Alchemy is fantasy’s best-kept secret.
Name a modern fantasy series, and it’s probably based on alchemy: Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher, Harry Potter, Trollhunters. The list goes on and on. After the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling even commented:
I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter. To invent this wizard world, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about alchemy.
Actually, it’s not just fantasy that uses alchemy. Steampunk anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and RWBY use it. The Wizard of Oz is based on it. There’s even a British writer you might’ve heard of who used it in his romances: a guy named William Shakespeare.
Chances are, though, that you’ve never heard of alchemy.
Let’s dive in and learn about this mythical art.
Alchemy Across The World
Alchemy itself is pretty universal. It shows up in ancient European texts and art quite often. It also pops up in ancient Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern texts and art, among other cultures.
The main goals of alchemy are pretty common things we humans want: wealth, good health, longevity, and prosperity.
In history, wealth is associated with gold. If you came across a stash of gold, you’d be set for life. The end goal of Alchemy is turning lead into gold and/or creating a life-giving magic potion. The lead-to-gold stuff is more popular in Western traditions, while the elixir of life is more important in the East.
While sometimes considered to be part of the occult, alchemy mingled with Christian ideas in the West and with Taoism in the East. As a result, its principles apply to a lot of different subjects nowadays.
For example, the physical aspect forms the basis for modern chemistry! In addition, psychologist Carl Jung wrote books about how alchemy can apply to the mind. Jung also pointed to different allegorical allusions to alchemy in a lot of fairy tales and fables.
Literary alchemy is similar to this. Stories that use it base their characters, plot structures, and even settings on alchemy’s steps and legendary ingredients!
Alchemy’s Main Idea: Dissolve, Coagulate, Rinse, Repeat
The main idea of alchemy is in Latin. Don’t worry, we can translate it.
It is “solve et coagula.”
Which translates to dissolve and coagulate. Break something apart and bring it back together as a stronger, more refined version. Rinse and repeat.
The idea that things that could break us can actually make us stronger is, obviously, a theme in a lot of fantasy stories. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf dies and returns as a much more powerful wizard. He has been refined in this form.
Often, stories make the dissolve-coagulate process super literal! In the last season of Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters, the main character Jim Lake has to literally soak in a bathtub (dissolve) and wakes up with his human and troll aspects combined (literally brought together, or coagulated).
In addition, Harry uses a bath to get a clue for his next task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Plus, in A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime soaks in a bath while he tells Brienne the truth that HE killed the Mad King.
In terms of coagulation, or irrelevant stuff burning away, Daenerys burns away Khal Drogo to hatch her dragons. Plus, Jon Snow gets stabbed, which connects to the fact that metal was considered to be a solid fire in ancient days. When Snow wakes, he’ll presumably have a new perspective and new priorities…if he ever wakes. (Please, George!)
Fantasy & The Philosopher’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone kicked off an epic seven-book saga. If you’re American, you were given a different title for marketing reasons.
The philosopher’s stone, though, is the end goal of physical alchemy. In theory, this stone produces a potion of eternal life. It can also turn anything into gold. Of course, this is just a myth.
In fantasy, a character usually saves their world. Through saving the world, the characters give life to everyone in it. Hence, the character(s) themselves become a metaphor for the philosopher’s stone.
In alchemy, the main symbol of the philosopher’s stone is a circle. Inside the circle is a triangle. Inside the triangle is a square, and inside the square is a circle with two people.
The giant circle is the larger world. The triangle is different aspects of a human being. The square is the four classical elements. The smaller circle with two people is the metaphorical philosopher’s stone.
Sound confusing? Don’t worry; read on to find out what this looks like!
The Phases Of Alchemy
Alchemy has about a zillion different versions of its specific process. Some have twelve steps, some seven, and some fourteen. However, all alchemy processes generally have the same three phases divided by color. In Western alchemy, these colors are also associated with a classical element, too.
- Black (earth)—associated with death, darkness, and decay.
- White (water)—associated with washing decay away and with new revelations.
- Red (fire and air)—associated with rebirth and new life.
Eastern alchemy has different classical elements: earth, water, fire, metal, and wood. Plus, these elements interact differently. For an example of how these elements work, Moxiang Tongxiu’s Mo Dao Zu Shi is a well-known donghua, or Chinese anime, that uses them. However, the color phases are the same in Eastern as in Western alchemy.
So how do these phases work in stories?
Black, White, Red DeathsLet’s look at major events in several modern fantasies.
Harry Potter marks its phases through deaths that occur with specific name associations. Particularly, this is the case in the last three books. Sirius Black dies and starts Harry’s dark night of the soul phase, during which he’ll literally use unforgivable curses. Next, Albus (albedo) Dumbledore dies, and then Harry undergoes a phase where he starts to see things more clearly. These things include seeing Dumbledore as a flawed human. Lastly, Harry dies in the presence of Rubeus (rubedo) Hagrid, and resurrects like a phoenix to save everyone.
In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf dies in the Mines of Moria (a dark place under the earth). Next, Gandalf the White gets involved in a bunch of battles that include ousting Saruman the White and destroying Isengard with water. Lastly, Gollum dies in a fiery (red) volcano and the eagles fly Frodo and Sam away (air).
In RWBY, Pyrrha Nikos dies on a black tower at Beacon Academy’s climax. Next, Weiss Schnee, whose name is literally “white snow,” almost dies at Haven Academy’s climax. Most recently, at the climax of Atlas Academy’s arc, Penny Polendina dies by a weapon called Crocea Mors, which means “yellow death.”
Other Phases Of AlchemySometimes yellow is included between white and red. Yellow is fire, and red is air. It’s almost always combined with red, but not in RWBY. Since RWBY is not finished, whether it has a red death remains to be seen.
RWBY names its main characters after the phases. The main four from the series are:
- Blake Belladonna (“black nightshade”)
- Weiss Schnee (“white snow”)
- Yang Xiao Long (“little sun dragon”)
- Ruby Rose
Since yellow is usually part of red, Yang is Ruby’s half-sister.
There’s also a brief “flash phase” that sometimes pops up between black and white: the rainbow. RWBY’s fifth main character is Jaune Arc. Arc references rainbows. Jaune’s also one of seven siblings all named after colors of the rainbow.
Since rainbow isn’t quite a full phase, Jaune isn’t actually a part of Team RWBY even though he’s an equally important character.
The Triangle: Alchemy’s Characters
Most of the time, characters aren’t named for phases. Phase is usually the realm of the plot. Still, characters represent an important part of alchemy.
Ever wonder why trios are a thing in fantasy stories? That’s because alchemy says three things make up a person: heart, mind, and body. Traditionally it was soul, spirit, and body, but that was even more confusing.
In a trio, each character represents one of these aspects. Remember the triangle in the philosopher’s stone symbol?
The hero is the heart character: they’re brave, emotional, and caring. The mind character is the voice of reason. The body character worries about physical safety, eats a lot, and in more adult stories, “gets around.”
Additionally, alchemy isn’t a fan of the body in the same way it is of the mind and heart. Thus, the poor body character can get left behind.
Let’s look at some modern fantasy stories:
- Harry Potter: Harry has a hero complex; Hermione is the brainiac. Ron is always eating and is often left behind in key moments.
- Lord of the Rings: Frodo is our heart-led hero. Samwise has “wise” literally in his name. Gollum constantly eats and doesn’t survive.
- Trollhunters: Jim is a brave hero. Claire is the voice of reason. They have a romance that doesn’t include Toby, who struggles with courage.
- A Song of Ice and Fire: Daenerys Targaryen has a hero complex, Jon Snow is very calculated and intelligent, and Tyrion Lannister loves to drink and sleep around. Dany and Jon are likely to have a romance, which Tyrion won’t be part of.
Two People: Opposites AttractNow let’s discuss the smaller circle with two people in the symbol. Alchemy involves combining opposites. Think about yin and yang in Taoism.
Alchemy has several opposites that show up as symbols in different fantasy works. These include heart and mind, sun and moon, gold and silver, fire and water, air and earth, hot and cold, and sulfur and mercury.
When these opposites combine, they create the philosopher’s stone. Traditionally, this was represented in a man and woman in the smaller circle. The man would be associated with heart, sun, gold, fire, air, hot, and sulfur. The woman would be associated with the mind, moon, silver, water, earth, cold, and mercury.
For example, let’s look at The Witcher, where Geralt and Yennefer act as Ciri’s adoptive parents. Geralt and Yennefer are opposites, and Ciri is a combination of both of them. In the books, this is even physically the case: Yennefer has black hair, Geralt white, and Ciri gray.
Hence, rather than two people acting as a stone together, The Witcher has Ciri be the full embodiment of one herself.
Writers have been playing with these associations for hundreds of years, though. In particular, gender is often subverted in fantasy stories. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is the moon to Juliet’s sun. After they die (which saves their city, thus giving life to everyone), the Montagues build a statue of Juliet in gold.
In ASOIAF, Jon Snow is water, and Daenerys, the woman, is fire.
Let’s Make Some Gold!We’ve talked about the sun and gold’s connection, and the moon and silver’s. There are actually seven planets relevant to alchemy, all of which have an associated metal. However, unlike silver and gold, these metals are considered less refined.
In order of refinement, they are:
- Saturn & Lead
- Jupiter & Tin
- Mars & Iron
- Venus & Copper
- Mercury & well, Mercury
In fantasy, the most common that pop up, besides the sun and moon, are mercury, tin, and iron.
Named for the Roman God of War, Mars and iron symbolize violence in alchemy. Think about RWBY’s General James Ironwood, who spends his life preparing for war and eventually attempts genocide.
Another clear example is ASOIAF’s Iron Throne. How many wars has that thing caused? Plus, the Iron Bank funds the wars too. Thirdly, the Iron Islands were pillaged and pirated.
Next, tin. The Tin Man is the most obvious example. He looks for a heart (while the Scarecrow looks for a mind and the Cowardly Lion his courage).
Still, there’s another example: Stannis Baratheon. Stannis’s name is Latin for tin, and he paints a heart on his armor. Stannum is also an alloy of silver and lead, and lead is associated with Saturn. Why is this relevant? Well… Saturn in mythology kills his kids. RIP Shireen.
Now, Mercury is the messenger god. As a metal, it shifts between states easily. Alchemy thus says mercury is an instigator: unpredictable, yet able to jumpstart the process.
For example, look at Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. His name’s clear enough, and he’s the one who drags Romeo to the party where he’ll meet Juliet. Yet Mercutio can bring bad as much as he can bring good. He’s also the one who jumpstarts tragedy by insisting on fighting Tybalt!
Lions & Dragons & Snakes, Oh My!Finally, dragons. Alchemy uses a lot of animals in its art. Each phase has a bird, for example:
- Ravens/Crows with Black
- Peacocks with Rainbow
- Swans/Doves with White
- Pelicans with Yellow
- Phoenixes with Red
However, animals are generally associated with the black phase. Back then, people saw animals as less refined examples of life (our pets may disagree with this!). Snakes, dragons, wolves: these all show up in alchemical art. As a result, they’re very present in fantasy works!
Furthermore, Lyndy Abraham’s book A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery describes a dragon like this:
…the dragon is the lower, earthly self which the soul must learn to subdue and train, so that the higher self…may at last reign.
Green Animals & ViolenceOne animal that shows up a lot is the lion. There are many art pieces of a green lion eating the sun. In fantasy stories, the green lion is usually represented as a character who acts violently and cruelly in the beginning, only to start on a journey of redemption as a result of the consequences of this violence.
In ASOIAF, Jaime Lannister, who has green eyes and whose house sigil is the lion, starts off pushing Bran out a window. After the Starks capture him, he begins a journey of redemption.
In Harry Potter, Snape (who belongs to the green-colored house Slytherin) starts off as a bully who dies “the bravest man” Harry “ever knew.” Towards the end, Dumbledore tells Snape that perhaps he should have been sorted into Gryffindor, a house with a lion sigil.
In Heaven Official’s Blessing, a Chinese novel and donghua, the “green goblin” Qi Rong literally eats characters and gets a son after eating an abusive father. Qi Rong then redeems himself for this son.
From this, you might gather green is more of a violent color in alchemy. For example, consider the Greens versus the Blacks in House of the Dragon. The Blacks have a prophecy to create a hero who will save the world forever, so they are at the beginning of the process. However, the Greens use violence to stop this.
Of course, nothing in Westeros is so simple. In alchemy, green is violent, but it is also a color for beginnings. One Green, Helaena Targaryen, rides a dragon named Dreamfyre. Dreamfyre’s three eggs are most likely the eggs from which the chosen one, Daenerys, eventually births her dragons.
Those eggs, however, had been hardened to stone…
Big Circle, Little Circle: Alchemy’s BeginningMost Western alchemists cited the Emerald Tablet as the foundation of alchemy. Supposedly, this Emerald Tablet contains all the steps on how to create a philosopher’s stone. It was written by Mercurius, a messenger between humans and gods.
Of course, this is all a legend. There is no real single Emerald Tablet that acts like a Rosetta Stone containing all of the secrets of alchemy. That hasn’t stopped alchemists from trying to decode ancient writings, though!
Several ancient texts claim to contain the Tablet’s words. The oldest of these dates back to the Middle East in the 900s CE.
One alchemist who spent years translating ancient texts was Isaac Newton. Yes, this is the same Isaac Newton whose claim to fame is discovering gravity. The most famous line from Newton’s translation is:
That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.
As Above, So Below:
This in turn gets condensed into “as above, so below.” This phrase is extremely common in modern stories. Zack Snyder’s Justice League uses it as a name for a track on its OST, and RWBY titled an episode this in Volume 7, Episode 9.
In alchemy, “as above, so below” addresses the two circles in the philosopher’s stone symbol. The larger circle is the macrocosm or the universe. The microcosm is a reflection of that world playing out on a small scale in people.
In homage to the Tablet, emerald sometimes appears as a color symbolizing goals or beginnings. In RWBY’s first volume, characters explore the Emerald Forest. Hogwarts students receive their letters written in emerald ink. Dorothy needs to find the Emerald City to get home in The Wizard of Oz. Dreamfyre’s eggs provide the beginning for Dany as a hero.
RWBY also keeps its weird tradition of naming characters after ideas. It has two side-partnered characters named Emerald Sustrai and Mercury Black. Likely, this references the Tablet.
Chaos: Negative AlchemyLet’s look at antagonists in fantasy. Usually, the evil villains represent chaos, death, and insanity. Rather than bringing health and wealth, they kill and scatter. For example, ASOIAF’s “Others” only want death for all humans.
Sometimes, fantasies turn this chaos into a single person or object. In other words, they make a negative philosopher’s stone. For instance, RWBY’s Salem brings death and disaster wherever she goes. What started as a simple quest in her own personal life spreads and poisons the entire world.
However, the best bad philosopher’s stone is Lord of the Ring‘s “One Ring.” That thing destroys anyone who touches it, and it could destroy all of Middle-earth.
Alchemy & FantasyIt’s pretty cool to look at all these popular fantasy stories and see how they’re connected. They aren’t just similar in terms of structure and character trios, but in terms of how fantasy stories address things pretty much universally craved by all people.
Despite similar structures and elements, though, these stories are all very different!
Fantasy is a genre to explore possibilities and makes the imagination’s wildest dreams literal. Learning about its history and inspirations can give us a better understanding of the genre. It can also help us craft our own fantasy stories!