Tale of Two Cities: Why We Should Expect a Beheading in Deathly Hallows

A week or so ago, my computer mailbox filled up with e-owls from friends everywhere about an article that had appeared on the MSN network. Called “Death of Harry Potter Makes Mythological Sense,” it argued that Harry’s death was not only possible, it was likely because of mythic and classic precedent.

It was interesting; certainly HogPro readers know I think it is hard to overestimate either Ms. Rowling’s French studies (postmodern themes), Christian faith (traditional symbolism), or her classical education (Hero’s Journey). I was a little disappointed that no one mentioned Orestes in the article and his fate as the forehead scar-bearer avenging the death of his father but the influence track these academic critics went down seems legitimate to me. I’ve been writing about Harry as Aeneas and Christ in the Underworld quite a bit lately myself.

But, really folks, does Ms. Rowling strike you as an Epic Poet wannabe writing Christian allegory, point by point?

I blush at the thought.

There have been credible rumors from Europe for several months of a letter by Ms. Rowling referencing the “Author’s Apology” prefacing Pilgrim’s Progress in answer to a question about her faith. There are also the interviews in which she definitely said her faith would be evident in the seventh book. Assuming the rumors are true and the lady wasn’t just putting up a faith front at the height of the Controversy, we know for sure, nonetheless, that the woman is embarrassed by transparent religious imagery that is openly didactic. The Potter novels are loaded with subtle (and not so subtle) Christian imagery but Harry won’t be dying on a Cross in Deathly Hallows or on a Stone Table, for that matter.

His death(s), though, and the meaning of “how Harry dies” are important.

Back to the mythological content of Harry Potter….

Ms. Rowling is an “English Novelist” (“English” not in the sense of being “London English” but “writing in English”). Let’s play a word association game for a minute. When you hear the words “English Novelist,” what is the first name that comes to mind?

If you said “Tolkien,” that’s understandable, if I’ve never been able to think of LOTR as a “novel” (in the same way that Wagner’s Ring Cycle isn’t a “musical”). If you said “Christie” or “Byatt” or “Thackeray,” again, okay, I get it. Everyone has their favorites.

But I confess I’ll be surprised at anyone who hears the words “English Novelist” and doesn’t think “Austen” or “Dickens” first. We know Ms. Rowling’s debts to Jane Austen (explained at length in the first chapter of Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader). Rather than beat ourselves up reading Aeschylus in the few hours remaining in the Interlibrum, shouldn’t we be talking about Charles Dickens?


I can’t do this subject justice here because I have two more predictions to write before PDay and I have interviews scheduled tomorrow right up until I talk at the local Barnes and Noble here in the Lehigh Valley (my very last seconds of fame as a Potter Pundit — or is that ‘Parasite’?). But here are some academically irresponsible and non-peer-reviewed thoughts about Shakespeare, Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities, and the likelihood of a beheading at the end of Deathly Hallows (pretty doggone likely).

The first thing we need to get straight about Charles Dickens is that he was crazy about plays and this was in a historical period that “drama” was not considered edifying entertainment (or even legal, for that matter, because of the incredibly restrictive licensing laws for theatres). And Dickens wasn’t just wild about all things greasepaint and stage lights (though really he was), he was gonzo for Shakespeare.

As John Carey wrote in Modern Philology (1999):

As a young law clerk, a colleague remembered, “he could give us Shakespeare by the ten minutes and could imitate all the leading actors of the time…. Two of the surviving eight British Museum slips in Dickens’ name are for Shakespeare’s works. He took a pocket Shakespeare around America with him, was a founding member of the Shakespeare Club, and served on the Council ofthe Shakespeare Society.

The best book on this subject is Gager’s Shakespeare and Dickens: The Dynamics of Influence, (CUP, 1996). If you haven’t got the $100 you’ll need to get that (or a good library nearby where you can find it), a decent short course without the more than one thousand references to Shakespeare in Dickens’ books in Gager can be had online: Dickens and Shakespeare by Paul Schlike (University of Aberdeen). Either work, if your experience is like mine, will leave you startled and fascinated by Dickens’ immersion and debt to the other “greatest writer in the English language.” Would you believe he produced, directed, and played a major part in an amateur production of Merry Wives of Windsor? It’s like learning that Michael Jordan spent the better part of two years at the height of his basketball abilities playing minor league baseball.

So what? Well, as Schlike writes, “Dickens was an inferior playwright, but his novels are Shakespearean in their vital theatricality” (op.cit., p. 96). I’ll go father than that. In at least one of his novels — one of the shortest, most theatrical, and the most well known piece compared to anything he wrote other than Christmas Carol — Dickens attempts alchemical drama in the manner of Shakespeare. Tale of Two Cities has all the hallmarks of a staged melodramatic program, and, specifically, as a Shakespearean presentation of the “resolution of contraries” and the production of an immortal Rebis for the edification of the reader.

No, I’m not going to be able to argue this incredible point to anyone’s satisfaction here, least of all my own. I will only note that Tale of Two Cities:

(1) is obviously about contraries in conflict, not only the title cities and the countries they represent (check out those wonderful opening lines), but also the rich and poor in France and specific “twins”;

(2) has three main parts, the three “books” within the novel, which correspond remarkably to alchemy’s black, white, and red stages; and

(3) about immortality via resurrection from a sacrificial death to self (the number and diversity of “resurrection” figures from Gerry and Monsieur Manet to both Darnay and Carton is mind-boggling).

Sydney Carton’s redemption and sacrifice at the guillotine, comforting the scullery maid, and his prophetic vision of the Square in which he dies at a future time even without his “Better thing, Better rest” one-liner walk-off has to be one of the most cathartic moments in English literature. I never read it or even talk about it without getting a lump in my throat the size of a Chicago softball.

Joanne Rowling feels the same way.

It’s a book that she mentions as a reflex:

Earlier this year, for instance, Britain’s tabloids tracked down her ex-husband, a Portuguese journalist named Jorge Arantes with whom she had a brief marriage in the early 1990’s. Ms. Rowling has brought up their daughter, Jessica, single-handed. But suggestions that her ex-husband may have helped in the creation of Harry Potter rankle with her. “He had about as much input into Harry Potter as I had into ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ” she said tartly. http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2000/0700-nyt-cowell.htm

And, though she didn’t mention Tale of Two Cities in a list she gave the Guardian of books she recommends to children (David Copperfield was her Dickens’ choice, if A Tale of Two Blind Mice by Beatrix Potter was a near miss), the list obviously isn’t of her favorites or “the greatest influences.” There is no Macbeth, no Austen, no Gallico, no Narnia, no Nesbit, and no Goudge here.

We have, though, something of a smoking gun about Ms. Rowling and The Tale of Two Cities in a story from her year in Paris studying French.

Lecturers remember Rowling as nervous and insecure, but a fellow student, Yvette Cowles, told Sean Smith, her biographer, that she was popular and striking. “She wore long skirts and used to have this blue denim jacket she liked to wear. Jo was very shapely and she had this big hair, kind of back -combed and lacquered, and lots of heavy eyeliner. I think she was quite popular with the guys.” In her first year she signed up for French and Classics but an attitude to academia best described as minimum work, maximum fun led to her abandoning Classics after she failed to register properly for an exam. Her third year was spent teaching in a school in Paris and sharing a flat with an Italian, a Russian and a Spaniard. She found the Italian disagreeable and would avoid him by spending whole days in her room reading. During this time she read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a literary discovery that may have influenced her alleged intention to kill off Harry Potter at the end of book seven. The death of Charles Darnay, sacrificing his life for a friend, and his moving last words had a major impact on Rowling: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” {Hat Tip and many thanks once again to Lisa Bunker for hunting down this 2003 Scotsman article about Ms. Rowling that my search engines couldn’t locate.}

The full Sean Smith biography version of this story, I’m told, is much richer, with Ms. Rowling weeping in a cafe after finishing the book and saying that Carton’s line (not Darnay! ouch) was the single greatest line in English, period. I’m hoping that one of the HogPro AllPros has this book and will confirm or deny this in the comment boxes below. [see this comment for the Smith quotation which reads Carton rather than Darnay….]

True or not, Tale of Two Cities, its resurrection motif, and its cathartic ending deserves a closer look by Potter-philes. Not only do the Harry Potter novels share an alchemical structure with Tale of Two Cities, Harry dies a figurative death every year on his Hero’s Journey and rises from the dead in the presence of a symbol of Christ. The resurrection theme — love’s victory over death — is evident in both and presented in a similar black-white-red sequence.

And the killer connection? (Forgive me that, please.)

Ms. Rowling has laced every one of her Potter books with references, characters, and plot events involving or pointing to a beheading of some kind. When I read the books this past year with my Valley Forge Military Academy fourth classmen (ninth graders), by the time we reached Goblet the cadets were groaning at each new reference to someone having their head cut-off. We counted more than 30. [Grateful Bow and a Hat Tip to Linda McCabe for bringing this grisly motif to my attention in 2003.]

Struggling to think of any?

How about Nearly Headless Nick and the gang of the beheaded on the Headless Hunt?

Buckbeak’s near-miss decapitation?

Ron’s Severing Charm on his Dress Robes?

The fake-wand battle in which the parrot eats the head off Harry’s fish?

Harry’s prediction of his own death by decapitation in a homework assignment for Professor Trelawney?

The Weasley twins’ Headless Hats?

Go ahead, mention your favorite allusion in the books to someone losing their heads at the neck (give hanging asides a half-credit) in the comment boxes. There are a daunting number in the first six books.

I was talking tonight with Ms. McCabe (she was coaching me from the Left Coast for an interview I may do tomorrow on one of her favorite teevee shows) and she mentioned “Chekhov’s Gun” (sometimes mistakenly called “Chekhov’s Law” for writers which one writer says is “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”). Anton Chekhov apparently felt strongly about what Janet Batchler calls “set-ups” and “pay-offs.” As he wrote to several friends and demonstrated in his own plays, Chekhov thought that a dramatist shouldn’t show a loaded gun on stage if it wasn’t going to be fired.

Given the number of times Ms. Rowling has shown us the axe or the shadow of an axe falling in her first six books, this rule from the stage might be re-christened “Rowling’s Razor.” Someone is almost definitely going to take it in the neck in Deathly Hallows.

I think that if Ms. Rowling is going to cash-in on the underground travels Harry and friends make before their confrontation with evil in each book that he needs a trip through the Veil sometime in Deathly Hallows. [See Prediction Four.] This would tie up the resurrection/Christ symbol formula and foreshadowing tightly in addition to making this a Hero’s Journey like the great monomyth heroes’.

But, either way, I doubt that journey will be the climax of the books, however stunning a Three Day Resurrection a la Philosopher’s Stone from the Land of the Dead would be. For one thing, the journey to consult the dead usually comes at the beginning or middle of epic journey (only in Christian scripture detailing the Resurrection does it come close to the finish). More important, Harry’s trips underground often take place well before the decisive battle or closing confrontation of his annual adventures. Getting past Fluffy and going through the Trapdoor was only step one in the tests underground in Stone. The trip through the Whomping Willow roots in Prisoner seemed mechanical and well removed from the action in the Shrieking Shack or with the Time Turner later. Chamber and Goblet’s trips are central, sure, but Harry’s trip downstairs in Phoenix and the sojourn in the Stygian Cave in Prince are prologue rather than elements in the concluding acts.

Harry can go through the Veil, come back, and still find out that he’ll take it in the neck. Maybe he will learn something there from the shades (as he did in the graveyard in Goblet?) that will make him think he has to be beheaded.

Or will it be how to fake a beheading? Or survive a beheading? Remember Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

More on Harry’s Death tomorrow in Prediction #7! See you then!


  1. John,

    Over thirty instances? Yikes.

    I knew there were a lot, but I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that high of a number.

    I finally posted my own set of predictions that I had been obsessing over on my blog. For those interested in seeing more on the topic of beheadings…


  2. I don’t have an exact count but the cadets decided that five per book was a “low-ball” average. We’ll do a final “head-count” (ouch) after tomorrow’s revelations!

    Linda’s blog can be quick clicked by going to the links in the right column. Look for L.O.O.N!

    I should also note here (before someone else does) that, though Gager does not make a Shakespeare-Dickens link for Tale of Two Cities — she makes three passing references to the book in her exhaustive look at the novelist, the playwright, and 19th century theatre — the link between stage elements and TOTC is very well established, beyond its props and monologues, because of Dickens’ thespian activities at the time he was writing it. I just haven’t found a discussion in my several copies of TOTC or in my Shakespeare references of the specifically Shakespearean not to mention alchemical qualities of this novel. This ground may have been very well covered in the library of Dickens and TOTC scholarship. I just don’t know. Yet.

    The reason I am suspicious that this link hasn’t been explored is I have seen this happen before. David Downing’s Planets in Peril on Lewis’ Space Trilogy is one of the top ten books on C. S. Lewis’s writing in print (this from Robert Trexler of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, who keeps that list current). Planets, frankly, exhibits the sort of scholarship and comprehensive understanding not only about Lewis but English Literature, Chaucer to Rowling, that I only dream of having when I am struck with malarial fevers. But nowhere in this brilliant book does Prof. Downing mention the alchemical images and structures that in several ways define Lewis’ trilogy. Lewis-Alchemy is an easier connection than Dickens-Alchemy, because of Lewis’ friendship with alchemical writer Charles Williams and Lewis’ knowledge of 16th Century literature (he read every book from that period in the Oxford library while writing the Oxford History of the English language volume on the 16th century), but by far the best book on Lewis’ alchemical novels doesn’t mention the link.

    Please take the Dickens-TOTC-Alchemy-Rowling links, though, with a grain of salt. I offer them here as an exciting possibility but it is at least as speculative as Scar-O-Scope or Stoppered Death. The links are also as valuable as illustrations of ideas as those theories of the Five Keys and I hope that readers will understand I am not offering this as much more than an edifying curiosity.

    Anyone out there collecting Neck Nuggets from canon? Please post them below. Sydney and Harry will be happy to see them.

  3. nelsonholly says

    Any chance of this tying across to the Celtic passion for sacred (often talking) heads? I’m especially thinking of the final days of Bran the Blessed.

    But as the true book looms, this speculation is too little too late. We’ll see soon.


  4. The Sean Smith unauthorized biography of Ms. Rowling I mentioned earlier has this passage on TOTC. Please note that, at least according to Mr. Smith and his sources, Ms. Rowling at the time (her University years) was an admirer of a rock group that favored heavy eye liner, which she wore in imitatio

    She told the Radio 4 literary programme ‘With Great Pleasure’ that one Sunday [in Paris] she stayed in her room all day reading Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. “When I emerged in the evening I walked straight into Fernando who looked absolutely horrified. I had mascara down my face and he assumed I had just received news of a death, which I had — Sydney Carton’s.” The unhappy Carton had taken the place of Charles Darnay at the guillotine because of his love for Darnay’s wife Lucie and by his ultimate sacrifice finds salvation: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

    Joanne considers this “the most perfect last line of a book ever written” and one that invariably makes her cry. (Smith, pp 87-88)

  5. Deborah Stokol says

    And you were right, of course! It was Nagini. Also, yes, he did go through the veil, so to speak (and towards the end, along the lines of the Christian climax you mentioned). Would you say he had to turn the resurrection stone three times in his hand to recall those three days before Christ-like resurrection or to refer to the Trinity or Soul Triptych? Is it a Macbethian, it comes in threes type thing? I’m really enjoying this site and your writings. I will be reading yours books soon. Thanks!
    – a not-Christian, but Jewish, very avid fantasy reader, essay- and song-writer, high school English and Journalism teacher (and admirer of the Harkness Method), and journalist
    thecassandroidsays.blogspot.com, deborahstokol.com, soundcloud.com/deborahstokol

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