Reading, Writing, Rowling 45: Alchemical Weddings in Harry Potter and Beyond

No, I have not returned to podcasting at MuggleNet! This podcast was recorded before The Ickabog show but that one was edited and posted first before the text of the “political fairy tale” was taken offline. Enjoy!

From Laurie Beckoff’s introduction at MuggleNet.com:

Why did Ron and Hermione, Remus and Tonks, and Bill and Fleur end up paired together? Literary alchemy holds the symbolic answers. Katy and John talk this month with Elizabeth Baird Hardy (Mayland Community College) and Beatrice Groves (Oxford University) about the alchemical pairings of elements that reveal themselves in the Harry Potter series and beyond.

The Twitter Controversy as a Rowling Story: Mirroring Subtext, Narrative Misdirection, and Literary Alchemy

In my first post about Rowling’s tweet in support of Maya Forstater, I focused on two questions concerning this explosive reappearance on this social media platform: ‘why now?’ and ‘why this subject?’ The first response in the comment thread to that post, I think now, has the closest thing we will have to correct answers to those questions for some time. Nick Jeffery wrote, tying the seemingly arbitrary post to Rowling’s new Solve et Coagula tattoo (one he was the first to notice), ” It is an act of destruction and it is quite deliberate.”

I believe Mr Jeffery is quite right. To understand Rowling’s tweet and the consequent fall-out in fandom, our best course is to read the specific text in question as we would any story Rowling has written with the tools we know work best. What those tools suggest is that Rowling intentionally created her break with the Social Justice movement and its champions in Harry Potter fandom and I have to suspect with Hollywood in the months to come — and, as importantly, she is re-creating her public image and self to reflect better the person she wants to be (or the public mask behind which she is more comfortable).

Rather than the tweet being a clueless act of bigotry, what this view points to is three contrary to prevalent narrative possibilities: (1) that Rowling has written a story with real-world characters who voice the lines she know they will speak for effects she wants to happen within her narrative, (2) she has embedded clues for the attentive reader to discover, clues which reveal her true meaning as well as a lesson in reading well, and (3) that the #IStandWithMaya post she made on 19 December is a long-planned and courageous act of re-invention that frees her and her serious readers potentially from being sock-puppets for the Zeitgeist. Call this the ‘Solve et Coagula Theory.’

To see these three possibilities involves a review of Rowling’s year and most importantly the week prior to the tweet in question, a review using the tools we have in hand for interpreting Rowling’s work in a careful reading of the specific text in question and of the context of her previous work and public comments. If you want to move beyond the Daily Prophet headlines that ‘Rowling is a Transphobe!’ and ‘Inclusive Message of Hogwarts Saga Betrayed!,’ please join me after the jump for an exercise in exegesis with the tools of texts within texts, narrative misdirection, and literary alchemy that reveal Rowling as the maestro of media manipulation and personal re-invention. [Read more…]

Solve et Coagula: What It Means

J. K. Rowling seems to have had the words ‘Solve + Coagula’ tattooed in a script much like her handwriting on the inside part of her right arm just above the wrist. When Nick Jeffery discovered this and told me about it, I posted a quick note here at HogwartsProfessor which TheRowlingLibrary tweeted out to its global audience and The-Leaky-Cauldron retweeted to its minions at the far reaches of the galactic fandom empire and beyond.

Which has meant I have been buried in e-owls asking the question, ‘”What does solve et coagula mean?” Beatrice Groves has written something on the subject which I assume will be definitive but MuggleNet.com has been down (way down, as in “transitioning to new ownership”) so I don’t know when her solve salvo will be available.

To fill the breach, here are some notes on the alchemical axiom solve et coagula from Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre and Lindsey Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, two of the definitive texts on literary alchemy. After the jump! [Read more…]

Rowling Sports Alchemical Tattoo?

Friend of this blog Nick Jeffery tweeted me and Prof Beatrice Groves on Friday with an astonishing picture. It is of Rowling’s arm with the words ‘Solve + Coagula’ in script on the underside of her right wrist. My assumption is that picture was taken at the premiere of the Finding the Way Home HBO documentary at which Rowling appeared in her role as Lumos founder and spokesperson; she is pictured holding the hand of a young woman there of the size and color of the other arm in the picture Mr Jeffery sent (see below).

I find myself wondering if it is a tattoo — the script akin to her handwriting suggests she wrote it there herself in pen rather than being properly inked? — but, permanent or water soluble, it is a remarkable confirmation of the centrality of alchemy in Rowling’s writing. She has written the essential action of all alchemical operation in ink of some kind on her right arm. Outside of the several PotterMore posts on the subject and her 1998 admission that she’d always wanted to be an alchemist and had learned a great deal about the subject which set the “magical parameters” of her imaginative sub-creation, this tattoo makes dismissal of Rowling as alchemist and transformative artist even more of a stretch than it was already. 

I am busy writing the alchemy chapter of my PhD thesis, believe it or not; this photo could not have come at a better time, except I don’t have the time because of my deadlines to do it justice here! I have asked Professor Groves to write something on ‘Solve et Coagula’ and we’ll let you know when and where she decides to post it — but I had to share the news and pictures with you here as a ‘heads up.’ Please let me know your first impressions in the comment boxes below.

Mailbag: Dickens as Literary Alchemist?

Susan wrote:

As a Harry Potter fanatic, I have really enjoyed your books and learning about Literary Alchemy. I understand that A Tale of Two Cities is a classic example of a book with this structure. Could you refer or recommend where I could learn about the Alchemical components of this story?

Also I’ve seen several references to A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery as a good reference, however it is rather expensive. Do you have any ideas of where to find a reasonable used copy, or another less expensive resource?

Dear Susan,

Forgive me for jumping without courtesies and in haste right to your questions!

(1) To my knowledge, I’m the only person talking about literary alchemy in Tale of Two Cities, which, frankly, is daunting. (See Harry Potter’s Bookshelf or just search this site.) Fortunately for my mental well being (who wants to be called “deluded” or a “critic with an alchemy fixation/hobby horse”?), other friends who are familiar with hermetic formula a la Shakespeare have confirmed I’m not just making this up. Of course, this could mean we have a group-think delusion in hand, no?

If you have your doubts about Dickens as alchemist, though, read his The Haunted Man, a Christmas novella in three parts like Tale of Two Cities, featuring a chemist, a loving, poor family with six boys and a caboose girl, a ‘Voldemort-baby-at-King’s-Cross’ doppelganger, and a treatise about memory not so carefully put in with the melodrama. Watch the colors as you run through the three parts…

(2) The best prices for Abraham’s Dictionary I found at BookFinder4U.com were from the US — and, at more than $30 after including the S&H costs, the price still seems very steep. It’s too bad, because the book really is invaluable to the serious reader. The entry on ‘The Philosophical Tree’ I stumbled on recently has me reconsidering how I’ve understood C. S. Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew, for instance.

This probably seems gross but I urge you in addition to that book to find a copy of Lyndy Abraham’s Marvell and Alchemy (Scolar Press [not a typo], 1990).

The first chapter is her explanation of the historical context of alchemy, both metallurgical and literary in 16th and 17th Century Great Britain, and the references in it to Everard and Culpeper alone have me more than half-convinced that it is one of the books on alchemy Rowling read in her first years of plotting and planning the Hogwarts Saga. 

Marvell and Alchemy lists at $130, alas, but copies can be had for $50; in the US and for £24.00 in the UK. I got mine through Interlibrary Loan. Well worth the wait and hassle that this can be, believe me!

I hope that helps — please let me know how your adventures in hermetic literature turn out.

Fraternally black, white, and red,

John