Harry Potter and the alchemy theory

by Jonathan V. Last

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

24 July 2007


I haven’t finished “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” yet, but it’s not for lack of trying. I lined up to get my midnight copy at 8 a.m. Friday.

But the beautiful thing about Harry Potter fandom is that playing hooky on release day only puts me near the median of the obsessive scale. It’s not like I spent the day waiting in line dressed as Severus Snape. I have my dignity, you know.

cover art

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

J. K. Rowling


To experience true Pottermania, of course, you have to go online. The Web is full of Potter fan sites. Some celebrate author J.K. Rowling; some offer quizzes to tell you which Hogwarts house you’d fit into, and some collect the world’s varied Potternalia. The most interesting, however, are the ones dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of Rowling’s wizard world.

Potterology is entertaining in its own right and has spawned a bristling industry of books. Janet Scott Batchler’s “What Will Harry Do?” and Joyce Odell’s “Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?” are two of the best entries, but the canon is bursting with intelligent, informed engagement with Rowling’s novels.

And near the bottom of this rabbit hole is a complicated, elegant and fun theory authors have used to explain the Potter books.

It has to do with alchemy.

Alchemy, a sacred science and the precursor to modern chemistry, has a long, if not entirely proud, tradition in literature. Most people know some alchemists tried to transmute base metals into gold; less known is that this physical transformation was intended as a mirror of higher spiritual transformation. Practiced by the ancient Egyptians, it benefited from the scientific explosion in the Arabic-speaking world near the end of the first millennium, and it was adopted by Christians during the Middle Ages. Its precepts of purification and transformation fit nicely with Christian thought.

As the Enlightenment dawned, alchemy lost sway, brushed aside by chemistry and the scientific method. But its philosophical precepts lingered in the arts, where the “alchemical structure” became a key metaphor in Western Europe for the structure of a plot.

The “alchemical structure” is a three-part drama, progressing from black to white to red, with each part standing for part of the process of purification. At the end, conflict is resolved and protagonists are transformed into something better than they were. Alchemical imagery and ideas were used by several major writers, including Donne, Milton and Blake.

All of which brings us to Harry Potter and John Granger, author of “Unlocking Harry Potter” and one of the most persuasive proponents of Potter-as-alchemy. His arguments go something like this:

Harry, who begins the series as a normal boy in hard circumstances, is in the process of becoming a powerful wizard who will unite the wizarding world and vanquish the evil Lord Voldemort. In alchemical terms, Harry is the lead being turned to gold.

Two of the primary substances, called essentials, used in alchemy were sulfur and mercury. Harry’s best mate, Ron Weasley, is an emotional, fiery redhead (sulfur). Harry’s other best friend, Hermione Granger, is a levelheaded intellectual. The name Hermione is the female form of Hermes, name of the Greek god whose Roman name was Mercury. Also, Hg is the elemental symbol for mercury. Granger supposes that it is Ron and Hermione who act on Harry in countervailing ways throughout the series, helping him transform.

Granger claims the three alchemical phases are neatly delineated in the books, too. The first stage of the alchemical process is the dissolution, commonly referred to as the nigredo, or black phase, which typically deals with the breaking down of the initial metal. This can be found in the fifth book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” where everything that can go wrong in Harry’s life does. The book culminates with the death of his godfather, Sirius Black.

The next alchemical stage is purification, the albedo, or white phase, which can be seen in “Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince.” That book centers on and culminates with the death of Albus Dumbledore. The final alchemical stage is the perfection, the rubedo, or red phase. Again, I haven’t finished “Deathly Hallows,” but I’ll be surprised if Harry’s friend Rubeus Hagrid doesn’t play a major part.

On the whole, Granger’s application of alchemical theory seems quite apt.

Of course, alchemy can be like numerology: Once you’re looking for it, you start seeing it everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist.

But there are other clues that the Harry Potter series might well be hung around an alchemical skeleton. In England, the first book was titled “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” - that stone being the Holy Grail of alchemists. We learn that Dumbledore himself is an alchemist and is great friends with one Nicolas Flamel. This Flamel was in reality a celebrated French alchemist of the 14th and 15th centuries. And then there’s this stray quote from Rowling herself, who said in 1998: “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.”

Regardless of whether the alchemy theory holds up in the final reckoning, the mere fact that Rowling’s books have engendered such interesting discussion is a mark of their brilliance.


Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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