Introduction to Literary Alchemy
by Dennis Greene
To understand what is meant by “literary alchemy,” a reader must first have a fundamental understanding of the term “alchemy” or “metallurgical alchemy.” Most American readers I have spoken to, including many well educated, serious readers, have little or no understanding of the term.
Most consider alchemy to have been a medieval pseudo-science by which the alchemist tried to isolate a catalyst (a so-called “Philosopher’s Stone”) that could turn base metals like lead or iron to pure gold and produce an elixir that would bestow immortality upon the alchemist. The popular belief is that alchemy was a misdirected practice used by mystics and sorcerers to make themselves rich and/or immortal. After our knowledge of chemistry and physics vastly improved during the Renaissance, alchemy was looked down upon and dismissed as simply “stupid” chemistry.
Because our American literary traditions developed post-enlightenment, our literature has been based on a firm belief in the physical sciences and naturalism, and we accepted this idea that alchemy was just “stupid science.” Scientific naturalism and materialism shaped our modern empirical worldview.
John Granger, an enthusiastic student of Literary Alchemy, describes alchemy in this way:
Alchemy is everything that scientific naturalism and materialism are not… Alchemy, in a nutshell, was the science of working toward the perfection of the alchemist’s soul. This heroic venture is all but impossible today, because the way we look at reality makes the concept itself almost an absurdity. Unlike the medieval alchemists, we post-moderns see things with a clear subject/object distinction; that is, we believe you and I and that table are entirely different things and there is no connection or relation between them. The knowing subject is one thing, and the observed object is completely “other.”
To the alchemist, that was not the case. His efforts in changing lead to gold were based on the premise that he, as the subject, would go through the same type of changes and purifications as the materials he was working with. In sympathy with these metallurgical transitions and resolutions, his soul would be purified in correspondence as long as he was working in a prayerful state within the mysteries (sacraments) of his revealed tradition.
Historically, there was an Arabic alchemy, a Chinese alchemy, a Kabbalistic alchemy as well as a Christian alchemy; each differed superficially with respect to their spiritual traditions. In each example, however, the alchemist was working with a sacred natural science or physic to advance his spiritual purification.
This was only possible because he looked at the metal he was working with as something with which he was not “other” but with which he was in a relationship. The alchemist and the lead becoming gold were imitating and accelerating the work of the Creator. The alchemist’s aim was to create a bridge so that, as lead changes to gold or material perfection, his soul would go through similar transformations and purifications.
Metallurgical alchemy was ancient history long before the pilgrims set sail to America, so it was never a part of our literary tradition. It is no surprise that American readers are almost unaware of it. This is probably no great loss, but it does have one consequence for Harry Potter fans. Alchemic references and imagery are near the heart of much great English fiction, from Chaucer to Rowling. To be ignorant of alchemic language, references, themes, symbols, and imagery is to miss out on the depths and heights of Shakespeare, Blake, Donne, Milton, C. S. Lewis, Dickens, Joyce and even J. K. Rowling. Ms. Rowling is very knowledgeable about alchemy, and her books are built on alchemic structures, written in alchemic language, and have alchemic themes at their core.
Sometimes the term literary alchemy is used in reference to the changes or transformations a reader or audience undergoes as he or she identifies with and experiences the same events as a character. Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson understood Aristotle’s idea that the effect of theatre, in causing human transformation in the audience, is similar to the alchemic effect.
More commonly, literary alchemy refers to a writer’s deliberate use of alchemical subject matter, terminology, and processes as a useful organizing principle for his or her text, especially when writing about individuals undergoing trials and changes as they mature.
The basic structure of an alchemic transformation is well defined. We meet the subject character in his or her lowest or base state, with the soul and base material blackened with the taint of original sin and the fall from grace. During the first or “black” stage (the “nigredo”), the base material (and simultaneously the soul) must undergo dissolution or breaking down through a series of trials to be reduced to its respective original substance, so it and the sympathetic soul can be reborn in a new form. During the second or “white” stage (the “albedo”), the base material is cleansed or absolved until it transforms into a stone which briefly reflects all the colors of the rainbow before it turns a brilliant white. During the third “red” stage (the “rubedo”), the pure white stone is heated until a divine red tincture infuses the white stone to produce the Philosopher’s Stone which can transform base metal to gold but more importantly, can purify the soul and confer immortality.
The alchemic process requires subjecting the base metal to the action of two principal reagents, alchemical mercury (sometimes called quicksilver) and sulfur. These reagents represent the masculine and feminine polarity of existence. Together and separately, the two reagents advance the work of purifying the base metal. Ultimately, these polar opposite reagents must combine to enable a transcendence of the polarity to achieve a harmonious unity.
J. K. Rowling intended for the Harry Potter books to incorporate literary alchemy. The evidence is unavoidable. The title of the first book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Dumbledore is famous for his skill in alchemy; Nicholas Flamel, a key character in the first book, has the name of a famous alchemist; key characters are named Sirius Black, Albus (white) Dumbledore, and Rubeus (red) Hagrid; and Hermione is the feminine form of Hermes (the Greek name for mercury or quicksilver).
The Harry Potter series incorporates a number of patterns identified with classic English literary tradition. Harry certainly embarks on a hero’s journey which eventually leads to death, resurrection, and victory over evil. The story is cast as a classic English schoolboy novel in the nature of Tom Brown’s School Days. Throughout the series, in the tradition of the great English sleuths, Harry and his friends face one mystery after another as they try to unravel the events of the past which led to the deaths of Harry’s parents and to the current epic battle in which Harry must play a major role. Ms. Rowling’s extensive planning of the entire series enables her to make frequent use of “narrative misdirection” to keep these young sleuths and their readers baffled and engaged. The insertion of numerous postmodern themes, Christian symbols, and gothic background all pay homage to classic patterns of English literature. Literary Alchemy is no less an element of the Harry Potter series than any of the forgoing.
K. Rowling has never said directly that she intentionally incorporated alchemic imagery or structure, but in one interview in 1998, she said:
I’ve never wanted to be a witch. But an alchemist, now that is a different matter. To invent the wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount of alchemy. Perhaps much of it I’ll never use in the books, but I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the story’s internal logic.
Certainly some, and possibly a great deal, of the alchemy she learned did find its way into her books, in the great tradition of the literary greats who preceded her. Some familiarity with literary alchemy might enhance the fun of reading her story and perhaps give the reader some new insights when exploring other great works of English literature.
For those who just want to read a good tale that takes place in a fascinating imaginary world and features likable characters facing many of the problems of our own world, the Harry Potter books are just plain fun. And for those who desire to examine this extraordinary work more deeply, there is much to discover.
Dennis spent five years as an engineer, forty as a lawyer, and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.