What Alchemy Does in Harry Potter

Filit sent me a link to a livejournal posting by ‘Josef Djugashvili,’ Alchemy, What Might Have Been, in which post the writer and serious reader tries to assess the value of understanding alchemy (and specifically the stages of alchemy) in getting to the meaning of Harry Potter. The conclusion s/he comes to after examining the three stage process of black white, and red and a more involved seven stage process is that “IMVHO alchemy does not assist too much in our understanding of the Harry Potter series as it stands, whichever way one slices it.” S/He asks readers to “convince me otherwise.”

I’m pretty sure this kind of discussion doesn’t allow for premise-conclusion demonstrations that would convince any person of good will but I feel obliged to respond to the live-journalist (even if s/he has chosen Josef Stalin‘s birthname as an alias; I should confess this choice sets my teeth on edge and has made writing this an exercise). Here are three talking points for HogPro conversation today:

1. Literary Alchemy isn’t Physical Chemistry: The author seems frustrated that there is not a transparent connection between historical alchemical processes and both the lay-out and meaning of Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. I’d like to think that s/he has not read Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader because the three chapters in it on this subject (I hope) would have prevented several mistakes in at least the first part of this live journal post (I’m guessing the bit about Hagrid dying is sarcasm?). Even if the author had just read Ms. Rowling’s 1998 comments on the subject, however, I think s/he would have taken a better approach:

“I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.”

You don’t need Ms. Rowling to say this to know her use of alchemy runs through and in a way defines her work; we didn’t get this bon mot after all until February 2007 (thank you again, Accio Quote Lisa!) about five years after I was talking and writing about it. The quotation, however, is useful even if it doesn’t give us the last word or even anything really definitive about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of her hermetic artistry. Just the fact that she made clear that alchemy played a large part in her setting the magical “parameters” and “internal logic” should make even the “very humble opinion” that “alchemy does not assist too much in our understanding of the Harry Potter series as it stands” something that would take a heroic argument to sustain.

And the argument in this piece doesn’t begin the discussion about alchemy as “parameters” or “internal logic.” The live-journal discussion is about tit-for-tat correspondence or allegory of the three and seven stage processes and their meaning in the action of specific characters in the books. There is some of this, certainly; the Black, White, and Red stages having deaths in them of characters with color names, the break-down of Harry’s identity in Phoenix‘s nigredo, etc. But Ms. Rowling isn’t writing a fictional allegory based on a historical scientific process. This isn’t laboratory chemistry with its mechanical operations; this is the alchemical magic of literature and the transformation of the reader by engagement and symbol.

2. Literary Alchemy is Setting Artistry: I was able to hear Dr. Michael Ward last month on the tour he is giving to promote his book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. I recommend the book and his talk to you even if you haven’t read the Narniad or if you don’t care for CSL. Dr. Ward has important things to share on both those subjects, of course, but he also makes points in this Inkling arena that are very important, I think, in understanding what Ms. Rowling does with alchemical symbolism and what it contributes to the success of her work. It is too much to say that her use of alchemy is a dead parallel or a consequence in any way of Lewis’ astrological artistry in the Narniad (or his alchemy in the Ransom Trilogy); that simply is not the case. Understanding the one, however, illumines the other and, going out on a limb, even much of the best in English Literature.

To very much simplify Dr. Ward’s thesis and argument for the sake of brevity, Lewis thought the backdrop setting of a story, though largely invisible in the storyline because the reader is focused on the action of the players, was the greater part of what the reader took away at story’s end. The poet, novelist, or dramatist, consequently, who uses symbols, words, and action as backdrop to create an atmosphere or setting that buttress and amplify the story meaning is the writer who succeeds in making the deepest and most lasting impression on the reader or audience. Lewis wrote in The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version that “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep.” Setting artistry, consequently, must be largely invisible or, at least, not recognizable in itself as being meaning-laden if it to do the wheel barrow work it is supposed to do. (See The Power of Suggestion and Setting in Advertising and Literature if you want more on this.)

This is certainly the case with the Narniad, as Dr. Ward’s exhaustive treatment of CSL’s use of astrological symbolism in these books demonstrates, a point made especially clear in it having taken more than 50 years to discover (and in a work that has been closely examined by exegetes everywhere for decades). I have argued that this is the case for Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and I certainly think the last novel in the series, far from failing to conform with the model or “complete the alchemical work,” is Ms. Rowling’s hermetic masterpiece.

3. Literary Alchemy is an Apt Vehicle for Delivering Ms. Rowling’s Traditional and Postmodern Themes: I have posted the first part of my Deathly Hallows alchemy talk and the rest will be in the revised Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader I am finishing now (I have to save something for the book, right?). I just finished writing the chapters on the Christian content and spiritual meaning of the series finale for How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania (which, I’m told, will be published in November to coincide with the Prince movie release). The setting artistry of literary alchemy and the transcendent meaning, not to mention the explicit and implicit Christian elements, of this last book are very much in tandem, subtly and exposed enough to trip over on first reading.

The stuff to trip over on first reading are the golden Alchemical Wedding of the Red King and White Queen that opens the book and the conjunction of the three ‘colored’ alchemical stages with the Christian feasts of Christmas, Theophany, and Pascha (‘Easter’ — and yes, I know Harry’s ‘Good Friday’ is in in May, well after the calendar holy day, but I don’t think the parallel is lost or injured in not being chronologically exact as is the Christmas Eve drama in Godric’s Hollow). In brief:

***Harry suffers his nigredo in the agonies of the revelations in and just after his visit with Nagini Bagshot on Christmas Eve which parallels the state of the world before Nativity and the advent of “the light that came into the world” that “the darkness has not comprehended.”

***Harry and Ron re-create and illumine the meaning of the baptism of Christ in The Silver Doe almost immediately after Harry’s holly wand and faith in Dumbledore’s love are seemingly broken forever. The albedo begins here (in what I think is Ms. Rowling’s finest single chapter) and reaches its climax in Dobby’s grave next to Shell Cottage.

***Harry’s rubedo and perfection as alchemical Rebis are the substance of the end of Hallows, especially the last three chapters. The parallels in the end of the 4100 page adventure to the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection are not especially opaque and are easily over weighted and misunderstood but they are there (a full discussion of the parallels and their meaning is in How Harry Cast His Spell).

The more subtle, and, reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’ achievement via astrological backdrops to deliver a spectrum of Christological meanings via this artistry, the grander, more penetrating, and I suspect longer lasting effect of Ms. Rowling’s use of alchemy in Deathly Hallows is in how it delivers her traditional and post modern meanings. I am not going to give this the exposition this deserves here because I’m neglecting too many things as it is to get this up today and I hope you all can do this in the com boxes below. I do want, though, to touch on the livejournal poster’s assertion that the end turned on luck and love had nothing to do with Harry’s ultimate victory over Voldemort.

The larger part of Ms. Rowling’s meaning in Deathly Hallows, I have argued, is about Harry’s “struggle to believe” and the consequences of his choice to believe despite his doubts. In brief, these consequences are his mastery of self, the destruction of his inner Voldemort by a loving sacrifice of this self, and his disposing of an exterior and very real evil whose power had been broken by Harry’s inner victory and purification. The battle, one-on-one in the Great Hall, at story’s end does turn, superficially, on a seemingly trivial and accidental point (Harry having Draco’s wand). Besides being a neat twist, however, a very different twist than her previous, almost formulaic surprise endings, Harry’s battle with Voldemort is about the hero’s spiritual transformation, the end of the alchemical work.

Harry is circling his shadow, and, having become the center of this circle, via his sacrifice in the “dark wood” of the Forbidden Forest, he need only wait on the light of dawn to dissolve the shadow. He speaks only the truth to the Dark Lord without thought of his personal advantage and he even reaches out to him with the only hope Tom Riddle, Jr., has of avoiding an eternity as a forsaken soul-fragment in eternity. To risk hyperbole to make this point, Harry has become truth and love after his interior victory. He is incapable in the Great Hall after King’s Cross of a killing or even the Cruciatus Curse he used on Carrow; Voldemort destroys himself as the sun rises and Harry has won without doing more than confronting him with the truth and with a spell of self-defense.

Alchemy is about the resolution of contraries and personal, spiritual transformation. Ms. Rowling has used alchemical structures and images throughout the series but especially in Deathly Hallows as wrapping and vehicle for her epic about the importance and difficulties of choice and the power of love. Harry’s choices in the last book, most notably, to trust in Dumbledore’s direction to pursue Horcruxes not Hallows and to walk into the Forbidden Forest, as Severus described it, as “a pig to slaughter,” are delivered in an alembic, if you will, that highlights her postmodern and traditional messages. Harry’s destruction of his duo-Voldemort-doppelganger, inside and out, his Jungian shadows, comes about because of his successive dark night of the soul, purification, and final trial in the crucible, a procedure Ms. Rowling describes in parallel-because-simultaneous alchemical and Christian stories that makes Harry’s odyssey an Everyman spiritual quest and triumph.

Thinking that it is “luck” that wins the day in the end is a legitimate reading of the finale, I guess. I think, though, that it misses what the literary alchemy of this story and series is about, and, again risking overstatement to make a point, the alchemy of story telling in general. We are transformed alongside Harry as much as (1) we suspend disbelief and identify with him and (2) as much as the artist succeeds in creating story images and narrative that deliver soul-realigning, life affirming meaning that “evades our consciousness” and penetrates our heart. That’s alchemical artistry and a large part of the religious function that entertainments, especially reading, serve in a secular, desacralized culture (Eliade).

So I say, at least. I look forward to your comments and correction.


  1. well, I think you speak well! I think ‘josef djugashvili’ didn’t look deeply enough (and I too was irked by the name!). The discussion of alchemy is one of my favorite parts of your work, John, and it’s something I’d never really heard of before, and not in a spiritual context. Whenever alchemy was mentioned in a history/social studies textbook, it was always passed off as some sort of quack science. But when I read what you had to say about it, it simply seemed to fit, and that to a novice to both potterdom and alchemy.

    good work as always.

  2. Thanks, John, for sorting out such an insightful response. I’d only like to add that I don’t think Rowling deals in using luck as a solution to problems. Firstly, she makes the point with the Felix Felicis. Ron thinks that he won because of luck, when in fact he won because of his own skill. Later, Harry takes it and gets the real memory from Slughorn, feeling that it was the potion that told him what to do. Hermione, however, told him before that it was something he could do, otherwise Dumbledore would have done it himself. The ability for both boys to accomplish what they needed to do was always there–it was not because of luck (or help from a lucky potion), but they only needed to make the choice to follow what was already a part of them.

    It wasn’t luck that enabled Harry to defeat Voldemort, but rather a conscious decision to act. He put together all the pieces of information from Dumbledore, Snape and what he’d learned of Voldemort from his own confrontations with him and acted, in a very determined and deliberate way. For any of that to have been luck, it would have meant that we would have seen Harry flailing about as he faced Voldemort and that one of his hexes or defensive spells hit Tom Riddle. But that was not the case at all. All the last part of Deathly Hallows is about Harry choosing his actions, based on his gained knowledge of his foe and on his own courage.

    I know–that leaves the matter of the wand. It was a neat twist that Rowling decided to use. Had Harry not gained the wand, however, I think that she would still have chosen to show him defeating Voldemort by choice and not by some accident of luck.


  3. John, I read *Alchemy, What Might Have Been* and came away with the impression that its author isn’t impressed with Rowling’s work, nor is interested in spending any more time than necessary analyzing the books; therefore, if the series doesn’t match up with the seven-step alchemal process, then alchemy isn’t part of the process! At least, this is how I interpreted the post.

    I was hooked by your statement at the end of your first point: “This isn’t laboratory chemistry with its mechanical operations; this is the alchemical magic of literature and the transformation of the reader by engagement and symbol.” When you speak of the *magic of literature*, you summarize the reading experience for the trained and untrained alike. I believe that for every reader *engaged* in the characters, settings, plots, and dialogues, there are individualized symbols emerging out of personal experiences! The author’s intent (in this case Rowling) stands throughout the storyline; the reader’s interpretation will be just as viable because it is the reader’s truth. I do not have to understand literary alchemy, symbolism, or narrative misdirection to enjoy the read!!!

    Josef Djugashvili, whoever this may be, does not appear to be transformed to the extent of being engaged; dispassionately analytical, yes.

  4. Previous HogPro Alchemy posts for the newcomer:

    Literary Alchemy
    –(A) Alchemy in Deathly Hallows
    –(B) Jung, Burckhardt, or McLean?
    –(C) The New Age Alchemy wing in Fandom
    –(D) Alchemy and the Tarot
    –(E) Dragon’s Blood and Wand Cores

  5. JohnABaptist says

    A few items for consideration…

    John, “Josef Djugashvili” is a he, in fact he is in real life an ex-pat British attorney at law, currently living in Fiji. He supplies a link to an article in his hometown news paper that describes him as: “Gavin O’Driscoll, now a 38-year-old married father of two, lived in Knutsford for 17 years before emigrating to Fiji. This is his story …” If you wish the rest of the story, go here

    I found Mr. O’Driscoll’s post to be very learned sounding, but had a great deal of difficulty extracting any sense from it, leading me to the conclusion there was not much sense to be found there.

    A case in point, he suggests that the word albedo does not derive from the color white!

    Here, let me cite the instance:

    “The wise old wizard must be got out of the way for the hero to proceed, this has been achieved and JKR has also referred to it as something that had to happen. The upshot is that Albus had to die, but not because his name meant white, as Albedo on a literal translation does not.

    Albedo in fact has its roots in washing or cleansing. Harry had gone through the process of cleansing himself to proceed by both coming to terms with the deaths of his mentors and by accepting what he must do.”

    I find this strange reasoning since Webster seems firmly convinced that the word albedo does derive from albus, the Latin word for white. In fact, albus means specifically dead or dull white as opposed to candidus for live or bright white (or so my copy of Cassell’s says.)

    So Albedo does in fact have its roots, trunk and branches in the color white. It’s modern meaning is the ratio of light striking a surface to the light reflected from that surface. An albedo of zero is jet black, and albedo of one is pure white.

    The Alchemical methodology for obtaining the desired albedo or whiteness does in most cases involve a washing or bathing of some sort, but that has nothing to do with the name, its origin, or its translation literal or otherwise.

    The muddled thinking disguised as logical analysis continues.

    Further down in the comments section a reader suggests a perfectly good (although admittedly brief) book-by-book match-up between the seven HP books and the seven-stage description of Alchemy. Mr. O’Driscoll dismisses her analysis as:

    “…far too simplistic because it does not take into consideration the simple fact that there are differing types of alchemy as mentioned in my essay.”

    I find this comment extremely amusing as Mr. O’Driscoll, himself, is essentially hoist by own petard, quite possibly to a greater height. He refers to there being four “kinds” of alchemy known as “…chemical, psychological, physiological and societal….”, and attempts to fit HP into the societal kind. He makes no attempt at psychological or physiological analysis in his article, he simply jumps to the conclusion that only societal will be considered.

    In fact, while I suppose LV might be said to be attempting to create a “new social order” therefore a “societal alchemy” analysis might apply were the books primarily about LV; however the books are not primarily about LV. They are about Harry, and Harry is in no way attempting to create a new social order, he is defending the existing order.

    But throughout all seven books, Harry is primarily engaged in undergoing a “coming of age” process. In fact, “coming-of-age” is as good a description as any for the genre of these books, and coming of age is a process entirely physical and psychological–aspects, Mr. O’Driscoll ignores completely.

    In that light, while brief, the outline suggested by the commenter identified as “woman_ironing” seems to focus on psychological and physiological aspects, and thus at the very least, “woman_ironing” attempts to match her field of discourse to the genre of the HP series.

    Personally, I think I shall stick with Prof. Granger, Mr. O’Driscoll is not impressing me.

  6. Thanks for the vote, JAB! To at least one reader, though, my arguments fell apart after Phoenix; the alchemy of the last two books, if it exists, was a blown opportunity on Ms. Rowling’s part.


  7. JohnABaptist says

    Oh come now, John, don’t be so thin-skinned.

    mary_j_59 only lightly dinged you. It was Ms. Rowling she hammered for being “…quite muddled, I think, in defining her central conflict, made superficial use of a lot of deeply meaningful symbols….” And later, says that Ms. Rowling “…failed to conclude her story….”

    Why should you be offended for only “…fall[ing] apart in DH….” Clearly your sins are not nearly so great as those of poor Joanne who will likely never sell another book after this get out.

  8. Point taken; thank you!

    John, pulling on my turtle shell, feeling for Ms. Rowling

  9. Arabella Figg says

    I don’t have time to read the original article and other links, but I’ve read your full post, John (and comments) and, having read your books with their educated, logical and consistent analyses, think you have much more authority to speak on these things.

    I don’t believe Harry having Draco’s wand was “a trivial and seemingly accidental” point. I believe it was a foreshadowing. Harry had been imprisoned at the Malfoys and wins the Elder Wand (unknowingly, of course) in a battle in the Malfoy’s living room, overcoming wizards far more powerful and knowledgeable than he. He is then rescued to haven at Bill & Fleur’s. While this might seem a weak comparison, I feel it foreshadowed Harry’s destiny and is kind of alchemical–negrido (hopeless imprisonment), albedo (purity in victory) and rubedo and gold(triumphant in choice).

    Or, perhaps I’m all wet.

    Don’t ever try to give a kitty a bath…

  10. Arabella Figg says

    I should add to my little foreshadowing scenario that Harry is given refuge at Bill and Fleur’s, where he makes a momentous decision about defeating his enemy. This all foreshadows the forest scene and Harry’s “death,” thus overcoming LV’s Horcrux, playing wizards more powerful, is give haven at King’s Cross, where he must decide to go back to fully defeat his foe in a termendous battle. Not point for point but, still….

    If every cat in this house defeated their enemies, there would be fur and fangs all over the rug…

  11. Hey, John! It’s mary-j-59. Sorry I offended you, but I really don’t think these books have the depth you think they have. As far as the alchemical symbolism goes, you are, I think, largely right – but the question is: why does that matter? Is there any human meaning or morality in these stories, in the end?

    When I was in college, I had to read a book by Goethe – “Die Wahlverwandschaften, or Elective Affinities”. I hated it, and thought it the silliest thing I had ever come across. (Yes, I was a judgemental adolescent!) And here’s the thing: it was pure alchemy, and very carefully worked out, down to the orphan child with the significant eyes. I just couldn’t care. I didn’t *believe* it.

    And that was my problem with “Harry Potter” in the end. I could not care about Harry, who struck me as very unlikeable; I did not see any emotional or moral growth in him – on the contrary! I was also offended by the use of Christian symbolism in a book that, in the end, seemed to me to be completely devoid of Christian meaning. As an acquaintance on livejournal said, “These books lack mercy. They lack love.”

    I know mine is a minority view. But I have never been so disappointed in a book in my life as I was with “Deathly Hallows”. I hated it, and it made me deeply unhappy.

    So – I do think you are right about most of the alchemical symbolism. Heck, Rowling shoehorned Tonks and Lupin into “quarreling couple” mode purely so that she could kill them off and leave an orphan in book 7! The problem is that it’s all just empty symbolism to me. It doesn’t resonate at all. Summing up, I really don’t think putting a lot of alchemy into a book makes it a better book. I read for character. If I do not find characters that intrigue or move me in a book, no amount of alchemy will save it.

    Just my two cents, of course. And I am sorry if I offended you.

    Of course, I understand that you, and many others, don’t agree. But I hope you can see where i am coming from.

    Best wishes,

    Mary (who had high hopes for this series before DH was published -)

  12. Thank you for the note — and for the Goethe reference. I’ll have to check that one out!

    As to not liking alchemical drama or Ms. Rowling’s work, that’s fine by me. De gustibus, etc…

  13. Gavin O'Driscoll says

    Your respondent who states that I was unimpressed with the overall series is quite correct. I had no idea that my little piece had made it to your radar and been responded to here. Thanks for reading it, but don’t take it all so seriously, for me it’s simply light relief after real life gets to grate.

    Oh, and the alias is a nod to my Russian ancestry – obviously on my mother’s side. Stalin led my forebears to leave Russia.

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