in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
by Connie Ann Kirk
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
There is a popular poster of Albert Einstein that appears on many faculty
office walls on college campuses around the country. Underneath the
well-known black and white image of the wild and white-haired physicist are
printed the words, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
The full quotation from Einstein actually reads: "I am enough of an
artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than
knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world" (qtd.
in Viereck). Though perhaps the poster may be found more often on the office
walls of faculty in arts and English departments than in the sciences,
certainly fellow physicists appreciate the quotation's logic--knowledge
cannot expand without the imagination required to develop and try out new
ideas for acquiring it.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone, a 1997 British novel which has indeed "encircle(d) the
world" making its hero likened to a fifth Beatle in popularity (Kirk
"Harry"), J. K. Rowling employs a highly cultivated imagination to
astound and delight millions of readers. Despites Rowling's assertions that
she does not believe in that kind of magic, much that has been written about
the novels so far addresses magic in the series literally, attempting to put
it in a historical and cultural context that then must explain its relation
to all the accompanying problems and baggage that the history of magic, the
occult, and witchcraft brings with it. Borrowing Rowling's terms from
Harry's world, I argue that reading magic
literally in the series is a rather "Muggle" way of reading
Harry Potter. Reading "magically," by contrast, requires opening one's
imagination in order to recognize that magic is used figuratively in the
novels as a metaphoric device for another kind of power altogether.
A few Christian critics who view the
series positively, such as
John Granger, argue that magic in the
novels should indeed be read
figuratively, but with overtones of spiritual symbolism nonetheless.
Roger Highfield and Amanda Cockrell suggest that magic in Rowling's world of
witches and wizards represents science in our own. Margaret J. Oakes
contends that magic mirrors but also diverts in important ways from the use
of technology in our world, and Peter Appelbaum argues that magic in the
series represents the commodification of technology in twenty-first
century children's lives. I offer another interpretation of the use of
magic as a metaphor that is more aligned with Jo Rowling's own description
of it from interviews but that I argue also holds up through close reading
of the novels--that magic in Harry Potter's story
may be said to represent imagination itself--an inherently human power that
is unfortunately becoming more and more devalued with early twenty-first
century's emphasis on technology and "reality"-based, scientifically proven
truths. As I have alluded to elsewhere (Vognar), I argue that part of
the books' enormous popularity
lies with children who still retain their uninhibited imaginations in full
power responding viscerally to a story that recognizes the threats at play
against that power in the adult world. Adults read the books at least in part
out of a longing for the vibrant imaginations they once allowed themselves
to indulge in fully and without reservation. They respond to the series'
suggestion that their quality of life is different and perhaps lessened
by their growing up and conforming to society's more "Muggle" expectations.
In Harry Potter's world, imagination
(magic) is natural, instinctive, and inherent--a kind of "raw power" that,
I assert, has no moral value in and of itself but is rather a tool that
can be used for either good or for evil, depending on the choices the user
makes (more about this later). Magical people in
Harry's world have daily encounters with, and an
ongoing relationship with, Nature--plants, animals, and fantastic creatures
of all sorts. They exhibit less facility with mechanical objects from the
Muggle world, like Ford Anglias and telephones.
By contrast, Nature in the Muggle world is caged
in zoos or trimmed into neat hedges on
Dudley Dursley watches too much television
and plays too many computer games; he rarely if ever goes outside. In the
magical world, each student has a pet,
owls bring the mail, and the
Forbidden Forest is entered
regularly by humans for adventurous encounters with dangerous beasts.
Aside from their relative proximities to Nature, another difference between
the magical and
Muggle world is that Muggles do not dream or
daydream, whereas magical people do this freely and even ponder their dreams
afterwards, often "reading" them carefully for insights or information. They
trust their intuitions. Harry dreams
while asleep in his cupboard in
for example, then tries to understand what
his dream means. Another distinction is
that Muggles do not appear to value curiosity, especially on the part of
children. In Philosopher's Stone
Uncle Vernon does not allow
Harry to ask questions. Magical people,
especially magical children, are curious and never stop asking questions.
While the magical world is earthy, instinctive,
and inquisitive then, the Muggle world represses
imagination (magic) by inhibiting human beings' natural capacity for it,
trusting facts over intuition, and relying on ritual unthinkingly and without
question. The Muggle world in the early novels
in the series appears to be afraid of imaginative power and refuses to believe
in its possibilities. In our world, the person who parks his car and walks
mechanically inside without looking up is exhibiting "Muggle" behavior; the
one who parks his bicycle and lingers outside marveling at the wondrous array
of stars on a clear black night is open to the "magic" of life. No wonder
children embrace the magic in the
Harry Potter series so readily.
This essay shall briefly explore the magic/imagination metaphor by examining
the three contrasts between people of the magical
and Muggle worlds of Harry Potter's universe
described above as readers first encounter them in
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
These contrasts are: Nature vs. technology; dreamers vs. non-dreamers;
and questioners vs. non-questioners. Through these three contrasts, I invite
readers to consider magic more figuratively throughout the entire series,
as well as to explore the specific interpretation of magic as a metaphor
for imagination and what insights into meaning that may bring. Taken further,
once all of the books in the series are available for analysis and if the
metaphor remains consistent throughout the rest of the novels, this figurative
use of magic may have much to say about the role of imagination and the
artist in society and the relationships between imagination and knowledge.
Until the series is complete and the validity of the imagination metaphor
tested throughout, however, it is perhaps premature to argue what the social
and political implications of magic as imagination might be as they are
suggested in Harry Potter. Instead, I conclude this article by offering
a few preliminary suggestions for further consideration.
In Philosopher's Stone,
readers learn along with Harry that
magical ability is natural and inherent. Witches and wizards are closer to
Nature than their Muggle counterparts. Magical ability is determined at birth,
and names of magical babies are posted in a wizard directory.
Magical children, regardless of heritage,
2 are invited to attend
Hogwarts where imagination
(magical ability) is not only recognized and rewarded but the use of it is
also cultivated and refined as a practical skill. Before going to
Hagrid's assertion that he is indeed a
wizard, Hagrid responds,
"Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared, or angry?"
Harry recalls finding himself suddenly on
the school roof when he was trying to escape
Dudley's gang and his hair growing back
quickly after he thought it had been cut too short. Later,
Neville Longbottom relates his
Gran was a witch who raised
him among Muggles [This is not correct - his relatives are
wizards who feared that he might be a
and watched him with great anticipation for signs of magical ability, which
he claims did not manifest until he was eight. At that time, he bounced when
Great-uncle Algie accidentally
dropped him from a window, and
Gran cried tears of joy.
Finding out a child has magical ability appears to be welcome in mixed
Muggle/magical households where some knowledge of the magical life is known.
However, this is not universal.
Hermione's Muggle parents, for example,
are pleased for her, but Harry's mixed
family meets his magical powers with dread and suspicion, partly due to
Aunt Petunia Dursley's apparent
jealousy over Lily Potter's being a witch
and gaining so much of their parents' attention because of it. There seems to
be little to no outside control over who is magical and who is not in
Harry Potter's world; in
Philosopher's Stone, the
determination appears to be based solely on Nature and genetics.
Perhaps this is one reason magical people appear to be so in tune with animals,
vegetation, and fantasy creatures, while Muggles are not. While
Dudley Dursley is bored with the animals
at the zoo including the snake that appears to be doing nothing,
Harry empathizes with the boa constrictor,
and soon the snake is slithering out of its Muggle prison on its way to see
Brazil. Mr. Dursley puts the
unusual cat he sees reading a map on
Privet Drive out of his mind and
turns to focus on drills. Harry spends as
much of his time outside to avoid Dudley
as he can because he can count on his cousin staying indoors.
Uncle Vernon can't light a fire in
the cabin on the rock during the storm, but
Hagrid not only reaches
Harry across the water despite the
ferocious weather but also sets a roaring blaze in the fireplace with his
umbrella and bends Uncle Vernon's
gun. Animals are not something with which the
Durleys seem comfortable.
Dudley swapped a parrot for an air-rifle
and threw a tortoise out a greenhouse window. By contrast,
Hagrid, who often keeps dormice and
other creatures in his pockets, buys Harry
his first pet, an owl for Hogwarts; Ron keeps
a rat in his pocket; and Neville keeps losing his toad (which becomes a
sign of his less than strong magical ability). The examples of magicals'
ease with Nature and Muggles' struggles against it are numerous. To humiliate
Dudley, Hagrid gives him a pig's tail, which is not only a comment on the
boy's weight but it is of greater shame to the
Dursleys because the boy has been made
to appear as an animal.
If their comfort and familiarity with Nature is an attribute of magicals, then
their bafflement with Muggles' investment in machinery is part of the
difference between the two peoples as well. It is no accident that
Vernon Dursley's business is
Grunnings, a factory that
makes drills. Drills are among the basic tools of industry, building, and
manufacturing. Dudley tells time by the
television programs he is missing while hiding away from
Harry's letters from
Hogwarts on the rock and whines
that his father wouldn't let him bring the television, his video games, and
computer with him in his duffle bag. We learn that he will attend
Smeltings school, an
appropriate technical name related to melting down ore for metal used in
manufacturing, while Harry's prospective
school is named Stonewall, a name depicting rocks picked up off the ground
and piled up to use in bordering a garden. When
Hagrid passes by parking meters and
other "ordinary" things in London,
he points at them with his umbrella and comments, "See that,
Harry? Things these Muggles dream up, eh?"
(5:52). Readers of the later
novels will recall Mr. Weasley's
fascination with Muggles and their machines.
In her essay, "Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech,
Low-Tech World of Wizardry," Margaret J. Oakes compares magical technology
with our own, which she labels the same as "Muggle" technology. She says
that wizard technology is magic, and they use only what they need to control
their immediate environment for practical purposes and no more. We Muggles,
on the other hand, says Oakes, seem to enjoy technology for its own sake,
using it to perform operations that we do not necessarily need and with no
concern for technology's impact on the environment as a whole. Muggles
create technology that takes more and more knowledge to build and understand
but less and less knowledge to operate. This is unlike the magical technology
that wizards and witches alike must study and practice so that they
can not only make it work themselves (without the aid of computer scientists
and electrical engineers or master wizards) but they can also understand why
it does what it does.
In the reading discussed here, however, the Muggles create and use technology
and the magicals employ their imaginations to achieve their desired effects.
Magicals expand their imaginations through the stimulation of increased
knowledge (books, lectures and demonstrations by teachers, and practice).
Muggles use science but witches and wizards use fantasy. Muggles cannot use
fantasy because they believe it is "rubbish," or perhaps a better term is
Vernon Dursley's other word for
it, "nonsense"--magic has no sense or logic. In examining the logic puzzle
of the bottles at the end of
"Brilliant...This isn't magic--it's logic--a puzzle.
A lot of the greatest wizards haven't got an ounce of logic, they'd be stuck
in here for ever" (16:207).
It is no accident, this reading suggests, that
Hermione's Muggle parents are dentists
Molly Weasley's Muggle second cousin
whom their wizard family never talks about is an accountant. Logic requires
that Harry speak up when
Hagrid asks if he doesn't know anything
about anything, responding that he does know about some things, "I can do...
maths and stuff" that he learned in Muggle schools
(4:41). It is also entirely
fitting that it is
Ron, who is the one who solves the bottles
logic puzzle at the end of the novel.3
If the issue of Nature vs. technology were all that were at work in
the novels, it is unlikely that
they would sustain the interest that they have. As the series moves along,
it resists a neat dichotomy of good and evil between the
If readers dislike the Muggles and embrace the witches and wizards of the
series, Dumbledore offers caution by
telling Harry in later novels that things
are not always as they seem. Just as some Muggles scorn magic as "rubbish"
or "nonsense," Hagrid cannot understand
how the Muggles get along without magic when he finds a broken escalator in
London, and the
Ministry of Magic is capable of
erasing Muggle memories so that they cannot remember seeing magical people.
Both worlds lack an understanding and tolerance of the other.
Witches and wizards do not care for or understand all of those inside
their own world as well.
Draco Malfoy in
Philosopher's Stone is
overly concerned about strains of magical "purity" among the blood of
witches and wizards who are allowed to attend
Readers learn in later novels that this resentment descends from disagreement
among the school's founders about who
should be allowed to enroll. Snobbery is not limited to 'racial profiling'
among witches and wizards either. Consider the
Ministry of Magic's principal
goal of keeping the magical world hidden from
Muggles and statements like Hagrid's
that it is better to get along with Muggles by not mixing with them, else
"everyone'd be wantin' magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we're best
(5:51). Imagination (magic) or
the lack of it does not have a qualitative value in and of itself inside or
outside the wizarding world; it is the way that
it is used that makes the difference. As
Dumbledore says to
Chamber of Secrets,
"It is our choices, Harry, that
show what we truly are, far more than our abilities"
A second attribute of witches and wizards that illustrates that magic is a
successful metaphor for imagination in
Philosopher's Stone is
that magical people dream and put stock in their dreams, whereas Muggle people
do not. Harry has several
dreams in this novel; many are
dreams of recovering memory that take him back to
Voldemort's murder of his parents. He
awakens after the night in the hut, thinking the entire encounter with
Hagrid was a dream and that the tapping
he hears is Aunt Petunia knocking
on his cupboard door again when it is really an
owl with a newspaper in its beak tapping
on the window. As he gets closer to
Hogwarts and the longer he stays
in the magical world,
Harry's dreams become longer, more
vibrant, and more lifelike. He sees a motorbike in one dream, flashes of
green light in another, and begins to feel pain in his scar still later.
Rowling does not show one Muggle in
Philosopher's Stone who
dreams or even allows himself or herself to daydream. In fact, the reader sees
Uncle Vernon actively turning away
from using his imagination. We are told, for example, that he always sat with
his back to the window in his office on the ninth floor of
Grunnings. This is not
the pose of a daydreamer. When strange events start happening in
Dursley finds it more difficult to
concentrate, but he keeps making the effort nonetheless, not allowing himself
to indulge in thoughts of cats or people in cloaks. It is not until
Dursley is hugged by a short man
in a cloak on his way home that we see him address the lure of using one's
imagination head-on: "He was rattled. He hurried to his car and set off home,
hoping he was imagining things, which he had never hoped before,
because he didn't approve of imagination"
(1:10). It is notable that this
strong statement about imagination occurs in the first chapter of the first
novel of a seven-part fantasy series. Rowling once said in a BBC interview
that she rewrote the first chapter at least 15 times because the drafts
of it kept giving away too much of the plot of the entire story (Kirk 69).
It is also worth pointing out here that the line does not say that Dursley
does not have any imagination, but rather that he does not approve of it.
Perhaps statements such as these are important clues to underlying themes
in the series as a whole.
Dreams and fantasies again are not all that they may seem in the world of the
Harry Potter novels, however.
It is mundane indeed to state that imaginative people have an active fantasy
life and that people who make drills do not. Value judgments preferring
one over the other are too simplistic in this series as well. Dreams are
not always pleasant, for one thing, as
Harry's increasing nightmares about
Philosopher's Stone and
the Dementors and other terrors in
subsequent novels attest. To have an overactive imagination can be as much
a burden as a desirable quality. Life is not easy for wizard and witches
just because they can imagine their way through obstacles using the inherent
artistry they have learned to control with their wands (which may be metaphors
themselves for instruments, paintbrushes, pens).
Dreams can be misguided in the magical world as
well. When Harry spends time looking at
his family in the
Mirror of Erised,
Dumbledore warns him that the mirror
shows neither knowledge nor truth and that people have wasted away in front of
it. "It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live,"
Dumbledore advises him
(12:157). Even the highly
imaginative witches and wizards need to know when to hold their feet to the
ground. People "have been driven mad, not knowing if what
[the mirror, i.e. their desire] shows is real or even possible"
Professor Trelawney's dreamy Divination class in the later novels
seems to be regarded by most students as taking the belief in magic/imagination
too far, as though expecting too much from it. Too much dreaminess, high
ambition, or the will to obtain what is desired regardless of cost, must
be tempered even in the magical world. Harry is learning to use his imaginative
powers effectively and within limits with Dumbledore as his guide. Voldemort,
who turned to the Dark Side years ago (meaning here that he has chosen
to use his powers of imagination for evil purposes), has kept his ambition
for eternal life so much in the forefront that he risks the lives of all
in his path to obtain the philosopher's stone and the Elixir of Life. Dumbledore
knows that staring into the Mirror of Erised too long makes considering
the rewards of the Dark Side all too tempting or may also make madness
a ponderable alternative.
By necessity, readers are dreamers,
so it is interesting that reading also coincides with the dreamer/non-dreamer
scenario that exists between magicals and Muggles in Philosopher's Stone.
Dudley, we are told through Harry, never reads, though he does have shelves
of books in his bedroom. Elizabeth Teare points out that Dudley's books
are a sign of his family's materialism and social climbing ambition, "Dudley
is clearly a nonreader, the figure against whom all children who side with
Harry Potter--particularly the formerly nonreading boys to whom the series
famously appeals--will set themselves" (338). For a reading audience, particularly
a formerly reluctant one, imagining Harry and Dudley and the books lined
up on the wall of Dudley's roomful of electronic toys all in one vision,
Harry's world of fantasy and imagination is likely regarded as more favorable.
Perhaps staying open to one's imagination is qualitatively better after
all, since that is where the hero of the story lies. However, the glimpse
into Hogwarts that Rowling provides complicates this notion as well. The
audience sees Hogwarts students go to the library for reference books and
textbooks, but one cannot help but wonder where the novels are in the Hogwarts
library. Reading appears to be more for informational purposes than for
pleasure in Philosopher's Stone, though this changes somewhat in later
novels with books by Gilderoy Lockhart, Ron Weasley's comic books, etc.
Of the Muggle world, readers learn in later books that they do have newspapers,
but again there is little to suggest that Muggles read imaginative literature
on a regular basis for pleasure. Ironically in a fantasy series, the implication
is that both Muggles and magicals favor non-fiction over fiction in their
reading habits. Perhaps Rowling senses that viewing a character reading
fantasy within a fantasy is too much of a stretch for readers to accept,
or that readers would recognize too much of themselves in such a scene.
In any case, the general impression given in the series is that it is possible
that readers in both Muggle and magical worlds may not be actively engaging
their imaginations when they read.
Perhaps there is a reason for this,
whether intentional on Rowling's part or not. In her essay, "Cruel Heroes
and Treacherous Texts: Educating the Reader in Moral Complexity and Critical
Reading in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Books," Veronica L. Schanoes discusses
Rowling's use of the written word in the series as a vehicle for teaching
Hogwarts students (and through them, the reader) lessons in self-reliance
and critical thinking. Texts are not always reliable and honest in the
series as in life, she illustrates, and readers must learn to read closely
and with a critical eye. Texts such as the marauder's map, the Daily Prophet,
Tom Riddle's diary, Gilderoy Lockhart's books, and others that purport
to tell the truth but instead give changing, unverified, propagandist,
biased, or even false information. Much of the series is about Harry, Ron,
and Hermione looking up information in books in the Hogwarts library and
then verifying the information they find against their own experience with
the mysterious goings on at hand. Schanoes finds a surprising lack
of imaginative literature in the series, "Novels, plays, and short stories
have not yet appeared in her fictional world. What might it mean that the
only kind of text remaining uninterrogated in Rowling's work is that with
which her reader is engaged?" (143).4 She argues that the suspension of
disbelief that must occur between a fiction reader and writer "renders
it harmless in Rowling's schema" (143). Since fiction does not set itself
up to be objective truth, it does not need the rigorous interrogation that
text books, encyclopedias, and newspapers should undergo.
I would add to Schanoes's observation
that if the magical world is one where witches and wizards have highly
developed and engaged powers of imagination, then Rowling may be turning
the suspension of disbelief on its head, making non-fiction less believable
in the magical world than fiction. Witches and wizards trust their instincts,
their inherent powers to imagine and to change their world by envisioning
it differently and casting spells, charms, etc. to make it so. If it is
always possible to alter one's environment based on imagining things differently,
then suspicion and mistrust of one who says this is the way things always
are naturally follows. Dumbledore seems to be the only character in the
novels so far who carries this level of authority and wisdom, and even
he admits that things are not always as they seem. Much of the series is
about the search for truth (this is Harry's role as "seeker"), and it may
become one of the themes of the series when all is said and done that truth
(like beauty) lies in the eye of the beholder, that it is temporal, and
that its existence is wholly dependent on several intricate and complex
factors clicking into place for one quick, pinpointed moment in time.
Seeking truth and asking questions
brings me to the third contrast between the Muggle and magical worlds that
I shall address here and that is the level of inquisitiveness in both worlds.
Fiction writers are always asking themselves the question, "What if?" Robert
F. Kennedy's famous quotation of George Bernard Shaw, "Some men see things
as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say, why not"
speaks to the relationship between dreaming, inquiry, and potential. Children
are always asking questions. Rowling has said that Harry is "learning to
develop his potential" (qtd. in O'Malley 33). He can only do that by asking
questions, listening, and undergoing new experiences. A sense of curiosity
about the world and how it works as well as what might be imagined beyond
what we already know is the basis for both scientific inquiry and artistic
vision. The Muggle world has clearly asked enough questions to engineer
and design mechanical devices that make life for Muggles easier, even if
their technology is a bit more complicated than witches and wizards might
prefer. If the Muggle world is curious enough to develop its own technology
but has stopped asking questions about why they do certain things they
have performed ritually for years, or why some mysterious elements don't
seem to fit together (like the strange things happening around Harry or
on Privet Drive), or why it's important to nourish and develop children's
innate curiosity rather than dull it with monotonous mechanical toys that
require less and less imaginative power to operate, then what is Philosopher's
Stone saying about the relationship between imagination, knowledge, and
Mr. Weasley is intensely curious
about the Muggle world, and at least three books exist in the magical world
about Muggle life including The Philosophy of the Mundane: Why Muggles
Prefer Not to Know by Professor Mordicus Egg (Vander Ark n.p.). So
far in the series (through Book 5), however, we do not see any Muggles
actively engaged in trying to figure out the magical world and how it ticks
(though one book, Muggles Who Notice by Blenheim Stalk, suggests
that some are not oblivious to magical goings on--Vander Ark n.p.).
Muggles write in their newspapers of occasional strange occurrences they
see, but there have not been many, if any, repercussions. The issue
becomes more complex in later novels when, notably, readers see that the
Ministry of Magic is capable of erasing Muggle memories so that too many
questions about their world do not get asked. The lack of a neat dichotomy
does not allow the magical world to be clean of problems in the curiosity
department either. Wizards keep secrets from one another as well and Voldemort
clearly tries to hold onto power or regain it through accessing or creating
knowledge that he does not allow to be shared.
Unlike the students at Hogwarts who
are trying to understand their own identities, family members of mixed
magical/Muggle backgrounds do not appear to question the way things are;
they simply accept that some people are born with magical powers and some
are not. They are aware that magical children are invited to a school for
witchcraft and wizardry and they may or may not be aware that the children
are not allowed to perform magic when they are home during vacations. Performing
magic away from school is an attribute that only school graduates may safely
accomplish. Apparently, some magical people graduate to jobs in the magical
world such as at the Ministry of Magic or at Gringotts Bank, and these
are jobs that may take them to other places around the world. Magical people
seem to be able to move in and out of both magical and Muggle worlds, but
Muggles so far seem limited to their own. Importantly in the series, we
do not see Muggles using their imaginations in any way through Book 5--they
do not imagine the world of witches and wizards or any other world for
Vernon Dursley refuses to answer
Harry's questions early on in
Philosopher's Stone. He is
either too busy, doesn't know the answer, or does not want to confront that
which he does not understand. Mostly, it appears he does not want to have to
engage with Harry Potter, his nuisance
of a nephew who was mysteriously and against
Vernon's will dropped on his
doorstep some eleven years ago. It is clearly
one of the better attributes to ask and answer questions in the series,
even if one must admit s/he doesn't know the whole answer. An inquisitive
mind is an attribute of magical people that heightens and expands their
powers of imagination--asking questions invites explanations and hypotheses;
it opens possibilities. Part of the reason readers dislike Uncle Vernon
is not only that he spoils his son Dudley so miserably, but that in particular
he refuses to answer Harry's questions about the world, even to the extent
that he is able. This puts Vernon Dursley in sharp contrast to the wise
teacher, Albus Dumbledore. The
reader is led to believe that all Dursley cares about are boring drills and
getting ahead in the business world, even if this means just having the
appearance of doing so.
Dumbledore, on the other hand, is
not only a repository of knowledge that Harry very much wants to obtain,
but he also carries the wisdom to know that knowledge is best shared when
the learner is ready to accept it. Dumbledore does not shut off Harry's
inquisitive nature; he simply tells him what he can and informs him that
he must wait to hear other facts and information he seeks. Dumbledore also
understands that students often learn information best through their own
discovery of it. Harry explains this to Hermione who is frustrated after
Harry's encounter with Voldemort in Philosopher's Stone that the wizard
did not help him more. "I think he [Dumbledore] knows more or less everything
that goes on here," Harry says, ".instead of stopping us, he just taught
us enough to help"
For his part, Dumbledore has not neglected
his own developing knowledge nor given up on his own curiosity, even in
old age. "'Yes.' said Dumbledore dreamily. 'Funny the way people's minds
works, isn't it?...My brain surprises even me sometimes'"
Albert Einstein's assertion about
imagination and knowledge shows that one is dependent on the other and
that imagination is the more encompassing of the two. He also said, "The
intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the
gift" (Einstein's n.p.). Perhaps this is one theme of Philosopher's Stone
and the series--that "Muggle-like thinkers" have strayed too far from Nature,
have allowed technology to develop for its own sake, whether or not it
is helpful to the human condition or to animals or the environment. At
the same time that technology develops beyond what is healthy for Nature,
our own and our environment's, curiosity is in danger of being snuffed
out in our children. Margaret J. Oakes's comment is apropos here--that
technology takes less and less knowledge to use than it does to create
and this growing fact makes it "doubly dangerous" (119-20).
But is the Muggle world our own and
bad, and the wizard world some idealized, utopian world? So far, the series
resists this clean reading. There are kind and tolerant Muggles, like Hermione
Granger's parents in later novels, for example, and there are cruel and
intolerant magical people, like Voldemort. Those who are intolerant of
"mixed bloods," like Draco Malfoy, are treated less sympathetically in
the story than those who are more accepting. I would argue that our world
does not represent either the Muggle world or the magical world exclusively
as each is presented in the novels but rather there are elements of both
magical and Muggle worlds in our own. Perhaps "magical" readers who can
move easily between both worlds of the novel and our own like witches and
wizards do in the series recognize this. They "know" that the magical world
of their imaginations is real in a powerful way and that imagination can
change the "ordinary" world they live in.
Which brings me to keep a few questions
in mind as the series moves toward its conclusion with the future release
of the final two novels of the septology: If imagination (magic) like knowledge
is power, then what is the series saying about that power in society in
the early twenty-first century? What is it saying about imaginative power
in the hands of children? Of adults? What does it say about the power of
the artist in a technologically-based world that is getting further and
further away from trusting human instinct and intuition? Is the series
moving toward a final confrontation between imagination and knowledge,
Nature and technology, inquiry and dullness? If so what meaning can we
draw from the outcome of this confrontation? Looking at the role
of imagination as it is represented by magic in the series will be an excellent
way to begin thinking about the series as a whole once its publication
In the meantime, we have Jo Rowling's
own words on the subject to consider and test throughout the novels for
validation and relative success. I believe her when she responds to charges
of occultism in a 1999 interview about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone by saying:
The book is really about the power
of imagination. What Harry is learning to do is develop his full potential.
Wizardry is just the analogy I use. If anyone expects it to be a book that
seriously advocates learning magic, they will be disappointed. Not least
because the author does not believe in magic in that way. What I'm saying
is that children have power and can use it, which may in itself be more
threatening to some people than the idea than that they would actually
learn spells from my book. (qtd. in O'Malley 33-34)
Whether her "analogy" of magic to
imagination is successful throughout all seven novels remains to be seen.
I have intended here simply to open the discussion with one close reading
of Book 1; I invite analyses of subsequent novels. In the end, when all
seven books are published, I suspect that imagi(c)nation will prove out
to be a central metaphor in the series and that this metaphor will be an
important key to unlocking at least one of the series' most resonant themes.
Albert Einstein not only valued imagination
more highly than he valued knowledge, but he accepted it as an important
part of the process of acquiring information. "When I examine myself and
my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy
has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge" ("Einstein's"
n.p.). The physicist admits that his ability to take in knowledge is a
talent, not a gift. The gift, he suggests, which is fantasy, has mysterious
origins. Even Einstein could not explain where the gift of imagination
comes from. He did, however, allow that mystery is an element to be savored,
even as it cannot be explained: "The most beautiful thing we can experience
is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to
whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and
stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed" (qtd. in Ulam
Funny how, in the early years of
the twenty-first century, it has taken a storyteller and millions of children
turning their electronic toys off and their imaginations on through reading
Harry Potter to remind us of the same thing.
1. I choose to use
the British edition of the novel as the basis of my discussion rather than
the American version, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone published by
Scholastic, because it is the edition published in author J. K. Rowling's
homeland, as well as the first edition of the first novel of the expected
septology. Though not particularly relevant to the subject of this essay,
language variations beyond the title exist between the British and American
editions as well (aka "Americanisms"), making the editions qualitatively
different, at least in part. For discussion of these differences, see Philip
Nel's "You Say 'Jelly,' I Say 'Jell-O'?: Harry Potter and the Transfiguration
of Language" in
The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon,
edited Lana Whited,
pages 261-84. For a listing of the differences
themselves between the American and British versions of Book 1, see
Edward Olsen's work on
The Harry Potter Lexicon online.
I would also like to argue that once
the septology is published in full, a convention of nomenclature be adopted
by writers about the series to facilitate references among the various
editions to address both translations and the problematic "adult" and "children's"
editions which have different paginations. I suggest a nomenclature of
(1:2:3) where 1 = the Book # 1-7 of the series; 2 = chapter number; and
3 = the page number in the edition used in the essay, with the edition
used mentioned early on in the article. Since chapter numbers are equal
in all editions, chapter numbers would be helpful to those using other
editions. Since my focus in this essay is primarily on Philosopher's Stone,
I employ this nomenclature shortened to the last two elements alone in
most instances, citing chapter number followed by page number. (The accidental
similarity of the nomenclature system I suggest above with citations from
the Bible is not lost on me, but I still believe that this, or a related,
kind of system would make articles easier to follow and use in writing
about the series).
2. In later novels
in the series, it becomes clear that the decision to invite children of
different magical/Muggle mixtures and backgrounds to become
students at Hogwarts was
a problematic one among the original
four founders as well
as an issue that remains unresolved among their descendants. As the story
progresses, this central conflict develops into a metaphor for issues of
race and class. The notion that inherent artistic acumen can be genetically
refined through evolution and that this has political undertones is an
intriguing idea worth exploring in itself; however, time and space limitations
prohibit that subject from being addressed here.
3. In discussing
the bottles logic puzzle with Benjamin Kirk, an Ivy League undergraduate
who is majoring in mathematics, I was told that the puzzle as it is written
in the novel does not give enough information for a person to solve using
logic. The puzzle rhyme refers to the sizes of bottles as an important
clue, yet the reader is not told which of the bottles in the line is the
"giant" and which the "dwarf." The characters can see the line-up of the
bottles and their relative sizes, but the reader cannot. If this is true,
I contend that by leaving out this information, Rowling is anticipating
the reader's failure to figure out the puzzle on his/her own, thus keeping
the reader aligned with Harry and the "greatest wizards" whom Hermione
describes as being inept at logic and allowing the reader to be impressed
with Hermione's calculations. It is interesting to note here as well that
the character who set up the puzzle as an obstacle (Harry, Ron, and Hermione
project it must have been Snape
was also aware of and dependent
on the difference in Muggle and magical people's respective logical abilities.
To many readers and viewers, the omission of the scene of Hermione solving
the logic puzzle from
film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone is unfortunate, especially because the scene shows Hermione
in an intellectual role underrepresented by females in the media. In addition,
an adolescent female solving a logic puzzle, in particular, is important
because the scene works against the "Ophelia complex" which recent psychological
studies (Pipher Reviving) claim contributes to adolescent females' abandoning
interest in math and science in order to stay attractive to males who have
traditionally dominated those subject areas.
4. The Harry Potter Lexicon (Vander Ark),
an online encyclopedic storehouse of information about the series,
has separated the kinds of books that appear in the novels through
Book 5 into subject categories.
These categories include but are not limited to:
biography, cookbooks, history, textbooks, and other informational
guides about subjects such as Quidditch, wizard genealogy, law, Muggle
life, and current events. Poetry (or at least verse) does exist in the
magical world in the form of the Sorting Hat song, spells, etc. The Lexicon
lists one book of poetry, The Sonnets of a Sorcerer, as a cursed
book from Chamber of Secrets and one play, which the website gives no citation
as of this writing, called Hélas, Je me suis Transfiguré mes
Pieds (Alas, I have transfigured my feet) by a wizard named Malecrit.
A glance at the titles listing the Lexicon provides is impressive for its
length but particularly for its emphasis on textbooks, references, and
other non-fiction titles. The titles listing is available
"Harry Potter's World: Magic, Technoculture, and Becoming Human," in
Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives,
edited by Elizabeth E. Heilman,
New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003, p. 25-51.
Cockrell, Amanda. "Harry Potter and
the Secret Password: Finding Our Way in the Magical Genre." in
The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon,
edited by Lana A. Whited.
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 15-26.
"Einstein's Famous Quotes." Available:
Accessed: 31 December 2003.
The Hidden Key to Harry Potter:
Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne
Rowling's Harry Potter Novels. Hadlock, WA: Zossima Press, 2002.
The Science of Harry Potter.
New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.
Kirk, Connie Ann.
"Harry Potter: Could He be Fifth Beatle?"
Op-Ed. Harrisburg Patriot-News, July 14, 2003.
J. K. Rowling: A Biography.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Nel, Philip. "You Say 'Jelly,'
I Say 'Jell-O'?: Harry Potter and the Transfiguration of Language."
The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon,
ed. Lana A. Whited.
Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 261-84.
Oakes, Margaret J. "Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches:
The Hi-Tech, Low-Tech World of Wizardry," in
Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays,
Giselle Liza Anatol,
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, p. 117-28.
Olsen, Edward. "Differences: Harry
Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone." The Harry Potter Lexicon,
edited by Steve Vander Ark. Online:
Accessed: 2 January 2004.
O'Malley, Judy. "Talking With J. K. Rowling," Book Links, July, 1999,
p. 32-36. Available online:
Accessed 31 December 2003.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.
New York: Ballantine, 1995.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
-----. Harry Potter and the Goblet
of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
-----. Harry Potter and the Order
of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
-----. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's
Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
-----. Harry Potter and the Prisoner
of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
-----. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998.
Schanoes, Veronica L. "Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts:
Educating the Reader in Moral Complexity and Critical
Reading in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Books," in
Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays
Giselle Liza Anatol,
Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003, p. 131-145.
Teare, Elizabeth. "Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic," in
The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon,
edited by Lana A. Whited,
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 329-42.
Ulam, S. M.
Adventures of a Mathematician.
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.
Vander Ark, Steve. The Harry Potter Lexicon. Online:
Accessed: 2 January 2004.
-----. "Wizarding World:
Books by Topic." The Harry Potter Lexicon. Online:
Accessed: 2 January 2003.
Viereck, George Sylvester. "What
Life Means to Einstein: An Interview." The Saturday Evening Post, October
Vognar, Chris. "Misfits Have Found Place in Our Hearts," Dallas Morning News,
November 10, 2002. Available online:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connie Ann Kirk, Ph.D.
is an author and independent scholar who teaches online courses at the
university level as well as continuing education classes at
Barnes and Noble University. Her writing about Harry Potter includes two
books: a literature primer called
From Shakespeare to Harry Potter: An Introduction to Literature
for All Ages (Xlibris, 2004) and
J. K. Rowling: A Biography
(Greenwood, 2003) that is currently being translated into Estonian and