I love to track what is going on in the inner life of people around me by reading best-selling fiction with an attention to archetypal patterns. When a colleague told me to check out the All Souls Trilogy by a notable historian, Deborah Harkness, I was intrigued. The heroine of these books is Diana Bishop, an academic (Sage), hiding the fact that she is a witch, but just studying alchemy, not practicing it. Then she falls in love with Mathew Clairmont, a researcher (Sage) who is studying the DNA of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons, hiding the fact that he is a vampire. In the daylight world, they both pass as human.
Their basic love story (Lover) is a more sophisticated and literary version of the usual stereotypical Cinderella romance fiction narrative, where a struggling woman falls in love with a rich, powerful, handsome man who rescues her from her fate, except, in this one, both have lessons to learn through which they transform one another.
If, as with many (especially women) today, you feel as if you have to suppress your personal power to avoid threatening the powers that be, Diana’s story may be for you. Her challenge is to develop the courage to realize her potential, even if others come after her to steal her power. As an archetype, the witch can be a healer or transformer but can also be a destroyer, releasing the repressed anger of the oppressed. Diana’s challenge(Magician) is to hold her own boundaries, to stand up for herself, and as she embraces her magic, to take the energy around her and reweave it into something positive and transformational.
And, if you believe, as Matthew does, that you must take advantage of others or defeat them to survive or thrive, Matthew’s Warrior plotline might be a model for you. Since it is unlikely that you hunt down animals and people, kill them, and drink their blood, it is good to remember that blood in dreams is often a symbol of life energy or money. The world of business and economics today is often still referred to as a “jungle,” with beings who strive to “make a killing” and set goals to “destroy” the opposition/competition. Matthew’s challenge is to control his predatory, wolf-like desires, his temper, and his patriarchal belief that he must be in charge and learn to partner with Diana and eventually support her taking the lead.
Matthew has justifiable fears about how rules/laws against creature (witch, vampire, or daemon) intermarriage lead to inbreeding and weakness. He finds that creatures hiding their positive traits are less likely to pass them on to the next generation. He thus predicts that eventually the creatures might die out as species. His research findings, however, demonstrate that creatures are just humans, so there is no need for all this hiding and separate social roles.
You do not have to be a genius to recognize that a subtheme of this book is racism, and all the other “isms.” Matthew’s fictional finding scan remind us of research by contemporary scientists who now report that the DNA of all our races, sexes, and sexual orientations are fundamentally the same.
At one point, Diana and Matthew time travel from the modern world to Tudor England, during the period when the Enlightenment ideas of rational thinking, science, and progress were formulated. The notions of whiteness as superior, and blackness as inferior, were invented in this same era. Witch hunts were also returning in England and Europe during the Early Modern period as well as in the American colonies. We also learn that Diana is a descendant of the first woman to be tried and hanged as a witch in the Salem witch trials.
All the isms leave their imprint. Even today, when many laws have changed, it can be difficult for members of historically subordinate groups to embrace the qualities that have been denied them. Diana is afraid of developing her powers because, if they are revealed, someone might murder her, as happened to her parents, but short of that, she would lose her job. Then there is Matthew. Diana trusts him, although he warns her that he may be unable to control his desire to drink her blood. Because she does not seem afraid, empathic readers will feel that fear for her. I know I did. Today, most of us unconsciously already experience fear much of the time just from reading the news. And, many of us fear stepping out of our assigned roles, whatever these might be, or, conversely, being inadvertently racist, sexist, or otherwise harmful.
But reading fun-scary fiction, such as this trilogy, is like being on a roller coaster, enjoying the ride. This can allow you to process your real fears without undue anxiety through identifying with how the characters do so. As I wondered how conscious Harkness was of writing a book that might accomplish this, I got to a passage in it where Diana finds the treasure of a longed for but lost alchemical book. She opens it and recognizes its image of the union of the king and queen, so necessary for alchemical accomplishment.She notices that beneath the images and text are older texts, perhaps ones that were quickly erased, the traces of which start moving about. Then, in a very bizarre scene, that strange writing begins to crawl into her body. When it does, she gains its knowledge and power.
Words creeping into us can be viewed as a metaphor for a positive human ability we all have. When you imaginatively experience living a story, that story is added to your brain’s synapse networks, specifically the imagination network, which houses images, characters, and narratives available to you. In this way, reading makes you smarter and opens new possibilities for how you might respond to new situations.In many times, and even now, people have sought to ban books, some out of a fear of the persistence of old ideas and some to resist the attraction of new ones.
The stories of Diana the witch and Matthew the vampire highlight exaggerated forms of fears that are common today: a fear of threatening others if we fulfill our potential and a fear of losing our souls to satisfy the pull of our desires. Whatever your fears, reading fun-scary fantasy fiction, like the All Souls Trilogy, may well help you to conquer them.
 The technical term is the dorsal attention network.