Guest Post: Portrait of the Alchemist as Young Man – Joyce as Literary Alchemist

Brent Seegmiller and I have been corresponding on literary achemy and related topics since 2014 but he just gave me his permission yesterday to publish his thoughts on the hermetic aspect of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I think it is important work for three reasons: (1) The alchemy in Joyce has been explored for his Ulysses and for Finnegan’s Wake but not for the eary works most students have read, i.e., Dubliners and Portrait, (2) Joyce, especially for those who have never read him, is the consensus pick for “Greatest Novelist Ever;” and (3) therefore, learning that Joyce, a la Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Inklings, used alchemical story scaffolding and symbolism, makes Rowling’s use that much more credible and, one hopes, the subject of further study. We need more Potter Pundits like Brent Seegmiller and Evan Willis, whose exposition on the hermeticism embedded in Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike I posted last week. Enjoy!

A Portrait of the Alchemist as a Young Man: Alchemy, Myth, and Metaphor in Joyce’s Work

Brent A. Seegmiller 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been called James Joyce’s “most personal work”1. This rings true in light of the title, Stephen’s experiences, and Joyce’s vocation as renown Irish aesthete. Both Stephen and Joyce have a complex way with words and even more complex relationship to them.

As one scholar has opined, “A Portrait illustrates a contradictory dynamic by narrating Stephen’s gradual move towards a diasporic vocation that is imagined both as a radical break with the homeland and as its symbolic renewal. Epiphany and leitmotif represent the antagonistic yet closely intertwined extremes of this development. By switching back and forth between them, Joyce creates not only a “polyrhythmic” texture previously unknown to Anglophone fiction, but also moves the time-honored novel of development. The dozens of different motifs that circulate in A Portrait gain in complexity with each and every occurrence. In a word, they develop. Their structuring logic isn’t that of the closed circle, but rather that of William Butler Yeats’s ‘widening gyre’.”2

This relationship is represented well in the epigraph from Ovid, “And he turned his mind to unknown arts”3 as well as in the final words of the novel “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”4. These passages, which echo the sentiment of each other, imply not only invention within the arts but also within what is known as the “Royal Art” of alchemy.

As Stephen Daedalus grows so too does the narration and its complexity. Much has been made of the religious intonations, the cries of Irish Nationalism, and the philosophical underpinnings of Stephen’s aesthetic epiphanies replete throughout the novel but there is a key element of the novel which has gone underwhelming represented in the academic literature; that is the novel’s relationship to the alchemical process. [Read more…]

Guest Post: Rowling’s Mercurial Hermetic Artistry from Snape to Strike

Late last month, a reader wrote a note on an old thread about the role of Severus Snape in the alchemical artistry of Harry Potter. “Hi, I don’t know if this question has been asked before, but in HP, which alchemical (or else) role embodies Severus Snape ?” More than ten years ago, I wrote a longish post on this subject, a post that aimed to refute the idea that Snape was the ‘Green Lion’ of the Great Work.

I have been corresponding with Evan Willis, though, since 2015 on this very subject and his work is the best by far I have read on the subject of Snape and alchemy. He has recently expanded his critique to include Cormoran Strike and what we might expect in Lethal White along the mythological, Orestian, and alchemical lines Rowling/Galbraith seems to be writing. His command of the classical and achemical strands is mind boggling, which integration makes his writing important, dense, and a lot of fun; speculative, insightful, and rich with meaning, I’m confident that you will find as I have that this piece rewards a close reading (and a second and third reading, too). Enjoy!

Dark Gods Beneath the Earth: Hermetic Plot Elements in the Cormoran Strike Series

Evan Willis

I have divided this analysis into four sections.

  • In the first, I will attempt to build up an account of the character of Hermes and its place in the interpretation of texts, particularly ones like those of J.K. Rowling. Much in this section has already been covered in other blog posts on this blog, but here I condense it and present much of it outside of a strictly Alchemical context. Some elements are also derived from the account of Mercury to be found in Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, particularly the chapter on The Horse and His Boy.
  • The second part traces, through analysis of the Deathly Hallows epigraph from The Libation Bearers of Aeschylus, the meaning of the Orestes myth and Hermes’s place in it (c.f. this blog’s previous interpretation: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/the-aeschylus-epigraph-in-deathly-hallows/).
  • The third part includes my application of the previous parts to the Cormoran Strike novels as I was able prior to the release of Career of Evil.
  • The fourth part includes my conclusions from what was revealed in Career of Evil, looking ahead to Lethal White and beyond.

[Read more…]

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!