Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower

A Potter scholar puts J. K. Rowling’s series on a shelf with Stoker, Chaucer, Austen, and other Great Books authors.

By John Granger, ABí83

Illustrations by Rik Olson

Jane Austen: Wizard pride and prejudice

J. K. Rowling has said in many interviews that the single writer she admires most is Hollywood’s hot property, a woman who never published a book in her own name, who died at 41, unmarried and childless, and whose books are anything but magical fantasy. This woman is Jane Austen, the parson’s daughter and anonymous author of the world’s favorite manners-and-morals novels.Photo:

The Austen books have a formula: boy meets girl, adversity separates boy and girl (parents and family, differences in station, etc.), and boy and girl overcome adversity for storybook ending. The engines of the triumph over the obstacles put before love are devotion, emotion, and passion, more or less. Austen plays with the formula, mocks it really, by showing the disastrous results of these passionate first encounters and mistaken first impressions. Again and again, they lead to unhappy marriages and failed relationships. All the “happy endings” and positive courtships, in contrast, are the fruit of hard work to overcome mistakes made on first sight and the characters’ deeply held prejudices or convictions.

Within her comic novels, Austen is writing a philosophical argument against David Hume’s empiricist position. And Rowling, in the tradition of English letters, is doing the same thing. Hume’s position was, ultimately, that nothing could be known certainly (except, of course, the fact that “nothing could be known certainly,” which was certain). Only sensorial knowledge is dependable, because all of our ideas Hume assumed to be derived from sense impressions. The distance between this belief and the materialism of our times, in which only quantities of matter and energy are thought of as real, is a short walk; the breach made thereby with the Romantic and Platonic vision predominant in literature is vast. Not very surprisingly, Austen and Rowling side with Coleridge and Wordsworth against Hume.

Austen takes aim at Hume’s dependence on sense impressions in Pride and Prejudice, the first title of which was First Impressions. Darcy seems the worst of self-important snobs to Elizabeth Bennet, and the Bennets seem to Darcy to be beneath his attention. Wickham seems the long-suffering innocent to Elizabeth—and Darcy to be Wickham’s persecutor. His pride and her prejudice combine to blind them to their real characters, which, of course, circumstances and their ability both to rise above their sensorial impressions and to trust their greater judgment beyond pride and prejudice reveal in time. Their nuptials are a testament to love’s greater perception of truth and goodness than sense, subject as perceived ephemera are to human failings like conceit, class, and inherited beliefs.

Rowling’s Harry Potter novels turn on this same theme. Each book is loaded with reminders of how everyone but the long-suffering, brilliant, and saintly (Lupin, Hermione, and Dumbledore, respectively) is captive to their preconceptions about others and usually almost brutal in their unkindness to the objects of their prejudice.

We have, of course, the constant of “proper wizard pride” by which all nonmagical people, indeed, even magical brethren who are not “pure-blood” witches and wizards, are held in disdain. The Muggles we meet too hate the abnormality of the people living in Harry’s world. The poor, the clumsy, the awkward, the stupid, the ugly, and the unpopular at Hogwarts are also shown to have a hard time. Even the “nearly headless” ghost is a second-class citizen among the properly “headless” ghosts and prevented from participating in the annual Headless Hunt.


Magical folk seem preoccupied, like Jane Austen’s characters, with the birth condition or circumstances of others over which they had no choice or control rather than with the quality of their characters. Ron learns Hagrid is a half-giant in Goblet of Fire, and, although he has been Hagrid’s friend for three years, this news disturbs him because of the wizard prejudice against giants. We see the same or similar responses with respect to noble centaurs, house-elves, and werewolves. Even Hagrid has a few unkind words for foreigners.

This prejudice is institutional as well. The Ministry of Magic refuses to promote Arthur Weasley, in the opinion of his wife, because he lacks proper wizard pride, and although the Ministry opposes the Death Eaters’ attacks on Muggles, they certainly share Voldemort’s contempt for them. Magical media too, especially the Daily Prophet, transmit and reinforce the prejudices of witches and wizards in almost every story they publish.

The obstacles to the successful resolution of the novels’ other themes—love’s defeat of death, freewill choice, and personal transformation or change—are essentially prejudice. You simply cannot be loving, capable of unjaundiced decision-making, or capable of change when bound by personal prejudice and pride. The big twist at which the books aim too turns on the revelation of Harry’s foundational misconception and the change in him if he realizes and transcends this misunderstanding.

Just as the key to Darcy and Elizabeth’s engagement in Pride and Prejudice was Darcy seeing past his pride and Elizabeth overcoming her prejudice, Harry’s victory over Lord Voldemort must come through love and after the revelation of an unexpected back to a revered or reviled front. Harry, like Darcy and Elizabeth, however, had to transcend his pride as a Gryffindor and free himself of his “old prejudice” against Slytherins. He also had to come to terms with the Machiavellian aspect and clay feet of Dumbledore.

What Lupin calls Harry’s “old prejudice” against Severus is resolved suddenly and forever in his experience of his sworn enemy’s memories of his mother. More difficult was coming to terms with the back to Dumbledore’s front, recognizing the secretiveness and failings of Harry’s beloved mentor. Unquestioning admiration can blind us, Harry learns, as much as inherited prejudice. Most of Deathly Hallows, the final book in the Harry Potter series, turns on Harry’s finally choosing to believe in Dumbledore while digging Dobby’s grave on Easter morning. Rowling’s astonishing final twist was that Snape was a sacrificial hero and Dumbledore a man with a history; Harry’s victory over his preconceptions, represented in naming his look-alike son “Albus Severus,” is the interior triumph that led to his eventual triumph over Lord Voldemort in the Great Hall.

Bram Stoker: Just another love story

If the Harry Potter books were written by Bram Stoker, Harry would be Mina Harker, Dumbledore could easily play Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, and Lord Voldemort would be Dracula. Voldemort is the classic Gothic villain. The parallels with Jekyll and Frankenstein are clear. Tom Riddle Jr. is an overreaching dark wizard on a quest to live forever. As he tells his Death Eaters at the rebirthing party in Goblet of Fire:

...how could they have believed I would not rise again? They, who knew the steps I took, long ago, to guard myself against mortal death?....[In Godric’s Hollow] I was ripped from my body, I was less than spirit, less than the meanest ghost...but still, I was alive. What I was, even I do not know...I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal—to conquer death. And now, I was tested, and it appeared that one or more of my experiments had worked...for I had not been killed, though the curse should have done it.

Note his proud, scientific language: he is a pioneer in the “experiments” to “conquer death.” As with Dr. Frankenstein, though, the creature Voldemort fashions from infamous acts of murder and idolatry is something subhuman.

Frankenstein’s creature, an embodiment of the passions and reason of science, lacked conscience, as did Jekyll’s Hyde. The spiritual faculty of the human person is uncreated; call it conscience, the active intellect, the eye of the heart, or what you will—it is the divine aspect of the human person. Rowling calls it love, and Voldemort knows nothing of love.

Love burns the unworthy or polluted in the Gothic horror. Remember the scar left on Mina Harker when the Eucharist, representing the God who died in loving sacrifice for his sheep, was placed on her forehead? Voldemort/Quirrell burns in agony when he touches Harry at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore explains, because:

Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign...to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.

Voldemort leaps this magical barrier by using Harry’s blood to reconstitute himself in Goblet of Fire. The admixture creates the “bond of blood” that joins them. When he possesses Harry at the Ministry in Order of the Phoenix, however, he is driven away and thereafter guards himself against Harry by Occlumency—a magical skill preventing others from reading one’s memories and feelings—because of the pain he experiences when Harry remembers Sirius. The love and remorse Harry feels almost destroys the Dark Lord.

Voldemort has become undead and all but immortal, like Stoker’s Dracula, through the dark magic of Horcruxes, devices for immortality whose creation, however, requires murder. By committing “the supreme act of evil”—a murder—the soul is torn.

Killing rips the soul apart. The wizard intent upon creating a Horcrux would use the damage to his advantage: he would encase the torn portion...[into an object with the necessary spell work]....Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged.

Dracula survives by drinking the life’s blood of others and making them undead creatures of darkness like himself. Voldemort too must murder to achieve immortality, but, while perhaps not as gruesome as vampirism, Horcrux creation is at least as horrible. The Dark Lord is the satanic cartoon of a materialist who infuses objects with pieces of his own soul, pieces he has acquired via destruction of his neighbor. His “life,” such as it is, is entirely exterior and material, rather than interior and spiritual. As an allegorical figure, he is the embodiment of our fragmentation, self-estrangement, and alienation—the postmodern, fallen condition that Gothic literature presents in imaginative form. Voldemort is Rowling’s gothic masterpiece.

Chaucer: End of the pilgrimage

Rowling herself pointed to Chaucer and specifically to “The Pardoner’s Tale” as an influence on her last novel, but we might have guessed as much from the frequent departures she makes within her narrative for characters to tell stories themselves. We have Hagrid explaining his extended vacation among the giants, Kreacher detailing how Master Regulus had died, and Helena Ravenclaw’s gothic romance about the Bloody Baron, whose ghost haunts Hogwarts. If we still miss the Chaucer connection, Rowling gives us four chapter titles that end with “tale” as a specific hat-tip toward the Canterbury Tales.

There are surface, moral, and allegorical correspondences among “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Rowling’s “Tale of the Three Brothers,” and the Harry Potter story arc viewed as a whole.

The surface story told by Chaucer’s Pardoner is about three men, disgusted by the death of a mutual friend, who head out to find Death and destroy him. They meet an Old Man who says he just saw Death in the graveyard under a tree. At the tree in the graveyard, the three friends find bags of gold rather than the enemy they expect. Long story short, two of the three men kill the third to split his share of the gold. The third man has his posthumous revenge because he had poisoned the other two men’s wine. All three set out to destroy Death but were brought to their own deaths, spiritual and physical, by greed.

“The Tale of the Three Brothers,” from The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a book of Rowling-authored fairy tales featured in Deathly Hallows, is also about meeting Death. Rowling’s tale involves three brothers who bridge a previously uncrossable river with their magic. Death meets them on the bridge, feigns awe at their accomplishment, and grants them three wishes. The oldest chooses an unbeatable wand, which, coupled with his arrogance, results in his being murdered. The middle brother “asked for the power to recall others from Death,” which eventually causes his suicide after he is “driven mad with hopeless longing” for a shadow of a woman he had called back from beyond the veil. The youngest brother, “the humblest and also the wisest,” asked only for a gift that would keep Death from following him. The invisibility cloak he receives conceals him from Death until he is an old man and chooses to take it off; he then greets Death “as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and equals, they departed this life.”

Chaucer’s story has a different ending and a different stated moral (the Pardoner is preaching that cupidity­—greed—is the root of all evil), but the implicit instruction or sentence of the story is a match with Rowling’s: seeking to defeat or master Death willfully is the shortcut to an early demise.

Taken as a whole, the Harry Potter novels are the story too of three men and their battle with death. Tom Riddle Jr. pursues personal immortality through power, murder, and dark magic. As a young man, Albus Dumbledore had pursued the Deathly Hallows—three magical objects that, according to legend, will turn the person who unites them into a “Master of Death.” Harry Potter, the descendent and heir of the brother who had received the invisibility cloak, succeeds in winning the three Hallows and vanquishing Voldemort, if not Death per se. Riddle’s megalomaniacal search to cheat Death results in his death, Dumbledore’s sister is killed in consequence to his fascination with power, and Harry becomes “the true Master of Death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death.” In a way, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” is a synopsis of all seven books.

Fodder for the cannon

By Lydialyle Gibson

By the third time John Granger, AB’83, made his way through J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels—during a weeklong drive from Houston to Washington state—the Western canon was ringing in his ears. In fact it was bellowing: Dante and Dickens, Shakespeare and Tennyson, Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress, Plato’s cave.


It was May 2001, and Granger and his family were moving to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, listening to cassette tapes of the first four Harry Potter books. Granger and a friend piloted the moving truck while his wife and seven children (two still in diapers) followed in a minivan with the family dog, a handicapped Weimeraner. “I felt like I was doing something out of one of the first books of the Bible,” Granger says. “And all the way I kept having these little epiphanies listening to Harry Potter, like, ‘Look at that—Canterbury Tales! Look at that—First Corinthians!’”

Granger compiles those epiphanies in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, released in July, which traces the characters, events, and themes in Rowling’s seven novels to their Great Books roots. In Harry, an orphan at the mercy of brutally cruel relatives, Granger sees Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Pip. But he also sees the title character from the 15th-century play Everyman and Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. Each is a figure, Granger writes, who “represents humanity in toto on his spiritual quest…along the way from the fallen world to heaven’s paradise.” Professor Severus Snape, Harry’s snarling tormentor at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, offers shades of Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff. Harry’s mother, whom Snape loved hopelessly, owes a debt (and her green eyes) to Dante’s Beatrice. And what about Rowling’s satire, which gives a sharp poke to institutions, politicians, and Fleet Street reporters? Granger points to Swift. “The satirical journeys of Lemeul Gulliver,” he writes, “are probably the closest match to Harry’s.”

Harry Potter’s Bookshelf isn’t Granger’s first exegesis on The Boy Who Lived; it’s his fourth. But this is one he’s wanted to write for years. “Harry Potter didn’t just drop out of the sky,” he says. “People may be uncomfortable using the tools we use on Shakespeare and Dante on Joanne Rowling, but she’s writing in a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages and stretches all the way up from Coleridge through C. S. Lewis.”

Having sold more than 400 million copies since 1997, the Harry Potter novels have become a modern-day shared text in an age when other texts are shared less and less. Granger recalls a 1979 Q&A with Allan Bloom, PhB’49, AM’53, PhD’55, in the common room at Hitchcock Hall, Granger’s freshman dorm. Bloom’s Socratic dialogue with Granger and his dormmates quickly became a lesson in their ignorance. One of the most devastating revelations, Granger says, was their lack of a common literature. In a Touchstone magazine essay describing the experience, he writes, “Nothing of greater depth than Dr. Seuss had been read by more than six of us.” Bloom’s talk shook him deeply. Granger spent the next four years absorbing the Common Core’s “firehose” of Great Books and emerged from the College with a degree in classics. 

Now he believes Harry Potter might belong among those Great Books, though he’s not sure Bloom would agree (“He had a face for things not worthy of adult attention, and I think he’d make that face”). Yet consider, Granger says, that Harry Potter has influenced a generation’s literary tastes. “It’s shaping how people understand the entire Western canon,” he argues. “That may sound like a huge reach, but look: you can’t read late 18th-century novels now, which preceded Jane Austen, except through the prism of Jane Austen. Same with Dickens—you can’t understand the novel before Dickens except through Dickens.”

Granger lectures on Harry Potter at conventions, bookstores, and universities across the country—last October he gave a talk at Hitchcock Hall, whose pointed arches and clinging ivy still dominate his mental picture of Hogwarts—and he blogs “thoughts for the serious reader” at hogwartsprofessor.com. An Orthodox Christian and home-schooling dad (Granger’s wife, a medicinal cook, is the family breadwinner), he was at first skeptical of Rowling. But when he finally sat down with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone after his daughter received it as a gift, he stayed up reading through the night.

In 2002 Granger debuted his Harry Potter scholarship with The Hidden Key to Harry Potter (Zossima Press). The book lays out the case for Rowling’s Christian symbolism, an argument that Harry Potter’s Bookshelf reprises. Granger mostly avoided the religious tumult over the novels, partly “because I come at it not from my interpretation of Leviticus, but my interpretation of English literature. Conservative Christians back off when they realize that English literature is Christian. I mean, how do you talk about Chaucer and Shakespeare without Christianity?”

Granger has never heard from Rowling, and he doesn’t expect to, but he often gets e-mails from readers wanting to know what other books they should pick up to better understand Harry Potter. “I give a different answer every time,” Granger says. “Dracula’s a good one. Or A Tale of Two Cities. And of course, Gulliver’s Travels.” One shared text leads to another. Bloom might be pleased.

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