“Reading, Writing, Rowling” Episode 21: “Divination Class: Tarot, Astrology, and Games in Harry Potter”
Who could have predicted this episode? Join us in Divination class for this episode on tarot, astrology, and games in the Harry Potter series.
With the help of guests Eglantine Pillet (Sorbonne, University of Paris) and Beatrice Groves (Oxford University), Katy and John examine the symbols of prediction, destiny, and cosmic interconnection in J.K. Rowling’s universe. We talk about tarot’s origins as a game, its use to predict the future, and its key images (the Hanging Man and the Lightning-Struck Tower, among others) that appear in the Harry Potter stories. Eglantine explains what tarot symbols reveal about characters and their destinies. Rowling often uses these images playfully but also to reveal core themes and upcoming events – in ways that ironically surprise us. John reveals Rowling’s creative construction of amusing horoscopes early in her career and how her astrological images relate to mythic references in the series.
We ponder Sybill Trelawney as a problematic representative of divination practices and tarot in particular. Does Rowling believe in these divination tools? Bea is skeptical. Perhaps, John suggests, Trelawney is herself a stand-in for Rowling, the master narrator. John argues that Rowling’s public dismissal of astrology was an attempt to allay the “Potter Panic” about the occult qualities of the books. Although Rowling often uses these predictive games humorously, they also reveal a tension between the ideas of free will and destiny pervading the series. Eglantine points out that Dumbledore is a good example of a balanced view between taking prophecy and prediction seriously and also having faith in individuals’ abilities to choose their own paths. We consider how divination plays out in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series and the Fantastic Beasts films as well.
Chess is another game that serves as a motif in the Harry Potter books. Eglantine explains that the story unfolds like a chess match – Dumbledore starts the game by stepping out onto black-and-white tile to meet with young orphan Tom Riddle – and she tells us which characters represent which pieces. Bea also connects Rowling’s chess imagery with early modern literary uses of chess – especially as it develops the romantic pairings in the series. Most importantly, Rowling is playing with her readers through the layering of games of all sorts, which is a large part of what makes her writing delightful and invites rereading.