Magic and reality collide in Harry Potter event

Dr. Wendy Turner presents her lecture about the similarities between J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and alchemy. (Photo: Anna Dresser)
Dr. Wendy Turner presents her lecture about the similarities between J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and alchemy. (Photo: Anna Dresser)

By Anna Dresser | Staff Writer

Intricate details of the story of Harry Potter came to light last week at Augusta University when Dr. Wendy Turner, professor of history in the Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, presented her lecture, “A Fine Line between Magic and Science: Medieval and Renaissance Pseudo-Scientific Thinking and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter,” on March 3.

The event was free to the public and hosted on the Health Sciences Campus in the Robert B. Greenblatt, MD Library. Not only was this event part of a lecture series, but it was also accompanied by the National Library of Medicine’s Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine traveling exhibit on display in the library.

Turner got hooked onto the Harry Potter books during a book club and is now a forensic historian that works with law, medicine and a little bit of mental health. Her work has also concerned the alchemical cures of the medieval period.

“Once the alchemists began looking for a cure-all, a way to cheat death, right, in their minds, then you can start to see where J.K. Rowling began to think about the whole premise of the books,” Turner said. “The whole series is about cheating death or not cheating death. Voldemort wants to cheat death, but Harry Potter has all the… the cloak, the (resurrection) stone, the wand… he has the deathly hallows symbols to hand, and he is able to cheat death long enough to keep Voldemort from killing him off.”

Chemistry and magic, which intersect to form alchemy, are both a part of Harry Potter, Turner said.

“The alchemists in the medieval period split into two camps,” Turner said. “One becomes chemistry. Our modern chemistry is directly related to alchemy. You know the copper and the bonds and you see that it’s chemical. The other side became more and more fascinated with this thing they couldn’t have and that is a way to extend life. So, it’s Voldemort and Harry.”

The Harry Potter's World exhibit will be displayed until March 26 at Greenblatt Library. (Photo: Anna Dresser)
The Harry Potter’s World exhibit will be displayed until March 26 at Greenblatt Library. (Photo: Anna Dresser)

One thing that Turner outlined in her lecture was how similar the symbol of the Deathly Hallows was to the alchemical symbol of “Squaring the Circle.” Other similarities, such as the usage of potions and plants like the Mandrake, a root of a plant, are used as well.

“She couldn’t have created Harry Potter had she not done her homework, or if she didn’t understand not only the history, but the folkloric things that resonate with all of us,” Turner said. “We understand the magic thing, we know it’s not real, but it’s fun, and in bringing that to life, she was able to put together this whole package.”

Turner said that although we know some people die too young or too old, she wonders if the idea of cheating death is fair. Some alchemists chose the more magical side of alchemy and others branched off into chemistry to “greet death as an old friend” instead.

Kimberly Mears, scholarly communications librarian at Greenblatt, said she enjoyed listening to the science behind herbology and also how the title of the first book had to be changed from “the Philosopher’s Stone” to “the Sorcerer’s Stone” so that people could understand the context.

“We have the exhibit that is downstairs and we try to kind of incorporate a lecture with our exhibit that we have,” Mears said. “We always try to bring in our faculty experts on campus to give a different perspective. Harry Potter is always a really engaging topic. I think it brings out all the fans and I myself am a fan of Harry Potter.”

If you missed this part of the lecture series, Dr. Turner will be speaking on the same topic at the Jeff Maxwell Branch Library on March 15.

Contact Anna Dresser at:

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