John Granger, Dean of Harry Potter Scholars: The Nerd World Interview

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John Granger writes rigorous but accessible literary criticism about Harry Potter. He’s written four books on the subject so far, most recently Harry Potter’s Bookshelf: The Great Books Behind the Hogwarts Adventures, and he blogs at He is, basically, the scholar that I set out to become but never did.

When I met John at LeakyCon in May, I wasn’t sure if we’d have anything to say to each other. He’s a successful scholar, a practicing Christian and a former Marine. I’m a failed scholar, an atheist, and an ex-Space Ranger. And you know how the terrestrial and interplanetary services do squabble.

But I was blown away by his intellect, and his energy, and the way people respond to his lectures. (The phrase ‘rock star’ comes up a lot.) We stayed in touch and had an extremely fruitful and stimulating correspondence, about Harry and Twilight (and my book, to which he administered the literary-critical equivalent of when Russian people flay each other with birch twigs for fun — is good for you!)

I thought you guys should get a sense of how he rolls. The books I quietly let people assume I’ve read? He’s actually read them.

1. OK, tell me about the book. What were you setting out to do in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf?

My first Harry Potter job was teaching an online course on Sorcerer’s Stone in 2002 for the now defunct Barnes and Noble The class as it was set up was something of a disaster but the number and diversity of people in the e-classroom astonished me: grandparents, teachers, librarians, students, pastors, and serious readers from five continents and three archipelagos by the boatload — and these hundreds of people wanted to know more about the meaning and artistry of Harry’s adventures.

Of course I urged them to read my first book, Hidden Key to Harry Potter (now How Harry Cast His Spell),) which spelled out the themes, symbolism, and the story scaffolding. This last, the literary alchemy, was terra incognita  even to the geeks and English majors in those online boards and I was buried in requests for more books on this subject and on books that explain Harry Potter in the context of English literature.

Outside of one academic journal (Cauda Pavonis) and Stanton Linden’s Darke Hierogliphicks, there is very little about literary alchemy per se except in marginalia from books about Shakespearean theatre and the Metaphysical Poets — except for the glut of guide books on alchemical imagery in poems, plays, and novels. (Lyndy Abraham’s Cambridge University Press Dictionary is the best, I think.)

And there wasn’t anything back in those Dark Ages about Harry Potter as literature. We were still on the barricades then trying to keep the books out of Baptist bonfires. The requests did move me to start writing, though, a book called Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge that eventually became Harry Potter’s Bookshelf to meet the demand for a book introducing the literary backdrops to Ms. Rowling’s artistry and meaning.

None of that answers your question… What I set out to do was two things: (1) write a book that would help readers understand Harry better by revealing the literary traditions in which the Hogwarts Adventures are written, and (2), inversely and simultaneously, using the Potter Saga they know so well, to build a bridge to the ‘classics’ everyone has heard about and too few people actually read.

Ridiculously ambitious, I know, and Bookshelf suffers from the obvious inability to say everything or even very much about anything in its attempt to survey the ‘Greats’ from Chaucer to Tolkien. For readers wanting the depth on alchemy, the eye symbolism, and Rowling’s Christian content, The Deathly Hallows Lectures is a better choice. But Bookshelf, I hope, makes the point that the author’s name is a cryptonym like so many of her characters’ names in that her books are a "rowling" together of ten traditional and conventional genres and a multitude of great writing in each of those genres.

2. Cryptonym. Such an awesome word. So how did you proceed, methodologically speaking? Did you basically have to read everything that Rowling has read?

You are funny. You remember when “cryptonym” was only used by Dickens readers, right? “Havisham” equals “Have-a-sham”? Now, because of Harry Potter fandom’s love for decoding Rowling’s character names (Peter Pettigrew…), I bet there is a

Back to your question… Who knows what Ms. Rowling has read, really, other than her Holy Trinity of Austen, Collette, and Nabokov? I suspect, too, that she repressed the latter two influences while writing the Potter Saga (Scholastic and Bloomsbury gave her free rein, obviously, for the most part but I don’t see much Lolita peeking out from behind the animated suits of armor at Hogwarts, unless you read Luna as a Slash-fiction refugee). My task in writing Bookshelf, then, was less tracking down what Rowling had read than it was genre hunting in the books she wrote.

Starting from the core "Schoolboy novel" stuff from Hughes to Blyton and the heavy Gothic touches of the scenery and characters, I had to identify all the elements in her double-coding casserole: Hero’s journey, alchemical drama, detective mystery, children’s literature, postmodern morality tales (Diversity or Die!), Christian fantasy, satire a la Swift and Cruikshank, etc. Identifying those categories was pretty straight forward and seeing the most likely classic connection from each literary genre was, if anything, easier. The woman is drop-dead brilliant, obviously, but figuring out what she is about doesn’t require the same sort of genius, just pedestrian persistence and a willingness to explore the obvious.

If for some readers and critics even the obvious, I learned, is not that obvious. That Rowling is writing Alchemical Drama, especially, seems to throw people for a loop. Critics shake their head on that one, though everything from the title of the first book, the names of key characters, and the story arc of each book and the series a  whole make the story scaffolding rather hard to deny once you allow that a "welfare mom" could be capable of this sort of artistry. I’m suspicious many readers cannot get past the Cinderella story that played in the media for so long.

3. You were in the Marines. How did you get from there to writing serious literary stuff about Harry Potter?

Are you suggesting, Lev, that Marines are not consumed by the study of better writing? I know that you’ll find this a stretch, stranger that you are to military life, but most of the leather necks I hung out with as a ‘comm tech’ and ‘signals interp’ in the late 80’s  were avid readers of what is usually dismissed as ‘genre fiction’ (Horror, techno-thrillers, courtroom drama, etc.) and very serious in their efforts to ‘get’ at what it was about. No joke.

But, no, it wasn’t a straight-line progression from Parris Island to lecturing at Harry Potter fan cons and Princeton. If there is a connection, it was that I grew up during my time in the Marine Corps, a maturing which certainly hadn’t happened in my undergraduate years as a Classicist at the University of Chicago or my years as a Latin teacher. The training in Latin and Greek (and esoterica like alchemy), as well as growing up Episcopalian and loving long novels, obviously helped me ‘get’ much of what Ms. Rowling was about that others missed — you could say the glasses through which we see things have a similar prescription — but six years in camouflage utilities and boots, four years overseas, expanded my laughably narrow and academic perspective.

4. Do literary academics think it’s weird that you treat Harry Potter with the same critical tools you’d use on "great" literary novelists?

I’m guessing that by “weird” you mean “laughable,” and I’d guess you are right. I don’t know for sure, though. They keep inviting me to speak at the good schools, but how could I know what literary academics think? I never was part of the club, Lev, and the giants don’t condescend to read my books or write to tell me what they think, if they do. I doubt very much I’m on their radar because I speak a different language and have written for a larger audience than academic journals or even The New York Review of Books.

I read and interpret books as a I was taught to by the Straussians and McKeonites at Chicago. The text is not an artifact for deconstruction but an intricate conversation to be had with either an inspired mind or a very deliberate speaker. There are four ways, depths or degrees that human beings know things — sense impression, opinion, demonstrated knowledge, and wisdom — so there are four ways to engage in this conversation or know a text of any quality, namely, its surface, moral, allegorical, and anagogical or sublime meanings. The latter three come through the surface but you’re obliged to get beneath the surface to understand what’s going on.

This isn’t a technique or a set of tools so much as it is common sense consequent to being human — or so the Chicago Classicist was taught to think. And it is traditional; it’s Northrup Frye via John Ruskin via Coleridge via Spencer via Dante via Aquinas via Boethius via Hebrew ‘Garden’ (Pardes) interpretation of the Pentateuch. ‘Iconological criticism’ as Frye tagged it doesn’t get much attention in Universities today (or in Frye, alas) but it is the human way to read and the way everyone read until we decided to drop Ruskin’s meditative "slow mining" for "deconstruction" and the like.

The fun thing about reading this way is that it’s fairly easy to understand so the "great unwashed" millions who want to understand Harry Potter and why these stories resonate so strongly with them are able to do it themselves with just a little practice. And a ‘trot’ like Harry Potter’s Bookshelf or The Deathly Hallows Lectures.

But maybe I have misunderstood the point of your question. Did you mean just academics or people everywhere? "Are you considered a nutter for reading these children’s fantasies the way you’d read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Joyce?" If that’s what you meant, of course I am. You’d love some of the expressions on people’s faces when I’m introduced to them as the “Harry Potter literature guy.”

As James Thomas of Pepperdine said in your favorite journal, cognoscenti and pretenders dismiss Potter for three reasons: "They couldn’t possibly be good because they’re too recent, they’re too popular, and they’re too juvenile." Looking for the allegorical or sublime in Rowling strikes a lot of intelligent people, who as a rule have doubts about anything ‘sublime,’ as dumpster diving in search of discarded Picassos.

Which is their loss, no? If Hannah Arendt said we should be reading Science fiction, I don’t see justification for intellectual snobbery about Potter. Not reading fantasy fiction seriously — even magical stories selling hundreds of millions of copies and reshaping the imagination of generations as their shared text! — because it isn’t Updike, Roth, or Salinger strikes me as some melange of mechanical ‘genre revulsion,’ willful self-blindness, and, in Ms. Rowling’s case, almost certainly a little class bias and misogyny. Her books stand up to a very rigorous reading for the same reasons people respond to them as they do; they’re brilliantly conceived and executed works of layered artistry and meaning.

4. [Bites back knee-jerk defense of deconstruction. Sorry, it’s a side-effect of having going to college in the late 1980s] In general I find it to be the case that academics are less interested in fantasy than in SF. SF is ‘cool.’ Philip K. Dick is in the Library of America. Why don’t academics want to let fantasy into the club?

Really, your efforts to cross-breed Fantasy with the Modern Novel in The Magicians might help. I don’t get the strangle-hold modern, realist fiction has on the critical community but the grip seems to be loosening. Take the voting on best novel of the 20th Century. Reader’s polls uniformly chose Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as their favorite; egghead geeks chose Joyce’s Ulysses with almost equal fervor and unanimity. In terms of majesty, reach, and influence, can Ulysses really be considered as important — outside the closed world of psychological, interior fiction — as Tolkien’s masterwork? I’m not a big Tolkien fan but I have to scratch my head about that choice. Genre Revulsion or prejudice explains a lot, yes, but I’m thinking the roots of English fantasy being in Coleridgean esoteric Christianity, as the Romantic counter-stroke to the victory of the bloodless empiricists, has a larger part in this.

I mean, Tolkien is a Vatican 1 Catholic and devout. Joyce and he have the same roots but move in absolutely contrary directions with one celebrating and smuggling his faith in epic fantasy and the other denying his implicitly and explicitly. Maybe the ‘Best Book’ vote was just a secret vote on the value of traditional faith in literature. Hoi Polloi voted with the history of English literature, which, like it or not, is Christians writing for other Christians for the greater life in Christ, and the academy voted against.

As long as fantasy holds to these roots, and really its success as a genre, I think, ties to the mythic or religious experience it delivers to a spirit-starved secular culture, I don’t think fantasy will be accepted by academic agnostics. I think the literature department at Harvard will vote for Sarah Palin first.

5. How does being an observant Christian affect how you read Harry Potter? Your reading of Deathly Hallows places at its center the idea of the Logos — “This Logos, which ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world,’ is our mind and conscience as well as our spiritual faculty.” Is it necessary to be a Christian to really ‘get’ Harry Potter?

In a word, "no." The joke has been that Osama bin Laden has Harry Potter action figures in his Pakistan cave to play with, and I think the point of that mental picture is that everybody loves these books. They’re not a denominationally Christian or evangelical tool, as many people think, mistakenly by the way, that C. S. Lewis’ Narniad is. You don’t have to be a Christian to get Harry Potter in the sense of experiencing the story magic, obviously, because the allegorical and anagogical content comes through the surface narrative and hits home, unconsciously, with everyone, even if they don’t understand the traditional links of Griffins, a phoenix, a White Stag, and Unicorns with Jesus of Nazareth.

To really understand the artistry and meaning of Rowling’s work, though, if this is what you mean by ‘get,’ it’s going to be very hard to work the lock of the passages the author says are "key" to Deathly Hallows — the opening epigraphs, the scripture on the Godric’s Hollow headstones, the walk into the Forbidden Forest, and the conversation with Dumbledore at King’s Cross — without a greater grasp of Christianity than thinking of it strictly as devotional faith in the historical Nazarene.

Harry is a story cipher for the "heart" or noetic faculty of soul, call it "spirit" in the body, mind, spirit triptych of Ron/Hermione/Harry, a triptych that is the allegorical spine of the books. If your conscious understanding of the human person doesn’t include even the possibility of a logos epistemology joined to Christ as Incarnate Logos, this will be an impossible leap to get, even if it is an Inkling cliche and story formula item. Rowling conforms to fantasy tradition in this rather than breaking new round; that critics — even Christian ones like Alan Jacobs who insist that Harry is not a Christ figure — don’t see this reflects on their distance in thinking about thinking, not to mention Christology, from Coleridge, MacDonald, Barfield, Williams, and friends.

6. What house do you see yourself in? Personally I have you pegged as a Ravenclaw, but you never know …

You’ve very kind. (I’m assuming you mean that sorting as a compliment rather than a pointer to my being an affected geek.) My status as an uncredentialed ‘independent scholar,’ though, makes me confident I would be most at home as a Hufflepuff.

7. [The compliment was that you’re an affected geek!] I see you’re branching out into Twilight scholarship as well. Does Stephenie Meyer present different scholarly challenges than Rowling? Also: Team Edward or Team Jacob?

Please tell me that question wasn’t inspired by the mental picture of Cedric Diggory, Hufflepuff champion, as played by Robert Pattinson, now Twilight’s Edward Cullen.

Taking Stephenie Meyer seriously as a writer is a real throwback to the days when writing and speaking about Harry Potter as literature had all the intellectual street cred of playing in a sand box or collecting Star Trek memorabilia. Though Mrs. Meyer’s books are breaking Rowling’s records for longevity at the top of real world best seller lists, you’d think she was Beatrix Potter or a Buffy clone for the thin critical attention she has received.

In that respect, the scholarly challenge is the same, only much greater. Anthony Holden and Harold Bloom kicked Rowling to the curb way back when because she was writing schoolboy fiction, in their mind the most tired and pedestrian genre in existence. Schoolboy fiction, though, is infinitely more respectable and inviting than Young Adult romance and this is Meyer’s artistic cross (which, incidentally, she has abandoned, successfully, in having written a best-selling science fiction novel).

Twilight resembles the Potter books, too, beyond the difficulty even serious readers have in taking them seriously despite unheard of popularity and sales, in the almost universal rejection of the common sense proposition that they sell well because they are well written. Not majestic language or magisterial imagery, certainly, but it should be a no-brainer that their popularity derives, as does Rowling’s, from the Twilight books being laden with moral, allegorical, and hermetic meaning.

Eliade said that in a secular culture books and films serve a religious or mythic function; my corollary to that is that those books and films which deliver beneath the horizon the most religious and archetypal imagery and substance will consequently be the most popular. They meet the spiritual hunger most profoundly. Rowling and Meyer are simply brilliant at this.

The different "scholarly challenges" are that Twilight presents are two-fold. First, Mrs. Meyer is a Latter-day Saint rather than a traditional Christian so I have had to drink from the Mormon fountain through a fire-hose. Fortunately for me, most LDS beliefs are quilted together from hermetic heresies of England’s 17th Century Radical Reformation so I’m already up to speed on the alchemy of the books and much of what Mrs. Meyer is smuggling about human transformation and apotheosis.

I didn’t grow up as a Mormon, however, and my beliefs are on the far side of the Christian Spectrum than hers (if one allows that Mormonism is on the Christian spectrum; most Christians don’t). I enjoy reading the books but I lack the natural sympathy I enjoyed with Ms. Rowling’s Anglican subcreation.

And the biggest difference is that Rowling and Meyer write from different templates. Potter’s seven year odyssey was planned over the course of five years before Joanne Rowling wrote out the first book and she claims to have boxes filled with notebooks of back-story. Meyer was inspired by a single dream from which inspiration she wrote feverishly and privately for just a few weeks to produce Twilight. The series that followed (with the exception of Breaking Dawn) is the product of a multi-book contract with a publisher rather than deliberate planning from the start.

Reading Twilight critically, in consequence, requires dream interpretation skills as much as literacy. It’s largely a Garden of Eden allegory as understood by Latter-day Saints, as the first book’s cover, Genesis epigraph, and ‘First Sight’ opening chapter reveal, but it is also her wish-fulfillment apology for Mormon doctrine, practices, and historical events. It has much more in common with C. S. Lewis’ Narniad, in this respect, than Ms. Rowling’s books do, even if there aren’t any wizards or magical beasts.

Mrs. Meyer’s dream happened the summer Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven was published, for instance, with two other books on the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre that were highly critical of Mormons as blood-thirsty cultists and misogynists. Meyer’s dream of a vampire in a mountain meadow was no chance inspiration and that each Twilight book features a revelation and confrontation in a Mountain Meadow isn’t accidental.

Sorting out the LDS apologetical work and her almost-off-the-Salt-Lake- reservation beliefs bordering on fantasy-apostacy from the moral, allegorical, and hermetic meaning that give the books their "wow" for her millions of non-Mormon readers has been a challenge and a lot of fun. Not as many laughs in Forks as there were in Hogwarts, I concede, but I’m enjoying this work more than my Potter studies if only because that has become a relatively crowded field lately, believe it or not. The Twilight critical landscape today is still open range.

Team Edward or Team Jacob? The first would make me a Nephite, the latter a Lamanite, in Mormon-speak, and you’re very much supposed to prefer the former to the latter (if, contrary to the dyadic quality of the Book of Mormon, Mrs. Meyer in the person of Bella re-unites the divided tribes of Israel in the New World through her alchemical marriage to Edward and giving birth to the magically hermaphroditic Nessie). I’ll go with the critically neutral ‘Team Switzerland,’ though, in order not to offend fandom partisans of either shipping stripe.