By Kate Daley Bailey
Harry Potter as Coded text?
Alchemists often employed symbols, animal images, anagrams, and various word games/codes in order to keep their finding secrets and safe. While Rowling is not facing the Inquisitors or angry monarchs, her use of codes (anagrams (i.e. Tom Marvolo Riddle/ I am Lord Voldemort) and backwards writing (the Mirror of Erised/Desire) are very compelling to her audience. The most readily identifiable mythic animal associated with alchemy is the Phoenix.
The phoenix, the iconic ‘fire bird,’ embodies the ultimate symbol of death and rebirth. It also represents spiritual transformation. This mythical bird plays a defining role in the Harry Potter series, especially the first few books. Harry is particularly troubled when Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, grows very old and bursts into flame before his very eyes. He is even more perplexed when from the ashes a small baby phoenix is born.
The animal mascots, representing the four houses at Hogwarts, share many attributes with the students who are sorted into them. Gryffindor’s symbol is that of, strangely not a Griffin, but a golden lion and their dominate character trait is courage. Ravenclaw’s symbol is the raven and this house is known for attracting the cleverest students. Diligence is the characteristic shared by the students of Hufflepuff, whose mascot is a badger and the notorious image depicting Slytherin House is a serpent. Not only are these animals symbolically significant, the house colors (especially Gryffindor’s gold and red) also hint at the houses’ elemental natures. The use of color-codes, another method embraced by alchemists, also shows up in Rowling’s work.
Audrey Spindler, suggests that Harry’s three mentors embody the three stages of his spiritual progress from youth to adult. Spindler hypothesizes that just as the ‘prima materia’ is transformed through alchemical process to become the Sorcerer’s Stone, so too, Harry is transformed, through the forge of his training, from a frightened child, unaware of his ‘magical’ nature, to a young wizard capable of defeating the most powerful dark wizard of the day, Voldemort. According to Spindler, creating the Philosopher’s Stone is described as a three-stage process. Once heated, the dark original substance turns from black to white and then to, finally, to a deep red… once the substance is red, it is said to be able to change crude metals into precious gold and create the Elixir of Life.
Harry’s Godfather, Sirius Black, plays a pivotal role in Harry’s development but by the time of Sirius’ death, Harry is thoroughly disenchanted with the wizarding world. The Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus (the root of this name comes the Latin for ‘white’) Dumbledore, is Harry’s most powerful mentor, guiding Harry through many of his almost deadly encounters with Voldemort and the Deatheaters. Dumbledore’s demise requires that Harry grow up. The white wizard has left Harry clues on how to defeat the Dark Lord but it is Harry, who must face and defeat Voldemort. Rubeus Hagrid, Harry’s half-giant friend, safely whisks Harry away after his parents are murdered. He is the first person to tell Harry of his true-identity, and he guards Harry in the final book, as they travel from Privet drive to a safe house. Hagrid is also the only three of these mentors to survive the series.
Sirius Black, Albus (white) Dumbledore, and Rubeus (the Latin word for red is “rubens, ruber”) Hagrid… are these names, and those characters that possess them, pointing readers to a deeper reading of the text? Rowling’s characters often fit their names and often it is easy to gain insight into a character’s personality by examining the meaning of their name: Severus Snape (severe snipe), Draco Malfoy (dragon bad-faith), Lucius Malfoy (Light bringer of bad-faith), Narcissa (narcissistic bad-faith), etc.
Hermoine, Harry’s studious companion, represents a wealth of knowledge regarding the history of the wizarding world. While she might be the most talented young witch in the series, she is ‘muggle-born’ meaning that her parents have no magical abilities. She is literally a dweller of two realms, the muggle/human realm and the magical realm. Could Hermoine be named for the iconic god of alchemy and messenger of the Greek gods, Hermes? Here perhaps, we see where Rowling’s love of language and alchemy connect.
Forgotten Alchemists become Beloved Wizards
Alchemy, the redheaded step-child of the sciences, may have been unjustly slandered according to the research of some current scientists and historians. Alchemy has become synonymous with the occult, charlatanism, and its secretive manner only promoted skepticism among the un-initiated. Over time, as chemists (more interested in the purely material results) tried to establish standards and a respectable reputation in academia, they distinguished themselves apart from alchemists. Also, many ‘alchemists’ had been named frauds and swindlers, which made the public skeptical about the tradition all together. In Europe during the 1700s, there was no hard line between the practice of chemistry, as we know it today, and alchemy. Many people today are shocked to find out that a handful of ‘scientists’ of old (such as British physicist Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton) studied alchemy.
Packets of Chocolate Frog candy, depicted in Rowling’s wizarding world, include collectible wizard cards that feature famous witches and wizards from the past. Among the wizards and witches highlighted in the series, are Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Merlin, Circe, Morgana, and curiously, actual historical alchemists such as Cornelius Agrippa, Ptolemy, Nicholas Flamel, and Paracelsus (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone p. 102-103).
Paracelsus, (1493-1541), a Swiss alchemist and physician, is occasionally credited as the founder of pharmacology, as he dealt extensively with herbs and curing ailments. Unorthodox for even an alchemist, Paracelsus was also known as the ‘Luther of Medicine.’ Invested in the alchemical model of man as microcosm of the cosmos, he viewed God as the Great Physician and saw balance between microcosm and macrocosm as paramount to good health. However, Paracelsus did argue against many of the diagnosis of his day. He is said to be one of the first to treat epilepsy as a disease rather than a sign of demonic possession. While there are only a few references to Paracelsus in the Harry Potter series, he is highlighted as a famous wizard in the Chocolate Frog collection and a bust of the noted alchemist is placed in the halls of Hogwarts (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix p. 281). In contrast to Paracelsus’ lesser role in the series, Nicholas Flamel, and his story, plays a much more significant role.
Nicholas Flamel (?-1418), a French scrivener (scribe) and translator, was rumored to have actually produced the Philosopher’s Stone. Flamel’s unusual accumulation of ‘undocumented’ wealth and his longevity did nothing to dismiss these rumors. Flamel himself credits his luck to a vision of an angel who revealed to him, albeit very briefly, a beautifully adorned text, signed by “Abraham the Jew, prince, priest, astrologer, and philosopher.” The angelic vision and text quickly disappeared but Flamel later unearthed a copy of the same text, written in Latin, which he could read but which required knowledge of the Jewish mysticism which he cites as ‘the Cabala’ and alchemy. During Flamel’s life, Jewish communities had been chased out of France and so he says he journeyed to Spain, to the Santiago de Compostela shrine. Upon his returning journey home, he met a rabbi whom he names as only Master Canches. According to Flamel, the rabbi was able to decipher the text but unfortunately fell ill and died before they could return to France.
Flamel is said to have been able to find the ‘prima material’ thanks to Canches and spends the next three years producing the Philosopher’s Stone and after this period is able to transmute base metals into silver and gold. Flamel’s story is significant because, unlike most alchemists, he didn’t die in obscurity. Records suggest that he and his wife founded fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches in Paris alone.
Rowling’s Flamel: Immortality
Rowling’s representation of Flamel closely resembles the story written here but Rowling interjects Hogwart’s Headmaster and Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, into the mix by stating that Dumblebore and Flamel created the Philosopher’s Stone together. Rowling also keeps true to the idea that alchemists purposely tried to discourage others from misusing the Philosopher’s Stone, which she refers to as the Sorcerer’s Stone in American copies of the book. Harry is only able to see the Philosopher’s Stone because he does not want to use it. Whereas Professor Quille—the unfortunate host of Lord Voldemort’s parasitic form—cannot see the stone…precisely because he wants to use it to restore Voldemort to full life.
Rowling’s version of the Flamel story states that after the stone nearly falls into the hands of the world’s most diabolical wizard, Lord Voldemort, Flamel, being the example of the true alchemist, decided to give up the stone… and face mortality. Dumbledore explains to Harry, who is clearly in awe of Flamel’s voluntary surrender of immortality, the reason why Flamel decided to give up the Stone and Elixir at the end of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicholas[Flamel] and Perenelle, it is really like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things human beings would choose above all- the trouble is, humans have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them. (297)
Harry, at the end of the series, follows Flamel’s and, later, Dumbledore’s example, both of whom go willingly to their deaths for the greater good. Rowling repeatedly states in interviews that a key theme in her books is death… a seemingly strange topic for a coming of age children’s novel series.
Actually, this theme of mortality fits traditional rite of passage models well. In order for children to mature into capable adults they must go through a harrowing set of tests and trials, usually embodied in a symbolic ‘death’ to their old identity, in order to claim their new identity. They are thrown into the crucible of life, whether they are ready or not. Rowling, intentionally or otherwise, follows the rite of passage models examined by Arnold Van Gennep and anthropologist Victor Turner (and later modified by Joseph Campbell), and subjects her teenage protagonists to some of the most ego-shattering trials imaginable and, in many ways, sets up a ‘the rite of passage’ for her readers. It may not be coincidence that Rowling’s creation of Harry coincides with her own mother’s premature death from Multiple Sclerosis.
Facing death of one’s family and friends is often a bitter reminder of our own mortality. Following the models of Flamel, Dumbledore, and Harry, readers are vicariously initiated into Harry’s transformation and rebirth. One should not miss the symbolic meaning of the antagonist’s name, Voldemort. The root of this name comes from the French and roughly translates as “flight from death.” If Rowling purposely chose this name for the antagonist, then one can speculate that the ultimate enemy, in her mind, is not death itself but rather the lengths which people will go to in order to escape it (like Voldemort who murders various innocents and splits his own soul into several parts– placing them in Horcruxes) in order to escape death. Rowling’s writing itself reflects her literary themes. In her series, death is final and “escape” from it actually leads to a ‘fractured existence’ which is considered worse than death. For Rowling and her series, death is final but it is not the end.
Resources for further inquiry:
- Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts, Edited by David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein
- From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy by Matthew T. Dickerson and David O’Hara
- Secrets of the Alchemists, editors of Time-Life books
- Alchemy: An Illustrated A to Z, by Diana Fernando
- The Philosopher’s Stone: Alchemy and the Secret Search for Exotic Matter by Joseph P. Farrell
- The Hermetic Cabinet: Alchemy and Mysticism by Alexander Roob (great images)
- Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite
- Alchemy, The Ancient Science by Neil Powell
- Alchemists through the Ages by Arthur Edward Waite
- Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by Michael White
- The Chymistry of Isaac Newton project-online access to all of the chemical and alchemical manuscripts of Isaac Newton.