Barry McNamara  |   Published April 23, 2019

Teaching Harry Potter

Anne Mamary’s ‘Reflections’ helps students see J.K. Rowling’s series in a broader context.
  • The Monmouth College and West Central Middle School Quidditch teams had some Harry Potter-related fun on the playground before their big match in the school gym.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – A generation of college students have grown up reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Through a Monmouth College class, students can develop a greater appreciation for the series’ deeper moral issues.

Monmouth philosophy professor Anne Mamary says studying the series provides many teachable moments for students in her junior-level Reflections course, which is part of the College’s Integrated Studies curriculum. In fact, Rowling’s detailed knowledge of the ancient practice of alchemy might make it one of the most interdisciplinary topics around.

“I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter,” Rowling once said. “To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy.”

In the history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism and art.

“In college, I was a chemistry major,” said Mamary. “I really didn’t know it at the time, but what I wanted to be was an alchemist. I found that in philosophy. It makes you see the world differently.”

Mamary said Rowling’s series accomplishes that same feat.

“The books transform many people’s ordinary assumptions about what is valuable. Speaking of the Philosopher’s Stone, which was supposed to transform base metals into gold and produce the Elixir of Life, Rowling’s Dumbledore says, ‘As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.’ We sometimes find glimpses of gold in our class conversations about what makes a good life, both individually and together. For me, those are alchemical moments of transformation.”

Mamary said Rowling reflects the alchemists’ journey of transformation. As they worked to distill the heavenly or timeless already present in the earthly, their lives were transformed.

“It’s not about gold or immortality in the most obvious sense – it’s about finding that heavenly, golden nature that’s already in you,” she said. “It’s been there all along – it’s about purifying it. The books help us to distill what is really important to each of us from our ordinary lives.”

Teaching ‘transformations’

Mamary is in the midst of teaching her ninth installment of a Harry Potter-based class. Its title – “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Soul” – comes from the British title of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the American release.

“Although Rowling was referring to the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone, her novels also perform a sort of literary alchemy,” said Mamary. “The class reads the Harry Potter series for its transformative themes, primarily themes of moral development.”

Other themes investigated throughout the semester are oppression and social justice; power, mortality and evil; and the magic of love.

“No matter how many times you read the books or watch the movies, you always discover something new,” said Kyla Baker ’20 of Chicago, who said the series has taught her about the importance of friendship and love. “Maintaining friendships allows us to have the support we need to overcome the challenges that we may face. … By allowing ourselves to love those around us, we are able to establish better connections and maintain relationships, as well as become kinder individuals, even to those who may not be kind to us.”

Baker said a perfect example comes from the series’ last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when there was a fire in the Room of Requirement. “Rather than only saving Ron and Hermione, Harry made an effort to save (his antagonists) Draco and Goyle, as well,” she said.

Mamary’s scholarly work with the Harry Potter series isn’t limited to prepping for her class and reflecting with them on the transformative powers of the novels in their own lives. She is editing Transformations: Harry Potter and Alchemy (McFarland 2020), which includes a chapter she wrote titled “Ruddy Stargazers: Centaurs, Philosophers, and a Life Worth Living.” In June, she’ll present a condensed version of the chapter at the conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies in Ottawa, Canada.

“I finally read the first three books of the series when I was in my 30s,” said Mamary, who completed her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr (Pa.) College in 1986. “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. By the time the fourth book came out, I was in line at Barnes & Noble at midnight to get it.”

Although the generic description of “young adult fiction” is applied to classify Harry Potter texts, Mamary said they are much more than that.

“Most of these students have grown up with Harry Potter, and Harry Potter has grown up with them,” she said. “The books work for kids, but they also work with adults. … I worried that I would tire of reading the series, but every year there are 18-20 new students in the class who see things in the books I never would have seen. It really is magical.”

Catching The Golden Snitch

That range of ages was on full display during a recent class trip to Stronghurst, Ill. There, Mamary’s students played a hotly contested game of Quidditch against students in Dumbledore’s Academy, the Harry Potter Club at West Central Middle School, under the direction of longtime junior high science teacher and Monmouth College alumna Tamy Rankin.

The whole school turned out to welcome Monmouth’s Quidditch team and to watch the battles. Mamary’s class emerged victorious, with Baker twice making the winning move of swiping the yellow headband of The Golden Snitch.

“I think they really loved the Quidditch,” said Mamary of her students. “They weren’t going to go easy on them, especially after the video the club sent challenging us to the match.”

Rankin’s students are certainly passionate about their love of all things Harry Potter, but they don’t just live in a fantasy world. In fact, they live the novels’ transformative powers in their Muggle (the term for non-magical people) lives. The club recently hosted a Valentine’s Day dance, raising $400 to support the Family Outreach Community Center, an organization founded by the late Alicia Pence, a 2011 Monmouth graduate.

Listen Up …

Hear an interview Anne recorded with WRJM-FM in Aledo, Ill.

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