Mailbag: Dickens as Literary Alchemist?

Susan wrote:

As a Harry Potter fanatic, I have really enjoyed your books and learning about Literary Alchemy. I understand that A Tale of Two Cities is a classic example of a book with this structure. Could you refer or recommend where I could learn about the Alchemical components of this story?

Also I’ve seen several references to A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery as a good reference, however it is rather expensive. Do you have any ideas of where to find a reasonable used copy, or another less expensive resource?

Dear Susan,

Forgive me for jumping without courtesies and in haste right to your questions!

(1) To my knowledge, I’m the only person talking about literary alchemy in Tale of Two Cities, which, frankly, is daunting. (See Harry Potter’s Bookshelf or just search this site.) Fortunately for my mental well being (who wants to be called “deluded” or a “critic with an alchemy fixation/hobby horse”?), other friends who are familiar with hermetic formula a la Shakespeare have confirmed I’m not just making this up. Of course, this could mean we have a group-think delusion in hand, no?

If you have your doubts about Dickens as alchemist, though, read his The Haunted Man, a Christmas novella in three parts like Tale of Two Cities, featuring a chemist, a loving, poor family with six boys and a caboose girl, a ‘Voldemort-baby-at-King’s-Cross’ doppelganger, and a treatise about memory not so carefully put in with the melodrama. Watch the colors as you run through the three parts…

(2) The best prices for Abraham’s Dictionary I found at BookFinder4U.com were from the US — and, at more than $30 after including the S&H costs, the price still seems very steep. It’s too bad, because the book really is invaluable to the serious reader. The entry on ‘The Philosophical Tree’ I stumbled on recently has me reconsidering how I’ve understood C. S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew, for instance.

This probably seems gross but I urge you in addition to that book to find a copy of Lyndy Abraham’s Marvell and Alchemy (Scolar Press [not a typo], 1990).

The first chapter is her explanation of the historical context of alchemy, both metallurgical and literary in 16th and 17th Century Great Britain, and the references in it to Everard and Culpeper alone have me more than half-convinced that it is one of the books on alchemy Rowling read in her first years of plotting and planning the Hogwarts Saga. 

Marvell and Alchemy lists at $130, alas, but copies can be had for $50; in the US and for £24.00 in the UK. I got mine through Interlibrary Loan. Well worth the wait and hassle that this can be, believe me!

I hope that helps — please let me know how your adventures in hermetic literature turn out.

Fraternally black, white, and red,

John

 

Puns, Prophecy, and Pizza

On Puns, Considered in Shakespeare According to Hermetic Principles

“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is, in my opinion, the epitome of everything a good pun should be (and yes, there is such a thing as a good pun).  And in the spirit of good analysis and not-so-great humor, I will now explain precisely how this joke works and why.

The context is important here. The speaker, Mercutio, lies dying, having been mortally wounded by Tybalt. Mercutio is precisely the sort of character who takes very little seriously. Here, even as he is about to die, he makes a pun. Whatever he is, he is not “grave” in the sense of being serious. However, he is about to die and thus will find himself in a “grave”, namely the place where one buries dead bodies. That said, the only time he could ever be “grave” (sense 1) is if he is in a grave (sense 2). Thus the full sense of “you shall find me a grave man” is “you’ll take away my sense of humor over my dead body, which it presently will be”, which we may label “grave” (sense 3).

[Read more…]

Reading, Writing, Rowling: It’s Tolkien!

From Laurie Beckoff’s write-up at MuggleNet:

What does the Wizarding World owe to Middle-Earth?

This month, Katy and John talk about the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling with guests Dr. Sara Brown (Rydal Penrhos School and Signum University) and Dr. Amy Sturgis (Lenoir-Rhyne University). Though Rowling has minimized the influence of Tolkien’s saga on her own world-building, readers can spot several connections at the superficial level, from names (Wormtongue/Wormtail, Butterbur/butterbeer, Longbottom) to frightening magical beings (Ringwraiths/Dementors, Shelob/Aragog) and important magical objects (Mirror of Galadriel/Mirror of Erised/Pensieve). The influence carries over to the themes (coping with mortality, loyalty, and friendship) as well as their critiques of modern society. Both series classify as “fairy stories” according to Tolkien’s definitive essay on the subject. Dr Sturgis calls Rowling’s work “a modern-day Tolkienian project.”

Such influence does not mean that Rowling’s wizarding world is derivative. John explains how the source of the two critiques of the modern operate in different ways (conservative or subversive). Sara agrees that both are responding to modernity, though they approach the modern from distinctive points of view – one longingly looking to the past and the other hopefully looking toward the future – which relate to the distinctive times in the 20th century during which they wrote their fiction. Their approaches to transformation are revealed in their uses of literary alchemy, and Sara provides an alchemical metanarrative for the Middle-earth saga. John suggests that Rowling did not learn literary alchemy from Tolkien, but that both authors derive their understanding from deep reading in the western literary tradition.

We delve into the authors’ world-building, their narrative patterns, their evocation of mythology, and even their creation of new collective myths. Comparing these two authors’ worlds allows readers to deepen their understanding of how narratives work to depict as well as create profound transformation.

And that is only Part 1!

The Duchess of Malfi (1972)

The Duchess of Malfi, a play by John Webster, makes up much of the backdrop to Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm and its literary antecedents, namely, Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and P. D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin (see my discussion of this influence here). You had a wonderful education indeed if you read this play or saw it performed as a young person in the United States, where, in my experience at least, ‘Early Modern Drama’ means ten generous helpings of Shakespeare at least to any condiment-sized presentations or discussion of Jonson, Kyd, or Webster.

I was delighted to find, consequently, a British production pf Duchess of Malfi in period costume available free online. I reproduce its first four parts below and provide a link to the rest of the show at the end for your easy access. Free online texts if you choose to read before viewing or while watching can be found at Gutenberg.com as plain text, at LarryAvisBrown.com with notes, and at FullBooks.com as poetry per the Arden edition.

For the remaining nine parts of this production, see the full collection on YouTube. Enjoy — and let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

‘Alchemical Gardens & Fantastic Beasts’

Brady Pendelton has posted a hermetic interpretation of J. K. Rowling’s first two Fantastic Beasts screenplays,Alchemical Gardens and Fantastic Beasts.He spends most of the essay discussing traditional English literature’s alchemical stream with special attention on the meaning of Garden imagery and symbolism. Almost all of that was new to me and it proved a delightful challenge.

When he gets to the discussion of Fantastic Beasts, the text becomes challenging in a different way and I found it difficult to follow his argument or to see the connections he does between alchemy and the transformations taking place in the first two films. Even in my hurried reading, though, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by some of Mr Pendelton’s points, especially those about Jacob Kowalski, whose last name, it turns out, means ‘Smith.’ You don’t get much more metallurgical than that and even in the first movie the changes he goes through are remarkable.

Are there problems with the essay? Sure. I found one distracting mistake, for instance, the assertion that Newt “asks Jacob” to be obliviated at the end of Beasts. There may be more missteps I missed. I enjoyed his discussion of Marvell and the aside about ‘The Hanged Man.’ Your mileage may vary; it’s pretty esoteric stuff and the argument is not conventionally discursive. I wish, too, there had been a lot more on the screenplays and its alchemical content, especially Crimes of Grindelwald. He doesn’t mention the couples as representatives of the four elements, Dumbledore and Grindelwald as the Quarreling Couple of Mercury and Sulphur, or Nicolas Flamel.

Those problems aside, though, it’s a serious bit of writing about literary alchemy and Rowling’s latest Wizarding World writing adventure. GiveAlchemical Gardens and Fantastic Beasts the time it and the subject merits — and then let me know what you think of it in the comment boxes below!