Harry Potter and C. S. Lewis: Three Reflections from a Seminar Weekend in North Carolina

What a great weekend in Wake Forest, North Carolina! The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture sponsored a magnificent C. S. Lewis seminar with scholars from around the world discussing Lewis’ books, thoughts, and legacy.

Robert Trexler at Zossima Press and the designated hitter here at Hogwarts Professor convinced me I would get a lot out of it. Once again by disregarding my “better judgment” and heeding Bob’s advice I was well served. It would take longer than a weekend to share what I heard and learned there, but three things come immediately to mind.

(1) I learned from a Lewis scholar what C. S. Lewis might have said about Ms. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall comments;

(2) I heard a mind-blowing lecture by Penn State’s Sanford Schwartz on Lewis’ Space Trilogy (sometimes called The Ransom Novels) and, in discussion with him and others later, realized what Michael Wards’ Narnia thesis may mean in the academic world’s appreciation of Harry Potter and Ms. Rowling’s alchemical artistry; and

(3) I had the chance in the few bad lectures I endured (there were just enough of those to make attendees appreciate the glut of great talks last weekend) to outline three new HogPro posts that should go up soon.

Here is a hasty note on each of these three subjects.

(1) The New York C. S. Lewis Society, founded in 1969, is the oldest continuous Society of its kind on the planet and rightly renowned for the quality of the talks presented at their monthly meetings. Take a look at the contents and authors featured in the back issues of their bi-monthly newsletter if you have trouble believing what a force this group is in Lewis and Inkling studies. One of the NYCSL Society founders, James Como, professor at York University and author of two excellent books about Lewis, was a Plenary Session guest or Featured Speaker at the conference in Wake Forest. His talk on Lewis’ legacy as a philosopher and social critic, the “neglected Lewis,” was worth the nine and a half hour drive from Philadelphia in itself. Walter Hooper, the literary editor at The Lewis Company and the man largely responsible for the survival and continued place of Lewis’ thought in the Public Square and nursery, said in his Friday night talk that Professor Como, to whom he said he often turned for advice, should have been christened “The Great Jim Como.” I have heard Bob Trexler say that Como’s scholarship and erudition are the gold standard in understanding C. S. Lewis and his relevance to us individually and to our culture at large; not until this weekend did I understand that Bob may have understated the case.

So what? The Conference ran a shuttle bus to the Raleigh-Durham Airport from the hotel when the whole show was over and our friend Mr. Trexler found himself sitting next to Jim Como on the ride to the planes taking them home. Conversation turned to Harry Potter, to Ms. Rowling’s revelation in Carnegie Hall Friday before last that she had always thought of Dumbledore as gay, and to the consequent discussion of how seriously readers should take this back story detail. Professor Como had heard of the controversy but hadn’t read anything about it beyond the newspaper headlines. He thought, however, that Dumbledore’s sexuality played no significant part in the books. When he heard the context of Ms. Rowling’s remarks, Professor Como responded that Ms. Rowling’s opinion in that case deserved no more weight than any of her readers’ thoughts on the subject — and that C. S. Lewis would have said this himself.

Next time I see Professor Como (which will probably be 8 November at the next New York C. S. Lewis Society meeting) I’ll ask him why he was so sure that Lewis would have dismissed Ms. Rowling’s thoughts about her headmaster character. Was it because they were post publication and extra-textual? What did Lewis write if anything about an author and his or her ownership of their sub-creations? Until then, please feel free to offer your thoughts on this subject, especially if you have a Lewis text in hand.

Before I move on to the next point from the weekend, a short story about being a Potter Parasite at an Inklings academic conference in a Baptist seminary. The short version of the story is “Don’t look for a lot of respect — but don’t be too quick to judge, either.”

I’m at the Friday lunch in the SEBTS student center and decide to sit down at an open seat pretty much arbitrarily. I’d lost track of Bob when my daughter called to talk about her race in Asheville the next day. I wind up sitting next to Charles Huttar, Professor Emeritus at Hope College, and the Rev. Gregory Anderson of Union Church, Hong Kong. Professor Huttar, as the saying goes, forgot more this morning about C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others than I will ever know (Mythopoeic Society Awards don’t lie) and I was to learn from Bob later that the talks they gave were well attended though scheduled after the Plenary Speaker on Saturday, when many people left. Who knew the chair I chose was in such deep water?

Sitting there feeling like a know-nothing, I decided to do something different: listen to what other people were saying and keep quiet. Maybe nobody will talk to or notice me. The librarian across the table was making a face; what was she saying?

“I know, it’s a shame. When children tell me they want to read ‘something like Harry Potter,’ I just cringe. And now the author is saying scandalous things. I wish they were interested in something more literary and valuable than these Potter stories.”

Ouch. The man next to her seemed to be nodding his head. I couldn’t say for sure because I was trying to decide whether I should crawl under the table or feign nausea and excuse myself from the table before someone asked me what I was about.

‘Someone’ turned out to be the Rev. Anderson. “So, John, what brings you to this conference? What do you do?”

“Umm… believe it or not, I’m one of those people who talk about Harry Potter as good reading.” (sotte voce, looking for exits)

“That is wonderful. I was in London when Deathly Hallows was published. Quite an event, as I’m sure you can imagine…”

Turns out he lived in London for twelve years, his children still live there, and he has nothing but happy memories and good things to say about Harry and Pottermania. As his son has two Bloomsbury first edition copies of Chamber of Secrets — I won’t say what he told me Blackwells offered for one, assuring him he could make much more at auction — you could he was invested in the series. What a relief… I chatted with Rev. Anderson about the merits and Inkling ties of the books until Walter Hooper began his talk. I didn’t look at the librarian or Professor Huttar again. Why try to ‘run the table’ after this outrageous stroke of good fortune?

Skip to Saturday afternoon. Bob and I are packing up the Zossima Press books that didn’t sell at the SEBTS bookstore and settling our accounts (the new George MacDonald titles and my Harry Potter books did better than I thought). The librarian walks in. She’s talking to her friend about the Harry Potter books and how upset she is — wait for it — that she lost the book she’d bought to get the author’s autograph. Looking for God in Harry Potter. She still had the CDs she’s bought with the book but she asked the store manager where the books had gone. The librarian was obviously upset.

Yes, I gave her one and autographed it (and she bought another to give to a friend). No, I didn’t tell her that I assumed she was an Aunt Marge, Southern Baptist edition, and that I was certain hell would freeze over again after it froze and melted in the the global warming defrost before she’d be caught dead reading one of my books.

As it was, let me say here, I was guilty of judging the librarian and most everyone I met well in advance of meeting with or speaking to them, and, as a rule to which I can’t think of an exception, the gaggle of Inkling scholars and serious readers proved me wrong and wrong in the worst way. Y’know, soon they’ll be using Looking for God in Harry Potter in American Catholic Middle Schools to teach theology. Maybe I need to re-imagine the world I’m living in again. “The world, John, isn’t divided into Harry Haters and Good Guys.”

I’ll get it; just give me some time to work through this.

(2) I had wanted desperately to get to UNC Asheville Saturday morning to see the Big South Conference Cross Country Championships but I balked at the four and a half hour drive in rainy weather at four in the morning. I’m getting old and weak, right? I can’t do seventeen hours in the car anymore and there was nobody in Wake Forest volunteering to Side Apparate with me. Ever since the Dumbledore revelation, guys seem squeamish about requests to travel together that way.

So I stayed. And, boy, am I glad I did. The best of the twelve “Parallel Sessions” talks I went to was on Saturday morning and one of the best lectures I had ever heard, Professor Como’s “Plenary Session,” came after the morning’s half-hour talks. Not to mention I would have missed my run-in with the librarian at the book store.

But back to the morning talk that made my day and the discussion afterward that made my cup overflow.

Sanford Schwartz is an English professor at Penn State whose degrees are from Columbia, Oxford, and Princeton and who was the President of The T. S. Eliot Society for most of the 90’s. I didn’t know any of that beyond his PSU teaching home until I came back to Pennsylvania and googled his name to put up a link here. But listening to Professor Schwartz talk about my favorite Lewis novels, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, I knew the man was brilliant. He turned what I thought of the series upside down and around again — and made the experience as delightful as it was challenging.

In a nutshell, Professor Schwartz argues that each novel is Lewis’ correction and adaptation of a favorite world-view held by Lewis or once held by Lewis; he transformed each view in light of his faith in Christ and understanding of traditional cosmology and theology. The science fiction trilogy of books, in short, are Lewis’ depictions of the view-made-right. Out of the Silent Planet is Lewis’ argument with and depiction of a corrected materialist perspective, the view presented in the science fiction novels of H. G. Wells that Lewis loved. Perelandra does the same for Bergson’s vitalist theories with which Lewis was fascinated prior to his conversion. That Hideous Strength “transfigures” the Gothic visions of Charles Williams for a more theological view and correction of modernity’s excesses and deficiencies. Though the half hour time limit kept Professor Schwartz from discussing William’s Gothic and That Hideous Strength as much as I wish he could have, the quantity and quality of what he said pretty much blew out my fuses. His talk was immediately followed by another but I had to take a breather to let his talk sink in.

I have a special interest in learning as much as I can about The Space Trilogy. I agreed to speak at the New York C. S. Lewis Society this coming January way back in 2005 after the Belmont University Past Watchful Dragons C. S. Lewis conference where I spoke on the Literary Alchemy in The Space Trilogy. I agreed to speak in New York this January because I thought I had something original and important to say about these books, and, as honestly, I’m pretty sure I thought the Lord was certain to come before January, 2008. Listening to Professor Schwartz’ talk I was delighted to realize the limit of what I would contribute to the discussion of these books — their alchemical artistry that works in tandem with the meaning having been plumbed already by thinkers as perceptive as David Downing and Sanford Schwartz.

Did somebodt in the back mutter, “So what?” As in, “so why am I, a serious reader of Harry Potter, interested in any way about your weekend epiphanies about science fiction novels written by C. S. Lewis?” I’m getting there. Really, I am.

I was able to talk with Professor Schwartz at the end of Saturday’s conference because Robert Trexler found him at the de-registration table and called me over. He was very generous with his time and immediately saw merit in my ramblings about Lewis’ familiarity with alchemical symbolism and his use of it in Perelandra. He volunteered two thoughts on That Hideous Strength that demonstrated he understood what I was saying and how it worked to buttress his “transformational” theory of each novel’s conception. Professor Schwartz admitted he had never read a Harry Potter novel but said our brief conversation made him think, if this was the kind of thinking involved with Harry’s scaffolding and artistry, they must be much better than he had been led to believe.

I drove home the long way (via Highways 29, 81, and 78 rather than through the DC Beltway and Philadelphia) so I had more than nine hours to listen to satellite radio, a first for me, and to digest the conference. What occurred to me somewhere north of Staunton, Virginia, was that Michael Ward’s theory about the conception and artistry of Lewis’ Narnia novels will almost certainly have a positive effect on the Ivory Tower and generic “serious Inkling reader’s” understanding of Ms. Rowling’s work.

If you’re not aware of Michael Ward’s theory, here is a quick review, courtesy of the Amazon.com pre-publication page for Ward’s book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Literary Imagination of C. S. Lewis, which will be available for purchase next month.

Over the years, scholars have labored to show that C. S. Lewis’s famed Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying symbolic coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the nature of Narnia’s symbolism has remained a puzzle. Michael Ward has finally solved the mystery. In Planet Narnia, he argues convincingly that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings (including previously unpublished drafts of the Chronicles), Ward shows that the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets–the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn–planets which Lewis described as “spiritual symbols of permanent value” and “especially worthwhile in our own generation.” Using these seven symbols, Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that the story-line in each book, countless points of ornamental detail, and, most important, the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality. For instance, in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” the sun is the prevailing planetary spirit: magical water turns things to gold, the solar metal; Aslan is seen flying in a sunbeam; and the sun’s rising place is actually identified as the destination of the plot: “the very eastern end of the world.” Planet Narnia is a ground-breaking study that will provoke a major reassessment not only of the Chronicles, but of Lewis’s whole literary and theological outlook, revealing him to be a much subtler writer and thinker than has previously been recognized.

In brief, Ward argues that Lewis wrote from the outlook he explained and celebrated in That Discarded Image, the traditional view of a hierarchical creation and of virtuous qualities greater and more enriching than quantities of matter and energy. Lewis’ artistry and story-telling power springs in large part from his use of medieval astrological images, symbols, and their correspondences to reinforce his Christian themes and modern meaning.

Sound familiar?

I had heard of Ward’s thesis in 2005. It inspired me to look for alchemical symbols used in a similar way in my favorite Lewis novels because planets and metals work in parallel correspondences. Alchemy and astrology are in several ways sister sciences, or, if you prefer, “occult arts.” Sure enough, The Space Trilogy are Black, White (and wet!), and Red novels in sequence, full to the brim with alchemical references and at least three planets, right? There was plenty of skepticism in 2005 about Lewis using astrology in his Aslan books but, after re-reading The Discarded Image, Lewis’s 16th Century sans drama Oxford History of the English Language volume, and the three Lewis science fiction pieces looking for alchemical references, I had no reason to doubt Ward at all. If the alchemy was obvious to me in The Space Trilogy, why wouldn’t Lewis also have used an astrological foundation in his later juvenile novels? Alan Jacobs objected in his wonderful Lewis critical biography The Narnian that the theory wasn’t credible because Lewis didn’t conceive the Narnia books as a seven part series but he has been won over by Ward’s theory. He says now (again, from the Amazon pre-publication page):

“Noting Michael Ward’s claim that he has discovered “the secret imaginative key” to the Narnia books, the sensible reader responds by erecting a castle of scepticism. My own castle was gradually but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly-written book. If Ward is wrong, his wrongness is cogent: it illuminates and delights. But I don’t think he is wrong. And in revealing the role of the planets in the Chronicles, Ward also gives us the fullest understanding yet of just how deeply Lewis in his own fiction drew upon those medieval and renaissance writers he so loved.”

Was I struck by Jacobs’ use of the phrase “secret imaginative key”? Yes, I was. I had written Professor Jacobs in 2002 to ask him if he would read Hidden Key to Harry Potter. He wrote me a short note to say he wasn’t interested in my thoughts about Ms. Rowling’s books and their Christian meaning or alchemical artistry. I asked him again in 2004 if he would read the Tyndale version of Hidden Key, Looking for God in Harry Potter. Again, a polite but brusque refusal. For whatever reason, Professor Jacobs found Harry Potter less than credible as a work of Christian literature in the Inklings innovative, make that “renovative” tradition.

Professor Jacobs has at last come on board with the idea that there is plenty of Christian meaning in the “penny dreadful” Harry Potter stories. After Deathly Hallows, of course, there aren’t many serious readers who deny this. But what about the alchemical artistry and the depth of Ms. Rowling’s achievement as a writer? As Professor Jacobs’ borderline patronizing review of Deathly Hallows, The Youngest Brother’s Tale, reflects, he is still behind his “wall of skepticism” on these points. No doubt there are pressures at Wheaton about Harry Potter that push in a different direction than pressures about C. S. Lewis. One is a story presumed by many to be a gateway to the occult, the other is an author fast-tracked for Evangelical canonization, whose use of astrology can be openly celebrated as a reflection of medieval and renaissance literature rather than an occult art.

Am I silly for wondering, though, if Michael Ward’s books are not a significant milestone on the road to general acceptance of “occult” artistry in Christian literary works in general and Ms. Rowling’s books in particular? Lewis was evidently writing from an alchemical and astrological scaffolding. I think the same can be said confidently about Ms. Rowling’s alchemical framework. The pre-publication buzz about Michael Ward’s book is that it “will provoke a major reassessment not only of the Chronicles, but of Lewis’s whole literary and theological outlook, revealing him to be a much subtler writer and thinker than has previously been recognized.” Given how subtle a writer and thinker Lewis is already considered, might we be hopeful that whatever traction this theory gains in academia is a promising development that points to the possibility of a re-estimation of Ms. Rowling’s depth and accomplishment as “writer and thinker”? Professor Jacobs already allowed in The Narnian that he thought the Harry Potter books better than Lewis’ Narnia serial novels. Could learning that Ms. Rowling is a Christian Hermeticist using tools from Lewis’ literary tool box help Professor Jacobs to ‘up his estimate’ of her novels from “penny dreadfuls” to “something substantial”? Or must that wait a generation, until the three Deathly Hallows that burden these books from being accepted as Canon, as James Thomas noted at Prophecy 2007, their currency, their profitability, and their popularity, all fade from memory?

Let’s hope not. I think that, just as Professor Schwartz was seemingly able to re-evaluate his view of Harry Potter (no doubt shaped in part by thinkers like Harold Bloom) after a short conversation about Lewis novels he knew well and a theory about their artistry, so many serious readers of English literature will be won over to a greater appreciation of Ms. Rowling’s debut books. Michael Ward’s book will certainly cause a reconsideration of Lewis and Narnia; I suspect the effect will bleed into an openness about literary alchemy in Harry Potter I have not seen yet except in diverse spots.

(3) Two or three of the “Parallel Sessions” talks I went to were dreadfully dull. I spent my time at these making notes for three other HogPro posts: one on the meaning of the epilogue and the last three words of Deathly Hallows, another on a pattern inn Ms. Rowling’s answers to fan and reporter questions, and one more on the Deathly Hallows Chapter 34 title, ‘Into the Forest Again.’ Here’s hoping I can knock those out this week and next. Stay tuned!

Thanks to all of you who have written me in my absence and to those of you who have sustained the conversation here. I confess to being shocked this morning when I read that Ms. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall comment had caused a reader to burn my books (as an All Pro pointed out, what a waste of a perfectly good door stop!). As a Hogwarts Professor extra, I close with the three book titles Professor Schwartz suggested I read to improve my understanding of alchemy and English literature:

Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory, Mark Morrison, Oxford University Press (2007);

The Handbook of Gothic Literature (cf, The Rosicrucian Novel), Marie Roberts, Palgrave MacMillan (1998); and

Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration, Gavin Ashenden, Kent State University Press (2007).

Book reviews are welcome from those who have any of these books, and, as always, I covet your comments and corrections.


  1. I am eagerly awaiting and have pre-ordered the book noted above. Your insights have been very helpful in a cross-pollination to my decades-long enjoyment of CS Lewis, John. I look forward to your further insights!

  2. John, how exciting. Thanks for sharing all this with us. I too am looking forward to Ward’s book. Loving Lewis as I do, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never tackled *The Discarded Image* though it sits on my shelf. One of those books I’ve always been worried I’m not quite smart enough to get. Perhaps it’s time to give it a try, in preparation for Ward’s book.

    Glad you had such a wonderfully fruitful weekend…looking forward to your next posts!

  3. Kudos to Professor Como!!!! I think I’m getting to the end of my emotional journey with JKR’s post-publishing revelations. If she’s not going to write the Potter Encyclopedia, then I’m not going to anticipate, nor concern myself with her interviews, either.

    And John, you had me laughing so hard with your account at the table with Rev. Anderson, the librarian, and Professor Huttar that I was almost late for work this morning! Fabulous, just fabulous. “Listen much, speak little,” right? Well, you were certainly at the conference to learn.

    By the way…how did your daughter fare at the XC meet?

  4. Don’t be put off by THE DISCARDED IMAGE. It’s graceful and readable.

  5. The XC Race in Asheville:


    HENDERSONVILLE, N.C.- Freshman Hannah Granger led the VMI women’s cross country to a fifth-place finish at the Big South Championships on Saturday morning, as the Keydets matched their best-ever finish at a conference championship event.

    The race, held at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, N.C. and hosted by UNC Asheville, saw the Keydets edge out the host Bulldogs by three points for fifth place, with the Keydets coming in with 143 points to UNCA’s 146. The Keydets also defeated Winthrop and Charleston Southern in matching their showing at the 2005 Championships.

    Granger (Wayne, Pa.) placed 12th overall with a time of 18:32 on the 5K course, 13 seconds faster than she ran the same course six weeks previously. The freshman finished just two places out of qualifying for the All-Conference team and as the third freshman in the race….

    “In the women’s race, we were picked in the preseason poll to finish seventh, and we ended up fifth,” said VMI head coach Paul Spangler. “I thought all of our girls ran well. Hannah had to fight through the flu, but she still ended up just four seconds off of her personal best, which shows just how tough of a competitor that she is. All of the girls really did an outstanding job today, I couldn’t ask for much more from them. Now we’ll take both our men’s and women’s team to Regionals, which will be the first time we’ve been able to take a full team to the Regionals.”

    ….The women’s team will return to action on Saturday, November 10, as they compete at the NCAA Regionals in Louisville, Ky.

    Hannah was disappointed in her individual performance but was delighted her team did as well as they did. On to the Regionals! (You asked, PJ!)

  6. Arabella Figg says

    All right, Hannah! You go! And two months in and you’re making the paper. Way to go.

    Luscious Badboy just shot down the hall….

  7. YEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!! You go, Hannah!!! Great job!!!! You have nothing to be disappointed about; 13 seconds FASTER on the same course & with flu complications, no less. My husband and I are proud of you (he’s an XC coach from way back).
    God’s blessings at Regionals: Run for the Lord/ run strong!

  8. Rose Zeller says

    Rah rah! As exciting as quidditch!

  9. Coppinger Bailey says

    Yea Hannah! Blessings to you & your team-mates as you run this weekend in Louisville!

    John – thank you SO much for this post on your CS Lewis weekend & the new information on Lewis scholarship (it’s all new to me, anyway). I’ll check into several of them as time allows, but I am particuarly interested in Prof. Como’s “neglected Lewis” angle on Lewis as a philosopher & social critic. I’ve had a very similar reaction in the miniscule amout of Lewis-reading I’ve done thus far, including “The Four Loves.” Blew me away.

    I am anxiously awaiting your post on the DH epilogue and your thoughts on “All was well.” !!!! That topic was my burning question for Ms. Rowling over on the imaginary interview thread before her arrival in the US. I’m glad you & other HogPros will take a whack at it as well as “Into the Forest Again.”!!

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