The phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and the film based on "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," is introducing a whole new generation of children (and their parents) to the world of magic, sorcery and alchemy.
What is not widely known, however, is that at least one of the characters - and his magical quest - referred to in "Harry Potter" is based on a real alchemist and his strange experiments.
According to the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, earned his reputation as a great wizard due, in part, to his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. And although Dumbledore, Harry and all the other teachers and students at Hogwarts are fictional, Nicholas Flamel was a real-life alchemist who dabbled in some of the most mystical corners of the magical arts, including the quest for an Elixir of Life. Some wonder, in fact, if Flamel is still alive!
When "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was written, Flamel's age was pegged at 665 years. That would be just about right since the real Flamel was born in France around 1330. Through an astonishing series of events, he became one of the most famous alchemists of the 14th century. And his story is almost as fantastic and enchanting as Harry Potter's.
As an adult, Nicholas Flamel worked as a bookseller in Paris. It was a humble trade, but one that provided him with the relatively rare abilities to read and write. He worked from a small stall near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherie where, with his assistants, he copied and "illuminated" (illustrated) books.
One night, Flamel had a strange and vivid dream in which an angel appeared to him. The radiant, winged creature presented to Flamel a beautiful book with pages that seemed to be of fine bark and a cover of worked copper. Flamel later wrote down what the angel spoke to him: "Look well at this book, Nicholas. At first you will understand nothing in it - neither you nor any other man. But one day you will see in it that which no other man will be able to see."
Just as Flamel was about to take the book from the angel's hands, he awoke from his dream. Soon after, however, the dream was to weave its way into reality. One day when Flamel was working alone in his shop, a stranger approached him who was desperate to sell an old book for some much-needed money. Flamel immediately recognized the strange, copper-bound book as the one offered by the angel in his dream. He eagerly bought it for the sum of two florins.
The copper cover was engraved with peculiar diagrams and words, only some of which Flamel recognized as Greek. The pages were like none he had ever encountered in his trade. Instead of parchment, they seemed to be made from the bark of sapling trees. Flamel was able to discern from the first pages of the book that it was written by someone who called himself Abraham the Jew - "a prince, priest, Levite, astrologer and philosopher."
The strong memory of his dream and his own intuition convinced Flamel that this was no ordinary book - that it contained arcane knowledge that he feared he might not be qualified to read and understand. It could contain, he felt, the very secrets of nature and life.
Flamel's trade had brought him familiarity with the writings of the alchemists of his day, and he knew something of transmutation (the changing of one thing into another, such as lead into gold) and knew well the many symbols that alchemists used. But the symbols and writing in this book were beyond Flamel's understanding, although he strove to solve its mysteries for over 21 years.
Because the book had been written by a Jew and much of its text was in ancient Hebrew, he reasoned that a scholarly Jew might be able to help him translate the book. Unfortunately, religious persecution had recently driven all of the Jews out of France. After copying only a few pages of the book, Flamel packed them and embarked on a pilgrimage to Spain, where many of the exiled Jews had settled.
The journey was unsuccessful, however. Many of the Jews, understandably suspicious of Christians at this time, were reluctant to help Flamel, so he began his journey home. Flamel had all but given up his quest when he chanced upon an introduction to a very old, learned Jew by the name of Maestro Canches who lived in Leon. Canches, too, was not eager to help Flamel until he mentioned Abraham the Jew. Canches had certainly heard of this great sage who was wise in the teachings of the mysterious kabbalah.
Canches was able to translate the few pages that Flamel brought with him and wanted to return to Paris with him to examine the rest of the book. But Jews were still not allowed in Paris and Canches' extreme old age would have made the journey difficult anyway. As fate would have it, Canches died before he could help Flamel any further.
Returning to his Paris shop and his wife, Flamel seemed a changed man - joyous and full of life. He felt somehow transformed by his encounter with Canches. Though the old Jew had deciphered only those few pages, Flamel was able to use that knowledge to understand the entire book. He continued to study, research and meditate on the mysterious book for three years, after which he was able to perform a feat that had eluded alchemists for centuries - transmutation. Following the exact instructions provided by Abraham the Jew in the book, Flamel claimed to transform a half-pound of mercury into silver, and then into pure gold.
This was said to be accomplished with the aid of a "philosopher's stone." (Incidentally, the British title of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.") For Flamel, this was reputed to include a strange, reddish "projection powder."
Turning base metals into silver and gold... it's the stuff of superstition, fantasy and folklore, right? Quite possibly. The historical records show, however, that this humble bookseller inexplicably became wealthy at this time - so wealthy, in fact, that he built housing for the poor, established free hospitals and made generous donations to churches. Virtually none of his newfound wealth was used to enhance his own way of living, but was used exclusively for charitable purposes. The transmutation Flamel achieved was not only with metals, it was said, but within his own mind and heart. But if transmutation is impossible, what was the source of Flamel's riches?
In the Harry Potter book, the evil Lord Voldemort seeks the sorcerer's stone to attain immortality. The same power of the stone that brings about transmutation can also result in the Elixir of Life, which would allow a person to live forever... or, by some accounts, at least 1,000 years.
Part of the legend that surrounds the true story of Nicholas Flamel is that he succeeded in the transmutation of metals and in achieving immortality.
The historical records say that Flamel died at the ripe old age of 88 - a very great age at that time. But there is a curious footnote to this story that causes one to wonder.
After Flamel's official death, his house was ransacked again and again by those seeking the philosopher's stone and the miraculous "projection powder." It was never found. Missing too was the book of Abraham the Jew. During the reign of Louis XIII in the first half of the 17th century, however, a descendent of Flamel by the name of Dubois might have inherited the book and some of the projection powder. With the king himself as a witness, Dubois allegedly used the powder to turn balls of lead into gold. This startling feat attracted the attention of the powerful Cardinal Richelieu who demanded to know how the powder worked. But Dubois only possessed what remained of his ancestor's powder and was unable to read the book of Abraham the Jew. He therefore could not reveal Flamel's secrets.
It is said that Richelieu took the book of Abraham the Jew and built a laboratory to exploit its secrets. The attempt was unsuccessful, however, and all traces of the book, save perhaps for a few of its illustrations, have since disappeared.
Later in that century, King Louis XIV dispatched an archeologist named Paul Lucas on a scientific fact-finding mission in the East. While in Broussa, Turkey, Lucas met an old philosopher who told him that there were wise men in the world who possessed knowledge of the philosopher's stone, who kept that knowledge to themselves, and who lived many hundreds, even thousands of years. Nicholas Flamel, he told Lucas, is one of those men. The old man even told Lucas of the book of Abraham the Jew and how it came into Flamel's possession. Most amazingly, he told Lucas that Flamel and his wife were still alive! Their funerals were faked, he said, and both of them migrated to India, where they still lived.
Is it possible that Flamel really did stumble upon the secret of the philosopher's stone and achieved immortality? Does the ancient knowledge of transmutation and the Elixir of Life really exist?
If so, Nicholas Flamel might still be alive. In fact, he might be taking great delight in the magical adventures of Harry Potter.