Harry Potter and the History of Alchemy
Ela Area Public Library, July 27, 2010
"I've never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that's a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I've learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy."
J.K. Rowling The Herald, 1998
In the Harry Potter series of books, J.K. Rowling has created an extremely imaginative and enchanting world that has captivated the minds of millions of readers. Part of that world, in fact, was not invented wholesale but was taken from the history of alchemy. For instance, in the title of the very first book (at least in the U.K. edition), Rowling mentions the philosophers’ stone, perhaps the most common subject of alchemical texts. In addition, historical alchemists such as Nicolas Flamel have characters named after them in the series. On the internet, a reader can quickly find any number of theories that use an understanding of alchemy to explain themes, characters, and imagery within the books. The historical world of alchemy is replete with fantastic imagery involving resplendent suns, dragons, griffins, hermaphrodites, homunculi, resurrections, and many other varieties even more bizarre and peculiar, providing fertile soil for multiple alchemical interpretations. Even so, alchemy is a widely misunderstood discipline. Many continue to think of it solely as a mystical or spiritual endeavor, even though we now know that major scientific figures such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) sought to transmute base metals into gold, were widely read in alchemical authors, and sometimes kept company with other alchemists. This highlights just how complex the historical world of alchemy really is, for there were many who did treat it as a mystical journey of enlightenment, many alchemists did fill their books with confusing imagery and bizarre pictures, but alchemy was also often an empirical and theoretical discipline that involved quantification, step-by-step laboratory processes, and a rich history that stretches back through the Middle Ages to the ancient world.