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Literary Alchemy: Sacred Science, Sacred Art, and 'The Alembic of Story'
A Perennialist Explanation of J. K. Rowling's Signature Hermetic Symbolism
My plan for this week’s HogwartsProfessor Substack post — after publishing an introduction to Perennialist ideas about symbolism and their relevance to Rowling Studies — was to finish the look at the Celtic Cross tarot card spread in Troubled Blood that I started several months ago on the WordPress platform site. Two things this last week prodded me to reconsider that and to write about literary alchemy instead.
First, Beatrice Groves wrote to me to ask where in my work I had used the phrase “alembic of story” so she could properly reference it in an article she is writing. Prof Groves is unusually fastidious in this kind of citation, for which I am very grateful. I sent her the most recent post in which I used those words to describe the alchemical nature of a reader’s imaginative and transformative experience in story1 and thought “I should really put up something much more substantial on this subject at Substack from my thesis because it really is the heart of what I’m saying Rowling does.” My thanks to Prof Groves for her zeal in acknowledging my work on this subject and for pushing me to put together the notes below.
Second, and much more significant, in the last two months my wife and I have been helping our youngest son recover from three days in a Philadelphia hospital ICU and the near death experience of ketoacidosis that brought him there. He moved home to Oklahoma City and put together a program, one that is based on alchemical and coinherent principle, to reduce his dependence on external insulin (he was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic [T1D] and prescribed a program of diabetes management requiring blood tests and shots before every meal and at bedtime). As of yesterday, fifty-five days after the T1D life-sentence, at the recommendation of his endocrinologist, he is off external insulin. He has successfully recovered the ability to produce insulin in his Isles of Langerhans.
I assume he’ll explain what he did as well as what he chose not to do or believe in the coming months, especially if his recovery turns out to be something other than just “the honeymoon effect.” I bring it up, not only because of my pride in his accomplishment (it is ‘Pride Month,’ right, when we celebrate the greatest human vice as a virtue?), but because it has reminded me of the first book I read on alchemy and what moved me to study the subject fifteen years before I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
It was 1985 and I had just taken a leave of absence from my MTS studies at Harvard Divinity School to cross the Charles River and study with Michio Kushi in Brookline. Long story, short, I found in Kushi’s magnificent home library a copy of Titus Burckhardt’s Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, the Penguin paperback version featuring a Rebis who looks like Rubeus Hagrid astride a dragon on a golden snitch (yes, I think it’s a good guess that Rowling read this edition of Burckhardt’s book, too). Burckhardt, a profound Perennialist author, explained what I was studying with Kushi albeit in Western hylomorphic terminology rather than Taoist language. I carried this book with me everywhere for years — it isn’t easy reading — in fact, it was the only book I took on my transcontinental journey and honeymoon in 1987.
Kushi taught Shoku Yo Do, the Tao or Way of Strong Food. His teacher, Sakurazawa Nyoichi, a Francophile who wrote in the West as ‘Georges Ohsawa’ (“o-sa-va” being colloquial French for “I’m doing okay, thank you”), translated Shoku Yo Do as ‘Macrobiotics’ after what he thought was a medieval equivalent and the misnomer sticks.2 This traditional Do is in essence gastronomic alchemy, a Way of observing the metaphysical Creative Principle, the Tao or Logos, in the foods we choose to eat, as well as how we prepare and present them, in order to commune with the ontological Absolute.3 I left HDS to study with Kushi because, while the Cambridge divines were studying the history and creeds of religions, the ‘macrobats’ in Brookline under Kushi’s direction were raising the dead, which is to say, reversing with traditional foods incurable diseases such as AIDS, terminal cancers, and supposedly irreversible heart disease. The true medieval and western equivalent for Shoku Yo Do was not ‘macrobiotics’ but the sacred science of alchemy and its solve et coagula observance of the Word’s polarity without duality.
A significant if perhaps not the essential part of my son’s program to reverse his T1D was a traditional way of eating; he was uniquely positioned to do this because his mother is one of the world’s finest medicinal cooks with more than four decades of experience in teaching and preparing meals this way.
So ‘alchemy’ has been on my mind.
I share below another draft chapter from my PhD thesis, one that will be revised and expanded in a future publication. I do this because of my hope to focus on this Substack on the “story alembic,” the Perennialist idea of how sacred science becomes non-liturgical sacred art in imaginative literature and myth, per Burckhardt, Martin Lings, and Ananda Coomaraswamy’s work on these subjects. The longish piece that follows in the thesis is separated from the symbolism chapter I posted last week by one on psychomachia, but I feel inspired by the week’s correspondence and events to leap-frog that and publish this instead.
It’s nowhere near as dense as Burckhardt but it is not, as they say, ‘easy sledding.’ I want to think it repays generously all efforts to grasp its contents; it certainly has informed everything I have written, directly or indirectly, to include the psychomachia and ring composition work, not to mention alchemy. For serious students of Rowling’s Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike series, given the likelihood that Burckhardt and Lings were authors she has read, it’s important grounding in a neglected understanding of how story works, if I say so myself.
Next week, Nick Jeffrey has a post in progress that, mirabile dictu, will predict the actual story-line of The Running Grave, to include, believe it or don’t, the location where the murder victim dies and that poor person’s name. I kid you not. His approach is about as far removed from Perennialist methods and concerns as is possible, but I think you will find it fascinating reading. Until then, please enjoy thie introduction to Perennialist ideas on metallurgical and literary alchemy and their relevance to understanding the artistry and meaning of the work of J. K. Rowling, not to say, “imaginative literature in general” or “the alembic of story.”
A Perennialist Reading of J. K. Rowling’s Work, Part Four: Literary Alchemy
Rowling’s use of traditional symbolism and her formal artistry with respect to psychomachia has for the most part been overlooked despite her embedding characters struggling with the interpretation of same. This is in large part because the Perennialist perspective on sacred art is foreign to contemporary readers and critics. Outside of her “obvious” and as often as not animate Christian symbolism, the phoenix, the serpent, the unicorn, the lion, et cetera, little of Rowling’s representation and exteriorization of traditional cosmology, epistemology, and psychology appear in the voluminous critical literature of her work. One exception to this has been her use of alchemical tropes, which, though dismissed by many for years, has become sufficiently a commonplace to be the subject of its own academic essay anthology (Mamary).
Rowling’s literary alchemy, however, when read outside of a traditional perspective on metaliturgical alchemy as a sacred science and its place in the hermetic stream of English letters is inevitably presented as either an eccentric allegorical signature of mechanical this-stands-for-that or through the modern psychism lens of Carl Jung. This chapter offers a Perennialist reading of Rowling’s hermetic artistry which requires a three-fold introduction: to sacred as opposed to profane science, to alchemy as a spiritual exercise, and to traditional literary alchemy as the intersection of sacred art and sacred science, a psychomachia via metallurgical symbols and sequences.
A. Sacred Science
Perennialists per se, as discussed in the preceding chapters, are traditional not modernist, intellectual instead of rational, and 'from above, dowards and from within, outwards' rather than the reverse. Qua traditionalists, they hold that Tradition is "timeless, formless, and immutable wisdom revealed at the beginning of time," that exists in the world as "the formal embodiment of this wisdom which is transmitted through time," "the living process of the transmission itself," and its "channels of transmission" (Oldmeadow 2011, 60-61). They believe that the highest human faculty of perception and understanding is the intellect or nous, a transpersonal capacity continuous with the Logos fabric of reality. It perceives the intelligible archetypal ideas or logoi that are the essence and cause of everything existent. The intellect is greater than reason, whose working are restricted to judgments made consequent to sense perceptions. Coomaraswamay's touchstone aphorism was Duo sunt in homine, "there are two things in man," both "an immortal spirit" or Intellect and "the mortal soul," the distinction of which he thought "the fundamental doctrine of the Philosophia Perennis wherever we find it" (cited in Perry 1986, 21).
Their orientation, consequently, is "from above, downwards," holding that the material world is a shadow-creation of the spirtitual realities, and "from within, outwards," seeing these realities with the 'eye of the Heart,' the personal intellect. Sacred art is in essence "intellectual rather than aesthetic," human creativity in service to "the attainment of metaphysical Knowledge" (Pallis 1949, 351-352). The artisan's success in this regard is gauged in its audience's being reminded of their divine origin and end and by its engaging and fostering their noetic perception.
Symbols, from this view, are the joint of the greater Reality of the spiritual realm and the sensible shadow of it in the created material realm; they exist at and as the intersection of above and below. Symbols are the Forms observed in sacred art, to include the literary or imaginative extra-liturgical arts outside of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music; the "method of operation" in nature to which the artisan deliberately conforms are representations of the Forms in image or word symbols. It is through the intelligible aspect of sensible symbols that human persons noetically perceive and understand the created world and life itself as well as the meaning of sacred art.
Just as the Perennialist definitions of 'tradition,' 'intellectual,' 'art,' and 'symbol' are the opposite or contraries to conventional nominalist use of those words, so much more is their view of science. 'Science' today is the object of almost universal religious veneration and deference as the ultimate authority with respect to truth; as the fount of engineering miracles and modern conveniences and technology that are the pride and hallmark of modernity, the source of a uniquely arrogant disregard for previous historical periods and for the remnant religious beliefs and practices of "primitive" and "superstitious" cultures surviving today, modern science is understood as something objective and sure rather than as necessarily subjective, arbitrary, and variant as religion appears. To the Perennialists, however, this is profane and relatively meaningless science.
The main difference between the traditional sciences and modern science lies in the fact that in the former the profane and purely human remain always marginal and the sacred central, whereas in modern science the profane has become central.... The traditional sciences are essentially sacred and accidentally profane and modern science essentially profane and only accidentally aware of the sacred quality of the universe and, even in such rare instances, unable to accept the sacred as sacred. Modern science shares fully the characteristic of modern man as a creature who has lost the sense of the sacred (Nasr 1993, 96-97).
The Perennialist idea of science is that, properly understood, it derives from scientia, which is a knowledge derived from the study of the material realm in light of metaphysical principles (from above, downward) and as exercise of the noetic faculty or intellect (from within, outwards) rather than experimentalism (from below, upwards) via sense perception and ratiocination (from without, inweards) about measurable quantities of matter and energy or like data in the 'soft' sciences.
According to the traditional conception a science is interesting not so much for its own sake as for its being as it were a prolongation or secondary branch of the doctrine, of which the essential part is constituted... by pure metaphysic....[W]hatever interest they do retain will only be as a function, so to speak, of the principial knowledge, that is to say in so far as, on the one hand, they reflect this knowledge in such and such a contingent sphere, or, on the other hand, in so far as they are capable of leading up tp that same principial knowledge (Guenon 1975a, 46-47).
The Perennialists hold that, for all the wonders of technology and engineering without which human existence would be incomprehensible to moderns as such, profane science is simultaneously less sure than sacred science because its foundation is in ephemera and change rather than principles which exist outside the world of becoming and corrodes if not destroys the human capacity for spiritual achievement, which is to say, purification of the intellect and the soul's consequent ability through it to commune with God.
The aim or telos of sacred science is not profane science's practical applications and conveniences, then, but as a support to achieving sanctification, the enlightenment of the nous or intellect. Sacred science is a corrolary to and complement with sacred art in this respect; its observance of received or revealed traditional forms both foster spiritual accomplishment, that is, engage the noetic faculty "in preparation for a higher type of knowledge," and remind artisan and audience of the origin and telos of sensible reality in the intelligible and archetypal "as applications of the [metaphysical] doctrine" (Guenon 1075a, 47).
As with ‘science,’ so with ‘alchemy.’ “From the ‘the century of enlightenment’ up to and including our own times, it has been customary to regard alchemy as a primitive precursor of modern chemistry.” Students whose only exposure to the history of science and technology has been in the introductory classes of rudimentary experimental science are “much more inclined to take the view that until a century or so ago all humanity had been dreaming a stupid dream” (Burckhardt 1972, 7). Publicity for a history of chemistry, The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table, put it plainly:
What we now call chemistry began in the fiery cauldrons of mystics and sorcerers seeking not to make a better world through science, but rather to make themselves richer through magic formulas and con games. But among these early magicians, frauds, and con artists were a few far-seeing “alchemists” who, through rigorous experimentation, transformed mysticism into science (Morris, 2003).
Not only was alchemy ‘chemistry for idiots’ and the way of charlatans, it was also about cauldrons, sorcery, mysticism, and magic, in essence, superstition.[i]
The Perennialists, in contrast, hold that alchemy in traditional Chinese, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian civilizations was a sacred science or “way” within the respective revealed religions of each. There certainly was metallurgical work performed in laboratories dedicated to the purification of lead and like metals to gold through the production of a philosopher’s stone, but the aim of these efforts was the transformation of the artisan in parallel with the substance’s alterations. It was akin to sacred art in being “an inward process whose goal is the ripening, ‘transmutation,’ or rebirth of the artist himself,” “called an art – even the ‘royal art’ (ars regia) – by its masters:”
Alchemy may be called the art of the transmutations of the soul. In saying this I am not seeking to deny that alchemists also knew and practiced metallurgical procedures such as the purification and alloying of metals; their real work, however, for which all these procedures were merely the outward supports or ‘operational’ symbols, was the transmutation of the soul. The testimony of the alchemists on this point is unanimous (Burckhardt 1972, 23).
Alchemy was certainly a way of enobling matter, hence its relation to sacred art. But this also means that alchemy is not just a prelude to chemistry, that it is a science of the soul in its relation to the cosmos and making use of external transformations for the sake of that inner transformation which is the ultimate goal of all the traditional sciences (Nasr 1993, 107).
In brief, understanding the created world to include themselves as symbols of the archetypes bringing each and all into existence, the alchemists’ aim was their own enlightenment or illumination, which is to say the cleansing of their noetic logos-mirror in the heart to reflect the Logos “light of the world,” in correspondence with that of metals.
‘To make of the body a spirit and of the spirit a body’: this adage sums up the whole of alchemy. Gold itself, which outwardly represents the fruit of the work, appears as an opaque body become luminous, or as a light become solid. Transposed into the human and spiritual order, gold is bodily consciousness transmuted into spirit or spirit fixed in the body…. This transmutation of spirit into body and of body into spirit is to be found in a more or less direct and obvious manner in every method of spiritual realization; alchemy, however, has made of it its principal theme, in conformity with the metallurgical symbolism that is based on the possibility of changing the state of aggregation of a body (Burckhardt 1987, 132).
Understood as symbols in this respect, lead is the earthly reflection of ‘hard darkness’ or a ‘still-born metal;’ gold is metal as all metal would be in a prelapsarian Eden, a substance that corresponds with the Spirit and the Sun, ‘solid light.’ Silver is the shadow in material of the Soul and the Moon.[ii] Alchemy certainly was a secret science but not in the sense that its current reputation for being an occult practice would suggest.
The Western alchemist by attempting to ‘kill’ the ingredients, to reduce them to the materia prima, provokes a sympatheia between the ‘pathetic situations’ of the substance and his innermost being. In other words, he realizes, as it were, some initiatory experiences which, as the course of the opus proceeds, forge for him a new personality, comparable to the one which is achieved after successfully undergoing the ordeals of initiation (Eliade 1978, 158-160).
Alchemy understood as a sacred science, then, rather than superstitious metallurgy or out-right fraud, was ancillary to the work of the several revealed traditions and their respective means of grace, for the purification and perfection of the alchemist’s soul in correspondence with the perfection of a base metal into gold.
From the Christian point of view, alchemy was like a natural mirror for the revealed truths: the philosopher’s stone, which turned base metals into silver and gold, is a symbol of Christ, and its production from the ‘non-burning fire’ of sulphur and the ‘steadfast water’ of quicksilver resembled the birth of Christ-Emmanuel. By its assimilation into Christian belief, alchemy was spiritually fecundated, while Christianity found in it a way which through contemplation of nature, led to a true ‘gnosis’ (Burckhardt 1972, 18).
The alchemist on this way or spiritual path viewed nature’s working as a rotation of the archetypal four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, and of the polar qualities, hot and cold, dry and moist. Seeing that change is everywhere a function of the action of the two tendencies found everywhere and in anything, expansion and contraction, the alchemist worked to simulate and accelerate this natural action in his alembic (alchemist’s caldron).
[Alchemy] is related at once to cosmology, medicine, the science of substances, and psychology. [It] is based on a primordial vision of the earth as a living being in whose bosom and with the help of celestial influences grow the metals which stand outside of the natural order. The metallurgist is like a gynecologist who delivers the metal from the womb of the earth and who, with the aid of spiritual forces is able to quicken the process by which this event takes place (Nasr 1993, 106).
Risking simplification, the base metal was reduced to prima materia by the seven-cycle action of alchemical mercury and sulphur (not the same as the periodic table elements with these names), in a process known as solve et coagula, “dissolve and congeal,” “expand and contract.” By purifying the metallic substance repeatedly in this way, both the metal and alchemist are transformed in sympathy, as essential polarity is transcended and subject and object join, as in a mirror. The Logos-light within each is manifested, the one in gold as “congealed light” and the artisan’s soul in its illumination and return to its Edenic purity of heart.
Two tangible products arise from this joined process. First and more famously, it yields a stone, the Philosopher’s Stone, contact with which can transform lead to gold and whose emitted elixir can make a man immortal. As important, though more important in terms of literature and Harry Potter, it creates a transformed person, the Rebis, who is the conjunction of opposites, the resolution of contraries. Usually represented as a hermaphrodite or androgyne, this alchemist is an incarnation of peace and love, words that mean “polarity resolved.”
C. Literary Alchemy
Alchemy, then, as understood by the Perennialists, was sacred science and sacred art. The ‘jump’ from sacred art to the extra-liturgical written art of poetry, drama, and narrative story in the previous chapter was not a great leap; the language of traditional symbols and the shared aims of both in a theocentric culture made that connection, if not obvious, then easily explained. That the symbolism of metallurgical alchemy as a sacred science not only can be used in the written arts but has been in English letters since Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Metaphysical Poets may be at least as much a surprise to the modern reader.
The connection between alchemy and literature that makes these images the preferred tools of the best writers for centuries is in the transformative quality of the metallurgical symbols in play in both the laboratory science and the literary arts. This connection is probably most clear in drama. Eliade even suggested that the alchemical work grew out of initiatory dramas of the Greek Mystery religions (1978, 149). Shakespeare did not just make asides to alchemy in his plays; many of his later plays as mentioned in the psychomachia chapter are built on alchemical symbol scaffolding and themes. The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, and The Merchant of Venice are discussed as such in Jean Paris’ ‘The Alchemistic Theatre’ (Paris 1960, 87-116; cf. Lings 1984). Frances Yates argued that Shakespeare built the Globe Theatre on Hermetic principles for the proper staging of his alchemical dramas (Yates 2009, 135-139; 1974, 364-367); similarly, it has credibly been postulated that the Globe’s ‘Heavens,’ the superstructure of structural beams “whose smooth underside was clearly visible to the audience” was “decorated with a zodiac and stars” (Smith, I. 1956, 154-155).
This follows from the prevalent Aristotelian understanding from his poetics of what happens in a proper tragedy, namely, that the audience identifies with the hero in his agony and shares in his passion. This identification and shared passion is effectively the same as the experience of the event; the audience experiences catharsis or ‘purification’ in soul-to-symbol correspondence. Shakespeare and Jonson among others use alchemical imagery and themes because they understood that the work of theatre in human transformation was parallel if not identical to the alchemical work. The alchemical work, of course, claimed to be greater than an imaginative experience, but the idea of purification by identification or correspondence with an object and its transformations is ‘spot on’ with the purpose of theatre.
Alchemical language and themes became the shorthand, consequently, of many great English novels, drama, poetry and prose. The success of an artist following this tradition is measured by the edification of their audience. By means of traditional methods and symbols, the alchemical artist provides delight and dramatic release for our souls through archetypal and purifying experiences.
Alchemy and literature are a match because they both endeavor in their undegenerate or orthodox state to transform the human person. Literary alchemy, the use of alchemical images and structures, has, consequently, been a constant in English poems, plays, and novels for six centuries. Alchemy is near the heart of great English fiction.
Stanton Linden’s Darke Hierogliphicks surveyed this hermetic stream from Chaucer to the Restoration, but, though it has strong roots in Shakespearean drama (Nicholl, Yates, Lings 1984, Dawkins, Pogson 1950), it is the subject of scholarship in authors as important and contemporary as Yeats, Joyce, Angela Carter, and J. R. R. Tolkien (Gorski, Dibenard, Cooke, Brown). Add the important influence of Tolkien on Rowling to the alchemical Nabokov and Lewis to be discussed below and it is curious that there has been such resistance to the idea that Harry Potter is written within this tradition.
Note, as an example of how understanding alchemy and the attendant symbolism opens certain writers, an entry from Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery for ‘red tincture’. The ‘red tincture’ is the blood-red elixir of the philosopher’s stone that, when thrown upon base metals, changes them into gold. As Abraham explained:
It was thought that just one ounce of the tincture could transmute over a hundred or a thousand times its own weight of weight of base metals into pure gold. Shakespeare used ‘tinct’ in its alchemical sense in Anthony and Cleopatra when Cleopatra says to her ‘base’ attendant Alexas: ‘How much unlike art thou Mark Anthony!/ Yet coming from him, that great Medicine hath/ With his tinct gilded thee’ (1.5.34-36). Milton likewise used this metaphor when, in the creation scene in Paradise Lost, the stars multiply their light and Venus ‘gilds her horns’ from the sun’s quintessential source, ‘By tincture or reflection’ (7.364-9) (Abraham 2001, 169).
William Blake, too, assumed his readers knew their alchemy. As Roob explained, the two complementary and antagonistic principles of the alchemical work, the solve et coagula of alchemical mercury and sulphur, are where he begins his artistry:
William Blake identified the male principle with time and the female with space. The interpenetration of the two results in diverse reverberations of individual events, all of which, taken as a whole – totality, the micro-macrocosmic body of Christ in the image of the “human and the divine imagination” – occur in a state of relative simultaneity. Each individual element opens up, in passing, into the permanent present of this fluctuating organism and in the process attains its “fourfold”, complete form, which Blake calls “Jerusalem”. This vision generated the kaleidoscopic, narrative structures of his late poems, which reveal themselves to the reader as a multi-layered structure of perspectival relations – aimed against the prevailing idea of a simple location of events in the absolutes of linear time and space (Roob, 25).
Alchemy is key to understanding Blake’s last illuminated poem, Jerusalem, and his several paintings of Newton whom he singled out to deride for his mechanical and rationalist view. James Joyce in turn refered to both these works of Blake and other alchemical ideas and images in his Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (Roob, 482, 630). These are difficult writers and some of the best writers in our tradition; to understand their demanding transformative artistry requires at least a grounding in literary alchemy.
English Literature is rich in alchemical language, references, themes, and symbols from Chaucer to Rowling; to be ignorant of this language and imagery is to miss out on the depths and heights of Shakespeare, Blake, Donne, Milton, even C. S. Lewis and James Joyce. Ms. Rowling is not ignorant of literary alchemy. The Harry Potter books individually and as a series are built on alchemical structures, written in alchemical language, and have alchemical themes at their core. The alchemical sequence and transformation of Harry Potter through the seven cycles and Cormoran Strike through five are a cathartic psychomachia or soul’s journey to sanctification in parallel correspondence to those described in the previous chapter.
D. Chapter Organization
Rowling’s signature ‘style’ is her use of hermetic symbols, sequences, and colors derived from metallurgical alchemy and deployed by the masters of imaginative literature from Dante and Shakespeare to C. S. Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov. After discussing the author’s comments on this subject and the most likely source material she would have read, the five markers of this artistry are explained with a review of their appearance in Deathly Hallows and Troubled Blood, the three stages and their ties to holidays in each, segueing to conclusions to be made about the tandem or spagyric relationship of this style with the author’s ring structures.
II. Rowling and Alchemy
That structure and style are primary concerns to an author of any worth was a tenet of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov taught “style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash” and that his course on literature at Cornell “is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures” (Nabokov 1980, xxxiii, ixxx). The “how” to Nabokov equated with the “what,” rather than surface meaning or theme. A writer’s syuzhet or artistry is largely his or her choice or creation of a particular form in transforming the historical narrative sequence or fabula into a story experience the reader enters to figure out, again, as Nabokov’s “mystery.”
To begin with Rowling’s style, then, what did Nabokov think “style’ was exactly? From his Lectures on Literature:
Another aspect of form is style, which means how does the structure work; it means the manner of the author, his mannerisms, various special tricks; and if his style is vivid what kind of imagery, of description, does he use, how does he proceed; and if he uses comparisons, how does he employ and vary the rhetorical devices of metaphor and simile and their combinations. The effect of style is the key to literature, a magic key to Dickens, Gogol, Flaubert, Tolstoy, to all great masters.
Form (structure and style) = Subject Matter: the why and the how = the what (Idem, 113).
Our principal pleasure in reading the best fiction, Nabokov declared, is the fruit of our ability in re-reading to “keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece” (Idem, 4).
The idea that Rowling is an alchemical stylist might be seen as prima facie obvious, at least as a possibility, given that the first book is titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and features real world alchemist Nicholas Flamel as well as the fictional Albus Dumbledore.[iii] As noted in the critical literature review, however, there has been significant resistance to the evidence in the texts and to explanations of that evidence of alchemical artistry.
This is the case despite the fact that author herself has testified in interviews and at her website to her use of alchemical symbolism. Rowling, in an interview she gave in 1998 to a local newspaper in Scotland, was asked if she ever wanted to be a witch:
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 (Simpson).
Rowling has written more about this usage on her PotterMore (now ‘Wizarding World’) website:
Colours also played their part in the naming of Hagrid and Dumbledore, whose first names are Rubeus (red) and Albus (white) respectively. The choice was a nod to alchemy, which is so important in the first Harry Potter book, where 'the red' and 'the white' are essential mystical components of the process. The symbolism of the colours in this context has mystic meaning, representing different stages of the alchemic process (which many people associate with a spiritual transformation). Where my two characters were concerned, I named them for the alchemical colours to convey their opposing but complementary natures: red meaning passion (or emotion); white for asceticism; Hagrid being the earthy, warm and physical man, lord of the forest; Dumbledore the spiritual theoretician, brilliant, idealised and somewhat detached. Each is a necessary counterpoint to the other as Harry seeks father figures in his new world (Rowling 2013).
She admitted at a 2018 London Museum exhibit on the history of Magic that even her dreaming life was consumed by alchemy when she began writing the series. “I had a really vivid dream about Nicolas Flamel, during the writing of Philosopher's Stone. I dreamt that I was in his alchemist's studio and this kind of symbolism was all over his walls. I didn't even ask questions, I was just watching. Typical writer, just observing. Didn't even ask!” (Rowling 2018a).
She shared on the early version of her website, JKRowling.com, that her drafts of Philosopher’s Stone were much more obviously alchemical. Harry Potter, Book 1, in its first telling opened with a scene featuring Argis Pyrites, servant of Lord Voldemort and author of an alchemical textbook.
There were several discarded opening chapters for Book 1, one of which had a muggle betraying the Potters, one had a character called 'Pyrites,' whose name means 'fools gold' meeting Sirius in front of the Potter's house. Pyrites was a servant of Voldemort. …
Very early page of Book1: Argis Pyrites mentioned as author of Alchemy, Ancient Art and Science (Accio-Quote).
In a very short piece at her PotterMore.com website, fans were told that “Very specialised subjects such as Alchemy are sometimes offered in the final two years, if there is sufficient demand.” To which note Rowling added under the title, ‘J. K. Rowling’s Thoughts’: “A slightly different list of school subjects appears in my earliest notes. Herbology is called 'Herbalism', Divination is compulsory from the first year, as are Alchemy and a subject called simply 'Beasts', whereas Transfiguration is called 'Transfiguration/Metamorphosis’” (Rowling 2018b).
As ‘Alchemy’ became ‘Potions’ and the “servant of Lord Voldemort” who had reason to be outside the Potters’ home on the night of their murder was Severus Snape, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Potions Master who plays such a large part in Harry’s adventures was originally conceived as the Alchemy instructor.[iv]
This fascinating and explicit testimony of the author about how her having “learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy” “sets the interior logic” of the books and how much the subject consumed her waking and sleeping mind as she imagined the series makes the silence, even the denial of critics about the hermetic artistry of Harry Potter curious.
What largely confirms the thesis that Rowling is writing in this tradition is the discovery in 2015 of the only known texts written by Rowling before and during her composing the first drafts of Philosopher’s Stone in 1994. Though a single mother on the dole struggling to earn a teaching certificate, Rowling made time to create at least two, probably three elaborate and lengthy astrological natal charts for a friend’s new baby and her husband (Tarantino 2015). The beautiful and involved drawing in color that Rowling did for the child’s chart with images derived from the signs and aspects given in it as well as Rowling’s detailed interpretation were posted in 2015 and are available at a fan site, TheRowlingLibrary.com, and the two known charts were listed at a London auction house, Paul Fraser Collectibles, for sale at 17,500 pounds each (PaulFraserCollectibles.com).
Beyond the risible investment opportunity passed up for at least four years by Rowling collectors, even the auction house notes that the charts are relevant to understanding Harry Potter:
J.K Rowling's fascination with astrology can be seen throughout the Harry Potter series of books, in characters such as Professor of Divination Sybill Trelawney and Firenze the star-gazing centaur.
Whilst writing her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling also produced highly detailed personal horoscopes for some of her friends….
Throughout the 12 page document Rowling displays a strong knowledge of astrology, referencing texts such as the influential 15th century French work 'The Kalendar and Compost of Shepherds'.
The strength and humour of her writing also clearly shines through, particularly during a passage in which she images the couple escaping from international terrorists, using hand grenades made from Coke cans and Semtex "weaselled out of a guard who was no match for his Machiavellian Mars" (PaulFraserCollectibles.com).
Readers are able to confirm this praise is not just salesmanship because TheRowlingLibrary, a fan website in Beunos Aries, was given permission to post the complete text of one of the natal charts. Rowling refers in it to seven different astrologers and to fifteen books on astrology in addition to The Kalendar and Compost of Shepherds which quotations, while at first glance suggesting she had something of a library of reference materials, are all taken without citation from one book, Louis MacNeice’s Astrology.[v]
Though not the work of an authentic scholar of astrology, then, the chart as published does demonstrate that in 1994 Rowling was sufficiently fluent in the language and art, not to mention the math, of astrology to cast an accurate natal chart and write involved interpretations of one. Her eleven page single-spaced exegesis of Roger Tosswill’s natal chart is not only clever and humorous but accurate with respect to astrological conventions about the meanings of the specific planets in each house and their aspects to one another. She even engages in relationship astrology, the art of comparing the two charts of a couple in relationship to access compatability, which involved serious familiarity with the subject before online horoscope-dating services were omnipresent.[vi]
Rowling’s claim to have “read a ridiculous amount about alchemy” before writing Harry Potter seems both more credible and understandable in light of the appearance of these natal charts and interpretations.[vii] As noted, astrology and alchemy are paired sciences with shared symbols for metals and planets and intertwined meanings; the one rarely appears without the other in medieval mythos. Rowling’s great familiarity with the one implies a facility if not fluency in the language of the other. The influence of alchemical writers and literary scholars, her own testimony about the alchemical conception and composition of the Potter books, and the discovery of documentary evidence of her accomplishments as an astrologer all point to her writing in the tradition of literary alchemists.
The most striking evidence of all is Rowling’s tattoo, one she had inked in late 2019 on the wrist of writing hand. It reads, in her own hand-writing, ‘Solve et Coagula,’ the summary formula of the alchemical work to be discussed in a moment. It is the only tattoo Rowling has admitted to owning and its placement confirms the centrality of hermetic artistry to her work (Jeffery 2019).
As noted, Rowling admitted in 1998 that “To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy.” Before detailing Rowling’s hermetic style, then, it makes sense to pause here to consider the most likely sources of the “ridiculous amount about alchemy” Rowling claims to have “learned” from 1990-1997, the years between the inspiration for the books and the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The most readily available books on the subject would be those found in the occult section of book shops, with which section Rowling’s familiarity with astrology suggests she would know. Rowling, however, has said she is not an admirer of this kind of book, saying to a reporter “New Ageism leaves me completely cold” (Hattenstone). The most noted academic works on alchemy in print are those by psychologist C. G. Jung (1976), perennialist Titus Burckhardt (1972, 1987), and historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1978). Gail Grynbaum interpreted the first four Harry Potter novels in light of Jungian psychology in a 2001 piece, ‘The Secrets of Harry Potter,’ for a San Francisco Jung journal (Grynbaum). The Penguin trade paperback cover of Burckhardt’s 1972 Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul as noted before features a 1613 drawing by Basilius Valentinus called ‘Aurelia Occulta Philosophorum,’ which image has an hermaphroditic giant titled ‘Rebis’ astride a fire breathing dragon atop a golden globe with wings, possible sources for the androgynous giant Rubeus Hagrid, a great lover of dragons, and for the Golden Sitch, the Seeker’s aim in the game of Quidditch.
Grynbaum, as fascinating as her discussion of the Orphan, the Vampire, and Evil are in light of Jungian interpretation of dreams and alchemy, did not suggest that the books were influenced by the author’s reading of the psychologist’s books on alchemy.[viii] Even if Rowling had read Jung, Burckhardt, and Eliade, though, all three experts on psychology and religion focus exclusively on the gnostic qualities of metallurgical alchemy rather than the laboratory art’s literary progeny. A survey of the critical literature about the use of alchemical glyphs and symbols in story, that is, in poems, plays, and novels written in English, academic articles and books in print by 1990, the year of Rowling’s inspiration for the series, points to Rowling’s most likely sources for her hermetic artistry. Stanton Linden’s Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration, for example, is a seminal text in the field but it was not published until 1996.[ix]
Two books that were in print are Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre (1980) and Lyndy Abraham’s Marvell and Alchemy (1990).[x] Each argued that metallurgical alchemy pervaded the culture of seventeenth Century England and that the cosmological perspective and signature sequences and symbol sets informed the better literature of the period. Nicholl focused on the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and poets with special attention to Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606) and Abraham’s work on Marvell (1621-1678) naturally treated the later Civil War and Restoration eras and the literature of those periods. As groundbreaking and important as Nicholl’s work is in this field of study (Abraham’s book is almost a mirror reflection of Chemical Theatre in organization and argument albeit about a different author), the time period of fin de siecle seventeenth Century England post Restoration is more important than the dawn of that century because Rowling situated a critical event of her Wizarding World’s history in 1692. The International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, the law that required the disappearance of magical people from Muggle society and which forced them to live apart and underground, was passed in that year and defined the parameters of life for witches and wizards thenceforth (Granger 2010a). Rowling included an unusual number of references to people and subjects in the Potter series from this time period, ideas and persons discussed in the first chapter of Marvell and Alchemy.
Rowling’s Everard Proudfoot, for example, is a former Hogwarts Headmaster. Dumbledore testified to his reknown in a critical scene that takes place in Dumbledore’s office in Order of the Phoenix, chapter 22 (466-491). ‘Everard Proudfoot,’ whose animated painting hangs in Dumbledore’s office, always referred to in text as “Everard,” was tasked to move to his painting at the Ministry of Magic and to alert the guards there that Arthur Weasley had been attacked. The fictional Proudfoot is a pointer to John Everard, a leader of the Seeker religious movement and translator of hermetic texts in the Civil War period. The self-evident name, his round-head hair-cut (“short black bangs”), and Rowling’s placement of his single appearance in brackets around the most esoteric if not occult-like of any magic Dumbledore practices in the entire series corresponds with Abraham’s discussion of him in Marvell and Alchemy:
Robert Schuler has also pointed to the strong link between the radical sectarians and alchemy. Dr. John Everard (1575-1641), the Anglican minister who became associated with the Family of Love, provides Schuler with an example of that 'sectarian spiritual alchemy - sometimes tinged with political and religious millennialism - which flourished among some radical Puritans of the mid-centry.' Everard translated a number of alchemical works, including the key medieval text, the Emerald Tablet in 1640, to which he added his own annotations expressing a combination of radical Puritanism and spiritual alchemy. Everard also made the first English translation of the significant Gnostic and Neo-Platonic work, The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, in XVII Books, which appeared in 1650 after his death. In 1657 the Pymander was again issued, this time together with Everard's translation of the Asclepius and a commentary (Abraham 1990, 20).
Rowling’s Wizarding World, too, resounds with hermetic notes from revolutionary Renaissance Florence. The avuncular Centaur of the Potter series, for example, who teaches Divinations at Hogwarts after being expelled is named ‘Firenze,’ the Italian word for Florence. His expertise is astrology. A ‘fantastic beast’ who appears in every book after Prisoner of Azkaban is the hippogriff, a creature straight out of Boiardo and Ariosto’s Orlando epics, published in 16th Century Florence. The most famous citizen and poet from Florence and an important influence on Rowling is Dante and she may have modeled her Severus Snape character on the popular Gustave Dore depictions of the poet in his version of the Commedia; as discussed previously, the death of Snape in Deathly Hallows is a step-by-step repetition of the poet’s entry into Paradise after looking into the emerald green eyes of his beloved Beatrice (cf. Granger 2008d, 131-150). The Commedia’s three parts, too, are an alchemical sequence of nigredo, albedo, and rubedo for the perfection of the poet’s soul. Abraham discussed “the earlier Platonic academies in Florence” that were the model for John Dee’s home and library (Abraham 1990, 4) and she and Nicholl point to the translations of alchemical texts from Arabic into Latin in the Florentine Renaissance circa 1460 by Marsilio Ficino and the hermetic commentary of Pico Della Mirandola as foundations for English interest in magia naturalis and the alchemical seeker as magus or wizard (Abraham 1990, 20-21; Nicholl, 46-47, 49).
What is most compelling about the idea of Rowling’s having read Abraham’s historical survey of alchemy and its role in the English Civil War and in the arts of the period is that Abraham asserted that alchemy was as popular as it became then precisely because of its revolutionary quality, its subversiveness. “Occultism was an integral part of late Renaissance cosmology, and the interest in alchemy was overwhelming and widespread” is the argument of her first chapter. Whence this popularity? Alchemy subverted the Galenic-Aristotelian order within science, especially pharmaceutical medicine, as the Puritans did the established ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Although men of varying religious and political beliefs found inspiration in them, alchemy and chemical medicine were particularly espoused by radical Protestants. By the time of the Civil war, alchemy was a focal issue of medical reform, and during this period Protestant mysticism and Paracelsian medicine were closely associated…. The association of Protestant and Paracelsian alchemists became intensified during the period of the English civil war. The Paracelsian system rejected traditional medical and religious dogma, and this sounded a sympathetic note with the ideals of the Puritan reformers and revolutionaries (Abraham 1990, 2, 18-19).
As noted above, “The Paracelsian challenge of the medical establishment was seen as analogous to the Puritan challenge of the bishops.” Abraham concluded that “It is clear that Protestantism, Hermeticism, and alchemy were not only live issues during the English civil war, but were also traditions that were largely in alliance” (Abraham 1990, 2, 18-19). Alchemy and its literary progeny are historically and inherently subversive.[xi]
The argument of this thesis is that Rowling the Lake and Shed writer is best read against the measure suggested by Coomaraswamy and Updike, i.e., whether she achieved as a writer what she set out to do. What Rowling says a writer starting out needs to do suggests she believes that a writer in apprenticeship at least begins her work imitating of writers she admires and what they do that works. Whether Rowling read Abraham and Nicholl or not, assertions that cannot be demonstrated with any greater certainty than “probable” or “improbable,” her models in C. S. Lewis and Vladimir Nabokov bring us to the same end. Both are literary subversives and alchemists.
Nabokov’s subversiveness, perhaps, is prima facie obvious; his novels are of such complexity and magisterial artistry and involve such unsympathetic characters with whom the serious reader is so contra-naturally engaged, that the counter-convention quality of his neo-Kafka work needs little explanation.[xii] C. S. Lewis, in contrast, suffers from neglect among professional theologians as an amateur apologist for devotional Christianity and with literary critics for his seven part Chronicles of Narnia because of the great popularity of these works among Evangelical believers and children, respectively, the ‘Great Unwashed.’ This is unfortunate because everything Lewis wrote, even his academic work, The Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, and his Oxford History of the English Language volume, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, was written against the grain, not only of critical opinion, but against prevailing post bellum thinking at large. That book length philosophical works have been written defending and attacking, for example, Lewis’ logical assessment of rationalism and materialism, his so-called ‘Most Dangerous Idea,’ speaks to the subversive quality of his work.[xiii] As a stylistic formalist, too, his means is correspondingly covert, even clandestine.
Echoing Nabokov, C. S. Lewis, according to Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, also felt appreciating the “manner of the author,” his “various special tricks,” especially those connected to creating atmosphere, were critical to understanding the style of the Greats.
Again and again, in defending works of romance, Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction. The invented world of romance is conceived with this kind of qualitative richness because romancers feel the real world itself to be ‘cryptic, significant, full of voices, and the mystery of life.’ Lovers of romances go ‘back to fruit tree for its taste; to an air for… what? For itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere – to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness’ (Ward, 16).
Donegal was one of Lewis’favorite vacation spots as a child in Northern Ireland. Ward defined Lewis’ stylistic atmosphere as his ‘Donegality:’
By donegality we mean to denote the spiritual essence or quiddity of a work of art as intended by the artist and inhabited unconsciously by the reader. The donegality of the story is its peculiar and deliberated atmosphere or quality; its pervasive and purposed integral tone or flavor; its tutelary but tacit spirit, a spirit that that the author consciously sought to conjure, but which was designed to remain implicit in the matter of the text… the more influentially to inform the work and so affect the reader (Ward 75).
Ward’s concern is especially with Lewis’ character Aslan, in whom this donegality is “concentrated and consummated” as a “Christologically representative character” (Idem), but the thesis of Planet Narnia is that the “kappa-element,”[xiv] Lewis’ phrase for the informing, hidden “tutelary but tacit” style of a work, is astrological symbolism, each of the Narnia chronicles representing one of the seven traditional planets. Ward argues that Lewis’ subliminal artistry, the “inner weave” or style of his work in Nabokovian language, is the embedded mythological and astral metaphors to be found beneath the surface of each story. Twain is supposed to have said, “"If you would have your fiction live forever, you must neither overtly preach nor overtly teach, but you must covertly preach and covertly teach." Lewis, believing as he did that “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep” (Lewis no date), wrote in astrological glyphs to reach covertly his reader’s unconscious depths or noetic heights.
As important as Lewis’ astrological donegality certainly is, he was a literary alchemist before he made astrology the principal symbolic scaffolding of his Narniad. The so-called Space or Ransom Trilogy, Lewis’ three book foray into science fiction that preceded his children’s fantasy series by a decade, though it certainly involved planetary symbolism (the hero travels to Mars and Venus), was primarily alchemical in its three stage structure and predominantly transformational imagery (Granger 2008c). Lewis employed alchemical and astrological similes in tandem in both the Ransom books and the Narniad because he knew that study of planets and metals were complementary sacred sciences in the Middle Ages; his discussion of the planetary symbols and meanings in The Discarded Image is as much about metals as it is an astrological literary guide (Lewis 1994, 104-109; Burkhardt 1972, 76-91).
And Nabokov? He, too, was a literary alchemist. Lyndy Abraham, author of Marvell and Alchemy and whose Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery is the accepted standard reference in the field, revealed in her ‘Nabokov’s Alchemical Pale Fire’ that the Russian American novelist’s greatest work was suffused with hermetic images from the English tradition (Abraham 1990a). His 1930 short story, ‘The Aurelian,’ too, is something of a transparency of a man’s transformation from darkness to light, lead to gold, as the title suggests (Granger 2018?). This would come as a surprise only to the reader unaware of the alchemical tradition in English letters, discussed above, in the study of which both Lewis and Nabokov were expert.
III. Signature Symbols and Sequences
What, though, do Rowling’s books tell us about her literary alchemy? What evidence is there in her novels themselves demonstrate that she is the hermetic stylist her testimony and her important influences suggest she might be?
The known insignia of such a writer tell all. In addition to the hundreds of individual tokens listed in Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, there are five key markers of a work written within the alchemical tradition:
Three Stages: The work is going to have three key stages marked by the use of specific colors and story events, namely, black, white, and red, which stages reflect, in sequence, the dissolution or break down of the subject character or main characters (nigredo) usually by heat, the purification or purgation of same (albedo) usually with water, and the revelation of the transformation undergone in the process in the story crisis (rubedo).[xv]
Antagonists: There will be story contraries that must be resolved by the principals’ transformation, contraries like the Two Cities in Dickens’ most popular novel or the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s Verona, or just groups like the Quileute Wolfpack and Cullen Vampires of Meyer’s Twilight.
Quarreling Couple: Expect a ‘Quarreling Couple,’ a pair in opposition, one relatively feminine or lunar, the other masculine and solar, who engage the character being broken down to prima materia for illumination as ‘solid light’ or gold. This duo are polar opposites and they either quarrel or draw the principal in contrary directions. This ‘Quarreling Couple’ of alchemical mercury and Sulphur, think Shakespeare’s Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet or Meyer’s Edward and Jacob in her Twilight books, are the catalysts of the reaction and character transformation.
Alchemical Wedding: Between the white and red stages noted above, there is an Alchemical Wedding of the Red King and White Queen that prefigures the conjunction of opposites signaling the golden moment of the Philosopher’s Stone creation, i.e., the divinization of the main character and birth of the Philosophical Orphan or story savior joining contraries as a Rebus or hermaphrodite.
Resurrection: And there should be remarkable resurrection imagery, say, something as simple as light shining out of darkness or grander images of a hero rising from the dead or even of a Phoenix, a Rose, or a Red Lion, symbols of the Stone and of Christ, the Light of the World. This is the story cipher for the illumination of lead to gold and the enlightenment of the alchemist.
All five signature markers are evident and obvious in the Harry Potter series and these and other alchemical tokens appear in Rowling’s post Potter work as well.
IV. The Literary Alchemy of Harry Potter
A. Signature Symbols
Rowling noted in a 2005 interview that the Hogwarts Houses represent the four elements of traditional cosmology: Hufflepuff being ‘Earth,’ Ravenclaw ‘Air,’ Gryffindor ‘Fire,’ and Slytherin ‘Water’ (Anelli). Each House’s defining qualities reflect these elements as do the locations of their common rooms and dormitories. The principal conflict of the books, the defining polarity, is less between that of Muggle and Wizard than between fire and water, the Houses of Gryffindor and Slytherin, an archetypal set of contraries that Rowling represents as a rift that stretches back to a break between two of the Hogwarts Founders, Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin (cf. Whited 2020). At series end, the death of Lord Voldemort brings about a resolution of these contraries when all four Houses sit down together rather than at separate tables in the Great Hall after the Battle of Hogwarts.
· Quarreling Couple
The ‘Quarreling Couple’ of Harry Potter who represent the catalysts of Alchemical Mercury and Alchemical Suphur in the transformative reaction taking place are Harry’s closest friends, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. The hermetic reagents represent the poles of existence with Mercury being feminine, cool, and intelligent and Sulphur being masculine, volatile, and passionate. The story figures of these poles, brainiac Hermione and impulsive, raging Ron, not only are always bickering with one another, but their names point to Rowling’s artistry.
Mercurial Hermione’s name is the feminine of Hermes, her initials are Hg, the periodic table abbreviation for the element, and her parents are dentists, the only modern professionals who use mercury on a day to day basis for ‘fillings.’ Ron’s hair is fiery red and he is as brash and heated as Hermione is calm and collected; his middle name is ‘Bilius’ which highlights his sulphuric nature. The resolution of the Quarreling Couple in a kiss at the end of Deathly Hallows marks the beginning of the end of the Great Work itself and the beginning of the revelation of Harry’s becoming the Philosopher’s Stone.
· Alchemical Wedding
Readers learn in the Deathly Hallows Epilogue that Ron and Hermione do get married but the Alchemical Wedding of the series, the nuptials of Red King and the White Queen between the albedo and rubedo stages of the Work, is the marriage of British Bill Weasley, red headed and lupine after his battle with a werewolf in Half-Blood Prince, and French Fleur de la Couer, white haired Veela. Their wedding in the opening chapters of Deathly Hallows, though the reception and celebration is interrupted by a Death Eater attack, is all in gold and yellow, Rowling’s marking of the citrinintas or ‘yellow stage’ of the metallurgical process, also before the red and just after the white stages (Abraham 1998, 42).[xvi]
The resurrection imagery is evident, as well. Every book and especially the finale ends with Harry’s rising from seeming or near death in the presence of a traditional symbol of Christ. Book by book, the symbols are the Philosopher’s Stone, Fawkes the Phoenix, a White Stag, Phoenix Song and tears, Fawkes again in the Ministry duel between the Dark Lord and Dumbledore, a Hippogriff, and Harry himself in Deathly Hallows when he sacrifices himself to save his friends. As previously mentioned, Harry’s return in Hallows from his King’s Cross after-life conversation with Dumbledore, a destination to which he was dispatched by Voldemort’s death curse in the Forbidden Forest, is bursting with Calvary and Easter references, most notably his victory over the Dark Lord and death as the sun rises and illumines the Great Hall (Granger 2008, 21-28, 225-243; Groves 2017, 60-80).
B. Black, White, and Red
These four markers of literary alchemy would be sufficient to convict Rowling of writing hermetically. The most convincing evidence, though, of her embedding alchemical ‘structure and style’ elements is in the use of the black, white, and red color sequences and their attendant imagery in each book and the series as a whole. Few if any postmodern readers, even those who majored in English, are familiar with the stages of metallurgical alchemy and their corresponding equivalents in poems, plays, and novels, so a brief introduction is in order.
Literary alchemy, like metallurgical cum spiritual alchemy, is described in three stages, each of which stages has a signature color. Those colors again are black, white, and red.
Alchemy as a spiritual work follows the revealed traditions in being a three part task. The nigredo or “black” dissolution stage is the work of “renunciation” or “repentance.” It is preparatory to the work of “purification” and “illumination” that in alchemy is done in the second so-called “white” stage,” the albedo. Alchemy represents spiritual accomplishment or perfection in its rubedo or “red stage.”
In Perennialist language, the first step is the death of the ego-mind and its attachments to the sensible world and ratiocinations. This reduction to prima materia is the person’s turn to their transpersonal center in the logos intellect or heart. The albedo purification is the cleansing of this interior mirror so that it reflects the “image and likeness” of the archetypal Logos Intellect. The rubedo crisis of the great work is the completion and exteriorization or revelation of this interior transformation, the spirit’s metaphorical return to and resurrection of the physical body.
“The albedo occurs after the blackened matter, the putrefied body of the Stone has been washed to whiteness by the mercurial waters or fire” (Abraham 1998, 4).. This is the stage of purification and the transformation of the subject, already broken down into prima materia, into the rebis or Philosopher’s Stone. This work, though, is hidden; the accomplishments of the white stage are revealed in the drama of the red finale.
To understand the albedo, it helps to know that the Latin root of “albedo” is ‘albus,’ meaning both “white” and “resplendent.” There’s a hint of “luminescent” or “brilliant;” “purification unto illumination” via the logos “light of the world” perhaps best describes the albification process.
The three colors were originally metallurgical steps: dissolution or “blackening,” distillation and purification or “bleaching,” and recongealing or “reddening.” The axiomatic action of alchemy is solve et coagula, “dissolve and recongeal,” material dissolution that frees the spirit followed by reconstitution of the spirit with body in a purified state, action Nicholls describes as the ‘Chemical Theatre’ in the alembic that Shakespeare and others re-create in drama. This formula, as noted above, is hard to overestimate in importance because Rowling has it tattooed just above her right wrist, her writing hand.
Thinking of the sun at day’s end and human experience of twilight is analogous with this three-step. As the sun sets, the sky darkens and the observer become less focused; the ego-self dissolves into sleep. In the night, there is reflected light, sun on the moon, which illumines the supraconscious self in secret. At dawn, in the light of day, the person is re-membered and different, even re-created, because of the purifying rest in the lunar light.
The person is re-born every morning because of his or her rest in the darkness. This is not a poor one-line summary of the alchemical work. The recongealing or perfection of the human person in the rubedo or red stage is really only a revelation of the re-newing, purifying transformation that took place in the dark. Throw in a full moon and a long ablution or bath in that white stage at night, and the analogy of the predominant white stage imagery and meaning is complete.
This second step, the albedo, is represented in literature with the color white, the silver element or color, with light, especially the light at night (the moon or ‘Luna’ frequently plays a part), and with water. These elements are used as backdrops and props to story events of purification, illumination, and reconciliation or healing. Again, think of a prophetic dream or insight while lying in bed under the moon after a long bath when recovering from a shattering day; that’s an albedo. No one will know about it until it is revealed in the light and through the events of the coming day, but that change in the moonlight is the greater part of the Great Work.
The rubedo or third step is “the reddening of the white matter of the stone at the final stage of the opus alchymicum” (Abraham 1998, 174). In the nigredo, all form, color, and light are taken from the substance to reduce it to blackened “prime matter.” In the albedo, a light like the moon’s reflected colorless light is evident in the white stone produced. In the rubedo, the contraries are resolved, the white stage’s accomplishments are revealed, and the Stone becomes red.
As important as the idea of light as a symbol is in understanding alchemical gold, it is helpful to think of the three stages of the work in terms of light as well as color. As Burckhardt writes: “Black is the absence of color and light. White is purity; it is undivided light – light not broken down into colors. Red is the epitome of colors, its zenith and its point of greatest intensity” (Burckhardt 1976, 182).. Imagine the lunar light in the darkness of night shining through a prism to reveal all colors and especially their epitome, red.
That is evident first in the books being largely about the resolution of contraries, especially the battle between the hot and dry Gryffindors up in their tower and the cold and moist Slytherins in the dungeons beneath the lake. Harry's adventures are about his transcending this polarity, marrying the contraries, which solve et coagula purification happens in his passage through the black and a white and red stages. Every book and the Potter series as a whole come with a complete set.
Individual Book Sequences
In the individual books, the black stage or nigredo is almost always launched on Privet Drive, where Harry is treated horribly and, at least in Philosopher's Stone, lives in a cupboard under the stairs. The work breaking Harry down is continued each year when he gets to Hogwarts and Severus Snape takes over, a figure whose hair, eyes, and clothing are uniformly black. But Hogwarts is the home of Albus Dumbledore, as well, whose first name means "white," and Hogwarts, consequently, the “white house," is where Harry is purified of the failing identified at the Dursleys’ as he and the Quarreling Couple solve that year's mystery. The passage from Privet Drive to Hogwarts, Harry’s moving from the mundane world of the Dursleys where magic is forbidden to the Wizarding World where is inner essence is fostered, is the jump from the sensible to the intelligible worlds. The understanding he gets through the solving of the mystery in each year is revealed in the book's crisis, the confrontation with the bad guys, in which he always dies a figurative death and is re-born. From Privet Drive to his chat with Dumbledore at book's end, Harry is always purified and transformed.
The clearest illustration of this is in Prisoner of Azkaban. At the start, Harry was an angry teenage boy. He blew Aunt Marge up, like a balloon rather than a bomb, because she had a little too much to drink and, in a flood of Thatcherisms (Aunt Marge and her bulldogs can be read as metaphors for Margaret Thatcher and the patriotic John Bull Tories), said unkind things about Harry's parents. At the end of same book, though, he was so much changed that he threw himself in front of Pettigrew, the man who actually betrayed his parents and was almost solely responsible for their deaths, because he felt his father wouldn't want his best friends to kill, not even the Judas responsible for their deaths.
The series taken altogether has a black, white and red stage, too: Order of the Phoenix is the series 'Black book,' Half-Blood Prince is the White, and Deathly Hallows is the rubedo or Red stage.
The nigredo, again, is the stage in which the subject is broken down, stripped of all but the essential qualities for purification in the albedo or white work, the psychomachia of turning away from ego thinking to noetic perception. Order of the Phoenix, darkest and most disturbing of all the Harry Potter novels, is this stage in the series, a fact Ms. Rowling cued her readers to not only in the plot points, all of which are about Harry's loss of his identity, but in the "Black"-ness of the books. No small part of it takes place in the House of Black, Sirius’ family manor, and it ends with the death of Sirius Black. More important, though, is that Phoenix details Harry's near complete dissolution. Every idea he had of himself was taken from him. Dolores Umbridge taught him that Hogwarts can be hell. He learned his father was a jerk. No Quidditch! Ron and Hermione outranked him on the Hogwarts totem pole. The entire "Girl thing" eluded him except for the agonizing confusion and heartbreak. Everything, in brief, was a nightmare for him in his fifth year. His self-understanding and identity were shattered - except, at the very end, after Sirius' death and with it any hope of a family life with his godfather, Harry learned about the Prophecy. That understanding replaced everything else and that reduction to prima materia is the end and purpose of the black work.
When the next book, Half-Blood Prince, begins, the reader seems to have been transported to a different universe. Albus Dumbledore was not only back in Harry's life, he came to pick him up at Privet Drive. The Headmaster, largely absent in Phoenix, was everywhere in Prince. This is Dumbledore’s book, which, given the meaning of his name and the work that was accomplished therein, might be called the 'White Book.' Not to mention, as with Sirius at the end of the 'Black book,' Albus died at the end of the 'White.' Through the tutorials with Dumbledore and the tasks he was given in Prince, Harry came to a whole new understanding of himself in terms of the Prophecy and his relationship to Lord Voldemort. Harry did get the whole truth from the Headmaster, but at the end of Prince he has been transformed from a boy who did not believe Dumbledore would show up as promised on Privet Drive to one that defiantly told the Minister of Magic, "I'm a Dumbledore man through and through."
Deathly Hallows, the next entry and series finale, is the 'Red book,' the rubedo. As explained above, just as in Romeo and Juliet and Tale of Two Cities, a wedding has to be revealed at this point, contraries have to be resolved, and a death to self must lead to greater life. After the dissolution and ablutions of the black and white stages respectively, Harry, the subject of the work, must recongeal, the coagula of the alchemical axiom, in perfection or victory. The reader attuned to alchemical tropes would expect to see a philosopher's stone and a philosophical orphan as well. The rubedo of Deathly Hallows is the crisis of the whole series.
The Series Alchemical ‘Ring’
Deathly Hallows bears a much closer look because it is not only a rubedo and finish to the series’ alchemical artistry but an encapsulated and near perfect black-white-red story telling piece in and of itself. Before looking at it, though, in this way, two points need to be made about the series artistry over the course of seven books to answer an obvious question. If the last three novels are nigredo, albedo, and rubedo of the series, what function do the first four books serve?
First, William Sprague (2011) and Joe Packer independently have noted that the first three books are as alchemical as the last three books, but, in keeping with Rowling’s ring composition structural artistry to be discussed in the next chapter, they are in reverse order, i.e., red-to-white-to-black, in parallel with each of the closing books. To make the reverse parallelism complete, the ends of the book are an upside-down version of the three stages; Philosopher’s Stone closes with Dumbledore destroying rather than creating a Stone, Chamber of Secrets ends with Harry filthy with Basilisk blood, Horcrux ink, and Chamber dirt rather than having been through an ablutionary albedo, and Prisoner of Azkaban, instead of breaking Harry down and stripping him of his identity, reveals his god-father, Sirius Black, to him with the promise that he might once again have a family and home. The literary alchemy of Rowling’s artistry is in itself not only the symbolic “style” of the series but is also fully integrated with and complement to her over-arching structural design
· Goblet of Fire
Second, Goblet of Fire, the fourth and “crucial” book of the series according to Rowling,[xvii] is not any one of the three specific colored stages at the series pivot but all three at once, a transition between the reverse alchemy of the opening books to the straight forward hermetic coloring of the closers. The three TriWizard Tournament tasks in Goblet of Fire, most notably, are snapshots of the three stages:
The nigredo is Harry’s agonizing lead-up to his confrontation with the Hungarian Horntail in the first task. Everyone at Hogwarts, it seems, and his best friend Ron most importantly, think he has entered the Tournament himself and decided he is a conceited anti-hero they can openly despise. This breakdown in his identity is complemented by the very real danger of his being burned alive by the fire-breathing Horntail.
The albedo or ablutionary stage is Harry’s reconciliation with Ron and the school as a whole before the second task. He figures out what the task is under water in the Prefect’s bathroom and the challenge itself is about being able to breathe underwater in the Great Lake.
The rubedo finale in the Labyrinth Hagrid creates on the school’s Quidditch pitch is a collection of obstacles that reveal all that Harry has learned and has become through the other stages and tasks.
Each of the events of the Triwizard Tournament and Harry’s preparation for each trial by fire, water, or labyrinth in Goblet of Fire, then, is from the alchemical work. Not only the nature of the tasks themselves reflect the three stages; the specific tokens or story elements Rowling uses in Goblet are traditional symbols of the stages affecting solve et coagula in their appropriate sequence in the tale. Dragons, the egg, the prefects’ bath and water trial, the labyrinth, and the graveyard resurrection and fight are each alchemical tokens.
Dragons: The first task in the tournament involves dragons, which are used in alchemy to represent “matter at the beginning of the work being resolved into philosophical sulphur and mercury” (Abraham 1998, 59).
The egg: Harry and the other champions then have to solve the mystery of the egg, which appropriately is the name given to “the alchemist’s vessel of transmutation in which the birth of the philosopher’s stone takes place... also known as the griffin’s egg” (i.e., from beginning to the place of the work)(Abraham 1998, 66).
The bath: Harry solves his egg puzzle in the prefects’ bath/swimming pool, a word used by alchemists to describe “the secret, inner, invisible fire which dissolves and kills, cleanses and resurrects the matter of the Stone in the vessel” (what makes the work proceed in the alchemist’s alembic)(Abraham 1998, 17-18).
Water immersion/flood: The second task in the tournament is the trial underwater in the lake. Interestingly, one of the alchemist’s maxims was “Perform no operation until all be made water.” Water immersion, it turns out, is “a symbol of the dissolution and putrefaction of the matter of the Stone during the black nigredo stage”(Abraham 1998, 78-79) and, more important, the ablutionary agent of the second stage, “the circulation of the matter of the philosopher’s stone in the alembic when the blackness of the nigredo is washed and purified into the whiteness of the albedo” (Abraham 1998, ‘Ablution,’ 1; see also ‘Albedo,’ 4-5).
Labyrinth: The third task, which is supposed to be the end of the tournament, is a maze and is a metaphor for life in the world, or “the dangerous journey of the alchemist through the opus alchymicum…. While in the labyrinth of the opus, illusion and confusion reign and the alchemist is in danger of losing all connection and clarity” (Abraham 1998, 113).
Grave: Harry and Cedric are transported to the graveyard, where they witness Voldemort’s rebirthing party. The graveyard is also what alchemists and poets refer to as “the alchemist’s vessel during the nigredo” (Abraham 1998, 90-91), when everything is broken down into formless elements—a metaphor for what happens to Harry there.
The graveyard scene includes a Black Mass of sorts in which the Dark Lord creates a new body for his fragmented soul, whose potion elements are an inversion of Christian sacramental liturgy. Harry’s survival there is a Great Work in miniature as he endures a nigredo torture while tied to a grave marker, an ablutionary trial in his forced duel with the Dark Lord, and a rubedo revelation and triumph in the sphere of Phoenix Song that allows his escape back to Hogwarts with Cedric Diggory’s corpse.
C. Deathly Hallows
The seven book series, then, is a mirrored alchemical work, first in reverse with a story turn featuring all three stages and a Great Work in miniature at its close and finally the work in order, nigredo, albedo, and rubedo. The last book, as noted, is not only a rubedo to the series but the best black-white-red story sequence in itself with the possible exception of Goblet. It deserves a closer look, if only to demonstrate conclusively the depth and extent of Rowling’s dedication to painting from this hermetic palette.
Deathly Hallows begins, as mentioned, with Bill and Fleur's alchemical wedding, in which France and England are married in the sitzkrieg before the shooting war with Voldemort's Nazis begins. The first eight chapters of Deathly Hallows are lead-up to this union of opposites, of choler and phlegm. The wedding itself is a meeting of contraries, of solar and lunar. That's why in addition to the Gallic/Briton jokes, the lunar Lovegoods showed up in sunlight bright yellow. Luna, the moon in solar outfit, explained that it's good luck to wear gold at a wedding. This was not just Luna being “loony” (the nickname unkind characters give her); everything at the Weasley-De la Couer wedding was golden: the floor, the poles, the band jackets, the bridesmaids' dresses, even Nymphadora Tonks' hair.
The wedding, though, was only the entrance ramp to the long story journey to the conjunction of the Slytherin and Gryffindor opposites. The wedding broke up with the arrival of Kingsley's lynx patronus who sounded the alarm that Rufus Scrimgeour was dead and the Death Eater blitzkrieg had begun. With that, the death of the first character whose name means 'red,' the real action of Deathly Hallows' alchemical work began.
The rest of the book is best understood as black, white, and red stages in conjunction with Christian holy days, namely, Nativity, Theophany, and Easter. In summary, the nigredo stretches painfully from chapter nine, 'A Place to Hide,' to chapter eighteen, 'The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore.' Harry's purification and illumination begins in chapter nineteen, 'The Silver Doe,' and ends with the trio's return to Hogsmead in chapter twenty-eight, 'The Missing Mirror.' The crisis of the book and the series is in Harry's return to Hogwarts, destruction of the remaining Horcruxes, and victory over Lord Voldemort, as told in the last eight chapters of Deathly Hallows.
The ten nigredo chapters are as dark and gothic as anything ever offered as “children’s literature.” The trio stayed in the House of Black, journeyed undercover to the Orwellian "Magic is Might" black statue in the new Ministry (accessible only by flush toilet...), and they went camping, where, for some reason, it was always night, or overcast, or the three friends could not get along. Ron finally departed, shattering the soul triptych. The nigredo camping trip of Deathly Hallows is only nine chapters in length, fourteen through twenty-two, but they are unpleasant reading and three are agony to the sympathetic reader, the three after Ron departed.
These are the Christmas chapters about Harry's holiday trip with Hermione to Godric's Hollow, which are the climax of the book’s nigredo and end with Harry's crisis of faith. Harry at the end of Half-Blood Prince proclaimed that he was "a Dumbledore man." In Hallows, he read one article by Rita Skeeter and his faith was shaken. He spoke with Aunt Muriel and ‘Dogbreath’ Doge at the wedding, and he was already struggling to believe what the Headmaster had told him about the Horcrux mission. By the end of the nigredo, when Harry read The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, he denied Dumbledore was his mentor, denied that he loved Albus, denied that Dumbledore loved him, etc. (362). Harry's holly and phoenix wand had been broken in battle with Nagini and he was left with a broken wand, a broken piece of glass, and shattered faith. He kept these fragments, though, in a bag around his neck. He denied Dumbledore, denied his mission, and, in something like despair, he kept these remnants or relics of the person he once was close to his heart. The symbolism of Nativity here is the darkness of creation before the advent of the “light of the world;” just as Harry had felt the Dementor-induced despair “inside his very heart” on his first encounter with one on the Hogwarts Express (Prisoner, 83), he again at this nadir nigredo felt crushed “by the weight of his own disillusionment” (Hallows, 362).
The nigredo darkness, however, mercifully ended in the next chapter with the brilliance reflecting off the Silver Doe in the snow covered Forest of Dean. This chapter, ‘The Silver Doe,’ a meeting of Christian, alchemical and Arthurian images in one spot, is perhaps the height of Rowling's achievement as a writer in her Potter books. A more detailed look at the alchemy of Deathly Hallows than space permits here (cf. Granger 2008, 61-69) reveals the best of it is in the white stage: ‘Ron the Baptist’ saving Harry from his watery grave (the Theophany correspondence), Ron's ablutionary exorcism in destroying the Locket Horcrux, Harry's death to self and discovery of remorse, repentance, faith, and love in Dobby's grave, and the pale dragon in Gringott's are all images of purification, with water on hand or nearby.
The white stone on the red earth of Dobby's grave and the pink eyes are chromatic symbols, too, this time of the story's movement from white to red. The rubedo of Deathly Hallows begins when Harry refused to listen to Aberforth's complaints and criticism of his brother Albus. When Harry demonstrated his noetic faith and his choice to believe from his heart contra logic or calculation, Neville appeared ex machina, took him into the castle, and the battle for Hogwarts had its beginning. Perhaps the red stage really begins with an appropriately hued marker when Rubeus, the half-giant whose name means "red," flew through the window of Hogwarts Castle. It was in this battle, to include Harry's sacrifice in the Forbidden Forest and his ultimate victory over Voldemort (the triumph at dawn over death completing the Easter correspondence of Harry’s having risen from the ‘tomb’ limbo of King’s Cross), that the contraries are resolved and all the Houses sat down at one table. The battle also caused the creation of the "philosophical orphan" when Nymphadora and Remus Lupin were killed. A Philosopher's Stone is produced, as well; Hermione and Ron's daughter, we learn in the epilogue is named 'Rose,' which is another name for the Stone.
The turning-into-its-opposite transformation in the last novel of the series is how the world has been changed by Harry's internal victory and destruction of the scar-Horcrux as explained in the psychomachia chapter. Lord Voldemort tortured and murdered the Hogwarts Muggle Studies Teacher in the first chapter of the book. Her name was Charity Burbage and her corpse was dinner for Nagini. Charity or Love was destroyed by Death. Via Harry's death to self in the white stage's Dobby burial, revealed in his willing self-sacrifice before Voldemort, death's power was broken. Lily and Harry's sacrificial and selfless love sustained life and had its victory over death.
There is a parallel complete solve et coagula transformation in Harry, too. He was a Dumbledore man by confession as the story began but his disbelief and lack of trust came to the fore after his fight with Nagini in Godric's Hallow. After choosing to believe, however, when he was in Dobby's grave and chose to pursue the Horcruxes as instructed rather than Hallows, he became almost Christ-like in dying and rising from the dead to vanquish death. Even the near omnipotent Dumbledore begged Harry's forgiveness and told him that he had “known for a long time” Harry was "the better man" (713).
What has made him the better man, was becoming the Gryffindor/Slytherin union himself; something like 'Albus Severus Potter,' as Harry and Ginevra name their younger son. He becomes the conjunction of contraries by acquiring the seemingly contradictory views and qualities of both Albus Dumbledore, champion Gryffindor, and Severus Snape, Slytherin House Master and icon, by the end of Deathly Hallows.
The Deathly Hallows Epilogue is the return to the gold of the Alchemical Wedding and to a peaceful, post rubedo version of the opening chapters’ challenge, much as Deathly Hallows is a return to and re-telling of Philosopher’s Stone’s story and events. In the Epilogue’s seven pages, we meet the Rebis, the Orphan, and the Stone in the children of the next generation (Albus Severus, Teddy Lupin, and Rose, respectively). The work is simultaneously complete and ready for its next beginning, an uroboros loop or ring.
D. The Psychomachia: Harry’s Annual Soul Journey of Alchemical Transformation
Harry’s Transformations from Lead to Gold
The alchemical work is about changing the soul from lead to gold, from sin and failing to virtue, in order to create a Rebis that is the union of opposites. We can see this in the title character’s transformations in each Harry Potter book.
Philosopher’s Stone: As the novel opens, Harry is an orphan child who lives in fear of his aunt and uncle and without any knowledge or delight in who he is. By book’s end, he shows himself a champion of remarkable courage and daring – and reconciled to both his parents’ death and destiny as a wizard.
Chamber of Secrets: Harry begins the book as a prisoner both of the Dursleys and of his own self-doubts and self-pity; at the heroic finish in the morality play acted out in the Chamber, he is the liberator of Ginny and vanquisher of Tom Riddle, who is an incarnation of selfishness and self-importance.
Prisoner of Azkaban: Harry blows up Aunt Marge on Privet Drive because he cannot overlook her slights of his parents; in the crucible of the Shrieking Shack, he rescues the man who betrayed his parents to Voldemort by offering his own life as a shield to him! Unforgiving judgment to Semi-divine Mercy in a year.
Goblet of Fire: Harry begins the book consumed by thoughts of what others think of him, his external person; by book’s end, after trials with Ron, the Hogwarts student body, and a dragon, he is able to shrug off without a dent or tear a Daily Prophet hatchet job beaconed to all corners of the Wizarding World.
Order of the Phoenix: Harry is consumed by a desire of news at the beginning of the latest book. He struggles to listen to television reports, agonizes over the lack of reports from friends, and wanders his neighborhood in search of newspapers in trash cans. At the end, he is aware of his need to turn inward and discover and strengthen his inner life; his extroverted dependence on the outer world and events has become his point of vulnerability by which Voldemort manipulates him (and causes Sirius’ death).
Half-Blood Prince: Having been broken down in the heat and drought of Phoenix, Harry is rebuilt and purified in the cold and damp of Prince’s ablutions for the revelations of the Deathly Hallows. Harry begins to reveal himself as the Gryffindor/Slytherin androgyne.
Deathly Hallows: The first chapter of Harry’s adventure, ‘In Memoriam,’ reveals how weak Harry’s faith in Dumbledore is and his conviction that there is no life after death: “If anything was certain, it was that the bright blue eyes of Albus Dumbledore would never pierce him again” (Hallows, 2, page 20). Not the Dumbledore man he had told the Minister of Magic he was! At book’s end, Harry meets with Dumbledore’s shade and is pronounced not only a good and faithful servant but a “better man” by his mentor.
V. The Literary Alchemy of Rowling’s Post-Potter Novels
Rowling has not forsaken her alchemical artistry in her post Potter efforts. Though Casual Vacancy, the Cormoran Strike mysteries, and the two Fantastic Beasts film franchise screenplays published since 2010 do not feature the evident hermetic coloring, sequences, and symbols found in the Hogwarts Saga, each is a ring composition or chiastic work and each has alchemical touches.
The coitus-on-a-grave that Crystall Wheedon and ‘Fats’ Wall have above Barry Fairbrother’s grave, for instance, and the uroboros figure of ‘Fats’ and Andrew Price in their cave are unmistakable alchemical glyphs (cf. Granger 2012a). The Fantastic Beasts screenplays feature humoral comedy elements reminiscent of Jonson and Shakespeare and their ‘Beasts Within’ theme, especially the idea of Grindelwald as Dragon and Dumbledore as Phoenix, are traditional tropes of hermetic writing (cf. Granger 2018f; Baird-Hardy 2018a; Whited). Cormoran Strike, as well, not surprisingly in light of its being a seven book series written in parallel and as commentary on its Harry Potter equivalents, has a host of Great Work signatures embedded, especially with reference to Mercury, Castor and Pollux, and swans (cf. Gray; Willis 2018, Granger 2018s).
B. Nigredo in Troubled Blood
The last point in this survey of alchemical artistry in Rowling’s work is her latest novel in the Cormoran Strike detective series, Troubled Blood, her longest book to date at well over eight hundred pages. It is a fitting conclusion because it encapsulates the author’s over-lapping use of embedded symbols characters and readers are challenged to grasp and of the soul’s journey of transformation in traditional exteriorized soul-faculty sets, as discussed in previous chapters. It remains to discuss her use of symbols and sequences from metallurgical alchemy in a parallel psychomachia to her ‘Psyche and Cupid’ myth and Red Crosse Knight intertextual iconography.
Troubled Blood is the nigredo or black stage novel of the Strike series. This was assumed to be the case before the book was published and has been confirmed since. Why speculation along this line was so confident and the reality little surprise is because the author has written to date in a chiastic structure anthropologist Mary Douglas described as ‘ring composition,’ the subject of the concluding chapter of this thesis. It was expected, consequently, that the fifth novel would be as dark as the third novel, Career of Evil, its correspondent in a seven book turtle-back structure (cf. Freeman 2021c). Rowling, too, has been writing each of the Strike books in playful parallel with their corresponding numbers in the Harry Potter series; Lethal White, the fourth book, for example, is laden with references and echoes of Goblet of Fire, the fourth Potter novel (cf. Granger 2018x, 2018z). Order of the Phoenix, the fifth Hogwarts adventure, is the nigredo of that series, hence the assumption that ‘Strike5’ would be one as well. Troubled Blood did not disappoint on this expectation. A quick review of what the nigredo stage is and with a look at the definition in Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, then, is in order before reading Blood through the Perennialist’s hermetic lens.
As noted above, Alchemy as a spiritual work follows the revealed traditions in being a three part task. The nigredo or “black” dissolution stage is the work of “renunciation” or “repentance.” It is preparatory to the work of “purification” and “illumination” that in alchemy is done in the second so-called “white” stage,” the albedo. Alchemy represents spiritual accomplishment or perfection in its rubedo or “red stage.” Literary Alchemy, in correspondence with the metallurgical sacred science, is the written sacred art of psychomachia, i.e., an exteriorization of the soul’s journey to communion with Spirit expressed in alchemical symbolism and sequences.
In Perennialist language, the first step or black stage is the death of the ego-mind and its attachments to the sensible world and ratiocinations. This reduction to prima materia is the person’s turn to their transpersonal center in the logos intellect or heart. The black stage’s purpose in alchemical jargon is the reduction of the subject, in the laboratory a base metal, here the soul, to prime matter, which is to say, that person’s defining idea, his or her logos inner essence, represented in the core psychological obstacle the hero must confront and transcend for spiritual achievement.
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter’s nightmare nigredo, he was stripped of everything non-essential in his schoolboy existence to prepare him for the revelation of his singular power and life challenge. The Wizarding World newspaper, The Daily Prophet, and the Ministry of Magic waged a campaign to discredit his testimony that the Dark Lord had returned, for example, which tore away his ‘Boy Who Lived’ heroic reputation. Dumbledore avoided contact with him as much as possible, which neglect took away one of his expected supports. He was not made a school prefect but his two best friends were, so he lost the visible status of being their leader. His first romantic efforts exploded in his face. Hogwarts, under the direction of Dolores Umbridge, became a nightmare of restrictive rules. She not only tortured him in detentions, but gave him a lifetime ban from playing Quidditch, his greatest pleasure at the school. He learned, too, his father had been a self-important jerk while at Hogwarts, just as Severus Snape had told him for years. The book ended with the murder of Sirius Black, a death for which Harry was in large part responsible. The hero in the nigredo of Order of the Phoenix is sometimes referred to as ‘CAPS LOCK Harry’ because he rages so often in the book, most especially in his grief and remorse after Black’s death in the finale.
After yelling at the Headmaster in his office out of this misery, Dumbledore told Harry at last about the Prophecy that linked him and Lord Voldemort. The climax and fruit of Harry’s near complete dissolution was the revelation that he was destined to a death match with the most powerful evil wizard alive and that the boy’s power, love, in this conflict, according to Dumbledore, was his only hope. The year’s ego-denuding agonies, in other words, made plain the spiritual allegory; the battle with Voldemort, the Dark Lord, is a battle exteriorization of Everyman’s interior jihad between the light in the Heart and the darkness of individual ego attachments and considerations. Harry had been stripped of every distraction and dissipation, all of which was burned away in continuous disappointment, denial of privilege and rank, and the metaphorical heat of adolescent rage and frustration. The nigredo of Phoenix prepared Harry for the ablutionary and enlightenment of the next book’s albedo.
As different as the subject, milieu, and characters of Rowling’s two series are, Troubled Blood as literary nigredo, should reflect the same process and product as Order of the Phoenix. Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery in its nigredo and related entries details what hermetic symbols a reader can expect in a black stage literary piece.
Abraham defines the alchemical equivalent of religious renunciation and repentance this way:
Nigredo: the initial, black stage of the opus alchymicum in which the body of the impure metal, the matter for the Stone, or the old outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form. The alchemists, along with popular seventeenth-century belief, held that there could be no regeneration without corruption. Nature could only be renewed after first dying away (135).
She offers a catalog of signature symbols that are used as corresponding experiences for the dissolution and mortification of this stage in the work. In addition to the corpses of united lovers in a coffin or grave, writers use “the skeleton, the skull, the angel of death, Saturn with his scythe, the eclipse of the sun and the moon, the beheaded king or bird, the crow’s head, the severed head, and all things black – night, the crow, the raven, coal, pitch, ebony, the black man, Moor or Ethiopian” as nigredo translucencies. The novel begins with Strike in Cornwall in dutiful attendance to his aunt and uncle there because she had received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. The first half of the book involves his trips back and forth, London to St Mawes, and ends with his bedside presence at her death. Joan’s burial at sea on Easter Sunday, as explored earlier, are a turning point in Strike, and his last thoughts on the case he solved in Troubled Blood were of his late aunt:
As Cynthia’s face crumpled, Strike and Robin both looked tactfully away. Robin at the cat in the window and Strike at the seascape over the mantelpiece. The rain drummed against the window, the cat in his lap purred, and he remembered the lily urn [that held his aunt’s ashes] bobbing away. With a twist in his chest, and in spite of the satisfaction at having done what he set out to do, he wished he could have called Joan, and told her the end of Margot Bamborough’s story, and heard her say she was proud of him, one last time (919).
Beginning, middle, and end with points between, Troubled Blood is a meditation on death different in its prolonged nature and personal relation than the murders Strike has worked to solve all his professional life. Burckhardt wrote about the nigredo that “at the beginning of every spiritual realization stands death, in the form of ‘dying to the world.’ Consciousness must be withdrawn from the senses and turned inward. As the ‘inner light’ has not yet risen, this turning away from the outward world is experienced as a nox profunda” (Burckhardt 1972, 186). Other than the melancholy and the frustrations inevitable to the death of a loved one not close at hand, Troubled Blood is buried or, better, flooded with black stage symbols and experiences that foster this ‘inner light,’ “the new light of ilumination” post nigredo (Abraham 1998, 136).
The Symbolism of Water
Most relevant to Troubled Blood, with respect both to the otherwise mysterious title and its primary symbolism, “the beginning of the opus is a time of bloodshed and lamentation” and “the dissolution is also symbolized by the flood... and the death of the king (sometimes compared to Christ’s crucifixion)” (Abraham 1998, 135). The title points to the hermetic meaning of the novel; the book’s primary symbols, water and the cross, which are referenced more or less constantly throughout the work are the black coloration appropriate to the nigredo.
Abraham defines ‘The Flood’ as “a symbol of the dissolution and putrefaction of the matter of the Stone during the black nigredo stage when water is the dominant element…. During this stage the alchemical vessel is sometimes symbolized by the ark which rides on the flood and becomes a vessel of generation, of new life” (Abraham 1998, 78). The predominant symbolism of Troubled Blood, even more than the repeated references to the cross, is this water of dissolution. “Rain, rain everywhere” might be the Estecan subtitle to Blood. The 1974 disappearance of Margot Bamborough took place during a downpour. The 2014 investigation that lasts for more than a year takes place during a period unusually wet even for England and included a historic storm that flooded Cornwall. Leaving aside other mentions of water, the word ‘rain’ is used, as in the passage above, in reference to the prevailing weather 137 times. The reader experiences something akin to a symbolic drowning in Troubled Blood; it colors every scene as its backdrop condition of darkness and dissolution.
The pithy description of the two-fold action of alchemy is solve et coagula, ‘dissolve and recongeal,’ the formula Rowling has had tattooed on to the wrist of her writing hand. Water, of course, is the apt element for solve “when water is the dominant element” as Abraham noted, though it is the opposite of the heat and drought symbolism of the nigredo in Phoenix,in which Harry’s external ego-attachments were burned rather than washed away. The key scenes in Blood take place in the rain or indoors with the precipitation pounding on windows, trapped in place because of flooding, or by the sea.
Flood water and heavy rain have almost magical transformative effects, especially on the women in Strike’s life, all of whom become agents of his reflection or deliverance in wet weather, people whom he struggles to recognize. Strike travels to Cornwall in January and is trapped there because of a “vicious weather front, the flooding from which “cut off” the “Cornish peninsula” “from the rest of England” (347-348). Joan Nancarrow, something of a nag to Cormoran in normal times, in the rain that makes the Macmillan describe the atmosphere as more “fresh water” than “fresh air” (350), an “emerging” “unfamiliar” aunt (349), one who “offered simple honesty and plain-speaking” in place of the hen who “demanded a kind of falseness from all around her, a rose-tinted view of everything” (353). Strike was able to share with this wise crone his thoughts about women and marriage, to learn from her her wishes for her funeral and burial, and to talk openly about his feelings for the aunt and uncle who had been his de facto mother and father growing up, love that Cormoran had never voiced aloud before. Most tellingly, the new Joan urged him to speak to Jonny Rokeby, his biological father, and to accept the invitation to his party; “I know what went on…. I think your father’s at the heart of… of a lot of things” (355-356).
As discussed, Robin confronted Strike in the street outside her flat after his drunken behavior at the Valentine Day’s dinner party with her flat-mate, her brother, and his college friends. The weather was, as it is for most of Blood, what Robin described as “vile” (292). As Strike heaved up his dinner, Doom Bar, and Brandy between two parked cars, “rain and high winds battered him.” Standing up, “rain sparkled in the street lights and blurred Strike’s vision,” and “it was a “mighty effort to walk in these high winds.” The Robin who appeared ex machina in the storm was not the kind, subservient, and deferential helpmate his business partner was as a rule. In “the damp night air” “Robin appeared to be angry: angrier in fact than he’d ever seen her” (494-495). “The “unique woman in his life who’d never tried to change him” was enraged, in fact, by his boorish treatment of her in front of the dinner party and confronted him with all his failings. Strike only belatedly apologized late the next day; in the event, all he thought was “This wasn’t the Robin he knew” (496).
Uncle Ted had called his nephew to say his aunt was on her last legs and he committed, despite historic flooding – “The trains are all off, the roads are flooded” (464) – to driving to Cornwall in a rented Jeep with his half-sister Lucy. They drove through “storm water, rain and gales” in “dream-like” conditions: “rain lashed the car, high winds lifted the wind-screen wipers from the glass” and, “to Strike’s grateful surprise, the crisis had revealed a different Lucy, just as illness had revealed a different Joan” (515). Strike thought of his diminutive half-sister, as “Joan-esque” in conversation, a woman who dealt in “statement of fact” with a “lack of inquiry. “Like Joan, Lucy had total confidence in her own judgment of her nearest and dearest’s best interests” (32-33). The new Lucy, as they “diverted around great wide lakes where lately there had been fields,” was “focused,” “efficient and practical,” “patient,” “resolute,” a woman of calm determination” (515-516), rather than the woman who had nagged and “baited” him in the Nancarrow garden in the novel’s first chapters (33).
Perhaps the greatest transformation of a woman that is linked to water was the sea-change in Charlotte Campbell-Ross, “milady beserko,” the Aphrodite ex-fiancee who haunted Strike’s dream and relations with all other women. She was a notorious liar, a woman who spoke untruths as naturally as other people breathed. On Easter morning, Strike was on the water in his uncle’s boat, the Jahomet, with his nephew Jack, to dedicate Joan’s ashes to the sea.[xviii] Charlotte texted him when he was surrounded by the ocean off Cornwall’s coast; first, to admit at last what Strike had always suspected about her marriage to Jago Ross (that she had done it to goad him into returning to her), and, after this uncharacteristic confession, as she attempted suicide by overdose, a message about honesty: “I want to die speaking the truth people are such liars everyone I know lies in such if them swant to stop pretending” (665-666). Strike having returned to land saved the new Charlotte by contacting the treatment facility in time for them to find and resuscitate her. The insanely self-focused goddess of beauty texted him on a rainy day months later to thank him and expressed a sentiment that her resurrection on Easter had been transformative; “I’ve started to appreciate people who’re decent to everyone” (906-907).
Joan’s dispersion on the waters was recalled by Strike after he and Robin had interviewed the Douthwaites in seaside Skegness. Their conversation over fish and chips there turned on the difficulty of real change, transforming oneself at depth rather than the pervasive delusion that “if they subsume themselves in something bigger, and that changes, they’ll change, too.” Strike argued that “people who fundamentally change are rare, in my experience, because it’s bloody hard work, compared to going on a march or waving a flag” (810). Strike voiced here the mantra of the alchemists who strove for inner transformation and whose work began in dissolution by immersion in water, the return to prima materia. Strike insisted that he and his partner walk down to the sea before returning to London; “It’s wrong, being by the sea without actually laying eyes on it.” There he thought of Joan and her life after death in the water. “Cornish-born, Cornish-bred, Joan had known that this need to reconnect with the sea had lived in all of them. Now, every time they made their way to the coast they paid her tribute, along with the obeisance due to the waves” (814).
It was in Skegness that Strike had treated Robin to renditions of ‘The Song of the Western Men’ and claimed his Cornish identity, a transformation from his opinion in the first sentences of the book, when in answer to Polworth’s pointed question, he said, “Would I call myself English?... No, I’d probably say British.” Having been as much changed as the women in his life by the erosive effect of the continuous rain and sea water, Strike has reached his core identity in the Cornish trait of paying “obeisance to the waves.” Water, the agent and environment of the ego-solvent nigredo, is also its destination or aim; it is traditionally the symbol of prime matter. As Scott wrote:
The symbolism of water is most commonly recognised as that of potentiality: ontological possibility or materia prima. ‘Water, thou art the source of all things and of all existence!’ [Bhavisyottarapurana,31.14]. This is the immediate symbolism of the Waters of Genesis. Potentiality is a reflection at the ontological level, of the Divine All Possibility. Thus, one can talk of the “Divine Sea,” which is none other than the Infinitude of the Absolute. According to number symbolism the Absolute is symbolized by either “The One,” expressing Its Unity, or by “zero,” expressing both Its Infinite possibility and Its transcendent unknowability (Scott, 37).
Strike, nearing the end of Troubled Blood and the agonies of his transformation in the story alembic, was able at last to see the sea with the eye of his Heart, having been reduced to the prima materia of a Cornishman’s link with the metaphysical ground, the ocean of the Absolute or God in Its Infinitude transcending and eclipsing all ego and attendant individual history. Coincidental with this theophanic epiphany, the detectives received a text from the last witness who had thus far eluded their searches.
Rainbows and Unicorns
The alchemical marker for the end of the nigredo is a full spectrum of color after the darkness, most often the ‘tail of the peacock’ (cauda pavonis) or a rainbow. “The rainbow, the sign of the promise sent at the end of the flood, is, in alchemy, a symbol of the stage of many colours, the peacock’s tail, which follows the nigredo and precedes the albedo” (Abraham 1998, 79, cf. 163). Strike in Skegness spoke disparagingly of Gaelic nationalists seeking independence from Britain as hucksters making “promises everything’ll be rainbows and unicorns if only they cut themselves free of London” (809-810). The phrase “rainbows and unicorns” is a two-fold pointer, though, to the revelation of the Logos light that “shineth in darkness” that the darkness “comprehend not” (John 1:5). God told Noah after the deluge that reduced the earth to its origins that the rainbow was “the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations” (Genesis 9:12-17). The unicorn is a traditional symbol of Christ (Cirlot, 357-358).[xix] What those who “promise rainbows and unicorns” are pledging is the paradise consequent to the realization of the covenant with God in Christ, one only possible as had Noah after surviving the “deluge” of the nigredo and paying “obeisance to the waves” as Absolute.
This symbolism is presented in Troubled Blood both at the end of Strike’s interview with Roy Phipps, in which the patriarch dissolved at last into tears and confessed his culpability in his first wife’s death and the discovery at book’s end of Margot Bamborough’s body. After the breakdown of the proudest of men and his confession to his estranged daughter, a transformation the psychologist present described as “healing” and “well, close to a miracle,” Strike and Robin exit Broom House on Church Street, a locale apt for spiritual cleansing, to a change in the weather. “The rain had ceased and the sun had come out. A double rainbow lay over the woods opposite the house. Strike and Robin stepped outside, into clean fresh air” (430-431). Phipp’s nigredo was over.
When Barclay figured out that Margot’s body had been hidden in the Athorn’s ottoman, the piece of furniture is covered with a telling jigsaw puzzle image: “Barclay was looking down at the almost completed jigsaw of unicorns leaping over a rainbow” (871). The second-sight of the medium who told Anna Phipps in the inciting incident of the novel that her mother was lying “in a holy place” is played out here; Margot Bamborough is found in a room whose primary decorations are an Egyptian ankh, or cross, hidden beneath a puzzle “almost completed” depicting the traditional symbols of the post deluvian covenant and its realization in Christ.
Strike decided when trapped in Cornwall by flood waters to talk with Aunt Joan about his biological father, a subject he had never broached with her. “He didn’t know whether her new appreciation for honesty would stretch as far as his father, but somehow, with the wind and rain whipping around them, an air of the confessional had descended upon the house. He told her about the text” (355). If the symbolism of water and its deployment in Troubled Blood as the means and end of the alchemical nigredo were to be reduced to one phrase, it would be either “the obeisance due to the waves” or “the air of the confessional” created here “by wind and rain.” Confession as a sacrament is the purification of the soul by admittance before God and priest or the equivalent of one’s sins and a consequent purification or absolution having ‘let go’ of these failings into the Absolute. It is the return to prima materia expressed symbolically in the black stage of the Great Work and Rowling’s subtle but constant deployment of water in rain, floods, rainbows and like iconography and its effect on characters in Troubled Blood delivers to the engaged reader a similar cathartic experience in the imagination.
· Water and the Cross
The nigredo symbol that Rowling-Galbraith uses almost as often as water in Troubled Blood is the cross. She conjoined the two at least twice to make this connection. At Broom House’s doorway, just as Robin and Cormoran exited Phipps’ agonies and noted the double rainbow there, Strike stopped and asked Kim Sullivan about the Cross of St John inlaid in marble in the gazebo floor (431). The rainbows and unicorn jigsaw puzzle in the Athorn apartment, too, exists in the shadow of the cross. The previous chapter on symbolism discussed the frequency of cross appearances in Troubled Blood and its meaning; it remains, then, only to connect the symbolism with water and the alchemical nigredo.
Abraham wrote that one of the symbols of the black stage is the “death of the king (sometimes compared to Christ’s crucifixion)” (Abraham 1998, 135). Therein is the complementary symbolism of water and the cross of Calvary, the sacrificial death of the Logos incarnate, that is, the death to mortal ego existence and a simultaneous reduction to and revelation of the metaphysical center or logos, the Heart, the human intellectual point of passage to the transcendent Intellect or Absolute. This reduction to prima materia, the origin and causal center revealed in the intersection of the arms of the cross, is the essential solve first step in the alchemical drama. The water and cross symbolism of Troubled Blood perform this tandem tag-team work of “dissolution” in the received forms of traditional sacred art.
The most important, perhaps, and least obvious cross symbolism is the embedded adventure of the Red Crosse Knight in Cormoran’s nigredo experience. As discussed in the previous psychomachia chapter, Strike’s soul-journey in Blood is a re-telling of Faerie Queen, Book One, in which he experienced the literal ‘return to ground’ that Red Crosse did. The Knight learned only at the end of canto ten, that is, just before his battle with the dragon, that he had been brought as a babe to “Faery lond” from a royal nursery in Britain and that the Faery who kidnapped him “in an heaped furrow did thee hide,/ Where thee a Ploughman all unweeting fond” (I.x.2-3). Found in the ground and raised to be a farmer (hence ‘George’), the soul journey of Red Crosse, a.k.a. St George, patron saint of England, requires a black stage equivalent experience of his return to this origin in humility, the word deriving from the Latin word for dirt or ground, and the corollary victory over pride (cf. Baird-Hardy 2020). Red Crosse’s inability to overcome Orgoglio, the namesake of Pride in this spiritual allegory, and Duessa, the ‘Whore of Babylon,’ on his own, only succeeding and surviving through the intervention of Una and the Christ-like Arthur, is the turning point of his spiritual journey.
The lessons in humility and of the dangers of pride and self-will he learned there and later lessons in the House of Holiness prepared him for his three day victory over the dragon, the exteriorization of this inward struggle. Spenser may or may not have been familiar with or welcome to using alchemical imagery;[xx] Rowling-Galbraith, though, after Abraham, might be assumed to have recognized the nigredo symbolism of the dragon. “The dissolution” of the nigredo is “symbolized by… the dismemberment of the mercurial serpent or dragon,” the dragon being “the dual-natured Mercurius in his first dark chthonic phase [the black stage of the Work]” (Abraham 1998, 59, 124). Fowler wrote that “the allegory of the Faerie Queen, Book 1, is conceived in terms of the imagery of the Revelation of St. John,” specifically, “the character of Una, and the outline of her story, are based on the twelfth chapter of Revelation about ‘a woman clothed with the sun’ who fled into the wilderness to escape a persecuting dragon” (Fowler 1964, 66). Strike’s being broken down to humility from a point of pride consequent to insecurities about his birth-circumstances is a reflection of the nigredo experience of Red Crosse in preparation for his victory over the dragon and destined life as St. George; Spenser’s and Rowling’s depiction of dissolution in these traditional symbols is a parallel and complementary intertextual artistry.
Occult Symbolism: The Astrological Nigredo
The prima materia to which Harry Potter is reduced in the heated crucible of Order of the Phoenix is the Prophecy, an otherworldly declaration that his raison d’etre was a battle to the death with the Dark Lord, an allegorical depiction of Everyman’s essential choice between ephemeral ego identity and eternal life as an image of the Absolute in the personal intellectus or Heart. Strike’s prime matter is a parabolic representation in story of the same conflict and choice, his psychomachia or spiritual journey being framed in mythological allusion and couched in his Oedipal issues with his negligent biological father. As the offspring of ‘Leda and the Swan,’ his father the rock-star is an otherworldly divinity of sorts. Strike’s visceral hatred of his father, though, for not being present in his life when he was a child and his claiming to be “Team Rational” at Hampden Court is the projected Everyman drama of the struggle between the atrophied divine within and the fallen sensible self of discursive reason. Even Strike acknowledged that his father’s celebrity combined with his seeming indifference made him who he is: “Yet with all the disadvantages and pain they had brought, Strike knew that the peculiar circumstances of his birth and upbringing had given him a head start as an investigator” (178). In Troubled Blood, for the first time in the series although Rokeby has always been a shadow figure in Strike’s personal history, Cormoran is faced repeatedly with “the circumstances of his birth” and their symbolic meaning.
This confrontation takes the form of Rokeby contacting him by birthday card and phone-call, of texts and drop-in visits from two of his half-siblings, and of incessant references to birthdays and how properly to acknowledge them. Less obviously but of a higher symbolic valence are Strike’s hesitant study of natal astrology in order to solve the Bamborough missing-person case. The primary embedded text of Blood is Talbot’s ‘True Book’ and the image Robin and Strike study endlessly is the ‘natal chart’ of the murder scene to the neglect of tarot card spreads and the various occult images in it. Strike is “Team Rational” and repeatedly expressed his disdain for astrology because his mother “loved all that shit;” on his birthday, when the two discover the Talbot astrological chart for the time and place of Bamborough’s disappearance, Strike gave his most vehement reject of the science as “all bollucks:”[xxi]
“What’s your sign?” asked Robin, trying to work it out.
“Oh sod off,” said Robin.
He looked at her, taken aback.
“You’re being affected!” she said. “Everyone knows their star sign. Don’t pretend to be above it.”
Strike grinned reluctantly, took a large drag on his cigarette, exhaled, then said, “Sagittarius, Scorpio rising, with the sun in the first house.”
“You’re—” Robin began to laugh. “Did you just pull that out of your backside, or is it real?”
“Of course, it’s not fucking real,” said Strike. “None of it’s real, is it? But yeah. That’s what my natal horoscope says. Stop bloody laughing. Remember who my mother was. She loved all that shit. One of her best mates did my full horoscope for her when I was born” (240-242, highlighting in original).
As noted in the Quadriga chapter, Strike here echoes the Harry Potter-Dumbledore dialogue at King’s Cross Limbo Station’s final words about “what is real,” the lines Rowling told Cruz she’d “waited seventeen years to write,” words that act as a “key” to the whole series. Strike denied the ‘reality’ of astrology, though he is an archetypal Sagittarius and shows all the corresponding characteristics of a person born with Scorpio rising and the sun in the first house. Troubled Blood is his forced repeated exposure to astrological symbolism, and through it, though Talbot’s chart is not about a birth per se, to reflect on the supra-natural influences of the planets at the moment of birth and their shape in determining the course of one’s life in addition to character.
Strike’s core issue, coming to terms with “the circumstances of his birth,” and the art and science of astrology are identical, that is, the importance of birth with respect to its determining influence on life. The core premise of natal astrology is that the time and place of a person’s birth is not accidental or arbitrary but profoundly meaningful. Strike told Robin in Blood about his first meeting with Rokeby as a seven year old boy:
“Then he clocked my mother, and he twigged. They started rowing. I can’t remember everything they said. I was a kid. The gist was how dare she butt in, she had his lawyer’s contact details, he was paying enough, it was her problem if she pissed it all away, and then he said, ‘This was a fucking accident.’ I thought he meant, he’d come to the studio accidentally or something. But then he looked at me, and I realized, he meant me. I was the accident” (722).
Strike struggled throughout the Bamborough case with ‘coincidences’ and ‘accidents,’ seemingly arbitrary relationships between events that, dismissed as such at first, turn out to have been meaningful. Cormoran’s dismissive attitude towards astrology, its un-reality or “bollucks” nature, of Troubled Blood as well as his failing to grasp the connection between events is a function of his having assumed the identity his father gave him. As he said to Robin with respect to his not wanting children, “I’m an accident. I’m not inclined to perpetuate the mistake” (729). This is Strike’s essential blind-spot that the nigredo and his unwilling study of occult natal symbolism is meant to expose to the light.
Rowling the astrologer links her alchemical artistry with the planets in Troubled Blood in repeated references to the number 29. The story takes place within the story brackets of Robin’s 29th and 30th birthdays, so she is 29 throughout. Margot Bamborough was 29 when she disappeared. The street address of the St. John’s Medical Practice was 29 St. John’s Lane and Robin is jarred when, in reading on her birthday about Creed, the first line of a chapter where she begins is about the psychopath’s release from prison on his 29th birthday. “The coincidence of the first line caused her an odd inward tremor” (89). These, of course, are not “coincidences” but deliberate choices of the author. Saturn’s transit around the sun takes twenty-nine earth years. The 29th year of any person’s life, then, according to astrologers, means that Saturn will be in a like position as it was at their nativity, the so-called ‘Saturn’s Return.’ It is, in brief, the turning point of a given person’s life as a mature adult, which represents, because of Saturn’s identification with death, the time most apt for discarding the old self and the psychological detritus of childhood in preparation for one’s inevitable demise. The link with the alchemical nigredo is evident. Abraham relates that to alchemists, Saturn was “the base metal lead; a secret name for the prima materia and for philosophical mercury; the name of the soul’s matter during its putrefaction at the bottom of its vessel” in the nigredo (178, cf. 135).
Ø Agency Cases
If this astrological backdrop were insufficient coloration and pointer of Strike’s core issues being in “the circumstances of his birth,” the cases the C. B. Strike Detective Agency take on and solve during the course of Troubled Blood double down on the messaging. The most important client of the year is Anna Sullivan, a woman who resembles a “medieval martyr,” who hires Strike as knight errant to help her solve mystery of her parent’s forty year absence from her life, a disappearance that has defined the most important of her life choices.[xxii] Strike, 39 years old, is in the fortieth year since the time of his birth, 1974, in which year he must immerse himself throughout the novel in search of a client’s missing parent, an obvious correspondent with his own ‘daddy issues.’
The Agency’s second most important case, one solved the night of the incident in the American Bar, is that of ‘Shifty’ and ‘Shifty’s Boss.’ A corporation has hired Strike to find out why ‘Shifty,’ a not especially impressive talent, has been promoted by ‘Shifty’s Boss’ over more qualified candidates:
“Exactly what leverage Shifty had on the CEO (known to the agency as Shifty’s Boss or SB) was now a matter of interest not only to Shifty’s subordinates, but to a couple of suspicious board members, who’d met Strike in a dark bar in the City to lay out their concerns” (58). It turns out that SB’s “kink” is “Autonepiophilia. ‘Being aroused by the thought of oneself as an infant’” (733). The parallel with Strike’s babyish behavior and anger about Rokeby, he is uncharacteristically enraged, for example, by the pleasantry of a birthday card and by a polite phone call asking for an end to their “feud,” is hard to miss. That Barclay revealed this discovery to Robin and Strike when he did, just as they had been discussing Strike’s relationship with his father, is additional highlighting. Strike, as with SB, is hung-up on his repressed desires to be loved and cared for as an infant-child.
Two other cases, given the generic names of ‘Smith’ and ‘Jones’ which suggest their commonplace nature, reinforce the centrality of child-parent relations in Strike’s nigredo. In the second, the heiress ‘Miss Jones’ “was involved in a bitter custody battle with her estranged boyfriend, on whom she was seeking dirt to use in court.” The daddy of her “six-month old daughter,” the man is clearly, like Rokeby who heads a band called The Deadbeats, a failed father. “She told Strike about her hypocritical ex-partner’s drug use, the fact that he was feeding stories about her to the papers, and that he had no interest in his six-month old daughter other than as a means to make Miss Jones unhappy” (629).
In the first, a wealthy commodities broker suspected correctly that her recently unemployed husband is sleeping with the voluptuous nanny of their children. This is a less obvious connection with Strike’s childhood, except that Nannies are mentioned repeatedly in the book. The Lord Lucan case, for example, happened soon after the fictional Bamborough disappearance in 1974, in which case the father is supposed to have killed the nanny before disappearing. Roy Phipps marries Anna Phipps’ nanny and, despite her insistence there was “nothing going on,” it is suggested by more than one suspect or witness that the nanny was in love with her charge’s father. Oonaugh Kennedy, Red Crosse Bamborough’s ‘Una,’ is accused by Stachwell of acting as her friend’s “nanny,” as well (267). A nanny, of course, is a mother replacement, a woman who plays the part in exchange for money. Strike grew up amid taunts from school mates “telling him his mother had got pregnant with him purely to get Rokeby’s money” (200). This case, then, as with the others, acts as something of a mirror that obliquely reflects Strike’s own repressed issues with respect to Rokeby, his dead mother, his conception and childhood.
Troubled Blood begins in The Victory, the St Mawes pub, where Strike and his oldest mate, Dave Polworth, are raising a pint in celebration of the friend’s birthday. Birthdays continue to be mentioned, observed, neglected, and stumbled upon throughout the rest of the book. The word ‘birthday’ is used seventy-nine times; only ‘cross’ and ‘rain’ are mentioned more often. The novel’s story-frame or brackets are Polworth’s and Robin’s birthdays, the first and last chapters of the book, and the novel has its proper beginning after the necessary throat clearing, as mentioned on Robin’s 29th birthday. Strike forgets to buy her a present and token gift of flowers; this is not a slip but a character trait – Strike hates birthdays, wishes people would forget his, and neglects others to avoid thoughts about his own birth:
As far back as he could remember, the day of his birth had brought up unhappy memories on which he chose, usually successfully, not to dwell. His mother had sometimes forgotten to buy him anything when he was a child. His biological father had never acknowledged the date. Birthdays were inextricably linked with the knowledge, which had long since become part of him, that his existence was accidental, that his genetic inheritance had been contested in court, and that the birth itself had been “fucking hideous, darling, if men had to do it the human race would be extinct in a year” (198)
On his birthday, he received a card from Rokeby, a first, which sends him into a rage:
Quite suddenly, and with a force that shocked Strike, he found himself full of rage, rage on behalf of the small boy who would once have sold his soul to receive a birthday card from his father. He’d grown well beyond any desire to have contact with Jonny Rokeby, but he could still recall the acute pain his father’s continual and implacable absence had so often caused him as a child (200).
This is the day he learned with Robin that Talbot had calculated the horoscope for the time and place of Bamborough’s disappearance which immerses him in the study of astrology and its traditional symbolism against his will. They make this discovery in a pub where the children of an eighty year old women are coincidentally celebrating her birthday (242).
Rokeby and Strike’s half-siblings continue to contact Cormoran with the request that he come to a celebration of the Deadbeat band’s 50th anniversary, a birthday party of sorts. Aunt Joan, having told her nephew that she doubted she would live to see “my next birthday” (352) and talking about astrology, advised him to “go to your father’s party” (355). Strike ignored this advice and the pleas of his siblings but goes unwittingly despite himself, which leads to the novel’s nigredo crisis.
Abraham describes the action of the nigredo with reference to a specific catalyst, the Mercurius:
In the process of generating the philosopher’s stone, the two seeds of metals, philosophical sulphur (hot, dry, male) and philosophical argent vive (cold, moist, female), must be obtained from the prima materia and then joined together. After they are united in the chemical wedding, they are then killed and dissolved into their first matter by the universal solvent, Mercurius. At the dissolution, the soul and spirit of the matter rise to the top of the alembic, separated from the body, which lies below, blackening and putrefying. The body is then washed by the dew of mercurial water so that it may become pure and white, ready for the reunion with the soul (or with the soul and spirit which have already united to form an entity) (Abraham 2001, 135).
In the American Bar interview with Carl Oakden, the Hermes trickster figure and Zeus messenger, plays the role of the Mercurius catalyst to Robin-Psyche-Soul’s “killing” at Strike’s hands; Cormoran’s attempt to punch Oakden for shouting the details of his conception in a New York bar forty years previous (716) winds up hitting Robin inadvertently, knocking her out momentarily and blackening both her eyes. He is slain as well, metaphorically, in his guilt about being taunted into losing his self control and hitting his partner instead.
They travel back to the Agency office, climb the stairs to “rise to the top of the alembic,” and Strike, moved by remorse and by Spirits (neat whiskey and Indian food), confesses his past and present Daddy Rokeby issues, his defining issue of shame about the circumstances of his conception. Robin, as discussed in the psychomachia chapter section on the Psyche and Cupid myth, at this moment delivers her core insight about the risiblity of his “self-indulgence” of letting the “circumstances of conception” determine his life. The soul and spirit in the nigredo alembic, again per Abraham, at this point “have already united to become an entity;” both have thoughts of sexual union with the other and their exchange of “You’re my best mate” exchange (730) is the symbolic chaste marriage of soul and Spirit.
Barclay enters the nigredo darkness of the office at this points and signals the black stage is over by turning on the lights and sharing the revelation of SB’s baby-love kink, a symbol of Strike’s own issues, at which they can all now laugh, body-soul-and-spirit. Saul Morris enters and Robin definitively ends the nigredo by symbolically slaying the ‘Black Sun.’ Morris’ name is a cryptonym for Sol Niger:
Sol Niger: (the black sun), symbol of the death and putrefaction of the metal, or of united sulphur and argent vive at the nigredo, the initial stage of the opus alchymicum. At the nigredo the metal or matter for the Stone is ‘killed’ and dissolved into its prima materia so that it may be resurrected in a new form. At the death of the matter, darkness reigns. The light of the sun (gold) is said to be put out, totally eclipsed (Abraham 2001, 186).
When Strike cancels Morris’ contract at Robin’s insistence, he is expelled from the office and the Bamborough case, though all but closed officially, begins to open up. Robin enters and exits the underworld of St. Peter’s successfully and the clients call to end the investigation, which nadirs signal the advent of Strike’s trasnsformation and the attendant revelations, one after another, beginning with his discovery of Steve Diamond after being nice to Pat the receptionist. The rest of the novel is revelation following revelation and the Agency’s victory over Creed and Beattie, the nigredo dragon and Duessa the deceiver. The nigredo climax in the Agency office the night of the Oakden interview is a brilliant intersection of the ‘Cupid and Psyche’ myth and hermetic symbolism of soul and spirit in the black stage, artistry with light and knife and the prima materia of Strike’s spiritual journey, equal to Rowling’s ‘Silver Doe’ chapter in Deathly Hallows and Ron Weasley’s transformation over the Locket Horcrux.
Nigredo Resolution in Seventh Part
Harry Potter heard the young Tom Riddle, Jr., assert in a Pensieve memory taken from Horace Slughorn, that seven “is the most powerfully magic number” (Half-Blood Prince, 498) and Rowling prefers to organize her series of books in seven installments and her individual stories are most often organized into seven parts. Troubled Blood is no exception in this regard.[xxiii] Lings explained that the symbolism of the number seven is that of “repose in the Divine Center” consequent to the extension in six radiant directions; it is “the symbol of Absolute Finality and Perfection, appearing in this world as a Divine Seal upon earthly things, as in the number of the days of the week, the planets, the sacraments of the [western] church, and many other septenaries” (Lings 2001, 99). In the repose of each of the two chapters at the end of Strike’s nigredo experience, the reader is assured that Strike is simultaneously a broken man and one at last in touch with his defining conflict.
In the first chapter of Part Seven, the mystery of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance is wrapped up in a neat denouement at a Phipps family gathering. That chapter ends with Strike thinking of his Aunt Joan’s last words in which she expressed pride in him; his only wish at story’s end, having pledged to Robin-Psyche that he would be open with her about his family angst, was to hear that parental approval again “one last time” (919).
The second and last chapter is the demonstration in story that Strike has learned the lesson of nigredo; he celebrates his Best Mate’s birthday properly with three thoughtfully selected gifts: a Donkey Balloon that is a pointer to Skegness and their conversation there about the difficulty and importance of change, a bottle of Narciso Perfume which is an acknowledgment of Robin’s transformation and growth in her partnership, her ability to ‘go to hell’ and confront him with his failings, and, most important, he takes her out for Champagne at the Ritz, what Robin requested the night he ‘killed’ her at the American Bar and they were symbolically ‘betrothed’ in the darkness of the Agency office. From beginning to end, the nigredo of Troubled Blood is a rich alchemical tapestry with remarkable mythological highlighting; it is, frankly, the author’s masterpiece, the best yet of Rowling’s hermetic symbolism texts.[xxiv]
· VI. Conclusion-Segue
The Faerie Queen epigraph chosen for the final chapter of Troubled Blood has appropriate metallurgical and mythological references:
For naturall affection soone doth cesse,
And quenched is with Cupid’s greater flame:
But faithfull friendship doth them both suppresse,
And them with maystring discipline doth tame,
Through thoughts aspyring to eternall fame.
For as the soule doth rule the earthly masse,
And all the seruice of the bodie frame,
So loue of soule doth loue of bodie passe,
No lesse then perfect gold surmounts the meanest brasse.
The alchemical psychomachia, Strike’s reduction to his essence and rebirth, is about the central importance of “the love of soul,” in story his chaste affection for Robin-Psyche as the demigod Cupid-Castor, which outstrips carnal attachment “no less than perfect gold,” the aim of spiritual alchemy, “surmounts the meanest brass,” the unenlightened metal as false Cupid. Rowling’s traditional artistry and intertextual echoing here is a remarkable illustration of the aptness of Perennialist tools for interpretation and exegesis of her artistry.
Having explored the symbolism of her work and the Everyman allegorical journeys of the soul to spiritual perfection, it remains only to touch on Rowling’s signature story structure, ring composition. It follows the discussion of alchemical transformation naturally because the ‘shape’ of metallurgical and literary alchemy is a circle. As Charles Nicholl summarizes the solve et coagula action of alchemy in The Chemical Theatre:
The alchemist dissolves, disintegrates and ‘kills’ his matter in order to regenerate it in altered form. In the course of this chemical assault, the opposites within matter are released, distinguished and then ‘married’ together. The blackness of putrefaction is followed by the whiteness of rebirth, when the fled spirit returns to quicken the stricken matter to new life…. The shape of the work is thus circular, a going-out and coming-back; the Mercurial spirit is released in order to return and redeem, matter is brought to nothing in order to become new matter. Ripley expresses this idea of circularity when he calls the opus a turning of ‘the Wheel of our Philosophie.’ We… find it has many features in common with that ‘wheel of fire’ which bears King Lear to death and life again (Nicholl, 41).
It is no surprise, consequently, that literary alchemy, on the model of metallurgical alchemy, would be circular in structure. Structure and style, too, as the yin and yang of literary artistry, are by nature complementary and in correspondence; as the style is “a going-out and coming-back” process, the structure of this kind of transformative writing might be expected to be there and back again story-telling.
The importance of Rowling’s first name, ‘Joanne’ after the Greek ‘Johannes’ or ‘John,’ its relation as the esoteric contrary to ‘Peter,’ and its importance with respect to the logos laden Gospel of St John, has been a touchstone of this Perennialist reading of the author’s work. In the last chapter, Rowling’s surname, pronounced “rolling,” moves to the fore; it and her texts – from tweets and chapters to books and novel series -- suggest she is a ring writer and that her structural weave acts as complement and invisible buttressing of her use of hermetic symbolism and spiritual allegory.
[i] At least as great a misunderstanding of alchemy according to the Perennialists is found in the depth psychology writings of Carl Jung and his followers on this subject. Eliade pointed out that Jung was right to have supposed that alchemy had a soteriological role for the alchemist (1978, 11) but in Jung’s assumption that the alchemist was primarily a gold seeker who experienced individuation or restoration (by contact with the archetypes of change in the collective unconscious) the psychoanalyst was 180 degrees off. As discussed in the methodology chapter, the Perennialists hold that Jung restricted alchemy as he did all psychology and pneumatology to the psychic or animic sphere and its work to the unconscious or subconscious part of this sphere; alchemy, however, is in the traditional view essentially a supra-conscious or spiritual work that happens through correspondence with archetypes that are above, not below, individual consciousness (cf. Sherrard 1998, 134-157; Oldmeadow 2000, 106; Burckhardt 1972, 8-9; 1987, 45-67; Nasr 1993, 116, n. 41).
[ii] “Lead represents the chaotic, ‘heavy,’ and sick condition of metal or of the inward man, while gold – congealed light’ and ‘earthly sun’ – expresses the perfection of both metallic and human existence. According to the alchemists’ way of looking at things, gold is the real goal of metallic nature; all other metals are either preparatory steps or experiments to that end. Gold alone possesses in itself a harmonious equilibrium of all metallic properties, and therefore also possesses durability. ‘Copper is restless until it becomes gold,’ said Meister Eckhart, referring in reality to the soul which longs for its own eternal being” (Burchardt 1972, 24-25).
[iii] Flamel actually appears as an important character in the second Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald.
[iv] Readers learn only in the series finale, Deathly Hallows, ‘The Prince’s Tale’ (ch 33), that Snape was in Godric’s Hollow the night Voldemort murdered Linda Evans Potter, Snape’s true love; in Half-Blood Prince, Harry is given Snape’s annotated Potions textbook which is something of a link to the Pyrites book.
[v] In sequence of citation, John Varley, A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy , Louis MacNeice, Astrology, Andre Barbault, The Value of Astrology, Anonymous, The Kalendar of Compost and Shepherds, Rupert Gleadow, Your Character in the Zodiac, (Magic and Divination, The Unclouded Eye, Prophets and Prophecy), Countess Nora Purtscher Wydenbruck, Work It Out Yourself: Horoscopes of Prominent Statesmen (with charts), Sasha Fenton, the image of Professor Trelawney and author of more than 125 books on astrology and divination (Fenton).
[vi] This comparison work is also the reason that it may be assumed that there is a third chart, that of Roger’s wife and the child’s mother, that has not been put up for sale. All efforts to contact this family have failed.
[vii] It should be noted that even the two readers who have suggested that Rowling wrote her seven Potter novels as Lewis did his Narnia books, i.e., with each book in the series being a symbol set for one particular planet, both seem unaware of Rowling’s achievements as an amateur astrologer, cf. Sweeney 2011, Sprague 2015).
[viii] It should be noted that Rowling’s 1998 interview comments about alchemy were not well known until 2007 when they were discovered and posted at Accio-Quotes.com (Granger 2007a).
[ix] Linden edited an academic journal, ‘Cauda Pavonis: Studies in Hermeticism,’ from 1980 until his retirement from Washington State University in 2002 but there is no evidence that Rowling had access to this body of work.
[x] Abraham’s invaluable A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, the standard reference work today, was not published until 1998.
[xi] Abraham in her introductory chapter also discussed the “Paracelsian challenge of the medical establishment” as an analogy accepted in the time to “the Puritan challenge of the bishops,” with special emphasis on the work of Nicholas Culpepper, herbalist, who in 1649, “translated the pharmacoepia into English, making such information available to a much wider range of medical practitioners and lay people.” Rowling has said that Culpepper was her reference for much of her potions work, that she has two editions of his book, and that she “found the way [Culpepper] talked about these plants inspirational” (Abraham 1990, 19; on Rowling and Culpepper, see Groves 2018c).
[xii] His notorious and profound disdain for modern psychology is borderline Perennialist and certainly anti-modern.
[xiii] Cf. Victor Reppert’s C. S. Lewis’s Most Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument From Reason (2003) and Richard Carrier’s lengthy response at Infidels.org in defense of metaphysical naturalism (2004).
[xiv] The ‘kappa’ is for the Greek word ‘kypton’ for ‘secret, occluded.’
[xv] Alchemy is a seven cycle work, each cycle and the work as a whole including the signature three stages. Attempts have been made to explain the seven book Potter series as one to one correspondents with each cycle but with contradictory results and a sense of pieces being forced into an external scheme; cf. Sweeney and Sipal.
[xvi] The change in Fleur from phlegmatic to choleric and the reverse in Molly Weasley takes place at the end of Prince at Bill’s bedside in the Hogwarts infirmary (Granger 2007, 102-107).
[xvii] CBBC: And how vital is book four in the whole seven book series to Harry? JKR: Crucial. The fourth is a very, very important book. Well you know because you read it, something incredibly important happens in book four and also it's literally a central book, it's almost the heart of the series, and it's pivotal. It's very difficult to talk about and I can't wait for the day someone's read all seven and I can talk completely freely about it. But it's a very, very important book (Mzimba).
[xviii] All the names are derivations of ‘John,’ in keeping with Spenser’s heavy use of the Gospel of St. John and the Book of Revelation (Hanson; Fowler 1964, 66) and the traditional symbolism of light and darkness in the Prologue to St John discussed in the symbolism chapter. Rowling’s use of the names ‘John’ and ‘Peter’ have special relevance given her own name, the one she would have been given if born a boy, her father’s name, and the historical relationship of the “churches” of Sts John and Peter in Christian history. See conclusion.
[xix] Hence what Harry learned from Firenze on his first trip into the Forbidden Forest: “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenceless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips” (Stopne, 258). This is a sacred art representation in story of the Christian doctrine of the power of Christ’s blood in the Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-29), one essential for understanding the traditional symbolism of Harry Potter. Voldemort drank the blood in the Forest that night and suffered the spiritual consequences; Harry’s sacrificial death and victory over the Dark Lord in Deathly Hallows is an echo of this unicorn scene in Stone, a reverberation highlighted by the chapter title, ‘The Forest Again,’ and Dumbledore’s explanation at King’s Cross of Harry’s survival being due to the “bond of blood,” his mother’s sacrificial death and Voldemort’s recreating himself through Harry’s blood in Goblet (Granger 2008, 126-128, 233-235). Rowling-Galbraith understands the traditional symbolism of the unicorn.
[xx] Considering Alastair Fowler’s demonstration of the poet’s fluency in the symbols of traditional planets in Faerie Queen, given the complementary relationship of astrology and alchemy and the several references to the Work in his poetry, ignorance seems unlikely and willingness to use an open question. One point strongly suggests he was well aware of and very willing to use alchemical symbolism in his epic. The rubedo of alchemy, the crisis and revelation of the Philosopher’s Stone after the ablutionary albedo or white stage, is often referred to as ‘the red within the white’ (Abraham 1998, 169, 174-175), which, when combined with the symbolism of the cross and the Christian symbolism of the alchemical work, makes the Red Crosse Knight, whose emblem with England is the flag of St George, a red cross within a white field, one filled with hermetic meaning of a specifically alchemical character. To assert that Spenser was unaware of this meaning in his spiritual allegory featuring the Red Crosse Knight, given the traditional character of his times and of Faerie Queen, is at least as remarkable a conjecture as that he was fully aware of it.
[xxi] This is Strike’s expletive of choice; he uses it nine times in Troubled Blood, four in reference to astrology. The word means “testicles,” which, given the source of Strike’s issues, what Yeats described in his Leda and the Swan poem as a “shudder in the loins,” makes this particular curse especially apt. For the poem and its quotation by Strike about Rokeby in the television series adaptation of the mysteries by Rowling’s Bronte Studios, see Granger 2020d.
[xxii] She is a lesbian married to a doctor (psychologist) who, in all physical points at least – tall leggy blonde -- as in her profession is the image of Margot Bamborough, Sullivan’s missing mother.
[xxiii] Blood as will be explained in the next chapter is organized in six main parts with many chapters in each and a seventh part of only two chapters in correspondence with the six books of Faerie Queen and the two chapter fragment of the seventh book never finished.
[xxiv] I am obliged to mention, however briefly, that though Troubled Blood is the Strike series nigredo in which his essential issue or ‘prime matter’ is revealed, the novel itself has distinct black, white, and red parts, which, as with Deathly Hallows did with Christmas, Epiphany, and two Easters, one on the day and another as the hero’s resurrection, has holiday markers for these stages: Strike’s birthday as the nigredo’s nigredo, Valentine’s Day and its flooding as the albedo, and Easter proper and Strike’s raising of two dead women from their hidden graves in the finale as his rubedo defeat of the story dragon.
I suspect the citation Prof Groves will use is from my post ‘Who Killed Leda Strike, Suicide Victim? Leda, Whittaker, Rokeby, Ted or Dave?’ in which the following appears:
Most important, I think, in the essentials of Rowling’s Lake inspiration and Shed artistry is her creating story-rings that acts as alchemical alembics on the hearts of her readers. Her characters embrace and experience transformational change about how they see and understand themselves and the world — and her readers, having suspended disbelief in poetic faith and imagination, are expected to share in this cathartic change via imaginative experience of the subliminal structure and symbolism as well as the surface story points. (emphasis in original)
The phrase “the alembic of story” as I wrote Prof Groves, would be an excellent title for the book I am preparing from my thesis, though perhaps for greater accessibility I should call it ‘the crucible of story.’
See Ronald Kotzsch’s Macrobiotics: Yesterday and Today (1985) for the only comprehensive history of this natural foods movement, a book based on the author’s Harvard PhD dissertation on the origins and meaning of Ohsawa’s work, thinking that was ultimately responsible, through Kushi, for the second and greater natural foods revolution in American history. Kotzsch discusses the origin of the term ‘Macrobiotics,’ a book with that title written by an 18th century German named von Hufeland and its quality as a translation (263).
I much prefer ‘The Way of Communion’ as a translation of Shoku Yo Do because it seems clearly an expression of how traditional eating in Orthodox Christian cultures, both the fasting rules as well as native cuisine, is Word observant and an extension of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Incarnate Logos.