Danger, Herman Melville! Much-Needed Literary Notes in the Lost in Space Re-boot

I’m always a little leery of re-boots of classics, particularly classic science fiction shows. I loved the cheesy old Image result for lost in space 2018Battlestar Galactica and was let down by the darker, modern interpretation, just for one example. However, I decided to give Netflix’s new take on Lost in Space a try, mainly because it looked good, and because I never cared much for the original, so I knew that it wouldn’t damage my youthful expectations. And, to be totally honest, I was just delighted by the fact that if the show becomes popular, most of my students may not look at me in bewilderment when I try to warn them off Wikipedia or Cliffnotes as sources for their essays by waving my arms and yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson!” So, I gave it a whirl. After just one episode, I am already intrigued, not just because the effects are awesome and the kids are charismatic (though really, kids, if your name is Will, and you are on a Netflix show, there is a really good chance that you will get lost someplace scary and that large chunks of the script will consist of family members yelling your name…). What excites me are the fantastic literary hints that tie this new series into some of the old texts that we love and discuss here. So fasten your safety belt, and join me after the jump to get lost in some literature! [Read more…]

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: http://rggu.com/

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,