Chicago Maroon Interview Questions

Marcella Delaurentiis, a student reporter for the University of Chicago’s newspaper, The Maroon, sent me a list of questions last night for an article she is writing about my talk there on Halloween. I attach my answers here with the letter in which they are imbedded. Your comments and corrections, of course, are coveted.

Dear Marcella,

Great name! If you don’t mind my parsing the cryptonym, the habit of every Potter reader, I’d say it means something like “spiritual warrior” or jihadist after St. Marcella of Rome, 4th century (literally, “devotee of Mars”). De Laurentiis, as you know, is a patronymic surname meaning “of Lorenzo” which points to a “Lawrence” family founder which means the family took its name either from a Norman invader or an Italian family from Laurentum, south of Rome. More interesting is the heart of “Laurentiis” namely (sic), the laurel tree.

Its leaves have been used as a garland for victors since primordial times because the tree is considered a sign of resurrection, hence of immortality; “victors” are considered living symbols of the metaphysical origin or eternal center from which life and victory come. If I ever write a novel in which I have a woman character that is spiritually focused and more than a tad martial, I think your name would be a perfect fit.

On to your questions!

I’ve read that you first picked up the series in an effort to convince your daughter that she should not read them. What about the books were so magnetic that you not only were not able to put them down, but created a livelihood around them?

I read the books aloud to my children which was my second reading because, of course, I read the first three to myself after I stumbled on the first. Then we moved from Houston to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and I listened to the first four books in the Jim Dale books-on-tape version on the long drive. The several levels of meaning on which the stories operate were pretty clear to me by this point, the alchemy, the Christian symbolism, Harry Ron and Hermione as soul triptych, etc., but what made the stories magnetic from the start, I think now, was the author’s signature synthesis of voice, drive, setting, and symbolism. Speaking of name meanings, hers is suggestive; she “rowls” together seamlessly the best aspects of almost ten literary genres and the hooks from each amount to something like literary velcro.

What were your beliefs about the series before you read them? What made you consider them inappropriate reading for your children?

I didn’t own a television and didn’t read newspapers in 2000 when a friend first introduced me to Harry so I was unaware of the controversy in some places about Harry’s magic being a “gateway to the occult.” The title on the cover of the first book, though, and their popularity (me being something of a snob) made me think they had to be trash. Because the first Harry Potter book’s title had been “translated” from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone by Scholastic’s Arthur Levine (he was convinced no American would buy a book with the word ‘Philosopher’ in the title), I assumed that the book was about invocational sorcery and creatures from the psychic realm “assisting” witches and wizards.

Which assumption was wrong but I don’t blush about the concern. Even Ms. Rowling has said the biggest regret she has had has been her agreeing to the change in title in the Scholastic edition of Philosopher’s Stone.

Every revealed tradition, to include the animists, points to the idiocy of Faustian bargains and I didn’t want my children to get the message that sorcery was okay or some kind of joke. There is no invocational magic in the books, though, and the stone is a “Philosopher’s Stone,” a traditional symbol of Christ (“gold” being a cipher for “spiritual riches” and the “elixir of life” that comes from the stone a sign of the Blood of Christ, the means to immortality), both of which points are clear to a reader in the first chapters. Seing that, I moved from a “No Harry in my house” position to “Harry is required reading,” which flip really pleased my 12 year old daughter.

In what ways do Harry, Hermione, and Ron act as good role models? Doesn’t their use of witchcraft contradict with Christian teachings? How can this sorcery be reconciled from a Christian viewpoint?

Harry, Ron, and Hermione, what Snape calls the “Terrible Trio,” are good role models because the embody the virtues of loyalty, friendship, sacrificial love, and moral courage. They break more than a few rules, of course, even sometimes for less than the best of reasons (it wouldn’t be much of a coming-of-age novel, would it, if they were Little Lord Fountleroys from the start?). They also risk their lives every year in resistance to evil in the world, a world which they wind up saving.

The witchcraft of the series is, without exception, incantational magic. Unlike invocational magic, which requires “calling on” or invoking demons and the like from the psychic sphere of existence, incantational magic, the magic of English literature’s high fantasy for the most part, requires “singing along” or harmonizing with the Creative Word that creates the fabric of reality. This magic is not only not a contradiction of Christian teachings, it requires a traditional understanding of the world as creation, of the Creator as speech, and the human being as an Image of the spoken hypostasis that is capable of co-creating (if only in myth) by speaking the logos.

Ms. Rowling underscores this point by making Olivander’s three preferred wand cores, those that channel the most powerful magic, from symbols of Christ, the Word incarnate; that they are “quasi-sentient” as Ms. Rowling says points, too, to the logos which is not only the unity of existence but also the power of mind, which logos in us, the uncreated transpersonal self, knows things by recognizing itself in the logoi or “internal principles” of created things.

This is why Dumbledore tells Harry at the palatial King’s Cross near the end of Deathly Hallows that the events he experienced there are both happening in his head and very real; the logos of the mind is, in Lewis’ words, “continuous with” the logos that is the unity of existence. Nothing could be more real. Again, the magic of Rowling’s sub-creation, as an operation of incantation or harmonizing with the Word, requires a Christian world view to make sense. The objections from Christian believers that the books undermined the life of faith, consequently, were more than a little ironic. That requires a boderline Nestorian idea of Christianity, an ignorance of English literature, and a little culture war mean-spiritedness to come together.

Obviously, J.K Rowling’s use of the eye is central to The Deathly Hallows. What’s so special about eyes? Might Rowling have included such detailed passages about eyes unconsciously?

I’m glad the eye symbolism is not obvious because, if it were, no one would buy my book The Deathly Hallows Lectures to read about what it means! The eyes are preponderant enough, though, that is hard to deny once someone sees it. That one of the eyes in the series finale, the “triangular eye” of the Hallows symbol (a triangulated and bisected circle), is a symbol the characters struggle to figure out, points to the eyes being a symbol we as readers are also meant to decipher. Dumbledore’s eye in the mirror shard, the Riddle eyes in the Locket Horcrux, Moody’s Mad-Eye, and Lily’s green eyes, consequently, have to be “looked at” or, perhaps better, “looked through” to understand what Ms. Rowling is after. I think, with most symbolist writers after Coleridge, she is working on our “transformed vision.” This is going back to the previous point about “knowing” being a function of logos recognition and reflection which is the heart of Coleridgean natural theology and the reason mirrors and eyes play such a large part in English romantic fiction and fantasy.

Ms. Rowling plans her novels very carefully, as their organization as individual books and as a series make plain; the idea that her use of eyes in Deathly Hallows was “unconscious” or “accidental,” when it is so preponderant and it echoes the use of eye symbolism from Beatrice’s green eyes at the end of the Purgatorio to the eye of the Ancient Mariner and the Inklings’ idea of sight, is silly. She has the lead character die a near or faux death at the end of seven books and rise from the dead, if you will, in the presence of a symbol of Christ, the first time after three days. Maybe once that could be unconscious; seven times makes it a deliberate story formula and an argument the author is making for a sacramental way of seeing things.

How exactly do you use an “iconographic tradition” of literary criticism to delve into the series? How would you suggest readers go about using this tradition in their own reading of Harry Potter?

The phrase “iconographic tradition” is from Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism; it’s not what Frye is after, certainly, more his point of departure, but he calls it the tradition of Dante, Spencer, and Ruskin and contrasts it with what he doesn’t like about Matthew Arnold and all consequent criticism. What Dante, Spenser, and Ruskin are after is the traditional four levels of meaning traditionally ascribed to the world, scripture, and art; Dante details this (after Aquinas) in his letter to Cangrande as the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings. This last I prefer to call “iconographic” because that word is closer to its meaning of a transparency into the transcendent or sublime that Ruskin the art critic argued the careful reader would discover in the best texts after meditative, “slow mining.”

Is Rowling writing on these four levels like the Inklings, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English “Greats”? I think the biggest hurdle to seeing this, frankly, is misogyny and class prejudice; Ms. Rowling as a woman and one from less than minor nobility just isn’t taken seriously in the academy, which is a real shame. The alchemical scaffolding of the books alone argue she is working at traditional depths rather than conventional superficiality. That her series finale includes an eye symbol that is interpreted by the characters in the story in precisely the four layers that Dante describes as working in his poetry points to the same operation in Harry Potter.

How do readers “use” this tradition? Easy. They have to look at the stories in terms of their experience of it rather than “looking at” it as a specimen or artifact to deconstruct. “Looking along” this experience they have had, suspending disbelief and entering into the story, they should be able to note the moral and allegorical aspects of it. The anagogical or metaphysical aspects, as Ruskin writes, may be reserved for those “who themselves in some measure see visions and dream dreams,” but they’re there for the more meditative reader. My books function, I think now, less as analysis of the stories in the postmodern sense than as travelogues or tour guides for the serious re-reader wanting pointers about what to look for in his or her next experience of the books’ meaning.

Has a University of Chicago education helped your exploration of the series in any way?

I studied Classical Languages at Chicago which helps translate the spells that are from Latin, certainly, which was a real hit with my children when I first read the books to them. More importantly, though, my years on the Quadrangles studying with Straussians and McKeonites taught me both that books had meanings well beneath their surface, often encrypted in some way, and I learned the tools for deciphering and descerning these meanings. This is the signature of a UC education, which is why my books have been called, sometimes in derision, the “University of Chicago guides to Harry Potter.”

Because I was more on the Great Books side of campus, talking with Smith, Kass, Sinaiko, and Bloom, rather than the English literature crowd, helped, too, I think. David Bevington, Chicago’s Shakespeare scholar, told us once at a sherry hour that he never took a class in Shakespeare as an undergraduate, I can top that. The only literature class I took at Chicago that wasn’t in Latin or Greek was reading ‘Kafka, Mann, and Brecht’ in a German seminar. Everything I read, though, my teachers in Classics and Philosophy insisted we read as multi-valent vehicles of meaning.

I should add that if I see things in Potter others usually don’t on their first trips through the books it is probably because I have a similar eye glass prescription as the author. Rowling was a Classics wonk, too, and an Anglican short of devotional faith who read English literature and alchemy books on the side out of fascination. Because I have the same background, oddly enough, in school and church, I was able to read the books and see things most others missed. Chicago prescribed the eye wear I have in large part so I’m indebted to the University more than most graduates.

It seems to me that Hermione would have loved our Uncommon Application and the school itself. If she were a student here, what spot on campus would she be her muggle-equivalent of a Room of Requirement? Would she find solace in Harper Library or Botany Pond, etc?

Hermione Granger, no relation, I think would most like the 57th Street entrance to the Reynolds Club, if it hasn’t changed in the last 25 years. The emblem of Fawkes the Phoenix shining up from the ground in the University seal and Hutchinson Commons, a double for Hogwarts’ Great Hall, are the most striking parallels to my mind between Rowling’s universe and Chicago. For me, Gryffindor Tower’s Common Room was always Hitchcock Hall’s ‘Green Room,’ where I’ll be speaking on Halloween, the room on Hitchcock’s spiral staircases, though they didn’t come with four poster beds, were where Ron and Harry slept, and Quidditch matches Gryffindor vs Slytherin were Hitchcock-Chamberlain intramural death matches in football, soccer, and ultimate frisbee on the Midway. I suspect coming-of-age myself in the castle landmark on the Quadrangles made me love Potter from my first read; like Harry, Allan Bloom, and others, the school was magic and more home than my real home.

Thank you, Marcella, for the great questions, and, in advance, for whatever you write in The Maroon. I hope you’ll come to the talk on Friday night and introduce yourself.


John, back to packing for my trip


  1. Very good, comprehensive responses to her questions, John. Certainly, it is good that you acknowledged the necessity of ‘testing the spirits,’ so to speak, regarding what sort of magic was going on in the HP world.

    I think you also point out a tragedy & a travesty in American Christendom, that, for a great many Christians, they have forgotten their history & past, whether they agree with it or not, & that Christians have forgotten how to write, read, & think as Christians.

  2. Those of you in north eastern Iowa on 30 October will have to choose between hearing my talk at Cornell College in Mount Vernon and the Harry Potter Grand Pre illustrations Art Exhibit in Cedar Rapids.

    I know where I’d go if I had my druthers, but my talk would be a real bust if I didn’t show up.

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