The Seven Keys to — the Hogwarts Professor?

I was asked today by a very kind reporter to summarize the way I think about books and Harry Potter especially. Here, well,  below the jump,  is my flash response as a rushed email note, posted  for your comment, amendment, and correction:

I am on tour — writing from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, today — so I haven’t got access to my home computer files to send you a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection of things I’ve written. Real quickly, though, the seven ideas that run through everything I’ve written about the Inklings, Ms. Rowling, and Mrs. Meyer are: 
  • Eliade’s thesis, Granger corollary: Reading in a secular culture serves a religious or mythic function, the more Christian content and the more subtly it is delivered, the more popular the fiction is. The Potter books, in this light, not only are not “gateways to the occult,” they are as popular as they are only because of their edifying spiritual content and the profound experience readers share.
  • Iconological Criticism: Human beings know things in four ways — sense, opinion, science (deduction), and wisdom — hence every text of value, especially works of intentional artistry or divine inspiration, has traditionally been read at four levels rather than cricized eclusively at the surface narrative or moral layers. Rowling and Meyer are dismissed by deconstructive-happy and nominalist critics that don’t know how to read the way people have understood scripture and fiction from Homer and the rabbinic culture through Dante, Aquinas, and Spencer, through John Ruskin and Northrup Frye. Potter-mania and the Twi-hards are responses to texts that works as spiritual allegories and anagogical translucencies.
  • Literary Alchemy, the Alchemy of literature: there is a tradition of transformational symbolism in English literature from Shakespeare to Rowling which has the staying power and just sheer power it has because reading fiction as an activity itself is an alchemical experience. Though that Ms. Rowling was writing intentionally alchemical fiction was scoffed at for more than a few years, we now have an interview in which the author admits as much. Mrs. Meyer. Ms. Collins, and Mr. Ness incorporate much of the same symbolism and sequences in their serial fiction.
  • Shared Text: Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have changed and continue to re-make the 21st century story-telling world (cf., Twilight, Chaos Walking, Hunger Games) because they are the books everyone knows — and the experience that is now a common expectation from other stories [Google ‘John Granger Book Binders Touchstone’ for an article I wrote on this subject.]
  • Ring Composition: the Hogwarts Saga both as a seven part cycle and as individual books is written as traditional Ring, meaning its beginning and end elide, its midpoint is an echo and pointer to the beginning-end conjunction, and the chapter-books on either side of the divide mirror those after them. If anyone doubted the detail of the artistry and planning of these works, the revelation that every one of the 198 chapters in the series is deliberately placed and related to other chapters to create an exact effect should extinguish that doubt. [My lecture on this subject is now available as a download: Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle.]
  • Postmodernism: Everything written in the 21st century must confirm and reinforce the politically correct anti-metanarrative metanarrative of our time — while the best works address this contradiction and point to a transcendent metanarrative of love as the best exit. Ms. Rowling is not as successful as she is without preaching what we already believe — if she does give us some xperience of a larger, non-relativist view.
  • Logos Epistemology: English high fantasy is grounded in Coleridgean natural theology, most notably that the “world is Mental” (as Barfield taught Lewis) and that the non-personal logos of our conscience and thinking is continuous if not identical with the fabric of reality created by the Logos or Word of God (hence the Harry-Dumbledore conversation Rowling says is key to the series: “Of course this is happening in your head, Harry, but why would you think it isn’t real?”)
  I hope this helps!
John, back to work here at beautiful Augustana


  1. I think this is a very nice, concise explanation. This is the first I’ve seen the four levels of interpretation described as relating to the four ways humans know things. Do you have any suggestions as to where I can read more about this connection?

  2. Thank you so much for your brilliant insights and incredible diligence, Mr. Granger! I am so looking forward to learning more about each of these subjects in person when you visit the High Country next week! 🙂

  3. Very interesting, Professor. Thank you! There’s a number of threads here I’ll want to pursue in my own research, especially points two and three.

    I do want to query you a little bit on Eliade’s thesis, Granger corollary, however. It would seem, based on this premise as stated here–mass-market popularity corresponding directly to subtle Christian themes–that George MacDonald would thus be the most wildly popular author of all time, and that the likes of Asimov and Wells should be no more than feed for the dustbin. Which, for good or ill, doesn’t seem to be the case.

    How do you reconcile this thesis cases like these, or, to choose another example, the wild and ongoing popularity to Terry Prachett, whose works contain a clear anti-religious message as often as not?

    Thanks again for a brilliant post.

  4. Great question!

    First, the ‘Greats’ do two things: confirm beliefs of the age while addressing eternal questions and verities. Popular books, as a rule, only do the former. I doubt Wells, Prachett, or Asimov will be read in a century except as ‘period pieces.’

    Second, books that deliver imaginative — and I mean that in a Coleridgean sense — experience of transcendent truths fall out of reading favor as they lose traction with contemporary beliefs. We’d all have Homer, Virgil, and Dante in our hearts if this weren’t the case and we might have read Shakespeare just because we wanted to as young adults rather than because we had to (about which, please listen to this man’s thoughts on why compulsory education destroys aesthetic experience).

    Last, the Eliade-Granger thesis is specific to a secular culture and the consequent longing for spiritual oxygen and exercise for the human heart as designed. Of course a secular culture will also be producing secular and anti-religious pieces — but the act of reading in itself as a suspension of disbelief and act of poetic faith is still a cardiac experience because the discursive and strictly individual faculties of the reader have been set aside insomuch as s/he enters into story.

  5. Thanks, John. Fascinating answer. Let me, if I may, push you a bit more on this, though.

    It seems, if I understand correctly, that the more nuanced version of Eliade-Granger version suggests that a book will be popular within a secular culture if a) it contains subtle Christian themes and b) appeals to the popular bias. As books lose the popularity appeal of b), they fall increasingly on the dustbin of history and become the precinct of antiquarians. But if they are rich in a), they endure as great literature. (Your third point–the act of reading as cathartic faith-experience–seems a somewhat different argument; suffice it to say I agree.)

    Fair enough?

    I see a couple potential problems with this. First, it is–and perhaps it is only intending to be–only valid within a Western cultural context, and therefore seems inadequate to judge ‘the Greats’ unilaterally. We cannot expect the Great World Literature produced by Islamic and Hindu and even post-colonial, post-orientalist cultures to contain subtle Christian themes–again, in the case of post-colonialism, you may be finding distinctly anti-Christian themes. And yet it seems unhelpful to say that either these are not great literature because they do not conform to Western standards, or that, by a sort of Freudian twist, they really are Christian and just don’t realize it. The latter argument could be made–Tolkien and Lewis famously advocated something similar–but then I think it becomes a theological argument, not literary. Literary criticism can, of course, be informed by that sort of theological position, but I’m not sure whether it should be used in determining why the literary canon is canonical. (Something Lewis and Tolkien did not do.)

    Second, the rise of ‘secular culture’ per se really only goes back about a hundred years; of course most of the great Western literature has Christian themes–and Western Art is filled with Madonnas and Crucifixions. The Christ-narrative serves as the main artistic interface for the arts and artistic expression; the religious symbols have become equated with emotional and spiritual longings and desires (so Potok’s ‘My Name is Asher Lev’). But is this necessarily a good indication of how a post-Christian, secular society will judge and produce its Greats? Already, I would argue, secular works of outstanding literary merit, which seem to lack Christian themes without undue shoehorning, and that no longer cater to the popular bias, are carving their place in the Canon–the works of Camus, for instance, or Yeats or Shaw (to seize the first names that come to mind).

    It seems premature to prescribe how a secular society values its Great literature–not just its non-secular literary heritage; we rather have the privilege of watching a new culture find its literary voice. Am I right in guessing that the Eliade-Granger thesis is at least partly formed as a theory for how this will play out?

    Your thoughts on these potential problems, or related issues?

    Thanks for humoring my questions. You caught me at a bad–or a good, alternatively–time; I’m on deadline, so all cylinders firing. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the RSA link, by the way. Brilliant, and a lot to think about.

  7. Mr. Pond,

    I thought your points were very interesting. However, I think we read John’s points about eternal questions and truths differently. You have equated this with Christian centered literature. As I read John’s points, I seem them as being much broader. I don’t think he is suggesting that literature written within a Muslim society would need be Christocentric to be great literature. Instead, I think he is suggesting that the literature would need to address the great questions facing us through that culture.

    I think it might also be possible to have great literature written from a secular standpoint that would also address these questions. However, I think that would be a much greater challenge. Much of secular culture seems to me to be based on challenging the importance of the great questions. If so, it would seem problematical to write a book that addresses these questions while simultaneously denying their importance without creating a book that nobody would want to read.

  8. I am not really familiar with this learning, but a book, text, is incomplete until it is read by the public. The readers’ response depends on their own ideology and worldview, over which the writer has no control, except perhaps with polemics. This transcendence by readership may be an alchemical element.

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