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The Real-Life Wizard Behind "Harry Potter"


Nicholas Flamel

Nicholas Flamel

Over 600 years before Hogwarts School was created, an alchemist claimed to have discovered the incredible secrets of "the sorcerer's stone" - possibly even immortality

The phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and series of film based on them, has introduced 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.

Next page: Successful Transmutation... and Immortality?

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