Mailbag: Questions About Literary Alchemy

I have been writing John Patrick Pazdziora the past two or three weeks on Narniad subjects and the last few days he has been peppering me with questions about literary alchemy. If you don’t know who Mr. Pazdziora is, stay tuned, because I hope he will be introducing himself soon enough. Though this exchange does not constitute anything like an introduction to the topic of literary alchemy as tradition and reader experience, I do think it is a helpful addition to the discussion of hermetic artistry in The Deathly Hallows Lectures. For those of you already familiar enough with the colors, sequences, and principal figures of alchemy, e.g., the Quarreling Couple, Philosophical Orphan, Alchemical Wedding, etc. from that and posts here, this Q&A back and forth between John Patrick in Scotland and John in Syracuse may help you grasp the sudden ubiquity of alchemy in today’s best sellers in the wake of Ms. Rowling’s juggernaut Hogwarts Saga.

John Patrick’s questions are in red and my responses black and white. Make of that what you will.

I think at some point you need to ask the question whether Literary Alchemy functions solely empirically–we see these colours and those events, and classify this as literary alchemy–or if it carries theoretical weight? (I suggest that it does.) Does Literary Alchemy, on other words, bleed through story in archetypal form, appearing even if the author never studied alchemy? At what level does this influence the text? If you could answer those and resultant questions, at least to yourself, I think you’d find that helpful.

Forgive me for being slow if I’m missing the question, but what I think you’re saying seems a false dichotomy, the ‘one or the other’ fallacy. Literary alchemy is a traditional sequence with specific colors, symbols, and events that can be used in any combination and an indefinite number of ways — hence Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, Romeo and Juliet, Tale of Two Cities and Perelandra all being ‘alchemical’ dramas and experiences — and authors use it not just to conform to a received tradition but because it works.

I can imagine a black-white-red story ‘happening’ accidentally or subconsciously because three-act plays are set up this way as simple exposition (introduction with problem, drama, crisis and conclusion). The specific colors, mercury-sulphur references, alchemical wedding, philosophical orphan/stone, and ablutionary and mythic elements, though, make me think it would be a real stretch to think anyone could ‘stumble’ into this sort of story because of their sensitivity to a collective unconscious (that s/he shares with Shakespeare?).

Thanks for your definition of literary alchemy, that makes sense. My question was obscure, so let me rephrase. Why does it work? What makes it work? How is it transformative? Or is literary alchemy itself not transformative at all in ipso, but simply a time-honoured way of symbolically representing transformation within Western literature? Does it function on its own power, or is it subservient to another effect (the logos, or Eliades thesis, to hazard some vague guesses)?

Is Literary Alchemy, in other words, a structural design or a story essence? Can we say a story is essentially alchemical even if the props and artifacts aren’t there? Or are the props and artifacts what make it alchemical? And can a story have an alchemical effect if, say, the three phases are blue, orange, and vomit pink?

I think literary alchemy works because the symbols foster access to their supernatural referents for the open heart. The human being is designed to experience the world as a sacramental transparency and the alchemical collection has proven most effective for granting us an imaginative experience of transformed vision and those aspects of the Creative Word — truth, beauty, virtue — to which we are largely blind as profane thinkers.

Some of this is simple. Black is an excellent representation of repentance and turning away from self and ego because this part of the spiritual life seems to be an eclipse or advent of darkness. White, too, is fitting for purification and illumination. Red is apt for crisis and the dawn or appearance of the re-created person. The symbols, from the alchemical wedding to the Stone or Orphan, are appropriate ciphers and ultimately transparencies, even translucencies for things greater than themselves and than the reader.

The problem in getting this, of course, especially for academics is that literary alchemy presupposes the existence of supernatural realities, of a faculty in the human person that is not individual for the perception and incarnation of these realities, and of story-telling largely being about the experience of this faculty perceiving its reflection in the story plot, symbols, and resolution-experience. That’s quite the leap or set of leaps for deconstructing types, right?

The tradition’s perseverance, though, is evidence, if not an argument really or anything like a demonstration, that indeed the heart is more than a pump, that the world is much more than matter and energy, and stories are not only not just diversion, they are concentrating on the very most important objective in becoming truly human.

One final question: what determines appropriateness, or aptness? What makes white, for instance, ‘fitting for purification and illumination’? Is this a cultural appropriateness, determined by historical patterns of usage? And, if so, would these colours–apt symbols–perhaps have parallels if not exact correspondences in other cultural and literary traditions? (I’m aware of at least one culture that used black for purity–because black is the colour of clean skin–and white for filth–you’ve been sitting too close to the fire and gotten covered in white ash.) I think this is particularly important since you reference ‘becoming truly human’; if limited alchemy is limited to the Western (using that in the broadest sense) tradition, it would be interesting to find out what effects the transformation to true humanity in other cultures–the other faces of alchemical change, as it were.

I think the aptness of the colors have to do with light, namely, black being the absence of and consequent longing for light, white being the absence of color and hence the representation of what reveals color, light itself, and red being the color of fire which is, if you will, the embodiment or incarnation of light (think of a burning log and glowing ember).

This correlation is the reason or signature of each alchemical stage.

  • The nigredo or stage of repentance is the realization that one is in Dante’s “dark forest” and, cognizant of the darkness in the life of ego, the beginning of the seeker’s pursuit of light.
  • The albedo is the stage of concealed illumination or enlightenment in which the subject, having been reduced to prime matter, is cleansed and restored.
  • The rubedo, the reunion of purified soul and body, is the incarnation in crisis of the transformed person, his glorification, if you will.

I think this derives from the Christian understanding of God’s Word and His Energies as light, His glory. This is the underlying fabric of existence, the stuff and substance of created reality, hence Christ being “the light of the world,” man’s inner heart or uncreated noetic faculty being “the light that comes into the world in every man,” represented, too, by the eye, “the light of the body.”  The center that is the “inside bigger than the outside” because it is both prior and causal Christians think of in terms of light. Baptism is photismos or “illumination,” “becoming light” in Greek; Western culture, even its atheistic elements, still thinks of “enlightenment” as something of a summum bonum.

My comparative religion knowledge is pretty weak, admittedly, but I’m confident this idea of light is not exclusively Christian. I suspect your examples of white meaning dirty and black meaning clean are much more the exception than the rule in human cultures — and universal human and even plant preference for light over darkness suggests this is a function of design rather than something we learn.

I’d suggest, too, that our longing for the resolution of contraries, the “peace that passeth all understanding,” is more than something we pick up with cultural taboos about clean and unclean. Our design for vision, hearing, and bipedal walking, not to mention the bicameral mind, points to our telos in resolution. Literary alchemy, then, is as pervasive, effective, and enduring as it is in poetry, drama, and novels because it touches on our hard wiring as human beings.

[Your comments and correction, as always, are coveted.]


  1. Thanks, John. I found this summary/ explanation for literary alchemy very helpful to my own understanding of the subject. 🙂 Happy New Year hope it’s blessed. 🙂

  2. Hi John–

    Thanks for sending me the link! Very interesting questions and responses. I can imagine–and you might be able to unearth–stories in which the three major colors are prominent (and perhaps another related element), all because a writer is influenced by wide reading. And also because a collection like “as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in the window frame” gives us a set of stark and meaningful colors, even outside of alchemy. But deliberate use of alchemical transformation as a powerful scaffolding for a story seems quite another issue, as you indicate.

    And now, back through the dark door to my salt mine, where I hope to purify a set of galleys!

  3. Hi, literary alchemy is fascinating. I have read your Deathly Hallows Lectures recently, included in the notes was a list of other authors who have used this formula. Can you suggest other good books that trace literary alchemy?
    It is interesting who were the first writers to use it and how it developed.

    Thank you for any response.

  4. Thanks for helping me out with Literary Alchemy. Could you talk about whether or not it is in a Tale of Two Cities? I’m pretty Sydney Carton went through lit. alch.

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