Okay, Lets begin with what is Alchemy. I will start by saying that in my current work in progress I am using alchemy as one of the forms of magic. This is not because I have studied actual alchemy but because I was highly influenced by a Japaneses amine called The Full Metal Alchemist. Generally alchemy is thought of as a primitive form of chemistry, more superstition and Head-ology then science. Prinzy and Granger have argued against this but I don't think I have quiet understood it well enough to put into words the entirety of their argument. How ever the gist of their argument is that Alchemy is founded in a reviled theology, and is more then superstition, it is more then science but a metaphysical understanding of body and soul changing. Personally I hope they each stop by and add their thoughts to the conversation.
Now how does alchemy come into literature? Through symbols. Lots of symbols. I'm still trying to work though what and how this actually works and what it looks like. A big thank you to John who was so kind to send me a link or two to a good summary of what literary alchemy is and how it is found in Harry Potter. The best thing to do would probably be to read his books which I plan to do the only problem is that they will have to join the back log of nonfiction books already on my list.
Anyway back to what literary alchemy is. (I will be using information from both the Hogwarts Professor and the Hog's Head Pub for most my information here.) Like I said symbols are the basis for it. These symbols can be best expressed in the four alchemical colors: black, white, red, and gold. Each color is representative of a stage of the alchemical process. It is a movement from the darkness to light, a purification when the dross is burned away and nothing remains but the purity of the gold. Or to barrow from one of the greatest Philosophers to ever live, it is moving form believing the figures cast on the cave wall are only shadows cast by the true reality. A movement towards perfection. As someone who was raised in a Wesleyan tradition this is very interesting sense Wesley saw the christian life as a life moving towards entire sanctification or the ability to be 'perfect' as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Each stage has a name The first is called nigredo where the black lead or impure metal is introduced. Towards the end of the stage the lead is crushed and we move on to the second stage. The second stage is called the albedo stage. Here the subject is cleaned and made spotless. We then move on to the rubedo where that which has been purified is now tested. Once the time of testing is over the subject emerges from the other side in the final stage the cirtinitas or the yellowing. It is the dawning of the light when the combination of body and soul is finished, whole and complete.
Any one who has been studying this more then I have (which I must admit has only been for about a week) is free to disagree with my simple one paragraph summary, after all that is the only way I am going to learn and understand this concept better how ever I must say in attempting to distill this down to one simple paragraph I think I can walk away with an understanding of what alchemy is, and its inherent beauty.
Also in looking at this I can see the heart of the christian tradition and revelation spelled out in a simple yet beautiful melody. We are born into sin (blackness) that sin must be atoned for by the cross. We are baptized (whiteness) and made clean. Yet that is not the end of the story. We must continue to live in this world where the kingdom of man is at war with the kingdom of heaven. Through life we are tested and tried and finally we die. (reddness) The serpent bites the heal, killing the victim, but its head is crushed as God calls his children home. (yellowing or goldness) Read the last letter in the Screwtape Laters for a beautiful description of the death of a saint.
And now I need another refill of my coffee cup.