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

 

Puns, Prophecy, and Pizza

On Puns, Considered in Shakespeare According to Hermetic Principles

“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is, in my opinion, the epitome of everything a good pun should be (and yes, there is such a thing as a good pun).  And in the spirit of good analysis and not-so-great humor, I will now explain precisely how this joke works and why.

The context is important here. The speaker, Mercutio, lies dying, having been mortally wounded by Tybalt. Mercutio is precisely the sort of character who takes very little seriously. Here, even as he is about to die, he makes a pun. Whatever he is, he is not “grave” in the sense of being serious. However, he is about to die and thus will find himself in a “grave”, namely the place where one buries dead bodies. That said, the only time he could ever be “grave” (sense 1) is if he is in a grave (sense 2). Thus the full sense of “you shall find me a grave man” is “you’ll take away my sense of humor over my dead body, which it presently will be”, which we may label “grave” (sense 3).

[Read more…]

Reading, Writing, Rowling: It’s Tolkien!

From Laurie Beckoff’s write-up at MuggleNet:

What does the Wizarding World owe to Middle-Earth?

This month, Katy and John talk about the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling with guests Dr. Sara Brown (Rydal Penrhos School and Signum University) and Dr. Amy Sturgis (Lenoir-Rhyne University). Though Rowling has minimized the influence of Tolkien’s saga on her own world-building, readers can spot several connections at the superficial level, from names (Wormtongue/Wormtail, Butterbur/butterbeer, Longbottom) to frightening magical beings (Ringwraiths/Dementors, Shelob/Aragog) and important magical objects (Mirror of Galadriel/Mirror of Erised/Pensieve). The influence carries over to the themes (coping with mortality, loyalty, and friendship) as well as their critiques of modern society. Both series classify as “fairy stories” according to Tolkien’s definitive essay on the subject. Dr Sturgis calls Rowling’s work “a modern-day Tolkienian project.”

Such influence does not mean that Rowling’s wizarding world is derivative. John explains how the source of the two critiques of the modern operate in different ways (conservative or subversive). Sara agrees that both are responding to modernity, though they approach the modern from distinctive points of view – one longingly looking to the past and the other hopefully looking toward the future – which relate to the distinctive times in the 20th century during which they wrote their fiction. Their approaches to transformation are revealed in their uses of literary alchemy, and Sara provides an alchemical metanarrative for the Middle-earth saga. John suggests that Rowling did not learn literary alchemy from Tolkien, but that both authors derive their understanding from deep reading in the western literary tradition.

We delve into the authors’ world-building, their narrative patterns, their evocation of mythology, and even their creation of new collective myths. Comparing these two authors’ worlds allows readers to deepen their understanding of how narratives work to depict as well as create profound transformation.

And that is only Part 1!