Harry Potter is the quintessential coming of age story for this generation. It’s the hero’s journey and the process of self-actualization set against the backdrop of myth and magic. Not to mention, it strings together numerous references to alchemy and alchemical processes. Which is to say, it is a quintessentially Jungian saga. I’m convinced that this is true not only as it relates to themes and symbols that appear in the stories, but I believe that J. K. Rowling has very deliberately, consciously and explicitly woven Jungian concepts of psychological alchemy and archetypes into the Hogwarts Saga to the extent that she has even lifted a scene directly from one of Jung’s works as a marker of her indebtedness to the Swiss mystical psychologist.
Therapy : Alchemy :: Alchemy : Therapy
It has been well-documented that, like millions of people, JoAnn Rowling underwent Cognitive Behavioral therapy for at least nine months after a period of deep depression in her life. In what is the perhaps the most candid interview she’s ever given, Rowling remarks about her experiences with depression and therapy that,
“I would recommend it highly. I would. Yeah, I think it was absolutely invaluable. Well it worked for me so obviously I’m very ‘pro’ it. You have to do a lot of work yourself, you know. Realistically, you have to do a lot of work, you have to be prepared to do what you’re asked to do and persevere. I think I was in counselling for nine months, I probably could have done longer. I think I was very hung-up on the idea of becoming reliant on anything, which was partly a feature of my condition. I was in such an isolated position and bizarrely you become afraid of dependent on anything because then [you think] ‘I’ll lose that’. So I probably came out of it a little bit early but…” She pauses. But it all worked out for the best, I venture? “Absolutely. And it gives you strategies for thereafter. I’m worried now that you’ve said that to me about depression and I want to tell everyone that they must go and get help..!”
I argue that perhaps Rowling’s endorsement may help remove the stigma still attached to the ideas of depression and counselling. “The funny thing is, I have never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. Never. I think I’m abnormally shameless on that account, because what’s to be ashamed of? What is there to be ashamed of?” — The J.K. Rowling Interview, Adeel Amini
Now, Cognitive Behavioral therapy came along after the days of Carl Jung, the Psychoanalyst whose I’m attempting to convince you, dear Reader, influenced Ms. Rowling in her work on the Potter series. So bear with me, please.
Ms. Rowling, as we know, is a voracious reader. I submit to you that, whenever a bibliophile and an intellectual is presented with a challenge, the first thing they will do is to read. Or, in the case of the semi-autobiographical sketch she’s created for us in Hermione Granger, to go to the library. Place yourself in Ms. Rowling’s shoes — you’re in a difficult spot in your life. You’re deeply depressed, to the point that you even have suicidal thoughts. You want a way to get out and so you turn inward and you read about the mind, the soul and how to overcome depression. Perhaps you even read the classics, like Freud and Jung. In fact, as an educated person who studied classics, you would almost undoubtedly turn to the source materials that spawned the entire psychoanalytic movement, would you not?
Now, Dear reader, if you’ll look closely at the photo below, you’ll notice that, just to the left of Ms. Rowling’s shoulder (to the right for the viewer) we see evidence that she most certainly did read the classics. At least, she’s got Freud on her very own bookshelf:
Very well, then — we’ve established that Ms. Rowling herself underwent therapy by her own admission. She has also read Jung’s mentor, as evidenced by her bookshelf. But, what about Jung? Well, if you don’t know much about Jung, you should know this: He spent, as Ms. Rowling would say, a “ridiculous amount” of time researching and writing about Alchemy. In fact, it consumed the latter-half of his life.
There’s an entire volume of Jung’s collected works dedicated to Psychology and Alchemy. It’s a vast exploration of the history of alchemy, alchemical symbolism and an exposition of Jung’s conviction that alchemy was really never about turning base metals into gold by means of the Philosophers Stone (←Hey, look, it’s the title of the first Harry Potter book right there). According to Jung, alchemy was a symbolic mystical quest for self-actualization. All of the talk about the alchemical hermaphrodite, the quarreling couple, the stages from black (nigredo) to white (albedo) to red (rubedo), all of it was a veiled and symbolic way of discussing how the soul can be transformed and the self-actualized through the process of dissolution and recombination. In essence, alchemy was therapy before therapy was invented. The self is put into a crucible, it is broken down, and it emerges reborn and integrated, fully realizing its divine potential.
Anyone post-Jung who has had any amount of interest in alchemy will undoubtedly have encountered the works of Carl Jung and his theories about the true nature of alchemy. In her own words, Ms. Rowling has told us that she has done extensive research on alchemy and it is simply impossible to think that she (a person who’s undergone therapy and who reads Freud) would not have spent time reading Jung’s works on alchemy. As she once said,
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, Anne. “Face to Face with J K Rowling: Casting a spell over young minds,” The Herald, 7 December 1998
I submit to you, dear Reader, that the Harry Potter series was intentionally written as a Jungian myth, or at least constructed on a Jungian framework. It is an alchemical saga of self-actualization which dramatizes the theory that Carl Jung posited about the true nature of alchemy. The alchemical symbolism of the Harry Potter series has been so well documented as to be beyond dispute. If you are interested in further reading, please do start with John Granger’s Unlocking Harry Potter and review his posts about the subject on Hogwartsprofessor.com.
To scratch the surface of the how alchemical symbolism operates in Harry Potter, the series begins with a book named “the Philosopher’s Stone” (the Stone being the chief aim of alchemy). It includes characters who are alchemists, including an actual, historical alchemist named Nicolas Flamel who really did live in Paris. It has an alchemy professor as a main character (“Potions” was the name she finally decided on for alchemy class, but early drafts of the books had Snape as the Alchemy professor). Beyond this, main characters are named after alchemical stages and concepts. The story focuses a great deal of Harry’s development on his father figures, each of which are named for an alchemical stage: Albus Dumbledore (albedo), Sirius Black (nigredo), Rubeus Hagrid (rubedo). While Harry is the eponymous character, the series actually has a three-in-one protagonist: Harry/Ron/Hermione. This corresponds to the three base elements of alchemy: sulphur (lightning), salt (body), mercury, with Mercury, of course being the Latin name for the Greek “Hermes”, from which we derive “Hermione.” Central to alchemical symbolism is the Rebis or “great hermaphrodite” and we can see, if we take Harry/Ron/Hermione to be the protagonist of the series, that we are meant to interpret these characters, and the whole series, alchemically.
Rowling includes an article on Alchemy on her Pottermore site. In that article she relates, without a citation, the interpretation of Alchemy that Carl Jung developed:
Alchemy (the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which would turn base metal to gold and give the possessor eternal youth) was once believed to be possible and real. However, the central quest of alchemy may be more complex, and less materialistic, than it first appears.
One interpretation of the ‘instructions’ left by the alchemists is that they are symbolic of a spiritual journey, leading the alchemist from ignorance (base metal) to enlightenment (gold). There seems to have been a mystical element to the work the alchemist was engaged upon, which set it apart from chemistry (of which it was undoubtedly both an offshoot and forerunner).
This “mystical element” has been woven throughout the Hermetic literature of the world, through Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry (more about that in later posts), but it is most clearly and thoroughly studied by Carl Jung. It is also a somewhat controversial theory, as not all scholars are convinced by the idea that alchemy is primarily mystical and psychological rather than pseudoscientific pre-chemistry. In her composition of the Wizarding World and in her own words, it seems to me that Rowling is taking up the Jungian mantle, siding with those who believe Alchemy to be a spiritual quest, and offering up to the world a new alchemical allegory or myth in the tradition of another venerable German mystic who wrote the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.
Beyond the alchemical imagery and working out a particular theory about what alchemy means in practice and joining in the venerable tradition of literary alchemy (which includes the likes of Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Coleridge, Shakespeare and many others), Rowling has tapped into the wealth of cultural, psychological and emotional resources stored in the subterranean treasure-house that Jung dubbed “archetypes.” Just a handful of these archetypes can be seen in devices like “the orphan (Harry/Riddle)”, “the evil [step]parent” (Dursleys), “the wise old man” (Dumbledore), “the sadistic teacher” (Snape) and so on. Archetypes bring with them a sense of familiarity and depth (hence the term “depth psychology” for Jungians) and they activate places in our minds and emotional states that are primal and instantly resonate. This is why similar works of fantasy like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or the Marvel and DC universes attract such devotion — we recognize the archetypes and we want to be submerged in them. The Hogwarts Saga draws on several archetypes to enchant the reader and open us to suggestion so that we’re ready to believe that these things really could happen, really do happen. We’re only too willing to follow “the chosen one” (Harry) as he goes on his quest guided by the “wise old man” or “sage” (Dumbledore).
One of the major plot points of the series, particularly in Book 7, is the unquestioning faith that is placed in Dumbledore. Prior to Rita Skeeter’s biography and Muriel’s disconcerting anecdotes, did anyone — any reader or character — ever question whether or not Dumbledore was absolutely trustworthy? No. Who would? Who could? He is an archetype of the wise old sage and a stand-in for God. Of course he has all of our best interests at heart. Of course he is leading us on to glory.
A major episode in the life and work of Carl Jung is the composition of The Red Book. It is a strange and mystical collection of dreams, visions and meditations, complete with drawings and paintings that Jung authored after a long, “dark night of the soul” that followed his break with Sigmund Freud. In it, he recounts his visions of Philemon, his own manifestation of the “wise old man”.
Note, in the image above, how easily this could pass for a portrait of Dumbledore in front of a Golden Snitch next to a Basilisk or Nagini. This image reproduces associations that, according to Jung (and I would say as evidenced by the popularity of Harry Potter) that we all have and that we cannot help having . Wise old man = good. Snake = evil. But, not simply a good man and an evil snake, but good and evil on a cosmological, existential, mythological, eternal scale.
The power of the archetype comes not from any historical manifestation of “the savior” or “the hero” — not from something that actually happened, but from the familiarity of the structure of the archetype that we immediately recognize as something that happens. Or, as Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Jung could not have said it any better if he had tried.
Of course there is a “chosen one” who will come to redeem the race from the “Dark Lord.” Of course the “Dark Lord” is existentially bound up with the “chosen one.” This is what happens. It happens inside of all of us. Not because it’s derivative or playing on old tropes, but because the tropes themselves emerge from someplace hidden, someplace inaccessible to reason, from some cavern deep inside us all and we recognize our own reflections on the face of the deep as soon as we’re ushered in. Which brings us to the place where, I believe, dear Reader, Rowling tipped her hat to the Swiss mystic.
I see a gray rock face along which I sink into great depths. I stand in black dirt up to my ankles in a dark cave. Shadows sweep over me. I am seized by fear, but I know I must go in. I crawl through a narrow crack in the rock and reach an inner cave whose bottom is covered with black water. But beyond this I catch a glimpse of a luminous red stone which I must reach. I wade through the muddy water. The cave is full of the frightful noise of shrieking voices. I take the stone, it covers a dark opening in the rock. I hold the stone in my hand, peering around inquiringly… I place my ear to the opening. I hear the flow of underground waters. I see the bloody head of a man on the dark stream. Someone wounded, someone slain floats there. I take in this image for a long time. — Carl Jung, The Red Book, p. 146
The quote above sounds eerily similar to a scene in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. In the chapter entitled, The Cave, we see Harry and Dumbledore entering a cave by the sea. They swim to the entrance through a “dark slit in the rock face.” Within the cave, they see a “great black lake” across which they see “misty greenish light” in the middle of the lake. Later they lean that the lake is filled with corpses. It’s a haunting and strikingly profound scene.
I submit to you, dear Reader, that this scene in Book 6 — a critical scene that has to do with Harry’s first quest for a Horcrux and that immediately precedes the death of Dumbledore — was an intentional echo of the Cave in Jung’s Red Book. Jung himself recounts that he left off writing the Red Book when he came across alchemy. The Red Book was Jung’s descent into hell. Jung’s ascent came through his pursuit of alchemy. Harry, as alchemical protagonist, emerges from the hell of the cave and the events that follow as a man, as one who must stand on his own, who must become actualized in himself, without teachers, without father-figures, without even the comfort of certainty that what he is following is good or true or right. Rowling used the archetype that Jung wrote about in his vision of the cave as a set piece to establish Harry’s katabasis and subsequent emergence as a bona fide challenger to Voldemort.
It is worth noting at this point that the section of the Red Book that immediately follows the section on the cave is entitled “Splitting the Spirit.” The cave, in Harry Potter, is where we first pursue a Horcrux, which is an object in which a dark wizard encases part of his soul, after it has been split through dark magic. It may be an obscure reference, but if indeed Rowling lifted the cave scene from Jung’s Red Book, it is entirely plausible that her invention of Horcruxes was suggested by Jung’s strange visions.
The Shadow and other Obscurities
We now come to another concept that is central to Jung — the Shadow. In Jungian psychology, each of us has a light and a dark side or “shadow”. The shadow represents aspects of the personality that are repressed, impulses that are submerged but that must in due time be integrated and brought into the service of the true self. Whenever we suppress our drives toward aggression or sex, we are forming within ourselves a “shadow” which may ultimately lead to neuroses if we are not careful to acquaint ourselves with it, to tame it and reintegrate these drives.
The Harry Potter saga includes several significant episodes that draw upon the “shadow” concept — Harry’s fear that he is the snake in Book 5 or that he’s possessed by Voldemort definitely play upon the network of associations that comprise the shadow archetype. In fact, the subtext of Book 5 and what gives the story such richness and plausibility is that Harry is struggling with something like mental illness. Harry becoming the unauthorized Dark Arts teacher could be read as an example of integrating parts of his shadow into his personality by integrating his penchant for rebellion and focusing it in service of the greater good.
In the Fantastic Beasts franchise, we see even more explicit play with the shadow archetype. One of the two primary antagonists in the first film is literally a shadow — Obscurus is the Latin word for “shadow” and the form that an Obscurus takes is a dark cloud. The description of an Obscurus reads like a Jungian diagnosis:
“NEWT: Before wizards went underground, when we were still being hunted by muggles, young wizards and witches sometimes tried to suppress their magic to avoid persecution. Instead of learning to harness or control their powers, they developed what was called an Obscurus.
TINA: It’s an unstable, uncontrollable Dark force that bursts out and — and attacks…”
— Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them Original Screenplay
Compare this to the description of Ariana Dumbledore that we get from Aberforth in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,
“When my sister was six years old, she was attached, set upon, by three Muggle boys. They’d seen her doing magic, spying through the back garden hedge: She was a kid, she couldn’t control it, no witch or wizard can at that age. What they saw scared them, I expect. They forced their way through the hedge, and when she couldn’t show them the trick, they got a bit carried away trying to stop the little freak doing it…It destroyed her, what they did: She was never right again. She wouldn’t use magic, but she couldn’t get rid of it; it turned inward and drove her mad, it exploded out of her when she couldn’t control it, and at times she was strange and dangerous…then when she was fourteen…She had one of her rages, and my mother wasn’t as young as she was, and…it was an accident. Ariana couldn’t control it. But my mother was killed.”
It seems clear that, while the term had not yet been coined, Ariana Dumbledore’s magic that “exploded out of her” was an Obscurus. This plot-line is what the Fantastic Beasts franchise is all about — Grindelwald was present when Ariana manifested her Obscurus during the fight between Albus, Aberforth and Grindelwald. He was there when she died. In Fantastic Beasts, Grindelwald (disguised as Graves) and Newt Scamander both come to America to investigate another Obscurus, which they both believe to be attached to another young girl (Modesty Barebone) who serves as a foil to Ariana. I’m convinced that both Newt and Grindelwald suspect that the Obscurus they’re seeking was once attached to Ariana Dumbledore. We’re given evidence that an Obscurus can survive without its host when we see one floating in a magic bubble inside of Newt’s case.
The central scene of the film comes when Grindelwald (disguised as Graves) discovers Newt’s Obscurus and asks how it can be used which causes Newt to recognize that he is not Graves but Grindelwald in disguise. The film assumes that this is obvious but, unless you have the Ariana backstory in place, it is far from obvious why or how Newt would have put these pieces together.
In Crimes of Grindelwald the big reveal, I believe, once again hinges on Ariana Dumbledore and her Obscurus — I do not believe that Credence is a Dumbledore (as Grindelwald claims in Crimes of Grindelwald) but that he is a host for the same Obscurus that once manifested itself in Ariana — the one that both Newt and Grindelwald were pursuing and the whole reason they came to America in the first place. (Remember again that Obscurus’ can travel from one host to another, as we were shown in Newt’s case in FB1). Once again, without the Ariana Dumbledore/Obscurus backstory, the whole Aurelius Dumbledore thing seems to have been crafted out of thin air, with no connection to prior episodes in the Wizarding World. Most viewers probably missed this, but it is the central plot point and theme of the Fantastic Beasts franchise.
Whatever you believe about the Fantastic Beasts films and whatever you make of the various fan theories, one thing should be relatively clear: Fantastic Beasts is a story about how repressed forces can manifest as a shadow. In other words, the plot is constructed upon a thoroughly Jungian concept. The shadow — most likely Ariana’s shadow — must be found and reintegrated, before it can do any further harm. That much seems undeniable (though admittedly hard to follow in the films that throw too much at the viewer too quickly).
While we still have alchemical symbols in Fantastic Beasts, the psychological archetype is made more explicit and prominent through the focus on the Obscurus. The shadow is the Jungian psychological archetype which Rowling is fictionalizing and dramatizing through the Obscurus. I would expect the climax and resolution of the series to come as the shadow is integrated into the true self, whatever that might mean in the context of these films. Perhaps this comes during the famous duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald as Credence/Aurelius is enlisted to destroy Dumbledore but some part of Ariana is still present and comes to her brother’s aid. Perhaps it is only through Ariana/Credence/Obscurus’ help that Dumbledore can defeat the “unbeatable wand” or Elder Wand that Grindelwald possesses. We’ll have to wait and see.
Whatever the outcome, I am convinced that J.K. Rowling uses her fiction as a way to work out psychological concepts. The archetypes and symbols of the occult and of alchemy are not only a useful tool to allow us to engage in a story that is primarily about psychological transformation, they are actually borrowed from canonical psychological literature from one of the founders of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung. If I could ever get her ear (or her attention on Twitter), I’d ask her, “Tell me your thoughts about Carl Jung…” I expect she would obfuscate and engage in some sort of misdirection. But, of course, the truth is that she has already told the world her thoughts about Carl Jung, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.