PotterMore: J. K. Rowling Discusses Alchemical Colors

Michael B writes that Ms Rowling is discussing her use of alchemical symbolism at her PotterMore web site:

In the [PotterMore] section The Campsite, Jo has written some new information on colors. The first part talks about the importance of purple and green in the Wizarding World, then there’s more on the association of the house colors and their respective elements. Then, she talks about Alchemy!

The passage on alchemy specifically reads:

Colours also played their part in the naming of Hagrid and Dumbledore, whose first names are Rubeus (red) and Albus (white) respectively. The choice was a nod to alchemy, which is so important in the first Harry Potter book, where ‘the red’ and ‘the white’ are essential mystical components of the process. The symbolism of the colours in this context has mystic meaning, representing different stages of the alchemic process (which many people associate with a spiritual transformation). Where my two characters were concerned, I named them for the alchemical colours to convey their opposing but complementary natures: red meaning passion (or emotion); white for asceticism; Hagrid being the earthy, warm, physical man, lord of the forest; Dumbledore the spiritual theoretician, brilliant, idealized and somewhat detached. Each is a necessary counterpoint to the other as Harry seeks father figures in his new world.

Michael then asks me, Has she ever confirmed anything like this before? I was under the impression that the alchemy theory was always well informed speculation. All the best, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this reveal.”

Thank you, Michael, for sharing this news. To answer your questions, yes, Ms. Rowling has admitted that her understanding of alchemy played a large part in how she set “the magical parameters” and “internal logic” of the Hogwarts Saga, and, my response to her comments here is something like bemusement.

Her only previous comments about alchemy, made in an interview with Anne Simpson of The Herald in 1998, were in answer to the question, “Did you ever want to be a witch?” She responded:

I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.

Ms Rowling made those comments in 1998 (the picture above is from that same period, before her own cosmetic transfiguration) but the interview was not known to fandom and serious readers until February, 2007. I’d been writing about the alchemical symbolism of the series for more than five years at that point (and been told I was a code-breaking loon more than once because of it). Here is a discussion of the names and their links to the alchemical stages that I wrote for a talk I gave at Nimbus 2003 and which was published in Touchstone as ‘The Alchemist’s Tale‘:

The first stage of the alchemical work is dissolution, usually called the nigredo or the black stage. In this black, initial stage, “the body of the impure metal, the matter for the Stone, or the old, outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied, and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form.” Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, is named for this stage of the work.

The second stage is purification, usually called the albedo or white work. It follows the ablution or washing of the prima materia, which causes it to turn a brilliant white. “When the matter reaches the albedo, it has become pure and spotless.” Albus Dumbledore (albus is Latin for “white, resplendent”) is named for this stage of the work. Frequently used symbols of the albedo stage of the work in pictorial representations and descriptions of it are the moon (Luna in Latin), the name of one of Harry’s friends in the fifth book, and a lily, the name of his mother, who gave her life to save his.

The third and last stage of the chemical work is recongealing or the perfection, usually called the rubedo or the red stage. The purified matter is now

ready to be reunited with the spirit (or the already united spirit and soul). With the fixation, crystallization or embodiment of the eternal spirit, form is bestowed upon the pure, but as yet formless matter of the Stone. At this union, the supreme chemical wedding, the body is resurrected into eternal life. As the heat of the fire is increased, the divine red tincture flushes the white stone with its rich, red colour. . . . The reddening of the white matter is also frequently likened to staining with blood.

Rubeus Hagrid (rubeus is Latin for red) is named for this stage. A common symbol of the red work and the Philosopher’s Stone is the red lion.

Each book thus far is a trip through these stages. The black work or dissolution is the work done on Harry at Privet Drive by the Dursleys and in the classroom at Hogwarts by a teacher, Snape, who hates him. The white work or purification is Harry’s year at Hogwarts under the watchful eye of the white alchemist, Albus Dumbledore, in combination with painful separation from Ron, Hermione, or both. The red work or rubedo is the climactic crucible scene, so far always underground or in a graveyard, in which Harry always dies a figurative death and is saved by love in the presence of a Christological symbol.

The resurrection at story’s end each year is the culmination of that year’s cycle and transformation. The cycle then closes with congratulations and explanations from the master alchemist and a return to the Dursleys for another trip through the cycle.

See the original Touchstone article for references and sources.

This argument, that the characters are named for the alchemical colors, has become something of a ‘given’ or set of premises from which the larger discussion of Ms Rowling’s alchemical artistry in her Hogwarts books has taken shape. The sequence and character of these stages, for example, is the heart of the debate about whether the seven books are a ring of repeating cycles, once backwards, then forwards. See William Sprague’s thoughts on that subject.

That being the case, it is nice, I suppose, to have it from the author herself explicitly — rather than just (?) implicitly in the composition of her stories — that Rubeus and Albus were named for the red and white stages of the alchemical process, respectively. I don’t think we have learned anything we haven’t known for a decade but surely this will help some readers who only accept interpretations of an author’s work if those conjectures are confirmed by that author.

Of course, there are at least as many readers of this kind who believe once a writer has spoken on a subject of interpretation, be it theme, symbolism, or story scaffolding, that the subject is closed. I offer as evidence all those who believe Ms Rowling’s answers about the “meaning of Harry’s name” are conclusive, namely (sic), that she liked ‘Harry’ as a first name and there was a Potter family on the street where she grew up. Both ‘answers’ tell us exactly nothing other than that the author isn’t going to answer this question.

I think Ms Rowling’s alchemical observations here are something like that. She allows that “some believe” alchemy is a spiritual exercise and that at least two of her characters are named for the three stages. That opens up the conversation about alchemy in the Saga. Then she discusses Rubeus and Albus and rather makes a muck of the relation of the rubedo and albedo stages (the former is the revelation of the latter in crisis, which, if you like a stretch, can be seen in Rubeus as the ‘exterior’ outdoorsy type and Albus as the secretive man…). I’m afraid this sounds like the final word and end of a discussion.

I said I was “bemused” by the PotterMore comments and that deserves at least a short explanation. Let me say some more about her ‘closing thoughts.’

Ms Rowling’s comments about the Red and White stages of alchemy being “opposing but complementary” are curious, to say the least:

Where my two characters were concerned, I named them for the alchemical colours to convey their opposing but complementary natures: red meaning passion (or emotion); white for asceticism; Hagrid being the earthy, warm, physical man, lord of the forest; Dumbledore the spiritual theoretician, brilliant, idealized and somewhat detached. Each is a necessary counterpoint to the other as Harry seeks father figures in his new world.

When asked what question(s) I would ask Ms Rowling if we ever met, my stock response has been that I’d just like to see her bookshelves, especially the alchemy section. I’ve more or less convinced myself that Titus Burckhardt’s Alchemy is on one of those shelves — most obviously because Rubeus Hagrid seems to be pictured on the front cover astride a Golden Snitch and dragon — but this PotterMore comment, more conversant in the psychological aspects than the spiritual (and, forgive me, blather with respect to the metallurgical and literary traditions), makes me suspect that Carl Jung’s humanist perspective on the Great Work is represented in her library as well.

Thank you, Michael B, for the news that Ms Rowling is writing about alchemy at her web site. Thank you all, gentle readers, in advance for sharing your thoughts on Ms Rowling’s comments.


  1. Wonderful and insightful as always John! The alchemy stuff has been a little difficult for me to get into, but it makes more sense each time I learn more about it. Maybe there will be some more comments in the future about her alchemical research and we can learn more about her inspirations.

  2. I am surprised she ever mentioned it at all. I always assumed she preferred to keep her secrets to herself and leave open for discussion and interpretation these elements we so love. I wonder why she neglected to mention Sirius Black. Maybe so she can add more as time goes on. She’s like that.

  3. I bet she ends up doing the Sirius Black alchemy discussion during book 5 on Pottermore. I am very much in the backwards/forwards camp, into which John’s ring composition discussion seems to click quite perfectly.

    I’m doing a paper right now on the Alchemy in the Canterbury Tales, and it seems to be around then that Alchemy was moving from a literal science into the realm of literary symbolism. In Canterbury Tales, Chaucer pairs the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale with the Second Nun’s Tale. In the first, a work of actual scientific alchemy is unsuccessful, literally blowing up in the worker’s face. In the latter, a progression of spiritual alchemy is successful, resulting in knowledge of the spiritual world and salvation.

    Could Jo’s alchemical arc might not be doing the same thing?

    In book 1, the literal philosopher’s stone is destroyed, and the next two books make an argument against the literal interpretation. No, Hagrid was not the actual opener of the Chamber of Secrets. No, Sirius Black was not the murderer. The wizarding world’s interpretation of the actual facts are wrong.

    Once in the second half of the series, speculation becomes massively important. The Room of Requirement is essentially built based upon your thoughts. The Pensieve, Harry and Dumbledore’s focal point in book 6, is a way to investigate memories. In Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore’s words to Harry: “Of course it’s all happening in your head, Harry, but why should that mean it’s not real?” The symbolic/spiritual wins over the literal.

    Just a thought.

  4. I too love the backward/forward structure. Starting off the saga with the Philosopher’s Stone intact shows the idea of seeking a physical solution to a spiritual problem. Voldemort’s quest is to live longer, but he does not gain more Life. In the middle book, GoF, he achieves a reconstitution of his body, but is less human.

    Harry, on the other hand, encounters the dead unicorn in Book one and grasps immediately that there are worse things than death and that death would be preferable than living a cursed life. By Book three we see that his greatest fear is the Dementors, showing us that he is more worried about his soul than his body. Voldemort has taken his soul, chopped it up and turned himself into a hollow vessel. He turned gold into lead. The backwards journey. Harry witnesses this abomination, the very opposite of the unicorn and the beauty it maintained even in death. Through this crucible Harry begins his forward journey choosing humanity over longevity, understanding at last the meaning of greater Life.

    As for the three ‘alchemical’ fathers for Harry, I always thought of them as a body, mind and heart trio. Sirius was rash and bold, perhaps a bit irrational. Albus, obviously the great mind guiding events. Harry takes on these characteristics and roles as his story progresses. But for me, it was Hagrid who was the heart and soul for Harry. It was Hagrid who took Harry where he needed to go to encounter experiences that would bring out the best in him. By his own example of caring for all things, Hagrid showed Harry what Love was. Perhaps they are three different kinds of Love. Sirius as emotional and physical attachment. DD representing the higher mind, the love of truth and ideas. Hagrid who loved monsters and all manner of unacceptable creatures represents Love extended beyond the personal and for all, even strangers, even your enemy.

  5. What a fascinating comment, Carol!

    Three notes:

    (1) Stanton Linden writes at great length in his Darke Hierogliphicks about the alchemy in ‘The Yeoman’s Tale’ but he classifies it as Medieval satire of the alchemists, with the Canon as Satan (John Gardner arguing much the same). He doesn’t discuss the Second Nun’s Tale in the light of literary alchemy; I hope very much you’ll consider sharing your insights on this as a HogPro guest post. If Chaucer is writing alchemical parables that are spiritually transformation allegories and positive, literary alchemy’s birthday is kicked back two centuries!

    (2) If I read your note here correctly, you seem to be making a thematic explanation of the backward-forward alchemical stages we see in the first and last three books of the series, an organization that William Sprague first offered here. Two questions beyond “is that what you’re saying?”:

    (a) Are you suggesting Ms Rowling has this from Chaucer’s front and back alchemical treatment, upside down and right side up, in these two Tales?

    (b) Much more important than the trivia of ‘influence’ or source, why would either author or both do this? What is the effect of this inverse parallelism on the reader of Canterbury Tales and the Hogwarts Saga?

    Again, thank you for the wonderfully challenging and thoughtful comment. Please, to repeat myself, think of writing a Guest Post rather than responding on this thread, which is hopelessly hijacked and out-of-sight already!

  6. I post my response to Carol, and, voila, there is another brilliant piece on this near dead thread, by Nana!

    I confess to being both delighted and surprised by your parallel and yet unique ‘take’ on the reverse parallelisms of Voldemort’s and Harry’s journey’s through the book. As you say, we see Harry taking the spiritually-minded fork in the road when he first sees the devastation of the carnally minded route or individualist spirituality that the Dark Lord is pursuing via Unicorn’s blood. This is perhaps the critical diversion in the wood that only becomes more accentuated as the series progresses.

    And your triptych assignment of Harry’s primary mentors, I think, may be as important as seeing the Harry-Hermione-Ron trio’s roles as spirit, mind, and body. Of course, your placing Hagrid, the alchemical Rebus named Rubeus, at the peak of spirit, as an incarnation of Love and Harry’s real model to the end, seems to be contradicted by Ms Rowling’s PotterMore comments about Hagrid being the physical pole contra Dumbledore. Your perception of Sirius as the passions and Dumbledore as calculating, discursive mind, both of which aspects show their substance is loving and noetic in their respective decisions for sacrificial deaths to serve others, I think trumps the author’s assertion of what she may have meant.

    She has also said, soon after Deathly Hallows was published, that, despite her sister’s fears, she never intended to kill Hagrid. If you are right — and I think you are — as satisfying mechanically as this Red Man’s death might have been in the rubedo, it would have diminished his role in the story as the Giant-Man androgyn, which is to say God-Man Christ.

    Again, wonderful comment! I hope it isn’t lost on this thread beneath the fold… Please think of writing it up as a proper Guest Post.

  7. Hagrid was never in danger because his role as living example of goodness and mercy required his survival. What he represents must live on. He is witness to Harry’s sacrifice and carries him back to the living world to complete his task. Hagrid is essential. He must be there for the next generation and we know he is when Harry reminds the boys that they are supposed to go to Hagrid’s for tea. I have plenty to say about Hagrid. And thanks, John, for the appreciation.

    As for Jo’s mention of Alchemy in Pottermore…well, she didn’t even mention Sirius, so I hardly think her comments are meant to fully address her understanding and use of literary alchemy. Pottermore seems for a youngish audience. Still I was glad to see she finally threw out the first hints. She likes to keep things close.

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