Mail Bag: Iconological Criticism, Transcendent Meaning, ‘Soul Triptych’ Origin, Nine ‘Classics’ Questions, and 22 November

Question and Answers with the Hogwarts Professor! Names and places have been effaced; the letters are otherwise as received. Please write out your better answers in the comment boxes below and send your questions to John at HogwartsProfessor dot com for the HogPro All-Pros to think about —

Subject: Question concerning Iconological Literary Criticism mentioned in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf

Hello Dr. Granger,

My name is XXX and I am writing because I am currently reading “Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures” and am interested in learning more about what you call “Iconological Literary Criticism”.

I am a masters student at YYY Divinity School, and am writing my masters thesis on ambiguity in Hebrew Narrative.  Needless to say, I have been steeped in readings in literary criticism, particularly indeterminacy of texts (Wolfgang Isler)  which seems to have given birth to the idea of reader-responsibility in gap filling, etc.  I am very interested in the idea of Iconological readings, the author’s goal as the reader’s edifying transformation rather than entertainment, and it being the default model until the 20th century (what you discuss on pgs xv-xvi of your Introduction).

Your description of Iconological reading and its assumptions about authorial intent sound much closer to what is going on in Biblical texts and the purposes of the Biblical writers, than the postmodern theories about indeterminate texts (not that there aren’t texts that seek to be indeterminate, like Henry James and the “Turn of the Screw” but I am not convinced that this was norm or goal of most literary texts throughout history).

Anyways, I was wondering if you could direct me to where I might find more reading on this topic of Iconological Literary Criticism verses other Postmodern ones?  I know that you mentioned that the Iconological school of literary criticism is somehow associated with Northrop Frye, is there a specific book of his that would discuss iconological literary criticism versus others? (I checked his “Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays” but could not find anything on “Iconological” in the index?)

Please let me know, and on another note, thank you so very kindly for writing your books about Harry Potter.  I’ve enjoyed reading them so much, and as someone with interests in inter-textuality in Biblical literature, I am really enjoying reading about the inter-textuality of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling as an author 🙂



Dear XXX,

Your prayers.

Thank you for your kind letter and comments about my work. FYI, I am not a Doctor of any kind and am only a “professor” online.

Three hurried morning notes!

(1) Northrup Frye, as I recall, uses the word iconological in Anatomy of Criticism as an aside in his introduction to describe (and, I think, to deride!) the work of Ruskin and company while aiming his efforts towards a more contemplative than scientistic reading of text. His own work, though, about ‘Romance’ as a mean between realism and myth is necessarily about reading as a noetic vision, i.e., entering into story, having been engaged by its realism, suspending disbelief in poetic faith (becoming the heart shorn of critical faculties), and experiencing the transcendent or mythic referents through the story transparencies. That, with a dollop of traditional four layered reading in the light of our four knowings, again patristic epistemology, is what I mean by ‘iconological.’

(2) I think your most profitable way to explore this would be through biblical chiasmus. Mary Douglas’ Thinking in Circles is excellent introduction here but to get at the iconological or iconographic in this story telling structure you’ll need to reflect on Romans 1:20 and the whole created world to include ourselves as subject-object defined persons (prosopon, see Chrestos Giannaras’ Elements of Faith). St Maximos the Confessor writes in his Centuries that this iconographic understanding and experience of the natural world is the second step of the spiritual life toward theosis.I’d suggest that reading this way, especially reading sacred texts, is a shadow of and support to that work.

(3) The first chapters of C. S. Lewis’ Allegory of Love and his Experiment in Criticism should be helpful, too. I despise, forgive me, the pigeonholing of any kind of symbolist reading as ‘Platonic’ as CSL falls to, qua academic, but he obviously understands that being categorized as such doesn’t mean this reading is just one among equally valid others.

I hope that helps!

In haste, alas,


Subject: Transcendent Meaning

Hi John,

Here’s a question for you –

When Eliade refers to works of transcendent meaning…how do we define what “transcendent meaning” is?

I think we can all identify when something contains this. A quick survey of the top 35 grossing films world wide, all time, reveals that 24/35 would be candidates for this. I am wondering if in your deep survey of these “great” works of art if you might have a definition for what this might mean.




Dear W, if I may,

Great to hear from you!

To your questions, which are way above my pay grade —

I think my definition of ‘transcendent meaning’ in story, if I were forced to offer one, would be two dimensional. The first aspect would be personal and about our experience; does the story engage our cardiac intelligence, the spiritual heart? I think this is only possible if we suspend disbelief according to estecean formula, in which suspension we disengage from the individual ego concerns and patterns governing our self-oriented existence and become our noetic aspect, that uncreated part of us all.

This aspect I belief is continuous if not identical with the Principle linking us to the Absolute, the Tao or Logos that is the fabric of reality. Great story telling not only engages the logos that is the kingdom/dominion of heaven within us, it somehow links us to that same Principle through the transparencies and translucencies of story symbol and narrative action.

My understanding of Eliade, a non-academic one to be sure, is that his aside in Sacred and Profane about the function of entertainment in a secular culture being mythic or religious is pointing to this activation, if you will, or stimulation of the spiritual heart. This kind of heart attack/art attack on our persona, advantage driven ego existence is what we’re pursuing in the theaters, book stalls, and football games, because we lack the real thing, that is transcendence had in communion with the Principle and Absolute pursued as such via liturgical experience.

I have not surveyed film or narrative or football clubs (!) to test this idea, which, forgive me, seems obvious without external, empirical, quantitative measures. I suspect as qualitative realities, art and transcendence will elude any attempt to isolate or demonstrate them just as the magic elision that happens in story escapes critical capture.

Let me know what you think — and thank you for the great morning question!



Subject: Whence Soul Triptychs?

Hi John,

I am …  studying English Literature and I am very interested in archetype, comparative mythology, etc.  I saw you speak on Harry Potter/alchemy once in ZZZ, and have read two of your books.  My question regards your idea of the soul triptych.

Is that an original idea of yours, or did you come across that from another source?  Can you point me in a direction to find more discussion of the soul triptych?  Thank you!


Dear MMM, if I may,

Your prayers.

Thank you for your kind note.

As goes without saying, I haven’t had an original thought in my life (and if I have, it is the one best forgotten). I have been credited — usually as disparagement — of inventing literary alchemy, soul triptychs, even ring composition to make my case about the artistry and meaning of Harry Potter.

Fortunately, these accusations are refuted easily, either by reference to standard texts on the subjects or by citing an evident tradition.

I don’t know of a text that uses the phrase “soul triptych” but, as they are evident in world literature from Plato’s Phaedrus and the Legend of the Charioteer through The Brothers Karamazov and CSL’s Ransom Trilogy (see Lewis’  ‘Men Without Chests’ for his discussion of same) as a picture of the Platonic/Patristic idea of the soul’s three faculties, the tradition bears me out. The phrase I have used to describe this alchemical story usage may be novel but the idea certainly isn’t mine.

I hope that helps!



Subject: About November 22nd in book 4


In your presentation at Ascendio you talked about chapter 19 in book 4 – “The Hungarian Horntail” – as being the midpoint in the series and – if I remember correctly – you also pointed out that the key events in this chapter happen on November 22nd, which can easily be turned into 11/22 and so into one-half.

I was re-reading this chapter today and an additional point occurred to me which may be relevant.  November 22nd, though burned in the memories of many of us as the day when JFK was assassinated, was also the day when C. S. Lewis died.  Further,  C. S. Lewis famously remarked that a good story should be able to get ideas into the mind past “sleeping dragons” and – obviously – this chapter involves dragons.

This could just be an accident, but knowing how carefully JKR plans – and how much she likes Lewis – I’m inclined to think that this was probably deliberate.



Dear DDD,

Your prayers.

I couldn’t agree more! In fact, my talk on Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that can be downloaded at includes some part of this, at least the CSL allusion. The dragons part is a great catch!

With admiration, as always,


Subject: Is It a Classic?

Hello John!

My name is CCC, and I am from LLL.  I am a HUGE Harry Potter as well as a huge fan of your work!  I have read all of your books and I am currently reading How Harry Cast His Spell.  I love to read and I am going to be studying Literature in college.

The reason that I am emailing you is not only to tell you how much I adore your work, but to ask for your help.  I am conducting research for a school project and my topic is “Why Harry Potter Should be Considered Classic Literature”.  I have been learning so much through my research, and I would love it if you would give me the opportunity to interview you.  If you agree to this I will send you questions via email and you can respond to whichever ones you like.

Take your time getting back to me.  I believe that you could really enlighten me with your views on the topic.  Feel free to contact me with any questions, I have left information below.  Thank you for taking the time to read this, please consider it.


{I wrote and asked CCC to send her questions.]

Thank you so much for your time.  I really enjoyed the opportunity to interview today.  My high school English teacher Mrs. KKK may call to confirm that this interview took place.  So if you could please include your contact information it would be much appreciated.



{My answers are in red and follow CCC’s questions}

1. First I’d like to start off by asking you what your definition of the word “classic” is in, in terms of literary work?  For instance, would you say that it is just a matter of opinion for a book to be considered “classic”, or is there certain criteria to be met?

C. S. Lewis told a friend (George Sayers) that a great book must make the reader “better, wiser, and happier — and, most of all, he must enjoy it.” I’m guessing I cannot do better than that.

2.So my follow up question would be- does a piece have to be around for decades or centuries to be a classic?  Does it have to do with the audience? (Adults vs. kids)  What about the schematics of the marketing?  What is your opinion?

I’m of the view that none of these criteria matter except to literary taxonomists! What effects a book has a reader’s inner heart is what matters.

3.  What do you believe sets Harry Potter above all others?  What makes it unique?  What makes it marketable?  And why?

I’ve written and edited eight books on this subject but the quick answer is that they do best what books are supposed to do, especially in a secular culture, i.e., deliver self-transcendent experience of supernatural referents.

4.  A classic can be considered something that has a universal topic and can be analyzed in a classroom setting.  Could you see this happening?  Does the audience only have to be young adult to adult for a “classic”?  Why or why not?

Classroom exegesis, in my experience of them, are almost by necessity contrary to the value and virtue of any book. As Plato said, nothing learned under compulsion penetrates the intellect (nous, or heart).

5.  I would argue that the Harry Potter series is full of imagination, dimensional characters, and prevalent symbolism.  It is also rich with popular themes such as friendship, bravery, good vs. evil, love, and loyalty, content, and rhetoric elements. It is the journey of a boy finding out who he is.  It is very relatable and inspiring.  This being said, do you think that Harry Potter is more of “literary classic” or simply just a “classic”?  Is there a difference?

As we are talking about books, I assumed you meant ‘literary classic’ when you wrote ‘classic.’ And, as to what you point out, forgive me, but it sounds like student verbiage rather than a realistic description of what you experienced inside these stories.

6.  The Harry Potter franchise has been around for a long time.  The movies, for instance, took ten years to make.  It obviously created a cultural phenomenon.  Does this make it worthy of the classic shelves?  Other classic literary pieces, The Hobbit for example often make debuts on the big screen.  Does this factor into your decision at all?

I hope not!

7.  Just as classics often do, Harry Potter deals with controversial topics like sexuality, magic, evil, religion, etc.  These themes often occur in classics as well.  Can you compare how these ideas relate to another classic?

Please read my Harry Potter’s Bookshelf for a survey of English literature in light of the Hogwarts Saga, especially the chapters on Gothic Romance and imaginative literature.

8.  There are courses in universities with classes about Harry Potter.  For example Stanford has a course titled “Harry Potter:  The meaning behind the Magic” As I’m sure you know there are also courses out there completely based on the works of Shakespeare, Hemmingway, and Nabokov.  If such a prestigious school like Stanford includes Harry Potter in their university, doesn’t that prove that Harry Potter is up their with all the big names?  Also, for another example, Universal Studios debuted the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which stands among other big names like Dr. Seuss Land.  Do you think that this also proves that point?

No. The example you provided, for instance, was a freshman seminar for incoming students and hardly heavyweight consideration of the books. And the Universal Studios Wizarding World — at which park’s Three Broomsticks, oddly enough, I have given a talk — tells us nothing more than that we live in a world of imagination-challenged iconoclasts and of businessmen willing to take their money!

9.  Okay I’m going to conclude this interview with some wrap up questions.  Would you consider the Harry Potter series to be timeless?  Revolutionary?

It’s hardly timeless; it’s a postmodern book exploring postmodern themes as perceived by a postmodern writer for a postmodern audience (see Unlocking Harry Potter). But it has transcendent elements, certainly, and has touched millions upon millions of readers’ hearts. It’s only revolutionary in its revival of traditional writing artistry, most important, literary alchemy, ring composition, and soul triptychs.

I hope this helps!


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