Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye
The Ancient Wisdom of Harry Potter
- Published: 15 December 2009
Prof. Abditus Questor
Introduction: Harry Potter and the Ancient Wisdom
The Ancient Wisdom is a way of looking at ourselves and our place in the universe that is probably as old as the human species. It is the inner side, the heart, of all the great religions, as well as of simpler forms of spiritual belief held by people around the world. It is likely inherent in us through our shared collective unconscious, perhaps implanted in our nascent human minds by those spiritual forebears of ours whom H.P.B. calls the Lords of the Flame.
The Ancient Wisdom has been communicated in many ways. It is sometimes set forth more or less straightforwardly, as in the philosophical discussions of the Hindu Upanishads or in Madam Blavatsky’s master work, The Secret Doctrine. But more often it is expressed by symbols and allegory, as in the Bhagavad-Gita or in works like The Legend of Bagger Vance (novel written by Steven Pressfield and movie directed by Robert Redford) or in the rituals of Freemasonry. The Ancient Wisdom can arise in any of us by dreams, reveries, or meditations, welling up spontaneously from the archetypes of the collective unconscious—as the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung posited. The Ancient Wisdom is also found in myths from cultures around the globe, as well as in those humble cousins of myth, folk tales or fairy stories, all springing from the collective unconscious.
Today, the most popular and effective conveyance of the Ancient Wisdom may well be through a conscious literary development of the fairy stories of the folk, namely archetypal fantasy. Let’s consider what is meant by “fairy story” and “fantasy.”
The most insightful modern authority on the subject was J. R. R. Tolkien, who himself wrote what was certainly the greatest fairy story of the last century in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien pointed out that fairy stories are not about fairies and often have no such beings in them. Instead, they are about a human hero, who travels away from home to another place, which is enchanted, beautiful, and dangerous. It is the Land of Faërie (an archaic spelling for this “other” world). After many adventures in that other world, the hero returns again home. Tolkien’s first such published work was The Hobbit, which had the subtitle There and Back Again, summarizing the plot movement of the genre. Fairy stories have many variations, but often the hero is an orphan and may have to contend with ill-willed step-relatives: think of Cinderella, whose faërie land is the Prince’s ball, or of Hansel and Gretel, whose faërie land is the witch’s candy house in the forest. Why are many heroes of fairy stories orphans? The Ancient Wisdom has an answer to that question. In Mahatma Letter no. 15, the Master K.H. wrote to Alfred P. Sinnett as follows: “For it is ‘Humanity’ which is the great Orphan, the only disinherited one upon this earth, my friend. . . . Poor, poor humanity!” Why is humanity orphaned? Madam Blavatsky answers that question in The Key to Theosophy (181-2): “Our God within us, or ‘our Father in Secret’ is what we call the ‘HIGHER SELF,’ Atma. . . . But since its ‘fall into Matter,’ . . . it is no longer a free and happy god, but a poor pilgrim on his way to regain that which he has lost.” Human beings in their incarnated personalities are poor orphaned pilgrims who have lost contact with their “Father in Secret,” their higher self. The English playwright, J. B. Priestley, in his drama I Have Been Here Before, has a character say: “We each live a fairy tale created by ourselves.” Each of us is the orphan hero of the fairy tale we create.
Fairy stories were typically oral with no fixed text and are passed on from one generation to the next as popular folk entertainment. Fantasies are much like fairy stories, but they are fixed literary texts, with a known author, and usually longer and more sophisticated than the folk variety. Old examples of the fantasy genre include The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius (2nd century). More recent and well-known examples are the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, the Oz books of L. Frank Baum, the Middle-earth books of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Mary Poppins books of Pamela Travers, the Earthsea books of Ursula Le Guin, and especially the Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling. In all of these stories, the heroes leave the known world of “home” to experience an enchanted, dangerous “other” world, but finally return again. Notably, Dorothy, Frodo, Ged, and Harry, the heroes of four of those stories, are all orphans.
In whatever forms and at whatever times the Ancient Wisdom may be expressed, it consists of three basic ideas: unity, order, and purpose. Those basic ideas imply many other concepts, but all of those others are rooted in the basic three. So let us briefly consider this triple groundwork of the Ancient Wisdom.
The basic idea of an underlying unity is set forth by Madam Blavatsky in the first of her three fundamental propositions (Secret Doctrine 1:14-20): “there is one absolute Reality which antecedes all manifested, conditioned, being. This Infinite and Eternal Cause . . . is the rootless root of ‘all that was, is, or ever shall be.’ . . . It is ‘Be-ness’ rather than Being . . . and is beyond all thought or speculation.” In manifestation, the unity appears as a trinity of consciousness, substance, and energy. This underlying unity is expressed also in the second of Mabel Collins’s Three Truths of the White Lotus: “The principle that gives life dwells in us and around us, is undying and eternally beneficent, is not heard, or seen, or smelt, but is perceived by those who desire perception.” We cannot understand the unity, but we can experience it in ourselves. This is the concept of enlightenment.
The basic idea of all-pervasive order is set forth in the second of the fundamental propositions: “the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature. . . . in it we see one of the absolutely fundamental laws of the universe.” Order is discovered by observing patterned repetition or regular recurrences of opposites; duality characterizes the relative world in which we live. This pervasive order is referred to in the third of the Truths of the White Lotus: “We are each our own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to ourselves; the decreer of our life, our reward, our punishment.” We choose the periodical patterns that we follow; so the law is absolute, but we are responsible for how we enter into it. This is the concept of karma.
The basic idea of intelligible purpose is set forth in the third of the fundamental propositions: “The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul . . . itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul . . . through the Cycle of Incarnation . . . in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law.” Our lives have a purpose, namely to follow the pervasive order of the universe back to our origin in the absolute unity. This intelligible purpose is the subject of the third of the Truths of the White Lotus: “The human soul is immortal, and its future is the future of a thing whose growth and splendor has no limit.” We are not limited to one lifetime but pass through many lives on our way to a glorious goal. These are the concepts of reincarnation and spiritual evolution.
These basic ideas of the Ancient Wisdom and their many derivative concepts are expressed variously in a multitude of forms and channels. Here we are concerned with how they are expressed in one particular source: the seven Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling. So let us turn to those.
The Harry Potter books are the best known and most widely read fantasy series of our time. These books (and the movies based on them) appeal to readers (and viewers) of all ages. To be sure, every reader or viewer will find something different in these stories. That is true of all literature, and the greater the literature is, the vaster will be the range of possible interpretations. Interpretations depend on the background and breadth of interest of the interpreter. Most fans of the Alice in Wonderland books see them as delightfully amusing nonsense; but their author was an Oxford don of mathematics and logic, so he filled the stories with highly sophisticated, albeit playful, intellectual ideas. His name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but signed his fantasy works as Lewis Carroll, an inverted transmogrification of his two given names.
Just as the Alice books can be viewed as either amusing nonsense or sophisticated games with language, so the Harry Potter books can be, and have been, viewed in many ways. For most readers, they are probably just engaging stories. And well-written stories they are—full of suspense, foreshadowing, comedy of human behavior, sympathetic characters, dreadful villains, and so on. But they have been viewed seriously in many other ways as well. Early on, some fundamentalists objected to the books as demoniacal, presenting magic and witchcraft favorably and trashing family values. However, other religious commentators viewed the books as Christian allegory. Some interpreters have focused on the science implicit in the magic of the books, or their philosophical implications, or their language as a source for vocabulary building, or their place in the history of mythology, or the ethics implicit in the moral choices their characters make, or the psychological implications to be drawn from the stories, or the corporate leadership guidance they contain, etc. etc. etc. To paraphrase the words of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many interpretations of a book there is no end.”
So far, however, interpretations of the Harry Potter books in the light of the Ancient Wisdom have not been many. Yet the books, like most archetypal fantasy, can easily be read in such light. Does that mean the books’ author intended such an interpretation? No. An author’s intentions cannot be recovered, often not even by the author herself. A well-known story has it that someone once asked Robert Browning about the meaning of a particularly obscure line in one of his poems. The poet responded that when he wrote it only God and Robert Browning knew what it meant, but that now only God knows.
Authors may not be aware of the full meaning of what they write, even when they are writing it. That is especially true of archetypal fantasy. Archetypes are common property in the collective unconscious of all human beings. So an author may use archetypes in a piece of writing without being aware of the immensely rich range of meaning the archetypes carry. Thus an author’s writing may indeed mean more than the author knows. J. K. Rowling was well educated in mythology, folklore, and Classical literature (among much else), and those forms of literature are great repositories of archetypes. So here we will look at the implications for Ancient Wisdom of the archetypes Rowling used, without consideration of the extent to which she may have been aware of those implications when she wrote the books and incorporated those archetypes.
The Harry Potter books include a number of well-known literary themes, five of which can be viewed in the light of Ancient Wisdom: education, maturation, transformation, quest, and adventure in the Land of Faërie.
Education: In a superficial sense, the Harry Potter books can be seen as part of a tradition of books like Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), set at Rugby school in England. Harry gets his formal education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which in some ways is like Rugby. In both schools, sport is very important: at Rugby it is the form of football named after the school; at Hogwarts, it is Quidditch, a game something like basketball, but played in the air on broomsticks, with considerably more potential for violence than the American game. In a deeper sense, however, Rowling’s books are less about Harry’s schooling at Hogwarts than about his education in life generally. The word “education” comes from a Latin source meaning the “process of leading forth.” Harry is leading forth his inner nature into his outer conduct, and that process merges into the theme of maturation.
Maturation: To become mature is the purpose of education. Etymologically, maturation is the process of leaving a green or unripe state and “ripening,” that is, growing up. Throughout the books, Harry makes hard decisions, sometimes foolishly, but he bravely accepts the consequences of his actions, a requirement for maturity. Harry’s maturation reaches its climax at the end of the series, but it is a process that extends through all seven books. A novel whose theme is the moral, psychological, and spiritual growth of the main character is technically called a “bildungsroman,” a German term for a novel (Roman) about the character formation or growth (Bildung) of the protagonist.
Transformation: A radical change of form is implicit in maturation. One of the subjects studied at Hogwarts is Transformation, the magical changing of one form into another. But such magical change is just a symbol of the great transformation, which is of inner rather than of outer form. The whole series of seven books have been seen as echoing the theme of alchemical transformation. The alchemical allusions are strongest in the first book, whose original title was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemists called themselves “philosophers” because they were lovers of wisdom, and their goal was to produce the philosopher’s stone, a substance that transforms things. The stone was said to be capable of turning base metals into gold and of prolonging life indefinitely, changing mortality into immortality. Both of those capabilities are really symbols: gold is traditionally the best of metals, and immortality gets the better of death. So the philosopher’s stone is that which makes things better. The real object of alchemy was to transform the alchemist by making an ordinary human being into a Master of the Wisdom. That is the course of Harry Potter’s life in the seven books. Unfortunately, the American publishers seem to have thought “philosopher” sounded too dry and dusty, so in the title of the first book they substituted “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which hides the major theme of alchemical transformation.
Quest: Each of the Harry Potter books includes one or more specific quests, a search to find or an effort to achieve something. Overall, however, the whole cycle of stories has one major quest, namely for self-discovery. At the beginning of the first book, Harry knows nothing about himself, his background, his natural abilities, or his future potentials. By the end of the last book, Harry has come to know who he is, in every sense. Self-discovery is the theme of all the great spiritual books of the Ancient Wisdom. One of the Upanishads has a story about a boy who comes home from school puffed up with everything he has learned. His father asks whether he has learned that one thing, knowing which, it is not necessary to know anything else. The boy has no idea what his father is talking about. With a series of object lessons, the father tells the boy that the one thing necessary to know in life is that you are one with the ground of all being: in Sanskrit Tat tvam asi “You are That.” Knowing who we are is the most important knowledge in life. It is the knowledge Harry achieves by the end of the cycle.
Adventure in the Land of Faërie: All of Harry’s experience with the wizard-world is an adventure in the Faërie Land of wizardry, as opposed to his humdrum and even painful life with his non-wizard, muggle relatives. At the end of each book, Harry leaves that world to return “home” to the ordinary world, having gone “there and back.”
As noted above, the five basic ideas imply many other concepts, a few of which are noted here as they occur throughout the themes of the Harry Potter books:
Duality: One concept of the Ancient Wisdom is that the world is a stage on which polarities interact: spirit and matter, life and form, energy and mass, yin and yang, esoteric and exoteric, inner and outer, “flux and reflux, ebb and flow.” The Ancient Wisdom recognizes two sorts of people. At the Feet of the Master says, “In all the world there are only two kinds of people—those who know, and those who do not know; . . . the really important thing is this knowledge—the knowledge of God’s plan for humanity.”
The people in Harry’s two worlds are also of two sorts: muggles or ordinary, non-magical people, and wizards or special people who have the power of enchantment. Muggles are muddle-headed, unimaginative, and philistine, although technologically clever in order to compensate for their lack of magical powers. Wizards are creative, ostentatious (wearing unusual garments of odd colors), and original. The term “mug” in British use can denote a “fool” or “blockhead,” someone easily deceived, and “-le” is an ending for something that happens repeatedly, as in “haggle,” “jiggle,” “niggle,” and “fickle.” So “muggle” suggests someone who is easily fooled and constantly confused. “Wizard,” on the other hand is someone who is “wise,” clever, or skillful. What wizards know is not “God’s plan for humanity,” but rather how to do magic. But the existence of two kinds of people in Harry’s world is a lower echo of the higher archetype.
A different polarity is good versus evil. Their relationship is explained in The Secret Doctrine (1:413), where we read: “Indeed, evil is but an antagonizing blind force in nature; it is reaction, opposition, and contrast,—evil for some, good for others. There is no malum in se ["evil in itself"], only the shadow of light, without which light could have no existence, even in our perceptions. If evil disappeared, good would disappear along with it from Earth.” Or as Ursula LeGuin put it in another archetypal fantasy (A Wizard of Earthsea): “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” Good is that which is in harmony with the current of evolution; and evil is that which is inharmonious or out of place. Some muggles are good; others are evil; and it is the same with wizards. The two great embodiments of good and evil in the stories are wizards. And both are well-named.
Albus Dumbledore is the headmaster at Hogwarts and the greatest living Wizard. His first name, “Albus,” is the Latin word for “white”; he is a “white” or good magician. “Dumbledore” is an old word for a bumblebee; and bees produce honey and wax, which the eighteenth-century author Jonathan Swift took as symbols of sweetness and light, “the two noblest of things.” Moreover, the first part of the headmaster’s surname, Dumb, is the English word for “silent, unspeaking,” reminding us that true wisdom cannot be told but only experienced; the later meaning of dumb as “stupid” is ironically appropriate, as wisdom is often mistaken for stupidity (the Wise Fool) by those who do not know. In addition, Dumble rimes with humble; and the truly wise are always humble people, for they know how much is still unknown. The last part of the name, dore, sounds like door, and this wise headmaster is the door through which Harry will enter onto the Path of learning and serving.
On the other hand, the archetype of evil is Voldemort, Harry’s shadow and nemesis. Once himself a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort adopted that nom de mal when he launched upon his evil path. The name can be interpreted as French for “flight from death.” As we learn in the later books, Voldemort has lived a life of such selfishness and cruelty that he is utterly devoid of love and goodness. The Ancient Wisdom tells us that, when we die, only the good in us survives to become a permanent part of our higher self. Everything else simply dissipates and comes to naught except that the effects of all our action await our next incarnation. So, when Voldemort dies, nothing of his person will continue—and he realizes that, so he wants at all cost to avoid death. He is indeed on a flight from death, which will be the permanent end of his failed and thus lost personality, which is the only thing Voldemort is concerned about.
Magic: The existence of what ordinary people (muggles) call “magic” is another echo of the Ancient Wisdom. The third object of the Theosophical Society is “to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.” But unexplained natural laws and latent powers are exactly what magic is. So to that extent, wizards are actually practicing the Ancient Wisdom. And such practice is what Harry’s classes at Hogwarts teach him to do. One latent power is mind reading. Of his least favorite teacher at Hogwarts the first book reports that “Harry . . . sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds,” a foreshadowing of a later book in which Snape has the task of teaching Harry to prevent Voldemort from reading his mind.
Universal Life and Intelligence: Another example of the Ancient Wisdom in Harry Potter is that everything is alive and has intelligence of some sort. It is possible to communicate with animals: wizards do so with their messenger owls and with their pets (or familiars). Harry can talk with serpents, although that is a special ability not shared by all wizards, the explanation for which we learn in a later book. The world includes intelligent beings other than humans: Harry encounters goblins, centaurs, and dragons. The motto of Hogwarts School is Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus (”A sleeping dragon is by no means for tickling”; we all have sleeping dragons inside us, so it is best not to fool around with them before we know how to deal with them. Death is a great mystery, and Hogwarts is home to various ghosts, or earthbound spirits of formerly living persons. Even “inanimate” objects have a type of life and will in them; Harry is told by Mr. Ollivander, the wand maker, that the wand chooses the wizard, not the other way around, a fact that becomes key to Harry’s struggle with Voldemort in the last book.
The Harry Potter books contain many other implicit concepts of the Ancient Wisdom. We will encounter them as we follow our own quest for adventure in the Faërie Land of Harry Potter.
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