Novels are of the place they’re written, in one way or another. The students at the University of Edinburgh class I taught on Harry Potter had the fun of discussing Harry and his magical world in the city, and even the cafes, where JK Rowling wrote his story. It was easy to think of Hogwarts as we looked out at Edinburgh Castle and the spires of Heriot’s very grand school from the Elephant House Cafe.
Broomsticks and magical animals aside, Harry and his friends could equip and dress themselves nearly as well in Edinburgh as at Diagon Alley. Robe-makers Ede and Ravenscroft, whose web site proclaims ‘300 years of ceremonial dress,’ sell to royalty, academics and others. The Old Town’s hilly, cobbled streets have sellers of Goth, antique and ‘wyrd’ and wonderful magical goods. Huge art and seasonal festivals mean you may come out of a Harry Potter film to see a parade of giant illuminated owls and dragons, let by a Gypsy band who could have walked out of Hogsmeade in top hats and brocades.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a description in 1879 that’s still recognizable. He said that, ‘This profusion of eccentricities, this dream in masonry and living rock, is not a drop-scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of every-day reality.’ A plaque by Edinburgh castle in memory of those executed there for witch-craft made it an especially appropriate locale for the penultimate Harry Potter book release event. A local historian even thinks that the castle hill was a site for goddess worship and Arthurian myth in ancient times. We came full circle with an event celebrating a myth-making lady’s work?
The Harry Potter Books do serve as myths for many of us, on all the levels at which myth functions. They’re wonderfully entertaining, they give us models for behavior and they speak of the deeper meanings in life that all seekers are looking for.
This book is based on the course I taught at the University of Edinburgh and draws from many different sources to bring you new insights into our favourite hero and his world. When I first began reading Harry Potter, I found that the novels echoed ideas I grep up with in a family tradition of Scottish and Irish shamanism, as well as themes that came up in my PhD research at Edinburgh. I’ll refer to some hard to find sources, like the writings of actual wizards and alchemists that the books refer to, such as Flamel and Paracelsus.
However, this is a ‘Seeker’s Guide’ not a ‘Scholar’s Guide!’ I’ve focussed on layers of meaning in the books that give us the deepest applicable insights into life. I’ve tried to do this in a way that’s suitable for seekers of any or no particular spiritual persuasion and requires no previous knowledge. We’ll look at what JK Rowling says that she put into the books, as well as what we may take out of them. Because they resonate with so many mythic and spiritual themes we’ll each have our own responses.
A Marauder’s Map to this Book
To give you a taste of what some of these themes may be, here’s a brief chapter outline. I’ll say up fron that, as I’ll be looking at all seven books, there will be ‘spoilers.’
In what follows, I’ll generally use Harry PPotter, italicized, to refer to the book series as a whole, and ‘Harry’ to refer to him as a character. I’ll use single words to refer to books in the series: Stone for the first book, Chamber for the second, Azkaban for the third, Goblet for the fourth, Phoenix, Prince and Hallows, for the final books, all italicized.
I. Beginnings: a letter in green ink
Harry’s adventure really began with his Hogwart’s letter, and ours began reading his story. We’ll start by looking at the books as literature and at the phenomenon, as well as discussing some of the basic ideas about magic and spirituality that frame the book.
II. Betwixt and between platfom 9 3/4
One of these ideas is that we can enter different realities, as Harry enters the wizarding world at Diagon Alley and platform 9 3/4. Here we’ll look at how the ‘Three Hallows’ relate to three kinds of consciousness that we can experience: happiness, sorrow and the state of spiritual awareness that can help us deal with the first two most constructively.
III. Four houses, four elements
This chapter explores the elemental associations of the Hogwarts houses and traditional esoteric precepts. To Know (Ravenclaw, air), to Wll (Slytherin, water), to Dare (Gryffindor, fire), and to keep Silent, (Hufflepuff, earth). We’ll reflect on how these qualities operate in our own lives and what our own allocated House be.
IV. Through the maze: heroic journeys
Just as the four Hogwarts houses validate different abilities, various characters’ stories explore the different types of heroism. We’ll see where mothers, fathers and redeemed villains go on their journeys, as well as prominent seekers in the novels like Draco, Cedric, Ginny, Regulus and Harry. We’ll also have a look at the symbolism of Quidditch.
V. The Art
Hermione is named for Hermes, patron deity of the ‘Hermetic Arts’ that include alchemy and magic. JK Rowling admitted to studying vast amounts of alchemy early on. We’ll see how the principles of ‘natural magic’ in the books apply to life and how alchemical stages tell us a lot about our inner lives.
VI. The terrible and the great
From the patronus to the Dementors, from Harry’s goodness to the bit of badness lodged within him, from the terrible power of love, to the great love inherent in terrible sacrifices, JK Rowling confronts us with many ‘terrible greats’ and ‘great terribles.’ So does life. Here we’ll look at how we can begin to understand and cope with them.
VII. Using the philosopher’s stone
The myriad debates about how the series would, and ultimately did, end, raises the larger question of what makes a good ending in art of life? Here we discuss what attaining the philosopher’s stone (the ultimate spiritual goal, as expressed in alchemy) might actually mean.
The chapters are followed by endnotes containing references and notes numbered by each chapter, a bibliography with full details of all the sources I refer to and a section on further resources, including suggested readings, books and websites.
Well, there you have it. As you can see, there’s more to the Harry Potter novels than meets the eye. Harry reminds us of legends of long ago. We need him, and other shared myths and symbols, but Harry doesn’t simply echo them, he revitalizes them, as he does at the end of Hallows. Using the ring concealed in the golden snitch, he raises the spirits of ancestors and teachers, reviving ancient symbols to live anew.
The snitch itself is an easy example. You ‘read’ the golden snitch on this book’s cover with a wealth of narrative associations from Harry Potter. Yet the associations don’t stop with him, but re-invoke older symbols and ideas. I sculpted the ‘golden snitch’ pictured on the cover over fifteen years ago. You’ll see it in a more traditional form on the epigram page at the start of this book. It symbolized the Egyptian deity, Horus, the young son of the widowed mother goddess, Isis, who also defeated his father’s murderer. Other traditions saw it as the symbol of a perfected soul, or of the choice to live a righteous life.
Harry’s story can tell us a lot about making choices and about much more besides. We all play the seeker in the game we’re given. We seek love, wisdom, spiritual experience, survival, safety, excitement and fun. Harry’s story can guide us on the quest.