Harry Potter & the Pretty Tall Compost Pile: John Granger Lectures on J.K. Rowling’s Modern Classic Print
News/Features - Literature
Written by Stephanie Grider and Ellie Ryan   
Tuesday, 21 April 2009 08:08

(Editor's note: John Granger, the author of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter and Looking for God in Harry Potter, will present two lectures in the Quad Cities on Thursday, April 23: "From Muggle Lead to Spiritual Gold: The Literary Alchemy of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels" at 10:30 a.m. in Augustana College's Centennial Hall (3703 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island), and "Why Reading Matters: Good Books & the Life of Christ" at 7 p.m. at Broadway Presbyterian Church (710 23rd Street in Rock Island). What follows is the transcript of an interview of Granger by Augustana students Stephanie Grider and Ellie Ryan. For more information on Granger, visit HogwartsProfessor.com.)

Ellie Ryan: You have said that readers of the Harry Potter novels experience what you call "apotheosis," or a kind of spiritual transformation via their identification with Harry as they are reading. Please say more about that.

John GrangerJohn Granger: The big wow of Harry Potter is that by the middle of each book, we have been suckered in and begin to identify ourselves with Harry; we have identified ourselves with everything he's going through. By the end of each book, Harry makes heroic decisions to confront evil internally and externally. Choosing to die to himself, he rises then similarly and symbolically to Christ, and that experience is what we human beings are meant for as well. So one reason for "Pottermania" is that human beings get to have an imaginative experience of what they hope to experience in their lives and at their death. Rowling pulls that off by this "third-person limited-omniscient" perspective that she takes in narrating the stories. You're basically watching everything pretty much just from above Harry's line of sight, and occasionally we peek into his head to see what he's thinking and what he's feeling. Harry's not telling the story, but we basically do not get to see anything that isn't from his perspective. Harry's viewpoint eventually becomes our viewpoint; we come to sympathize with him and suspend our disbelief, experiencing what he experiences.

Stephanie Grider: J.K. Rowling has 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." Could you give us a general idea of how alchemy pertains to the story?

Granger: If you want to make alchemy accessible, you have to begin with Ron and Hermione. What everybody knows about alchemy is that it's the process of changing lead into gold and the creation of the Philosopher's Stone. The work of alchemy is done by resolving contraries and polarity. Lead is just solid darkness and gold is material light, so to an alchemist lead is just "stillborn gold." Somehow you have to make lead come to life. Just as males and females come together to make life and light, so it is with lead that you get light and life by resolving contraries as well. The alchemist does this by working with mercury and sulfur, the so-called "quarreling couple." Rowling very cleverly uses Hermione as the feminine intellectual symbol of mercury. Hermione's name actually means mercury, and her initials are even "HG," the element symbol for mercury. Ron stands for the passionate, red-headed side of life; he's sulfuric. The two together become the alchemical "quarreling couple," which is why Ron and Hermione are always bickering. Harry then must be the Philosopher's Stone that is being changed from lead to gold. We see this process in every story and in the overarching storyline. Rowling is very deliberate with her alchemical references, and the Hermione-Ron-Harry relationship is just one major example.

Grider: You have written that the books represent an amalgamation of many literary genres. What are a few of Rowling's literary antecedents?

Granger: In Harry Potter's Bookshelf, my next book, I have identified 10 major influences upon the Potter novels. They include detective stories; orphan novels à la Charles Dickens; manners and morals fiction similar to that of Jane Austen; schoolboy novels and fiction popular in England; the gothic novel including bad blood and the large haunted castle; the postmodern morality tale; satire; allegory that is spiritual, social, and political; the alchemical drama which we discussed earlier; and Christian fantasy. Rowling has said that the secret to her success is planning, which you can see in her careful weaving together of these 10 literary genres to create a work that is original and organically whole. Just like Tolkien, one of the greatest authors of the last century, she invested years of her life into the series, and I just don't know what else she could write that could compare to the Potter series.

Ryan: If that's the case, is it important that she writes a follow-up to Harry Potter?

Granger: That's a good point because the series has already united the reading public around the entire globe. That's like saying to Jesus after he's resurrected, "So what's your follow-up?" The Potter books have become the shared text of this generation, a classic.

Grider: You've said that Rowling is deliberate, but do you think that she consciously chose these genres and used them?

Granger: Of course not completely, but she does write with purpose. Take satire, for example, and look at how she writes the character of Aunt Marge. Perhaps when it comes to some of the allegorical context of the books, I do take some interpretive liberty. Rowling has even said that she doesn't completely understand the influences of her books. Her writing is largely the fruit from the compost pile of all the books she has read. But this is a pretty tall compost pile! Really, some things have to be deliberate: satire, alchemy, the Jane Austen elements. One of her gifts to the public is that she's not telling us, "Here, this is my meaning. Close the discussion." Instead, she is allowing others to argue among themselves. She even gives deceptive answers in interviews which allow for discussion. She says she chose the name Harry because it was one of her favorite names, but that doesn't tell the reader anything. It has to be something more. She wants me to believe that the name of the main protagonist has no meaning when everything in the stories has a meaning. Is that credible? No, I don't buy it. Her answer is bizarre, but it is glorious, too, because that lets us speculate freely about what she's doing. I've got to tell you, though, that I'm one lucky guy. My way of looking at the world happens to be very similar to Joanne Rowling's. Without her, I'd still be just an unemployed Latin teacher. [Rowling has a degree in Classics.] But really it's nice to know that people are taking Joanne Rowling more seriously now.

Ryan: I've heard that you are writing a book interpreting Stephenie Mayer's Twilight series. Many people are saying that the Twilight series is the new Harry Potter. How do the works compare?

Granger: There are two entirely different levels of artistry involved. Stephenie Meyer created and wrote Twilight in the course of six weeks. That's much different from J.K. Rowling spending five years meticulously planning and researching before sketching a draft of the books. It's hard to deny that what Rowling has written is more profound at a number of levels. But the interesting thing is that the Twilight books were written by Meyer, a devout Mormon who was an English-literature major from Brigham Young University. Her series is saturated with that perspective and theology; she has created a book that combines both English literature with a Christian perspective. She has combined these elements along with others, such gothic and musical influences, to create a literary amalgamation in a way similar to Rowling's creation of the Potter novels. But once again, though the Twilight books are currently popular, I think that the Potter series will endure be a masterpiece or evidence of artistic genius.