Sara Brown: Tolkien’s Literary Alchemy

ChrisC sent me a Christmas present this morning: a lecture by Signum University’s Dr. Sara Brown on the Literary Alchemy imbedded in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I share this delightful gift with you in the hope you find it as challenging and compelling an argument as I did. The lecture proper begins at 4:00 at the link and is only 20 minutes long — well worth your time, believe me!

Not being any more than a Tolkien fan, I long ago gave up on an alchemical reading of this epic (largely because a book on the subject, Shelton’s Alchemy in Middle-Earth, struck me as border-line absurd in its overreach [e.g., that Tolkien was familiar with medieval Arabic alchemical texts]). I am excited about Dr. Brown’s cogent presentation of the alchemical markers in LOTR because it opens up the possibility, much more credible because of Rowling’s documented close study of that work, that it is an important inspiration for her own use of hermetic symbolism in the Hogwarts Saga.

Please share your thoughts below! Happy holidays to those of you celebrating Western Christmas today!

Registration is Now Open for Potter Pundits Summer School: Sign Up Today! First Class? Harry and Literary Alchemy

Register for ‘Potter Pundit Summer School’ Now! Totally Free. One week only, four free talks and a live webinar with limited seating — don’t delay, right?

Please sign up and share the news with your friends by email and social media. Thanks in advance for spreading the news.

PDFs of the transcript for my Literary Alchemy lecture and of a complete bibliography with 47 alchemical guides are posted at the first talk’s web page. Once you register, you’ll be taken there automatically. See you at Potter Pundits Summer School!

Harry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s ‘Relationship’ with Vladimir Nabokov (Names, Politics, Alchemy, and Parody)

f38696614It’s been fifteen years since I started thinking seriously and speaking publicly about the literary merits of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I am still surprised at how much work there is to be done, how many mysteries and markers that have been neglected.

Take, as an obvious example, the matter of the author’s favorite books and writers. She says the three she enjoys reading most are Jane Austen, Colette, and Vladimir Nabokov. Go ahead and do a web search for ‘Rowling and Colette’ or ‘Rowling and Nabokov.’ You’ll find links to the various lists of Rowling’s ‘10 Most Loved Novels‘ and the like in which the same comments are re-rehearsed with different covers as click bait. But no discussion of Colette, Nabokov (or Roddy Doyle or Auberon Waugh, and, well, you get the idea) and their place in understanding what Rowling, the serious reader become writer, was after in the Hogwarts Saga.

BookshelfI wrote a book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, on ‘the Great Books Inside the Adventures of the Boy Who Lived’ and it’s a grand tour of Western Canon through the lens of Rowling’s septology. It wasn’t, however, despite frequent quotations from The Presence to justify my choices of texts to discuss, J. K. Rowling’s Library, a book by Karin Westman, chair of the Kansas State English Department. Prof Westman announced the imminent publication of this guide at Nimbus 2003 in Orlando, Florida, and her CV says it is “forthcoming, 2017” today (the University of Mississippi Press, her publisher, alas, does not list it among their titles soon to be in print).

This is a shame, if understandable given Prof Westman’s responsibilities, because, judging from what she has shared through the years about Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, and other Rowling favorites at conferences, no one is more qualified than she to write on this subject. While we wait for J. K. Rowling’s Library, though, let’s take a look at that “favorites” list again and see what we can figure out in anticipation of Prof Westman’s guidance.

Lolita 20The writer I’ve been reading, both his novels as well as books about his fascinating life, is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and I have a small confession to make. The experience of reading his Pale Fire and Lolita, considered among the best if not just the best American novels of the 20th Century (Lolita even makes the #15 slot on this Greatest Books Ever list) has turned my thinking about Rowling as novelist on its head, maybe even inside-out. If nothing else, I have a new “hidden key” to share.

First, though, let’s establish the Rowling-Nabokov link through her comments about the Man from St. Petersburg and the clear correspondences and probable hat-tips to his best known works in Harry Potter. [Read more…]

Mailbag: Do You Have to See the Alchemy in a Story to Experience It?

f38703334I received a note the day before yesterday from a graduate student in the Russian Federation. Her questions about alchemy — do any readers see alchemical symbolism as they read? and, assuming not, obscure as it is to almost everyone’s conscious mind, how can it have the effect it supposedly has? — are subjects we’ve touched on before and perhaps should again. With her permission, then, here is our brief correspondence on this subject:

Dear Mr. Granger!

About two years ago you and me had a little email conversation about “Harry Potter” and Russian literature. I am now reading your book “The Deathly Hallows Lectures”, one chapter from which you kindly sent me back then.

I am currently doing my post-graduate program in Russian State Humanities University, Moscow, and my dissertation is built around “Harry Potter”, fan fiction in “Harry Potter” fan community in particular. Your books inspired me to analyze the perception Russian fans have over English cultural and literature traditions, symbols, images and levels of meaning, described in Harry Potter novels. However, the first thing that I need to understand in order to succeed in my research is whether English-speaking readers can see the symbols and literary references in “Harry Potter”.

f39171430What would you say about the amount of readers from fan community that can catch these symbols? And do you think they use this knowledge in those fan’s texts? Excuse me for this question as I am not sure if you are not involved in “Harry Potter” fan’s texts analysis or not.

My dissertation will be the first paper on the perception that Russian fans have over English cultural and literature traditions written in Russian. Your books are very useful for my research, which I am very grateful about! I often mention you in my reports on different philological science conferences.

Sincerely yours,

My response:

Dear Lisa, if I may (my keyboard does not have Cyrillic keys and I don’t dare attempt a transliteration of your last name; please forgive me),

Thank you for your kind note and for the interesting work you are doing.

In answer to your questions:

the first thing that I need to understand in order to succeed in my research is whether English-speaking readers can see the symbols and literary references in “Harry Potter”.What would you say about the amount of readers from fan community that can catch these symbols?

IdiotsVery few of the readers of Harry Potter consciously grasp the symbols in play in Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga. Which failing, of course, is why they work so powerfully. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version, “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.” Some readers have cited the obscurity of Rowling’s alchemical imagery as a reason for doubting its importance; as I explain in ‘What Alchemy Does in Harry Potter,’ they have this exactly upside down — the difficulty of seeing it with the cranial mind is evidence of its being picked up by the cardiac intelligence or ‘heart.’ This is at least as true in the ring composition structure of the work, all of which parallelisms escape reader attention.

I wrote something about the power of subliminal suggestion for both advertising and literary effect that may be helpful, too: it’s called Shaping Souls Subliminally. Let me know what you think!

And do you think they use this knowledge in those fan’s texts? Excuse me for this question as I am not sure if you are not involved in “Harry Potter” fan’s texts analysis or not.

f39080678I’m guessing by “fan’s text analysis” you mean what we call ‘fan fiction’? If so, I’m sorry; as a rule, I don’t read it. Quite a few writers, though, have written me about the tools Rowling uses in hopes of applying them in their work. We can certainly see soul triptychs, alchemy, and ring scaffolding in Stephenie Meyer’sTwilight books and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels. So, yes, Rowling’s artistry is being used by admiring readers, if I cannot say they have been in fan fiction.

With admiration,

John, in haste, grateful for your note and work

Dear Mr. Granger!

Thanks for so quick answer! I will read the link (“Shaping Souls Subliminally…”) you sent me.

The content of your website will be very useful for my dissertation.

Of course you may post our exchange without changing my name. My full name is Elizaveta K. Timoshenko. The university where I am doing my post-graduate program is Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), Moscow. This is the link to the university website:

f38696614I would also add that there are a lot of dissertations about “Harry Potter” in Russian (about some language aspects, youth subculture, postmodernism features, translation transformations), but my paper will be the first one devoted to the Russian fans’ perception of English cultural and literature traditions (based on Russian and English fan fiction in HP fan community).

It is sad to admit that there is no deep analysis of the texts, written by fans, in Russian Philology. Fan fiction is regarded as texts written by graphomaniacs that should not be taken into consideration.

Kind regards,

Rowling Confirms Literary Alchemy in PotterMore Post– about Father Figures?

Yes, Yes, I’ve heard! Joanne Rowling is talking about her use of alchemical colors. In a post last week on Pottermore about Father Figures, the Presence herself admits that Rubeus Hagrid and Albus Dumbledore have their names from the alchemical colors red and white. But here’s the thing all the stories in print and online miss about this revelation: she told us this back in October 2013.

It’s not news, alas.

First, in case you missed this, check out these links to the story as reported in TIME ‘Here’s What New Information J. K. Rowling Revealed on Pottermore’ — and ‘CinemaBlend’ — ‘J. K. Rowling Reveals the Two Characters Who Represented Harry Potter’s Ideal Father Figures.’

No mention of her 1998 comments about wanting to be an alchemist in either one, right? Or the October 2013 alchemical colors discussion on Pottermore? Nada.

Here’s what she posted about alchemy last week if you want the cheat-sheet short-cut:


Alchemy … was once believed to be possible and real. However, the central quest of alchemy may be more complex, and less materialistic, than it first appears. One interpretation of the ‘instructions’ left by the alchemists is that they are symbolic of a spiritual journey…

The colours red and white are mentioned many times in old texts on alchemy. One interpretation is that they, like base metal and gold, represent two different sides of human nature, which must be reconciled. This was the inspiration for the Christian names of Rubeus (red) Hagrid and Albus (white) Dumbledore. These two men, both hugely important to Harry, seem to me to represent two sides of the ideal father figure he seeks; the former is warm, practical and wild, the latter impressive, intellectual, and somewhat detached.”


Although there are books on alchemy in the library at Hogwarts, and I always imagined that it would be studied by very clever students in their sixth and seventh years, Hermione most uncharacteristically ignores the opportunity. Perhaps she feels (as Harry and Ron certainly do) that, far from wishing to make another Philosopher’s Stone, they would be happy never to see another one in their lives.

Contrast this with what she posted in 2013:

Colours also played their part in the naming of Hagrid and Dumbledore, whose first names are Rubeus (red) and Albus (white) respectively. The choice was a nod to alchemy, which is so important in the first Harry Potter book, where ‘the red’ and ‘the white’ are essential mystical components of the process. The symbolism of the colours in this context has mystic meaning, representing different stages of the alchemic process (which many people associate with a spiritual transformation).

Where my two characters were concerned, I named them for the alchemical colours to convey their opposing but complementary natures: red meaning passion (or emotion); white for asceticism; Hagrid being the earthy, warm, physical man, lord of the forest; Dumbledore the spiritual theoretician, brilliant, idealized and somewhat detached. Each is a necessary counterpoint to the other as Harry seeks father figures in his new world.

So… the net gain is that we now know (1) that Ms. Rowling thinks alchemy is something All Stars at Hogwarts can study (in Transfigurations? Potions?) before graduation and (2) that she is an ardent online environmentalist, which is to say, she re-packages, re-uses, and re-cycles her bon mots.

One of my daydream delusions is that one day The Presence will be interviewed by a panel of Potter Pundits that are more scholars than sycophants. I expect the Lord will return first. This being the case, rather than put these thin, repeated comments under the microscope — is she saying that alchemy is primarily psychological because it is part of Harry’s search for “father figures” even though she acknowledges alchemists believe theirs is a spiritual journey? — let’s look back at our previous discussions of this subject.

One re-run deserves another.

Rowling Confesses Desire to be an Alchemist (2007)

PotterMore: J. K. Rowling Discusses Alchemical Colors (October 2013)

Be sure to read the comments on this thread about Sirius Black, et cetera.

Thanks to the many friends who sent me the news of this sort of new posting!