So far I think this one is my favourite.
Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader – Written by John Granger, published in 2007
The premise of this book is very straightforward, but its worth a chapter by chapter synopsis. The first five chapters each delineate one of the five elements which John Granger believes are most key to Harry Potter’s story and great popularity, in order: narrative misdirection, alchemical symbolism, Hero’s Journey cycles, postmodern themes, and traditional symbols. There’s then a sixth chapter which use the five keys to make predictions about Deathly Hallows.
Granger is an excellent and very clear writer, and this book is also fantastically well organized. Which is good, because its also incredibly dense and written to a very high level. In the Hero’s Journey chapter, especially, I was very glad I’d already read the simplified version from Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or I think I might have had a hard time keeping up. I do not have an English Lit/Humanities background of any sort, all the media analysis on this blog is strictly amateur hour, but I feel like I have a better grasp of how the practice of literary analysis past high school level is actually supposed to work than I did before I read this.
All five of the “keys” are very interesting, and its worth pointing out this is the first explanation of post-modernism I’ve read that makes it sound like a useable idea developed by intelligent people, instead of a pile of outrageous nonsense.
But the bit I most enjoyed and want to talk about is the alchemy.
So, backstory: I love History of Science and a source of never-ending amusement to me, in my forays into learning about literary and media studies analysis is that the English department is where ancient scientific theories that have died, go to be reanimated and shamble on in perpetuity. Seriously.
Alchemy is, most simply, an ancient precursor to Chemistry based around the aim of transmuting base metals (usually lead) into gold. Taken in modern terms this can come off as a bit silly, but at the time it was developed it was part of a larger theory of the nature of matter which, even though its not correct, was clever and logical and surprising perceptive given the baseline people were starting from. Even though the theory of alchemy has been disproved from a scientific perspective, the basic techniques that chemistry relies on were almost all developed by alchemists. Alchemy also developed in an intellectual environment that didn’t yet delineate science from spirituality in any clear way. So alchemy had a massive religious component. In properly performed alchemy, the changes in the physical metals were occurring in tandem with equivalent spiritual changes which the alchemist was undergoing. The result of this is that alchemy is culturally specific, most properly, this book refers to Christian alchemy, as distinct from Jewish, Islamic or Chinese alchemy.
The chapter itself covers the basics of alchemy and its terminology and explains firstly, how each individual book in the series follows the pattern of the steps of an alchemical transformation, and how that mirrors the larger cycle which encompasses the full series. And then it wraps up with how alchemic symbolism is built into the fabric of the world-building to ground the characters and the magical system.
Of all the various models of analysis and references I’ve read about in my large reading project (currently sitting at 18 books at the time I’m posting this) this is the one that affected how I see the series the most. I’ve found myself referring back to alchemical symbols when I’m reading other analyses, and I’m looking forward to having it on hand next time I read the books.