Guest Post: The Potter and the Pilgrim — Alchemical Parallelism in Geoffrey Chaucer and Joanne Rowling (Carol Eshleman)

Carol Eshleman sent me these notes before her paper on ‘Literary Alchemy in the Canterbury Tales‘ that I posted last week. This short essay, though it includes some of the same material, speaks to the Potter-Chaucer parallels more explicitly Enjoy!

The Potter and the Pilgrim: Alchemical Parallelism by Chaucer and Rowling

Since becoming a resident of the Potterverse and engrossing myself in John’s books on the series, I’ve become a ridiculous fan of literary alchemy. Therefore, when my Medieval Literature professor told us we could do our term paper on any aspect of Middle English writings, I immediately yelled, “Alchemy!” in a fashion that would’ve made either of my favorite Grangers proud. In an equally unsurprising manner, the research that I was doing on Chaucer seemed to resonate with my own thoughts on Harry Potter. When uncovering the alchemical parallels that are used in the Canterbury Tales, I discovered literary devices strikingly similar to the ones that Rowling uses in the Hogwarts Saga.

In analyzing Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work, it is important to keep in mind that although the pilgrims are telling separate tales, these stories are not told in isolation. Chaucer’s characters tell stories that comment on, extend, and often mock other tales that have been told previously in the larger narrative. The Miller’s Tale is extremely funny to read on its own, but it becomes more meaningful when seen as a mockery of the Reeve and of the Knyght’s Tale. A lifetime could be spent deciphering parallels between the various tales. The complexity of this endeavor is heightened by the state of the work as a whole. Chaucer never finished writing the Canterbury Tales, and the tales that are completed exist in fragments containing only several stories apiece. Luckily, this can be used to our advantage. Tales within the same fragment tend to have the greatest amount of connections.

This brings us to Fragment VIII, which only contains two stories, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and the Second Nun’s Tale. The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale describes the alchemical process in minute details, listing both specific ingredients and precise tools that should be used. The Second Nun’s Tale relates the life of St. Cecilia and the conversions of her husband and brother-in-law to Christianity. The first story relates a tale of literal alchemy; the second relates a tale of spiritual alchemy. In the Second Nun’s Tale, the transformation is successful, but in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, the alchemical work literally blows up in his face.

In Robert M. Longsworth’s article, “Privileged Knowledge: St. Cecilia and the Alchemist in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ ”, he points out a lot of alchemical symbolism in the Second Nun’s Tale that is very similar to the symbols we Potter/Granger fans are used to spotting. When Cecilia’s husband, Valerian, wants to be baptized, he must go into the catacombs for the ritual to take place. There, he meets an old man wearing white robes who reads from a book with gold leaf. After this act, Valerian is able to see the guardian angel that protects Cecilia. She also has a garland of flowers around her head that is invisible but smell-able to believers. Once Valerian’s brother Tiburce is converted, he is able to smell Cecilia’s garland.

I believe that these two brothers represent the elements of mercury and sulphur. Valerian/Mercury must go to a cold, damp place to be converted, which is done through the intellectual act of reading. Tiburce is converted through smell, and sulphur is known for its pungent odor. I think here we also have a very clear mind/body/spirit triptych with Valerian as the mind (converted through reading), Tiburce as body (converted through the senses), and Cecilia as spirit.

I would go further to say that Cecilia’s martyrdom scene is clearly invoking the red stage of alchemy. She is burned in a fire that does not destroy her, and then her throat is cut. She eventually bleeds to death. The next logical question is, “Exactly how is this a display of successful alchemy?” Cecilia’s spiritual alchemy is successful because her death allows her to live eternally with God. Longsworth states: “That life everlasting is the aim of Saint Cecilia.” Eternal life also happens to be the aim of alchemy. To cross fandoms momentarily, I shall invoke the words of Obi Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” In spiritual alchemy, death is not loss. Death is victory.

Of course, this all sounds strikingly familiar to Potter fans. Harry’s victory is ultimately assured by his acceptance of death. Yet, more similarities should strike us as well, because Rowling is utilizing the very same themes that Chaucer used nearly 700 years previously. In William Sprague’s post concerning the reverse alchemy Potter structure (in which books 1-3 represent a backwards alchemical process that completes in book 4 and books 5-7 represent a forward alchemical process) he makes this statement: “Interestingly, the actual problem of the whole series is what the Philosopher’s Stone represents: undying life apart from love. It is not a solution because it is an alchemical object instead of the alchemical subject.” The reverse alchemy structure tells us that physical salvation is not the answer.

Voldemort is making the same mistake that Chaucer’s alchemist made. He wants eternal life from objects, first the Philosopher’s Stone, then his horcruxes. The first half of the series is about Voldemort going from spirit to body (the opposite of the aforementioned successful alchemy), and the description of this transformation is just as detailed as Chaucer’s alchemist. We get a list of ingredients (bone, flesh, blood) and tools (the large cauldron and Wormtail’s knife). Also, like Chaucer’s alchemist, Voldemort’s work eventually blows up in his face. It’s Voldemort’s own spell reversing that ultimately kills him.

Harry, like Cecilia, is the successful alchemist. By allowing himself to be killed, he receives life anew. It is interesting that the one time we see Harry studying at Privet Drive, he is reading about witch burnings in which the truly magical-blooded (true believers??) were unconsumed. Rowling’s titles also seem to emphasize, along with the mirrored alchemical structure, the spiritual over the physical. We begin our journey in The Philosopher’s Stone, and we end our journey in The Deathly Hallows. “Hallowed” means holy or sacred. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…” The books literally spell out our journey from the physical to the spiritual realm.

It is no wonder that a structure utilized by the man championed as “the Father of English Literature” would gain new life in the epic of the woman we call our Queen. The fantastic trait of this literary alchemy is that through reading these stories, we become transformed as well. As St. Cecilia reveals her religious truth, we, through words, gain sight of her invisible angel. As Harry discovers the truth of love’s power, we gain sight of the means to overcome death. We may be holding physical books, but the stories exist in the spiritual/nonphysical realms of our imaginations. And just as Dumbledore explained, just because it’s happening in our heads doesn’t mean that it’s not real.


  1. Thank you Carol and John for this post. It sort of makes me wish I could go back in time a do a degree in English. I read and loved Chaucer in high school, but I mostly fell in love with deciphering (and trying to pronounce) his mysterious early version of English (I was deep in my Lord of the Rings Elvish Phase).

    This and Carol’s longer post have convinced me that it’s time to go back and read a modern English translation to capture some of the many narrative subtleties that completely escaped me in my youth.

    Carol, have you a recommendation on the most faithful translation?

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Hana! Chaucer is absolutely fascinating. I don’t know, however, which translation to recommend because I read it in the original. Middle English can seem very daunting at first, but it can be deciphered. Really, the most helpful thing is not a good translation but an edition with a good gloss. The Riverside Chaucer is great because it has good glosses and introductions to each of the tales. For extra explanations, the Oxford Companion to Chaucer is a great resource. It’s like a dictionary. You find a term in Chaucer and then just look it up. There are a couple of rules for pronouncing Middle English that make it easier to understand. It really helps to read it out loud because it sounds more like Modern English than it looks likes Modern English. The trick is, pronounce EVERY letter. There are no silent letters in Middle English. The vowels sounds more like the vowels in continental European languages. The beginning of the Riverside Chaucer has a long chapter on pronunciation. Here’s a youtube video that is helpful, and the example they use is the prologue to Canterbury Tales.

  3. Beatrice Winner says

    I am reading The Canterbury Tales for the first time and just finished The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. (The Second Nun’s Tale is not in my version.)
    The Yeoman’s TAle reminded me so much of Harry Potter that I went straight to Google and found this site. Always good to find such discussions.
    Thanks again

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