Is Sybill Trelawney Really J. K. Rowling? The Case for an Embedded Author

In yesterday’s post I wrote about J. K. Rowling’s lists of correspondences between the four Hogwarts Houses and the traditional four Elements — fire, air, earth, and water — as well as with the four playing card suits – diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades — and how the two lists each make sense intuitively but do not line up with one another. I shared there something I had learned about Rowling from Eglantine Pillet’s Chestnut Hill talk, ‘Harry Potter: A Fool and a King,’ in which she quoted this paragraph from an unauthorized biography of The Presence:

One [of her friends from school] recalls, ‘Jo would entertain us with her brilliant wit and colorful stories. She was very inventive and clever at reading tarot cards and palms and weaving a story around it which was pure make believe but had us alternately gripped and then laughing’ (Sean Smith, J. K. Rowling: A Biography, p 62).

Just think what Richard Abanes and Michael O’Brien, leaders of the ‘Harry is the Gateway to the Occult’ brigade in the fin de siecle years of this century, would have made of that. I shudder to think.

What it made me realize, though, is that Rowling’s simultaneously hilarious and pathetic Professor of Divinations may be her embedded character, a snapshot of herself placed inside the story as a bit of comic metafiction. I think the character Rowling played in her Comprehensive School cafeteria, the gypsy figure doing funny readings of tarot cards and palms that had her friends “alternately gripped and then laughing,” i.e., readings that were close enough to the truth to fascinate but done in camp, mock New Age fashion to make fun of those credulous enough to believe in such things.

And we know Rowling is not afraid to put images of her self into her books. Not only is Lula Landry’s rags-to-riches and struggles with celebrity in Cuckoo’s Calling a shadow-play of Rowling’s experience but Kathryn Kent, the wannabe writer in The Silkworm, seems a there-but-for-the-sake-of-chance-discovery-went-I character. And most of the characters in Casual Vacancy seem to have been drawn to varying degrees from Rowling’s personal experience.

How is Sybill Trelawney, though, a picture of J. K. Rowling? Rowling writes about her seeming doppelganger at some length on PotterMore with some especially interesting notes about why her first name is ‘Sybill’ rather than the expected ‘Sibyl.’ But she neglects to mention the Squire Trelawney connection from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the financier and clueles wonder that sails in search of treasure with a ship load of pirates, a man who could be said to play a similar role to Sybill Trelawney in his story. First, though, some lower hanging fruit for establishing Sybill Trelawney as Rowling’s embedded image in the Harry Potter novels —

(1) The School Boy Novel Correspondence: Karen Manners Smith writes in ‘Harry Potter’s Schooldays: J. K. Rowling and the British Boarding School Novel’ that “every French mistress in the entire girl’s school story genre” is “risible” (Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays, p 78).  There is no French teacher at Hogwarts, of course, a school without even an English department, but the Divinations professor is Rowling’s fairly obvious stand-in for the loopy staple of the genre, the eccentric teacher students love to laugh about in class and out (and fellow faculty members seem similarly inclined). When this link is made, the Rowling-Trelawney connection is almost in-your-face. Jo Rowling had her degree in French and was working as a French teacher during the years of planning the series and writing the first novel. How many red heads are on the staff at Hogwarts?

(2) Fascination with the Divinatory and Occult Arts: Her high school friends say Rowling entertained them with “tarot card and palm readings.” It isn’t entertaining, believe me, to have someone do a tarot card spread unless the reader is sufficiently familiar with the meaning of the cards not to have to look up the meanings in a guide and then stumble through how this meaning supposedly works in the card lay-out chosen. And there are a lot of cards; I’m assuming Rowling was using the Rider-Waite deck which has 22 Major Arcana cards in addition to the four suits of 14 cards each. We’re talking 78 cards to know well enough to talk about in relation to other cards in any position of, say, a 10 card Celtic Cross spread. I’m guesing, too, that Rowling knew more than one spread. Ergo, she spent a lot of time as a young person studying these cards and their meanings.

This is not even mentioning Rowling’s admission in 2007 that she “did a lot of research into astrology for [Trelawney]. I found it all highly amusing, but I don’t believe in it.” We know, though, that she was entertaining friends with these astrological skills in 1994, too. Her 2012 profile in The New YorkerMugglemarch,’ tells us that “Rowling did write a long, illustrated astrological birth chart for the newborn son of a friend.” Add to this Rowling’s admission in 1998 that “To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy,” that she wanted to be an alchemist, even dreaming about Nicolas Flamel and his workshop while she wrote Philosopher’s Stone (perhaps the subject of the five minute Flamel extra on the Crimes DVD?).

Trelawney is no alchemist, I know. But she reads palms, casts and interprets horoscopes, and is a devoted cartomancer (Tarot card reader). Connect the dots.

(3) Trelawney Relates to the Other Characters as a Writer Would: This is the best part, frankly. Think again of Squire Trelawney in the Stevenson classic adventure story Treasure Island and how he makes the adventure happen but seems out of control to guide it and is despised as clueless by other characters (Rowling writes Philosopher’s Stone in Edinburgh, a city consumed by Robert Louis Stevenson; she’s aware of this link, I’m sure, between her boy’s adventure story and Stevenson’s classic).

Our Trelawney lives at the school but is largely removed from daily activities in her tower hideaway. She is there because she was the prophetess that started the whole Voldemort-Potter story line; Dumbledore cannot allow her to leave Hogwarts lest the Dark Lord get the complete prophecy of which Seversus Snape only overheard part. Though everyone in the story except for her several groupie girl student admirers cannot take her seriously, her predictions are more often than not proved to be spot on.

If you doubt that, check out ‘Not as Crazy as You’d Think‘ for the charting of every Trelawney prediction; the final tally there is 9 out of 15 direct hits — and the chart doesn’t give Trelawney enough credit. As I hope to discuss tomorrow, even when Trelawney dismisses her own predictions (and cannot remember her prophecies…) and card readings and when we think we know what she got right despite herself, there is sometimes something even more correct in her divination than we allowed.

Rowling lines up with this because she really is the prophetess that channeled the inspiration of Harry Potter and the Wizarding World. She lives in that world imaginatively though the characters are unaware of her for the most part; even Dumbledore in his wisdom doesn’t seem to know that he is a fictional creation. Or maybe he is aware of the Rowling-Trelawney link and this explains his bemused tolerance and protection of the woman Hermione thinks “an old fraud.” And of course the Rowling embedded figure is able to predict the future happenings inside the story, deluded and drunk as she may be; she’s the author of the beginning, middle, and end of the story, right?

I’m beginning to think we have to reimagine our idea of Jo Rowling before her transformation into J. K. Rowling, literary juggernaut and The Presence. She was inspired on the train to write about a boy wizard with a lightning scar who goes to a wizarding school. The bestselling book of the time is a self-help fable called The Alchemist and Rowling knows that Nabokov and other favorite writers used alchemical imagery in their work. And she knows an awful lot about tarot cards and astrology already in addition to her wide reading. The inspiration for a book series “for obsessives” as she told Lary King, a set of books about reading texts that are puzzles of narrative misdirection, hermetic imagery, and intricate structural composition takes hold…

I hope in the coming week to write about Rowling’s embedded tarot card readings, work she does in her Trelawney disguise, and about the astrology of the Hogwarts Saga and prevalent theories about planet and book correspondences. Stay tuned for that — and let me know what you think of the theory that Trelawney is an embedded comic image of J. K. Rowling, a writer laughing at her role in the VoldeWar II drama. Just click on ‘Leave a Comment’ up by the post headline and share your thoughts! 


  1. Lana Whited says

    As usual, John, you’ve given us so much to consider that this list requires multiple readings. I love Rowlings’ misdirections about characters, and Trelawney and Snape are some of the best examples.

  2. Sandra Miesel says

    May I direct attention to my essay “Is There Hope for Slytherin House?” in HARRY POTTER FOR NERDS ed. Travis Prinzi? I worked out some of the elemental and astrological connotations of characters and Houses which are relevant to your comments.

    You do make a good case for the correspondences between Sybill and J.K. Carry on!

  3. Brian Basore says

    It’s fine with me if the storyteller spins the tale while having a twinkle in her eye. It shows she cares. She wants her obsessives to be obsessive. Lead on, John!

  4. You make a good case.

    The Trelawney character struck me as primarily satirical. She is, essentially, a charlatan. I have met people just like her … both among neo-pagans and, in slightly different version, among Christians. She is, basically, the ultimate teenaged girl: maybe especially the ultimate teenaged *writer.* She has poor social skills, longs to be spiritual, likes to impress others and reassure herself of her own importance by making mystical pronouncements. The brand of paganism that she finds most appealing is the kind that appeals most strongly to teenaged girls. I have to say, I have been her.

    Maybe J.K. Rowling has been her too, but let’s not forget that Hermione is also a self-portrait, right? So, I don’t know, if Trelawney is a self-portrait in any way, I’d say she’s only a portion of Rowling, an immature part of herself that believes in a lot of stuff that the hardheaded Hermione part can’t bring herself to swallow. Perhaps she is a part that Rowling feels a bit sentimental about, but can’t overlook the fact that this is a bit ridiculous, not a place that a grown woman should stay parked.

    But that might be over-analyzing it. As an author, I’d hate it if readers tried to find similarities between myself and each of my characters. We do have to drawn on our firsthand knowledge of the human heart to create each character, even the villains, but that doesn’t mean we behave like them or want to be them. In fact, maybe we are writing about them partly in order to avoid becoming them.

    So in defense of a fellow author, I’d have to say Trelawney is a satirical character who was created based on the author’s life experience. The fact that so many of her prophecies turn out to be true after all is down to the extreme complexity of the plot. It also teaches a familiar lesson about not dismissing people who we might be tempted to think are fools.

    Sorry this has been so rambling. Just like Trelawney, I love a good soapbox.

  5. For life similarities, see Casual Vacancy and The Silkworm (all of the Strike novels, actually, if Robin is The Presence’s Mary Sue).

    But for an embedded author and the meta-fictional twist that bit of “I wrote The Prophecy!” requires, Sybill Trelawney is it.

  6. Even in France, Eglantine Pillet is quite the name. It reminds me of a RowIing character name, or better, a name in a French version of The Worst Witch or Harry Potter. I’d Iove to see and hear her reading her paper

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