A Rainbow of Gold, Black, White, and Red: The Alchemical Artistry of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ (A)

A revised and much expanded version of this post is now Chapter 3 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures.


  1. John,

    That’s an excellent analysis. I look forward to reading the essays yet to come.


  2. Wonderful, John!

    So the Christmas setting is really an Advent setting, in a penitential, purgative season?

  3. Bingo, Helen.

  4. Excellent, John. Thanks for the explanations about where the stages fall in the book–I hadn’t thought to break it down so specifically. And I’m glad you mentioned those white peacocks–I couldn’t make any sense of that. (I did actually find a photo of a white peacock on wikipedia–very strange looking, indeed.)

    I had noticed all the gold in the first chapters of the book, but hadn’t made the connection of why it was all there, except for the wedding. One question about the alchemical wedding. I know it’s Bill and Fleur, but does the resolution always have to be a man and woman? What I’m thinking is that there was a resolution of contraries (at the end of HBP) between Fleur and Molly (white and red), that seems to almost fit better. They were certainly more at odds with one another than Bill and Fleur ever seemed to be. Or is it just a combination of the families uniting through the wedding that accomplishes that part?

    It’s interesting that when Ron leaves, and Hermione and Harry are going it alone, it didn’t seem nearly as difficult to read the second time through–likely because I knew how it would end, with Ron’s return and the Silver Doe. And I think the only reason that was hard to read the first time was my unfortunate lack of sleep, but my unwillingness to give up and put the book down for a few hours.

    Oh–and I’m rereading Unlocking Harry Potter, and finding it even easier to understand now that we have the last book to complete the picture.


  5. colorless.blue.ideas says

    Great analysis.
    I have found myself a bit of a loner sometimes in believing that the low-points of the winter loneliness with Ron gone were important, key, and even pivotal in the story. After Harry’s knighthood vigil and bath — and the return of Ron — he was truly an adult, ready for mature responsibilities.
    Yes, the walk in the forest towards death at Voldemort’s hand was the consumation of the journey, but in a real sense, the victory was won after the nigredo of isolation.
    Concerning advent: does the Church of Scotland follow the liturgical calendar, or are they more low-church?

  6. rosesandthorns says

    JOHN, you wrote:

    “At the opening of Deathly Hallows, then, we meet the character who has divided his soul into seven parts in a horrific attempt to ape alchemy and create an egocentric rather than spiritual immortality. Voldemort is the anti-alchemist of the series, and, true-to-form, he inverts the right understanding of “death” and “love.” Love’s victory over personal or individual death is in the choice to die to one’s ego in an act of self-transcendence or love. Voldemort turns this love-death-life right understanding upside-down ……

    … In pointed contradiction with Voldemort’s Horcrux method of escaping death, Harry becomes seven-selves, not by murder and investing soul into material objects, but in the willing self-sacrifice made by friends who love him (the exception, of course, is Mundungus, hence Mad Eye’s death). ….” END JOHN’S BLOG

    Wow! Also, I loved the red/gold/silver/black symbolism (amazing). I take my hat off to Rowling for putting it there (and to you for seeing it!) I can’t wait to read the rest of your Alchemical posts here! (I do hope you go even more in-depth in your eventual books.)

    Also, I didn’t realize until you wrote it here that Harry had initially rejected the quote “and the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” on his parent’s gravesite. Powerful stuff. For all those who think Harry is too perfect, I think this shows he was not. This Harry had doubts; this Harry grew as much as many of the others grew (and he later, of course, knows that his mother and father are not truly dead and he will join them and the rest of his friends on the other side of death, his doubts gone at last during that sacrificial walk. And it is after this that he gets to truly meet Dumbledore, free at last of “secrets and lies” as all is revealed.)

  7. As always, I love to read your analysis!

    I made another “golden” connection:

    Many of us will remember seeing another “golden liquid” in Professor Slughorn’s potions class: Felix Felices. Described as “courage and self-confidence” in a bottle, it renders a person “most likely to be successful” in any endeavor while under its influence. Could it be that the clear golden liquid is also a symbol that Harry’s poly-juice potion holds a measure of his courage for those who will be transformed by it? It’s possible. It seems fitting that Harry’s “unconscious” gift – is born out of his resignation to do what’s right and not what’s easy, bringing into sharp focus the real and present danger and the sacrifice made by all.

    And still another –
    Color is symbolic in Christian traditions – Gold symbolizes what is precious and valuable, the brightness of metallic gold symbolizes the presence of God. Some readers of the book may be familiar with the symbolism of liturgical colors and have made this connection.

    [from The Secrets of Harry Potter podcast – Episode 23 – “Breaking the Ties that Bind”]

    I’m having a great time writing about all this now that Book 7 is finally here – so many connections – such a rich read/investigation!

    Thanks John – for your continued insights, scholarship and the clarity and care you’ve taken to share it with everyone! I look forward to more discussions…

    Kathy Couture

  8. Arabella Figg says

    John, is there anything important about all the purple shades we see, from Hermione’s lilac bridesmaid dress, to the wedding colors, to mentioning it in skies?

    And, now that I think of it, in all the stripping down of Harry in the previous books and in DH, the last thing taken away from him is his faith in Dumbledore. Rather than Dumbledore’s man, he needed to be his fully integrated own man. At least that’s how I’m seeing it.

    Curious Black is looking at me like I’m a doofus…

  9. I’m obviously not John, but I’m a member of a liturgical church, and so the first thing that comes to my mind about purple is its use as a penitential color at Advent and Lent. Double connotations of royalty and repentance. You might see how that fits with the occurrences of purple/lilac/violet in DH.

    As for “Rather than Dumbledore’s man, he needed to be his fully integrated own man,” I don’t see it exactly that way. I see it as more the transition that has to happen from a basically unquestioned faith received in childhood to a faith that has been examined, tested, and appropriated to oneself in an adult way. It’s a classic task of adolescence, and I think it’s what churches that practice infant Baptism and preteen or adolescent Confirmation are trying to encourage and ritualize, though it’s hard to make it happen according to a liturgical timetable. I remember all of a sudden in high school reading lots of apologetics. And that’s how I’d see Harry’s frustration with Elphias Doge, who is trying to encourage him to retain his childlike faith in Dumbledore. But Harry is becoming a man, and has to put away childish things. I see his successful completion of the task in his conversation with Aberforth Dumbledore, when he tells him that Albus was never free. Instead of seeing Dumbledore as good because morally flawless, he sees him as good because repentant; instead of seeing him as altogether wise, he sees him as having gaps in his understanding– but still wise enough to follow.

  10. Arabella Figg says

    Helen, I really liked your answer. I associated purple with royalty, but hadn’t thought of the liturgical calandar/colors. And I was raised Lutheran!

    You make excellent and eloquent points about Harry and Dumbledore. I wrote on another thread that it was interesting that the last things stripped from Harry were both relational and belief-oriented. Thanks for these wonderful insights.

    There goes Fullatricks, lying on my purple t-shirt…

  11. Hello John, I’ve just registered, partly because all this stuff is mightily interesting, partly because I’d like to ask a question. In your analysis of OotP at the Touchstone Archives, you wrote among a lot of other things:

    “There are other alchemical symbols in Order of the Phoenix as well—the black king, for example. Kingsley Shacklebolt is not a token black character but an alchemical reference to the “black king.” The king of the alchemical work must die, usually by drowning.”

    After DH, it’s obvious the black king isn’t Kingsley Shacklebolt but rather Regulus “little king” Black; he fits the role perfectly well. (Kingsley’s name points ahead to his future role as Minister of Magic, I’d guess.) Now my question is, what is the exact role of the black king?

    Also, what does this death by drowning achieve at this particular point of the story? Regulus has died years ago, before Harry was born. How is the fact that he sacrificed himself by drowning linked to the alchemical process that goes on during Harry’s lifetime? Maybe the drowning took place at the moment of Harry’s conception?

  12. Thank you for the great question!

    The “Black King” dies by drowning in the Nigredo and is a representation of the dissolution of the matter/identity in the first stage of the Great Work. as Regulus Black’s name means “The Black Prince” I think you may be spot on for seeing him as the Black King in the Harry Potter books rather than Kingsley.

    Your question also highlights, by bringing up one of my many mechanical, “shot-in-the-dark” plot point predictions, just what folly it is to assume there are point-to-point alchemical references for every or any specific character. Ms. Rowling’s alchemical artistry just doesn’t work that way. A good friend who has made detailed alchemical predictions about the Potter books (with some excellent direct hits) wrote me last week to explain how his Neville Longbottom predictions for Deathly Hallows had been realized in the Pentecostal Fire of the Sorting Hat. I think he’s forcing the puzzle pieces, if his track record makes me wonder if he could be right.

    Of course, I’m the arrogant git who looked for god in Harry Potter and found my name in Deathly Hallows…. You’re probably better off disregarding my alchemical reflections.

    Again, excellent question. Welcome to HogwartsProfessor!

  13. Arabella Figg says

    John, you’re not an arrogant git. You’re just not a superstar in Divination (Crystal Ball Section), which is “very woolly. A lot of guesswork, if you ask me.” (Hermione).

    Much of your guesswork rates an ‘E’ (Exceeds Expectations). For Analysis, you get a double ‘O’ (Outstanding).

    The kitties don’t care what they get as long as the kibble bowl is full…

  14. Disregard your alchemical reflections, while I’m enjoying them so much? Without them, you wouldn’t have gotten anything right, would you?

    Thank you for replying!

  15. wow! as fascinating as I find the alchemical discussion, I haven’t got the gift for reading it in the texts, so I am so grateful for your explication! thanks so much for breaking it up. also, great points from other commentors on liturgical purple and Regulus as the Black King.


  16. As I’ve said before, John, I’ve loved your explanations of Alchemy and how it relates to Harry Potter. (I’m now getting better at recognizing it in other books as well, and in movies–though I often wonder with the movies if they actually do it intentionally or just because that imagery works.)

    Finding your name in Deathly Hallows? Did I miss something. Apparently I did.

    Pat (confused again, but what else is new)

  17. Arabella Figg says

    Pat (Eeyore), John is referring to Hermione’s middle name, Jean.

    Ack, Mrs. Fleasely is napping on my laundered jeans again…

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