On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight Part 5: Iconological Criticism and Best Sellers (A)

For Part 1 of this post, click here. for Part 2, click here, for part 3, click here, and for part 4, click here, or just scroll down the home page.

No, I haven’t finished the edits to Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures. But I’m making good progress.

The whole point of Bookshelf is to introduce the context of English literature in which Harry Potter is written to give a better understanding of Ms. Rowling’s novels while at the same time using these books to introduce a range of English literature subjects and authors to Potter-philes who slept through their survey classes or majored in Engineering. As the Shared Text of our generation, Harry is uniquely and wonderfully qualified for this multi-didactic-tasking.

Bookshelf is organized, for example, in ten chapters that fall into four categories corresponding to the four levels of meaning acknowledged by iconological criticism (surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical). Though it is a very short book relative to other things I’ve written and most of it is about authors and books “behind the Hogwarts Adventures,” it still serves as an introduction to what is a new way of thinking about books for most (especially, I’m afraid, if they majored in English) if only because of its layout. Today, I want to begin here, before jumping into an iconological look at what contemporary critics missed in both the Potter novels and the Twilight Saga, what I couldn’t do in Bookshelf, namely, give a longish account of why and how reading at four levels works, even when authors more than likely did not set out or resolve while editing to “write like Dante.”

The short answer is “because reality exists at four levels and human beings are designed to perceive it at all four levels.” To get at this requires a trip to Plato’s Cave for some epistemological background before the literary spelunking proper in Ms. Meyer’s and Ms. Rowling’s books. Hold your breath, then, for the plunge into philosophy…

Americans as a rule shudder a little, many flinch, at the word “philosophy.” I was a Classics major so it has always been only “love of wisdom” in an English wrapper. I also read Plato’s Apology and big pieces of Aristotle’s Ethics and On the Soul in Greek and found it interesting and rewarding stuff, especially the Plato. I was a little surprised, consequently, when I read that Arthur Levine at Scholastic changed the title of Ms. Rowling’s first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone because he was certain that no American reader would buy a book with the word ‘Philosophy’ in the title.

I suspect he was right, because I have seen the involuntary shudder and flinch I mentioned above which audiences make even at top flight schools when I use the phi-word in my talks. This is really unfortunate, not because readers are missing life changing work being written in academic philosophy departments (ho!), but because it’s hard to get a grip on literature in general and Harry Potter in particular without a little Plato. The Whitehead line about “all philosophy only being a series of footnotes to Plato” is more right than wrong, but it may be as true that literature and literary criticism are as indebted to him as philosophy is.

The good news is that Plato doesn’t write philosophy the way Kierkegaard, Arendt, or Kant did. He even insisted in the Seventh Letter that he had never written a word of philosophy in his life. His genre of choice was the dialogue, after all, the ancient world equivalent of a screenplay, rather than dry treatises. Plato wrote philosophical dramas featuring Socrates, his teacher, in dynamic question and answer sessions with fascinating people, many of whom were well known Athenians. Plato is more like Shakespeare and Steven Spielberg than Spinoza or Spengler. He doesn’t dictate doctrine; he tells stories and asks his friends what they think (and then some more questions about what they think…).

One of his better stories and probably the most famous is the Cave Allegory (Republic, VII; 514a–520a). It’s very short and you can read it by following the link. It goes something like this:

Imagine human beings in a cave with their heads and necks bound in such a way that they can only look straight ahead and at a wall opposite the entrance. Their light doesn’t come from the entrance but from a fire “burning far above and behind them.” In front of this fire there is a wall that acts like a puppet show box. On the top of the wall, people who are not chained down carry figures of men, animals, and other things so their shadows are projected on the far wall. These shadows are the only things the cave prisoners can see and know. The shadows are their reality. “Such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”

Socrates, who tells the Allegory to Glaucon, then describes a prisoner who is liberated by force and dragged out from the wall of shadows and his chains, past the fire and wall over which the figures are held, and up to the cave entrance and out into the light. This is not a happy man. At first, he is unable to see things at the wall and fire as they are because he only recognizes image-shadows as reality.

Then, in the light outside the cave, he is all but blinded, “his eyes full of [the sun’s] beam and… unable to see even one of the things said to be true.” Slowly, though, his eyes would adjust to the light and he would be able to see shadows, reflections, objects, people, and finally the stars, moon, sunlight, and the sun itself. Finally, he could understand the sun is “the source of the seasons and the years, and the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions [in the cave] had been seeing.”

In the book in The Republic just previous to the Allegory of the Cave, Socrates has explained to Glaucon a “metaphor of the Sun” in which the sun is a natural cipher for “the Idea of the Good” or God, “what provides the truth to the things known and gives the power to the one who knows” (Republic, VI; 508 e). The prisoner able to see and know the sun in the Cave Allegory experiences the truth behind the shadow images in the cave’s darkness.

Socrates also makes it clear that this “enlightened” or “illumined” prisoner is in for a very hard time. He’s quite happy now that he sees things as they are and feels nothing but pity for his friends back in the hole. But what happens if he goes back into the cave?

First, it’s clear that would be something he’d try to avoid at all costs. Better a slave in the sunshine than a king in what C. S. Lewis called the Shadow-lands. But if he did go back, he’d be in a fix. While his eyes adjusted, for one thing, he’d seem a moron whose eyes were damaged by his time outside the cave. If he tried to free the other prisoners and help them escape, Socrates is confident that the slaves would kill him rather than question the reality of the shadows.

“Don’t be surprised,” therefore, that the prisoners who have come back “aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings” who think shadows are reality and truth. “Their souls are always eager to spend their time above.”

Socrates, of course, finally spells out for Glaucon what the Allegory is about. We are the people in the cave. Our understanding of reality, the ephemeral quantities of matter and energy we think of as “real things,” are just shared beliefs about shadows on the cave wall. The Good, the True, and Beautiful, the greater reality of things, are only knowable in escaping the cave and knowing the Idea of the Good itself, “what provides the truth to the things known.”

What does this have to do with literature?

Good question.

The first part of the answer is in realizing that this isn’t just Plato’s otherworldly fantasy. This story for shadow-landers like you and me about the nature of reality and how we know (or don’t know) is pretty much the Christian consensus from Pentecost up to and into the so-called Enlightenment and Age of Empiricism we live in now. As English literature, like it or not, is a Christian show, Beowulf to Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Christian writers write for a Christian audience for their greater life in Christ, novels, poems, and plays almost have to be understood in light (sic) of Plato’s Cave Allegory. Believe it or not, the four levels of meaning correspond not only with traditional Jewish and Christian reading of revealed texts at four layers but also with Plato’s four levels of knowledge he describes just before the Cave myth in his Divided Line Analogy (Republic, VI; 509d-513e) about the visible and intelligible worlds. (See the chart detailing the Platonic understanding of soul faculties corresponding to visible and intelligible realities in the explanation of the ‘Allegory of the Divided Line’ in Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic, Basic Books, 1968, p. 464.)

Stories in the western tradition can be sorted pretty much into two piles; a heap for those that reinforce the delusions of the shadows projected on the cave wall and another for the ones that make us feel our chains, stretch our necks, maybe even give us an imaginative experience of the noetic reality in the sunlight outside the cavern. Reading books is either an enlightening and liberating experience (and, yes, the Cave Allegory is one of the reasons we talk about “enlightenment” the way we do) or just entertainment to distract us from the darkness, smoke, and discomfort of life underground.

Either way, uplifting or dissipating, everything written is in some sense an allegory. The words on the page, the stories, sentiments, and sentience of them are not the things referred to themselves but signs that make us recall them or imagine them. And the meaning of everything written beneath the surface narration and morality, the first two iconological layers and the usual limit of contemporary criticism, is just a going deeper into the allegory and reflecting on what the story is calling up in us. If you’re reading Fleming’s James Bond adventures, Mickey Spillane mysteries, and Zane Grey westerns, the search pretty much ends when the roller coaster comes to a stop; beyond story and moral (or lack of morals), it’s time for another book.

The “good stuff,” though, on second, third, and fourth readings reveals political and social commentary or allegory and, in real treasures, an escape from the cave via a truly mythic experience. Mircea Eliade, the great historian of religion, said that all reading — to include Fleming, Spillane, and Grey — in a profane culture like our own serves a mythic or religious function because of our “suspension of disbelief” while reading or watching a movie. This disconnecting from our selfish concerns lifts us to, he thought, a better place something like religious ritual and sacraments are meant to take us.

He’s right, of course. But there are books and story artists – poets, playwrights, and novelists – that deliberately or unconsciously take us up to the cave mouth and force us to look out that make us return again and again and again for a refresher course. The books I discuss in the second half of Harry Potter’s Bookshelf to illustrate the allegorical and mythic layers of meaning are the Greats that quite consciously are working hard for our liberation. It’s fun reading (I think!) because Ms. Rowling’s novels are built on the Greats as models and achieve the same resonance in the heart that thrills and engages readers profoundly.

But why are there four layers in great books and many not-so-greats? If we don’t have that in mind as more than a historical or private conceit, the “good stuff” of the second half of Bookshelf and the discussion of what critics missed on these levels in Twilight and Harry must seem unlikely, even ridiculous.

Four Aspects, Four Filters, Four Ways of Knowing

Two facts, right from the top. First, for thousands of years people understood the world radically differently than we do. Second, dismissing these people as having been idiots is an instance of chronological snobbery. If we cannot explain why whole civilizations were wrong, thinking that they must have been wrong because we don’t think that way know only testifies to our smug belief that history is progressive, and, standing at the end of time, we must be the smartest folks ever.

Granted, history reveals it has been a long time since there has been a golden age of peace, love, and justice anywhere in the world. I’d only say that these who think the past is by definition worse and dumber than the present have not read enough daily newspapers or history.

The biggest difference I have found in how individuals and civilizations see things is the conflict I discuss in Bookshelf, from Jane Austen through Jonathan Swift and Everyman to Shakespearean alchemical drama and Goudge’s Little White Horse. Swift wrote a very short and very funny book about it called, appropriately, The Battle of the Books. Real quickly, in Battle the Ancients in a library, those books by Classical philosophers and traditional thinkers, come to life and have an overnight war with the Moderns, books by philosophers and thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries for the most part. It’s Aristotle, Homer, and Virgil against Hobbes, Descartes, and Wotton.

Their disagreement is fundamentally about which end of the telescope to look through. To the Ancients, to understand things – everything from a stone, to a person or an idea — we need to look outward to see intelligible rather than sensible things to grasp its principle or logos. To Moderns, this was so much non-sense, quite literally. Reality was solid and subject to sense perception. Rather than wisdom and communion with the principle of existence and nature, they sought scientific knowledge through examination of the hard facts.

The Moderns win the day in the “real world” if not in Swift’s story, but, as we’ve seen, the battle goes on. The best writers of the centuries before and after Swift have championed character over ego and truth, beauty, and goodness before advantage, utility, and power against the always growing consensus that only matter and energy are real. As a rule, we see the world and our way of knowing it as Harry does at his meeting with Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows; it’s either “real” or “just in my head.” Real knowledge is facts we have of material things from sense perception and is objective; anything else is just fantasy cooked up between my ears and subjective, unverifiable delusion.

Writers of the classical and romantic traditions, in contrast, as we’ll see in the last chapter of Bookshelf or you can read about today at much greater length in The Deathly Hallows Lectures, think like Dumbledore. What is real is the faculty “in your head” that is the same principle or logos as what brings every reality into existence. Things of matter and energy we can perceive through our senses are much less real because they are accidental combinations of their inner principles and relatively ephemeral stuff. Principles, in comparison and in themselves, are eternal.

Which brings us to the four layers of interpretation. The word “layers” suggests, inevitably and unfortunately, that there is separation or spaces keeping different meanings in air-tight compartments. Really, they are experienced simultaneously in the surface story, albeit unconsciously.
The reason we have these four layers of literary interpretation and understanding is that traditionally scripture was read this way, beginning with Hebrew interpreters of the Old Testament in the 2nd Century, if certainly Plato’s Cave Allegory points to a very similar perspective. The acronym for these four layers in Hebrew and Aramaic was P-R-D-S (frequently ‘PaRDeS’ or “Garden” in Hebrew): P standing for pashat or ‘simple,’ R for remez meaning ‘hint,’ D for drash meaning ‘search,’ and S for sod or ‘hidden.’

This tradition is not arbitrary or just a historical artifact. The reason it worked for interpretations of the world and man for Plato and for understanding the levels of meaning in Old and New Testament studies, is because reality itself has four dimensions and the human person has corresponding means of knowing these diverse aspects of the real. I’ve put this into a chart so you can see the corresponding types of understanding, their objects, how we perceive them, and what we call this kind of knowledge:


To simplify aggressively, ‘Moderns’ think the top two ‘layers’ of boxes are the core of reality. We sense real things and abstract our ideas from the data bank of our sensory perception, which abstractions become less real the less tangible or measurable they become. A thermometer gauging the temperature of water coming to boil is an indicator of something very real; your opinions about right and wrong, logic removed from sensory data, and religious beliefs and doctrines are increasingly less real.

Traditional philosophers, the best poets and story tellers of ancient times, and many of more recent centuries have seen things, in contrast, from the bottom of the chart up. They believed that the conscience was of the same intellective substance as the creative principle and unity of existence. It was through this intellect or ‘nous’ that we know anything, “like” recognizing “like” as we recognize ourselves in a mirror. It perceived the essences of things which are eternal the way a nose smells an aroma.

Working our way up the chart, then, from this perspective, our knowledge has increasingly less dependable foundation the farther we move away from eternal and unchanging ideas and what we know is only more and more about ever changing things. Data and information about ephemera is useless, especially compared to wisdom or spiritual knowledge that is not conceptual but permeates the whole person, body and soul. Physical things, understood right side up, are accidental abstractions of substantive principles or ideas rather than “concrete” reality from which ideas are drawn out more or less arbitrarily.

Hence our difficulty and skepticism, as Cave dwellers hypnotized by the naturalist shadows, about anagogical meaning. Rather than reading from the bottom up with the Ancients and artists, we view reality as empirical scientists and materialists say we should. We think ‘anagogical meaning’ has to be made up or “entirely subjective,” maybe even projection or delusion, especially the further we get from the dependable, simple surface meaning.

Here is where the literature comes in – and why cultural subversives, the resistance fighters in the real Battle of the Books against a dehumanizing materialism, have taken up arms against the empiricists with fairy tales, satire, and fantasy fiction. Every time we read a novel, watch a play, or even watch a movie, we suspend our disbelief in spiritual reality and substance – and we experience them, almost always unconsciously, in the story we lose ourselves in. This experience is an immersion simultaneously in all the layers of meaning and, just as much as our atrophied noetic faculty permits or is capable of, we take in the anagogical layer with the allegorical, moral, and surface messages.

The skeptic can deny, consciously and discursively, both that there is a faculty of ‘mind’ that is not a function of the brain organ and that there is a spiritual meaning this relatively cardiac intelligence perceives. Deny it or not, though, as much as the skeptic suspends disbelief and enters into story, he or she is taking a mythic-meaning bath. Mircea Eliade’s aside in his The Sacred and the Profane that entertainments serve a mythic and religious function in a secular culture is about this baptism of the imagination, wiling or unwilling.

What better way, then, to attack the powerful and undermine their hold on the hearts and minds of people in the cave? Tell them stories about the light and the true, good and beautiful to create in them, so much as they are capable of it, an experience of life in the sunshine and an appetite for more of it.
In contrasting Milton and Shakespeare, Martin Lings argues that Shakespeare’s greatness is the scope of his ambition as a playwright and how anyone and everyone in his audience benefitted from his edifying and uplifting artistry according to his capacity. Like Ruskin, Lings tells us that story and setting trump sermons in delivering meaning:

Now Shakespeare also seeks to justify the ways of God to man. That is, beyond doubt, the essence of his purpose in writing. But his justification is on an intellectual plane, where alone it is possible; and this brings us back to the theme of his plays, for the intellect is none other than the lost faculty of vision which is symbolized by the Holy Grail and by the Elixir of Life.

In considering how Shakespeare conveys his message to us we must remember that the true function of art is not didactic. A great drama or epic may contain little or much teaching of a didactic kind, but it does not rely on that teaching in order to gain its ultimate effect. Its function is not so much to define spiritual wisdom as to give us a taste of that wisdom, each according to his capacity.

We may quote in this connection a profound remark which has been made about sacred art in Christianity: ‘it sets up against the sermon which insists on what must be done by one who would become holy, a vision of the cosmos which is holy through it beauty; it makes men participate naturally and almost involuntarily in the world of holiness.’

In its original context it is the great Norman and Gothic Cathedrals, the sanctuaries in which the sermon is preached, which immediately spring to mind as examples of art which reveals a vision of the cosmos. But drama can also yield such a vision; and to reveal the beauty and thereby the harmony of the universe is to justify the ways of God.

(Martin Lings, Shakespeare’s Window Into the Soul: The Mystical Wisdom in Shakespeare’s Characters, Inner Traditions, 2006, New York, pp 193-195)

As I discuss in Bookshelf and The Deathly Hallows Lectures, the setting and scaffolding of story, in Rowling the Hero’s Journey formula and symbols of literary alchemy, speak to our spiritual faculty, the intellect or nous, in the language it understands just as a cathedral and play give us a taste of a greater reality and experience of life in it. It is this artistry and the symbolism of vision, the books’ anagogical layer, that, in the end, make our hearts glad and our spirits rise when we read Harry’s adventures.

Tomorrow, time permitting, I hope to lay out the value of this kind of reading in understanding books, poems, and plays by writers who set out just to write an entertaining story and make a buck while they’re at it. See you then.

Continued in Part 6.


  1. John, you always do a great job of explaining the education we should have gotten in our public schools and is still taught in Europe. Thank you so very much and I enjoyed your article. I am in the process of reading Twilight, and will have some essays following some research and it has lead me to the classical mythology, Shakespeare and the bible. Surprise!!

  2. John, as a trained engineer with a politically correct public school English education, i.e. almost none, your books and articles are revealing a road map out of the cave. All hale the Cartographer!

    My religious upbringing emphasized the literal reading of every verse with little or no attention to any other way of understanding. As the Holy Spirit has opened up deeper and more profound insights upon the Word, I have simultaneously come to appreciate the deeper levels of English literature. Thank you for your part in that appreciation.

    The founder of the Scripture study .ning site I frequent is a vocal ant-empiricist. I should link this article to a blog on the site if only to see firsthand the wrath of the Creed thumpers. Please let me know if this use of your work is permissible or wise.

  3. IstariErangua says

    Wish I’d had you as a prof in college, John, you make a lot of this so much more passionate and interesting than many of my profs then. I’m sure I’ve heard at least some of this before, though I never made any depth of study in philosophy, and yet it didn’t stick because it was never made relevant to anything I had read willingly and for pleasure, rather than just to get through and discuss in class and maybe write a paper on. You made me want to go back through all the books I’ve read and reread and loved, looking for the keys that keep me coming back, the spiritual and moral values that are so enticing and make me wish that like Lucy in the wardrobe, I could enter those worlds and be a part of them, living the virtues that they have made me love.

  4. You three are very kind! I really needed a lift during the editing process of Bookshelf, which, inevitably and for the good, I’m sure, involves a lot of cutting. Your praise gives me the wind in the sails I need to forge ahead; thank you very much.

    nikenipter, I’m guessing from your description that this scripture study sight’s leader and members are not going to like or be receptive to my four levels of reading schtick, however anti-empiricist and traditional it is. Unless they’re BIG Harry Potter and Twilight fans, which, I’m guessing again, is not likely, or even if they’re just closeted Platonists (calling themselves ‘Augustinians’), please don’t upset the sleeping dragons.

  5. Arabella Figg says

    Dickens fans–new PBS Adaptations!

    PBS is redoing several Dickens books and rerunning David Copperfield with Daniel Radcliffe’s acting premiere. Oliver Twist is first with Timothy Spall (HP film’s Peter Pettigrew) as Fagin.

    This article was published in USA Today on Feb. 12 (keep that in mind for the dates).


  6. ChildofImmanuel says

    I really like this article. I’ve been studying it for quite some time… and waiting impatiently for the article on anagogy in Harry Potter and Twilight! How is it coming?

  7. IstariErangua: I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that struck me rereading Plato’s cave allegory in John’s words was how the SF film Matrix must be drawing on that idea: People immobilized, their minds filled with non-existing images they hold for true. I’m sure this has been observed elsewhere, but somehow I never made the connection until now. Which of course goes to underline the point John made about Science Fiction being one of “the resistance fighters in the real Battle of the Books against a dehumanizing materialism”.

  8. Just found this nice medieval poem on the four levels of meaning:

    Littera gesta docet, the letter teaches what happens,
    quid credas allegoria, allegory (teaches) what to believe,
    moralis quid agas, moral (teaches) what to do,
    quo tendas anagogia. anagogy (teaches) what to strive for (aspire to).

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