Literary Alchemy in ‘Mortal Instruments’ — Of Course!

‘Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Alchemy’ – a Guest post by Valerie Estelle Frankel, respected Potter Pundit and author of the new book about the artistry and meaning of the Mortal Instruments books, Myths and Motifs of The Mortal Instruments.

City of Bones is hitting movie theaters today. The first book and movie in Cassandra Clare’s bestselling Shadowhunters series uses world myth, the Bible, classical literature, and symbolism to weave a powerful epic of teen heroes and heroines, a subject I address in my new Myths and Motifs of The Mortal Instruments, the book from which parts of this essay are adapted.

The Shadowhunters also operate in a world of literary alchemy: This rhyme, released in advance before it appears in Clare’s 2014 conclusion to the bestselling saga, details her use of color coding for Shadowhunter Ceremonies:

Black for hunting through the night

For death and mourning the color’s white

Gold for a bride in her wedding gown

And red to call enchantment down.

While it continues through other colors used less often in the series, a few particular color choices stand out here.

Black is the color of Shadowhunters’ daily uniforms, a color of dissolution as they vanish into the city battling the shadowy demons. and mourners both wear white as the Shadowhunters gather to seek spiritual comfort and wisdom. In off-white are the Silent Brothers in their City of Bones—guardians of the ancient lore who advise the characters and help them seek higher wisdom. Weddings are golden, from the bride’s wedding gown to the light-filled Christmas of Clockwork Princess, surrounded by golden candles. And red may be the color of spellcasting, but for Shadowhunters, it’s also a color of battle.

The Institute is filled with motifs of angels and swords, suns and roses. Angels and swords suggest the Shadowhunters’ constant war. The rose represents the birth of the spiritual and the roundness of the perfect circle. The round sun likewise symbolizes completion of a great work.

In the first book, Clary and Jace share a small alchemical wedding in the greenhouse, like a small Eden within the Institute. Jace is Clary’s “prince” (Bones 297), with hair in a “halo of damp gold” (Bones 306) and golden eyes.

The greenhouse he and Clary share is a magical place – it even smells like Idris. The glass roof shines like the lake in reverse, and strange, magical flowers bloom there, in an enclosed magical world. In the greenhouse, Jace gives Clary a witchlight stone for her birthday. He tells her all Shadowhunters have them and adds, “It will bring you light…even among the darkest shadows of this world and others” (Bones 313). Later it pulses in her hand “like the heartbeat of a tiny bird” and shines in her hand “as if she’d cracked a seed of darkness” (Bones 423). Birds and seeds are feminine symbols, of freedom and potential respectively. As Clary uses the stone, she claims both powers and takes her place as a Shadowhunter. The gift of light in dark places is a feminine tool of perception, like Galadriel’s phial or Ariadne’s thread, a flashlight that will let Clary find her way.

When Jace gives it to her, Clary makes an engagement joke about how girls don’t literally want a “big rock” but a diamond. This mention emphasizes how Clary is already thinking she wants an engagement ring from Jace, and thus the “big rock” he gives her takes on that meaning, binding them together. Indeed, Jace follows his gift with their first kiss. In the greenhouse, this kiss is filled with the magical plants of Idris like an Eden or a place of creation magic. He also gives her apples in the greenhouse, a sign of temptation and sin, though apples were also beloved of Aphrodite. His birthday gift of the blooming flower “dusted with pale gold pollen” blooms only for a moment, symbolizing the short-lived nature of happiness in the world. In fact, the symbolism echoes this: they have a perfect moment, a perfect kiss, and then Clary’s messy love triangle ruins things as she stumbles into Simon. (Frankel 10)

Entering the world of the Shadowhunters requires that Clary transform. In alchemy’s black stage of disillusion, the nigredo, “the body of the impure metal, the matter for the Stone, or the old, outmoded state of being is killed, putrefied, and dissolved into the original substance of creation, the prima materia, in order that it may be renovated and reborn in a new form,” as Lyndy Abraham describes it in A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery

Clary wishes she were like Isabelle, “so aware of your own feminine power you could wield it as a weapon” (Lost Souls 244). As Clary puts on Isabelle’s black spaghetti strap dress with fishnets and boots, she takes steps toward becoming a Shadowhunter, dark, powerful, dangerous, and “fairly badass” (Bones 210). By wearing Isabelle’s clothes, she becomes her, at least for a short time, like playing a part. She descends into a demonic party and experiences the magic and mystery her mother tried to protect her from. She continues dressing in black, showing her identification with the Shadowhunters and their world as she’s drawn in. Her old innocent world has died as she puts it behind her forever.

She consults with the pale Silent Brothers in the City of Bones and reads Magnus Bane’s grey book of runes, growing in wisdom all the while.

When they leave for Magnus’s party, Jace offers Clary “a long thin dagger in a leather sheath. The hilt of the dagger was set with a single red stone carved in the shape of a rose.” He tells her the knowledge of how to wield it is in her blood (Bones 214). This is a feminine dagger – containing a red stone like Isabelle’s pendant and a rose shape – but set in a masculine weapon. It’s a talisman of the Shadowhunter world and an acknowledgement that Clary can be a fighter like Jace, Alec and Isabelle. Later, it’s revealed that the kindjal dagger was Valentine’s, with his falling star emblem. Luke has its match. As Jace, then Clary take Valentine’s red dagger, they become part of the war he began with the Downworlders decades before. They are the heirs to his dark legacy as well as his weapons. (Frankel 10)

The climax of the third book, City of Glass, heralds a perfect journey through all these stages to the golden wedding beyond. When Clary goes to face her father to stop him from summoning the Angel Raziel, the words “black” and “dark” appear over ten times in the description. Tied up and helpless, she has no means of defense as her father boasts of his power. Her magic, weapons, voice, friends, and all else she has are stripped away. She has been broken down, and when her father murders Jace, she despairs.

Purification, or albedo follows. “When the matter reaches the albedo, it has become pure and spotless.” When the angel Raziel appears, it’s in “a geyser of molten silver” (Glass 491). The angel has hair of silver and gold above shoulders “white as stone” (491). He’s armed with “white fire” “like a tower of white flame” (495). His arrival signals a higher level of spirituality and ascension for Clary as she defeats the patriarchy, and dissolves her black-eyed, black shadowed antagonist. Before the angel she ascends to a higher level of purity and wisdom.

In the red stage, the rubedo, the purified matter reunites with the spirit. The body is resurrected into eternal life. As the heat of the fire is increased, the divine red tincture flushes the white stone with its rich, red colour.” Abraham adds, “The reddening of the white matter is also frequently likened to staining with blood.” As City of Glass describes it, “a bright light lit her vision to scarlet” (497) and Clary’s wish returns her love to life, amid bloodstains and “incandescent blood” (498). There is a literal resurrection here and also a symbolic one, as joy and meaning returns to Clary’s world.

At story’s end, she reconciles with her true love in Alicante, as the Shadowhunters celebrate. Her gown is the silver of wisdom and spirituality combined with purity and dazzling feminine power. Dark gold fire runes glow on the doors in celebration, and the story ends with fireworks “in streaking lines of golden fire, like angels falling from the sky” (541).

In the fifth book, City of Lost Souls, Clary abandons her morality and goes over to the dark side, at least for a night. Her boyfriend has turned evil, and, tempted by Evil Jace and his dark brother, Sebastian, she gives in to all they represent.

Jace, flirting with her, urges her to abandon all control. She sees that Jace has given up his principles and only lives for the moment now – and is happier without ethics. This makes her question her own rules. Together they kill a demon and steal its possessions, and for the first time she feels the rush and joy of fighting. The silvery adamas they had bargained for is darkened as she is, its pure angelic silver marred by her blood. She puts on the dress Sebastian brings her – black lace and beads. In it, her eyes are smudged with “dark shadow” and she has “a certain toughness” (Lost Souls 300). She remembers wearing Isabelle’s dress in book one and taking her first steps into the demon world as she enters an even darker realm this time.

Jace guides her into the Bone Chandelier [club] and references the quote “Easy is the decent into hell.” There, a black-winged angel drips strings of garnets like blood. The gruesome bone chandelier dominates, sprinkling the room with silvery fairy drugs. Under its light, Clary gives in to temptation. She makes out with Jace and drinks the drugs, discarding her good girl role.

When Clary turns into her own evil twin, dressing provocatively and slipping into a demon party (as she did in City of Bones), she’s allowing her Shadow to take over – all the impulses she’s always buried, all the sexy, provocative, bad girl impulses she never allows to surface. With the catalyst of various Shadows – Sebastian and Isabelle, who both offer her sexy dresses, Clary feels her unacknowledged, unexplored bad girl side pushing through. And she revels in it. Campbell describes facing this Shadow as “destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life” (8). Allowing the Shadow out, learning its lessons and acknowledging its place in the day to day world is the process of being human.

In Lost Souls, Jace must contend with his Shadow of evil Jace: Clary must contend with Sebastian. He tells her that he needs Jace “But in his heart he’s not like me. You are” (Lost Souls 358). Sebastian even holds up hands like Jocelyn’s and talks about painting. In fact, he represents her buried side: all the seething emotions, power, and desire to lash out people keep hidden under their skins. Sebastian tells her unpleasant truths, pointing out that Jocelyn isn’t as wonderful as Clary always thought: She betrayed her husband, lied for months, and arranged the slaughter of all their friends. “She stole your memories. Have you forgiven her?” he adds, like the angry voice deep inside Clary (Lost Souls 358). He points out Clary too has the potential for evil – she killed their father and doesn’t mourn what she’s done.

As she tries on his lifestyle like the black dress, she finds herself seeing Sebastian’s side, acting on the dark voice that whispers within her. Under the drugs’ influence, she finds herself liking Sebastian. She’s become her own evil twin there in the club, as she thinks of him as her brother and can’t recall why she should fear him. Side by side, they gaze into a pool, and Sebastian tells her how much they share. “You have a dark heart in you, Valentine’s daughter…You just won’t admit it” (Lost Souls 316). (Frankel 27-28)

The next night, “good Jace” is restored to her, and visits her in a white shirt, telling her the truths of Sebastian’s schemes. Across the world, her friends summon an angel and whiteness and purity meet them, along with a glowing angelic sword. Truth is replacing the world of chaos.

As Sebastian prepares to drag Clary to the final battle, he dons “a scarlet leather tunic” (Lost Souls 432) and makes Clary wear a red silk gown “like the edge of a flame” (433). They battle and are covered with blood, then finally arrive for Sebastian’s twisted ceremony. An army of evil Shadowhunters greet them, all robed in red, and a great battle begins—good against evil.

For Evil Jace to be broken apart and Good Jace to return, Clary must be ruthless. She summons the cruel, expedient side she’s learned from Sebastian, the side that would sacrifice a loved one to win a larger goal. With it, Clary stabs Jace with Glorious, burning away the false images and blurry glass through which each has been seeing the other.

Jace is broken down with the sword and burned by heavenly fire until the evil shatters. After he returns to life, he and Clary begin a more balanced relationship. They discuss their priorities and agree to trust each other in the future. (Frankel 30)

When Clary rescues Jace by impaling him with the angel’s sword, “golden flame” shoots through him, and gold is mentioned four times on the page. They are reunited, male and female, on the same side at last. At story’s end, Jace is filled with a “gold that moved and darkened and burned” a living gold inside his skin. (525). He has become her golden prince in truth.

What takes place here is a progression, a breaking down and then a coming together in the red heat and blood of conflict, followed by the shining gold of perfection and happiness. With one more book coming in the series, City of Heavenly Fire, more golden light is sure to come.

Works Cited

Abraham, Lyndy. A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Clare, Cassandra. Cassandra Clare, COHF snippetThe Mortal Instruments.

–. City of Bones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

–. City of Glass. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

–. City of Lost Souls. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Myths and Motifs of The Mortal Instruments. Hamden, CT: Zossima Press, 2013.

Myths and Motifs of The Mortal Instruments

By Valerie Estelle Frankel

With vampires, fairies, angels, teen romance, steampunk, and modern New York all in one series, Cassandra Clare is exploding onto the scene. This book explores the deeper world of the Shadowhunters:
· Parabatai, Nephilim, blessings, and runes
· Lucifer, Ithuriel, Lilith, Agramon, and other angels and demons
· Ancient legends of werewolves, vampires, and fairyfolk
· Clare’s clever Easter eggs from pop culture and literature
· The classic heroine’s journey
· Muslim angels, Hindu prayers, the Jewish Book of Raziel, and the Christian Grail
There’s something for every teen, as this book reveals unseen lore within the bestselling series.

The book will be free on Kindle Aug 23-24 in celebration of the movie release.


Valerie Estelle Frankel has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Henry Potty parodies. She’s the author of many books on pop culture, including From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend, Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey, Katniss the Cattail: An Unauthorized Guide to Names and Symbols in The Hunger Games, Teaching with Harry Potter, and Harry Potter: Still Recruiting. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she’s a frequent speaker on fantasy, myth, pop culture, and the heroine’s journey. Come explore her latest research at


  1. Wow, thanks–flattery will get you everywhere. This is adapted from my book analyzing The Mortal Instruments.
    To celebrate the hot teen movie The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones this August (out today!), Myths and Motifs of The Mortal Instruments will be free from the publisher for two days only!
    Free August 23 and 24 2013 at

  2. This is a great article! I was already wondering if there was alchemy involved in these series, because of the colors mentioned. It’s very good to find out that there is 🙂 (since they’re my favorite new series, after Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – guess I really like alchemy :P)

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