Was Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein an Alchemist? Introducing the ‘Potter as Pearl Harbor’ Thesis

The News from Summit Entertainment this week (H/T to James!) is that the Twilight film makers understand something of what made the Forks Saga the bonanza it has been for them. I’m pretty confident they’d call it “paranormal romance” and “love triangle” rather than “literary alchemy” or “soul triptych” but those of you who have listened to my talks on Harry Potter and Twilight that I gave last weekend at the Eighth Day Institute will recognize the features. From the MTV article, ‘Summit Entertainment To Bring Frankenstein to Life:

Summit Entertainment’s already worked box office magic with vampires and werewolves, but can they do the same for Frankenstein (the mad scientist, not the monster)? According to Deadline, the studio behind “The Twilight Saga” has acquired the screen rights to the upcoming YA novel “This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein” by Kenneth Oppel, which hits bookstores August 23.

The novel is a prequel of sorts to Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein.” The plot centers around young Victor Frankenstein and his quest to save sick twin brother Konrad. He seeks help from a mysterious alchemist, who sends Victor and his friend Elizabeth on a dangerous journey to find the three ingredients needed to create a serum called the Elixir of Life that will heal Konrad. Like any YA novel worth its salt, the inevitable love triangle ensues.

Checking out the Amazon page Book Description, we learn the trio’s hero journey has three stages:

Victor and Konrad are the twin brothers Frankenstein. They are nearly inseparable. Growing up, their lives are filled with imaginary adventures…until the day their adventures turn all too real.

They stumble upon The Dark Library, and secret books of alchemy and ancient remedies are discovered. Father forbids that they ever enter the room again, but this only peaks Victor’s curiosity more. When Konrad falls gravely ill, Victor is not be satisfied with the various doctors his parents have called in to help. He is drawn back to The Dark Library where he uncovers an ancient formula for the Elixir of Life. Elizabeth, Henry, and Victor immediately set out to find assistance in a man who was once known for his alchemical works to help create the formula.

Determination and the unthinkable outcome of losing his brother spur Victor on in the quest for the three ingredients that will save Konrads life. After scaling the highest trees in the Strumwald, diving into the deepest lake caves, and sacrificing one’s own body part, the three fearless friends risk their lives to save another.

So we have a doppelganger not in Shelley’s original story which suggests self-other mirror elision identity issues.  Add to that what I’m guessing is a body-mind-spirit triptych on a nigredo-albedo (underwater caves!) -rubedo journey of loving sacrifice to save the dying Self.

Sound familiar? I doubt we’ll have the Alchemical Wedding before the opening of the red stage — we have to expect there be contractions and omissions of the whole alchemical formula in a one volume adventure — but the rest is there and the doppelganger piece is one neglected in Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, and Chaos Walking.

I think this will have to be our last August reading at HogwartsProfessor. I think it will be a good test of what I’m calling ‘The Pearl Harbor Thesis.’

The Pearl Harbor Thesis in a nut-shell is this:

Perhaps the easiest way to grasp the effect of Ms. Rowling’s Shared Text on culture is to think of Harry Potter as something of a Pearl Harbor moment. Just as the bombing of the fleet in Hawaii didn’t magically call the Japanese threat in the Pacific into existence but brought this reality forcefully and undeniably to everyone’s full attention, so Harry and our grasp of what readers really want (and how to give it to them).

Potter Mania did not create the truth of the Eliade thesis that reading satisfies a spiritual need in a secular culture but the Hogwarts Saga has confirmed it spectacularly by its history making, off-the-chart book sales; delivering transcendent experience using traditional and Christian literary artistry as entertainment demonstrates the religious function of reading in a godless public square that Eliade postulated.

Harry Potter revealed rather than created as well the great spiritual hunger of our times – the longing of the eye of the inner heart for reflection and resonance in story – driving the boy wizard’s popularity. The Publishing Industry and Hollywood are now responding to this empirical data by delivering books and film on Rowling’s model of traditional symbolism and structures. They do so because of the reality in their bottom lines they cannot ignore because of the twin PotterTwilight elephants in the accounting room.

Hence Hunger Games and Chaos Walking, and, I suspect, This Dark Endeavor. Readers now know what kind of transformative and cardio-edifying experience they can have in fiction and they not only want this kind of story-fix, they expect it. Writers and publishers, being an especially savvy bunch, aren’t slow to figure out the story elements that, when combined artfully, deliver on these newly revealed but old as the hills expectations: genre melange, Young Adult parameters on magisterial language and sexuality (i.e., none), soul triptych, literary alchemy, action adventure (chase scene for the movie deal!), and edifying transformation of the Heart-y Hero.

We’ll be talking about the Pearl Harbor Thesis this year in the run-up to the release of the last movie because I suspect there will be more than a little speculation about its meaning the “end” of Potter Mania. Considering what Ms. Rowling has wrought and revealed, the ‘last movie,’ if anything, only means the end of the beginning of her influence. The Hogwarts Saga has re-shaped the publishing and film industries in terms of what readers and movie-goers now know they want and will pay to get, namely, their Eliade fix of “mythic function in secular culture.”

If you doubt this, I suspect This Dark Endeavor will and won’t reflect the alchemical subtext of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original Frankenstein. In the classic as you read in the excerpts posted below, we have a passionate young doctor who fuses the worst of the dark vision in alchemy (ego immortality; think ‘Voldemort’) and godless chemistry. The moral of Endeavor, again I’m guessing, might very well be similar in that the trio elect not to save young Konrad’s life because it would curse him with a false life.

But the adventure itself, as an exercise in literary alchemy for the reader, seems to promise a return to the Rowling formula for alchemical drama and cathartic experience and transformation. Look for some kind of resurrection post sacrifice and no little Christian imagery.

I covet your comments and corrections of my ‘Pearl Harbor Thesis’ (PHT!) and your thoughts on This Dark Endeavor. And, if you haven’t already, go back to the front page, scroll down one post, and enjoy the relevant first chapters of Shelley’s Frankenstein for your hermetic reflections and pleasure reading.


  1. This book looks interesting, in a neo-Victorian alchemy sort of way. Thanks for the tip-off.

    As for PHT, firstly, you may want to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point if you haven’t already, since from what I’ve heard (PRUBON! on me) it would align neatly with your ideas; you’d probably just be interested anyway.

    Secondly, how does this differentiate from just saying that HP is a Zeitgeist piece that touched the nerve of a generation of readers in the way that, say, The Old Curiosity Shop had done before? Or from saying that Rowling discovered a ‘safe’ way to market a sort of storytelling that had previously been relegated to niche market? Or that she came up with a good idea and now everyone’s following because that’s what sells (no deeper meaning necessary)? Just some basic questions to help set the parameters of the idea.

    […] so Harry and our grasp of what readers really want (and how to give it to them).

    Yikes! I can’t go with you there, John. As a critic, I often think that what readers want is often exactly opposite to what they need. And as an artist, I can’t let ‘how to give it to them’ play a part in the creation of my art (marketing is a different question, but then it becomes a different question in that context).

    Art of any sort, and invariably, must arise from a place of individual, personal longing and passion; I must tell the story to myself, and learn to tell the story I want to tell. If others read it and like it, well and good. But that’s not the heart, the centre, or even the motivation of art.

    All this is very reductive, but I mean more emphatically that such generalizations as ‘what readers want’ are inevitably to some degree anti-art.

    CSL wrote about this, of course, in ‘On Stories’ and ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children.’ And by and large he’s right.


  2. Your thesis is ok…Just as one might argue that Friday night spirituality at the bar is a longing for transcendence in a spiritually bankrupt time is one of a myriad of symptoms. I think a more interesting question is why The Dark Materials trilogy which has some actual spiritual content based as it is like CS Lewis’s work in a more esoterically true realm, has been largely overlooked. I could cite many other examples which call to mind a kind of simplification which actually delivers the viewer reader back into a passive materialist limbo.

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