I was caught off-guard at last week’s wonderful From Wands to Quills Harry Potter Conference at beautiful James Madison University when I learned that the two hours I thought I had to speak turned out to be forty minutes. Caught flat-footed, I was left with little choice but to abandon my original spider-outline on Hogwarts and the modern university and to share instead with friends in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a letter I found in the restroom of the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois. I was there (in the Center, not the restroom) looking for evidence of C. S. Lewis’ hermetic artistry in the Wade collection of Inkling books, letters, and diaries.
What I found instead on top of the hand towel dispenser was a letter in Latin written in mirrored handwriting. The letter was unsigned except for a DA [AD?], is undated, and had no stamp. In the opinion of the Wade Librarians it is almost certainly a fraud – it is the only letter to Lewis at the Wade Center addressed “My Dear Clive” and the author claims to be an alchemist, wizard, and professor at a school of wizardry whose name and location he does not reveal.
The subject of AD’s letter is ‘what makes a book great.’ He claims that Owen Barfield and George Sayer in addition to Lewis wanted him to expand on his comments made at the favorite watering hole with respect to Lewis’ assertion that a great work of fiction is one that makes you “better, wiser and happier.”
I ask in advance that you forgive the awkwardness of my rushed translation from the original, posted below, which, sadly, does not reflect the elegance and eloquence of the Latin original. I turned it over to the Wade-Gringotts guardians for their filing and protection after they made a copy for me, but my Xerographic facsimile was gone the next morning and the librarians incredibly denied all knowledge of it and my giving it to them the day before.
The letter and some quick notes:
Always good to hear from you!
I have received your St. Crispin’s Day note with its kind words about and request that I expand upon our conversation with Tollers, Sayer, and your barrister friend about what makes a work of fiction great. Your kindness in using owl post rather than more conventional mail is much appreciated – as were your comments about our friendship. I hope you understand, as it was I who reached out to you as an admiring reader, that it is I who will always be in your debt for your fellowship and for the congenial sparring of your Inkling companions.
Let me say to start that there really is no need to expand on your simple and satisfying dictum that a good book, poem, or play is one whose artistry and meaning combine in such a way to make a reader “better, wiser, and happier.” My comments in light of my experience and reflections as alchemist and wizard are only offered here as footnotes as to “how” or “why” this is so rather than a challenge or corollary to your elegant and pointed insight.
The reason I read books by non-magical friends like yourself is just because I see, especially, in those intentionally hermetic works — from Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets to your own novels — an alchemical reaction between text and reader that is much like that between alchemist and lead–in-transformation-to-gold, namely, an elision of subject and object in the experience of story, a sort of real magical mirror that we see in so many of the better stories.
As I shared with you at the Bird and Baby, our experience with the best books is much like our interactions with paintings in the magical world which you only know by my report. Unlike your still-lifes, we interact with our art, and, if we say the right word or touch them as they touch us, many open up into worlds behind them, spaces quite literally and much like the metaphorical and imaginative reality we enter in story.
Your remarkable Samuel Taylor Coleridge was referring to the means of this elision and entrance when he wrote of our “suspending disbelief” in an “act of poetic faith.” Forgive me if in obedience to your kind request I attempt an explanation of what your works and our previous conversations reveal you already know, that is, how the Great Stories affect us as they do.
In my favorites, the writer offers my heart or ‘Primary Imagination’ a set of characters that are a picture of the faculties or temperaments of my soul. As these faculties and honored dispositions are realigned and transformed, so are my innermost parts changed, in so much at least as I am engaged and identify whole-heartedly with hero and heroines.
This can be as simple as a doppelganger story in which two characters are transparencies through which we enter and experience the right relationship of our upper and lower natures. As I’ve told you before, this is why I love Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde so much. David Balfour and Alan Beck are faith and passion, innocence and guile, that love and meet one another as Jekyll and Hyde conflict and destroy the “other” that is within. Dickens’ Carton and Darnay and their love of Lucie Manette – the “light of man” — is perhaps the perfect depiction of this story.
Soul Triptychs in which we meet characters representing the three faculties of soul – passion, will and heart or body, mind spirit – are more challenging but that much more powerful. The Russian mage’s Brothers Karamazov is the best of this kind of story, but I love Around the World in 80 Days and its Passepartout, Fogg, and Aoda for the same reason and experience I love in reading about, even becoming for a time Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. I neglect your Space Trilogy only because we have discussed it at such length already.
My soul in these books recognizes its own disorder, passion and ego driving conscience and will away, and feels itself turned upright and changed. I love schoolboy novels – all of them, from Tom Brown to Billy Bunter – because they not only reflect magical threesomes like we have at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where I teach but also because the heart is always the story champion and I am a better person for my time with him.
I reread Little Women every year, though, and return to your Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe and Prince Caspian as often as I do because of the use of the four elements and the soul’s corresponding temperaments taking life in the characters of these books.
Jo and Meg March, Peter and Susan Pevensie as choleric fire and phlegmatic water in opposition; Amy and Beth, Lucy and Edmund as sanguine air and melancholic earth – their adventures and transformation … their contraries change my heart from lead to gold, even give me some experience of the Quintessence.
Whether it is a story of 2, 3 or 4 characters, then, the best written work brings me to a center or origin, a resolution of contraries as we alchemists have it, that carries with it an experience of no little peace. I think this arrival at the center of the cycle of elements or a soul aligned with the heart, our spiritual origin, is also why the best stories echoing Christian scripture are written as circles or rings.
The chiasmus model of narrative in the Old and New Testaments (ABCD-DCBA), the rings of Homer, Virgin and Dante, as well as the poet Rumi and medieval Chinese novelists I wish were available to you in English give us an experience of the completed circle which is defined by and whose greater reality we come to know as its defining center.
[The Latin here is more than a little obscure, forgive me; I think DA/AD tries to describe a department store mannequin over which a dress is draped buty my classical and medieval dictionaries were all but useless here.]
This narrative structure or story scaffolding of the ring with its joined beginning and end as story frame, pronounced turning point echoing opening, origin and finish’s meeting, and the paired analogies and reverse echo of all story chapters before and after this turn fosters the alchemical elision of subject and object, story and reader, that turns us inside-out and right-side- up, again as Coleridge would have it, the inside or center being greater than the outside it causes and defines.
I love this in the there-and-back again story design of Stevensons’ Kidnapped, your Ransom novels and Narnian romps and our friends Charles and Tollers’ remarkable work. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, again, however, with, forgive me, its mirrored means of travel to and from the antipodes and return on 21 December [12/21 or 21/12], the two and one reflecting each other as the world is circumscribed in story, remains for me the very model of this story template and experience. I hope you’ll reconsider and reread Verne.
A brilliant witch in our tradition taught her students two things I think are relevant here. The first is that “a circle has no beginning.” This is not, as you might thank, a geometric truism about a circle’s circumference but a deft description of its origin or center, which in being invisible does not exist as the circle does – the ‘no’ – but in being origin is it s true beginning, hence ‘no beginning.’ She also taught in Transfiguration class that “Vanished objects go into non-being, that is to say, into all things” because the non-existent, defining center is a greater reality that cause all things created ex nihilo.
Love and the harmony of music I believe are the greatest magic, even before wand work and spells or the alchemy of a wonderful book because they bring us to this center that your St. Augustine was describing when he said that “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.” The resolution of self and other in love, especially sacrificial love, and of harmony and melody are literally divine and center-ing edifying and transforming.
They are, if I may be so bold before closing this already too long note, something like Communion, another word for elision or transcending of self; with the Logos center that is the cause of everything existent.
In my school, there is a place that is not a place that at least one student every generation finds and which house-elves call the “Come and Go Room” and we know as “The Room of Requirement.” It is a-local and varies in size, sometimes being larger even than our whole school as the need of its finder so requires. This ‘inside that is bigger than its outside,’ something of a commonplace in our world, I think is the point defining the circle which the Cross reveals as its intersection. I don’t think I am revealing too much, trusting in your discretion, in sharing that this is why witches and wizards in Logres prefer to start all adventures of learning and discovery at the wonderful station you have named so well as “King’s Cross.” I know you will understand that we do not believe the King in question is a worldly king or the Cross an arbitrary intersection.
I believe that the best stories make us “better, wiser, and happier,” as you say, because they bring us to this Cross and Center and Communion and resurrection consequent to it, a rising from the death of individual self to the life and light that is our cause and hope. Story gives us some “intimation of immortality,” as the poet says.
A beginner in alchemy and magical theory learns first that, the world being mental or logical because it is Logos created, what is in our hearts and heads is what is most real, if least visible. Our magic is based on speech and is most powerful with wands having cores that resonate with the speech that is the fabric of reality. The alchemy of literature is that if lightens us as lead is illumined into gold – we are made lighter, that is, both less weighed down by our selfish concerns, and illumined or enlightened by what is the Light of the world, that “cometh into the world” as your St. John puts it, in every man’s heart.
[AD/DA broke into Old English here because the Latin word for "light" does not have the assonant meaning of "not heavy;" my thanks to my Tolkien friends for help making sense of it the one night I had before the original disappeared.]
We are better, wiser, and happier because in this enlightenment we become more truly human in the elision of reader and the best stories.
I have written too much and too little here , again, all in obedience and all in abashed awareness that I am instructing a master of the subject. I close lest I overtax even my friend Fawkes whose sudden appearance I hope does not overly alarm you.
Until our next meeting, your brother in the love of literary magic,
I think readers of the Hogwarts Saga will not, as the Wade stewards did, assume that the author’s use of ‘Clive’ marks the friendly letter as a fraud. It is as reasonable to assume, I believe, that the writer simply prefers to call people by their real names as much as possible.
I have other notes to add to this — speculation from internal evidence as to who might have written the note and when [Prof. Baird-Hardy suggested 1954, and, as usual, I defer to her expertise here] — but some preliminary conclusions about the Hogwarts Saga from his [her?] arguments I offered to the From Wands to Quills banqueters include:
(1) The Potter books have the universal popularity and profound effect they do on readers because of their alchemical symbolism and story scaffolding. Ms. Rowling like other literary alchemists, understand the magic of story telling is an alchemical event – and that using traditional hermetic signs and themes, even colors, catalyzes this magical experience.
(2) The soul triptych of Harry, Ron and Hermione with body/mind/and spirit reflected in story and with Harry as the story transparency of the human heart or spiritual center is also an engine of those stories’ power over readers. We are turned right side up and inside out as we read and are made “better, wiser, and happier” in the process.
(3) The ring composition of the series, Ms. Rowling’s borderline OCD telling of the story with joined beginning and end pronounced story turns, and “Reverse echo” alignment of every chapter, is a critical part of the success of her writing, the language of which is much better described as “accessible” than “elevating,” poetic or “magisterial.” Her story templates, religiously followed, deliver her readers to a spiritual center and reality much greater than our individual existences.
I look forward to reading your comments and corrections.