J. K. Rowling’s Use of Myth and Symbol: Sherrard on ‘Defending Ancient Springs’

Yesterday I wrote a post in which I righteously ridiculed those who would read Harry Potter having closed off their minds to any thought of that series’ author because of her supposedly poisonous views toward transgender people. Today, without taking back a word of what I wrote there, I think it important to add that I think, as frequently as recent posts here have begun with references to Rowling’s life experience, it really is best to read her work — and every other author’s work — through the text primarily rather than through biographical or ‘historical context’ filters.

If it were possible to read Rowling as we do Shakespeare, or better, given the recent glut of Shakespeare critical biographies, as we do Homer (or used to read Homer?), i.e., knowing nothing about her, we might come to a surer appreciation of her artistry and meaning, even of her popularity. Which must seem a stretch. Potter Pundits, in this scenario, would have to forsake all of Rowling’s helpful testimonies about her core beliefs and pointers to what she thinks are the key passages in her books as jumping off points for our interpretations of what she has written.

That exercise in self-handicapping would slow or even stop much of the work inspired by Rowling’s ‘Lake and Shed’ explanation of her writing process — so why ignore the author’s autobiographical testimony and self-interpretation? Because what makes Rowling’s work meaningful is not its origins in the Lake of her interior psychological crises but in the craftsmanship she employs in the Shed to make those inspirations mythic, symbolic, and, thereby, universal and self-transcending. It seems not only possible but likely that Rowling readers are spending too much time scuba-diving in the Lake and not enough critiquing the artisanship of the Shed.

I was reminded of this today when I stumbled upon a book review by Philip Sherrard, author of The Sacred in Life and Art, of Kathleren Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs. Raine, an accomplished poet, is most remembered today for simultaneously reviving and changing the depth and direction of William Blake studies in the 1960s by her close study of the poet-mage’s relationship with traditional writers and artists, notably Thomas Taylor the Platonist. As noted on Raine’s Wikipedia page, “her scholarly masterwork, the two-volume Blake and Tradition (published in 1969, and derived from the Andrew Mellon Lectures she delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C in 1968), … demonstrated the antiquity, coherence and integrity of William Blake’s philosophy, refuting T S Eliot’s assertion to the contrary.” For the short version, see Raine’s essay, ‘Blake’s Christ Consciousness.’

Raine’s triumph in Blake studies, I understand, is a cogent argument against my assertion above contra a biography-focused reading of an author because it was her close attention to just that which revealed the mythic and symbolic consistency in Blake’s mysterious poem-engravings. The problem in Rowling studies, however, is not the neglect of her personal formation and opinions but the all but exclusive attention given her work in light of her celebrity and her statements on topical issues of the day. Stepping back from that, as much as that is possible, may allow the same revival and refocusing of Rowling studies that Raine accomplished for Blake.

Which brings me back to Philip Sherrard’s review of Raine’s essay collection, Defending Ancient Springs. In brief, the focus in the book review is on what traditional or “true” literature is and the difficulty in writing such work today. Here is the meat of his argument:

[Defending Ancient Springs] is a collection of essays either on poets—Edwin Muir, David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins, Yeats, Shelley, St. John Perse—or on topics directly related to poetry—on myth and symbol, and the use of the beautiful. The link connecting the various essays is Miss Raine’s own understanding of poetry and its function, for the individual poets she writes of all illustrate this in one way or another, and essential to it also is the traditional use of myth and symbol. Indeed, the springs that are being defended are the traditional springs and the poets who have had the insight to draw from them.

From this point of view, all art—all true art—is always concerned with the expression of themes connected with the nature of the soul and what is beyond the soul, of the relationship between them, of. man’s death and rebirth, and the underlying pattern of his existence; and these themes have—or had—their corresponding language of myth and symbol, one resting upon an innate correspondence between the supernatural and the natural worlds and enshrined in the great religious traditions. Poets stand or fall according to their capacity to speak of these themes and to use this language. What goes by the name of poetry and yet ignores both the themes and language of tradition—and this includes the vast mass of modern poetry—is at best but versifying, at worst an insidious denigration of the poetic imagination itself….

…what makes this book as a whole more than a work of literary criticism, however perceptive, is the continual probing of what is perhaps the central problem for a “traditional” artist living in our times—the problem of communication. For it is one thing to use the traditional language of myth and symbol when these are still wedded to the actual environment in which man is living; it is quite another to use it when this connection is broken, when, as Miss Raine puts it, the “reality of myth” and the “reality of fact” have no common meeting-point in the “objective” world. This is our situation today, and that is why the poetry of someone seeking to speak of traditional themes in our age may easily become no more than an academic and largely ineffectual word-spinning with an imagery that has lost the power to set up any vibration in soul or body.  

I think what Sherrard praises in Raine’s book and observes as the challenge and potential glory of writing traditional literature today is not only relevant to understanding Rowling’s artistry, meaning, and popularity but essential to it. Rowling’s use of myth from Orestes in Harry Potter and Cupid and Psyche in Cormoran Strike and her deployment of alchemical and Christian symbolism, often in tandem, are the “true art” of which Sherrard is speaking, art “concerned with the expression of themes connected with the nature of the soul and what is beyond the soul, of the relationship between them, of. man’s death and rebirth, and the underlying pattern of his existence.”

Rowling’s great achievement in her use of “myth and symbol” has been her ability to communicate sacred truths about the soul and Spirit to an audience whose conscious mind is not only oblivious of said truths but openly resistant to them. Her popularity across continents, cultures, and age-groups testifies to her nigh-on unique ability to leap the chasm Raine describes, where, “as Miss Raine puts it, the “reality of myth” and the “reality of fact” have no common meeting-point in the “objective” world.” Using a genre melange but primarily the topoi of Schoolboy Fiction and Detective Mysteries, Rowling has created a medium in story by which she delivers effectively mythic and symbolic content, the aims and end of “true art.”

And that should be the focus of Rowling studies, not the biographical filters. Yes, I think Rowling’s testimony and pointers are helpful, invaluable really, to our current pace and the quality of exegesis of her latest work; I cede that point. That her celebrity (and Woke ideological blinders) means many will never read her work and experience her achievement — that is a shame. If only the two were not so tied together…

Your comments and correction are coveted, as always.



  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I went trying to check something George MacDonald wrote, which seemed to my memory to complement this – and found it in ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, as reprinted in the “Enlarged Edition” of A Dish of Orts: Chiefly Papers on the Imagination and on Shakespere (1893) – handily in a scan of an 1895 copy now at the University of Toronto which had once belonged to “John E. Carlyle” – especially handily because someone had cross-referenced a key passage to others in ‘The Art of Shakespere, as Revealed by Himself’ and ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry’. Re-reading and reading further, I started ‘The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture’ – and stopped to say, it seems complementary to this post, too. But perhaps the exchange of (stylized) readers’ questions and his replies in ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ is the best place to start – where (to apply the expression) the discoverable “common meeting-point in the ‘objective’ world” is concerned.

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