Friday, 12 February 2010

Valentine's Day and Alchemy

In my post Christmas in the Wizarding World (1) I pointed out how J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone makes a kind of under-the-surface connection between the "Father Christmas" St Nicholas and the Alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

Another holiday celebrated in Rowling's Wizarding World is Valentine's Day.

'Happy Valentine's Day!' Lockhart shouted. 'And may I thank the forty-six people who have so far sent me cards! Yes, I have taken the liberty of arranging this little surprise for you all - and it doesn't end here!'

Lockhart clapped his hands and through the doors to the Entrance Hall marched a dozen surly-looking dwarfs. Not just any dwarfs, however. Lockhart had them all wearing golden wings and carrying harps.

'My friendly, card-carrying cupids!' beamed Lockhart.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ch 13.

Besides Valentine's being a holiday you can have a lot of fun with, I believe Rowling is making a similar under-the-surface connection to the Alchemy theme with this holiday as she is with Christmas.

St Valentine's day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Valentine. But there is also in history a Basil Valentine or Basilius Valentinus, who was a 16th century Benedictine monk and alchemist; author of dozens of important publications on alchemy in Latin and German. One of these is Duodecim Claves philosophicæ (The twelve philosophical keys). This is recognised as one of the most influential of alchemical works. It is an obscure text which mixes descriptions of (al)chemical procedures with Biblical images. My own overall impression of it (without claiming to understand every detail) is that the main interpretation is meant to be spiritual. For example, it speaks of the Stone of the Ancients, but also alludes to the Corner Stone or the Rock, which are both images of Christ used in the New Testament. (The Philosopher's Stone of Alchemy was supposed to produce the Elixir of Life, thus giving eternal life. In Biblical imagery, Christ is the Rock who brings forth "living water", and eternal life.)

J.K. Rowling does not refer directly to the name Basil Valentine. However, in The Chamber of Secrets  Valentine's Day is celebrated at Hogwarts (see the quote above). And in the same book, a basilisk  plays an important part. Coincidence? I don't think so. Not with J.K. Rowling. She loves playing around with words and names and meanings.

Woodblock print of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi,
Monstrorum historia, 1642

In European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk (from the Greek βασιλίσκος basilískos, "little king"; Latin Regulus) is a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance.

Please note the connection between the basilisk and the Latin word Regulus. Regulus turns up in later books in the HP series as the name of someone who plays his part in the story although he is already dead when he is first mentioned.

Rowling continues throughout the whole story to make use of images used in alchemical texts and illustrations. Unless the reader is familiar with alchemical imagery already, however, he or she won't see it, or be able to interpret it. And this in itself is what makes it brilliant: because it resembles what the old alchemists themselves did, when they wrote their texts. They used language and images which would only be understood by those who already had some understanding.

Basil Valentine Links from
Basil Valentine
Notes on the Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine
The Twelve Keys (the complete text)


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