death, even eternal life and spiritual perfection. This is a direct match with Rowling’s message about how to understand death and love.
Harry’s changes have always come as consequences of his heroic choices; Dumbledore has never failed to say in his farewell talks that it is one’s choices that determine who you will be, not your birthright (if you have any). But the complement of choice or free will is fate and destiny—and this complement to choice appears in Order of the Phoenix via the prophecy of which Harry (or Neville) is the fulfillment.
Rowling is resolving the traditional problem of fate and free will alchemically; Harry has a destiny (it seems) in this prophecy as, I think, the heir of Gryffindor, but he will only fulfill this destiny by making right choices. This again echoes the Christian/alchemical message that we are created as images of God, but in order to become his likeness, we must die to the old, fallen man in us, and choose rightly the means to our perfection.
So we arrive at the last of our three tests of the evidence for or against Rowling being an alchemical writer in the tradition of the English Greats. Are there better or just simpler explanations? I can think of only two.
First, the fertility of Rowling’s imagination. This is the simplest alternative, that Rowling’s use of alchemical imagery is either a coincidence or a case of artists in different places and times being inspired by the same playful muse. This explanation suggests that her art is somehow “accidental,” which is not plausible, given the obvious extent of her knowledge of alchemical imagery and her skillful use of it in her books.
Second, the imaginative compost of her reading. Rowling has said in several interviews that her books’ inspirations are drawn from the compost in her mind of all the books she has read. She did not say, however, that her inspiration went without careful sifting and plotting (some seven years before the first book was written). Her characters, plots, themes, and imagery were not items that she picked from the top of her imaginative pile without discernment.
I do not think there is a simpler or better explanation for the preponderance of alchemical references, themes, structures, images, and symbols in the Harry Potter books than the common-sense notion that Rowling is writing alchemical literature. I am not saying alchemy explains everything about Harry Potter, but I am saying that understanding the use of alchemy in the literary tradition will help a reader appreciate what Rowling is doing in these books.
As I argued in The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, Rowling, like the Inklings, is a throwback to the tradition of Greats prior to the twentieth century, who wrote edifying Christian entertainments and literature. These writers used alchemical imagery because it so powerfully presents Christian truths for readers and helps them experience them imaginatively, as a prelude to experiencing them liturgically.
Why are these books so popular? What need do they fill? What longing do they satisfy? No other series that I know of, with the possible exception of Dickens’s serials, has ever created such a huge and diverse readership. Does the author’s use of alchemy help explain why the books are so popular?
At least in part. Rowling clearly understands both “alchemy in literature” and the “alchemy of literature.” Her books satisfy the need in us, born in a profane culture without heroes or avenues of transcendent experience—a materialist world in which such experience is not considered possible by “serious people”—of at least an imaginative experience of human transformation and perfection. We get this experience in our identification with Harry, and we are better, more human even, for having been at least for a while in the alembic vessel, changing from spiritual lead to gold, dying and rising from the dead. In brief, Rowling’s novels are so popular because her works transform the human person via imaginative identification, katharsis, and resurrection.
The great irony in the objections that Rowling’s books undermine or violate the tenets of the Christian faith is that her books offer initiation, not into the occult, but into the symbolist worldview of revealed faiths (and sacramental religions specifically) and the dominant symbols and doctrines of traditional Christianity. Ignorance of alchemy and the larger traditions of English literature—not to mention the Christian understanding of the relations of faith and secular culture—has caused many to turn away a great help, perhaps providential, in the trouble and struggle we have to prepare our children for fully human, which is to say “spiritual,” lives. •
1. Secret of Shakespeare (Aquarian Press, 1984).
John Granger is an Orthodox Reader and the author of several books about Harry Potter, including How Harry Cast His Spell (SaltRiver, 2008) and The Deathly Hallows Lectures (Zossima Press, 2008). His website is HogwartsProfessor.com.
“The Alchemist’s Tale” first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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The Mustard Seed & the Wonders of His Kingdom
Transgender Disorder & Really Bad Psychiatry
On Christian Stewardship & Climate Change
Why the Design in Living Things Goes Far Beyond Machinery
On Mathematical Certainty & the Liberty of Faith
What the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Means for Us