Mailbag: First Steps in Ring Writing, Medieval Modes & Methods of Reading, and the Knight of the Potter Panic

f192990246There are three letters this week in the HogwartsProfessor mailbag, all re-printed here with permission.

The first is about how to write a ring composition rather than just recognize it another person’s work:

Hello John.

Question for you. I have been working on a series of my own for the past five years on and off, and I’ve been putting a lot of work into the structure of it. Or rather, I’m working on developing the architecture and thousand other things it feels like. I have read Hero With A Thousand Faces, and enjoyed it. I know many authors who have prospered from the pages of that book including J.K. Rowling I’m sure.

RingI was hoping you could help me in some way. I’ve bought most of your books on Harry Potter and find them to be very interesting. I’m just finishing your notes on Ring Composition Theory.

Reading all this material has been a great help to me, but I must admit I’m not sure how to begin yet on how to apply Ring Composition to my series. I like building the framework for my work, but I could use your advice on how to begin.

This particular series I’m working on is very important to me. I’ve been studying different story structures for years, but I must admit some are simply superior to others. I look forwar d to your response.

Dear Rob, if I may,

You write:

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Mail Bag: How to Reach and Read On the Third and Fourth Levels of Meaning

f38696486A friend and serious reader who had just finished reading Deathly Hallows wrote me to say “thank you” for recommending he read to the end of the series before passing judgment — and to ask as a throw-away in his post:

How do we learn to read at the third and fourth levels?

That’s a reference to the four levels of reading first propounded by exegetes of the Hebrew Scriptures in ancient times, evident in Plato’s Divided Line, adopted by Aquinas and many others, and sealed to the Western Canon by Dante’s letter to Con Grande (read an introduction with very helpful chart to all that and Plato’s Cave, too, here and, for a ‘for instance’ of its application to a specific story, The Hunger Games, head over here).

If you’re up to speed on the four levels — and the posts behind those two links are a good afternoon of reading — then we can skip to the answer to my friend’s question: How do we learn how to read, how to think, at these levels?” 

Dear John,
The first and hardest step is grasping that allegorical and anagogical reading correspond to knowing with surety and knowing in wisdom (the first two levels corresponding with sense perception and with opinion). 
We know that we can see through tons of data to see the natural law or principle of which the phenomena are only instances. Knowing this principle and seeing the data as ephemeral occasions of it gives us scientia or sure knowledge. This makes the reams of data effectively a transparency, window, or allegorical figure of the principle that is not perceptible in itself. You cannot see the Law of Gravity but you know it from observation of, by seeing through the transparency of the behavior of all natural objects in space-time on earth.
chart001Sophia or wisdom is not a knowing that we acquire but one we become, a knowledge that transforms us into a temporal image of the Principle of Knowing, the Logos. All other knowing is only valuable insomuch as it leads us to this communion and elision.
If we first understand the corresponding knowledges to allegory and sublime writing — again, science and wisdom — and begin to read the world in light of these capacities (instead of remaining subject to surface sensory data and opinions shaped by the errors of our age), then ‘getting’ the depths of books written by authors who are wise or who write in wisdom shaped genres is a natural extension.

f36752102The rest is only learning the tropes of artistry — structure, symbolism, literary syntax — that are the means better writers have used to create the experiences that change us.
Getting the last, however, without seeing the world differently first… That is knowledge that will become cocktail party and blog post fodder to show how sophisticated a thinker and reader one is, an obstacle, another hurdle to spiritual maturity rather than an edifying, providential helper.
And — oh, yeah! — being a believer in a traditional, orthodox, revealed faith helps more than anything. It is the real experience of which reading is only the imaginative shadow. The Orthodox Christian Liturgy, for example, is when uncompromised by innovations only wisdom experience and the Eucharist the Logos incarnate Himself. Baptism and the daily asceticism and joyful sorrow of Orthodoxy is the means to photismos or illumination in the Holy Spirit, as you have discovered.


As you might have guessed from that last, this friend is a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity. Your comments and corrections on the means to reading effectively at four levels are coveted, as always.

Mailbag: Do You Have to See the Alchemy in a Story to Experience It?

f38703334I received a note the day before yesterday from a graduate student in the Russian Federation. Her questions about alchemy — do any readers see alchemical symbolism as they read? and, assuming not, obscure as it is to almost everyone’s conscious mind, how can it have the effect it supposedly has? — are subjects we’ve touched on before and perhaps should again. With her permission, then, here is our brief correspondence on this subject:

Dear Mr. Granger!

About two years ago you and me had a little email conversation about “Harry Potter” and Russian literature. I am now reading your book “The Deathly Hallows Lectures”, one chapter from which you kindly sent me back then.

I am currently doing my post-graduate program in Russian State Humanities University, Moscow, and my dissertation is built around “Harry Potter”, fan fiction in “Harry Potter” fan community in particular. Your books inspired me to analyze the perception Russian fans have over English cultural and literature traditions, symbols, images and levels of meaning, described in Harry Potter novels. However, the first thing that I need to understand in order to succeed in my research is whether English-speaking readers can see the symbols and literary references in “Harry Potter”.

f39171430What would you say about the amount of readers from fan community that can catch these symbols? And do you think they use this knowledge in those fan’s texts? Excuse me for this question as I am not sure if you are not involved in “Harry Potter” fan’s texts analysis or not.

My dissertation will be the first paper on the perception that Russian fans have over English cultural and literature traditions written in Russian. Your books are very useful for my research, which I am very grateful about! I often mention you in my reports on different philological science conferences.

Sincerely yours,

My response:

Dear Lisa, if I may (my keyboard does not have Cyrillic keys and I don’t dare attempt a transliteration of your last name; please forgive me),

Thank you for your kind note and for the interesting work you are doing.

In answer to your questions:

the first thing that I need to understand in order to succeed in my research is whether English-speaking readers can see the symbols and literary references in “Harry Potter”.What would you say about the amount of readers from fan community that can catch these symbols?

IdiotsVery few of the readers of Harry Potter consciously grasp the symbols in play in Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga. Which failing, of course, is why they work so powerfully. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version, “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.” Some readers have cited the obscurity of Rowling’s alchemical imagery as a reason for doubting its importance; as I explain in ‘What Alchemy Does in Harry Potter,’ they have this exactly upside down — the difficulty of seeing it with the cranial mind is evidence of its being picked up by the cardiac intelligence or ‘heart.’ This is at least as true in the ring composition structure of the work, all of which parallelisms escape reader attention.

I wrote something about the power of subliminal suggestion for both advertising and literary effect that may be helpful, too: it’s called Shaping Souls Subliminally. Let me know what you think!

And do you think they use this knowledge in those fan’s texts? Excuse me for this question as I am not sure if you are not involved in “Harry Potter” fan’s texts analysis or not.

f39080678I’m guessing by “fan’s text analysis” you mean what we call ‘fan fiction’? If so, I’m sorry; as a rule, I don’t read it. Quite a few writers, though, have written me about the tools Rowling uses in hopes of applying them in their work. We can certainly see soul triptychs, alchemy, and ring scaffolding in Stephenie Meyer’sTwilight books and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels. So, yes, Rowling’s artistry is being used by admiring readers, if I cannot say they have been in fan fiction.

With admiration,

John, in haste, grateful for your note and work

Dear Mr. Granger!

Thanks for so quick answer! I will read the link (“Shaping Souls Subliminally…”) you sent me.

The content of your website will be very useful for my dissertation.

Of course you may post our exchange without changing my name. My full name is Elizaveta K. Timoshenko. The university where I am doing my post-graduate program is Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), Moscow. This is the link to the university website:

f38696614I would also add that there are a lot of dissertations about “Harry Potter” in Russian (about some language aspects, youth subculture, postmodernism features, translation transformations), but my paper will be the first one devoted to the Russian fans’ perception of English cultural and literature traditions (based on Russian and English fan fiction in HP fan community).

It is sad to admit that there is no deep analysis of the texts, written by fans, in Russian Philology. Fan fiction is regarded as texts written by graphomaniacs that should not be taken into consideration.

Kind regards,

Mailbag: A Harry Potter Interview with a Reporter named Rita (Seriously)

Hello, My name is Rita Cipriano and I work for a Portuguese newspaper called Observador. I am trying to reach Professor John Granger because of an article I am currently working. Can I send the questions to this email?
So what would you do if a reporter named ‘Rita’ wrote you a letter with questions about Harry Potter? And one from Portugal, the magical country where Ms Rowling lived while doing her detailed outlines of what became the Hogwarts Saga? Would you balk in prudent fear of the possibility that this ‘Rita’ might have been the inspiration for the remarkable purveyor of the poison pen depicted in the Harry’s adventures?


I decided to give it a whirl. Rita’s questions and my answers follow.


 1. How did you first become interested in Harry Potter?

I have seven children. When a friend gave Sorcerer’s Stone to my oldest daughter, then 11 years old, early in 2000, I decided to read it one night in order to explain to her why we don’t read trash like this. I was captivated and won over, needless to say, and bought the second and third books in print at that time and began reading them aloud to the other children. 
2. Why did you decide to start writing about Harry Potter?
Richard Abanes had written a book called Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick which condemned the series as a gateway to the occult. I gave a series of talks at the Port Townsend Carnegie Library called ‘Taking Harry Seriously’ that explained that Potter Mania was caused, not by their supposedly wicked content, but by their artistry and meaning, which ironically was overwhelmingly traditional and Christian in character. A friend urged me to write up those talks, his wife formatted the lectures into a book (Hidden Key to Harry Potter), and, when that book’s first printing sold out in a few months, Tyndale purchased the title and re-issued it asLooking for God in Harry Potter (now How Harry Cast His Spell).
3.  Which are the main themes and symbolism in Harry Potter?
I’ve written four books on this subject so I hope you’ll forgive me for balking at a two or three sentence summary! Let’s just say that Rowling has written a book that is simultaneously a Schoolboy novel, an Alchemical Drama, a Gothic Romance, an Orphan Bildungsroman, and a wonderful example of English High Fantasy a la Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth epic. Quite the achievement!
4. In your book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf you explore the literary landscape that influenced J.K. Rowling Novels. Which are the authors and the stories that inspired her?
Again, this is less a casual interview question than a dissertation topic. Though it goes against my habit to refer to the author rather than the text, in her many answers to like questions on this subject she has cited Jane Austen as her favorite writer and Emma as her favorite work and said that E. Nesbit, Nabokov, and Collete are also top influences. She has said very kind things about Lewis and Tolkien, though not recently, and she has noted more than once that Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse was her favorite children’s book.
5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone celebrates its 18th anniversary this month. What can you tell us about that specific book?
Three quick things that escape general notice: (1) the title points to the alchemical parameters and predominant symbolism throughout the series, which the author acknowledged as critical as early as 1998 and again last week on Pottermore, (2) the story is an almost perfect ring composition, whose 17 chapters with story turn in chapter 9 are a parallel structure to Lewis’ Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe (each book in the series is a ring, believe it or not, and the seven novel series is as well), and (3) though the shortest by far of Harry’s adventures, it was turned down by multiple publishing houses because it was much too long to succeed as a children’s book.
5. What do you think is so fascinating about the books? Why do you think so many kids (and adults) become so interested in the Harry Potter world?
This is the most important question, no? The answer I’m happiest with after some twelve years of wrestling with the mystery of Potter mania is the ‘Eliade Thesis.’ Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane that entertainments, especially story, serve a mythic or religious function in a secular culture, i.e., when the divine is removed to the periphery of the public square, man, whom Eliade calls “homo religiosus,”  will find an experience of the transcendent in the suspended disbelief and poetic faith of imaginative experience. My corollary to Eliade’s thesis is that those stories which provide that experience most profoundly, often with implicit spiritual content, meaning and artistry, are the tales we love best. Rowling’s Potter novels are all that. In brief, she provides readers exactly what they want and in large helpings.
6. What is the importance of Harry Potter regarding fantasy literature?
I don’t understand the question, alas. If nothing else, Rowling’s unprecedented success has made fantasy literature a respectable genre to every publishing house and to most every author. I’d go so far as to say that Harry has re-shaped the expectations of six reading generations; we’re living in the Age of Joanne Rowling, in terms of story, like it or not.
7. Although Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon, academics don’t seem to be much interested in J.K. Rowling novels. Some fantasy writers, such as Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, have been a part of the academic world for quite a while. Their work is taught and studied all over the world, but that doesn’t seem to happen with J.K. Rowling. Why? Do you think there is some prejudice regarding Harry Potter?
Harry Potter in only a few years is part of the curriculum in more than 150 American colleges and has achieved respectability much, much sooner than did Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yale University, for example, was offering a course on the theology of the Potter books two years before the University of Chicago, my alma mater, offered a class on Tolkien. St Andrews University hosted an international conference in May, 2013, on Harry Potter as Literature, and, though the usual suspects scoffed at this as evidence of academic degeneration, the papers delivered were all top-drawer and challenging, believe me. James Thomas at Pepperdine, a notable Potter Pundit, told TIME magazine that Harry Potter will not be considered literary canon for at least a generation because of the three academic hallows, namely, the books are too recent, too popular, and too juvenile to be acknowledged for their worth. He said that in 2007; the eight years since seem to suggest he spoke too soon, if the gatekeepers will always look down their noses at what the great unwashed enjoy.
8. Do you think it is important to continue to study the Harry Potter phenomenon?
Only if we want to understand the best-selling books of our times, even all time! These stories, as I noted above, have changed the reading expectations of generations. Ignoring them is to miss out on one of the defining events of our historical period. 
I asked the journalist how difficult it was to enjoy the stories in which Rita Skeeter is featured because of her sharing both the profession and the name of that transparency of reporters-out-of-control. She responded:
Isn’t it ironical? Maybe all Ritas are meant to be journalists. (Although I like to believe I am nicer than Rita Skeeter). I love Harry Potter since I was a kid, but it is kind of sad that the only Rita in the book is so awful. 
That doesn’t sound like a Quick Quote Quill user. I’ll let you know how my answers turn out in the actual article!

Santa’s Mail Bag and John’s Answers for a Christmas Post

Merry Christmas, Serious Readers! Here are some letters and responses for your joyous Noel!

Dear Mr.Granger,

I’ve just read your book Harry Potter’s bookshelf and I want to share some opinions with you. Besides, I hope I can get some advice for reading.

I’m N—–, a senior high school student from China. Before reading your book, I had read many kinds of books, such as Jane Eyre written by Bronte,Pride & Prejudice written by Austen, series stories of Sherlock Holmes, etc. I think as a student of science,I know not so much for literature.Therefore,I’d like to get some advice which is useful.

I read Rowling’s books three years ago and now I am still crazy about it.It is true that I cannot understand some things and may there be misunderstandings.After all,every country has its unique culture.

First of all,in HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban,we all know that Sirus Black came up.We can infer from the following books that he is good at magic.But why in the fight against wormtail ,he stood still untill he was caught by officers?He had the chance and he was able to escape.I also had a question towards the Sorting Hat,since wormtail is not so brave and even turned to Dark Lord,why would he go to Gryffindor?What do you think of the sorting hat?

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