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Canon discussion / Essays

Imagi(c)nation in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone


"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
--Albert Einstein

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 Privet Drive. 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 Philosopher’s Stone, 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 Hogwarts, when Harry questionsHagrid’s assertion that he is indeed a wizard, Hagrid responds, “Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared, or angry?” (4:47). 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 pure-blood wizards who feared that he might be a Squib. -ed] 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 Harryacross 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 Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione remarks, “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 or that 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 Muggle-born Hermione, not Harry or 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 Muggle and wizarding worlds. 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 Hogwarts. 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 left alone” (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 Harry in Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (18:245).

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 Book 1, 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 Voldemort in 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” (12:157). 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 curiosity?

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 that matter.

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” (17:219). 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'” (17:217).

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 is completed.

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 289).

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, seeEdward 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 [16:206]) 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 Christopher Columbus’ 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 online.

Appelbaum, Peter. “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.

Granger, John. The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels. Hadlock, WA: Zossima Press, 2002.

Highfield, Roger. 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. p. A7.

—–.  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, edited by 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 edited by 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 26, 1929.

Vognar, Chris. “Misfits Have Found Place in Our Hearts,” Dallas Morning News, November 10, 2002. Available online: Accessed 12/30/03.


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 Japanese.



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