A Rowling Thank You: “Entering Literary Worlds”

I received a letter this morning from the 17 year old webmaster of a Potter fan web site in Argentina (Redflu.com). He attached a letter from Ms. Rowling in response to one of his own, a letter which apologized for taking so long to respond and which closed this way:

“We do not enter literary worlds; they enter us, so I hope very much that Harry’s world will be with you forever, as it will be with me. I shall always treasure the readers who were generous enough to share their feelings with me in the way that you have, and I thank you, again, for taking the trouble to write.”

No doubt a sincere sentiment. What I found worthy of note, of course, was her almost throw-away observation about “literary worlds.” She reverses the conventional understanding of reader-entering-text to assert that world-enters-reader. I think this is worthy of attention for understanding her books rather than just “understanding what Ms. Rowling thinks” (the ever swelling celebrity focus within Potter studies, alas) for three reasons:

1. It echoes and reinforces the Harvard Commencement remarks about imagination and its mediation of our inside and outside.

“One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

As I wrote at the time, “Ms. Rowling chose to speak to the world-shapers on behalf of the powerless and to invite them to join the community of human beings. How? By their imaginations, yes, but, citing Plutarch, by asking them to re-imagine their interior lives. The remarks were pointed at her Harvard audience, certainly, and their advantaged position as anointed power-wielders-to-come, but they were for all her readers as well. This was Harry’s experience, vanquishing the internal Voldemort by dying to self, which victory was what made his exterior duel with the Dark Lord a relatively small and near-certain outcome, however real and important the exterior evil is.

Ms. Rowling asks us to re-imagine ourselves, to stretch our ideas of what we are about and the effect we can have on others consequent to exorcising our interior demons and conceits. No, it wasn’t Solzhenitsyn and couldn’t be (compare the nigredo of the two speakers and the audience each commanded; I doubt very much the New York Times will be publishing her full remarks tomorrow). It was a topos of imaginative literature powerfully delivered, if only because it didn’t attempt too much.”

I’d note today that Ms. Rowling’s thank you letter to readers who write her about how her books changed their lives or, at least, their perspectives, hits the same note about the importance of imagination by making the distinction that “literary worlds enter us” rather than the reverse, “exploring reader” idea. “What we achieve inwardly will effect outer reality” asserts simultaneously the primacy of personal understanding and worldview in determining exterior action and the centrality of reading and the character or quality of imaginative life in shaping this understanding.

2. More interesting, at least for me, is the implicit argument that “literary worlds” are as real as the reader, if not more real in being the agent entering and transforming the other, and perhaps more real than the author, who, after all, hopes her subcreation will “be with you forever, as it will be with me.” I suspect this idea can be (and will be) dismissed as a clever flourish or conceit about the seeming importance imaginative worlds can have and perhaps it is just an echo of or response to a specific idea in the young webmaster’s original note to her which we do not have. Ms. Rowling’s use of books, however, inside her own books and the experience of memory in the Penseive, however, argue against disregarding this note.

The reality of the Riddle Diary memory experience and, more importantly, the “power beyond any magic” to be found in children’s tales and specifically the truths found in ‘The Tale of Three Brothers’ and the Hallows symbol speak to a transcendent reality experienced through the transparencies of fiction, a reality greater than our own which makes these stories more real and agencies apart from our reading. We open ourselves to experience of them at shallow or more profound levels rather than our being capable of extracting ideas and truths from them because of the tools we bring to the text for their analysis or deconstruction.

This argues for an iconographic understanding of the Potter novels, the larger argument of The Deathly Hallows Lectures, which understanding asserts that, like a Hogwarts student before a magical painting, the books need to be engaged correctly and respectfully (much like a hippogriff) with the right intention acting as password. Properly engaged, the piece of art opens up to reveal the inside much greater than its outside, into which surprising but greater reality (I want to say “previously unimagined”) the reader “enters” figuratively but which is actually entering him or her and transforming their interior life.

3. Which kind of books, if written in the tradition of Coleridgian imaginative literature and natural theology a la the Inklings and Wade Center ‘Seven’ symbolists, “baptizes the imagination.” I don’t mean this in the sense of a denominational or ideological initiation; literary worlds “baptize” readers by firing the imaginative faculty of the person up with images and experience of the uncreated logos, of which the primary imagination and conscience are continuations if not individual reflections in time and space. Again, the parallel with iconography is helpful here. An icon is properly experienced, as Lewis’ sunbeam in the woodshed, not by looking at it as artifact or object, but looking along it, entering into it, and experiencing its otherworldly origin and power inwardly in what is essentially an act of recognition and logos reflection.

Ms. Rowling invites those who have written her about how her books have touched them to understand the reality of those inward experiences as greater than themselves, an experience of the within, beneath, and behind of all appearances that, if “achieved” or incarnated, will transform “outer reality.” Her thank-you-note aside, then, about “literary worlds entering us” rather than the reverse is another pointer to the importance of the four parts of Deathly Hallows she has already asked her readers to look along to understand the meaning of her work (the epigraphs, the scripture on the headstones, Harry’s experiences in the Forest Again, and Dumbledore’s last words to Harry in what he calls King’s Cross), a pointer to “look along” or “look at,” as the reader chooses or is capable of.

And, yes, if you want to learn more about the literary tradition that invites this sort of “looking along” and transforming inward experience of greater realities imaginatively. I recommend you purchase and read The Deathly Hallows Lectures. (And those of you who have already, please do share your thoughts on the book’s Amazon.com page if you haven’t already.)

Your comments and correction about this interpretation of Ms. Rowling’s note are welcome.

[To those of you in the Green Gun Club, especially those in the line of fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, happy birthday!]


  1. QUESTION: How do you cope with the aggravation from strongly religious people who have reacted against the Harry Potter stories, accusing them of witchcraft?

    ROWLING: Well, mostly I laugh about it and ignore it. Very occasionally I get annoyed, because these extremist religious folk have missed the point so spectacularly. I think the Harry books are actually very moral, but some people just object to witchcraft being mentioned in a children’s book. Unfortunately, if such extremist views were to prevail, we would have to lose a lot of classic children’s fiction.

    Exclusive: Writer J.K. Rowling Answers Her Readers’ Questions,” Toronto Star, 3 November 2001

  2. Literary worlds DO enter us and always have ever since the first bard put together the first story and excited his/her audience with the tale of courage and heroism and canniness that enabled the auditors to imagine that they could so act or achieve. We all are taught that we could be, and may be called to be, and even strengthened to become “Frodo the Nine-fingered” hero of the end of the third age HERE and NOW.

    I recall reading EE “Doc” Smith’s LENSMAN and related series when I was an early teen. I loved these space operas like most teenage males would. But while in high school I read a short story (I cannot recall the title these many years later) in which the protagonist is escaping a facility and calls to mind whilst needing courage the imagery of Kimball Kinnison and the Lensmen to tide him over the task at hand. It is only in the final line of the story that the reader discovers the protagonist is a chimpanzee escaping the facility in which he was engineered.

    When I discovered that the protagonist was a chimp (or monkey?), I also discovered that I was not the only reader who had ever had a literary world enter me.

    Later in college I learned to name this power faerie. The authors who can move us there are few and greatly to be valued because when faerie enters us, it escapes into this world and re-creates it. To this, tow thoughts:
    1) “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things [are] honest, whatsoever things [are] just, whatsoever things [are] pure, whatsoever things [are] lovely, whatsoever things [are] of good report; if [there be] any virtue, and if [there be] any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8)
    2) Draco Dormiens Numquat Titillandus (Hogwarts motto).

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I feel “owned” by stories I have read, stories which are interwoven into my psyche and won’t go away, but continue to prod my thinking, motivations, actions or curiosity. The inside content is greater than the outside cover, similar to a popped popcorn kernel. This is one reason I call Tolkein and Rowling’s books “extremely sticky,” because I find it difficult to disengage from those worlds.

    On a small scale, I think of a slim , awarded YA novel, Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman, whose ambiguous ending continues to haunt me.

    So, in a simplistic way, no doubt, I invade books and the good ones kidnap me forever, a symbiotic relationship I treasure. Making me sort of a literary pod person, I guess.

    Thudders’ thinks his insides are definitely bigger than the size of his kibble bowl…

  4. Hi John,

    Once again, I am overwhelmed by the waves of words and ideas which overwhelm my ability to comprehend.

    Could you please chunk it a bit, so I can understand.

    What is the difference between “looking along” vs. “looking at”? Can you give an example of what each would look like, with regards to, say, Harry’s walk in the Forest?

    Also, the literalist in me wants to point out that we neither “enter” worlds nor do worlds “enter” us. Those are metaphors – albeit powerful ones – for what really happens. We re-create in our own minds – via the power of imagination – some representation of the world the author created on the page by using words. The words – and what they stand for – are the medium which allows this to happen. The question for me, is the one debated by Jeremy and Andy at the link Travis posted at the Hog’s Head, under “I see with a myriad eyes”: is there an embedded deeper meaning (which I’m guessing is the logos which you write about, or is it all determined by the words themselves? Put slightly differently: where does the meaning come from? Where do the “greater realities” live?

    PS Please forgive my ignorance of this area. I feel like a bull in a china shop. My excuse is that I’m guessing you prefer comments, no matter how ill informed, to silence.

  5. For ‘looking at’ versus ‘looking along,’ please see Lewis’ essay ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.

    The greater reality is the principle beneath, behind, and within appearances, which principle is only visible to those looking ‘along it’ rather than ‘at it’ and to those prepared for this sight (usually by initiation, participation in sacraments, ascetic practice, etc., for which an upright soul and a life of virtue is also a pre-requisite — for which (!) reading the right books is a good beginning).

    Lewis’ ‘Seeing Eye’ essay is also available online now; Cutsinger’s ‘Lewis as Apologist and Mystic’ is useful for getting at the heart of the logos theology/epistemology/soteriology therein.

  6. John, I read Lewis’ Toolshed essay this afternoon. A very concise but helpful definition of what it means to look at & to look along. And a helpful reminder, too, that both ways of looking can be useful & informative for us.

  7. I read the Toolshed essay too. As far as I can understand, Lewis is talking about the difference between subjective and objective ways of understanding reality.

    But something in your response, John, gives me pause. It seems that in order to “get” the greater realities, one must lead the life of a monk – and a virtous one to boot. Are you sure that’s what you meant? How about the rest of us who don’t want to sacrifice the world and the flesh for enlightenment?

  8. Lewis is not talking about subjective versus objective experience of reality as that distinction is usually understood, i.e., that objective knowledge is real and subjective knowledge delusion. Quite the reverse. CSL argues that only the “looking along” in being a conjunction of subject and object is real knowledge. “Looking at” in contrast is exclusively about appearances and exterior qualities that can be observed, usually quantities of mass and energy.

    Your suggestion, Red Rocker, that the idea that virtue and spiritual knowledge are linked requires an otherworldly, puritanical despising of the world is bizarre enough that I wonder if you aren’t joking. Just for the record, though, a love of the true, the beautiful, and the good are essential for any meaningful comprehension of same, and it is a truism of every revealed tradition and better thinkers that our capacity for spiritual knowledge is a reflection of our moral virtue (cf., existential epistemology — “sin makes you stupid”).

    “Enlightenment” literally means “becoming light” in the way that lead is changed to gold, material light by the alchemist; becoming the light that comes into the world in every man (John 1:9), though, isn’t something that happens without focus and ascetic effort. I rush to add that this asceticism and the transforming vision it fosters, in revealing and allowing our participation in the true, good, and beautiful (the real or sublime beneath the appearances), is more pleasurable and satisfying than anything celebrating the desires with exteriors alone can offer.

    Just curious: are you really suggesting there is a divide between virtue and knowledge and that the life of virtue is necessarily puritanical and world denying? In Christian tradition, the step between the moral life and theosis is the physiki or learning to see God everywhere, the inner principles (logoi) of created things. How could this be possible, not to mention necessary, if the only path to spiritual knowledge and accomplishment were world denial?

    Forgive me if you are just playing the MSM troll here to see how high I’ll jump when you pull my chain by reciting cliches about religious people being pilgrim bores, etc. Enlightenment, photismos, properly understood means making the body light and making the whole person inside and out the light it is within, beneath, and behind the temporal, spatial appearances. But this is a process of restoration of the whole body-soul unity and person not denial of the unity or its visible and invisible aspects. And just like restoring a classic car, human restoration involves TLC, repair, no little application and effort, not to mention knowledge of what the original was designed to do and to be. Embracing the externals of worldly flesh and its pleasures as ends in themselves apart from this work won’t get you any of that.

  9. I wouldn’t personally equate the objective way of knowing with reality and subjective way of knowing with the delusional. For me they are two different ways of looking at reality: analytically and scientfically vs experientially. I wouldn’t say one is more “real” than the other. I think that there are some phenomena (such as the laws of physics and chemistry and biology, the “hard” sciences”) which are best understood by “looking at”, which I’ve called the objective way. And there are some phonomena (such as love and compassion and empathy and spirituality) which can not be understood by “looking at” alone, they need the “looking along” approach. Here’s an example: love. We can (and do) try to understand love by looking at neurological and neurochemical correlates, and by looking at observable behaviours. So we know that certain brain centers are activated when we’re looking at or thinking of someone we love. We know there are certain chemicals which are released in the state of infatuation or “being in love”. And we know people act in certain ways when they love or are in love. But to understand the subjective experience of loving someone, there is no substitute to experience. Books, movies, talk and all the observation in the world will not replace that.

    My understanding of the word asceticism is similar to what I found in Wikipedia:

    Asceticism (Greek: askēsis) describes a life-style characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures (especially sexual activity and consumption of alcohol) often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

    I wouldn’t personally equate that with puritanical despising of the world – to me there is no reverse value judgement involved. And I wouldn’t equate it with distancing oneself from external reality. But the implication that it does involve moving away from worldly pleasures is there. That is what I meant; or rather, that was the question I was asking.

    As for the divide between virtue and knowlege, I don’t see that either. I don’t think you need to be divided from the world to live a virtuous life. But it seemed to me that that was what you were suggesting. Thank you for clarifying.

  10. Red Rocker wrote: “I wouldn’t personally equate the objective way of knowing with reality and subjective way of knowing with the delusional. For me they are two different ways of looking at reality: analytically and scientfically vs experientially. I wouldn’t say one is more “real” than the other.”

    If I read Lewis’ article right, that’s exactly what he is saying. That both are needed to come to a true view of things. What he was objecting about was the rationalistic modern way of only looking at things & saying that was the sum total of reality & then totally discounting thereby the looking along view of things. Browbeating I think he called it & called for a coexistence between the two ways of looking.

  11. Actually, I didn’t think it was a totally subjective/objective distinction. Personally I felt that the looking along, the “particpation in the cosmic logos,” is superior. But I thought Lewis was arguing more for a level playing field, that is, that instead of just simply choosing one over the other the two sides should learn from each other & thus come to a deeper understanding.

    I just skimmed through the article again & if Lewis was trying to make the case that the interior, experiential knowledge is superior to the exterior & superficial knowledge, then no, he doesn’t do a very good job. I came off feeling as if he was trying to make peace between them or get them put back one equal footing.

    Like I said, though, I think experiential, or I think in regard to divine truths revealed, knowledge is superior to a naturalistic reason. Reason, science, experimentation can only tell us so much, that is what you see is what you get, to simplify it. They cannot look inside or beyond these shallow conclusions. That is to say, they can’t see the totality of existence, which is more than just this physical, what you can see is what you get, world.

  12. Lewis is arguing from a defensive stance, clearly, trying to win even a share of legitimacy in the world of thinking about thinking for “looking along” in a world in which only objective, personal measures are considered real (which is to say our world). Judging from the examples he chooses, though, he is not arguing for just equal consideration and tolerance for the subjective view.

    Unless you think the lover’s experience of love and the psychological observer’s are equally real or the mathematician doing math and the neurologist tracking his brain chemistry are about the same subject, Lewis is, I think, quite obviously asserting the superiority and greater reality of the interior, experiential knowledge, the “participation in the cosmic logos,” over the exterior and superficial knowledge of the materialists and empiricists. If he argued for this openly, he would be ignored or rebuffed. As it is, it is a stealth assault on the naturalist position — but how effective is it?

    That readers like Red Rocker, no dummy, and you revGeorge, miss that point and think this is a standard subjective/objective distinction suggests it wasn’t as effective as I would have hoped. But Lewis’ argument, however prudentially framed, does win a foothold for the traditional epistemology in a world consumed by appearances rather than the continuity of existence beneath them.

  13. John,

    I do think that the lover’s experience of love and the CAT scan of his brain waves are about the same thing and are equally real – although obviously very different aspects of the same phenomenon. But the mathematician’s understanding of an equation and his CAT scan? No. That is different.

    What is the difference, you ask? Well, the mathematician is thinking about something which exists outside of him. It is not subjective. He does not give it reality by his thoughts. If he were to stop thinking about it, it would still be “out there”. And that, I suspect, is similar to what you’re getting at with the idea of the “greater reality”.

    I should stop, now, because I see a yawning chasm coming up, and it’s better not to go there.

  14. Just saw my comment up, and realized I made a horrible mistake. CAT scans show the structure or tissues in the brain. Brain activity would be measured by way of an EEG – for electrical activity – or a PET scan, for a measure of blood flow in the brain.

  15. I suspect that Douglas Adams was having a little gentle fun at the expense of those who only ‘look at’.

    In the first novel/radio series of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything from the supercomputer Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42.

  16. …… which reminds me (although I am not sure why) that when, many years ago, I set off on a ’round the world trip’ my elder sister’s parting words were, “you can send a turnip around the world but it still comes back a turnip”.

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