Is Harry Potter One Story or Seven?

Potter Pundits Summer School, four free online classes with yours truly and a live webinar for Q&A, will be rowling out in a little over a week. To get you ready for that, I’ll be posting my videos here at HogwartsProfessor this week. Look for a survey about what you want to be sure I cover in those classes in your inboxes later this week!

We started a conversation last week about unexamined and prevalent Harry Potter ideas that shape our understanding of The Boy Who Lived’s seven adventures while also obscuring other ways of seeing them. That first post in the series revealed the obvious advantages and the not-so-obvious disadvantages of looking at the series as Children’s Literature (‘Kid Lit’). Check it out here if you are joining us mid-stream and missed that.

Today let’s talk about the idea of Harry Potter as seven distinct, stand-alone novels. We know there’s an over-arching story that connects them, especially after the return of the Dark Lord in Goblet of Fire, but is it really, as Rowling has said, just one story in seven parts? What does the predominant idea of the books as a seven part series obscure in the artistry and meaning of the work?

Quite a bit actually! Let me know what you think by shooting me an email at John at HogwartsProfessor dot com or just writing a comment in the boxes below.

Click Here for pdf of ‘Seven Books or One? Transcript

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  1. Brian Basore says

    I agree that they are seven volumes and one story.

    I probably just missed the latch, but The Once and Future Anglia seems to be a loose thread, and if that’s about the only one, then HP is tight writing.

    It is mentioned that Arthur Weasley’s mother was a Black, but the author doesn’t develop that detail much at all. Is the story of the Anglia an echo of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? (Will the Anglia continue to be one of the wild things in the Forbidden Forest? Will it recognize future Weasleys? If Arthur looked for it, would it come home with him?) Frankenstein’s new Promethius searched for his creator until Frankenstein’s death, then left over the ice floes, so there’s no end to that story. Maybe JKR is sharing that joke by not knotting that thread, in which case the whole story is actually complete.

  2. Mr. Granger,

    This is somewhat off-topic, however, there’s a minor caveat I’ve wanted to bring up re: E. Nesbit in “12 Rowling Sources”. In the section detailing Nesbit’s influences, you mention her as a member of the Golden Dawn. That came as quite a surprise to me, as I was, and still am, in the middle of Julia Brigg’s “A Woman of Passion”, Nesbit’s biography.
    Brigg’s has nothing to show that Nesbit was ever a part of that particular group. Nor can I find anything in Noel Streatfield’s “Magic and the Magician”, a copy of which C.S. Lewis owned, as it turns out.

    Briggs does, however, make mention, on page 64, of the Blands belonging to a Fellowship of New Life. However, rather than having anything to do with the occult, there are hints in the Briggs text that the Fellowship had its roots in the Quaker religion. In point of fact, the Fabian Society was an offshoot of this same New Life Fellowship, and one of its founding members was, wait for it…a Quaker. So it could be possible that somewhere a normal religious society got confused and mixed up with the Golden Dawn.

    This is all I really know, or can surmise, from my own readings. So far, I’ve yet to see any proofs that Nesbit had anything to do with the New Age. Then, I’ll admit, I don’t know what sources were used in writing that section.

    Just some potential food for thought.

  3. Louise M. Freeman Davis says

    A few years ago I surveyed 100+ of my Mary Baldwin students: Roughly 50% had read the full series; about 30% had read none. (And no, I did not petition for their immediate expulsion!) The remaining 20% or so had read part of the series, usually the first, or the first two books. There was no one who read only 5 or only 6. Basically, if they made it to OotP, they finished the whole series. That seems to fit with the idea of the earlier books being more “stand alone” and the later ones focusing more on the full, seven part story, by looking backwards and echoing elements of the first three.

  4. Brian Basore says

    When I was reading DH I knew I was reading a book, and yet the line blurred between words and movies. I noted, ” Break I’m on page 239. This isn’t a book, it’s a fast-breaking movie. In a way it reminds me of the Kill Bill movies. Yes, Quentin Tarentino should direct this one.”

    If it was that obvious, I should trust JKR as a screenwriter.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    I see Allison Shell seems to accept it, but (alas) does not specifically footnote it:

    I can’t remember if Ellic Howe discusses it in The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 (1978), and don’t have access to a copy.

    I’ll check my copy of R.A. Gilbert’s The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians (1983) and report back…

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Ach: ‘Alison’!

    Still have not excavated my copy of RAG’s book…

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    R.A. Gilbert has no index entry for Edith Nesbit in The Golden Dawn: Twilight of the Magicians (1983).

    I’ve had no luck online finding evidence – or even references to reliable studies – for a claim that she was, or that she was not, a G.D. member.

  8. Thank you!
    I have a problem with the PDF links, they page not found .. can you fix it, please?

  9. I fixed one — but the other is now available through the pop-in box you get when your cursor moves off the page. Enjoy!

  10. D.L. Dodds,

    To be honest, I’ve learned to be a bit more skeptical when it comes to discerning truth from rumor in cases like this. The author who taught me this wasn’t Nesbit, but rather Arthur Machen. To clear, it was more the scholarly work, or rather the lack thereof about Machen, that first made me realize that context is everything.

    What I mean by that is this. There are perhaps only three to four big sources for anyone curious about Machen, and the nature and themes of his work. The problem is the esoteric aspect of the author’s writings. Now, a key work that I think would help to clear up a lot of the confusion around AM’s writings is Stanton Linden’s “Darke Hieroglyphicks”. It lays out a neat survey of a mostly forgotten literary tradition utilizing the symbolism of alchemy.

    I think Linden’s text is useful as it offers a context from which view Machen’s work that doesn’t, at best, view as some kind of New Ager, or at worst, an occultist. Instead, Linden offers a view of literary symbolism that is compatible with an Orthodox understanding of Christianity.

    In this regard, Linden’s has sort of become the great missing text in a lot of work on Machen, and others like him. As a result, none of the other Machen sources, not Aidan Reynolds, not Wesley D. Sweetser, nor S.T. Joshi displays any knowledge of the tradition Linden outlines. This gives a necessarily one-sided picture of their subject, and they are unable to give all the in-depth exploration of either the fiction, or the theology behind it. Instead, rumor and conjecture will have to do in place of serious criticism.

    That’s why I’ve learned to be a bit more skeptical when it comes to exploring the more out-there side of literary criticism. The one source for Machen that I have found is “Arthur Machen and the Celtic Renaissance and Wales” by Karl Marius Petersen. This piece is from way back in 1972, yet what makes it notable is that mode of excavation is that it is able to get a grasp on the subject’s context by examining the cultural influences that shaped Machen as a writer.

    In doing so, Petersen is to give the reader a picture of the religious milieu AM grew up in. His original point of reference was a Christian Anglicanism which still held onto many of the Celtic survivals and folkways that dated way back before the Middle Ages.

    This suggests a more promising approach to tracing down the nature and origins of traditional symbolism in literature. In other words, it might help to ask how many of the old English Churches have held on to the ancient folkways and beliefs that pre-Roman Britain was famous for.

    It strikes me that the key to studying authors like Machen would be to focus on the historic interaction between Christianity and old mythological folkways and beliefs.

    The best current source I know on Machen comes from a Christianity Today article, “Meaning to the Madness, by Jonathan Ryan.

    He makes the novel claim for re-assessing the foundation of Modern Horror by taking a look, not at H.P. Lovecraft, but at one of his main inspirations, namely, Machen. It’s an interesting suggestions, especially in light of the fact that their does seem to be a kind of re-valuation of the influence HPL has had on the genre.

    Included in this recent critical notice is the explicit challenges some writers are making toward his legacy by taking and reshaping his concepts as part of an authentic critique. The two examples I’ve heard of, so far, are The Dream Quest of Vellit Bo by Kij Johnson, which applies a feminist perspective to Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle. In this intriguing tome, the title character has a run in with Randolph Carter, and exchange in which Lovecraft’s nominal hero comes out less than stellar.

    The other is Paul La Farge’s “The Night Ocean”. This book takes the Lovecraftian trope of the search for forbidden knowledge, and neatly deconstructs it. It’s good as a start, though, personally, I wish they’d have gone on from there. For instance, what about third set of beings who are either benign, or at least not hostile to humans. What could done with such material? However, this text could go some way toward starting an honest examination, and maybe even a refinement (?) of the tropes that have given Modern Horror its shape.

    There’s also “Resume with Monsters”. Imagine Dilbert’s cubicle. Okay, now imagine the Great Old Ones slowly taking it over via the cunning use of…Synergy!!!!!….And yes, it is as funny, and surprisingly chilling, as it sounds.

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