Photos Never Lie? Ms. Rowling’s Seeming ‘Literary Alchemical’ Transformation

When I was a much younger man, I studied the alchemy of food and traditional cosmology with a man named Michio Kushi. One of Kushi sensei’s remarkable abilities was the ability to diagnose physical health and illness in an individual by looking at his or her face, as unbelievable as that may sound. My experience studying and working with him for two years and my reading in traditionalist literature since has convinced me that this is anything but hokum. The adage that “the face never lies” reflects a reality, though, certainly, when practiced by dilettantes or the uncharitable, facial diagnosis can be and often is abused. Mr. Kushi, as a rule (to which I saw only one exception in kindness), never shared what he saw in a person’s face unless asked in a private or public consultation. The legend of Socrates’ meeting with the “face reader” Zopyrus is instructive in understanding the value and the limits of this traditional art.

All that is only to explain my being simultaneously intrigued and skeptical when a post here suggested that a review of photographs taken of Ms. Rowling since the beginning of her success with Harry Potter ten years ago reflect an internal transformation of some kind. Here is that post and, with this person’s permission, the photographs she had posted on another Harry Potter site:

I agree [with Prof. Kern that Ms. Rowling] has been, and continues to struggle with her own beliefs. I’ve been noting her physical transformation over at Harry’s Request forum. I think it mirrors her mental struggle. I’ve posted early photos of JK as a fresh faced, redheaded “Lily” and more current pictures of a dour blonde, snake adorned (locket and sandals), enthroned “Narcissa.” If Slytherins are unredeemable, then what is she saying about herself?

I’m not sure, after all this time, if she has come to terms with her mother’s death from MS. I think that is where the struggle with faith originated. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile a loving God with such a horrific death.

What Chiron seemed to be suggesting was that Ms. Rowling’s internal agonizing and transformation were “as plain as the expression of her face.” I went to the Harry’s Request proBoard, registered, and searched until I found the photographs online mentioned in the HogPro post. Chiron agreed to let me post them here to save you that trouble, for which permission, “Thank you, Chiron!”

From Harry’s Request:

JK as Lily:

Here’s the snake sandals:

Here’s Slytherin’s locket:


Why all the Slytherin references as the book progresses? What does this mean for the house she seemingly abandoned? As she progessed from “Poor as a Weasley to richer than House of Black” did her progression affect book 7? Is life imitating fiction?


If I understand the thesis correctly, the pictures are supposed to represent Ms. Rowling having changed from the Ginny-innocent we met on the Philosopher’s Stone train platform or the mother-Lily of Godric’s Hollow to the Narcissa Malfoy of Deathly Hallows (or Goblet of Fire?).

Having looked at these pictures and few catalogues on other sites, I think the exercise is fascinating and the theory is interesting. The evidence presented, however, doesn’t seem to support the thesis in any way that couldn’t as convincingly be argued in another way. Ms. Rowling appears to have matured in a way consistent with what we know of her personal life (smoking cessation, childbirth, marriage, wealth, etc.) and become, if anything, only more attractive in a subdued fashion. The only transformation I think is undeniable is that after ten years of interviews the woman is more comfortable having her picture taken.

And let’s not make too much of the serpent sandals. I think interpreting that could be used as a Rorschach test. “She’s become a Slytherin!” “Could she be a Satanist celebrating the serpentine Kundalini?” “No, Ms. Rowling is Eve trampling the serpents beneath her heel!” “No, sillies, she’s become the alchemical Rebis embodying the contraries of Gryffindor and Slytherin!”

Can’t a shoe just be a cigar?

Anyway, I offer you these photographs for your thoughtful reflection. If anyone has a more comprehensive slideshow of Ms. Rowling’s appearance through the years, please let us know. I am, as always, interested in your comments and corrections about my skepticism concerning Chiron’s thesis and how well her visual evidence supports the thesis.


  1. Funny you should post about her appearance today, John. Because she posted about her appearance too, although it’s unrelated to what you talk about here. 😀

  2. I think the only way we could make any valid inferences about Ms. Rowling’s attire would be if we had candid photos of what she wears in her private life. The snake sandals, for example, said “Costume” to me. Readings like she does are a sort of theater, and she might have chosen to wear them merely because she thought they would be an interesting thing for her audience to look at against the backdrop of that astounding neoclassicogothicalegyptoform chair.

  3. JohnABaptist says

    I agree with the theatrical viewpoint here, with perhaps an additional intent on Ms. Rowlings part.

    Might the sandals, ring, et al. be her way of reinforcing the point Harry makes to Little Albus in the epilog–there is nothing wrong with being a Slytherin–reminding us that we haven’t really understood her novel unless we understand this.

  4. So…. She really has become the alchemical Rebis embodying the contraries of Gryffindor and Slytherin! The shoes are about harmony, not snakes…

    Where is Michael O’Brien with his clear exposition of the “confusing imagery” of snakes in the series…

    John, thinking JAB and I see the same things in this inkblot

  5. Another celebrity photo catalogue of more credible transformation:

  6. Arabella Figg says

    Goodness, what would you have made of her wearing a dress with polka-dots? Or plain black pumps? Non-issue to me.

    Even the kittie don’t care…

  7. Hmm. Using fashion to work out one’s literary vision…that’s an interesting idea. Maybe she’s reconciling opposites through her footwear. So she wears snake sandals for a public evening out, then goes home and puts on warm, fuzzy lion bedroom slippers.

    Seriously, I agree with Helen and others who think that her more flamboyant attire is a bit of theater for readings. Clearly earning so much money has given her the opportunity to make some playful changes in her hairstyle and clothing, but I don’t see much beyond that.

  8. Personally, I think she looks much better now. I always thought the red hair made her look a bit hard. But mostly now, she looks happier–and she has done well with her writing (a definite understatement), she has a husband she loves and a lovely family. Getting rid of the stress of wondering how she would take care of herself and her daughter seems to me to have given her a softer look that is very attractive.

    And the shoes and the jewelry? Some women really like shoes and jewelry. I didn’t read any more into it than that. She knows there are a lot of HP fans who like the Slytherins, so why not wear something that they would like. She’s always said that she would want to be in Gryffindor.

    I agree with seeing it as costume for the readings, rather than anything more.

    Oh, and I couldn’t get those links to work, but I remember the early look and the other photos that are more recent.


  9. I don’t see it as fashion. I see it as symbolism. Neil bought her the locket. JK designed the locket on the adult cover of DH. The sandals, the throne. I’ll bet she runs in a pretty Slytherin cirlcle since she became a billionaire. The funny part is that you all consider yourselves Griffindors, almost to a man. Some will claim Ravenclaw because they are just a little too smart to be Griffindor. There’s nothing wrong with being Slytherin. Snape was Slytherin so was Slughorn. It’s just that JK herself found them to be unredeemable and now she presents herself as one. Is she struggling with being rich and some associated guilt, something like survivors guilt? When she talks of having faith in regaining faith is she still struggling with her mothers death from MS? Does she worry that it may be true that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of the needle than a rich man to get into heaven? Does she find herself unredeemable? The snake motifs run deeper than fashion. The lavish diamonds are fashion.


  10. One could take pictures of me over the years, and order them however they liked. Some days I’m dressed up, some days I look like a tired hausfrau, some days I look like a farm worker, some days I look elegant… and it’s always been that way.

    I’ve also had my hair dyed both red and blond (it’s blond now… that’s BAD isn’t it? :))

    To make such assumptions from pictures- assumptions about a REAL HUMAN BEING not a fictional character- is a bit over the top to me. And inappropriate. It’s making a judgment of someone’s soul which none of us can make.

  11. And on that unpleasant note, let’s close this thread. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on phrenology and attire-analysis!

    John the moderator, encouraging comments elsewhere

  12. John, I’m so sorry for posting here again. But in JKR’s most recent interview for the Dutch release of Deathly Hallows, she addresses the issue of her hair color. I just thought it would be relevant. 🙂

    Q: The Weasleys have all got red hair, just like you in former pictures. Why did you make it blond?
    JKR: I love red hair. But my hair isn’t naturally red. I’m actually not really sure what my real colour is. It’s something undecided, very boring and very uninteresting.

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