The Ancient Wisdom of Harry Potter

Prof. Abditus Questor

Book 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

PLOT SUMMARY: After his usual miserable summer with his Muggle relatives on Privet Drive, Harry returns to Hogwarts. New characters and new challenges for Harry enter the story. Dobby is a house-elf admirer of Harry's who tries to save him from harm and in the process nearly kills him. Gilderoy Lockart is the new but fraudulent teacher for Defense against the Dark Arts. Tom Riddle is Voldemort at the age of 16, whose spirit emerges from his diary and possesses Ginny, Ron Weasley's sister. Through her, Riddle brings out of the Chamber of Secrets, deep under Hogwarts, a basilisk serpent monster whose direct sight kills and whose reflection petrifies. Harry rescues Ginny and slays the basilisk.

Early in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, a message has been daubed on a wall: THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS HAS BEEN OPENED. ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE. The “heir” is a descendant of Salazar Slytherin, one of the founding Wizards of Hogwarts, the only one who believed that none but pure-blood Wizards should be admitted as students. To enforce that belief, he created deep underground a secret chamber that only his true heir, a descendant who shared his belief, could open. In that secret chamber was concealed a deadly basilisk. The identity of the heir is a mystery through most of the story, Harry himself being suspected for a time. But the heir turns out to be Voldemort, whose real name, when he was a student at Hogwarts, was Tom Marvolo (from his mother's family, descended from Slytherin) Riddle (from his muggle father).

Harry’s quest in the second book is to identify Salazar Slytherin’s heir, to find the Chamber of Secrets, and to kill the killer Basilisk. Symbolically speaking, Slytherin’s heir is the Shadow of Carl Jung or the Dweller on the Threshold of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It is that aspect of ourselves, of our own past, that we must overcome when we enter upon the Path. The deep underground Chamber of Secrets is that part of our psyche which houses our repressed urges, our dark archetypes, the skandhas (or aggregates of our bodily and psychological states) that drag us down and back. And the basilisk that kills and petrifies is the negative energy opposing the upward thrust of life and evolution; it is the separate and separative mind, the great slayer of the Real. Everything represented by those three—the heir, the chamber, and the basilisk—must be transformed if we are to continue on the Path of Self-discovery, the Path of Evolution.

Transformation is therefore the theme of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and appears in many ways throughout the story. At the beginning of Harry’s second year of school, he and his friend Ron miss the train to Hogwarts, and so travel there instead in a Muggle car, a Ford Anglia, that has been enchanted by Ron’s father so that it can fly. The car has been transformed by magic. Thus Harry’s new school year begins with the aid of a transformation.

The house-elf Dobby serves the cruel and wicked Lucius Malfoy. House-elves are perpetually indentured servants, whose only reason for existing is to serve their masters. They wear pillowcases and can be freed only if the master gives the house-elf an article of clothing. Dobby is devoted to Harry because the infant Harry’s defeat of the wicked Wizard Voldemort made life better for all innocent creatures in the world. Harry finally manages to free Dobby by handing to Lucius Malfoy an object belonging to him but stuffed into an old dirty sock. Malfoy tosses the sock away scornfully, and Dobby catches it, being thereby transformed from a slave to a free elf.

Before the identify of the heir of Slytherin has become known, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione form a plan to test their theory that the heir is Draco Malfoy, the son of Lucius. The plan devised by Hermione is to concoct a Polyjuice Potion, which will transform whoever drinks it into the appearance of a different person. Harry and Ron are to transform into two of Draco’s henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle, and in that way discover whether Draco is Slytherin’s heir. They do, but he is not the heir. Poor Hermione, however, makes a mistake in one ingredient of her own potion and so is transformed into a mixed shape of a human girl and a cat. She has to be untransformed in the school’s infirmary.

The heir of Slytherin is discovered to be Tom Marvolo Riddle, who was a student at Hogwarts fifty years earlier and who grew up to be Lord Voldemort. The sixteen letters of the name “Tom Marvolo Riddle” are reordered into the anagram “I am Lord Voldemort.” Thus the two names are transformations of each other. And more significantly, the school boy Tom Riddle is transformed into the archevil wizard Voldemort, who (we learn later) deliberately hid a fragment of his soul in the diary he wrote when at Hogwarts himself. And that fragment can possess others, like Ginny Weasley, or even manifest itself objectively.

The basilisk hidden in the Chamber of Secrets is also a symbol of negative transformation. The basilisk kills or petrifies—that is, transforms—its victim into a lifeless state. On the other hand, Harry, in his battle against the basilisk is assisted by a phoenix. And the phoenix is a symbol of positive transformation. The phoenix is a bird that lives a very long life, but when its end approaches, the phoenix does not die. Rather it burst spontaneously into flame, which consumes it. From its ashes, however, arises a new baby phoenix—the old bird reborn. The phoenix is thus a symbol of death and resurrection, of regeneration, or of transformation to a new life.

The climactic transformation in the book, however, is one that actually occurred long before its story began, indeed even before the first book. The specter of Tom Riddle speaks with Harry and comments: “there are strange likenesses between us, Harry Potter. . . . Both half-bloods [of mixed wizard and muggle ancestry], orphans, raised by Muggles. Probably the only two Parselmouths [wizards who can talk with serpents] to come to Hogwarts since the great Slytherin himself. We even look something alike.”

The two boys share the rare ability to talk with serpents because of an early exchange between Voldemort (Tom Riddle grown up) and Harry. When Voldemort tried to kill the infant Harry, he failed because of the shield of love with which Harry’s mother had surrounded her son. Instead Voldemort’s magic curse was reflected back on himself, destroying his body and limiting his powers. In the process, however, a fragment of Voldemort’s soul passed over into Harry’s infant body (as we later learn), transforming some of the evil wizard's powers to Harry. In one sense, Harry became a transformation of Voldemort. This is a profound truth of the Ancient Wisdom: nothing is purely good or evil in itself. Everything in nature is a mixture, and what is important is how we choose from that mixture when we act.

The prominence of transformation in Chamber of Secrets is relevant to the theory of fantastic literature set forth by J. R. R. Tolkien in a lecture he delivered in 1938 at St. Andrews University in Scotland and later published as “On Fairy Stories.” In that work, Tolkien points out that fairy stories are not about fairies, but rather about a human hero on a quest in the land of Faërie, an enchanted and dangerous place—beautiful but not friendly to mortals. In this lecture, Tolkien also points to four uses or values of fairy stories (his term for fiction like the Harry Potter books). Those uses are escape, recovery, consolation, and fantasy.

Escape, Tolkien’s first value, is often thought to be wrong or cowardly, and escapist literature is suspected of being psychologically damaging. But that judgment does not accord with the reality everyone experiences. As Tolkien points out, there is no point in telling a prisoner it is wrong to want to escape. In a sense, we are all prisoners in this world. Many religious writings, both Western and Eastern, depict our life on Earth as a kind of imprisonment that calls for “salvation” or “liberation.” The Buddha’s three marks of existence are that life is suffering (duhkha), that we have no unchanging personal self (anatman), and that everything in life is constantly changing (anitya), that is, transforming.

Harry experiences the first of the Buddha's marks, that life involves pain or frustration (duhkha), all through the story, beginning with his misery during his summer vacation with his Muggle relatives. There he was mistreated and isolated in every way by the Dursleys and even unintentionally by the house-elf Dobby, who intercepted Harry's mail from his school friends (for what he thought was Harry’s own good). Dobby’s further efforts to protect Harry get him in trouble with his relatives, with the Wizard government, with the school authorities, and finally cause him to be battered by a rogue bludger during a Quidditch game and to have the bones of his arm shattered. Harry is also battered by the Whomping Willow tree when the enchanted car in which he and Ron fly to Hogwarts crashes into it. Harry misses the delights of a Halloween party at Hogwarts and has to endure instead the tedium of a Deathday party for the ghost of Nearly Headless Nick. He is the victim of foul play and dirty tricks at a dueling club meeting. He has to endure the suspicion and dislike of most of his fellow students at Hogwarts, who believe that he is the heir of Slytherin. He is captured by Aragog, a giant spider, who wants to feed Harry to his brood of spider children. He has to battle the basilisk without looking at it, because its look is death. And he has to overcome Tom Riddle, the deadly spirit of Voldemort as a boy, by destroying the fragment of Voldemort's soul hidden in Riddle's diary. Those are only some of the frustrations and pains that Harry undergoes as essential elements in the plot of life.

Harry learns about the second of the Buddha’s marks of existence—that there is no stable “I” inside us (anatman)—particularly in his dealings with Tom Marvolo Riddle, because Harry has part of Voldemort's (Tom Riddle's) soul in him. That theme continues in the fourth book of the series, in which Voldemort absorbs some of Harry's blood, allowing the evil Wizard to achieve embodiment again. Also, when Harry first came to Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat (which assigns new students to their houses) wanted to put Harry into Slytherin House—which was the house of Tom Riddle or Voldemort. As a result, Harry does not know who or what he is. At the center of his being, where the sense of “I” should reside, there is a question mark. Harry is on a quest for self-discovery, and what he must ultimately discover is that there is no separate self to discover. There is only One Self in all of us, whether we are Harry Potter or the riddling Voldemort. But that is a discovery, not of one life, but of eternity.

Harry realizes the third of the Buddha’s marks of existence—that everything is ever changing (anitya)—throughout this book. As already pointed out, transformation is its central theme, and Harry and Tom Riddle are transformationally related. “Tom Riddle” is appropriate as Voldemort’s real name. For he, as well as his name, is a riddle—like evil itself. Some evil appears to be consciously and deliberately so, but how deliberate evil can exist is a riddle—the riddle of evil. This riddle has obsessed human beings from ancient times. It is the subject of the biblical Book of Job, of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and of C. S. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain. The riddle, briefly, is how evil can exist in a world created by a good God or according to a divine Plan. The riddle of evil seems to be a major theme of the whole Harry Potter series. In addition, the name “Tom” is short for “Thomas,” and the name “Thomas” means “a twin.” Tom Riddle or Voldemort and Harry Potter are twins, as Tom’s comment about their likeness suggests. They are twins as transformations of each other, the one evil and the other good. In that, they are parallel to the basilisk and the phoenix, another pair of twins, also representing the transformations of death and life, involution and evolution.

The conditions of frustration, nonentity, and perpetual change are ones we would gladly escape from. The Vedantic sage Shankaracharya, in contrast with the Buddha, declared that ultimate Reality behind the surface of this life is bliss, unchanging being, and awareness—and those are the conditions we would like to escape to. We can transform frustration into bliss, nonentity into being, and change into awareness. We do so by recovering something we have lost, or (as Plato said) remembering something we have forgotten.

Recovery, Tolkien’s second value, is the rediscovery or remembrance of a childlike response to what is new, in contrast to the conditioning that most of us rely on in responding to our experiences. When we were very young, we responded to every new experience freshly, for we had nothing in this life to compare our experiences with. As we grew older, however, we stopped responding in new ways to new experiences; instead we began to respond out of habit or conditioning. Instead of appreciating the new, we began to associate it with the old, and to respond not to actual experiences but to our memories of past similar experiences. Fairy stories, said Tolkien, help us to recover the freshness of the child’s response to what is new. When Christ said that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven except as a little child, he may well have meant that we must recover the childlike ability to see things freshly. The Gita has a mantra, Om Tat Sat, which the linguist Tom McArthur has translated as “Well, that’s the way it is!” We have to recover the ability to respond to new things newly, to recognize “that’s the way it is.”

Consolation, Tolkien’s third value, refers on a purely literary level to the fact that all true fairy stories end with the line “and they all lived happily ever after.” On a more general level it refers to the fact that there are two basic views of life. One is that life is a mistake that is going to end badly, and the most we can do is to meet the bad end with bravery and dignity. That is the tragic view of life. The other view is that life has an order and a purpose, and is going to end well, provided we go with the current and cooperate with the flow. That is the fairy-story view of life. Every tragedy has a catastrophe (literally, a turning back) when the hero is transformed from victor to victim. Every fairy story, Tolkien said, has a eucatastrophe (literally, a good turning point) when the hero is transformed from victim to victor.

Fantasy, Tolkien’s fourth value, is the ability we all have to create something we have never seen or heard or experienced before. No one has ever actually seen unicorns, but fantasy has used old experiences to create them as something new. It is now hard to imagine a world in which unicorns do not exist as possible creatures, whether or not they exist in the primary world of our experience. Tolkien calls creations like unicorns, his own Middle-earth, and thus also J. K. Rowling’s Wizardly world of Hogwarts a “secondary world,” which elicits “secondary belief,” as opposed to the primary world, in which we have primary belief.

We have an ability to fantasize, to make something new, because, in Tolkien’s Christian terms, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Because God is a creator, so also must we, who are made in his image, be creators. In Theosophical terms, all human beings are Dhyan Chohans in training. Dhyan Chohans are the creative intelligences of the universe, who are builders of the cosmos. When we progress in our evolution to become full-fledged Dhyan Chohans, we too will create new primary worlds, but in the meanwhile we can use our faculty of fantasy to create secondary worlds. And thus fantasy is our means to learn the job we are training ultimately to perform in actuality. Making secondary worlds is a way to learn how to create primary worlds.


Tolkien’s four values of fairy stories can be seen as parallel to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. (1) The Buddha says that life is frustrating or painful. And so, says Tolkien, we want to escape. (2) The Buddha says that frustration and pain have a cause. And Tolkien says that its cause is our conditioning, which we need to transform into a recovery of a sense of the new. (3) The Buddha says that frustration and pain have an end. And Tolkien says that the end of life is a eucatastrophe and the consolation of a happy ending. (4) Finally, the Buddha says that there is a way to achieve the end of frustration and pain. And Tolkien says that we have the ability of fantasy to allow all of us to be creators of our own fairy story. The English playwright J. B. Priestly agreed in saying that we each live a fairy story of our own creation.

Not all of us can write such rich and skillful fairy stories as the Harry Potter books or The Lord of the Rings. But we can all read such stories. And to read a story is to compose it, that is, to put it together (which is what “compose” means etymologically). Any story is really as many different stories as it has readers, for each reader brings a different background and different expectations to the reading of the given story, thus making it a different tale for each. And that fact too is a symbol of how the underlying unity of the cosmos becomes the multiplicity of the manifested universe.

The one Self of the universe—the Logos, Ishvara, God, whatever we call it—has written a fairy story, a fantasy, which is the universe. And that one Self reads the story through our eyes, for we are the one Self, acting out various roles in the story by and about the Self. For each of us the story is different. Yet for each of us the story is the same. Like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, our story is a tale of transformation. We are the one Self who has been transformed into the many, and the many who are in the process of transforming themselves back into the One. And that is the ultimate Secret in the Chamber of our hearts.

[Auctorial note by A.Q.: Parts of this analysis were used, with permission, by a student of mine, who took them from an earlier manuscript of the analysis for an article of his in Theosophy in Australia 69.1 (March 2005): 9–12. He and I have been thus engaging in mutual transformation.]

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