I am hard at work on my Enlightening 2007 presentation and distracted by thoughts about Tale of Two Cities which normally would mean a day without a HogPro update. Today, though, it means a special treat, namely an essay by Sally Palmer. You’ll recall that Ms. Palmer pointed me to Florence and Machiavelli for a possible clue about Severus Snape’s motivation. Here she discusses another neglected influence, Evelyn Underhill, and what this writer might tell us about another major character, Albus Dumbledore. Enjoy!
PS: If you have sent me an essay for comment or posting and I have not responded or posted it, please re-send. I am working on three different computers in three different geographical locations — and the cracks through which valuable things are falling are becoming something like canyons. My apologies.
Dumbledore as Christian Mystic: The Head Master who undermines postmodernism and other “mystical mistakes”
By Sally Palmer
July 10, 2007
Over the past few months, I have made several forays into brief studies on the people to whom “Devotion Days” are dedicated on my Episcopal Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar. June 15th was dedicated to someone I’d never heard of, Evelyn Underhill, an English woman (1875-1941), student of ancient mysticism, and –eventually – Anglican spiritual director. So I googled her & found this website:
What I read on the site completely fascinated me. Since then I have checked out her 1990 biography, Artist of the Infinite Life by Dana Greene (the EU Association president), and Underhill’s revised 12th edition (published in 1930) of her original 1911 study, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. I believe that this study of the mystical, or “God-seeking,” tradition by Evelyn Underhill is a major source of Ms. Rowling’s inspiration for the structure & symbolism of Harry’s story, as well as the boundaries of magic in Harry’s world, including the “essence” of Dumbledore’s character and the expression of Voldemort’s brokeness. In this book, Evelyn Underhill traces the mystic tradition across centuries, cultures, & religious traditions, right up to the emerging Modern time in which she was writing.
Three of the five “keys” John Granger provides for his readers in Unlocking Harry Potter (alchemy, hero’s journey, and traditional symbolism), originating – as he points out — from all sorts of texts, are captured in Mysticism, and in one chapter in particular, “Mysticism and Symbolism.” In this chapter, Ms. Underhill covers what she calls the “three great classes of symbols” that appeal to the “three deep cravings of the self… which only mystic truth can fully satisfy.” The first symbol is the pilgrim’s quest, representing the longing to leave a “normal world” in search of a “lost home.” The second symbol is marriage, for the craving “of the soul for its perfect mate,” and the third symbol is that of the alchemist’s work, the “craving for inward purity and perfection.”
Following this chapter on symbolism is one entitled “Mysticism and Magic.” In this chapter she outlines the similarities, yet distinct and dramatic differences, between magic as occult practice and mysticism, including the mystic elements of religious traditions. Reading her biography alongside this chapter, in particular, helps put the work in context because she was writing at a time of growing societal interest in the “new science” of psychology, among other Modern developments, including a resurgent interest in the occult, and the eventual rise of fascism and Nazism.
There are fabulous passages throughout this chapter that generally concur with Ms. Rowling’s employment of magic in Harry’s world. Ms. Underhill criticizes a definition about magical practice which asserts itself as assisting in “transcending the phenomenal world and attaining to the reality which is behind phenomena.” She says this definition “presents magic as a pathway to reality; a promise which it cannot fulfil, for the mere transcending of phenomena does not entail the attainment of the Absolute. Magic even at its best extends rather than escapes the boundaries of the phenomenal world. It stands, where genuine, for that form of transcendentalism which does abnormal things, but does not lead anywhere…The true “science of ultimates” must be a science of pure Being…”
A funny passage on word usage also coincides with Ms. Rowling’s apparent take on magic versus true mysticism, or God-seeking: “The word ‘magic’ is out of fashion, though its spirit was never more widely diffused than at the present time. Thanks to the gradual debasement of the verbal currency, it suggests to the ordinary reader the production of optical illusions and other parlour tricks. It has dragged with it in its fall the terrific verb ‘to conjure,’ which, forgetting that it once undertook to compel the spirits of men and angels, is now content to produce rabbits from top-hats. These facts would have little importance, were it not that modern occultists—annoyed, one supposes, by this abuse of their ancient title – constantly arrogate to their tenets and practices the name of ‘Mystical Science.’”
In an earlier chapter on the “Characteristics of Mysticism” she goes on to call magic “the intellectual, aggressive, and scientific temperament trying to extend its field of consciousness, until it includes the supersensual world: obviously the antithesis of mysticism, though often adopting its title and style.” Moving back to the “Mysticism and Magic” chapter, Ms. Underhill also says, “we are likely to fall victims to some kind of magic the moment that the declaration ‘I want to know’ ousts the declaration ‘I want to be’ from the chief place in our consciousness.”
To me, Ms. Rowling very clearly points to this distinction between mysticism and magic with Dumbledore’s lectures to Voldemort about his ignorance of some forms of magic. Voldemort used magic to split his soul; he thus “transcends” certain phenomena, but it is not a “pathway to reality” because “transcending of phenomena does not entail the attainment of the Absolute.” Dumbledore, who knows well the “science of ultimates” and the power of Love, knows Voldemort’s dependence on this magic to be his greatest weakness. Voldemort, who does not know love, embodies the “aggressive temperament trying to extend its field of consciousness, until it includes the supersensual world” and is “obviously the antithesis of mysticism.”
You see that aggressiveness and powerlust in the boy Tom Riddle in the orphanage. He immediately embraces his “wizardness” as a means of knowing. “I knew I was different…I knew I was special…I always knew there was something.” Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his age, could also be described as the greatest mystic, one who fully understands magic as “that form of transcendentalism which does abnormal things but does not lead anywhere” while grasping the true path as one of self-purification in the loving pursuit of Love. Dumbledore’s training of his primary student, Harry, is a training in the mystic way. A training that starts off, interestingly enough in Stone, with Harry feeling there is some mistake, “I don’t think I can be a wizard.” (emphasis added) As the story progress, Harry does embrace his “wizardness” as a way of being, becoming a Dumbledore-man following Dumbledore’s path.
It’s important to point out here that, at the time of first writing Mysticism, Ms. Underhill was not a member of a faith community, although she was baptized and confirmed as an Anglican and had close friends and advisors who were Protestants and Roman Catholics. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but ultimately could not join the Catholic Church due to its rejection of rising modern intellectualism. Her favorite mystics where those in the Medieval Catholic or Christian Neoplatonist tradition, and in her later work as an Anglican spiritual director tries to merge her original thinking on the mystic tradition with a newer emphasis on the importance of corporate religion and theology in supporting spiritual development. Throughout her life, she struggled with her intellectual (and emotional) tendencies and how they interfered with her own spiritual development. She also wrote on her struggles with Christocentric worship, describing how she came to Christ through seeking God, and not the other way around – which seems the usual path for most Christian believers (all these insights are from Greene, 1990).
Reading Evelyn Underhill’s biography is, to me, reading the story of a person who sees and struggles with the dark side of the rising Modern Metanarrative, at the same time struggling to find a path of orderly spiritual development, while symbolically rich, not constrained by its own Metanarrative dogma. In that context, Ms. Underhill describes mysticism as “the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better – for this means exactly the same thing – it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute.” The mystic path, as described here by Ms. Underhill is an act of love in search of absolute Love, and it is not subject to the theology of a specific religious tradition.
This seeming lack of religious tradition, having instead the focus aimed at a quest for Love, is reflected in Ms. Rowling’s approach to Harry’s story. No religious tradition is specifically mentioned – except for Christmas and Easter holidays – nor is God or Christ, outside the use of the words “godfather” and “christening.” However, just as Ms. Underhill is an English modern writer influenced by Christian theology and symbology, so is Ms. Rowling an English postmodern writer influenced by Christian theology and symbology, and the Medieval and Renaissance periods of history, in particular. And, as John Granger has discussed at length, the use of traditional symbolism makes Ms. Rowling a “postmodern realist.” After reading about Evelyn Underhill and her work, I think she might be a “modern realist” precursor to Ms. Rowling (if there could be such a thing, linguistically speaking!).
Linguistics and postmodernism bring me back to Dumbledore’s character. In his treatment of the postmodern elements of Harry’s story, John Granger reserves a whole section for “A Few Words About Dumbledore.” In this chapter, John describes many of Dumbledore’s traits – “penetrating intelligence,” “discerns signs of the times,” “attacks core problems,” de-constructor of texts, “music lover,” “indifference to conformity to standards,” “student of his own thoughts,” and “careful of his influence over others.” These characteristics, John argues, makes Dumbledore “the very model of a postmodern English gentleman,” an “archetype of postmodernism,” and “a heroic linguistics professor.”
After reading Evelyn Underhill’s chapter on “The Characteristics of Mysticism,” I would add on to John’s characterization by saying that these very traits also make Dumbledore a mystic. And in the context of John’s discussion of postmodernism and Ms. Rowling’s subversion of its tenets, I find completely fascinating that the character who carries the single transcendent message of the story and works – in his own “detached” way – diligently to transfer that message to his main student, is at his very essence a mystic. Dumbledore is of this world, yet detached from it, he is courteous yet stands alone in his wisdom and vision, he loves beauty and harmony, he emphasizes the purity of the soul, and his message of the power of self-sacrificial Love transcends time.
Like the traditional Christian symbolism used throughout Harry’s story, I think Dumbledore’s emphasis on Love and, especially self-sacrificial love, point directly to his place in the Christian mystic tradition that transcends time, historical, and socio-political boundaries. Or, I should say, Dumbledore is a reflection of that tradition in a fictional world. To me this is the real power of Dumbledore’s character, his teaching, and his (via Ms. Rowling’s) approach to “magic.”
In Unlocking Harry Potter, John summarizes this power in Key Five: Postmodernism on its Head in sections entitled “Transcendent Postmodern,” “Alchemy as Antidote to Postmodernism” and “Why We Love Harry.” I would add to these descriptions simply that they are all pointers to transcendent Christian mystical experience.
This brings me, in closing, back to my previous comparison of Evelyn Underhill as a spiritual seeker battling the Modern Great narrative to J.K. Rowling as a spiritual seeker battling the Postmodern Great narrative(s). For the first half of her life, Evelyn Underhill was intensely interested in seeking God (the Absolute Reality of Love), but viewed the Catholic church’s attacks on modern intellectualism as a barrier to her ever participating in the Roman church. Later in life, Ms. Underhill felt “called out and settled” in the Anglican church and continued her life’s work of “caring for souls” in that tradition (Greene 1990).
John points out that Ms. Rowling spares the Christian Church (and all religions) from the skewering she give other institutions, with the high irony being that certain subgroups in the Christian faith have become some of her harshest critics with concerns regarding the “promotion of the occult” and the “subversion of all authority.” John describes his worry about this criticism: “I wonder if the conservative reaction to postmodern liberalism and godlessness has not erred in embracing modern, “structuralist,” authoritarian thinking about church and state that are ideologies alien to radical faith in Christ.”
I very much share this concern, and I think reflection on Evelyn Underhill’s work and life in the Modern era allows for lessons to be learned about the dangers of such a theological reaction to Harry and how it can exclude those actively seeking, yet currently remaining outside a Christian faith journey. Harry’s story, and at its center Dumbledore’s mystic teaching of sacrificial love, do undermine many of the excesses of our Postmodern era. This transcendent message is the message with the power to overcome our current intellectual, bodily, & spiritual excesses. It is the hope missing from our secular world and in desperate need of return. It is the quest and Reality described for us and lived by the great Christian mystics.
Finally, in her biography on Ms. Underhill, Dana Greene posits that one of the central themes of Evelyn’s life is that she re-defined what it meant to be a religious person in her time. At the close of Half Blood Prince, Harry has officially taken up Dumbledore’s mantle. In Deathly Hallows we will see how Harry moves forward along his own mystical path and become witnesses in our own rights to this final chapter in his 7-year journey. What will we as postmodern readers, and especially those of us Christian postmodern readers, choose to see?