Tinuvielas Alchemical Notes: Flow, Rubedo, More

One of the joys of being a Potter Pundit is correspondence I enjoy with serious readers around the world (hi, Odd!). ‘Tinuvielas’ is a German writer who has written here several times and to me personally about literary alchemy and I have always been enriched, not to say ‘stretched,’ by what I have learned in those notes. I hope very much, for instance, that you will someday be able to read Tiunvielas’ thoughts on the alchemy in Shelley’s Frankenstein which promises to be great work.

Anyway, Tinuvielas posted notes this morning on HogPro alchemy threads and I worry that many readers who don’t scan the “comments” column daily will miss the insights therein. Hence this compilation post. I look forward to reading your comments about and corrections to these thoughts:

[First comment]

I recently read John’s Deathly Hallows Lectures while at the same time rereading Hallows – something to be highly recommend not only because the former is a total eye-opener (pun intended…), but also because reading the two texts practically side by side helps one see what to look for. For instance, the typical features that point to the respective Nigredo, Albedo and Rubedo-stages in the novel.

While John’s comments on the Nigredo and Albedo stages in Hallows were totally on spot for me, I wasn’t entirely convinced of his identification of the respective Rubedo-features in the last stage of DH (not to be confused with his comments on Hallows as Rubedo of the series!). I rather thought, for instance, that the moment when Ron and Hermione kissed in the presence of all that death and fighting around them made for a very nice alchemical wedding, even if they didn’t actually “marry” in that precise moment. But they do finally recognize each other and become “one flesh” pretty obviously, with Ron lifting Hermione up etc, and Harry standing next to them and looking on.

I also noticed two other alchemical features that I’m not sure have been mentioned in the book or on the site so far (though I may have overlooked them):

a) the fact that it is said (in “The Forest Again”) that Harry felt like his soul was “oddly disconnected” from his body. This ties in perfectly with the idea of the soul leaving the Hermaphrodite body and coming back when it is cleaned, though I’m not sure what the cleaning is – Hagrid’s big, splashy tears are perhaps a bit late for that, seeing as Harry is already back in his body?

b) the fact that Voldemort and Harry move in a “perfect circle” during their final confrontation when Harry has, in John’s words, “acchieved the center”, their spells meeting in a flash of gold in the middle – for isn’t the circle the symbol of perfection and quintessence, of unity and transcendence, of the wheel having turned, and the oppositions having been overcome?

I hope these observations may be of some interest even though the discussion has by now moved on to (several) other topics… wish I had more time to follow all that 😉

[Second comment]

Back after a while with a couple of ideas and references that I found while researching (and trying to understand…) the concept of literary alchemy – I hope this thread, albeit is has been asleep for a while, is the right place to post them.

For one, I find it helpful to explain the idea of literary alchemy through the psychological concept of “flow”. I wonder if you’re familiar with “flow” (check out Wiki for a first idea of the term) and if you’ll agree with me that it is a good picture of literary alchemy?

“Flow” describes the feeling of being totally immersed in the here-and-now, something children experience easily when involved in playing. This “flow” is something most people seek also in their adult lives, which accounts for the fascination of such different things as, say, paragliding (adrenaline-boost!), movie-going and reading. All of these activities, but reading especially, send you into the state of “flow”, of forgetting about your ego and your worries, they tie you into an immediate experience of something “other” while being immersed into the here and now, pretty much like meditation.

In the case of reading, of course, and to a certain extent of watching a movie, this experience can be likened to visiting a different world – J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “Recovery” –, but there’s also the fact that when reading you actually IDENTIFY with an OBJECT, i.e. the book, in a process that enables you to CHANGE. I find this aspect of “flow” very intriguing and similar to what I guess the medieval alchemists must have imagined they were doing when identifying with the metallurgical matter.

Another thing I’d like to share with you is the following quotation that I recently found in my in-box. It is part of an advertisement, written by Dr. Rainer Esser, editor of the renowned intellectual German newspaper “DIE ZEIT”, which has been launching (and promoting) a new literary supplement. It says:

“A good book opens the doors of our imagination. It makes us laugh, makes us cry. Good literature touches our soul – and sometimes even shows us its abysses. And once we’ve reached the last page, we’re often a different person from the one we were on the first page”. (German original below). Guess if I laughed out loud when I read that! Goes to show how all-present the concept of literary alchemy still is!

The German original: “Ein gutes Buch öffnet die Tore unserer Fantasie. Es lässt uns lachen, lässt uns weinen. Gute Literatur berührt unsere Seele — und zeigt manchmal sogar deren Abgründe auf. Und sind wir auf der letzten Seite angekommen, sind wir oft nicht mehr der Mensch, der wir noch auf der ersten Seite waren.”


  1. Arabella Figg says

    Being an avid reader, I very much like the idea of “flow” as being representational of the work of alchemy. Because I do identify with a book by entering its world, and as it does it’s work, it’s often a permanent transformative experience. I went through a very difficult period several years ago where I read particular books to help me through that time, resulting in personal growth, and transformation that continues to this day.

    Thanks for sharing this, Tinuvielas!

  2. Unfortunately, I haven’t read The DH Lectures, so if I’m presenting something that has already been suggested, or is plainly obvious (which I have a history of doing), I beg your forgiveness ahead of time.

    In regards to a), I would agree that Hagrid’s tears are late (1) because Harry is back in his body and (2) because it’s not the body that would be cleansed, but the soul – which goes to King’s Cross. Unfortunately, I don’t have DH at my disposal, it’s in a box waiting to be relocated to our new house (one of these months), but the only water symbol that could be found at King’s Cross was the fog (maybe JKR used the word “mist”). So, it may be a stretch to say that the fog is the cleansing waters, but then we have Albus coming into the scene — a white garment — turning Harry away from the part that was cleansed away. All this taking place at King’s Cross creates several strong baptismal images for me, and it takes place before Harry returns to his body.

    Regarding “Flow”, I liked this point. I’m familiar with the term as it’s used in the psychology and counseling field. It does make a good parallel.

  3. Tinuvielas says

    Thanks for reading and appreciating! 🙂 Glad to find others find the concept useful. I think the concept of “flow” does help modern, rationalist empirical thinkers (like myself P) to better understand what literary alchemy is about, or rather, how it is supposed to work. I confess I had trouble, not “understanding” the idea, but somehow “grasping” it, in spite of John’s detailed explanations. Alchemy isn’t (or wasn’t) regarded as a sacred and mystical science for nothing…

    As to the cleansing, I agree about the possible baptismal symbolism of mist and white Albus – but if I’m not totally wrong (and I may well be, not knowing nearly enough about the matter), the alchemical reference would indeed be to a cleansing of the “dead” body at this stage (the soul having departed to heaven and waiting to return) – as can be inferred for instance from the “rosarium philosophorum” (compare http://hdelboy.club.fr/rosarium_9.jpg, not that I have any idea about the quality of the website, but you get an image of the relevant page with the German text, which says more or less: “dew falls from the sky and washes the black body in the grave”.

    Curious to hear your opinions and/or corrections about this!

  4. Arabella Figg says

    You’re not alone Tinuvielas. I, too, find myself very weak at grasping literary alchemy, despite years of exposure to John’s excellent explanations, and his clear analyses of works in light of it. I get the general gist, but seem to have a “teflon” spot in my brain to which its application refuses to stick.

    When I’m reading, I become so at one with the book and its world that, when I’m interrupted, it’s like slowly emerging to the surface from the bottom of a deep swimming pool. And certain books stick with me in a way others don’t, having impact on my life and how I live it. So I really appreciate your “flow” analogy.

  5. Tinuvielas, nice to see you again. And TC – congrats on your new job, and best wishes with your move to a new home.

    I really like the description of flow. I’ve not heard of that, but it makes so much sense. Like some of you, I struggle with alchemy. I see it when John points it out, and sometimes I see it on my own, but other times, it just goes right over my head. And whenever I try to explain it to someone who hasn’t heard of it, I find that my grasp is still lacking, because they tend to look at me as though I have two heads and just dropped in from outer space.

    So, question. Does the “washing” always have to be with something liquid? So would the wetness of the mist be enough? Or can the washing away be something symbolic? Harry at King’s Cross was “cleansed” or “baptised” by being there, by talking to Dumbledore, by seeing what had become of Voldemort. The mist and the dream-like quality just add visually to the point that Harry is undergoing a transformation to a new self.

    I think one of the reasons I love reading is that I can be so totally immersed in a story that I lose track of everything else. When I sit at Barnes and Noble Cafe every Friday afternoon with my mocha and my mp3 player tuning out the conversations, it doesn’t take me long to get lost in a book.


    About the comments: John, thanks for posting this here. I’ve been having trouble with my RSS Feeds – for some reason, they won’t update. And because I deleted all my links, I now don’t have RSS Feeds to the comments sections. (I hate it when something that was working stops working for no apparent reason.)

  6. Arabella Figg says

    This is probably totally off the wall, but…is it possible that Harry’s forgiveness of Dumbledore in King’s Cross was the cleansing work (in light of the other symbolism there), enabling him to offer redemption to Voldemort? Achieving forgiveness toward those who had done serious evil to me enabled me to pray for their wellbeing and happiness. I found it very cleansing, freeing and transformative.

  7. That makes sense to me, Arabella. And perhaps when Rowling talked of subverting the genre she was including the use of alchemy, using it in a way that echos the tradtition but is a little different.


  8. Eeyore, thank you, thank you, thank you!!! We’re really excited and nervous at the same time. My wife just left me a voicemail saying we have our first showing tomorrow (*crosses fingers . . . toes . . . eyes . . . whatever*).

    Tinuvielas, you have a good point. The problem that I keep coming to is that we really don’t have any indication of what takes place during the time that Harry is “oddly disconnected” from his body until he returns to it in the next chapter. And my reading of it hinted that the disconnect along with everything that happened in King’s Cross happened instantaneously. Because that the beginning of the next chapter, people were still rushing to Voldemort’s aid. The only other agent that I can think of would be the green light of the Avada Kedavra curse. Again, another stretch… So, even though the textbook example of alchemy puts the cleansing on the black body, I still think that in this case the cleansing is seen from the spiritual side and not the physical side. The inner cleansing, not just the outer. I like Arabella’s point too about forgiving Dumbledore too.

    On Reading and Flow: First, I’m very jealous of your Friday afternoons at B&N Cafe, Eeyore. 😉 I get similarly engrossed in the books that I read, it takes me a while, but once I’m there, I’m there. And when I read, the book is playing like a movie in my head. And sometimes, I have to go back and redo (reread) a scene if my head doesn’t get it right. I dream like that oftentimes as well. I’m not actually in the dream, I’m just watching it all happen.


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