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

 

Mail Bag: Books Like Cormoran Strike?

Hello Professor,

I love all of your articles on the Strike series. I have read the series several times now and I’m dying for the next one. The detective genre is completely out of my wheelhouse as I usually read epic fantasy like Robert Jordon or Brandon Sanderson. But I’m enjoying this so much I would like to read more like it and I was wondering if you had any books or authors to recommend that are similar to the Strike series.

Hope you are having a great weekend.

Phil

Great question, Phil! Here are five recommendations for murder mystery books with a Cormoran Strike resonance:

(1) John Fairfax’s Benson and De Vere courtroom dramas

We’ll be discussing the first, Summary Justice, here beginning tomorrow! Go here for more on these stories and their relationship with Strike.

(2) Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels

Cormoran Strike is in several ways Rowling’s re-imagining of Rankin’s John Rebus but with him set in London rather than Edinburgh and as a private detective rather than police officer. ‘Ian Rankin and Cormoran Strike‘ is a good first stop to learn about these two.

(3) P. D. James’ Cordelia Gray thrillers

There are only two, alas, but it is hard to overstate the influence of Cordelia Gray on Galbraith’s Robin Ellacott. Check out the Duchess of Malfi debts discussed here.

(4) Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books

I’m just starting Case Histories but, having read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life after Life, and A God in Ruins, I’m more than confident that Rowling is a great fan of Atkinson and that Cormoran Strike and Jackson Brodie would recognize each other as types.

(5) Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia mysteries

Akunin is a treasure whose Erast Fandorin novels — each a different genre (I kid you not) — are an international sensation and delight. His much shorter series on a plucky Orthodox nun in Tsarist Russia who is given leave to re-join the world in disguise to investigate crimes in obedience to her bishop are personal favorites despite its train wreck of a finish to this trilogy.

I hope that helps! If others have recommendations, please click on the ‘Leave a Comment’ button up by the post headline and share your favorites in the comment boxes below!

Tomorrow, the bracketing structure of Summary Justice…

Mail Bag: Rowling on Draco as Werewolf

Here’s a mailbag item that has been in my drafts folder for sharing since 2015. My response was a little harsh, well, ‘mean and bitter’ might better catch the sense of it, but I share it for your reflection and correction.

John, Professor, Sir,

http://hellogiggles.com/jk-rowling-shut-down-fan-theory/

I’ve never seen that one before. Draco definitely isn’t a werewolf (and Snape’s not a vampire).

I don’t think I remember we had this theory back in the day.

And, for once, this is an elucidation of the text, not some errant addendum.

Still Potter-ing about,

David

My response?

Sad, really. I really wonder why she felt obliged to tweet this. It doesn’t answer the questions serious readers had about the many clues Rowling placed in the books about Snape’s vampiric qualities and Draco’s transformation in Half-Blood Prince. And it’s not an “elucidation of text.” You lost me there.

The better fan theories, based on speculation from canon and tested in conversation at conferences and in internet debates, were not “Draco is a Werewolf” or Snape = Vampire as this article and her tweet suggest. The interesting speculation was that Draco was bitten by a werewolf, probably Fenrir, but not one fully transformed (just as was Bill Weasley) and that Snape’s father was a muggle vampire so, as son of vampire and a witch, Severus was a Half ‘blood-prince‘ and half-blood Prince, but not a real, teeth-to-the-neck vampire needing blood, etc. The two, as with so many Rowling characters, were liminal figures between worlds not conforming to type (and to people’s prejudices). Think ‘Hagrid as Half-Giant.’

If Rowling wanted to close down these conversations, she had her opportunity before July 2007. Now she is just asserting her command of all disputes to protect the Wizarding World and Warner Bros Franchises. 

Which, of course, is her right. I am at least as free, however, to ignore her claims to perpetual authority and updates, especially when she misrepresents the serious reader speculation she is dismissing.

I say this is “sad” because the excellent discussions about the psychological aspects of Snape as vampire and the Malfoys as elitist werewolves have been closed in the minds of many by Rowling’s imprimatur in reverse. Shame on her.

Thank you, David, for sending!

John

Mailbag: Redheads, Rubeus, & Rubedo

A note in my email inbox from this April:

Dear HP Team,

Rubedo: Is it possible that the Weasley family is part of the Rubedo stage along with Hagrid?

I was listening to an old podcast where the guest speaker was lamenting that not much of Hagrid was in the 7th book, and he should have been since he represents “Rubedo”.

However, all of the Weasley family has shockingly RED hair. I would think this intentional. JK Rowling makes a big deal of their red hair throughout the series. If, in fact, they are part of the Rubedo stage, then we do have a significant representation in the final book as they all play a dramatic part, including Percy.

I am curious what your thoughts are on this idea?

Sincerely,

Joy

Three Rubedo notes, Joy!

(1) Rowling said she had to promise her sister not to kill Hagrid in the finale; little sister had threatened never to speak to her again if everyone’s favorite Half-Giant died. As the character with the most obvious ‘red’ name, though, he seemed the most likely character not to survive. The model of Sirius Black dying at the end of the alchemical black book, the nigredo of Order of the Phoenix, and Albus Dumbledore also taking a dive at the end of Half-Blood Prince, the series albedo, made things look real grim for Rubeus in the run-up to Deathly Hallows. We didn’t know about The Presence’s promise to her sister.

(2) But Rubeus wasn’t the only character named ‘red.’ There was Rufus Scrimgeour, right? In Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? (Zossima Press, 2006), I collected the essays and predictions of six Potter Pundits about what had really happened in Half-Blood Prince and what we would learn in Deathly Hallows. Three of us made ‘Live or Die’ predictions for major players in the finale — and all three of us predicted five characters would die: Lord Voldemort, Bellatrix La strange, Rufus Scrimgeour, and, well, Draco and Narcissa Malfoy. All three of us, though, thought that Rubeus would live. We thought Rufus was going to be the Big Red sacrifice and that Hagrid was a red herring. Good for us.

(3) Not to brag, but I was the only one of the three who said Nymphadora Tonks and Severus Snape would die. I also predicted Fred Weasley’s death as well. This might sound like great prescience and insight, but it isn’t. Like Joy, I was thinking alchemically so I thought every red head in the book was possibly marked for a rubedo death; I marked off every one of the Weasleys, to include Fleur, as doomed. I was also the only Pundit who thought Peter Pettigrew would survive. I had some impressive direct hits — and a lot of misses.

Sorry to go off on that nostalgia tangent, Joy, but what a lot of fun the two years between Prince and Hallows were in fandom!

To answer your question at last: YES, the Weasleys as a family of redheads play an alchemical role through the whole series but especially in the two last book. Harry winds up with Ginny after dating Black-haired Cho and White-haired Luna, fRED Weasley dies, Percy rises from a sort-of worse-than-death, separation from his family, and Molly dispatches the witch who killed Sirius in the rubedo climax of the Battle of Hogwarts. They do everything an alchemist expects in a rubedo and, with fRED’s death, satisfying the color scheme formula of the stages in the last three novels.

Thanks for writing! 

Whom Should We Blame for ‘Crimes’?

Another missive in my email inbox:

Mr. Granger,

I know you do not particularly care for the HP movies and frankly I don’t like most of them as adaptations myself. Just a thought, maybe fans have been going about this all wrong when placing blame at the feet of Yates. I was guilty of this also in the past. I now believe the fault lies with Heyman and WB. They are the true “bosses” of the entire film production. They are the “money men” as it were. 

As soft spoken, thoughtful and humble as Heyman seems when interviewed, he is ultimately who approves of the dailies. As much as he professes to adore Rowling’s stories, it is he who allows Yates the freedom to audible out of canon and change the plot (dumb it down) such as he did in HBP with the “setting the burrow on fire” scene. 

It is such a shame, as someone whose company specializes in adapting books to film, that Heyman doesn’t have the guts to let the canon stand on its own. It is such a shame he doesn’t feel audiences are intelligent enough to follow the canon in a film version. Maybe he should finally have the wherewithall to follow Rowling’s FB scripts instead of fiddling with them. 

Best,

Matthew

Three quick thoughts on this, Matthew:

(1) You’re right that, of the two Davids, director David Yates and producer David Heyman, I tend to focus on the director as the bad guy who films the agreed on ‘shooting script’ and then cuts it into the prescribed formula of the studio. This is a mistaken application of Auteur Theory, the convention of laying praise and blame for a film on the director rather than anyone else; this theory is only truly applicable if the director is acting relatively independently. You’re right to note that Yates’ hands are tied and guided by the studio bean counters so, as much as there is blame for the final product of Crimes of Grindelwald, it falls as much on the other David, producer Heyman, as on director Yates.

(2) It’s probably best to think of the two Davids as the right and left hands of Warner Brothers, though, rather than assigning more responsibility to Heyman than to Yates. Each of them is a studio mechanic rather than free-wheeling artist; both answer to the studio chiefs who answer to stock holders looking for the greatest possible return on investment. The money required to put together and to market these extravaganzas means the age of auteur directors who create films largely unsupervised is long gone.

(3) My biggest mistake is not the proportion of blame that I routinely assign here for the train wreck of the Fantastic Beasts films. [Warner Brothers took what Rowling offered when she said she would write the screenplays and that hasn’t worked out as hoped; I doubt she is interested in returning to the franchise winning formula of novel-first-then-film-adaptation but that is the go-with-your-strengths and division-of-labor solution to the problem.] Where I go way wrong here is the absence of charity I exercise in criticizing Yates and Heyman for something over which they really have no control, i.e., studio film length requirements that allow so many screenings per day at the cine-plex, without mentioning all they do very well. Each of their remarkable skills and their team work as a pair with respect to team building, shot selection, budgeting, lighting, actor coaching, musical score inlay, as well as scene and film editing contribute to the final product and magical experience in the theaters.

I almost always neglect to mention the semi-miracle of technical artistry brought to these films, however incoherent the story may be due to inevitable and unfortunate scene deletions, and that is a function of my ignorance with respect to films and what makes them work beyond the screenplays. My apologies both to the two Davids and to you readers for that omission and a tip of my hat to them, non-fan that I remain, for the visually stunning and fun movies they have made.