One of the pleasures of reading J. K. rowling is discovering the playful references to history, legend, and literature that she hides in her books. For instance, the Sphinx in the maze during the Triwizard Tournament asks a riddle, just as the Sphinx of ancient Greek mythology did. Hagrid's pet dog Fluffy is actually another famous beast from Greek mythology, Cerberus. Durmstrang, the name of the wizarding school that admits only full-blooded wizards and has questionable links to Lord Voldemort, comes from a German artistic style called Sturm und Drang, which was a favorite of Nazi Germany. As well, Durmstrang students arrive at Hogwarts in a ship like the one featured prominently in a famous Sturm und Drang opera. Alert readers know Rowling also hides fun clues in the names she chooses for characters. Draco, Harry's nemesis, gets his name from the Latin word for dragon or snake. Dumbledore's pet phoenix, Fawkes, gets his name from a historical figure linked to bonfires just as phoenixes are said to be reborn in fire.
This book decodes her clues to reveal the artfully hidden meanings. In an online chat with fans, she encouraged one reader who asked the origin of a particular phrase to go and look it up. A little investigation is good for a person. That's what The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter is about: a little investigation, in a spirit of fun. The point is to entertain, amuse, and fascinate.
You may even be sharing a laugh with Rowling herself. As TIME magazine said when noting that Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch gets his name from the Argus of Greek mythology, a watchman with a thousand eyes on his body, it's the sort of touch that can prompt an author's inward smile.
If you've never noticed those clues, don't feel alone. One of Rowling's amazing gifts is her ability to toss them out without breaking stride in telling her story. For example, she's happy to make only a passing reference in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to a manticorea nasty, man-eating, imaginary beast. Skipping the opportunity to describe that creature in detail takes discipline. But for Rowling, it's just a casual reference. Still, when you know what a manticore is, and that it has appeared in legends for thousands of years, Rowling's story is all the more satisfying.
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, coined the term cauldron of story to describe an ever-cooking pot of ideas, themes, and characters from which every writer takes, and to which every writer adds. Though the fictional world created by J. K. Rowling is unique, it grows from a deep foundation of myths and folklore that have endured across distance and time. The popularity of Rowling's books testifies to the breadth of culture from which she draws many of her images, characters, and themes. This book reveals that broader realm to fans whose awareness has been awakened by reading Rowling. As you'll see, she creates something entirely new with the bits of material from which she draws; yet she remains remarkably true to the essence of each.
DID ALCHEMISTS REALLY SEARCH FOR A MAGIC STONE?
Just what were alchemists trying to do? Did they accomplish anything, or did all their work disappear in a cloud of smoke?
Anyone who has read Stone knows that alchemy is an ancient mix of chemistry and magic. Alchemists tried to create gold from less valuable metals, and to concoct a potion that could cure all ills and make the drinker immortal.
The Arab world is credited with the origin of alchemy. The name comes from the Arab term al-kimia, which also gives us the word chemistry. However, some historians say the root of that Arab word is the ancient Greek Khmia, which means Egypt. They believe Egyptian alchemists may have existed long before the Arab world began the practice. In any case, alchemy actually developed all over the world, including China and India.
We tend to think of alchemists as greedy and overreaching, obsessed with wealth and immortality. But some people say their work laid the foundation for modern chemistry. Indeed, real scientists studied alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton, the physicist and mathematician, wrote millions of words on the subject. However, in keeping with tradition, Newton was secretive about his alchemy experimentsat one point urging another alchemist to keep high silence about the work.
The Metropolis of Alchemy
During the late 1500s two emperors hired the world's leading alchemists to work in the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. This led to a nickname for the city: the Metropolis of Alchemy. Emperors, however, can be fickle. When a British alchemist, Edward Kelley, failed to create gold, he was thrown in a dungeon. Even the efforts of Britain's Queen Elizabeth I failed to win his release. He died trying to escape.
Of course, there were many frauds. A story is told of the arrival in Prague during that era of a stranger from Arabia, who invited the city's wealthiest men to a banquet where he promised to multiply the gold they brought. After gathering the offerings he prepared a mixture of chemicals and odd ingredients, such as eggshells and horse manure. This blend proved to be a stinkbomb, which permitted the charlatan a quick escape with the gold.
The Philosopher's Stone
One source calls the actual process followed by alchemists hopelessly complicated. However, the basics were simple. According to the standard theory, all metals were a combination of mercury and sulfur. The more yellow the metal, the more sulfur in the mixture. So combining sulfur with mercury, in the right proportion and with the proper sequence of steps, would create gold.
Eventually, alchemists became frustrated with simple methods that did not work. They began to search for a magic ingredient, which they called the philosopher's stone. Some alchemists continued to believe the magic ingredient was simply sulfur. However, in Stone it is described as blood-red, so Rowling probably had something more interesting in mind.
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ARE BASILISKS JUST BIG SNAKES?
Basilisks are among the most dreaded magical creatures. Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, Hermione reads in Chamber, there is none more curious or more deadly.
The basilisk is certainly more than just a large snake. Also known as a cockatrice, it has existed in legend for centuries. Rowling is just having fun in Beasts when she credits a Greek wizard named Herpo the Foul with breeding the first basilisk. Herpein is a Greek word meaning to creep that came to be a word describing snakes. The study of reptiles such as snakes is now called herpetology.
However, just as she suggests, by legend the basilisk was said to be the offspring of a rooster or hen mated with a snake or toad. Some artists followed that description literally, and drew strange beasts combining features from those animals. But more often the basilisk was portrayed as a serpent with a crown or a white spot on his head. Cobras, which have such marks, may be the origin of the basilisk legend.
The basilisk was reported to be deadly even from afar. The Roman naturalist Pliny said, He kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits the rocks, such is the power of evil in him.
Some sources describe three varieties: the golden basilisk could poison with a look; another sparked fire; a third, like the famous snaky hair of Medusa in Greek mythology, caused such horror that victims were petrified.
William Shakespeare even mentioned a basilisk in his play Richard III. The evil title character kills his brother then immediately flatters his brother's widow by mentioning her beautiful eyes. But she isn't interested in his compliments. She replies, Would they were a basilisk's, to strike thee dead!
How to Fight a Basilisk
A basilisk controlled by Lord Voldemort slinks through Hogwarts in Chamber,
almost killing Harry and several of his friends. Harry is saved from that
basilisk by Fawkes, Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix, who pecks the monster's
eyes. It is fitting that a bird saves Harry. According to legend, a birdthe
roosteris fatal to the beast. In the Middle Ages travelers were known to carry
roosters as protection against basilisks.
Excerpted from The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter by David Colbert Copyright © 2002 by David Colbert. Excerpted by permission.
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