Monday, July 11, 2011

The Great Hall as the Great Work

This is the third in a series of posts to analyze the final chapter, "The Flaw in the Plan," of Deathly Hallows.

(Spoiler Alert -- I truly feel this is not necessary as the books have been out for four years. However, if you're a fan of the movies who has not read the books, you have been warned!)


Did it seem strange to anyone else that JK Rowling had the final battle scene between Harry and Voldemort take place inside the Great Hall? That kind of perplexed me when I first read it, and even through subsequent re-reads as I studied the scene in detail. I mean, it's this massive war scene involving giants and thestrals and hippogriffs and a large number of Death Eaters and students, and all of a sudden, they take the fight inside?? Seemed odd.

Yes, I know she lays it out such that Death Eater and Hogwartsians alike are escaping the smashing giants being pummeled by the hippogriffs, but it all seemed a bit stumbling and contrived to get them into the castle. And I couldn't help but wonder...for what purpose?

I'd assumed for all these past years that it was due to what the Great Hall symbolized, as a joining of the four houses, the unity, the love of the school...all that kind of hogwash (just kidding!). But recently, another idea has come to mind and I can't let it go.

Perhaps the Great Hall symbolized something that represented the metaphorical framework of the novel in such a way that the final battle between Harry and Voldemort could not take place anywhere else. And it all has to do with Alchemy.

From the beginning,JK Rowling let her astute reader know that the series had a basis in alchemy. It's such a shame that Scholastic chose to change the title from Philosopher's Stone, a real historical name for the alchemical elixir of life, to Sorcerer's Stone, Scholastic's own creation, because many American children did not catch on as quickly and as easily as to how important a role alchemy played, not only in this first book, but throughout the series.

Indeed, having studied JKR's profound use of metaphor and analogy, I believe alchemy to be her base material for framing the story. Although she uses Greek, Roman, Nordic, and Egyptian mythological references as well, the first three are for fleshing out the world, and the Egyptian is, in part, due to its role as the home of Thoth to whom alchemists paid homage as their founder.

I do not want to get into an in-depth analysis here of how JKR used alchemy throughout the series, because 1) it would take a whole book to cover, 2) there are numerous posts and books already out there covering all these hidden alchemy gems, and 3) this post focuses on how she brought it all to a close in the final chapter...not how she built it throughout. Let me instead provide a large overview of what alchemy is and how JKR played with it in the series before we see how she concluded this great work.

Alchemy was not just the study of how to transform base metal into gold, as many people believe. It was also quite often considered a spiritual discipline by its practitioners with their purpose to transmute their own base human nature into the gold of spiritual enlightenment. It was not only practiced by the medieval quacks often associated with it, but more often by the cutting edge scientists of their day, including Isaac Newton in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Alchemy consisted of 7 stages which were divided into three different levels: black, white, and red. The primary ingredients necessary for producing the Philosopher's Stone were mercury, sulphur, salt, and according to Agrippa, vitriol. Most of the experiments took place in a rudimentary laboratory through distillation of chemical "potions" in an alembic (an alchemists' still or test tube). The work of keeping the fires burning in the alchemy lab which the alchemist needed to work his experiments was done by assistants called "puffers," which also became a derogatory term for charlatan alchemists seeking wealth quickly and not interested in the true depth of the great work.

How did JKR take all this alchemy knowledge and imagery and put it together to frame a modern coming of age story of a boy wizard?

"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." -- JK Rowling

As there are 7 stages in alchemy, so there are 7 grades of school and 7 books to document them. Harry is guided through these levels by three great mentors. Though he has many people he learns from, Dumbledore, Sirius, and Hagrid rise above the rest. It is no coincidence that these three men's names relate to the colors of the three levels: Sirius Black, Albus (meaning white), and Rubeus (meaning red).

In alchemy, the black must die for the white stage to begin, which then dies before the red stage produces the gold of the Philosopher's Stone. I'm sure you can already see how this played out in the books: Sirius and his substitute-father influence on Harry died first, followed by Dumbledore with his wise mentoring, to be left with the rough but ever-loving Hagrid to carry Harry's body out of the Dark Forest of his spiritual death into the golden light of his enlightened new self. This ending beautifully mirrors the beginning where Hagrid carried the baby Potter into the beginning of Dumbledore's alchemical experiment as he brings Harry to Privet Drive.

Then there are Harry's best buds to consider. Hermione, with her name relating to Mercury's predecessor Hermes and her HG initials is an awesome representation of the god of mercury as well as the element. Ron, with his red hair and his often flaming temper, is the embodiment of sulfur. And salt, well it's a bit more complicated to describe, but salt was considered the "key to alchemy, the beginning and end of the Great Work." A substance impervious to flames, as defined by the alchemist, Salt is the imperfect matter that at the beginning and end of the great work must be destroyed and dissolved for the prima materia to achieve its final transmutation. In other words, Voldemort is Salt.

Finally there is vitriol, the most important liquid in alchemy. Distilled from an oily green material, vitriol is a highly corrosive acid. In the words of Paracelsus in the Aurora of the Philosophers, vitriol contains "viscous imperfections...take care above all that the matter [purified vitriol] shall not be exposed to the sun, for this turns its greenness pale." In Harry Potter, Snape is vitriol.

Vitriol's corrosiveness is a necessary component for the alchemical process of making gold out of lead. Most writers agree that a character does not grow and develop without significant conflict being applied to his life. Snape definitely provides significant conflict for Harry to develop.  (from my editorial "Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter," The Plot Thickens, 10/2004).

And the master alchemist throughout the series was introduced to us as a great alchemist from the very beginning...none other than Mr. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore himself. As JKR has said, he was the puppeteer pulling the strings behind the stage curtain. But more importantly, he is the master alchemist bringing all these elements together in his lab to produce the true Philosopher's Stone, the one who will face the fires of life, be tested and tempered and gain the strength and knowledge to truly become the master of death... Harry Potter.

The castle became Dumbledore's alembic where he carried out his great experiment. But I think no room serves to symbolize the alembic more than the Great Hall. With its ceiling that's been bewitched to look like it opens to the sky above, showing the stars and the clouds as well, it is here that Slytherins and Ravenclaws, Snape and Draco, Ron and Hermione and Hagrid all interact with Harry to transmute him from the base metal into the Philosopher's Stone. And thus it is in this room where Harry's final triumph over Voldemort must take place.

I would not be a bit surprised to discover that the very reason why JKR gave the Great Hall its magically bewitched ceiling in the beginning was precisely for the role it would serve as the alembic metaphor in the final scene.  The red-gold sun rises at the precise moment that Harry delivers Voldemort his final message of love and repentance and claims the third Deathly Hallow that makes him master of Death. This is Harry's golden moment, his enlightenment, his personal attainment of the Golden Snitch.

As Harry proclaims himself the true master of the Elder Wand:

A red-gold glow burst suddenly across the enchanted sky above them as an edge of dazzling sun appeared over the sill of the nearest window. The light hit both of their faces at the same time, so that Voldemort's was suddenly a flaming blur...And Harry, with the unerring skill of the Seeker, caught the wand in his free hand as Voldemort fell backwards, arms splayed, the slit pupils of the scarlet eyes rolling upwards.

The experiment complete, the Salt dissolved in a flaming blur. Harry attains his enlightenment in the glow of the golden sun.

Harry is not only the Seeker after the Golden Snitch on the Quidditch field, but the alchemist seeking gold within his own soul. No alchemical transformation can be complete without altering the body, mind and soul. Through Harry's mental studies at school, his physical prowess in Quidditch and his inner development (assisted by his friends), his transformation will be complete.

If we accept geomancy and alchemy as our models, Harry will be the living embodiment of the Philosopher's Stone by the end of the septology! What Harry doesn't seek to posses for personal in the first book will be earned by his noble character at the end of the series.
(from my editorial "Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter," The Plot Thickens, published in 10/2004).

And so, throughout this final chapter, in true alchemical tradition, JKR completes her story with the Red Man carrying the lad of base metal, who has already undergone six levels of transmutation, into his final stage, his golden moment in the alembic, in which he overcomes the last of his own, and his shadow's, base desires and embodies the true enlightenment of the Philosopher's Stone.

Note the lion devouring the serpent!

THIS is how you work a metaphor through your story. Subtlety. Subtext. With entertainment and not preaching. Working in layers of depth like this into your fiction deepens your story and makes readers come back for a second and third look. It served as a tool to keep JKR focused on what her story was truly about, and as a game for readers to seek out and discover her deeper, hidden meaning.

As a writer, what can learn from JKR's example? While many of us have played with metaphor when it comes to a particular word or image, a short passage of the story, how many of us have considered metaphor when framing the story as a whole? Truly, this is not something that is necessary for most or desirable for all. But if you're working with the type of story where you think the reader will delight in discovering your hidden depths, why not take a step back from your word trees and get a wide-angle view of your entire Dark Forest? What is the deeper meaning of your story? What types of challenges will your hero face on his hero's quest? And what type of literary device or mythological wrap could you use as a guide and wrap for your own special work?

In closing, I'd like to reiterate that there is so much that can and has been written about JKR's use of alchemy within the series. If you're intersted, you may enjoy plumbing the depths of the forums at Leaky and Mugglenet that were the hotbeds of seeking out these clues during the revelation of the series. I learned a lot from participating there. However, the discovery of Snape as representative of vitriol was my own special contribution to fandom. I first wrote about Snape as vitriol when no one else had made that connection back in 2004 with my editorial "Geomancy and Alchemy Gems in Harry Potter" that was part of The Plot Thickens...Harry Potter Investigated by Fans for Fans. It spread from there with everyone latching onto his green and oily potions master as the most necessary liquid in the alchemical brew.

Here's a chart to give you a quick overview of the alchemy aspect and its Harry Potter counterpart:
  • 7 levels - 7 grades, 7 books
  • black - Sirius
  • white - Albus
  • red - Rubeus
  • mercury - Hermione
  • sulfur - Ron
  • salt -Voldemort
  • vitriol - Snape, (and also Draco)
  • puffers - Hufflepuff
  • alembic - Hogwarts, exemplified by Great Hall
  • alchemist - Dumbledore
  • prima materia and Philosopher's Stone - Harry
  • the Great Work -- the 7-book story

(Please note: I will probably add a bit more to this analysis later today or through time. As mentioned above, following all the alchemical allusions within the series is ridiculously complex, and I cannot expect to hit them all in a blog post. But I might want to update with one or two more as time allows. I'll post in comments if I do, so if you're very interested, please subscribe to the comment thread).

Have you ever worked with a metaphorical framing device such as this?  I'd love to hear about it!


  1. Wow! I absolutely LOVE your posts. They make me look at HP books in a whole new light. They also make me aware of writing tricks and devices that I'd like to use myself. Maybe :)) I'm not great with analysis, but your posts make me think a lot. Thank you for doing this!

  2. Farida, your words are so lovely. That's exactly what I'm striving for with this blog and my workshop. I got so enthused about how much I was learning personally by studying JK Rowling, that I just wanted to share it with others. There truly is a reason why her books are the phenomenon they are -- and it is not hype!

    Thank you! :-)

  3. Wow.

    That's about all I've got. :D It's amazing, fascinating, and humbling to think about the level of planning and thought JKR put in. I'm not sure I could ever do that. Not to that extent. I've done it on a smaller scale... But yeah. Wow.

  4. Holy cow!

    I've always wanted to dive into the mind of JKR so I could *hopefully* absorb some of her divine intelligence. I know I may never be able to plan my stories the same way she has, but it definitely makes me strive to keep trying for the one time is *may* come close.

    Susan: Have you read A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deb Harkness? It's one of my all-time favs! The MC in that book is a historian of alchemy (as is the author!). I was first introduced to alchemy with that book and the way she uses the Philosopher's Stone and the 'marriage' of the chemicals is amazing to me....similar to your post, which I just have to say is awesome! :)

  5. Lisa and Melinda -- You're so right. When you really dig below the depths and see all the work JKR put into her stories, it's truly amazing. And honestly, I just scratched the surface of the alchemy links. There are a lot of fans out there who have uncovered so many more links that I have here.

    Speaking of one, and in answer to Melinda's mention of the alchemical wedding (and which she has pictured on her blog)! -- JKR included that as well. Many alchemical texts refer to the sacred wedding of the King and Queen or the Red Man and White Woman, sometimes the Sun and Moon. Many fans saw the wedding of Bill and Fleur as deliberately designed to represent this stage in the Great Work.

    Melinda, I've not read the Harkness book, but it sounds interesting. I'll look it up. Thanks!

  6. This is seriously fascinating. I've never known much about alchemy nor its connotations with Harry Potter, and this has made me really want to go and read up on it. Just, wow. The sheer amount of mythology and subtext hidden in these books is incredible.

  7. Hi Phoebe, thanks for the visit and comment! If you're going to study-up on alchemy and HP, be prepared for some long, intense reading. It's not a light subject, but loads of fun! :-)

    And I totally agree with you. It's amazing what all is hidden below the surface.

  8. While I agree that Rowling dropped tidbits of alchemical lore throughout her books, I sometimes suspect that we read a lot more into the symbolism than Rowling actually intended. Do you have any links to sources where Rowling substantiates any of these concepts?

    I'd be very interested since, as a chemist who has studied alchemy, I've been adding all sorts of alchemical references into the Hogwarts book I'm writing.

  9. Hi Ken -- You're absolutely right in that we fans often see a lot more in Rowling's writing than is there. In fact I've got a post about it that I'll link at the end. Basically, because she has such rich subtext, and definitely does call upon mythologies, links can be seen between her text and any others who also drew upon the same source, even if she didn't intend them.

    However, with alchemy, the evidence is too ample, and Rowling even acknowledged in the quote I put in the post, that she had studied way too much alchemy in order to write the series. She informs the reader from the start about her alchemy slant with the title of the first book, the quest for the alchemist's greatest prize, the mentions of a true to life alchemist Nicholas Flamel, and then that Dumbledore was his partner, which also makes Dumbledore an alchemist. I think this is all ample evidence enough to support the other references found in the subtext.

    You're following in a rich tradition by using alchemical references. I've not studied it much but it seems that many English writers used alchemy as a metaphor for the development of the human spirit.

    Here's the link to the post on mythological references from JKR:

  10. WOW. I bow down to your analytical prowess and JKR's astounding writing talents.It is SO much fun to read your posts. Awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time - I don't even begin to aspire to JKR's writing talents - I only aspire to understand the depths of her cleverness! Thankfully I've got you!!! :-)

  11. Gosh, thanks so much, Kiki. But you've hit on the biggest problem in doing this sort of look at JKR -- it leaves me feeling like I'll never measure up. However, I try to turn it around and use it as a source of inspiration. I don't need to be as awesome as JKR. I just need to tell my own stories as entertainingly as I can. :-)

    Thanks so much for your lovely words! :-)

  12. Susan, I realize that Rowling used a lot of alchemical references in her books. Being a chemist, with an interest in alchemy, I probably spotted more of these references than most of her readers. But most of those references, while sometimes quick and short (like salamanders on burning logs), were instantly recognizeable to anyone with some familiarity with alchemy and didn't require a lot of in depth analysis. My question is whether the less obvious symbolism was intended by Rowling or not.

    Sorry for harping on the issue. But I'm trying to write my Hogwarts book so that it sounds as close as possible to Rowling's style. I already have plenty of the more obvious alchemical references sprinkled throughout the book, but I need to know if I should add some of the more esoteric symbolism also.

    Thanks for the help. I'm enjoying your workshop book. I'll post a review on Amazon when I'm finished.

  13. Ken, I'm sorry I can't respond in more depth now. I'm leaving for LeakyCon in a few hours and things have just been too rushed. However, I did one thing I should have done earlier, and that is to link in the post above to the forums at The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet where fans have been discussing alchemy for several years. As you're a scientist, maybe you can do some research there and see what you think about how deep JKR's symbolism went. :-) You definitely know my views!

    I'll be back in a couple of days if you'd like to discuss more then. And thanks!