The Secret Doctrine of ‘The Secret Garden’

This is the continuation and significant expansion of a previous post on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) and its possible influence on Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which post can be read here.

After a hurried re-reading of Garden, here are my first thoughts. I think we can see significant correspondences between as well as a chasm separating Burnett’s classic about rejuvenation in an English Garden and the Hogwarts adventures. I will (1) list the match-ups here, (2) take a stab at interpreting Garden at the allegorical level beyond noting the Theosophical Society, Spiritualism, and Christian Science references, and (3) try to explain what strike me as the most important similarity and difference between the postmodern series and the late Victorian novel vis a vis their intention and execution. I was surprised at the paucity of thoughtful commentary about Garden that I could find online, in itself and in connection with Harry Potter; I trust any of you that are more familiar with the children’s literature field will jump in with more informed reflections on these subjects than I can offer here on the fly.

Correspondences between Secret Garden and Harry Potter

(Thanks to Josh Harvey for pointing out these correspondences in his Christmas letter.)

1. Throughout both novels, repeatedly and from almost every character, the eyes of the lead character are said to resemble the eyes of that young man’s late mother. Colin Craven’s eyes are grey like the mother who died in a fall from a tree in her walled rose garden; Harry Potter’s are green as were his mother’s. She died to save him from Lord Voldemort. Colin’s mother’s name was Lillias; Harry’s mum was Lily.

2. Both adventures are largely the story of two young boys and a little girl. Garden takes place in a single year, early spring to late summer, and involves three children 10-12 years old: a wealthy, spoiled, and sickly young man, a materially poor man-child of the moors, and a cousin of the semi-invalid who is an orphan just home from India. The Potter adventures begin when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are 11 years old and continue for the next eight years (with an Epilogue snapshot of their later lives).

3. The poor boy’s mother, the matriarch of a significant clan, in both books adopts the motherless lead character from afar. In Garden, Susan Sowerby is the mother of 12 children and all but penniless but she is known for his wisdom and directs the upbringing of children at Misselthwaite Manor by direct conversation with the Lord of the Manor, through her daughter, and with the help of a school friend. Colin and Mary love her sight unseen and Colin asks her to be his mother on his first meeting her (Chapter 26, “It’s Mother!”). Mrs. Weasley is Harry’s de facto wizarding world mom and becomes his mother-in-law at story’s end. The Weasleys are always short of funds, if they are a small family compared to the Sowerbys.

4. Colin and Harry both own mansions that are, in Colin’s word, “queer,” and both feature the painting of a mother behind a curtain that is disturbing to the son. Colin and Mary repeatedly describe the Manor as a “queer place” and Colin has covered the picture of his mother’s smiling face because “sometimes I don’t like to see her looking at me. She smiles too much when I am ill and miserable. Besides, she is mine and I don’t want everyone to see her” (Chapter 13, “I am Colin”). In Chapter 25, The Curtain, he pulls back the curtain in the moonlight and leaves the painting for all to see; “I want to see her laughing like that all the time. I think she must have been a sort of Magic person perhaps.” The House of Black features prominently in Phoenix and Hallows, it is certainly an odd place, and the painting of Sirius’ mother in the entry hall is kept behind moth-eaten velvet curtains. She is definitely “a sort of Magic person,” the worst sort.

5. The story is about the recovered physical, mental, and spiritual integrity of the rich boy. Though we do not meet Colin Craven until Chapter 13 of Garden, his rebirth is the heart and thrust of the book. Harry Potter is left on the door step of his maternal Muggle Aunt and Uncle and the novels are the record of his preparation to do battle with the dark wizard who killed his birth parents, a battle that is as much interior as exterior preparation. Both boys’ relationships with their two friends are the constant supports they need to become whole again.

6. Magic is what most readers will think of first, I think, if asked to describe Garden or Potter in one word. In Burnett’s book, ‘Magic,’ almost always capitalized, is the life force of the moors and garden that revive Mary and Colin and of which Dickon is something of an incantation, that Colin makes the subject of his scientific experiments, Mary uses through positive thinking, and Mother Sowerby explains is the same reality as the God of the Doxology, the ‘Big Good Thing,” and the ‘Joy Maker.’ In Harry Potter, magic is an inborn ability through which a witch or wizard is able, through the focus of a wand with logos-core, to co-create with the fabric of reality through magical speech (usually Latin spells).

And there are smaller touches that resonate as possible influences. Certainly the assonance of ‘Colin Craven’ and ‘Colin Creavy’ shouts ‘hat tip’ from Rowling to Burnett, if the connection between the characters is not obvious (Harry finds Colin’s adoration a little hard to take but we are all touched when we learn the little guy, the youngest member of Dumbledore’s Army (?), died in the Battle of Hogwarts).

The action of Garden is not confined to but is focused on the walled rose garden on the Manor Grounds in which Lillias Craven died when the tree branch she was sitting on broke (Colin was born prematurely consequent to this fall). The father locks the garden, buries the key, and forbids any of the servants to enter or work in that space. After ten years, the ivy has so covered the walls that no one knows where the door to the garden is. A little bird shows Mary the key and the door and she, Dickon, and Colin work to return the garden to its former glory (while retaining a bit of its wildness). The Harry Potter “secret garden,” which is anything but a place of beauty and goodness, is Riddle’s Chamber of Secrets in the book of the same title. A young girl died the last time the Chamber was opened, the entrance has been lost, the key is discovered by the children, and a magical bird is responsible for their ability to make passage.

I’d also mention the snakes near the beginning of both books. From Garden, Chapter 1, ‘There is No One Left,’ when 10 year old Mary Lennox finds herself alone in an Indian colonial mansion wiped out by cholera:

But no one came, and as she lay waiting the house seemed to grow more and more silent. She heard something rustling on the matting and when she looked down she saw a little snake gliding along and watching her with eyes like jewels. She was not frightened, because he was a harmless little thing who would not hurt her and he seemed in a hurry to get out of the room. He slipped under the door as she watched him.

“How queer and quiet it is,” she said. “It sounds as if there were no one in the bungalow but me and the snake.”

Note the stillness and the ‘No One’ of chapter title and presence. The ‘No One’ of the first chapter title probably makes Harry Potter readers remember the third chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, ‘The Letters from No One,’ and the harm-less snake looking Mary in the eye in its hurry to escape reminds us, I think, of Harry’s encounter with the Brazilian boa constrictor in Stone‘s ‘The Vanishing Glass.’

The Secret Doctrine of The Secret Garden

Right up front, I think Madeleine L’Engle was having a bad day when she wrote “Mary’s journey into love is, in fact, her journey into Christ, though this is never said, and does not need to be said.” The Secret Garden is not a Christian story; if anything, it is an anti-Christian allegory or a New Thought re-writing of the core Christian metanarrative, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden.

You have to be careful when looking between the lines not to jump to allegorical or satirical points because it seems much of Burnett’s work was based on autobiographical experience. She was born in a wealthy Manchester family which the American Civil War all but wiped out; the Hodgsons moved to a cabin outside of Nashville, TN, believe it or not, and survived largely on Frances’ ability to write. The Mary Lennox child in Garden and her experiences of loss and re-location across hemisphere may be more memories than metaphor. The Garden of the story is almost certainly the walled garden on the grounds of Great Maytham House, where she wrote the book:

The walled garden of provided the inspiration for one of the most famous of all books for children, The Secret Garden. Its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, lived at Great Maytham Hall from 1898 to 1907, where she found the old walled garden dating from 1721 sadly overgrown and neglected. Aided by a robin, Burnett discovered the door hidden amongst the ivy, and began the restoration of the garden, which she planted with hundreds of roses. She set up a table and chair in the gazebo, and dressed always in a white dress and large hat, she wrote a number of books in the peace and tranquility of her scented secret garden.

Before trying to find the mystagogical referent in the magical Robin of Secret Garden, it helps to know Burnett knew a like robin and it helped her into her walled garden as Mary Lennox is helped by the story’s brilliant bird.

Having said that, and admitting that I have not been able to find a decent essay online exploring Burnett’s esoteric beliefs or a trot like The Annotated Magic Garden (which book, I have to imagine, discusses and perhaps rebuffs what I am about to say), the book is obviously something of a tract for Ms. Burnett’s grab bag of beliefs. Even the Spark Notes for Garden jump right into her being a Theosophist, practicing Christian Scientist, and Spiritualist which beliefs are the meaning of the story:

In The Secret Garden, the events of Mary Lennox’s early childhood mirror those of Burnett’s own. Both Mary and Burnett experienced the death of their parents followed by a reversal of fortune, as well as a great sense of dislocation upon being taken from the country of their birth to one utterly foreign to them. The novel is not merely autobiographical. It was written while Burnett was very much under the influence of the ideas of the New Thought, theosophy, and Christian Science movements, which were enjoying their greatest popularity at the turn of the twentieth century. Burnett’s idiosyncratic fusion of these philosophies held that the Christian god was a kind of unified mind or spirit, with whom any person might commune; this spirit was held to be present everywhere, and especially in nature. Proponents of the New Thought also extolled the power of positive thinking (the fervent contemplation of what one hopes will happen), and held it to be a form of communion with the divine spirit. One could ostensibly cure oneself of illness through this kind of magical thinking, or change the character of one’s fortunes. Such ideas had a profound influence upon the writing of The Secret Garden—particularly as the inspiration for what Colin and Mary call “Magic.”

There are two academic biographies of Hodgson Burnett that are available and I am confident each explores at length her studies of Christian Science with Mary Baker Eddy, Theosophy with Madame Blavatsky, and positive thinking with the mind-control gurus of New Thought, all as influences on her world view and writing. From the little I know of these movements (and to encourage you to read the more authoritative treatments available at your local university library), here are the ‘jump off the page’ connections I caught:

* Disdain for doctors and allopathic medicine: Colin’s doctor is a relative who stands to inherit the Manor if he dies. His motivations, consequently, are questionable from the start — and he always recommends medicine, rest, and palliatives, as well as the patient’s metal focus on his weakness and infirmities. This is a Christian Science cartoon of MDs.

* The Power of Good Thought and Bad Thought The Wikipedia article on ‘New Thought’ lists these three elements as “chief tenets” of that movement:

* Divinely attuned thought is a positive force for good.
* All disease is mental in origin.
* Right thinking has a healing effect.

We recognize this as positive thinking mantras — and Secret Garden is full of it. Mary invokes “yes, he can, he can do it, etc” to work the Magic in Colin’s favor when he first tries to walk. Frances Burnett pulls out all the stops at the opening of Chapter 27, ‘In the Garden,’ her reveal-all-cards final chapter:

In each century since the beginning of the world wonderful things have been discovered. In the last century more amazing things were found out than in any century before. In this new century hundreds of things still more astounding will be brought to light. At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago. One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts–just mere thoughts–are as powerful as electric batteries–as
good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures,” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

Not just Mary — every major character’s problems, strengths, and transformations are due to positive thinking in Burnett’s book. As Dickon assures Colin at the beginning of his “scientific experiment” in New Thought, thought is to reality as the sun is to seeds. “It’ll work the same as th’ seeds do when th’ sun shines on ’em” (Chapter 24, ‘Magic’).

Plenty of air, contact with the vital energy of the earth, and good thoughts are the cure for every mental ailment (and all physical ailments are mental ailments, ultimately).

* Spiritual Science Colin is convinced he is being cured by the Magic. He wants, consequently, to be a scientist who reveals the properties of magic. This is straight out of the Theosophy and Anthroposophy sales pitch to a skeptical public enamored of the physical sciences and engineering as sacred subjects. “We’re not talking superstitious, subjective nonsense; this is science we’re doing.”

From Chapter 23, ‘Magic:’

“I am going to try a scientific experiment,” explained the Rajah. “When I grow up I am going to make great scientific discoveries and I am going to begin now with this experiment.”

“Aye, aye, sir!” said Ben Weatherstaff promptly, though this was the first time he had heard of great scientific discoveries.

It was the first time Mary had heard of them, either, but even at this stage she had begun to realize that, queer as he was, Colin had read about a great many singular things and was somehow a very convincing
sort of boy. When he held up his head and fixed his strange eyes on you it seemed as if you believed him almost in spite of yourself though he was only ten years old–going on eleven. At this moment he was
especially convincing because he suddenly felt the fascination of actually making a sort of speech like a grown-up person.

“The great scientific discoveries I am going to make,” he went on, “will be about Magic. Magic is a great thing and scarcely any one knows anything about it except a few people in old books–and Mary a little, because she was born in India where there are fakirs. I believe Dickon knows some Magic, but perhaps he doesn’t know he knows it. He charms animals and people. I would never have let him come to see me if he had not been an animal charmer–which is a boy charmer, too, because a boy is an animal. I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us–like electricity and horses and steam.”

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of “The First Church of Christ, Scientist,” the “Mother Church,” couldn’t have put it better.

* The Emphasis on Stillness and Quiet: One of Madame Blavatsky’s “translated” books (I think we’d say “channelled”) is called The Voice of the Silence. It proposes that everything creative and essential comes forth from the quiet, the stillness, or the calm.

Before the soul can see, the Harmony within must be attained, and fleshly eyes be rendered blind to all illusion.

Before the Soul can hear, the image (man) has to become as deaf to roarings as to whispers, to cries of bellowing elephants as to the silvery buzzing of the golden fire-fly.

Before the soul can comprehend and may remember, she must unto the Silent Speaker be united just as the form to which the clay is modelled, is first united with the potter’s mind.

For then the soul will hear, and will remember.

And then to the inner ear will speak —


Throughout Garden, sensitivity to the Magic is cued to inner calmness, experience of the ‘quiet,’ and silence that characters hear.

* The Power of Earth and Nature The earth is alive and “man and earth are not two.” Vitality is communion with the vital spirits of earth and wild creatures, the Oversoul animating the natural world. The secret garden’s healing power is, largely, just gardening.

From Chapter 22, ‘When the Sun Went Down’

“Are you making Magic?” [Colin] asked sharply.

Dickon’s curly mouth spread in a cheerful grin.

“Tha’s doin’ Magic thysel’,” he said. “It’s same Magic as made these ‘ere work out o’ th’ earth,” and he touched with his thick boot a clump of crocuses in the grass. Colin looked down at them.

“Aye,” he said slowly, “there couldna’ be bigger Magic than that there–there couldna’ be.”

* World a Dream, People are Ghosts and Shades When Colin and Mary meet in the middle of the night, they both think the other is a ghost or a dream. Several characters entering the garden exclaim that it is like entering a dream (all of them “turn round, and round, and round” but more on that in a minute). Theosophy is largely a poor man’s (a very poor man’s) Hinduism; this dream world ‘reality’ is the YA-Theosophist version of Hindu maya.

* Religions All Same in Essence, Different Only on Surface The Theosophical Society, like the other groups in the so called Theosophical Enlightenment of the 19th century, believed they had the essence or kernel of metaphysical truth, of which nuts religions were only the external shells or forms. Susan Sowerby, Dickon’s mother. explains this esoteric, universalist truth to Colin after he explains his excitement in singing the Anglican Doxology and realizing it was about the same reality as his Magic. From Chapter 26, “It’s Mother!:”

“Do you believe in Magic?” asked Colin after he had explained about Indian fakirs. “I do hope you do.”

“That I do, lad,” she answered. “I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same thing as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made thee a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worrit, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million–worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full
of it–an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden.”

“I felt so joyful,” said Colin, opening his beautiful strange eyes at her. “Suddenly I felt how different I was–how strong my arms and legs were, you know–and how I could dig and stand–and I jumped up and
wanted to shout out something to anything that would listen.”

“Th’ Magic listened when tha’ sung th’ Doxology. It would ha’ listened to anything tha’d sung. It was th’ joy that mattered. Eh! lad, lad–what’s names to th’ Joy Maker,” and she gave his shoulders a quick soft pat again.

The Yorkshire mother isn’t going to say “they use the same words in the various religions,” hence her reference to countries she may have heard of (France, Germany). The universalism, though, is patent.

And who is this mother of 12 with such a keen understanding of Magic? An Indian fakir in drag?

* The Magic of ‘Mother,’ Circles, and Grey Eyes

“I saw half-sitting, half-reclining on the carpetless floor, a scantily clad, and, as I then thought, a very unprepossessing woman who was introduced as Madame Blavatsky. She was stout, though not as unwieldly as she subsequently became… her eyes were magnetic and peculiar, with a strange fascination in their blue-grey depths, but were in a sense beautiful.”

[Hannah Shephard Wolfe, newspaper reporter, on first meeting Madame Blavatsky (1874), quoted in The Lady with the Magic Eyes: Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician, John Symonds, Kessinger Publishing, 2006, p. 34]

Colin’s mother’s big grey eyes, which Colin has as well, are story referents to Madame Blavatsky’s most characteristic facial feature. Her “magic eyes” were said to penetrate every hidden mental secret and hypnotize everyone present; photographs of her are memorable, even haunting, only because of the greay eyes.

Perhaps the most famous part of Garden is when Colin realizes that, not only is he is not on the verge of the death, but that “I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever!” Burnett then writes:

One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun–which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in some one’s eyes. (Chapter 21, Ben Weatherstaff, emphasis added)

I suggest for your consideration that the eyes of Lilias and Colin Craven and the whole person of mysterious Susan Sowerby, mother of 12 and fount of wisdom, are all story-pointers to Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Mother Church, and Anne Besant, Blavatsky’s successor of sorts and champion of India as the ‘Mother of the World,’ are other possibilities but the eyes and three other points make me think we have a devotee making tribute here to her guru Blavatsky.

(1) The 12 children: Madame Blavatsky’s “Inner Circle” was made up of her 12 disciples.

(2) The Circles: As mentioned, every who comes into the secret garden looks “round and around and around” in wonder. Colin’s “prayer meetings” and scientific experiment, too, are held in what Burnett calls “a mystic circle:”

It all seemed most majestic and mysterious when they sat down in their circle. Ben Weatherstaff felt as if he had somehow been led into appearing at a prayer-meeting. Ordinarily he was very fixed in being
what he called “agen’ prayer-meetin’s” but this being the Rajah’s affair he did not resent it and was indeed inclined to be gratified at being called upon to assist. Mistress Mary felt solemnly enraptured. Dickon held his rabbit in his arm, and perhaps he made some charmer’s signal no one heard, for when he sat down, cross-legged like the rest, the crow, the fox, the squirrels and the lamb slowly drew near and made part of the circle, settling each into a place of rest as if of their own desire.

“The ‘creatures’ have come,” said Colin gravely. “They want to help us.”

Colin really looked quite beautiful, Mary thought. He held his head high as if he felt like a sort of priest and his strange eyes had a wonderful look in them. The light shone on him through the tree canopy.

Theosophy study groups are called “circles,” Blavatsky had a personal “inner” and “outer” circle of disciples, and the faux Hindu doctrines she espoused in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine were based on cyclical theories of time and lives (samsara, etc).

(3) The role of the Mother in Secret Garden: Before meeting her, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven are devoted to Mother Sowerby, and, on meeting her, as noted, Colin asks the poor tenant woman speaking in broad Yorkshire accent to be his mother. Incredibly, from story’s beginning, she provides essential tools for their well-being (a jump rope!) and even food, though her twelve children go to bed hungry most nights. The last three chapters feature the mother’s image unveiled and embraced (‘The Curtain’), the mother herself revealed after the secret gardeners sing the traditional Anglican Doxology (“It’s Mother!”), and the reunion of Father and Son — as arranged and prompted by the mother’s letter (‘In the Garden’). As noted above, Susan Sowerby pulls the strings on the Lord of the Manor and two of the workers in his home personally. The Mother, both dead Lillias and lively Susan Sowerby, are the Magic of the garden.

Which brings me to why this is a New Thought or Theosophist story rather than a Christian one: the garden and what happens there. Burnett has written a counter-story to the traditional understanding of Man’s fall in the Garden of Eden and re-written it with a loving Mother ending rather than the Calvinist metanarrative of depraved and suffering humanity under a punishing, negligent Father.

The story begins in the Secret Garden, a rose garden for newlyweds Archibald and Lillias Craven. She falls from a tree branch seat and dies. The son she was carrying was born prematurely, and, though he doesn’t die, death is his shadow. The father abandons him and the son suffers because he feels his father doesn’t love him.

It’s not an especially opaque allegory because it conforms in large part to the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. The woman falls in the Garden and man is born into the world separated from the heavenly father and forbidden entry into the Garden. The key to the garden is lost and man has no relationship with God the Father. Man is ‘craven,’ i.e., “defeated, vanquished.” I’d suggest, too, that Colin’s perversity and selfishness and imperiousness in being craven points to the Calvinist doctrine of the ‘total depravity’ of fallen man.

The Christian version of the story, be it the New Testament, a medieval mystery or morality play, or redemption story a la Pilgrim’s Progress, Rocky, or Harry Potter, now requires a death to self, acceptance of a higher calling, and purification before life-saving trial. But Burnett doesn’t go that way. She gives a New Age version of a Hindu ending as Eddy or Blavatsky might have written it.

A female doppelganger is introduced, that is, a little girl cousin from India (where else?), who is Colin’s equal in being selfish and spoiled, if she is very receptive to life and to instruction on the Moor, from servants and a robin. She and Colin become the alchemical “quarreling couple,” have a grand fight in the middle of the night, and Colin is set on the right path. What path is that?

The path of Dickon, wood nymph, earth fairy, magical creature — and Son of the Mother, Blavatsky, rather than a redeeming Son of the Heavenly Father. Adopted by the Theosophists a la Krishnamurti, Colin sets out to teach the scientific truths of Magic to the world so everyone can be well and “live forever and ever and ever.” How? Think good thoughts which will harmonize with the God-consciousness that is the only reality.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is the The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky laid over the Garden of Eden metanarrative. The power of the secret the children all think is so important is that the esoteric truth of New Thought has to be kept from the people of the Manor who lie about Colin Craven (fallen man) and say he cannot be healed without a miracle or savior because he was born only for suffering and death. Not until the father sees and escorts the risen man to the father’s house can the house servants believe. The feminine message from the East — Blavatsky’s ‘essence of Hinduism’ delivered Mary Lennox from India — is the path of dharma and moksa rather than sacrifice and love.

Where is the serpent in this story? He is a harmless creature in India, remember? Just a bad thought perhaps, that leaves the house if you are not afraid of him. It is the quality of your thinking alone that makes you either craven or a Magic scientist in the ecstasy of knowing the “Big Good Thing” and the “Joy Maker.” Throw off those fallen-man-metanarrative mind-chains and be free!

Similarity and Contrast with Harry Potter

The great similarity between Burnett’s rewrite of the Garden metanarrative with Harry Potter, of course, is the Logos foundation of reality that is the core of Wizarding World magic. Dumbledore’s final comment to Harry at King’s Cross, as I explain in The Deathly Hallows Lectures, implicitly points to reality being in your head, which, with the description of Harry’s palatial, noetic ‘King’s Cross’ and his identity with the Invisibility Cloak as the Seeing Eye/I, gives us Coleridgean (and patristic) logos epistemology.

That is not a one-to-one match-up with New Thought, Christian Science, or Theosophy — not by a long shot — but both are in radical opposition to empiricist epistemology and materialism of Burnett’s time and our own (and, I think, the reason most people like the story). After noting that, with perhaps, the corresponding emphasis (explicit in Harry, implicit in Garden) on the importance of right choosing, and the surface similarities mentioned at the start, we can jump into the differences.

The contrast in the use of the “quarreling couple” and alchemical subject or ‘Stone’ is interesting. Ron and Hermione, Sulphur and Quicksilver respectively, work as supports and catalysts to Harry’s transformation from lead to gold. He is the spiritual heart of the trio and its natural leader but Harry is the one experiencing the remarkable changes. In Garden, Dickon is a personality-free sage and wonder worker. Nice enough guy, don’t get me wrong, but as Son of the Mother, his job is to be golden and hurry along the transformation of Colin and Mary, the selfish, spoiled nasties of the story, not take the lead or be anything but perfect Magic incarnation.

Colin and Harry, as the subjects undergoing change, too, are different in important ways. Yes, they both have their dead mother Lily’s eyes. Yes, they have an adventure with a best boy and best girl friend. Yes, their stories are both about defeating death.

And in this last, we see the chasm open up between the stories. Colin defeats death — “I am well! I will live forever and ever and ever!” — by communing with the Magic and thinking positively (not to mention deep breathing, daily gardening, muscle building exercises [!], and plenty of fresh milk, eggs, and potatoes). Death, frankly, is a pushover. Once the garden story is understood correctly, the Tree that brought death to the garden and made Colin craven, will be “the most beautiful of all:”

“That’s a very old tree over there, isn’t it?” he said. Dickon looked across the grass at the tree and Mary looked and there was a brief moment of stillness.

“Yes,” answered Dickon, after it, and his low voice had a very gentle sound.

Mary gazed at the tree and thought.

“The branches are quite gray and there’s not a single leaf anywhere,” Colin went on. “It’s quite dead, isn’t it?”

“Aye,” admitted Dickon. “But them roses as has climbed all over it will near hide every bit o’ th’ dead wood when they’re full o’ leaves an’ flowers. It won’t look dead then. It’ll be th’ prettiest of all.”

Mary still gazed at the tree and thought.

“It looks as if a big branch had been broken off,” said Colin. “I wonder how it was done.”

“It’s been done many a year,” answered Dickon. “Eh!” with a sudden relieved start and laying his hand on Colin. “Look at that robin! There he is! He’s been foragin’ for his mate.”

Colin was almost too late but he just caught sight of him, the flash of red-breasted bird with something in his beak. He darted through the greenness and into the close-grown corner and was out of sight. Colin
leaned back on his cushion again, laughing a little. “He’s taking her tea to her. Perhaps it’s five o’clock. I think I’d like some tea myself.”

And so they were safe.

“It was Magic which sent the robin,” said Mary secretly to Dickon afterward. “I know it was Magic.” For both she and Dickon had been afraid Colin might ask something about the tree whose branch had broken
off ten years ago and they had talked it over together and Dickon had stood and rubbed his head in a troubled way.

“We mun look as if it wasn’t no different from th’ other trees,” he had said. “We couldn’t never tell him how it broke, poor lad. If he says anything about it we mun–we mun try to look cheerful.”

“Aye, that we mun,” had answered Mary.

But she had not felt as if she looked cheerful when she gazed at the tree. She wondered and wondered in those few moments if there was any reality in that other thing Dickon had said. He had gone on rubbing
his rust-red hair in a puzzled way, but a nice comforted look had begun to grow in his blue eyes.

“Mrs. Craven was a very lovely young lady,” he had gone on rather hesitatingly. “An’ mother she thinks maybe she’s about Misselthwaite many a time lookin’ after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when they’re took out o’ th’ world. They have to come back, tha’ sees. Happen she’s been in the garden an’ happen it was her set us to work, an’ told us to bring him here.” (Chapter 21, ‘Ben Weatherstaff’)

Translated back into the garden allegory/metanarrative, this vignette teaches us that man (Colin) must be kept from the story of the Tree of Knowledge and death’s entry into the world (mom’s death, his birth). His Mother brought him back to the garden so we can bypass that punitive Father bit and feel the Magic making us well, defeating death. The roses, symbols of esoteric knowledge (think ‘Rosicrucians‘), will transform the death bearing Tree of Knowledge until it becomes the most beautiful. Just distract the craven guy until the roses can do their work for Mother-God.

Harry Potter’s victory over death is through love and sacrifice. Identifying himself with the unity of existence rather than ego concerns and persona, he dies to save his friends and destroy the ‘old man’ Voldemort soul fragment within him. He is empowered to defeat his external foe, even rise from a seeming physical death, because of this interior spiritual victory of character. Harry’s triumph over death is in fearing doing the wrong thing more than his own demise. That choice makes him Master of Death.

Forgive me for thinking the Potter novels a much more satisfying, challenging, and edifying reading experience. I finished Secret Garden last night, and, realizing the contra-Christian moral the brilliant writer was trying to communicate, just felt sad. I guess I know too many wonderful “spiritual, not religious” folks who are on a metaphorical treadmill in their basements rather than an authentic Way or Path, folks who have embraced the New Thought message. Colin’s victory, won without significant challenge or cost (and leaving him quite a few ideas and courtesies short of a human personality), seems vaporous, artificial, even sad. Am I supposed to feel inspired to cast out my bad thoughts and embrace only good thoughts to harness the Magic? If so, the story fails.

Colin’s eyes are the “magic eyes” of Madame Blavatsky. Our looking into Harry’s eyes is the salutary and sacramental vision Dante has seeing the Griffin in Beatrice’s eyes; it is a purifying and self-transcending moment. I do think Ms. Rowling was influenced by the esoteric aspects of Secret Garden and that she tips her hat to the story elements she borrowed through touches like the escaping snake, ‘Colin Creavy,’ and giving Harry’s mum the name ‘Lily.’ The width, breadth, and depth of her story’s meaning and reader experience are so much greater, though, that I don’t think the debt is as profound as I first thought on reading Josh’s letter.

I crave (not craven, please) your comments and corrections. What fun to find a popular story with a spiritual message that is Christian only in trying to correct the Christian metanarrative with a New Thought epistemology and soteriology! I really do look forward to reading what you think — especially the Secret Garden fans who know much more than I do after my hurried reading yesterday. Thanks in advance for any thoughts you choose to share.


  1. My annotated copy of The Secret Garden won’t be here until Wednesday.

  2. So I’m supposed to hold my breath that long? Not happening. RRocker, I know you have something contentious to share. Where have I gone wrong? I’m assuming RevGeorge will rush to my defense, even if he hasn’t got an annotated Garden (especially if you mention the older Pevensie girl’s lipstick problem).

  3. John wrote: “I was surprised at the paucity of thoughtful commentary about Garden that I could find online, in itself and in connection with Harry Potter…”

    Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed on the paucity of thoughtful commentary from me on this. I’ve only read Garden once or twice in my life & seen a movie adaptation of it, so although I know the general story, I don’t really have much in depth knowledge of it. And while I can discourse on a wide variety of Christian/spiritual topics, I’m afraid theosophy & Christian Science aren’t ones I have too much knowledge of.

    That’s why I’ll probably need the annotated edition. 🙂

  4. Morning test case: The lamb in Chapter 19, “It Has Come!”

    “Things are crowding up out of the earth,” she ran on in a hurry. “And there are flowers uncurling and buds on everything and the green veil has covered nearly all the gray and the birds are in such a hurry about their nests for fear they may be too late that some of them are even fighting for places in the secret garden. And the rose-bushes look as wick as wick can be, and there are primroses in the lanes and woods, and the seeds we planted are up, and Dickon has brought the fox and the crow and the squirrels and a new-born lamb.”

    And then she paused for breath. The new-born lamb Dickon had found three days before lying by its dead mother among the gorse bushes on the moor. It was not the first motherless lamb he had found and he
    knew what to do with it. He had taken it to the cottage wrapped in his jacket and he had let it lie near the fire and had fed it with warm milk. It was a soft thing with a darling silly baby face and legs rather long for its body. Dickon had carried it over the moor in his arms and its feeding bottle was in his pocket with a squirrel, and when Mary had sat under a tree with its limp warmness huddled on her lap she had felt as if she were too full of strange joy to speak. A lamb–a lamb! A living lamb who lay on your lap like a baby!

    Later, Dickon brings in the lamb:

    Dickon’s moorland boots were thick and clumsy and though he tried to walk quietly they made a clumping sound as he walked through the long corridors. Mary and Colin heard him marching–marching, until he
    passed through the tapestry door on to the soft carpet of Colin’s own passage.

    “If you please, sir,” announced Martha, opening the door, “if you please, sir, here’s Dickon an’ his creatures.”

    Dickon came in smiling his nicest wide smile. The new-born lamb was in his arms and the little red fox trotted by his side. Nut sat on his left shoulder and Soot on his right and Shell’s head and paws peeped out of his coat pocket.

    Colin slowly sat up and stared and stared–as he had stared when he first saw Mary; but this was a stare of wonder and delight. The truth was that in spite of all he had heard he had not in the least understood what this boy would be like and that his fox and his crow and his squirrels and his lamb were so near to him and his friendliness that they seemed almost to be part of himself. Colin had never talked to a boy in his life and he was so overwhelmed by his own pleasure and curiosity that he did not even think of speaking.

    But Dickon did not feel the least shy or awkward. He had not felt embarrassed because the crow had not known his language and had only stared and had not spoken to him the first time they met. Creatures
    were always like that until they found out about you. He walked over to Colin’s sofa and put the new-born lamb quietly on his lap, and immediately the little creature turned to the warm velvet dressing-gown and began to nuzzle and nuzzle into its folds and butt its tight-curled head with soft impatience against his side. Of course no boy could have helped speaking then.

    “What is it doing?” cried Colin. “What does it want?”

    “It wants its mother,” said Dickon, smiling more and more. “I brought it to thee a bit hungry because I knowed tha’d like to see it feed.”

    He knelt down by the sofa and took a feeding-bottle from his pocket.

    “Come on, little ‘un,” he said, turning the small woolly white head with a gentle brown hand. “This is what tha’s after. Tha’ll get more out o’ this than tha’ will out o’ silk velvet coats. There now,” and he pushed the rubber tip of the bottle into the nuzzling mouth and the lamb began to suck it with ravenous ecstasy.

    After that there was no wondering what to say. By the time the lamb fell asleep questions poured forth and Dickon answered them all. He told them how he had found the lamb just as the sun was rising three mornings ago. He had been standing on the moor listening to a skylark and watching him swing higher and higher into the sky until he was only a speck in the heights of blue.

    “I’d almost lost him but for his song an’ I was wonderin’ how a chap could hear it when it seemed as if he’d get out o’ th’ world in a minute–an’ just then I heard somethin’ else far off among th’ gorse bushes. It was a weak bleatin’ an’ I knowed it was a new lamb as was hungry an’ I knowed it wouldn’t be hungry if it hadn’t lost its mother somehow, so I set off searchin’. Eh! I did have a look for it. I went in an’ out among th’ gorse bushes an’ round an’ round an’ I always seemed to take th’ wrong turnin’. But at last I seed a bit o’ white by a rock on top o’ th’ moor an’ I climbed up an’ found th’ little ‘un half dead wi’ cold an’ clemmin’.” While he talked, Soot flew solemnly in and out of the open window and cawed remarks about the scenery while Nut and Shell made excursions into the big trees outside and ran up and down trunks and explored branches. Captain curled up near Dickon, who sat on the hearth-rug from preference.

    The lamb is a symbol of Christ and its lying down with the fox and arrival on the first day of Spring three days after its having been discovered in a state like death are all pointers. Those like L’Engle who think it is a Christian story I’m guessing will point to this passage to say I’m bonkers about Blavatsky and that the story is about a resurrection in the love of the lamb that Dickon, Mary, and Colin find in the garden.

    That’s possible!

    Just for discussion, though, please note that the passage can also be interpreted as the lamb was near death and that it was Dickon, Son of the Mother and savior of Theosophy/Blatvasky, that saves him and assures his third day resurrection. Dickon’s charity and knowledge will be what saves and revitalizes half-dead Christianity once it reveals to the Calvinists in a way they can experience the greater Magic Dickon knows hidden in the lifeless forms of the Doxology (note Weatherstaff’s reaction to singing the Doxology with the transformed Colin before meeting Mother Sowerby in chapter 26). Burnett is not saying Christianity is barren or unusable; she is saying that its real truth is in the love and neglected knowledge of the Mother (of which Magic Dickon is the Incarnation) rather than the destructive story about and negligence of the Father.

    But what about the Skylark song and the appearance of the abandoned lamb? Is that an Annunciation reference – or, reversed, is it a sign of Dickon’s being the Incarnation of Magic and deliverer of the Christian religion?

    And could the Mother be Burnett’s smuggling of the Virgin into her story? Or is the only Mary here Mary Lennox, the Hinduism smuggled into the story as reassuring as a Hindustani song sung to a child at night? We have a Martha and Mary pairing, too; Martha, another daughter of the Mother, is one of the Manor servants and very concerned about “keeping her place,” which worldly focus, along with the names and vocations, are story echoes of Luke 10:38-42 [38 Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. 40 But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. 41 And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: 42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.]. What is the “needful thing” that Mary gets and Martha neglects in Secret Garden?

    Plenty to discuss here!

  5. John, for once, I have nothing contentious to share. I am impressed by the depth and breadth (not to mention, speed) of your research and analysis (which said research and analysis would not be out of place in an academic publication rather than a blog, btw).

    I was interested in some of your findings: the fact that Burnett had her own secret garden. The dressing up in white and wearing a hat to write seems a little odd, but hey, if it worked for her, that’s cool.

    I really liked your point about Colin, that:

    Colin’s victory, won without significant challenge or cost (and leaving him quite a few ideas and courtesies short of a human personality), seems vaporous, artificial, even sad.

    I don’t think I ever thought of it in those terms, but Colin always seemed arbitrarily victorious to me, and worshipped by too many people without any significant personal accomplishment. And I did not appreciate the way the story changed focus: it was Mary’s story, but the second half is all about Colin’s rehabilitation. And Colin, to me, is not halfas interesting as Mary. And his lectures seemed entirely too dogmatic for an 11(?) year old. A few years down the line I can see him lecturing in a Revivalist tent filled with people looking for answers to unfulfilled lives, entrancing them with his hypnotic eyes while old Ben Weatherstaff comes around with the collection box. Sure, he develops some muscles and stops having hysterics, but that’s a good thing, not a Good thing.

    The link to Madame Blavatsky is of course very telling. Your main point, that SG is a “New Thought narrative, espousing spirituality without religion, as compared to, say HP is a good one. I am not personally saddened by spirituality without religion, but I’d agree that it lacks a strong narrative. Triumph over death through love, sacrifice and death definitely makes a more compelling tale.

    I started out by thinking that the similarities between the two stories were more superficial than profound. I think your analysis gives substance to that conclusion. I also realize now how much I dislike Burnett’s soap-box about the Magic. Whenever I read it before, I’d just skip over the lectures and “experiments” and go to the part where Craven Sr. comes back and everyone is happy again. I wish Burnett had left it a story of an unhappy little girl who is led to a secret garden by a robin and finds happiness by weeding some old rose bushes, and in turn helps an unhappy young boy become healthy.

  6. An addendum:

    I am not the best source on finding Christian themes in works of literature. Having said which, I can’t to the best of my ability detect a central Christian theme in SG. There is death, and there is rebirth, to be sure (as well as the lamb) but the death is an accident, not a willing sacrifice, and it does not in any way lead to the rebirth.

  7. John,

    More thoughts and notes:

    I think you are entirely accurate in your assessment of “The Secret Garden;” but the fact that it is theosophical certainly does render it any less of an influence than a more blatantly Christian text. Furthermore, I do not think that it cannot be informative for Christianity, which by and large has been driven to a hyper-transcendent viewpoint of God (or, the separate Father, which you so accurate point out in your analysis, or the masculine-driven hierarchical structures), the New Thought movement being a consequent counter-balance (Earth Mother worship, etc.).

    Of course, much of theology concedes now (but perhaps not during the time of Theosophy’s genesis) that God is neither masculine nor feminine–or, rather, both; and that God is not merely transcendent, but also very much present in the fabric of the universe–the Over-soul, perhaps–but certainly as His presence as immanence. However, most theology “on the ground” has done little to reconcile these things, save for the Celtic Christians flourishing (and then squashed) in Ireland from approximately 400-900 AD, who very much talked to their deceased masters/patriarchs, knew the time of their own deaths, were virtually imbued with all sorts of syncretically pagan powers (and a Bishop Bridget, no less, if legend be true), and were highly elemental in their worship style.

    Is it that we are looking at the pull between hyper-transcendence (deism, active in the 17th and 18th centuries) versus hyper-immanence (pantheism, or, rather neo-pantheism active in the 19th and 20th centuries)(of course, I would suppose both views are pretty timeless throughout the history of man)? It is more difficult to tell if FHB’s “Great Big Thing” is a transcendent viewpoint or not, especially coupled with the powerful use of the the Doxology in the text, which is a very transcendent text (“Praise Him all creatures here below”).

    That is all to say, it is very difficult to say that “Secret Garden” is NOT Christian (or cannot be informative of it) any more it is to say that it IS (l’Engle–that seems like an over-reach to me, too), but that it certainly drifts towards the pathways which you have illuminated (the same, I believe, can be said of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which I happen to love).

    I think the differences you point out are in fact the differences that JKR might have had in mind, or might have presented accidentally, in presenting a Christian viewpoint of such esoterica. I have longed believed that the presence of Xenophilius Lovegood was a sort-of-jab at the very New Thought/New Age which is rampant even in JKR’s own Scotland, facets of which Christianity cannot admit of for various reasons (including the ones you have pointed out).

    But she HAS created a Christian narrative through a particularly tenuously Christian, if not flat-out non-Christian, document, if the alchemists over on the HP Alchemy sight are correct (and from my very mere opinion, they are), the Alchemical Marriage of Christian Rosenkreutz (Rose-Cross), so the reconciliation of these things are a bit tricky (You wrote: “The roses, symbols of esoteric knowledge (think ‘Rosicrucians‘), will transform the death bearing Tree of Knowledge until it becomes the most beautiful. Just distract the craven guy until the roses can do their work for Mother-God.” I remember Ron and Hermione’s own daughter was named “Rose”.)

    JKR may have presented the first syncretic cross-over between these esoteric views and a main-line view of Christianity, or even a version of panentheism, which supports alchemical statements by the likes of Nicolas of Cusa: that God is “an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (quoted in Campbell, Joseph. “Mythogenesis.” FLIGHT OF THE WILD GANDER. Gateway: South Bend, IN. 1960. pg. 80)(A book, which, by the way, is essential to understanding the shamanistic/poet-seer journey of aligning the serpent energy of earth with the flight of the wild gander, even in HP).

    On Cusanus: “In his philosophical writings, composed after 1439, he set aside the definition and methods of the ‘Aristotelean Sect’ and replaced them by deep speculations and mystical forms of his own. The best known is his first treatise, ‘De docta ignorantia’ (1439- 40), on the finite and the infinite….In his Cosmology he calls the Creator the Possest (posse-est, the possible- actual, alluding to the argument: God is possible, therefore actual….The theological treatises are dogmatic, ascetic, and mystic. His concept of God has been much disputed, and has even been called pantheistic. The context of his writings proves, however, that they are all strictly Christian.” (

    I wonder if the same can be said for JKR, whether she was intending it, or like any good hermeticist/alchemist just pulled it from thin air (in-spiration and per-spiration). What she has presented is the REFINEMENT of the earth-bound Magic (from FHB’s point of view) into a hermitical/alchemical BALANCE.

    From an esoteric point of view, both appearances of the serpent may, in Theosophical or Hindu as well as other tantric perspectives, be the release of the Kundalini energies, the powerful earthly energies that rest at the base of the spine in the coccyx region, which in alchemy very often comes from either trauma or premature initiation into the “little death” of sexuality. In this, it may be that–and I am certainly no expert–alchemists are made; it is not something, necessarily, that one chooses, like our boy-hero, HP, marked through trauma and then revealed later to have to REFINE the serpent/Basilisk/Slytherin with encounter of wild gander/Phoenix/Gryffindore.

    And this the first difference of those who seek the stone to use it, as opposed to those who seek it (because they are called) not to use it.

    (Incidentally, in Hinduism and other traditions, this power is often confused as the same thing as the Holy Spirit; however, the Kundalini power is, by all accounts, an ascending energy, whereas the Holy Spirit is descending–perhaps an analogue to the aforementioned meeting of heaven-earth. You can read an interesting book on the subject matter by Philip St. Romain, a practicing Roman Catholic spiritual director []).

    The “serpent power” is a dangerous thing; if one seeks to release it prematurely or out of self-interest, it can and will lead to madness, if yogic wisdom be correct (and who, prey tell, does THAT sound like in HP?). So this “power” would raise itself again and again in the HP series, culminating in the final re-appearance of the Philosopher’s Stone as the Deathly Hallows, where, once again a group of people seek it out (the likes of Lovegood and even Dumbledore!), whereas Harry REFINES it by turning its use on its head (just as he sought the stone but not use it in the first book, he now uses the Hallows to face death, not escape it). And here is where the most difficult subtleties arise. Primarily, though, it is that theosophy (as you have noted) seeks to turn the serpent-Eden story, like most other Gnostic forms, of which theosophy is merely another manifestation, into a good thing.

    “Theosophy is a term used in general to designate the knowledge of God supposed to be obtained by the direct intuition of the Divine essence. In method it differs from theology, which is the knowledge of God obtained by revelation, and from philosophy, which is the knowledge of Divine things acquire by human reasoning. It is often incorrectly confounded with mysticism, for the latter is properly the thirst for the Divine, the aspiration for the invisible, and hence a natural manifestation of the religious sentiment. By intuition or illumination the initiated Theosophists are considered to be in harmony with the central principle of the universe. This knowledge of the secret forces of nature of the true relation between the world and man frees them from the ordinary limitations of human life, and gives them a peculiar power over the hidden forces of the macrocosm. Their exceptional faculties are alleged as experimental proof of their superior science: they are the only guarantee of the truth of their teaching. They are said to transmit this truth by way of revelation. Thus theosophy appeals to tradition but not in the Christian sense.” (

    And thus the difference between an alchemist and a Christian alchemist, Harry being the prime example of. Again, it is all so tricky to pull through, I think, because there are so many shades and degrees:


    “Death is no darksome king of terrors, no skeleton with a scythe to cut short the thread of life, but rather an angel bearing a golden key, with which he unlocks for us the door into a fuller and higher life than this. “ (pg. 2)

    This does not seem to go against HP, or even the majority of 20th Century philosophy (the facing of one’s death without resentment, etc.), and certainly not Beedle the Bard, where death and 3rd Brother meet “as equals”. I am sure there are shades and degrees, because, well, this, being esoteric, is something for the Department of Mysteries, and one who stands with one foot in and one foot outside the Veils. But, perhaps it is that theosophy treats death a little too familiarly, as when Harry treated You-Know-Who’s name without respect until it started to get him in trouble, as even Beedle mistook death as an equal.

    Finally, the rub comes in the freeing of the body of death. Theosophy, being Gnostic, often seeks the separation of the body: “Theosophists believe that all human beings in their ‘Higher Selves’ are immortal, but their lower personalities are often unconscious of their eternal Spiritual Nature and that their physical, emotional, and lower mental components will decompose and perish.” (, or even the firming creation of the astral body which Theosophy tries to construct, then free via death: “I have already spoken of the possibility of doing this with regard to the astral body, thereby seeing the astral world; this needs simply a further stage of the same process, the raising of the consciousness to the mental plane, for man has a body for that level also, through which he may receive its vibrations, and so live in the glowing splendour of heaven while still possessing a physical body- though indeed after such an experience he will have little relish for the return to the latter.” (Leadbeater, op.cit., pg. 21)

    In essence, they create Horcruxes or seek Hallows. And, in most Tantric traditions, this reinforcement of the astral body takes place by manipulating the serpent energies in various ways (although, again, it usually by trying to raise them to a higher level, so this is unclear regarding the issue of REFINEMENT, because to raise them to higher levels, as in the image of the Caduceus or Quetzalcoatal, is to bring serpent and bird together). I think the wicket again is the nature of CALLING versus seeking the Hallows.

    Another interesting tie in: theosophists may have been Pure-Bloodists!

    “Blavatsky claimed that Semitic peoples are a group of Aryan peoples who have become ‘degenerate in spirituality and perfected in materiality.’ Theosophy proper, however, has always been firmly opposed to racial discrimination, making major contributions to the spiritual and cultural emergence of especially South Asian peoples from the shadow of colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A researcher in the development of racialism, Colin Kidd, states: “Although Theosophy, it should be clear, was not a racialist organization, its scriptures contained both a decidedly anti-racist spirituality and a countercurrent of racialist thinking.” (

    However, the brilliance of JKR is that she took all the threads of those esoteric ideas and ransomed them all, theosophy and The Hallows and even the STORY of the Hallows (a story within the story) by asserting in a Christian way that Death will be vanquished by Love expressed through self-sacrifice–and its hard to self-sacrifice when one is trying to produce Horcruxes (immortality by cleaving of the body), or seek the Hallows (escaping death through seeking esoteric practices), at least without a calling or in-carnating of Spirit taking place in Christianity.

    Finally, it was suggested on the HP Alchemy site that Ginny Weasley is the representation of the Kundalini power. I always thought she was the perfected form of the Lyra character (“His Dark Materials”) or even of Mary/Colin, though less whiny than all of them, thankfully. Her preternatural powers in the movies, though not canon as people always seem to be arguing about, indicates the deep reservoir of strength (Kundalini) that she contains (having been purified herself through the experience of REFINEMENT in the Chamber of Secrets via the encounter with the dark facets of Kundalini, the dark goddess or Lillith). Of course, she and Harry bear another Lily. But the other two materials of Ron and Hermione, REFINED in the end, bear a Rose, which doesn’t make this comment–or rather the tone of it, sensical:

    “The roses, symbols of esoteric knowledge (think ‘Rosicrucians‘), will transform the death bearing Tree of Knowledge until it becomes the most beautiful. Just distract the craven guy until the roses can do their work for Mother-God.”

    Unless of course you have a Harry-Ginny refinement which bears a Lily next to a Ron-Hermione which bears a Rose. I am not sure what that means, exactly, just putting something poetic out there.

    All this to say, I am not sure FHB goes as far as the Hallow-seekers and so, though I sense these other influences, they probably don’t the way of being explicitly not-Christian, but I could not proclaim that it is Christian, either. It all presupposes what definition of Christian one works under and how esoteric thought fits into it, because most of the Christian Middle Ages and even old C.S. Lewis would, at least by literary connection, be implicated. To claim that “Secret Garden” is “not Christian” (though probably fairly astute because by reasons of intent, which you seem dead on about) simply because of esoteric underpinnings, well…..that would drive a stake though HP pretty soundly as well! Perhaps JKR has just presented something, well, a little more Celtic in terms of Christianity.

  8. RRocker: I’m with you on missing the Christian aspects of Garden, except in being a re-writing and re-wiring of the Garden metanarrative — which comes, like it or not, with the Christian package in full, albeit with a feminine messiah asking no greater sacrifice than a certain watchfulness…

    RevGeorge: the Amazon reviews for the Annotated Secret Garden suggest we’re going to be disappointed (I’ve ordered it, too; 80% off is hard to resist).

    Big News: This morning Heidi Tandy at HPEF wrote me to share this head-slapper (I have her permission to quote and name her):

    So glad you’re going to be a part of [Azkatraz 2009]! Hope to talk more about your Secret Garden parallel thing – back in 2002 and 2003 we talked about that on HPfGU, and one of the quotes I kept popping into the discussion was:

    The boy had a sharp, delicate face the color of ivory and he seemed to have eyes too big for it. He had also a lot of hair which tumbled over his forehead in heavy locks and made his thin face seem smaller. Mary
    could not help noticing what strange eyes he had. They were agate gray…

    Of course, in the HP books, Draco’s the one who has the grey eyes – as do a few of the others in the Black family. And in the musical of Secret Garden, Mary and Lily have hazel (green) eyes, not grey at all,
    and the musical has two boys in love with Lily, which is a nifty little parallel to the James-Lily-Snape situation. Not that I think JKR cribbed, but she definitely matched the tropes!

    And after I asked for permission to quote her here she replied:

    Oh yes, you definitely can quote me – but you should also link to this – – it’s Anthony Wardlowe and Phillip Quast in a concert circa 1995 or 1996. I can’t find any recording of Robert Westerbern and Mandy Patinkin from the US broadway version back in 1991. Secret Garden is one of my favourite musicals – I saw it three times on Broadway and bought the CD the day it came out in December of 1991! So I can spout about it for hours, in glee.

    We’re back to Josh’s original note, then; whatever influence the story of Secret Garden may have had on Ms. Rowling, it seems likely to have come more clearly through the musical than the book! Time to find a copy of the libretto… Yes, it’s available at Amazon for a $1 + shipping.

    Anyone want to bet that much of the Blavatsky/metanarrative-Garden-assault has been washed out of the score, as, say, the Vatican 1 Catholicism is from Sound of Music? Just looking at the description of Marsha Norman’s musical version online, it really does seem (like Sound of Music) to be a human potential drama made out of a borderline religious tract. For one thing, Susan Sowerby has been written out of the story (goodbye, Mother!) and the eye correspondence with Lily is with Mary not Colin. Fascinating.

    Thank you, Heidi, for this revelation.

  9. Thanks, John, for your response there. It sums up a lot of thoughts I had as I skimmed through Josh’s comments.

    I’m thinking that if there are similarities between Burnett’s Garden & Rowling’s HP, they are superficial & more along the lines of JKR picking up stuff from the compost heap of English literature & using it because she likes some of the names or what not.

    Has JKR ever mentioned Burnett as an influence? I haven’t gotten far enough into Villaluz’s book to see if she references this. But we know about Austen, Dickens, Lewis, Nesbit, Goudge et al as authors Rowling has specifically mentioned, as well as her study of alchemical theory & history. But is Burnett ever mentioned?

  10. BTW, I totally recognize that the HP Alchemy site says what you claimed early on–alchemical influence. Perhaps you can speak more about the Lily-Rose duality as necessity in the alchemical process–is there any? It seems that this would be an interesting compliment of esoteric knowledge and Christian love,
    maybe the syncretism even more perfect.

    As to your e-mail:
    “I heard from a friend that it is the musical version that Rowling raided —
    Lily has green eyes, she has two lovers a la Snape and James, etc. Please
    jump right in and tell us the play/book differences, especially if the play
    has less Burnett/Blavatsky and more New Testament!”

    The song “Lily’s Eyes” has a reference to “the girl has Lily’s hazel eyes,” a color which, according to my Webster’s, normally is reddish-brown with green OR gray flecks in it, which does nothing but bridge from “Secret Garden” to HP.

    There are a few differences, including the construct of both Archibald and his brother, Dr. Craven, having been in love with Lily; Dr. Craven is subsequently a bit of a tyrant who wants to inherit the house and tries to have Mary sent to a boarding school in the second act (Hmmmmm…..). The major difference at the end of Act I Mary meets Colin, then is cast out in the storm and runs into the garden, not being shown by the robin again.

    A full synopsis is available:

    Also of interest: in the play, Mary’s mother, who is not named (and appears to be having an affair with a soldier) in the book, is named, well, of course: Rose.

    The musical premiered, according to Wikipedia, on 25 April 1991. I don’t know if JKR likes musicals–because it certainly could have been a formative influence during the first writing stages of HP, especially if she knew the movie and the book well enough to comment on the adaptations–but if she happened to be in NYC that year or subsequently, because the show didn’t open in the West End until 2001, so, unknown….more likely the book, but we’d have ask her.

  11. I’m not sure if I saw the Coppola movie or not. I remember seeing one adaptation of The Garden that was a Hallmark special. That was the 1987 version; just looked it up on Amazon.

    As for the kinship, even if there is a kinship in some themes which are more than superficial, I think it is as you said, that Rowling has so transformed them that they might not bear much resemblance to what Burnett was trying to get across. But we’ll see when I reread the book again. Like I said, The Secret Garden isn’t really one of my favorite books & so I haven’t reread it all that much. I’m much better with Tolkien, Lewis, & now Rowling. 🙂

  12. Wow, Josh — a lot to talk about here!

    First thing, if the musical doesn’t come to London until 2001, I think we can scratch off it being the vehicle of influence for Burnett’s story. That and ‘hazel’ meaning more brown than green (putting a blanket on the green-eyed link) makes the connection less vibrant to me. As far as I know, Ms. Rowling’s first trip to the US was in conjunction with a Book Tour to promote Harry. Unless there was a local UK production of the musical she saw soon after the Broadway opening, the links we’re making between show and Potter story aren’t possible.

    Second, I know you understand this but I should say the obvious. The Celtic and esoteric Christianity you describe is not accepted by conventional Christians as faith in Jesus of Nazareth. Even devotional Christians learning about traditional Christian epistemology and Orthodox soteriology are going to be stretched right to the limit of inclusiveness not to say “pained” by your Mother/Father God and Kundalini points. Just for the record. (And I won’t even bring up the Philip Pullman aside you make!)

    About Nicolas of Cusa and Campbell, the description of God as an intelligible sphere is St. Alain of Lisle and Bonaventure’s before Cusa’s and it comes from a third century hermetic text before its baptism in the 11th century. Panentheism is the Orthodox Christian perspective on Creator and creation but not all panentheists are Christian. Almost certainly, by their own confession, the Theosophical Society founders were not except in a syncretic “we are all faiths” sort of ad hoc membership. There is Mystery and a relatively esoteric way in Christian faith; “secret doctrines” and “esoterica” per se, however, are almost always sure markers of heresy, especially when not tied to fidelity and obedience to the church.

    You brought those things up, though, I think, only to make the point that there could still be a Burnett/Rowling influence because Rowling’s anagogical meaning is relatively hermetic. If that’s what you meant, I agree. I’d only add by way of clarification that it’s quite the clean up job that she does! Restoring logos cosmology for magic from ‘I am divine’ New Thought consciousness is not a quick fix.

    In other words, Potter has an allegorical and moral level of meaning that is an implicit and, at moments, explicit Christian message; Garden does not, except in re-casting the Garden of Eden metanarrative about man’s fallen nature, which is only Christian in being anti-Christian. If the influence from Burnett to Rowling is from the book rather than the musical, which your opening dates make it seem probable that it is, Rowling has absorbed and changed over the Blavatsky content of Garden as neatly and cleanly as any human eater digests and transforms haggus and tripe into themselves. Big changes!

    Great comments; thank you for starting this conversation and for the heavy lifting you’ve done!

  13. Well, I’d find it strange if Rowling wasn’t familiar with The Secret Garden. But how much she imbibed of it, that’s the question, I think. Because there are so many sources she could’ve drawn from to create her story. And as Travis points out in his book, the well or soup or lake from which all these English authors have drawn kind of has all these themes simmering around in it. So, it’s quite probable, & certainly seems probably, that their works might have similar themes & imagery in them. The trick, I suppose, is picking out from which portions of the soup Ms. Rowling drew certain themes or images or if even she could tell us where they came to her from!

  14. Two quick notes here:

    (1) Josh’s point that the kinship between New Thought and the hermetic Christianity at Rowling’s anagogical layer are more important than I allow is significant. That is where the influence shows, I think, albeit with substantial changes on Rowling’s end, even more than the superficial touches, which I think are pointers. Don’t neglect this because Ms. Rowling hasn’t confirmed it (which I am pretty sure she hasn’t); remember the Tolkien denials…

    (2) The book is heavy with Blavatsky/New Thought. The musical stage production do not come to the UK until 2000. But the Francis Ford Coppola movie comes out in 1993 and was very popular, if no blockbuster. Anyone out there seen that movie? How does it differ from the book? How are the eyes treated? Does Mrs. Sowerby/Weasley/Blavatsky appear in it? I.e., could this be the primary way through which Ms. Rowling experienced the Burnett influence? essential video

    Filmed before (and quite nicely) in 1949, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story was remade for this admirable 1993 release, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. Splendidly adapted by Edward Scissorhands screenwriter Caroline Thompson, the film opens in India during the early 1900s, when young Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is orphaned and sent to England to live in Misselthwaite Manor, the gloomy estate of her brooding and melancholy uncle, Lord Craven (John Lynch). Because the uncle is almost always away on travels, struggling to forget the death of his beloved wife, Mary is left mostly alone to explore the estate. Eventually she befriends the young brother of a staff maid and Lord Craven’s apparently crippled son, who has been needlessly bedridden for years. Together the three children restore a neglected garden on the estate grounds, and in doing so they set the stage for a moving reaffirmation of life and love. Filmed with graceful style and careful attention to the intelligence and cleverness of young children, The Secret Garden is that rarest breed of family film that transcends its own generic category, encouraging a sense of wonder and optimism to become a rewarding experience for viewers of any age. –Jeff Shannon

    And Maggie Smith plays the housekeeper role!

  15. Remember this from an old Rowling interview before the movies were made, a point Josh made in his Christmas letter:

    “Q: What plans are being made for Harry Potter, the movie?

    A [Rowling]: It’s in the very early stages. Summer of 2001 is the target date. I have script approval, and I’m in close contact with the writer. Among the things that swayed me to Warner Bros. were the movies The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. . . . They treated the books with respect and made changes where it absolutely made sense.”

    We have Ms. Rowling saying here she is familiar with both the Secret Garden book and movie — and thought she had thought about the differences and the “sense” of the changes one could make to the original story with “respect.”

    Make what you will of that.

  16. John: Does Mrs. Sowerby appear in the 1993 version of the movie?

    No, she doesn’t appear, there is a mention of her when one of her daughter’s hands Mary the jump rope. She said something along the lines of “My Mother sent this along to you.” She might have been mentioned one other time by the daughter, I can’t remember. I just watched the movie about three days ago too. The movie isn’t so much a sermon as a tale. The healing of Colin is presented as having more to do with him having been so spoiled, and is cured by getting out an getting some exercise and fresh air, there is a scene where they do use “The Magic” to call Archibald back to the manor, as he’s off on a journey.

    I do not recall The Little Princess book having as nearly as strong a hidden doctrine as The Secret Garden does.

    The movie version of The Little Princess, I’m not certain on the year, I think 1995, and directed by the same person who did the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban movie, did have something a little more similar however to the messages of The Secret Garden. Though much of it is explained to be the work of the next-door neighbor.


  17. Another Francis Hodgson Burnett/Rowling link possibility:

    Read about The Little Princess, Sara Crewe, here and then look at that last name.

    Make the ‘v’ in ‘Creavy’ into a classical Latin pronunciation ‘w’ and it becomes ‘Crewe.’ Is Colin Creavy a hat-tip to both of Burnett’s most popular books? Sara’s eyes are green, hers is a boarding school novel. and we know from the movie quotation above that Ms. Rowling is familiar with both books.

    I’ll review The Little Princess in the New Year and see if Burnett’s New Thought/Theosophy is as plain there as it is in Secret Garden. For all the Indian/Hindu aspects of the lead character, I doubt it. The Secret Doctrine-Garden seems to have been a set assault on the Garden of Eden Christian narrative about fallen man. The composition history of The Little Princess makes me think that possibility is unlikely for the earlier book, though it would be interesting (if I were a kid lit professor) to track the St. Nicholas serialized novella, through the plays, up to the final expansion into a proper novel.

    Sara Crewe is the eponymous “little princess”. She is the only daughter of Ralph Crewe, an officer in the British Army. Her French mother died at Sara’s birth. Sara was born and raised in India, and speaks Hindi in addition to English and French. She is exceptionally clever, kind and generous, in spite of the fact that she is given every luxury she could ask for. Sara is also a gifted storyteller and has a creative imagination. She pretends she is a princess and strives to emulate the qualities of one: generosity, compassion and politeness. Sara is seven when the story begins, eleven when she loses her fortune, and about thirteen when she is re-discovered. Although she is not beautiful, she is known for her unusual grey-green eyes.

    While Sara is depicted as a positive character, Burnett notes that she is “no angel”. She has a quick temper and in one scene she barely restrains herself from hitting Lavinia. She also snubs Ermengarde for a time after she has lost her fortune. She later admits that she “might fly into a rage and kill Miss Minchin.” In addition, some modern readers are troubled that she seems to perceive no contradiction in empathising with “the populace” while personally identifying with Marie Antoinette (albeit when Marie Antoinette has been imprisoned and is awaiting execution).

  18. So much to think about in this! You have responded very aptly to Josh’s lengthy post (no judgment), and much better than I could have. I only hope he pops up again to respond! P’rhaps he’ll figure me out from my user name..

    I’d have to second Shane’s comments on the Blavatsky things. Dickon and Martha’s mother never makes an appearance. I haven’t seen it as recently, but the “Magic” seemed to be firmly grounded in Eastern beliefs, including a ritual at the end where the children dance around a fire saying some words in (what I assume is) Hindi and culminating in Colin calling upon some deity to release his father and return him to him (if I recall the rhyme correctly, it goes something like, “Oh great rajah, please come to me. Send me my father here; set his spirit free!”). Basically, I think you gave the book a deeper, closer reading than did those who adapted it, because the element are there in fainter forms.

    I feel entirely outclassed by these exchanges, as the shear weight of each comment is beyond me. I appreciate all the thought and analysis – I hope I am learning as I try to digest it all. I wish I could offer more to these conversations, but hopefully my recollection of the movie will be of some use!

    The only other bit of knowledge I could offer is that of someone who has hazel eyes! Hazels range quite a bit, and in some ways are a catch-all for anything that is not one color only but ranges from greys and browns to greens. I don’t know if that’s of any use, but it is possible for hazel eyes to be quite green (lately, people have thought mine are green, as opposed to when I was a child and there was more brown).

    thanks to all.

  19. Nzie: I think the words were: “Oh great magic. Please come unto me. Send me my father here. Set his spirit free!” I decided to just check out the subtitles, well you were pretty close, but I did catch Colin saying that they were “doing an experiment” right before they began the chanting. So, the author’s belief does appear to be in there a little bit at least. But I think you’re right about the Eastern belief being the one called upon here in regards to the chanting around the fire.

    Fascinating conversation!


  20. My point was (in short form), basically what John summarized:
    we can’t just dismiss SG as influence on HP simply because it doesn’t fit conventional Christian viewpoints, because neither does HP!
    To do so would be some sort of quid hoc propter hoc (I think that is the academic phrase I am searching for). I am pretty sure that Narnia/LOTR were very influenced by Greek, Roman, Norse, medieval mythologies, which certainly weren’t Christian.

    Esoterica, like mysticism, in all religions verges on the thin edge of the gray understanding of reality, which is why the Christian perspective is usually to counsel away from it. That hardly makes the vital foundation of the universe, whether you call it “Magic” or “immanence” different–except in all-important UTILITY, which John has pointed out, (well, I think), from the beginning of his analysis of SG, which seems to be spot-on.

    We are in an age where syncretism is all over the place and we have to dialogue with the text (as well as each other, the beauty of HogPro), and with other religions. I also just personally believe we are in an age when a greater opening of the engagement of Truth will have to reconcile the influences of (as Vatican II counsels) the “seeds of The Word” strewn about other religions other than merely Judaism. That is, that East and West are going to have to make major inroads, whether esoteric or praxis or whatever. Perhaps it is that the defining metaphor of Western thought has been in the ordering of the rows of the fields, but for the East it is encountering the garden–which is wild!

    Religion, and culture, seem to have been quite porous over the millenia; now we have reached the age of saturation, so orthodoxy is more important (Nzie, don’t tell anyone I ever said that), but that the seeking of understanding is not the same as the defense of orthodoxy.

    To that end, there are more and more presentations on Celtic Christianity than ever before–and there need to be more, because of the subtleties so aptly put by John–which can balloon into major differences.

    Personally (as an aside), I can see how the lens between HP & SG are different, but I can say with only personal experience, British/Irish Christianity is way more open to these sorts of issues (including, apparently, homosexuality) than we, their more controversy-driven American counterparts. What I’ve heard RC priests say in daily Mass in Edinburgh would have American parishes scurrying for letter-writing campaigns to their Bishops.

    Finally, I think I was trying to point out that it is not rejection of an esoteric idea but the refinement of it which lay in the alchemical tradition–not the rejection of vitality and immanence and the worldly elements–this makes JKR an even more interesting hermeticist more in line with Incarnative thinking and the idea of Apocatastasis, which itself is found in Gnosticism and Christianity in very different ways (at least according to quick source Wikipedia) than FHB, but I did not get the sense that FHB was trying to be Gnostic like other Theosophists (that the body must be destroyed so that the soul can be free).

    But I am merely thinking, which always seems to get me into trouble!

  21. Oh, by the way, in full disclosure, I am a preacher’s kid, like many of the world’s great atheists (Nietzsche, for one, who is also one of my favorites; including, by all extents and purposes, Phillip Pullman), so, though I am a practicing Roman Catholic (I hope a good one), perhaps I have, and will always be, a skeptical one….Which is why I agree with the first half of this statement by my friend John, “‘secret doctrines’ and ‘esoterica’ per se, however, are almost always sure markers of heresy, especially when not tied to fidelity and obedience to the church” but not always the second (although I am still not sure how HP is, even literarily, not Christian esoterica). I am pretty sure that St. Francis, being a radically immanent person, was considered esoteric in his time!

    Just in response to my laugh to John’s comment of my love of “His Dark Materials”! Again, in full disclosure….!

  22. BTW, as another aside, this idea of mind-over-body is obviously a little older than Madames Blavatsky or Burnett or even “New Thought.”

    “Paracelsus is credited as providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: ‘Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard.'”

    Does it go all the way back to alchemy’s origins in Egypt?

    Just thinking about the hermitic tradition, ’tis all. (And also how strange it is that Paracelsus was born in the same village as my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, which also happens to have a very large Benedictine monastery).

    Though I also did discover that the word “dis-ease” (which implies an emotional state-illness connection) wasn’t utilized until the 13th/14th Century; I always assumed (via “dis-) that it was of Greek origin, but apparently “ease” is untraceable.

  23. BTW (finally, I promise–at least for today) I realized that I have been using “esoteric” in a much wider context to include the praxis of mysticism in various forms and dealing with fringe metaphysics, etc., than the literal definition (as opposed to “exoteric” which we, myself included, all prefer).

  24. Ah well, my copy will be here tomorrow. Sad to hear it is not very helpful.

  25. I received The Annotated Secret Garden today from Amazon. It is a beautiful book whose variety and number of illustrations is wonderful and it includes Burnett”s essay ‘My Robin’ which is a treat.

    Having said that, the book offers very little but hints on the subject we are discussing here. Burnett denied being a Christian Scientist, for instance, and supposedly subscribed to what she called ‘Beautiful Thought’ rather than ‘New Thought’ (which had the New Age pagan, syncretic associations it has today).

    But there is nothing about Theosophy or Blavatsky or the occult except a paragraph from a letter describing how exciting she found the “concentrated’ almost universal interest in “the occult.” There is no description of her religious upbringing in the editor’s biography of Burnett that is included or account of her relationship with the Hall family of Boston that is supposed to have introduced her to New Thought, Christian Science, etc.

    All of which has to be counted as a great failing. The notes themselves are cursory and go into no depth. She does note that a lamb is a symbol of Christ, that Martha and Mary are meant to be understood as figures from scripture, and that the ‘Magic’ chapter is about Burnett’s beliefs — but, incredibly, says little more. Is Dickon meant to be a Christ figure as the guardian of the lamb? Is Mary’s one necessary thing serving Dickon? There is the suggestion in these notes that the story is a Christian allegory in which Colin is Lazarus but nothing beyond the hint. Saying the ‘Magic’ chapter is about Burnett’s beliefs without making the connections was especially disappointing.

    The editor, an English Professor at Dartmouth, has also edited the Norton Critical edition of Secret Garden. It is available for even less (used, at least) than this Annotated version and I have ordered it (if only for the essay in it, ‘The Secret Garden and the Occult’). Though this book is beautiful and appropriately priced at $7 new, I recommend readers interested in the meaning of Secret Garden as we are discussing it here get the Critical edition of the book and/or an academic biography of Burnett that explores her religious/spiritual tenets.

  26. This is so interesting about the possible connections or influences of Christian Science thought on the writing of The Secret Garden. I am what is sometimes referred to as a “recovering Christian Scientist.” I was raised a fourth-generation Christian Scientist and in my late teens I converted to orthodox Christianity where I am now an Anglican. I am part of a group of former Christian Scientists who pray for others to come out of Christian Science and recognize that Jesus Christ is far more than a “way-shower” but The Way. You can read more about this at

    That being said, I am floored by the connections between The Secret Garden and Christian Science or other metaphysical movements of the late 19th century (when my great-grandmother began to follow Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings). The Secret Garden was always strange to me – I really don’t the content to be inline with Christian Science in that it is so connected to the natural world (i.e., the Garden) and Christian Science sees “matter” – which would include the physical realm – as “temporal” and therefore non-spiritual or “unreal.” It is not the physical garden that represents a Christian Science view, but that which cannot be seen, the spiritual life which Christian Science would teach is real. To focus on the temporal world – even one so beautiful as The Garden – would be a temptation to a Christian Scientist, in fact, it’s antithesis.

    Case in point – Jesus is considered the Way Shower to the truth (i.e., Christian Science) but Christ is a completely separate concept. Jesus was temporal, Christ is spiritual. It’s an idea – and ideas are what are valued in Christian Science. To look on the material world is to be tempted. It’s hard for me to make the case that The Secret Garden could even be remotely connected to Christian Science because it would be considered a temptation to succumb to the effect of “mortal mind.”

    I don’t see how, from a Christian Science point of view, that it’s possible to represent through allegory and physical symbol a theological philosophy that rejects the physical as unreal – including an allegorical garden. This is one of the most frustrating and indeed frightening parts of Christian Science in that it is a mind-set, where indeed there needs to be a “spell” and one must live in that “spell” for if the spell is broken then the temptation to see the physical world and its manifestations as anything but an illusion would mark certain doom. It compels Christian Scientists to not leave what is for all intensive purposes – a cult. A garden would be – as it was for our human ancestors – a point of temptation.

    What does cause me to pause – and I think I’m going to need to think about this a bit – is what role the Holy Spirit plays in the regeneration of the human soul. How does the Garden motif reflect the role the Holy Spirit plays when we are set free from the bondage of sin and death? Is the Garden (post-Eden) an illustration, even a Christian illustration, of our regeneration when we are born from above, born again? Jesus prays, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …” What does that look like?

    Over the years I’ve seen the Garden in the Secret Garden as being an illustration of the human heart. It seemed to me that the rejuvenation the children experience as they tend the Garden – as they begin to abide there – the thorns and thickets of unresolved pain and unforgiveness are weeded out and they are changed themselves as they tend the Garden. We recognize this work as Jesus said that He is the Vine and we are branches and our life comes from being attached to the Vine, by abiding Him. The Garden, as the children first rediscover it – is so detached from the Vine it is dead. What brings it back to life is love.

    It seems to me that the Secret Garden may be another example of what C.S. Lewis’ called the “Tao.” It is the most basic natural law. What is missing is the Master Gardener. There does seem to be an Earth Mother – but no Master Gardener and the work suffers for that.

    I’d like to do some more thinking about this though. One of my all-time favorite books as a child was the Little Princess (or a young reader’s edition that I had nearly memorized called “Sarah Crew”). I also have a terrific adaption of Little Lord Fauntleroy on recorded tape with Alec Guinness and Ricky Schroeder. It’s excellent.

    The 1993 film version of The Secret Garden is mystical – which for this present generation is a respite from the non-magical works of 20th century high literature. The hunger, I would maintain, for mystery is one of the things that marks this present generation – and who would have thought it after the stripped down literature, art, and architecture of the 20th century. Even our churches were built without attention to mystery, being more inclined as entertainment centers than lofty cathedrals. That the present generation – from Star Wars to Harry Potter – is inclined toward mystery (which again is a fault of The Secret Garden in that mystery is never sustained – in fact, mystery is not present in Christian Science for then the scientific method could not be employed). The desire of this present generation to live with mystery, for evangelicals, for example, to rediscover ancient Christian practices such as celebrating the Eucharist – to the power of “magic” as a power of the imagination (again cast aside by the pundits of the 20th century) is, well, a mystery!

    Finally, though, this post that John has put together here – it causes me to rethink Harry Potter’s meeting with Dumbledore from a Christian Science perspective. I have felt unease with those scenes and now looking it, it could be that my unease has come from a sense that even those scenes feel strangely akin to the type of understanding of life/afterlife/death that we find in Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. With the death of J.K. Rowling’s mother, one can wonder if she didn’t explore some of these types of faith healing theologies and philosophies – perhaps to discard them, or – as she seems to have admitted herself – to find her faith.


  27. Wonderful comment, ZoeRose, as always.

    Time forbids a proper response today (I’m writing the last chapter for Bookshelf) right now in which Burnett is discussed with Blyton and Goudge). Just as an FYI, though: I read this week that Burnett insisted she was not a Christian Scientist or New Thought advocate. She thought of herself as a believer in “Beautiful Thought,” which differed from Christian Science in having a sacramental or material aspect (hence the love of gardening, etc., you point out that an Eddyite would think delusional). I’m sure folks of her day thought her a Christian Scientist because of the esoteric books she wrote, because of her association in Boston with Eddyites, and because of her near-merciless doctor bashing in her stories. But none of that equates to Christian Science, as you point out…

  28. rosesandthorns says

    It’s been such a long time since I’ve read The Secret Garden, that all I could remember was that you could help overcome your own personal failings (see past your selfcenteredness) by thinking of others and caring for others (the rather selfish Mary caring for Colin); that love is good, and even if you lose it, you shouldn’t shut yourself off from others (the hidden portrait of the mother and the hidden garden and the shut-away son); and that being outside in a garden, a place of beauty, warmth, and fresh air, is much better for one’s health than being in a stuffy, closed-off room!

  29. I realize that this post was written awhile back, but I just read The Secret Garden this weekend for the first time and found your blog via a google search on the religion of Burnett. Your assessment resonates with the way I felt after having read it. I told my husband that I got misty eyed when they sang the Doxology, but quickly got confused by Susan Sowerby’s comment directly following that it didn’t matter what name you gave the “Magic”. I thought it was pointing to God/Christianity, but it ended up sounding like an episode the Oprah Winfrey Show. I wish I came away with the same memories of the book as roseandthorns as that is the book I wanted to read, but I am haunted by Burnett’s strange underlying worldview.

    That being said, the only thing that makes me wonder if The Secret Garden does not espouse Christian Scientist philosophy in the way that you described is that it is made clear that Colin is not really sick at all. It is not actually a story about a boy who is physically ill and is made well only through nature and positive thinking because no real physical illness exists. Right?

    I apologize for my very elementary treatment of this book. I am not very well practiced in delving beyond the surface of stories – perhaps because I took too many literature classes in college in which the critical analysis of a book became absurd. However, upon reading The Secret Garden I told my husband that it made me newly aware of the didactic power a book has, and it somewhat bothered me in that it’s a book young minds digest. (Funny, in light of the hysteria over Harry Potter, a series in which I’ve never once held any kind of worry about children reading.)

    Thank you for your insights!

  30. Thank you, Erica, for your contribution to this conversation!

    You wrote:
    “That being said, the only thing that makes me wonder if The Secret Garden does not espouse Christian Scientist philosophy in the way that you described is that it is made clear that Colin is not really sick at all. It is not actually a story about a boy who is physically ill and is made well only through nature and positive thinking because no real physical illness exists. Right?”

    Christian Science understands all illness to be psychosomatic with origins in the soul aspect of the human body-soul unity, hence this depiction of Colin’s disease; the allopathic doctors are convinced it is a physical condition and neglect the spiritual while the smart children (and The Mother) know the real cause.

  31. John, this is such a wonderful post! I’m doing a group read for Catching up on Classic on Goodreads and I’ve put in a link to this article. Many thanks for the insights!

  32. P.S. Here is a link to our Secret Garden discussion:

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