Welcome to HogwartsProfessor at its new home on Substack! Thank you for subscribing, and, in advance, for letting me know what you think. All suggestions about how best to utilize this platform are welcome, believe me, as I begin to climb the upside-down learning curve of a new dashboard and posting system.
Today, I want to offer a frank statement, one I will try to keep brief, first of my principles and perspective as a reader who writes about the artistry and meaning of beloved prose, poetry, and plays and a short prospectus of the subjects I will be writing about in our first months on this new platform. I rush to add that these are my guiding ideas and posting menu, not necessarily those of the other writers who contribute pieces here.
In a nutshell, I believe that human beings are a story-telling species more than 'rational animals' and that the best stories and art create a portal to an imaginative or noetic experience of archetypal reality. The keys to grasping the depths of the work created by writers who intentionally embrace the goal of crafting this kind of fiction are the symbols, allegory, and structure beneath the narrative surface that deliver this iconological means of ego-transcendence. The bumper-sticker version of that is: "the stories that matter are the ones that best reflect the soul's journey to spiritual perfection and which encourage us on our own journeys."
This set of first principles reflects the Perennialist understanding of sacred art, which includes "non-liturgical" or "not-obviously-religious" stories. The Perennialist understanding of myth and epic, of Shakespeare, Coleridge and Blake, as well as of contemporary writers informs everything I write that qualifies as literary criticism. This traditional, which is to say "theocentric," view is in direct opposition to postmodern understanding, which reads literature and understands all art in profane terms, most notably using aesthetic, political, and intertextual litmus strips.
I promised to be brief on this count, so I will not go into a prolonged explanation or apologia for these first principles and how I came to understand and embrace them via Eliade and Coleridge. I am obliged to note, though, that my use of them is the reason that I have consistently been able to see and explain the depths and power of writers, most notably J. K. Rowling, when the host of Critique authorities and academic specialists have missed them. Literary alchemy, traditional symbolism, the debts of Rowling (Collins, Meyer, others) to the Greats, maternal love as a cipher for Christ, and chiastic or ring writing and the utility of all these tools in anagogical depictions of the soul's faculties in trial, so-called 'psychomachia,' were all blind spots in contemporary criticism, frankly, before my Perennialist reading of Rowling.
My success as a Potter Pundit and Serious Striker, my de facto status as “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars,” has not had a measurable effect, of course, on the way the horde of online and university mavens approach Rowling’s work or stories in general. Many write about literary alchemy and ring composition today, even ring-alchemy, but no one else does so from an explicitly traditionalist world-view. This is understandable — there is little hope of gaining or holding a university position or job as book reviewer while holding modernity at arm’s length as a Perennialist must — but it does mean this Substack outpost is to my knowledge the only resource for those wanting to read literary interpretation focused on any work’s allegorical, anagogical, as well as alchemical heart rather than its literary trappings.
[If Perennialist ideas of non-liturgical sacred art and their relevance to understanding imaginative fiction are terra incognita to you, I explain them at much greater length in this post about Rowling's The Christmas Pig.]
As I start out here on Substack, I have a few ideas and ambitions, ‘goals’ even, about what I will be exploring and explaining. What follows is my first menu of post topics about which I hope you will share your preferences as subscribers and the subjects or questions you want me to address. I have a few general subjects I want to discuss and many specific interpretative experiments and tasks to take up.
The first of two larger subjects is the difference between Jungian and Perennialist definitions of “archetype.” This has immediate relevance with respect to Rowling-Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels because we have been all but promised that the detective will be meeting his half-sister Prudence who is a Jungian analyst. It has long-term importance because the difference between Jungism and Traditionalism on archetypes is the best and surest way to delineate the difference between postmodern psychologism and authentic spirituality (in a nutshell, a defining blind-spot of our time is the incapacity to distinguish soul and spirit or to believe in the existence of either). Rowling stated point blank in her 2022 interview with Stephen Fry that archetypes are at the heart of story-writing and what it means to be human. Her many references to Carl Jung from Troubled Blood forward and the place of Perennialist Bad Boy Julius Evola in Ink Black Heart suggest she is not unaware of the conflict between traditional and materialist understandings of what an archetype is.
The second issue is one highlighted in my PhD thesis, ‘The Lake and the Shed: A Traditionalist Reading of the Work of J. K. Rowling,’ which I am preparing for publication. What place should be given to the author’s personal life in interpreting his or her published writing? Are the specific psychological issues and spiritual orientation of the individual person essential keys for understanding their writing, little better than tabloid gossip, or is there a middle ground between full embrace and radical dismissal?
For most of the twenty years I have been reading and interpreting Rowling, I took C. S. Lewis’ position as explained in his book with Tillyard on the subject, The Personal Heresy, that searching for an author’s meaning or message through a psychological filter was a lazy reader’s option and necessarily contradictory (i.e., if the analyst is able to be objective in interpreting the work in hand, which is to say ‘stand outside his or her psychological issues to act as analyst,’ why is it assumed that the writer was necessarily prisoner to his or her subjective issues?). Rowling, however, all but insisted in her 2019 ‘Lake and Shed’ interview that her work be read in the light of her psychological crises and core beliefs because they are at the heart of her inspiration and craft.
The specific subjects I intend to take up in addition to these more general or theoretical topics are ones I listed in a post-doctoral thesis post at the HogwartsProfessor weblog, ‘Ten Post Projects.’ Readers responded to that list by asking me to address the parallel series ‘elephant in the room’ (which I promptly did) and I began a series of posts on the True Book occult content in Troubled Blood. My plan here is to finish that series as well as the other projects listed, most notably, the Aurora Leigh backdrop to Ink Black Heart, the chiastic structure of Strike 6, its rings within rings, and the meaning of the seemingly stray texts and authors mentioned in Rowling’s longest work to date (I’m thinking of Wagner, Durkheim, and Evola as well as the epigraph writers).
I will also be writing about subjects that you, those who have subscribed to receive these posts, want me to discuss. Please share the questions you have about Rowling or other authors of imaginative fiction, from Chaucer to Charles Williams, to which you want, if not definitive answers, than at least some challenging discussion. I’ll do my best to comply.
What I won’t be doing is speculating about the content of The Running Grave. I pioneered and championed the art of deploying ‘keys’ to Rowling’s work in pursuit of guessing the content of the soon-to-be-published book in her series writing in my Unlocking Harry Potter (2006) and it has been a signature quality of HogwartsProfessor posts in the run-up to every book and movie release since.
Reading the efforts in Strike fandom to do this for Running Grave, I confess to being struck by how far from my original intention these pieces have strayed. My goal back in the day (and even just before Ink Black Heart) was to illustrate in these predictions Rowling’s use of alchemical symbolism and sequences, her narrative misdirection, her postmodern themes, etc., not just to win the No-Prize for successful guesswork. It has become something of a vain exercise instead of a fun teaching tool, not to say a “fool’s errand,” however, and, worse in my case, a distraction from the in-depth reading of the work that we have in hand.
So, as interesting as I find speculation about Strike7, especially with respect to its potential parallels with the seventh Potter novel, and as much as I am responsible for the Guessing Game Fever that is now prevalent, I’m choosing to abstain from the predictions mania. I want to focus instead on what I do best and work which has a much less ephemeral shelf-life, namely, the harder and more important work of reading Ink Black Heart as well as Troubled Blood as “extra-liturgical sacred art” per the Perennialist perspective, writing that I could not do the past three years because of thesis obligations.
Thank you for joining me in this experiment in coinherent exegesis (not a typo or malapropism) — and, in advance, thank you for sharing with me those topics you hope I’ll take up in these weekly posts. While I know I am writing for a smaller audience than I was at the HogwartsProfessor weblog, I am grateful for and excited by the opportunity to be sharing with this Substack fellowship much more challenging and edifying content than I ever have before. See you next Thursday!
'Rime' is essential, as Lana says, especially as something of the touchstone and cornerstone of English fantasy fiction. It's short enough, too, that two of my children memorized it as teens.
For the depths of Coleridge, though, the places to start, I think, are 'Aids to Reflection' and 'Biographia Literaria,' both something like discursive, sustained argument, a real rarity in STC, alas. For those willing to wait on the Estecean genius patiently, there are his 'Table Talk' and 'The Friend,' collections of his conversations and journal pieces respectively. He spent his life working on the 'Opus Maximum,' and the fragments of greater and lesser length he wrote for it were only collated and published in 2002.
It is difficult, I believe, to overstate the importance of STC in the history of thought and as an antidote for individuals struggling to make sense of the world, especially in these upside-down times, which many believe to be in fact the End Times. It is at least as difficult, sadly, to read an author who had read and assimilated the Greats, especially among poets, philosophers, and theologians and who wrote about them with verve simultaneously in English, Greek, Latin, and German as he did in the 'Biographia.'
[In my youth at University, when I was studying Classical Languages and German, a friend and mentor pointed out to me, a child whose only encounter with the Bard of Ottery St Mary was in Kubla Khan and Rime, that the only good purpose to be had in that language cocktail was tackling Coleridge; I only understood the joke more than three decades later when I first opened Coleridge's meaty work, when of course all those language skills had atrophied to full dictionary dependence, alas.]
If you cannot devote a decade of full time reading to Coleridge, I recommend three books by those who have as points of entry, each unique and indispensable in its own way.
The first is James Cutsinger's 'The Form of the Transformed Vision,' the first published work of this brilliant American Perennialist scholar (it is the expansion and edited version of his Harvard PhD thesis). I quoted it at length in the notes to my Coleridge-inspired chapters of 'The Deathly Hallows Lectures' because it was Cutsinger's book -- and the man himself who became a dear friend -- who opened for me the traditional and counter-cultural insights to be had in STC.
The next is Mary Anne Perkins' 'Coleridge's Philosophy: The Logos as Unifying Principle.' Unlike Cutsinger's book, whose aim is less to get at an academic understanding of the evolution or synthesis of Estecean insight than it is to use his pursuit of the Truth to advance one's own seeking, Perkins' book, written well before the Princeton University Press team had done its decades long labor in assembling Coleridge's scattered materials, reveals the logos or 'inner essence' of Coleridge's work. This works, or at least it has in my case, to the same end; 'the Logos as Unifying Principle' has been the guide to my life since I read Huston Smith's introduction to a Perennialist book in a Chicago bookstore (and why I took the name 'John' at my adult baptism after St John of Patmos whose Gospel's prologue is the heart of Christian understanding).
The third, the most recent, and the most accessible, even fun, is Malcom Guite's 'Mariner: A voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.' Its approach is biographical -- his challenging thesis is that, though composed early in the poet's career, it is a description of the course of his whole life and the telos of his thinking -- and, as with everything Guite writes, it is a revelation of the depths, what we used to call the 'meaning of life,' in a wonderfully at-ease manner, as if these were ideas and subjects we already knew and have only needed his nudge and reminder to recollect and make our own. Much of what Cutsinger and Perkins explain and the reader only grasps at the peak of a high mountain, Guite brings to the attentive reader via a chair-lift rather than by a free-climbing ascent.
[I have neglected to mention the seminal work in Coleridge studies, Owen Barfield's 'What Coleridge Thought,' despite its importance in Inkling history -- without Coleridge via Barfield, I doubt very much that C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien become the writers or the people, frankly, that they did -- because he is the only Estecean exegete I have read at length whose exposition rivals Coleridge's own for opacity and demands upon the reader. De gustibus; I recommend Barfield's book, but only after the other three I have mentioned so the novice in these fields has some points of reference to guide him or her.]
I hate to ask, but I am interested in "a prolonged explanation or apologia for these first principles and how I came to understand and embrace them via Eliade and Coleridge." Is this found in your dissertation?