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Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life. F Schiller.
Tales are incredibly important in Jo's universe: we have the “Prince's Tale”, “Hagrid's Tale”, Dumbledore telling Harry the “tale” of Riddle's life (we meet this evening to continue the tale of Tom Riddle HBP, p.337 Bloomsbury) or telling Harry he will not tell him at once what happened to his hand in the HBP: It is a thrilling tale, I want to do it justice. (HBP, p.63) to name a few.
In that context, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” appears like the major piece linking these elements in the Series (even Hagrid's tale as it is, to me, nothing but a pretext to introduce John Dee (“Dee-John” p.377 OotP) and through him the goal of the journey: becoming one).
The “tale of death” is first a tale of re-birth - a key element of Jo's universe with the tale format giving at the same time deeper meaning and rich symbolic imagery to the ideas Jo wants to put forth.
Tales have long been used by the alchemists as means to convey images and alchemical teachings. The most famous tale writer, in that regard, is certainly Charles Perrault whose “Tales of Mother Goose” contain many alchemical references (some of which found an echo in the HP Series such as the “Puss in Boots” story (through the cats of the Series) or “Sleeping Beauty”, the latter in connection with the meaning of the word “Auror”).
Funnily enough, in her introduction to The Tales of Beedle the Bard, it is two tales by Perrault that Jo first mentions: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty (p.xi), (Cinderella’s myth is older than Perrault’s time but his version is the most famous one). Beedle’s tales are in the same vein as Perrault’s, and a fantastic opportunity for Jo to thread more alchemical symbols into the Golden Fleece of her Series.
In the introduction, Jo also mentions that Beedle was born in Yorkshire (p. xiii), a detail that finds an echo in the illustrations of the book: the white rose is the emblem of Yorkshire and there are roses on each and every page of the book. The white rose also represents the Albedo, the white process (while the red rose represents the Rubedo, the ultimate red process). Therefore the link between Beedle and Dumbledore, whose comments are a wonderful addition to the tales, goes further than the luxuriant beard and the very similar views both Beedle and Dumbledore (Albus, the ‘white’ wizard) held on many subjects which are stressed by Jo. They are thus indeed both linked to the white process/ Mercury principle (just like Hermione who is credited by Jo as having made the “new” translation of the tales from the original runes).
In addition, Dumbledore’s name is based on the “bumblebee” while the “bee” is part of Beedle’s name, another common point which, just like the roses, points out towards the successful Great Work (the bee hive is an image similar to that of the maze which represents the journey of the alchemist that starts the Great Work, while honey represents quintessence, the achieved journey). Beedle is also close phonetically to “beetle” which symbolism is quite similar to that of the bee (Bees, beetles, and butterflies are symbols of purification and the rebirth of the soul or essence (D.Hauck, Alchemy, p.62)). Therefore, as Jo has stated that both Dumbledore and Hermione talk for her in the Series, I think we can safely say – based on the aforementioned connections – that Beedle does too.
A troubling detail of the introduction is the fact that Jo adds that Dumbledore’s notes on the tales were completed around eighteen months before the tragic events that took place at the top of the Hogwarts’ Astronomy Tower (p.xv), which means around Christmas time in the OotP: a “white” snowy winter time but also one in the heart of the Series’ Nigredo process. Therefore the content of the tales may be rich in terms of clues and hints for the Seeker who wants to reach the ‘time of the roses’, that is the White and Red stages. It matters not then that Harry never reads any of the first four tales: they are given to Hermione, the “hermetic guide”, at the beginning of the red process as a symbolic device that holds the keys to the success of the Series’ journey. To me, it is with this context in mind that the tales must be read.
Before analyzing each tale, it can be interesting to draw a succinct parallel between the five tales and the Elements (and their connected symbols).
Humor associated to the Elements
Organ associated to the Elements
Type of Elements / Main Character(s)
Tarot Suit connected to the Elements / Suit Images in the Tale
Elements/Hogwarts houses and their characteristics
"Morals" of the tales (succinctly)
Therefore, the Seeker - Harry - must have understood (and put to use) the moral of the first four tales and finally accept to “meet death” in order to become “the Fool”, reach Quintessence, and achieve his quest.
The above list is based on the chart of correspondences between the elements and their associated humors (based on the great book by historian François Lebrun: Se soigner autrefois. Médecins, saints et sorciers aux XVIIè et XVIIIè siècles (Medecine of Old: Doctors, Saints and Sorcerers in the 17th and 18th Centuries)).
So fire is connected to the bilious humor, which itself is connected to liver and bile as a body fluid (which incidentally was the main thing: the balance between the "fluids" in the body meant health, unbalance illness). Water is connected to the phlegmatic humor (itself connected to brain; body fluid: phlegm). Air is connected to the sanguine humor (itself connected to the heart; body fluid: blood). Earth is connected to the melancholic humor (itself connected to spleen; body fluid: black bile).
This chart of correspondences can find an interesting echo in the tales. The heart/blood/sanguine humor in particular fits well the Hairy Heart tale (or air-y heart?). The references to the other humors are less obvious in the other tales but nods can be seen.
The dry and hot bilious humor, also called “choleric”, is often connected with ambitious, quick to be angry people (colère is “anger” in French) which applies well to the young wizard of the tale. The illnesses of the villagers mentioned in the tale (most of them being “digestive”) fit too. Knowing Jo speaks French fluently, I would not be surprised if the fear the young wizard experiences in the end would also be a nod in that direction: in French, the phrase “to have the livers” means to be scared.
The phlegmatic humor is wet and cold, a humor often associated with being calm, unemotional. The way the witches have to think to find how to pass the trials set on their path (more or less all related to water) fits well too.
The dry and cold melancholic humor is that of autumn, associated with being considerate, creative, preoccupied with others' problems. The witch of the tale is old (at the “autumn” of her life) and her temperament fits well the above description. Here also, there can be a funny nod to a French phrase: “to run like a spleen-less man” means to run flat out, which is exactly what the witch does after being revealed by the charlatan.
(all quotes from p.3 to 11)
* Although the Hopping Pot is the Fire/Wands/Masculine/Gryffindor tale, the lucky cooking pot of the wizard also indicates the need for the young wizard to deal with the emotions of the Water/Cups Element. Refusing to help the Muggles who need it leads the pot to be filled with the woes and emotions of the Muggles: groans of hunger, baby cries, whinings, etc. The once empty cauldron even fills itself up with tears: it becomes full to the brim with emotions. Only when the young wizard symbolically puts a fire under the cauldron, that is uses its magic, making people believe he can brew solutions to all his neighbor’s woes in his cooking pot, can he find peace again. This is a fire (represented by the wizard)/water (represented by the pot) conjunction, and the sign the wizard has then achieved his journey.
* The journey had started with the young wizard despising what his father had left him after his death. When finding a small package in the pot he opened it, hoping for gold, but found instead a soft, thick slipper, much too small to wear and with no pair. Cursing his father, the wizard resolved to use it as a rubbish pail. In alchemy, true gold is alchemical gold, that is what the alchemist has learned on his journey. The wizard hopes for gold and it is indeed gold that his father has left him, not in a solid way however but in an alchemical way: when he finds the slipper, the son starts a journey that will change him and teach him all he needs to understand to live a fulfilling life.
* The son wants to use the pot as a rubbish pail which reminds one that alchemists used to say that the materia prima (first matter) from which the Philosopher’s Stone was made was to be found anywhere and everywhere, even in the despised dunghill (L.Abraham, p.62). The rubbish pail image therefore underlines the idea that though the son despises the pot, he has still been given the matter to the symbolic creation of his own Stone, that is his own transformation.
* The slipper in itself is a symbol of the journey the wizard has started since shoes (and socks, so important in the Series!) are originally symbol of journey – the first god wearing shoes is the divine messenger, the Greek Hermes (the Roman Mercury) whose sandals are equipped with wings (Enc. Des symboles, p.126). If the slipper of the tale has no pair, it is because it needs to be paired with the young wizard, they need to become a “team” (the water (Mercury – the pot/slipper)/fire conjunction already mentioned).
* After the son refuses to help an old woman, he saw that the old pot had sprouted a single foot of brass. Brass, like laton, symbolizes in alchemy the unclean body or raw stuff of the philosopher’s stone which must be cleansed of its impurities (L.Abraham, p.114): the journey has truly begun for the young wizard. The warts covering the pot represent the same need for “cleansing” the matter.
* The second visitor complains about the loss of his donkey, making the pot issue brays of donkey and groans of hunger as a result of the wizard's refusal to help. In alchemy, the donkey is connected to antimony which is used to purify the matter of the Stone. By way of phonetic cabala (that is alchemical play on words), “antimoine” (in French) is similar to “âne-timon”, that is “shaft-donkey” which, based on a Biblical reference, represents the process leading the alchemist to the “mercurial waters” that will cleanse the matter. Therefore the horrible noise made by the pot is similar to the action of antimony and enhances the need of cleansing the matter, that is changing the young wizard.
* More cleansing symbols come with the third visitor: the sobbing young woman whose baby was ill resulting in the pot starting slopping tears everywhere on the floor when the wizard refused to help her. Tears indeed represent the mercurial waters which cleanse the blackened, dead matter of the Stone lying at the bottom of the alembic (L.Abraham).
* Finally, when the wizard could not bear the pot’s cries anymore he started helping everybody in need (at every house of sickness and sorrow – a reference to the “black” phase of the Great Work in which the wizard was till this point). Having been changed by what the pot had made him endure and understood what he had to do, he could start acting as a Stone/Elixir of life and heal as much as he could. As always, Jo manages to hint that what the wizard needs to reach his goal is love (although here, fear motivates the wizard rather than love). Indeed, the wizard doused in dittany the sick baby. Dittany is a plant native to Crete where its name means… “love”. Doused in “love”, the baby awakes well and rosy, that is rose-y, indicating a fulfilled task.
Another clue pointing towards the achieved journey at the end of the tale is this sentence: Well, Pot? Asked the trembling wizard, as the sun began to rise. Dawn is also a symbol for the successful Great Work (dawn comes after the black phase of the Work). And it is together, “paired” at last, that the pot and the wizard then set off back to the wizard’s house. The circle is closed, the journey over.
* Interestingly enough, the drawing present at the beginning of the tale shows the slipper (the journey; Mercury), a wand (fire), water/tears (cleansing of the matter) and three slugs (which represent the silent tendency of darkness to move towards light (Cirlot, p.299)).
Dumbledore’s notes on the Hopping Pot tale (which is the “H.P.” tale incidentally, sort of famous initials, aren’t they?) The fire element is emphasized in the notes when DD reminds one that in the 15th century helping Muggles was tantamount to volunteering to fetch the firewood for one’s own funeral pyre. (p.13).
(p.21 to 35)
The idea of the enclosed garden and of the fountain that can be found in its heart is deeply alchemical. Many alchemical images depict enclosed gardens, and several of them bear fountains which look a lot like the one Jo drew p.32. See for example on the alchemy website: the emblem A144 on this page: www.alchemywebsite.com/amclglr8.html or the emblem A018 on this page: www.alchemywebsite.com/amclglr1.html (from a book called “The Journey of the Fortunate Princes”, with a nice parallel to be drawn here with Sir Luckless finding his own “fortune”/luck in the garden).
Before analyzing the content of the tale itself, it is necessary to remember what the garden and fountain stand for in alchemy and to linger on the symbolism of the drawing of the fountain.
* The alchemical garden is usually a rose garden (no such thing as coincidence therefore that the whole book of tales is decorated with roses and the fountain drawing itself is framed with roses). The garden stands for the alchemists' secret vessel in which the Great Work takes place. As L.Abraham writes: The rose garden is usually depicted as an enclosed garden in which the red and white flowers of the elixir or Stone blossom. Psychologically, the blooming of the roses in the garden symbolizes the attainment of wisdom or inner knowledge. (p.84). Which is exactly what happens to the three witches and the knight of the tale.
* Other clues, drawn on the fountain, are here to tell us that the tale represents a whole journey: The fountain is made of 4 basins (for the four elements) but 5 parts (for quintessence, i.e. the achieved Work); A snake/dragon is at the same time wrapped around it and makes the body of the fountain (the water issuing from its mouth comes back to its tail: it's the ouroboros/circle symbolism); Closely connected to the snake/ouroboros is the Omega glyph drawn on the third basin. All three witches have a name beginning with an “A”: Asha, Altheda, Amata; the symbol is clear: they have to reach the “omega”, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, to close the circle of their journey, and start another.
The alpha and omega, also known as the “azoth” in alchemy (Azoth: is formed with the first and last letters of the English alphabet (“a” and “z”), which stand for the beginning and end of all creation - the alpha and omega of the Greek philosophers) is a very important symbol. It is meant to convey the idea of the absolutely complete and full meaning of the First Matter and its transformations. In this sense, the Azoth represents not just the chaotic First Matter at the beginning of the Work but also its perfected essence (the Philosopher's Stone) at the conclusion of the work. (Hauck, p.246)
The “alpha” witches have to reach the “omega” fountain and doing so, at the end of the journey, find true wisdom in themselves. As with any alchemical journey, the journey itself is the reward, not what lies at the end of the road. This is what the alchemists called “philosophical gold”. Hence why the witches do not need the fountain anymore when they finally reach it.
* The fountain itself is a name for the magical transforming substance, the mercurial water that first acts as a poison, dissolving the matter of the Stone during the Black Process at the beginning of the Work. Turned into waters of grace, the mercurial water washes the blackened matter at the bottom of the alembic and resurrects it (L.Abraham, p.81). The journey to the fountain (which is marked by “water trials” too, one involving tears and another one sweat, which are both also symbols for the mercurial waters of grace) is that of the transformation of the characters. Their goal represents their own transformation. Hence again why they do not need it anymore when they attain it.
The fountain is also synonymous with the bath or spring into which the king, as the raw matter of the Stone, steps to be purified of his blackness (same entry). This idea is illustrated in the tale by the knight's bath which brings the realization of his own journey after the witches'.
* More symbols are drawn on the fountain:
On the lower basin are the Deathly Hallows symbol and the cipher/glyph for Saturn. They represent the first process of the Work, the Nigredo, in other words the death of the matter (the Deathly Hallows are gifts from Death itself and Saturn rules over the Nigredo/Black process). But as the DH symbol shows, the seeds of the achieved Work are already planted, the DH symbol being composed of the triangle (for the three alchemical principles and also for the “fire” element, needed for the “cooking” of the Stone), of the circle (the ouroboros) and of the line (the one, the eventual unity). Going up from this lower basin we find more symbols of important stages of the Great Work
The second basin shows the Mystic Eye: knowledge, insight; the eye in alchemy is similar to an eye which sees, but that does not see, so that it sees, because eyesight does not exist (...). It is in itself that it sees (A.Roob, Alchimie et Mystique, p. 242). In other words, it is the eye that invites the alchemist to look in him/herself so that he/she can truly see.
Paired with the eye, it the glyph for mercury/quicksilver, the slippery, elusive spirit which the alchemist must tame or fix in order to make the philosopher's stone (L.Abraham, p.162), a true slippery friend for the alchemist... (Incidentally, the Malfoys are deeply connected with the Mercury principle in the series). Once tamed, the albification is at hand and a crucial step in the journey has been made.
On the third basin is the omega letter already discussed and the glyph for Jupiter which represents the alchemical operation called sublimation (through the myth of Jupiter, as an eagle, transporting Ganymede to heaven). The sublimation (/distillation) operations are characteristic of the albification which, when completed, marks the end of the second process of the creation of the Stone. The same idea is conveyed by the wings of the dragon visible between the second and the third basin. Incidentally, the omega symbol is very close to that of the Libra astrological sign symbol which in alchemy also represents sublimation.
On the last basin are two symbols. The first glyph shows the symbols for the moon and the sun paired, maybe to indicate the completion of the work, the moon being connected to silver (Albedo/white process) and the sun to gold (Rubedo/red process). (This glyph could also be the glyph for Electrum, the alloy of silver and gold.)
Above the moon/sun is the symbol of Mars. It is particularly fitting to find this symbol at the top of the fountain as the Rubedo/Red Process - the last process at the end of which the Stone is created - is also called the “Reign of Mars”, the red planet.
More details from the tale itself also need to be developed:
* The very first sentence of the tale tells us that the fountain is set high on a hill. The hill/mountain belongs beyond all doubt to the symbolism of levels as: a means of ascent to a higher level spiritually, morally, socially, or consciously (A.Stevens, Ariadne’s Clue, p.109) and it is as such that the symbol has been used by the alchemists. For them, the mountain is first the place where the matter of the Stone is said to be found, a place where the “Regal herb” described by Nicolas Flamel and the flowers of the Great Work grow (just like in the tale the fountain is set amidst herbs and flowers rarer and more beautiful than any they had seen yet).
Some alchemists, such as Roger Bacon, advised the alchemist to construct his furnace in imitation of the moutains where metals were thought to be engendered from the materia prima (L.Abraham, p.132). The garden and the fountain on its hill thus become the furnace in which the witches and the knight fulfil their journey.
In addition: Metaphysically, going up into the mountains means to rise in awareness in order to come to know the materia prima […]. When Nicolas Flamel advised the alchemist to […] go to the seventh mountain […] he meant that the alchemist had to rise high enough in awareness to be able to observe the very matter of creation. (L.Abraham p.132). “To rise high enough in awareness” is exactly the task of the witches and the knight.
Therefore, the three trials the witches and wizard endure logically then start when they reach the foot of the hill on which the Fountain stood. The second trial happens halfway up the steep slope as they struggle to climb the hill and the last one when they reach a stream that ran round the hilltop.
* The tale takes place on the longest day of the year, that is Midsummer which in the annual cycle represents the “darkening phase” of the year since, from this point on, days become shorter. On that day people gathered in the darkness and the three witches of the tale like the others were wait[ing] for sunrise in the darkness. This sentence illustrates the fact that the journey always begins with the “dark” phase of Nigredo, the seeker longing for “dawn” (awareness, etc). The knight on his bone-thin horse shares the same symbolism as bones and skeletons are also symbols of the black phase.
This is also the reason why, at the end of the journey, when reaching their goal, the sky burned ruby – the color symbol of the achieved Great Work.
* There are three trials – just as there are three stages in the Great Work - which require proofs of pain (a black stage characteristic), fruit of one’s labour (the great “work” so to speak) and the treasure of one’s past, that is to leave what they thought was a treasure to gain the real treasure, that of awareness at the end of their road.
* The worm of the first trial is a symbol similar to that of the snake (“worm” and “snake” were once synonymous words (hence Wormtail’s nickname by the way, Peter symbolically “biting his own tail” – the ouroboros symbol – when being killed by his own hand)). In alchemy the mercurial worm […] is both the devouring worm of death consuming all corruption and the nourishing worm of life which feeds the alchemical chick, the infant Stone with its nourishing substance (L.Abraham, p.220). The witches had started in the darkness of the Nigredo phase; the worm consumes this pain/darkness and leaves.
Asha’s tears, drunk by the worm, also represent the mercurial waters that cleanse the blackened matter. Asha’s name, which contains “ash” (that is what remains after calcination in alchemy) fits very well this part of the Great Work also.
Just like the other two witches, her “alpha” name (beginning and also ending with an “a”) not only hints that she is at the beginning of her journey but it also suggests that each of the witches had indeed in herself the ‘material’ (materia prima would say an alchemist) to her inner transformation, and success. Asha, ill, had in herself what was needed to rise from her “ashes”, like the phoenix, and be healed.
* The second trial requires Altheda’s sweat as payment for the witches to go on: sweat, just like tears, represents the mercurial waters of grace.
Altheda’s ‘alpha’ name also reveals her strengths: indeed Altheda is a variant of Althea which means “healer”/”healing herb”, hinting to Altheda’s gift with plants and potions. (The name comes from that of a shrub, the Althaea officinalis - that is marshmallow -which name comes from the Greek Altho (to cure)).
* The third trial, like the first two, is also connected to water with the trial set by the stream. This tale is definitely the “water” one. Interestingly enough, the terms of the trial are written on a stone and once Amata gave her memories to the stream stepping stones appeared: stones again, the goal is reached.
* Just as the dittany of the first tale was reminding us of Love as the key element of the journey, Jo gives us the name of amata in this tale. The Amata ‘alpha’ name of the witch is the Latin root of the name Amy which is the past principle of the Latin verb “amare” that is, to love. Therefore Amata means “beloved”. It fits well Amata, her broken heart and the knight falling in love with her. The name also reveals Amata's ability to love again and sets 'Love' as the very key of the last trial the witches endure.
* Sir Luckless tries each of the three trials using something made of metal which he loses each time: the blade of his sword snapped, his only coin rolled away and was lost and finally his shield sank. It is as though he was little by little being deprived from everything that he thought was his strength: his weapons and money. Like the witches, he is left only with what is in himself, after having given proof to the witches of his chivalry.
Jo is giving us the alchemical meaning of the Knight's journey in this sentence: As the sun fell below the horizon, Sir Luckless emerged from the waters with the glory of his triumph upon him, and flung himself in his rusted armour at the feet of Amata, who was the kindest and most beautiful woman he had ever beheld. (p.34, emphasis added).
The knight had... to rust!
As stated already, in alchemy, the fountain is synonymous with the bath or spring into which the king, as the raw matter of the Stone, steps to be purified of his blackness (hence the knight’s bath) while rust refers to the “corruption” process the metal/stone must pass in order to be purified or redeemed (L.Abraham, p.175) - which fits well the knight's “ordeal” here.
But there is more to rusting because to rust is also to take a reddish color. In French “rouille” (rust) and “roux” (the color) mean reddish (red hair is “roux” in French for example; the English “rust” also comes from “red”). As such, “rust” has everything to do with the reddening final stage of the Great Work. According to Pernéty, rust is the color taken by the matter before reaching the crimson color. [That of the achieved Stone]. This is why the Philosophers have given the name of Mars to this color, which duration is, according to them, the time of this god's reign.(p.443). Hence why, on the last cup of the drawing of the fountain, is the glyph representing Mars.
The fact the “rusting” character is a knight also underlines the reference to Mars: he is a warrior and Mars the god of war. The “glory of his triumph” described by Jo also heralds the “reign” of this god. (Incidentally, the word “triumph” also rings an alchemical bell: the “Triumphant Chariot of Antimony” by Basil Valentine is a very famous alchemical text.)
* Finally, two of the first objects the knight uses and loses are the symbols of two Tarot suits/elements: the sword (air), the coin (earth) before the knight finally bathes in the “cup” (water) of the fountain. The “wand” (fire) suit might seem to be missing but it is also present in veiled terms: the word “chivalry” applied to the knight could be seen as a wands/fire/Gryffindor nod and through the rust, a result of oxidation, which is frequently associated with “burning”. The knight, connected to the four Elements along his journey, emerges from the fountain in a quintessential state. And this quintessential state is... in love!
* Finally, in his notes, Dumbledore speaks of the seekers after Fair Fortune (p.38): the word "seekers" is a nod towards the Great Work and its journey.
(p.45 to 60)
* This tale is different from the first two because it is not the tale of a journey to being a better human being and fulfilling one’s personal journey. From the beginning, the warlock is presented as using the Dark Arts (and literally getting a “dark (h)eart”) which leads him not to light and fulfilment but to more darkness, what Dumbledore calls a descent to beasthood and ends in a redemption-less death.
The warlock locks away his own heart and refuses to feel human feelings and to maybe hurt from them. Without Love, there can be no quest for the Seeker and the parallel between the Warlock and Voldemort becomes even more striking when Jo has Dumbledore saying in his notes: The resemblance of this action to the creation of a Horcrux has been noted by many writers. (p.58). Having become immune to love, like Voldemort, the Warlock is stuck in Nigredo, like Voldemort.
Without Love, his journey is a dead-end, literally and figuratively.
* The Nigredo symbols thus abound in the tale: the heart has been taken to the deepest dungeon and although the warlock’s table is laden with silver and gold, it is down to the locked dungeon that he leads the maiden. The heart is in a crystal casket, later called in the tale a “coffin” (a Nigredo symbol also). Tale also says that the heart had grown blind and savage in the darkness to which it had been condemned, that is in the Nigredo to which it has been condemned.
* The tale in the series of tales is like a warning about what a no-journey a journey without Love is but it also brings forth the Air element among the tales (it is the (h)air-y heart after all). Heart and blood images (the warlock licking the maiden’s shiny scarlet heart he held in his bloody hand, the pool of blood to be seen on the drawing at the end of the tale) point towards the sanguine/heart/blood humor connected to the Air element.
In the same way, the silver dagger used by the Warlock, the note precising that a warlock is learned in duelling and all martial magic (p.57) and what the warlock experiences when the maiden touches him once his heart is back in his chest (all pierced the newly awakened heart like spears) point out towards the Swords Tarot suit, the one also connected to Air.
* The heart has been used in alchemical imagery and the tale reminds me of an illustration of the Aurora Consurgens which shows two persons, one of which is holding her heart in her hand (her liver and brain are in no better shape in that image). The image represents the four elements (in relation with the 4 organs representing each humor) and the text that goes with this image tells of a fifth force which is neither hot nor cold, neither humid nor dry (...) and it is called life, which unites the four and gives them vital strength and perfection (A.Roob, p.569). Therefore the warlock cannot be “one” as one of the “four” is missing.
* The parallel with the Horcruxes becomes even stronger if we think of the maiden as the being who is “whole”, reminding one of Dumbledore telling Harry the agony it was for Voldemort to possess Harry during the ministry battle, Voldemort who was such in a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole. (HBP, p.511). The maiden is “whole” and urges the warlock to become whole again but her seemingly good idea fails because the warlock does not do it in the hope of becoming one again (the equivalent of the “remorse” the one who has created a Horcrux must feel to mend one’s soul), he only does it to please her.
The heart is source of life, it is the sun of the microcosm (A.Roob, p.529) (that is the human body). The warlock’s heart, grown wild, can not be the “sun” of the warlock anymore and the warlock in his madness then attempts to exchange it for the maiden’s, in a way finally aware he needed a true heart but blind to the means to transform his own. In the end, the maiden was right but little she knew that being right would involve her death.
The image that ends the tale (p.54), which presents the bodies of the warlock and the maiden, she as white and fair as he is dark and gray/black, dead together might explain why the maiden had to die. In this image, they appear as a true pair of opposites, joined in death, just like the alchemical king and queen must die together for the alchemical child, that is the Stone, to be born. The impact of this tale on the people hearing/reading it might be the “Stone” born of their death. Maiming one’s soul, maiming one’s heart: it’s a bad idea and not the way to a successful journey – a resonating “don’t try, there’s no cheating to that individuation journey!” lesson.
* First, the name of Babbitty Rabbitty is highly meaningful. In Dumbledore’s notes it is mentioned that the character of Babbitty Rabbitty was created after that of Lisette de Lapin which is obvious etymologically: lapin means rabbit in French and Elizabeth is most probably the root of both Lisette (which does come from Elisabeth) and Babbitty.
As for the rabbit, it has a Mercurial function in alchemy, leading the alchemist all the way through the Work. A famous alchemical drawing even shows rabbits (or hares) entering underground holes, leading the alchemist (blind till he reaches the place) all the way to the 7 degrees of the initiation that will end in the creation of the Stone. You can see it here: www.alchemywebsite.com/amclglr8.html (image A143). Therefore Babbitty can be seen as a guide in this tale, a guide for the king but above all a guide for the reader on his own journey. (Incidentally, this is not the first time Jo has used the rabbit/hare image in the Series: the “Burrow” shares the same symbolism.)
* The beginning of the tale presents dark times for witches and wizards who are chased by a Brigade of Witch-Hunters helped by a pack of ferocious black hounds. Nigredo times then (the beginning of the Work) but also times of transformation as the dog in alchemy represents (in short) the “cooking” of the Stone.
* The foolish king wants to know how to perform magic and the charlatan who becomes his “Instructor in Magic” asks a large sack of gold, so that he might purchase wands and other magical necessities. He also requested several large rubies, to be used in the casting of curative charms, and a silver chalice or two, for the storing and maturing of potions.
The gold, rubies and silver are of no use but the ‘quest’ the king is starting, very different from what he had imagined at first, will see a golden end. As always, it is not the material gold that counts (in this tale it only buys fake magic/journey) but what one learns (philosophical gold). The gold however reminds one that this is the Earth/Pentacles (Coins) Tarot suit tale.
* Babbitty is the washerwoman who kept the palace linen soft, fragrant and white. The image of the washerwoman is very important in alchemy. The third emblem of Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens shows a washerwoman and bears the motto Go to the woman who washes the sheets and do as she does Here is the image). Some other alchemists have written on the same image, giving advices such as 'Go and look at the women who are employed over the washing and fulling of linen: see what they do, and do what they are doing’ which simply means ‘to cleanse the matter of its impurities’ (L.Abraham, p.115), resulting in sublimation and the accomplishment of the White Stage. Meeting Babbitty will put the king back on the right track and “cleanse” the future of the wizards living around.
* Threatening to behead the charlatan if his people laugh at him, the king tries to impress everybody with his “magic”. Decapitation is a Nigredo symbol and the first ‘magic’ the king performs recalls the same idea as he vanishes a hat. It is also a very ‘volatile’ bit of magic.
In the same way, the flying horse, the second attempt at magic the king performs, is the illustration of the horse as symbol of the volatile (Mercury) principle in alchemy. The rabbit represents the same principle and these two spells reveal Babbitty’s hand behind the magic: even hidden she is still calling the tune.
* The king then tries to bring back to life a dead hound named Sabre (the ‘sabre’ is the fire of the philosophers for Pernéty, p.445) but the dog cannot be revived. This is the end of the trickery. If we liken the attempt at magic of the king to an alchemical attempt to make a Stone, then Sabre is truly dead: the fire is extinguished.
* Thinking Babbitty has turned herself into a tree, the charlatan has the king’s people cut the tree with an axe. To strike with an axe is to cook says L.Gineste (p.167) and when Babbitty then threatens the king of feeling like an axe stroke in your own side each time he would persecute witches or wizards, it is to ‘cooking’, that is maturation, that she sentences him.
This is also a decapitation symbol (some alchemical emblems show a tree being “decapitated” by a man using an axe). Indeed: The decapitation or dismemberment of the bird, lion, serpent, dragon, tree, man or king signifies the dissolution, putrefaction and division of the body, the matter in the alembic, at the black nigredo, the first step of the opus. [...]
Metaphysically, the decapitation represents the freeing of the soul from the prison of the body so that through detachment it can gain the ability to discriminate between the merely natural man, bound by his thoughts, opinions and desires, and the illumined, philosophical man, freed from these illusions (the ‘blackness’). (L.Abraham, p.21-22 – emphasis added)
After the “beheading” of the tree, the king must put his opinions and desires aside and obey Babbitty for the Wizarding World’s, and his own, good. Of course this does not make him an “illumined, philosophical man” – not then at least – but he is sure freed from his illusions! This image is very close to that of Babbitty the washerwoman who puts the king back on the right track and “cleanses” the future of the wizards living around. From now on, the king can start and truly learn.
* The tree bears a hole between its roots and this reminds one of the alchemical image of the hollow oak which represents the alchemical vessel in which the Stone is created, hence why the final scene of the tale, which sees the wizarding world safe again, happens there and why a golden statue of Babbity is set on the stump, to show the accomplishment of Babbity’s task.
* There were once three brothers who were travelling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. So it is how the tale starts, pointing out at once that this tale is a “journey” one, literally and symbolically. The fact it begins at twilight, when all gets dark, is also a journey symbol: all alchemical journey begins with the Black phase during which the matter “dies” only to be re-born in the Philosopher’s Stone.
The ineluctable characteristic of the Nigredo is also expressed in the drawing of the tombstone that ends the tale on which the Latin phrase Tempus Fugit (Time Flees) seems to be engraved, underlining the idea that there is no escape from death.
The symbols drawn on the grave are meaningful too: the DH symbol signifies the fundamental unity and it is paired here with symbols of death in a summary of the alchemical journey (unity found through the death of the Nigredo). And these symbols are to be found on a stone. A tombstone, yes, but a stone still in a possible nod towards the Stone, symbol of the accomplished journey. The coffin is also a “casket”, word that can also apply to a box in which one puts jewels (the symbolic “gold” found after the death of Nigredo). Death (the skull) on top of the tombstone has wings like an angel which can be a symbol for sublimation, the process taking place after the death at the Nigredo which leads to the re-birth in the final creation of the Stone.
* Reaching a dangerous river, the brothers then made a bridge appear across the treacherous water. They were halfway across it when they found their path blocked by a hooded figure. And Death spoke to them.
A ‘bridge over troubled water’ all right, but definitely not one to ‘ease their mind’…
When we think of the Tale of the Three Brothers, we think first of the Deathly Hallows but the most important symbol of the tale may not be found in Death’s presents, it may be found in the symbol of the bridge.
As A.Stevens writes: In many cultures, the bridge provides a connection between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the imperceptible (conscious and unconscious), between Earth and Heaven, between man and god, and is commonly identified with the rainbow [...] The bridge thus marks the threshold between one psychological state and another. Though dangerous, the bridge must be crossed: to turn back is a regression, a refusal to embark on the next stage of life (which, paradoxically, could be death). (p.156)
Through the tale, it is of the life journey that Jo is talking. It is death that the brothers meet indeed on the bridge and the tale tells that there is no point in trying to trick death; trying can only bring pain and suffering. The only successful brother is the one who does not want to be stronger than death and accepts to meet him again when he feels ready.
There is an echo to be found between the last sentence of the tale: And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and equals, they departed this life and Dumbledore’s words to Harry in the cave when seeing the Inferi: There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness. [...] It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more. (HBP, p.566). In a way, the telling of the tale in the DH are words of comfort and strengthening for Harry as he is to go and meet death willingly, as his ancestor did.
There is nothing to be feared, on the contrary, since the bridge – and what one meets crossing it – means hope. Jo uses a very clever pun to highlight this fact. As all entries about the bridge symbolism stress, there is a very close link between the bridge and the pontiff: In Latin, ‘pontifex’ means ‘builder of bridges’. The Pope as Pontiff is the bridge between humanity and the Lord of Creation (A.Stevens, same entry). And who is Dumbledore quoting in his notes about the tale? Alexander POPE! The name of the poet is expressly given by Jo in a footnote: This quotation demonstrates that Albus Dumbledore [...] was familiar with the writings of Muggle poet Alexander Pope” (p.96).
And what a quote it is:
Hope springs eternal
Through the journey represented by the bridge lies hope. This hope is the Wizarding World’s best hope through Harry, but it is also, but it is above all, each and everyone’s hope through one’s own journey. It is not by chance that this quote comes from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. There is something universal to that tale, to the Series really.
The bridge symbol also stresses one of the main themes of the Series, that of choices. Indeed: The bridge puts man on a narrow path on which he inevitably meets the obligation to choose. And his choice damns or saves him. (Dictionnaire des Symboles, Chevalier/Gheerbrant, p.778). It all comes back to choices. The three brothers’, Dumbledore’s, Lily’s, the ‘lost boys’’, ours.
Alexander Pope was called “The Bard of Twickenham”, Jo is “Beedle the Bard”, to each their ‘essay on man’, to both weavers of words, humor, humanism and optimism.
Il suffit de passer le pont/ C’est tout de suite l’aventure (“All you have to do is to cross the bridge/ Adventure begins at once”), was once singing Georges Brassens. That flighty temptress...