Literary Alchemy: Time to Talk ‘Cinderella’

Once upon a time, Travis Prinzi, the Young Lion of Potter Punditry, wrote to me to ask “what else” he could read that was written on a traditional, alchemical scaffolding. I recommended C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra because it seemed to me that, from Lewis’ use of the word albedo and the red-and-white “pie-bald man” to the Dance of Archetypal Contraries and the white coffin filled with red roses, it was a hermetic no-brainer. Mr. Prinzi wrote back not many days later saying how excited he was to recognize the alchemical signatures throughout the book, signs and symbols he gratefully and gracefully allowed I had taught him. I blushed then and blush now to say that I had missed many of the great catches he made.

I tell this story (forgive me, please, if you have heard it before) because another serious reader, this one in the UK and a George MacDonald scholar, claims me as his alchemical mentor — and, then, just as Mr. Prinzi did, he demonstrates that he has a much greater grasp of the essence and the mechanics of literary alchemy than his supposed master. For a delightful exegesis of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale, Cinderella, as an example of the power and flexibility of hermetic artistry, I urge you to read ‘unsettling wonder‘ at The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond.


  1. All I can say is, “Wow.” I’d never looked at Cinderella from this type of view before.

  2. David DePerro says

    As Cinderella for girls, so Iron John for boys. I hope you love this Brothers Grimm tale. Just enjoy the story the first time through, then come back and read below the link if you want some thoughts. Here’s one faithful rendition, but there are others on the web too:

    For alchemical brilliance from a completely different point of view, see Robert Bly’s 1990 book-length interpretation of the fairy tale by the same name, “Iron John.” Literary alchemy in the high tradition described by John Granger aims for divinization or perfection. By contrast, Bly presents the fairy or folk tale tradition of Iron John (or Cinderella) as one of initiation into manhood (or womanhood). All of the same richness appears. In the Iron John folktale, gold is everywhere, beginning with the child’s golden ball (a symbol of uninitiated privilege?). As the story develops, the alchemical stages and colors veritably leap out at you (black = kitchen, white = garden, red = battle). But during the final tournament, why are the colors the boy wears reversed in order: red, white, black? Also not obvious perhaps are the sulphur/mercury pair (I nominate the cook and the gardener) or the philosophical orphan (perhaps the other boy, who got traded into the kitchen).

    Other elements completely mystify without some interpretation, such as the pinched/golden finger (the pain of first deciding to embark upon a path of change), the hippity hop horse (shame traded for strength in trial, and resumed again as humility), and the Wild Man/Iron John himself. In Iron John’s final appearance, promising all his wealth, we see the alchemist-as-mentor become part of the story (not outside it like alchemists Dickens or Rowling), and redeemed by his transformation of the boy-stone.

    Vital to the story are the beginnings of self-awareness that precede the black stage: the mirror-well in which the boy first looks into his own eyes, the golden hair that results, and the attempts to hide his own beauty with a cap through the alchemical stages that follow. Ironically, it is the transgression of the king’s sensibilities with the cap that obtains his release from the black stage of the ashes to the white of the garden. Yet, according to Bly, leaving the ashes depended on his willingness to serve the king (something to consider if you find yourself stuck in the ashes yourself). In the garden, Bly notes the mercurial nature of the hot weather, the gleaming sun, and the open window bringing the reflected light of the boy’s golden hair to the daughter of the king. After the tournament, I think her laughter at his forthright request for her hand is perhaps the greater reward even than her kiss.

    For a southern version of Iron John, see “The Mangy One” in Italo Calvino’s masterful annotated collection, “Italian Folktales.”

  3. Didn’t like my Wally thought? I think you should revisit the movie. Best animated Christ figure of all time.

    Also, talking of Grimm Brothers and Alchemy, you should all go see Tangled ASAP!

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