Augustana College Students Interview

In anticipation of my talks at Augustana College in April, I was interviewed last month by two students from that campus for an article to be published in a Rock Island newspaper. The first half of the interview was done by email in a question and answer format; the second half was by phone. I post the first half for your comments and corrections.

* What was Rowling’s agenda for writing the series? Did she have a purpose or an overall main theme?

Like many writers and poets, Ms. Rowling as a rule does not discuss her themes, meaning, or agenda except in the broadest possible terms (“morals are drawn,” “slavery is bad,” etc.). This leaves interpretation of the books where it belongs, namely, in the hands of the serious readers willing to do what John Ruskin said is the “slow mining” that reveals the layers of any text, be it portrait, poem, play, or prose. As I discuss at length in How Harry Cast His Spell and The Deathly Hallows Lectures, there do seem to be four main themes and one agenda: choice, prejudice, death, and transformation with the reader experiencing something like apotheosis via identification with Harry, a vibrant symbol of the spirit purified in story.

* You noted in Unlocking Harry Potter that Rowling has mentioned that she would have rather been an alchemist than a wizard. How integral is alchemy to the plot of the Harry Potter series? Can you explain the influence of alchemy or highlight some specific examples in the books?

It is both the primary scaffolding of Ms. Rowling’s story telling, what she calls the “magical parameters” and “logic” of the books, and, as I said above, because Harry’s transformation and the reader’s experience of and in some way sharing his purification is the power of the book, alchemy is the series meaning. Every book has the three alchemical stages, for instance, and the last three books are these stages writ large, with characters named for these stages’ representative colors (Black, White, and Red) dying at the end of each stage to signal its completion. Ron and Hermione are alchemical sulfur and mercury respectively, the catalysts of the alchemical formula, who are usually called the “quarreling couple” in alchemical texts (Rowling cues us to Hermione being mercury because mercury is the feminine and intellective pole of existence, her name is the feminine of the Greek name for mercury, her initials are Hg, and her parents are dentists). Harry’s experience at King’s Cross in Deathly Hallows is the alchemical out of body experience after the king and queen have died and become a hermaphrodite in the alembic coffin representing death to self and resolution of all contraries. It’s hard to overstate, in other words, the importance of alchemy in understanding the books.

* Do you have a favorite character?

The trio is my favorite character — Harry, Ron, and Hermione — because they are, taken together, the symbolic heart of the books.

* Dumbledore has said that Harry has a “certain disregard for rules.” Does Rowling encourage rule-breaking? Did she have a motive for this? Some examples are: the marauder’s map, the invisibility cloak, cheating or unfairly helping others (as seen with Hermione , the Triwizard tournament, and the Half Blood Prince’s potions book), running away from Hogwarts, the actions taken against the established government of the Ministry of Magic.

The rule-breaking of the series is largely consequent to Ms. Rowling conforming to the conventions of her primary genre, the schoolboy novel, in which ‘stepping out of bounds’ is the inevitable adventure aspect of the story. Ms. Rowling also is very much a postmodern writer and no friend, therefore, to authority, especially self-important, insensitive, and risible authority (like schools, government, and media). Her characters’ decisions to break rules to save the world or just to help a friend are almost always not a celebration of selfishness but of vitality, even righteousness.

* As Rowling often wrote with historical allusions, alchemy, archetypes, mythology, post-modernism, has she constructed a completely original work or an amalgamation of unoriginal ideas?

Ms. Rowling’s peculiar genius is the seamless combination or “rowling” of genres to achieve her ends on the traditional four layers of meaning (surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical). As I explain in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures, there are ten principal story types she combines in the record of Harry’s battle with Lord Voldemort, from manner-and-morals fiction a la Jane Austen and Swifyian satire to the Christian fantasy of Elizabeth Goudge and the alchemical drama of Shakespeare. It is simultaneously breath taking in the originality of its conception and execution while being remarkably traditional in the literary conventions she observes.

* On your website,, you have begun to delve into the Twilight series. Do you think that Stephenie Meyer or her series is comparable to Rowling and Harry Potter? How are the series related, if at all?

I’m toying with writing a book about this; the title I have in mind is Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Meaning and Artistry of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. If I do finish it, it will explore the Bella/Harry connection at length but, in brief, the principal correspondences I see are the combination of genres (though both choose remarkably different ones, obviously), the theme of human spiritual transformation, and their heavy Christian symbolism, with Ms. Meyer’s books having a strong Latter Day Saints coloring.

* How do you feel about the film adaptations?

It has become a cliche but it is true, I think, to say the films act as trailers to the books. I enjoy them and I appreciate how they bring readers to the series but the greater allegorical and anagogical meaning of the books is lost in them because they do not translate well across media.

* Has Harry Potter reached Literary Classic status?

That certainly is a function of how “classic” is defined. C. S. Lewis said a great book was one that you loved and that made you better, wiser, and happier. I think a “classic,” judging from books awarded that status, has longevity, treats the great questions of human existence, displays an artistry that fosters an experience of the answers to these questions, and, in the English tradition at least, gives Christian answers. Harry Potter succeeds on my scale and Lewis’ except with respect to longevity.

* Certain critics such as William Safire have argue that the Potter series will never be viewed as anything more than children’s fiction. Despite the criticism, is the series accessible to adults? Does it warrant a college course dedicated to it?

The series can be read by children, obviously, but is primarily for adults, at least at its depths. It is the gateway to and something of a survey course of English literature, not to mention its unique place as the share text of this reading generation. Not offering it as a college course would be a greater mystery than including it in the curriculum, as it has been from Yale and Princeton to Pepperdine.

Afterward: When prepping my notes for my talk at Princeton Monday, I stumbled over this quotation from a 2001 interview with Ms. Rowling: “My ambition is to write books that the reader won’t necessarily get compleately at first.” Any question about the validity of reading the books at different levels and for layered meanings, not to mention their appropriateness for study, so much as auctorial intention is helpful in resolving such issues, is answered therein, no?]


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Aha! I’ve been feeling for awhile “by the pricking of my thumbs,” that you’d be writing a book about Twilight.

    Great answers!

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