Guest Post – ‘Mirrors, Paper, Stone:’ Literary Links and Riddles in Philosopher’s Stone, Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows (Beatrice Groves)

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of the just published Literary Allusion in Harry Potter sent us this 20th Anniversary Celebration present yesterday. It is Part 1 of what we hope she’ll share with us in the coming days (Thank you, Prof Groves!). Enjoy!

‘Mirrors, paper, stone:’ literary links and riddles in Philosopher’s Stone, Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows

The anniversary of the publication of Philosopher’s Stone seems an auspicious moment to look at some of the connections between the first, middle and last Harry Potter novels. As Rowling has noted, echoes between the opening and closing novels are particularly clear, and she has said of a number of plot points: ‘that was closing a circle.’ At the publication of Goblet of Fire she likewise noted the central novel’s pivotal position: ‘it’s literally a central book, it’s almost the heart of the series, and it’s pivotal’. As has been convincingly demonstrated by John Granger and J. Steve Lee the series forms a ‘ring’ or ‘chiastic’ structure in which the first novel is paired with the last, the second with the sixth and the third with the fifth, leaving the fourth novel as the ‘pivot’ around which the pattern turns. John Granger, in particular, has argued for ‘the central place of the Stone-Goblet-Hallows axis’[1] to the series and this blog-post will look at two examples – mirrors and riddles – in which Goblet acts as fulcrum for crucial moments in the opening and concluding novels.

The mirror-writing around the Mirror of Erised – Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 12) – is a message about reading carefully. If you read the riddle attentively it will enable you to discover what Harry is really seeing. The literary tradition of magic mirrors (noted by David Colbert in 2001[2]) which lie behind the Mirror of Erised are also surrounded with messages about careful reading. Britomart, the female knight-hero of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590/96), sees her heart’s desire, likewise, when she looks into Merlin’s mirror in Book 3 of Spenser’s epic poem. The narrator notes how such magical mirrors are common ‘in bookes hath written beene of old’ (3.2.18). Spenser was a great admirer of Chaucer and he refers, in particular, of the magical mirror in Chaucer’s ‘Squire’s Tale’ (an unfinished story which Spenser will write a continuation for later in the Faerie Queene). In Chaucer, too, the magical mirror is connected with book-learning as its properties are ‘knowen’ by those ‘that han hir bookes herd’ (l.235) (Chaucer’s original readership, like Rowling’s original readership, were used to ‘hearing’ rather than reading their books).

          Spenser and Chaucer’s magic mirrors show the viewer the truth about their enemies: they cut through the dissembling persona to the real person beneath. The magical mirror in Chaucer’s ‘Squire’s Tale’ shows ‘openly who is youre freend or foo’ (l.136). Spenser’s mirror, likewise, also shows the viewer information about their foes. Merlin’s Mirror is given to King Ryence so that he may always have prior knowledge about what his foes are up to: ‘that neuer foes his kingdome might inuade,/ But he it knew at home before he hard/ Tydings thereof’ (3.2.21). The mirror in Goblet – the mirror that reflects back, in this pivotal central novel, to the Mirror of Erised in the opening novel and the magical shard of mirror crucial to the final novel – is, of course, the Foe-Glass. And it is rather satisfying that both Chaucer and Spenser (twice) use the word ‘foe’ to describe what can be seen in their magic mirrors!

Merlin’s mirror in the Faerie Queene is a mirror that ‘treasons could bewray, and foes conuince’ (3.2.21). The Longman editor (A. C. Hamilton) glosses this line ‘the mirror has the power to bewray, i.e. reveal, treasons without, and conuince, i.e. expose or convict and hence overpower, foes within.’ Spenser’s mirror, like Chaucer’s, reveals and exposes the true nature of an enemy. These magical mirrors, however, are not only revelatory about foes but also reveal the true nature of the viewer themselves – their heart’s desire. Britomart sees her future husband in the mirror and sets off on an extraordinary journey to find him.

Harry, likewise, sees his heart’s desire in the Mirror of Erised, and then again in the final mirror – the fragmentary remains of the two-way mirror given to him by Sirius. In this magical mirror shard, which Harry looks into in desperation in the basement of Malfoy Manor, he sees Dumbledore returned to him as a simple protector figure: alive again, watching over Harry and ready to come and rescue him. This is the Dumbledore who is with Harry in the Mirror of Erised chapter of Philosopher’s Stone (though Harry does not then understand Dumbledore’s own complexities, or what he would himself have seen in the mirror). In Dumbledore’s appearance in the Foe-Glass, in the pivotal fourth book, he radiates a power which makes Harry understand a new facet of his character.

And then, finally, comes the appearance of what looks like Dumbledore’s eye in the magical mirror shard in Hallows. This moment is preceded by Harry’s looking at himself in the mirror at Malfoy Manor and where he sees ‘his own reflection for the first time since leaving Grimmauld Place’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 23). Harry doesn’t recognise himself in this mirror (due to his disfigurement) a hint perhaps that the ‘Dumbledore’ he will see in the magical mirror shard will also not be the one he was expecting. Harry cannot have his heart’s desire back – the simple, protective, all-knowing Dumbledore of the first book – but just as the Mirror of Erised and the Foe-Glass reveal new facets of Dumbledore’s character, so the salvation Harry finds in the two-way mirror, and Aberforth’s curmudgeonly care of him, reveal over time ways that Dumbledore has been loving and looking out for him all along.

Both Spenser and Chaucer mention ancient books in conjunction with their magic mirrors, but these mirrors are not only linked to old tales – they themselves link reading with knowledge. Spenser writes of the magical mirror into which Britomart looks: ‘who wonders not, that reads so wonderous worke?’ (3.2.20). Spenser, oddly, uses ‘read’ to mean ‘see’, here – a uniquely Spenserian usage according to his editors – and it is a usage that connects the knowledge gained from looking in such a mirror (which shows you not simply a surface reflection but something deeper) with the knowledge gained from reading (which might also reveal deeper self-knowledge than that of which you were previously aware).

         The writing around the Mirror of Erised is a riddle that celebrates readerly interpretation. As Shira Wolosky has written ‘the riddles in Harry Potter tend to have not one solution, but many. In this, they are true to literary meaning as such. Literature is writing that always opens to further interpretations.’[3] Rowling’s careful structuring of her series is part of her fashioning of her fans as careful readers and it is noticeable how the inverted mirror-writing and logic puzzle that need to be cracked to reach the Philosopher’s Stone (riddles with a single right answer) give way to the more conceptual, much less clear-cut, riddles of the final novel: ‘which came first, the phoenix or the flame?’, ‘where do vanished objects go?’, ‘I open at the close.’ The pivot in Goblet that marks the shift from the direct riddles of Philosopher’s Stone to the more polyvalent riddles of Deathly Hallows is Harry’s meeting with the Sphinx (in a maze, no less). The Sphinx in Goblet asks a simple riddle with a direct ‘right’ answer but she is a figure with a much more complex riddling past.

The Sphinx of Greek legend guards the gate of Thebes and, like the riddling door of Ravenclaw, she allows entrance only to those who answer her correctly. Her most famous riddle was correctly answered by Oedipus: ‘what creature is four-footed in the morning, two-footed in the afternoon and three-footed in the evening?’ The answer to Oedipus’s riddle is ‘man:’ because he crawls in the morning of his life, walks in adulthood and then uses a stick in old age. It is a conceptual riddle which involves a change in perspective as it reimagines a lifetime as the span of a day. But is also a riddle susceptible to more than one ‘right’ answer.

Rowling has said that Harry Potter responds to her belief that ‘death is our destiny and we must face it.’ This has an interesting relation to the riddle of the Sphinx for, in one reading – highly relevant, as Patrick McCauley has noted, to Harry Potter – the answer involves an acceptance of one’s own mortality: ‘the riddle of the Sphinx is the image of life itself through time – childhood, maturity, age, and death. When without fear you have faced and accepted the riddle of Sphinx, death has no further hold on you, and the curse of the Sphinx disappears.’[4] This reading of the riddle of the sphinx links it explicitly with the temptation of the Philosopher’s Stone within Harry Potter – and, satisfyingly enough, the Philosopher’s Stone is also linked with riddle of the Sphinx in an arcane alchemical work.

As we know from the work of John Granger, Rowling’s writing on Pottermore and an early interview, Rowling is fascinated by alchemy: ‘I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy.’  One classic text in for those interested alchemical books is Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens (1617) and, as has been noted, its 21st emblem (describing the search for the Philosopher’s Stone) bears tempting similarities with the symbol of the Deathly Hallows:

Maier also, however, sees the Philosopher’s Stone as the true answer to the riddle of the sphinx. In his 39th emblem of the Riddle of the Spinx he writes that those who understand the riddle as about the ages of man are mistaken. He draws on his emblem of the traditional answer of the riddle geometric shapes that he considers the clue to the real meaning: a square on the forehead of the child (who crawls on four limbs), a hemisphere on the upright young man (who walks on two feet) and a triangle on the old man (who uses three ‘feet’). Maier refers his reader back to the 21st Emblem (with its circle enclosed within a triangle, like the Deathly Hallows symbol) and states that answer to the Sphinx’s riddle is the Philosopher’s Stone which is ‘a Triangle in its essence, a Quadrangle in its quality.’[5]

The Mirror of Erised shows Harry the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of that novel because he has overcome its temptation to immortality but also because he has overcome another (harder) temptation: the Mirror’s temptation to live with those he has loved and lost. Rowling has argued that Dumbledore’s destruction of the Philosopher’s Stone in the first novel was intended ‘to show that Dumbledore accepts his mortality’ and when Harry discards the Resurrection Stone it symbolises that ‘just like Dumbledore Harry has made his peace with death.’ Dumbledore accepts his own mortality but he dies (cursed when he tries to wear the Resurrection Stone) because of his inability to accept the death of his sister. Harry, uniquely, resists the temptations of the Mirror of Erised, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Resurrection Stone and masters death.

Harry receives the Resurrection Stone (inscribed with the symbol of the Deathly Hallows) with the words ‘I open at the close’ (Deathly Hallows, Chap 34) an enigmatic riddle that hints at the way the beginning and the end of the series are related.[6] The first and the last novels revolve around a stone that has power over death and Dumbledore and Flamel’s decision to destroy the Philosopher’s Stone in the first novel prefigures Harry’s more momentous decision to relinquish the Resurrection Stone in the Deathly Hallows. Harry’s heroic decision to leave the Resurrection Stone in the Forest is the final realisation of his acceptance of Dumbledore’s advice not to seek the Mirror of Erised, and his ability to see within it not a past for which he mourns but the future which he must create.

[1] John Granger, ‘On Turtleback Tales and Asterisks: Picturing the Harry Potter Novels and their Many Interrelationships’, in Prinzi, T. (ed.) Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks (Oklahoma City: Unlocking Press, 201t1), p.81.

[2] David Colbert, The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: a treasury of myths, legends and fascinating facts (London: Michael O’Mara Books, 2007), pp.159-60.

[3] Shira Wolosky, The Riddles of Harry Potter: Secret Passages and Interpretative Quests (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p.1.

[4] J. Campbell and B. D. Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York, 1988), p.151; quoted in P. McCauley, Into the Pensieve: The Philosophy and Mythology of Harry Potter (Atglen, PA, 2015), pp.156-7.

[5] Michael Maier, Atalanta Fugiens, hoc est, Emblemata Nova de Secretis Naturæ Chymica (Oppenheimii, 1618), p.166. English translation from British Library MS. Sloane 3645, transcribed at:

[6] The riddle is the inspiration for the fan theory that the Battle of Hogwarts takes place when, in real time, the first Harry Potter book was published (though the dates do not quite fit!).


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is splendid – thank you!

  2. waynestauffer says:

    Well done!!!

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