Alchemy: Jung, Burckhart, or McLean?

I was invited by a reader here to post on her alchemy thread over at the Leaky Cauldron’s Leaky Lounge. Actually, I was so intrigued when she told me about it that I asked to be invited, but I guess it comes to the same thing. After reading through pages of posts and fascinating links on my first trip there, I made the following post. If anyone asks, I’ll go into greater detail about the difference between the psychological and authentically spiritual interpretations of alchemy and what makes me think Rowling has read Burckhardt and Lings. Until then, here are my notes to the alchemical mavens and wanna-be alchemists at the Leaky Lounge:

Hi! My name is John Granger. I am very grateful for being allowed to participate in this discussion, if I’m a little embarrassed about being introduced as an expert on the subject. No doubt readers here will be disappointed if they have high expectations about my contributions.

Because many of the people posting on these threads are new to alchemy as a subject unto itself and to thinking about how Ms. Rowling is using alchemic symbols and formula in the Harry Potter novels, I would note two things as a starter.

First, there are three schools of thought about alchemy itself and what it means: Jung’s psychological interpretations, Burckhardt’s traditionalist ideas, and Adam McLean’s encyclopedic and, if he is to be believed, empirical knowledge of the subject. I suspect Ms. Rowling is familiar with all three and the books reflect what she has picked up from the “ridiculous amount” she read on the subject before writing.

*For Jung himself, there are collections of his thoughts on the subject (“Jung on Alchemy,” etc.) and there is his Mysterium Conjunctionis. To take a Jungian trip through the Harry Potter novels, Dr. Gail Grynbaum’s 2003 essay is an excellent introduction.

*For the traditionalist ideas about alchemy, Burckhardt’s Alchemyhas no peer and is the source of most of what I think on the subject.

*And what has been written on Leaky by SMEs like Adrianhrod I think, after a quick read of Adrianhrod’s excellent Scribbulus essays this afternoon, are mostly derived from Adam McLean’s gold mine of alchemy.

Second, there is a stream of work in the English literary tradition that can best be called “alchemical.” (For a history of these poems, plays, and stories from Chaucer through the Restoration, Linden’s Darke Hierogliphicks is the standard work; for a dictionary of the meaning of the symbols, Abraham’s A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery is my preference out of the many currently in print.) Shakespeare and the Metaphysical Poets are overloaded with alchemical images because of the prevalence of Hermeticism in the English Renaissance. This stream, though, stretches from the 16th century to the 21st, probably because of Shakespeare’s usage (?), and includes giants like Blake, Yeats, and C. S. Lewis.

When looking at the three approaches to historical alchemy that are prevalent, how do we decide which is the most likely one Ms. Rowling has taken? I suppose, in all honesty, that we are most likely to choose the one that is (1) most accessible and (2) closest to our own understanding of the world. Most online commentary about alchemy of the books that is good, consequently, is the meeting of spectacular grasp of canon and a close reading of Adam McLean’s web site. McLean, from my brief exposure to his site, is not attached to an “organized religion” and, while being encyclopedic, is not challenging his readers to feats of self-reflection and study. Interpreting Harry Potter alchemically using this source is an exercise in “connect-the-dots” — and it is very valuable work, which even a cursory reading of Adrianhrod’s essays will show you.

I prefer Burckhardt and the traditionalists to Jung and McLean for the two reasons of ease (I had read Burckhardt’s Alchemy before I read Harry Potter so it was my starting perspective) and of comfort. However jarring and challenging the ideas of the Traditionalists (almost all of them Sufis), their perspective is one I admire very much and have struggled with little success to aquire myself. Beyond these personal facts shaping my preference that I share in the spirit of full disclosure, I think there are several reasons for believing that Ms. Rowling has used Burckhardt as a source more than Jung or McLean in the alchemical artistry of her wonderful books.

The first is that the use of alchemy in the English literary tradition is about personal transformation that is less about the soul and self-understanding than about the spirit and human perfection. The tradition is spiritual, religious if that term does not appal you, and neither Jung nor McLean speak to this ultimate end of the Great Work. “Real world” alchemy, be it Arabic, Chinese, Hindu, or Western, was always ancillary to work done within the prevalent religious tradition; Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther, for example, were alchemists themselves or expressed their admiration of the alchemical effort. Alchemy has a transcendent goal that great English writers have tapped into for their edifying purposes in writing.

Neither Jung nor McLean, I think, are as clear about this as Burckhardt. Each seems, to my cursory reading, to take a contrary stance to this position and to neglect the literary usage element entirely. Burckhardt’s fellow Sufi and Traditionalist after Schuon, Martin Lings, in contrast, explains in great depth the uses of alchemy in Shakespeare’s plays and the Bard’s noetic meaning.

I think Ms. Rowling is writing within this tradition rather than departing from it to write a strictly psychological or didactically alchemical series. What she has said in interviews about her faith, the formulaic elements in the books that point to this faith, and specific story elements that are from Burckhardt’s book all suggest that the Traditionalist perspective is her cornerstone, if she is familiar with both the Jungian and more New Age perspectives. All of that is explained in Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. Her use of Elizabethan era alchemy to advance her postmodern themes is, I think, one of the best parts of that book.

But this thread is supposed to be about alchemy in Phoenix. I think what I wrote in Looking for God in Harry Potter about Phoenix has become the consensus view in Fandom conversations about alchemy in the books, namely, that this is Ms. Rowling’s “Black Book” and Harry’s alchemical nigredo. In Phoenix, Harry is reduced to prima materia as everything he understands about himself and the world is stripped from him until all that is left is Harry and the prophecy. I look forward to reading what you think about this idea — how it works and doesn’t work in illuminating the meaning and experience of Phoenix— and I’ll try my best to check back in next week. This is indeed a wonderful thread and place to learn why so much of Fandom swears by the Leaky Lounge!

Parthian note: As far as I know for sure, Adrianhrod is Ms. Rowling or Gail Grynbaum wrote her Jungian interpretation of the first four books after interviewing Ms. Rowling secretly or the author hates Burckhardt and only used so many things from his book because it jibed with her plot points. We’ll know a lot more at the end of July; thank you in advance for assuming that I am not an infallible expert married to my opinions on this subject but a fan like you wanting to learn more about it.


  1. I heard that Thomas Aquinas was sympathetic to alchemy (or perhaps practiced it) but I did not know about Martin Luther. I think the subject of alchemy is fascinating stuff and I bought Burckhart’s book on Alchemy, Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery as well as Linden’s Darke Hierogliphicks recently. I also read Grynbaum’s essay and will read Adrianhrod’s essay soon. Good stuff here.

  2. memyslfni says

    Check out the entire alchemy threads in the Leaky Lounge! Talk about fun and interesting discussions!!!! the discussion has gotten so in depth and prolific we are in our 6th version of the threads. Good stuff exploring all aspects of alchemy!!

    While I do not agree on literary alchemy as the only source, I believe that Rowling is schooled in many different branches of the science. She has said herself that she “doesn’t believe good books are written to a formula”. I think she has mixed her traditions to suit her needs and has done this exceptionally well.

  3. Arianhrod2 says

    Dear John,

    I must say I am VERY flattered that you would even consider mentioning me in your blog. That is high praise indeed. I do believe I quoted you a few times in my essays as well. LOL To be honest, if I had to write them again with the knowledge we have now, there is a lot that I would change. It was published unedited, and I wish I had a chance to clean it up; there was a lot I wasn’t happy with. I was missing quotes and citations and all kinds of stuff, but there’s nothing I can do about it now!

    I swear to you I am not Rowling! LOL! Don’t I wish!

    However, I still stand by my assertion that Rowling is using the more “New Age/Jungian” model, although I wouldn’t quite call it “New Age.” Most of our information does come from the actual alchemists such as Valentine, Paracelsus, Norton, de Villanova, Newton, Bacon, Dee, and others. It’s not that we feel the so-called “literary alchemy” camp is out-and-out wrong; it’s more that we felt that our approach, developed over more than two years of research and theorizing (discarding old premises when new information comes to light if necessary) better explains what Rowling is doing. So far they have not presented any well-argued points that would make me change my mind.

    By “we” I mean my fellow partners in alchemic crime: MemyslfnI, firephoenx, Pat Rorrythe, Alchemist Apprentice, Asphodel Wormwood, minime, Erudite Witch, Mercutio, and the dozens of others who have chipped in with their opinions and insight.

    Let me be clear. We tried what the people from the other site call “literary alchemy” although we did not call it that because the term doesn’t even exist in actuality. The Dumbledore/Sirius/Hagrid tria worked better than Harry/Ron/Hermione–but that doesn’t mean that Harry/Ron/Hermione in a “literary alchemy” sense is wrong. The major sticking point with them is the question: Who is salt and who is sulfur? In my mind, there is no question that Harry is salt. None at all. No other explanation makes sense. In their desperate attempt to prove that Harry and Hermione will be a couple, they will ignore what is right before their eyes, and twist and turn any piece of evidence. They have said the most heinous things about Rowling deliberately misreading her readers. Even your assertion that Ron and Hermione are the “quarreling couple” (great term, by the way; we use it all the time and we definitely agree!) is not enough to sway them, nor is Rowling’s statements that it’s Ron and Hermione. If they don’t believe the author, they won’t believe anyone.

    That is where the argument comes from. That is why you were invited to tear me to pieces. They are trying to “ship” Harry and Hermione–and we couldn’t care less about it. You probably shouldn’t get involved–because I can guess full well who invited you to check out Leaky. LOL Shipping is not a crucial part of the books; why put so much emphasis on it? We are willing to consider all points of view; we realize we’re not the end-all or be-all of alchemy theory and there are probably plenty of people out there who know a hell of a lot more than we do. It is the other group’s complete lack of tolerance to other points of view, and their maddening arrogance.

    They use two sources for the most part: Abraham’s book, and your books. I find that a very narrow-minded approach; we have literally read hundreds of texts and books on this subject. Hundreds. Applying them to the stories is challenging, but you can’t make a square peg fit a round hole no matter how much you try. You have to constantly re-evaluate your theory as new information comes along, not cling to it. New ideas and fresh perspectives come with change, and they are very static in their ideas, their approach, and their evidence. I wish I had a nickel every time they wrote, “But Abraham says this” and (sorry!) “Granger says that”. They need to broaden their horizons and look around a little more.

    Personally, I don’t see why everyone can’t be right. This is such a profound story on so many levels, and the way Rowling weaves her webs leads me to think there are elements of all ideas in the series. There is room enough for Harry/Ron/Hermione in the literary sense AND Sirius/Dumbledore/Hagrid in the more traditional, Paracelsian model of salt/mercury/sulfur. Rowling has included the older Aristolean model of the four elements; why not include ALL branches?

    Please feel free to email me. I’d love to hear more of your ideas.

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