Happy Golden Birthday to the Philosopher’s Stone

by Dr. Beatrice Groves

Today, June 26, 2023, marks 26 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. That means it is this novel’s “golden birthday” (the year when the date of your birth coincides with your age). And the concept seems particularly fitting for Sorcerer’s Stone because, as its title tells us, this is a novel all about transformation into gold. The philosopher’s stone is, as the poet George Herbert puts it, “the famous stone / That turneth all to gold.” In his quest to prevent this stone from falling into the hands of the enemy, Harry is tested and proven to be the true golden gold at heart. I’ve discussed alchemy in Harry Potter here before (see Reading, Writing, Rowling Episode 45: “Alchemical Weddings in Harry Potter and Beyond”). But the golden birthday of Philosopher’s Stone seems a golden opportunity to take another look at some of the alchemical symbolism of the series.

The centrality of alchemical symbolism in Harry Potter has been acknowledged on Pottermore, describing the importance of the way in which alchemy is “symbolic of a spiritual journey, leading the alchemist from ignorance (base metal) to enlightenment (gold).” (See also John Granger’s trailblazing exploration of this subject in his book The Deathly Hallows Lectures (2008).) The centrality of this alchemical imagery was lost when the book was published as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in America. What many people don’t know is that it almost lost that title in the United Kingdom as well.

I wanted to change the title because I thought it was a bit of a mouthful. But Jo said children love unfamiliar words, so like all good publishers, I gave way to my author.
– Barry Cunningham, head of children’s publishing at Bloomsbury (source)

Yet another explicit pointer to the novel’s alchemical symbolism was lost when the character “Pyrites” was cut from the opening chapters of Sorcerer’s Stone:

Other drafts included a character by the name of ‘Pyrites’, whose name means ‘fool’s gold’. He was a servant of Voldemort’s and was meeting Sirius in front of the Potters’ house. Pyrites, too, had to be discarded, though I quite liked him as a character; he was a dandy and wore white silk gloves, which I thought I might stain artistically with blood from time to time.

The presence of a malevolent character called Fool’s Gold would, of course, have strongly emphasized Sorcerer’s Stone’s alchemical imagery: Fool’s Gold as an evil foil to our hero, the true gold. In the series as it stands, this explicit symbolism has to wait until the final novel when Harry’s “golden” heroic status is given a visible manifestation when he turns the Polyjuice Potion gold. When the reader first meets Polyjuice Potion in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, we are told that it embodies a kind of “essence” of that person (“Urgh – essence of Millicent Bulstrode” (CoS ch. 12)), which means that gold, the color that the Polyjuice Potion turns at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, symbolizes Harry’s “essence” (a neatly alchemical word).

Gold is most visible in the series as the color of Harry’s House (along with red, which is likewise a color traditionally linked with both the stone and gold). The lion that symbolizes Harry’s House is likewise a traditional symbol of gold in alchemical texts. As Neil Powell, in his Alchemy, the Ancient Science (1976), has written of medieval alchemical symbolism, “They were influenced by medieval philosophy which believed that things which were superficially alike possessed some underlying similarity of nature. Therefore the lion, which was proud and tawny-coloured and walked in the Sun, was not only a suitable symbol for gold but could be thought to be an actual aspect of the nature of gold.”

There is also a pun on gold within the name Gryffindor. It can be broken down to griffon d’or, meaning “griffin of gold.” Griffins are in fact mythological guardians of gold (as is mentioned, for example, in Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book 2, ll.943-7)), which is another reason the name Gryffindor works so well. It also enables a further pun in the griffin-shaped knocker on Dumbledore’s door: “a gleaming oak door ahead, with a brass knocker in the shape of a griffin” (CoS ch. 11). This “griffin door” punningly and pleasingly notes Dumbledore’s allegiance.

It is often forgotten that Nicolas Flamel is not the only alchemist in Harry Potter; Dumbledore is also an alchemist. Harry reads about his alchemical exploits in both the first and last books: on Dumbledore’s Chocolate Frog card, which describes his “work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel” (SS ch. 6), and then in The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, which notes Dumbledore’s winning of the Gold Medal for Ground-Breaking Contribution to the International Alchemical Conference (DH ch. 18). More importantly, Dumbledore acts as a symbolic alchemist within the text: discerning the true gold of Harry’s nature and transforming him through constant testing into a true hero. The adept (Dumbledore) teaches the aspirant (Harry) the correct path, and in the final novel, Harry will die to rise again: “He was all gold when He lay down, but rose / All tincture.”

Dumbledore, and the events of the series as a whole, enables this growth in Harry via the alchemical process of solve et coagula. This important alchemical phrase is tattooed on Rowling’s writing wrist (see my essays Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), and it describes a process of purification via a repeated cycle of dissolution (breaking down) and coagulation (rebuilding). Lyndy Abraham, in her immensely helpful Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (1998), notes how “with each cycle of solve et coagula the matter in the alembic becomes purer and more potent. A well-known alchemical dictum is ‘Dissolve and congeal again and again, dissolve and congeal, till the tincture grows in the stone.'”

This makes solve et coagula a perfect metaphor for the repetitive structure of Harry Potter: The refining of meaning that takes place as the basic formula is repeated over and over across seven novels. With each novel in the series, the reader is presented with yet another year in which Harry has to leave Privet Drive, be bullied by Snape, find out who the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher might be, win a Quidditch match, visit Hagrid’s hut, etc. In effect, the reader watches the base metal of the story structure get reheated over and over again, to effect a slow transformation in the hero and perhaps, the reader too.

In Harry Potter, the reader becomes a fellow traveler on the hero’s journey from Privet Drive to Hogwarts and back again each year, methodically following the school year punctuated by the crucial dates of the opening and closing feasts, Halloween, Christmas, birthdays and holidays, etc. The alchemical structure of solve et coagula sees this repetition as purifying, a journey taken with greater understanding each year by hero and reader alike, as Harry undergoes his transformation in what John Granger calls “the alembic” of the story to become the hero who can lay down his life for his friends in the final novel.

Throughout each novel, we are reminded of the alchemical nature of Harry’s journey through the naming of him as a “Seeker” – one who seeks the Golden Snitch. And it is a metaphor that has continued into the post-Potter Wizarding World. The gold-seeking Nifflers in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, for example, help Newt find not only a Goldstein but finally the essential treasure of the blood pact. Not only in Sorcerer’s Stone but throughout the novels, Nifflers and Seekers, Triwizard champions and Horcrux hunters seek golden objects as a marker of how all the quests in Harry Potter are inflected by the alchemical quest.

Quidditch metaphors return at the climax of the series as Harry overthrows Voldemort – the Resurrection Stone is hidden within his first Snitch, and the Elder Wand, which spins into Harry’s hand, is caught “with the unerring skill of the Seeker” (DH ch. 36) – because this is the true conclusion of what he has always been seeking on his alchemical quest. “Seeker” is a Muggle name for those who seek both spiritual truth and the stone as well as a wizarding name for those who chase after Golden Snitches, and in Deathly Hallows, this symbolism comes full circle. The Golden Snitch that Harry catches in Sorcerer’s Stone contains a hidden stone that parallels the life-giving power of the philosopher’s stone itself. In Nicholas Flammel’s Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures (1624), an alchemical work, supposedly written by Nicolas Flamel himself, the action of the philosopher’s stone is spoken of in language that recalls the riddle written on this Snitch, the Snitch that binds the first and last novels: “I open at the close” (DH ch. 7, 22, 34).

Nicolas Flamel writes that the philosopher’s stone, like a story that is read to its conclusion, “desireth to be opened and shut.” The Snitch that is caught in the first novel, but only opens at the end of the final novel to reveal the Resurrection Stone, is a perfect encapsulation of the series’ own circular form: “I open at the close.”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot



Writing with cutting-edge literary analysis of the series, Bathilda's Notebook explores the literature and ideas that have most inspired Rowling, from Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes.