Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

The Ancient Wisdom of Harry Potter

Prof. Abditus Questor

 

Book 1: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

PLOT SUMMARY: Harry Potter, the orphaned son of wizards, is left as an infant with muggle relatives who are not wizards and are afraid of wizardry. At the age of eleven, he is called to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, where his best friends are Ron and Hermione, he becomes a star player in Quidditch, a game something like basketball, but played in the air on flying brooms. He learns that his parents were killed by an evil wizard called Voldemort, whose spirit has possessed a Hogwarts teacher and seeks to find a hidden Philosopher's Stone, which can prolong Voldemort's life. Harry foils that effort to gain the stone and so ends his first school year.

Book 1 is a lead-in to the whole Harry Potter cycle.

 

It introduces the main characters, especially Harry Potter himself and his two closest friends: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The latter two are archetypal male and female, yang and yin. Ron is quiet and introverted; Hermione is talkative and outgoing. Ron is shy, with a feeling of inferiority as he is the youngest of six talented brothers; Hermione is confident and assertive, a distinguished achiever. Ron takes risks; Hermione is law-abiding. Ron is best at physical activities; Hermione is a bookworm. Ron is from an old wizard family; Hermione is from a muggle family. Two such opposites or complements are bound to interact, so it will be no surprise that Ron and Hermione end as a couple in the last book. With Harry as their link and reconciliation, they form a triangle of energies and personality types: physical Ron, intellectual Hermione, and willful Harry—reflecting the three primordial qualities of the cosmos: substance, consciousness, and energy.

The fairy-story theme of "there and back" has a notable, though not unusual, twist for Harry Potter. The hero's adventures regularly take him from home in the ordinary world to the Land of Faërie and return him at the end. For Harry, "home" is the muggle world of his Dursley relatives and Faërie land is the wonderful wizard school of Hogwarts. Harry naturally much prefers Hogwarts over the Dursley house at 4 Privet Drive (note the address: "4" is physicality, and "Privet" is a common hedge shrub with the Latin name Ligustrum vulgare). However, in fairy stories, home is often not a pleasant place: for Cinderella, it's the dirty fireplace; for Hansel and Gretel, it's the house of the cruel step-mother; for Dorothy Gale, it's flat and dry Kansas. For the personality, "home" is this world, with all its flaws, pains, and impermanence, whereas Faërie land is the eternal spiritual world of the Individuality. The personality leaves its physical home world to venture into wonderful higher realms, but then must return home again as a new personality to continue its evolution. As the saying goes: no pain, no gain.

Harry first discovers and enters into his Faërie land when he enters the wizard shopping street, Diagon Alley, with Hagrid as his guide. The name of that street is from a Greek word we have as diagonal, meaning "at a different angle." It is like the astral plane or another dimension or angle of reality. And it is where Harry gets what he needs to pass on to the greater inner world of Hogwarts School, which is like the higher mental plane of reality, from which we all return in time to physical reality after we have absorbed the lessons the higher plane has to teach us.

The whole cycle is about Harry's transformation from an ignorant Cinderlad into an adult who knows who he is and why he is here, in the "home" world of physical reality. Accordingly, transformation is a major theme of this first book, as indicated by its original title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Alchemists called themselves "philosophers," that is, lovers of wisdom. The philosopher's stone is what an alchemist tries to produce because it can transform ordinary metal into gold and mortality into immortality. Both of those effects are symbols of the inner aim of alchemy, which is to transform the alchemist from an ordinary, flawed human being into a Master of him- or herself, which is the aim of human evolution. The theme of alchemy echoes throughout the entire cycle of books in various ways.

Numbers are significant in the Harry Potter books. In addition to the three central characters, Harry has three guardians at Hogwarts: Albus Dumbledore, Rubeus Hagrid, and Minerva McGonagall. Albus means "white"; Rubeus means "red"; and McGonagall has black hair—red, white, and black being the colors of three stages in the alchemical process. Hogwarts School has four houses, which correlate with the four elements and four levels of human experience: Gryffindor is fire and will; Ravenclaw is air and thought; Slytherin is water and passion; and Hufflepuff is earth and physical action. The number seven (which is basic in the cosmos) is pervasive: Hogwarts School takes seven years; a Quidditch team has seven players; Voldemort (we learn later) divided his soul into seven fragments; Hogwarts castle has seven stories and seven secret passages; the philosopher's stone is guarded by seven magical protections; Harry was born in the seventh month; Ron Weasley is one of seven children; and so on.

Harry's early life was full of the unexplained and latent: "strange things often happened around Harry." When his muggle aunt Petunia close-cropped Harry's hair because she didn't like the cowlicks in it, the hair—cowlicks and all—grew back overnight. When she forced him to wear an old, ugly hand-me-down pullover, it shrank in size as she tried to put it on him, until she had to give it up as impossible. When he was being chased at school by a roughneck gang led by his porcine cousin Dudley, Harry found himself on the roof of the school kitchen without knowing how he'd gotten there. When Dudley punched Harry to the ground at a zoo so he could get close to the glass cage of a boa constrictor, the glass suddenly disappeared and the snake slithered away while Dudley fell inside the cage and the glass solidified again trapping him. Even before he is aware of his own latent powers, Harry experiences them in situations of stress. His education at Hogwarts leads him to investigate the unexplained and to activate his latent powers, that is, to engage in the quest of becoming transformed.

The ultimate quest in the Harry Potter books is that of self-discovery. In that respect, these books share a common theme with the great spiritual guidebooks of humanity. Enlightenment is the ability to answer correctly the question “Who am I?” A Zen student once came to the Zen master and asked what he must do to achieve enlightenment. The Zen master replied, “Who’s asking?” The student who can answer that question correctly is enlightened. The question "Who am I?" is the subject of spiritual treatises in all the great traditions.

Harry is on a quest to discover who he is—in the simplest, most literal sense of learning about his parents and his inheritance from them—but also in the deeper sense of discovering his own inner nature and his mission in life. That deeper quest is mirrored in a different quest theme in each book of the series. In the first book, it is to find the philosopher’s stone that has been hidden in the deep caverns under Hogwarts School before Voldemort can use it to preserve his evil life. This stone was made by a real French alchemist named Nicolas Flamel and entrusted to Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, for safekeeping to prevent its falling into Voldemort's hands.

Harry discovers Voldemort’s plan to get the Philosopher’s Stone and determines to find the Stone before it gets into the hands of Voldemort or Prof. Snape (who Harry mistakenly thinks is the wicked wizard's accomplice), even though Harry is under threat of expulsion because of his earlier violation of Hogwarts rules. When he tells his friends, Ron and Hermione, of his decision, they first try to talk him out of it:

"[Harry:] 'I'm going out of here tonight and I'm going to try and get to the Stone first.' 'You're mad!' said Ron. 'You can't!' said Hermione. 'After what McGonagall and Snape have said? You'll be expelled!' 'SO WHAT?' Harry shouted. 'Don't you understand? If Snape gets hold of the Stone, Voldemort's coming back! Haven't you heard what it was like when he was trying to take over? There won't be any Hogwarts to get expelled from! He'll flatten it, or turn it into a school for the Dark Arts! . . . I'm going through that trapdoor tonight and nothing you two say is going to stop me!'"

Harry is being a Bodhisattva, willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the whole. Or, as Christ says in John 15.13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Ron and Hermione then insist on accompanying him on the quest, which takes him and his two friends into the underground cellars of Hogwarts School, where the stone has been hidden. Their journey into those depths mirrors the ancient theme of a descent into the underworld, which is the unconscious part of our psyche, where we discover hidden truths about ourselves. Harry’s underground exploration has seven stages (reduced to five in the movie, though seven is the correct mystical number):

1. Harry and his friends must pass a three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor entrance to the cellars. The dog, though called “Fluffy” in the story, is Cerberus, the watchdog of the underworld or Hades in Greek mythology. The dog can be put to sleep with music played by Harry and Hermione on a flute that Harry was given as a present. Similarly, Orpheus gained entry to Hades to rescue his dead wife by playing on a lyre. The flute that Harry and Hermione play is like that in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which the hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina, play during their co-initiation at the end of the opera.

2. When the companions have tumbled through the trapdoor (like Alice down the rabbit hole), their fall is cushioned by their landing on a lushly growing plant, called the Devil’s Snare. The tendrils of this plant entrap anything that touches it and grow tighter as its victim struggles to escape. Hermione, however, remembers from her ceaseless study that the plant retreats from light, so she uses a magic spell to produce a bright illumination from her wand. The Devil’s Snare suggests that what is soft and easy is sometimes a trap but that evil and oppression can be overcome by the Light of Knowledge.

3. Next the companions come to a chamber at whose far end is a door that can be unlocked only by one particular key out of a flock of winged keys flying wildly around the room. Harry, who (as a Seeker, a star player in Quidditch) is an expert at catching things while flying on a broom, finds it. The symbolism is obvious: we need the key of knowledge to open the door to inner reality, but that key is illusive and can be captured only by one who has trained to accomplish the task.

4. In the chamber beyond the door, the companions find a giant chessboard on which they must become pieces in a game of wizard chess, in which captured pieces are smashed to bits by the capturing piece. Ron, who is the chess master of the group, directs their moves and finally sacrifices himself so that Harry can checkmate the opposing king. The chess game echoes that in Alice through the Looking Glass and is a common metaphor for the game of life, as in Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: "’Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days / While Distiny with Men for Pieces plays: / Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays, / And one by one back in the Closet lays." Ron's heroic self-sacrifice for the welfare of others puts him also into the class of future bodhisattvas, who sacrifice their own welfare for the good of all.

5. Leaving unconscious Ron behind, as he directed them to do, in the next chamber Harry and Hermione find a huge and hideous troll that must be overcome. However, the troll has already been vanquished--in fact by the three companions, who had knocked it unconscious in an earlier encounter above ground when it had invaded the school halls. Overcoming the monster is gaining control of our own shadow or Dweller on the Threshold, the embodiment of our faults, sins, and bestial nature. Once that control has been established, however, the shadowy troll is no longer a challenge, but can be dealt with as necessary.

6. In the penultimate chamber, Harry and Hermione are trapped between walls of fire that can be passed only by solving a riddle. Hermione, the brainy one of the threesome, solves it. Harry sends her back to tend to Ron as he goes on alone. The fires of passion can be quenched only by knowing the answer to the riddle of life. That knowledge is gained by the truly intelligent and is, in fact, what intelligence means. We must use our intelligence to pass to the inmost chamber of our quest, and that final passage must be made by each person alone, for the final initiation in the quest is a solitary one, experienced without any aid except that which each of us has within ourselves. As the third of the Three Truths of the White Lotus tells us: "We are each our own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to ourselves; the decreer of our life, our reward, our punishment."

7. In the final chamber, Harry finds both Voldemort, who has corrupted one of the teachers at Hogwarts and occupied his body, and also the Mirror of Erised, which must be used to find the Stone. The Mirror of Erised shows those who look into it, not a reflection of reality, but rather an image of what they most desire. It is the great illusion, and one must know its secret not to be trapped by it. To find the Philosopher’s Stone in the Mirror, one must want to find it, but only for the benefit of others, not to use it for oneself. Harry finds the Stone, not to use it for himself, but to save it from evil use by Voldemort. Through Harry’s act of selfless courage, the Philosopher’s Stone, like Tolkien’s One Ring, is destroyed so that it can never fall into Voldemort’s hands. True wealth and true immortality are achieved only by those who are motivated by selfless desire. And that is the great secret of the quest.

In the course of discovering that secret, Harry learns a good many other lessons of the Ancient Wisdom, as do the readers with him. Although this is fantastic fiction, its messages are realistic fact. We can identify seven lessons, three of which are preliminary:

(1) There is another level of truth than everyday muggle reality. We are all orphans in this world and Harry Potters in the School of Wisdom, learning the truths of that inner level. (2) Master teachers, like Dumbledore, are available in the school of life to guide us in our learning. (3) From those teachers, we learn to face Truth, but not foolishly: Harry asks Dumbledore: "'Sir, there are some other things I'd like to know, if you can tell me . . . things I want to know the truth about . . . .' 'The truth.' Dumbledore sighed. 'It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.'" When he starts to ask about Voldemort, Harry calls him by the euphemism "You-Know-Who," which most people use for him, because they are afraid even to name the great evil wizard, but Dumbledore corrects him: "Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."

Following those three preliminary lessons are four other lessons taught in the spiritual guidebook At the Feet of the Master:

1. Discrimination. We must choose our own way on the Path of life: In the next book, Dumbledore tells Harry: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." The Mahatma Letters tell us: "We have one word for all aspirants: TRY." Moreover, as mentioned above, the third Truth of the White Lotus tells us that we are responsible for making the right choices ourselves. This lesson is therefore that of trying to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between the less good and the better, between the transitory and the eternal. In a recorded interview (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20001720/ns/dateline_nbc-harry_potter//), J. K. Rowling said, "what I wanted to write about most [was] choice." And she points to the fact that in the last book even Voldemort has a choice, though he does not take it: "I think that's always worth examining why people choose to make those decisions." The Ancient Wisdom tells us that we can choose, and we must do so with discrimination.

2. Desirelessness. Another lesson is that the world is mayavic or illusory, and therefore we must pass through it free from selfish desire. The Mirror of Erised is a symbol of the mayavic desire of the astral plane. The word "Erised" is "Desire" spelled backwards, hence wrong desire. The Mirror has an inscription carved around its top: "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi," which is a backward spelling for "I show not your face but your heart's desire." Those who look into this Mirror do not see themselves as they are, but rather the illusion of what they want to be and do and have. Dumbledore explains the Mirror: "The happiest man on earth would be able to use the mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. . . . It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. . . . However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible." The Mirror is a symbol of Maya, the Great Illusion, the desire-governed and -motivated world. Desirelessness is freedom from personal desire or, as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, acting without desire for the fruit of the action.

3. Points of Conduct. Another lesson is that we must live our lives according to right principles, rather than arbitrary rules. Harry often violates school rules, but never moral principles. The third qualification in At the Feet of the Master is "Six Points of Conduct": Self-control as to the mind, Self-control in action, Tolerance, Cheerfulness, One-pointedness, and Confidence—especially confidence in the Plan, which is what those who know, know.

Those who know, know that death is part of the Plan. Death is also prominent in all the Harry Potter books. In this first book, just before the start of Harry's story, his parents, James and Lily Potter, are killed by Voldemort (who is trying to escape death). And at the end of the book Harry worries about the effect of the loss of the Philosopher's Stone on Nicolas Flamel and his wife, Perenell, the good philosopher-alchemists who achieved it and who must die without it. But Dumbledore explains: "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was not really such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them." In the same interview mentioned above, Rowling said that death is "a central, if not the central, theme of the seven books" and that "all of my characters are defined by their attitude to death and the possibility of death."

Death is the central theme also in many of the mystic traditions, in Freemasonry, and in the Ancient Wisdom. Why is that so? We could give a simplistic answer by saying that we fear death and therefore worry and fret about it. But that ignores both Dumbledore's insightful comment that death is "the next great adventure" as well as what we will learn in the last Harry Potter book. Death is not just an end of the physical body; it is the end of any state and the beginning of a new one. Death and birth are the same event seen from two different viewpoints: the termination of one state and the inauguration of a different one. We are dying and being reborn every moment of our existence. That is, death-and-birth is a transformational passage between two states; and, as transformation is a major theme of the Harry Potter books, death has to be central to them.

4. Love. Harry was saved from the assaults of evil, both in his infancy and on his quest, by the great love his mother had for him. Dumbledore tells Harry: "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 for ever. . . . Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."

These are the lessons that Harry Potter learns in his first year at Hogwarts, which is the first stage of his education in life: to discriminate in making his choices; to do the right thing without personal desire; to be guided by intelligent principles in life, rather than arbitrary rules; and to have confidence in what Dante in The Divine Comedy called "The Love that moves the sun and the other stars." They are Discrimination, Desirelessness, Good Conduct, and Love. Those are not bad lessons for any of us to learn at the beginning, or at any time, of life.

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