As Harry Potter's original fans move into their teen years, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" invokes a powerful symbol of adolescence and rebirth, said Gettysburg College English Prof. Christopher R. Fee, co-author of "Gods, Heroes, and Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain" (Oxford University Press).
"The phoenix and its rebirth provide the perfect metaphor for adolescence," said Fee. "Adolescence is the crucible wherein we are transformed from children into adults and wherein we find our true talents. Likewise, the phoenix is reborn through the flames of self-immolation with new and more beautiful plumage."
"The image of the crucible -- a melting pot for metal -- reflects the phoenix myth's association with alchemy and its focus on metalworking," Fee said. "Fascination with fire's ability to purify metal carried images of spiritual transformation, such as the phoenix, from ancient Egypt into Greek mythology and eventually into English poetry about 1,100 years ago," Fee said.
"An anonymous monk wrote an untitled poem that tells the story of the phoenix and Judgment Day, and how we, 'just as the phoenix,' are reborn through flames. According to this myth, the fires of Judgment Day will destroy the sinful and 'will rebirth us,'" Fee said.
The phoenix -- a bird that dies in flames and is reborn from its own ashes -- later became a major symbol for alchemists, "who sought to 'transmute' lead into gold and laid the foundation for modern chemistry," Fee said. "Transmutation is a spiritual metaphor for cleansing through fire, rebirth through destruction, smelting lead into gold. The old, decayed, sinful soul can be cleansed and born anew," he said.
Similar metaphors appear in Chinese and African cultures, Fee said. "J.K. Rowling taps into the dreams and nightmares shared by all humanity, the life-journey common to us all," he said.
Fee is also the author of "Torture, Text, and Transformation in Anglo-Saxon England," to be published next year by the University Press of Florida. "The book looks at metaphors of spiritual purification, like the phoenix and torture, and how the Anglo-Saxons developed them into a day-to-day discipline, a lifelong smelting of the soul that would keep the good and burn away sin," Fee said.
Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences. With approximately 2,500 students, it is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park. The college was founded in 1832.