Less than 20 minutes walk from Notre-Dame Cathedral, in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, is the oldest house in the city: Nicolas Flamel’s house. If the name sounds vaguely, it might be because you’ve read “JK Rowling”Harry potter and the sorcerer’s stoneOr, as it is called outside the United States, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Nicolas Flamel creates the Philosopher’s Stone for the title – and he was, in fact, a historical person.
The Philosopher’s Stone, a magical goal of alchemical research, was believed to be able to transmute lead into gold and – importantly for Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter – brew an elixir of life. Flamel, a wealthy Parisian bookseller and scribe, built his house at the start of the 15th century, and it is now associated with his legendary status as an alchemist. The menu of the restaurant on the first floor – Auberge Nicolas Flamel – promises patrons to “Transform banal reality into poetic and miraculous fiction and perfect the material.” It’s alchemy.
Although I am neither a chef nor a chemist, I am fascinated by alchemy, by the magical transformations that Rowling and others write about. In my study of fantasy literature, I discovered that writers return to alchemy over and over again – but why?
As far as we know, neither Flamel nor anyone else has actually created a Philosopher’s Stone. But in the history of alchemy the roots of modern chemical science lie. While for centuries alchemy has been ridiculed as a pseudoscience practiced only by charlatans and cheaters, some contemporary science historians recognize that in a pre-modern world, alchemy laid the foundation for what later became empirical science. But the chemistry never went away.
Rather than fading into the background of the history of science as one more abandoned pseudoscience, alchemy retains a powerful hold over the imagination. While phrenology (the “science” of reading the personality from the bumps on the head) and the humor theory (which suggested that body fluids such as phlegm and bile were associated with both emotions and the four elements of earth, air, water and fire), have mostly disappeared, the alchemy remains. And it comes up mostly in fantasy literature like the Harry Potter books.
The story continues
Why is alchemy so fascinating? I think that’s because it suggests that there is something magical about the lab: the possibility of total transformation, of turning something worthless into something precious. We know in our bones that lead is not gold – that they are unalterably separated. This is why they appear in the periodic table, after all: each is an element, one of the irreducible components of matter. We know they can’t change, but what if they could?
The magic of alchemy is the magic of books, especially fantastic books that fascinate so many young readers. Like alchemy, fantasy novels promise some kind of transformation: the harassed kid becomes a hero, the maid becomes a princess, lead becomes gold. In novels like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” or the most recent “Strange dreamer”By Laini Taylor, Alchemy serves as a promise that true transformation is possible, even if it requires great sacrifice. The alchemist of “Strange the Dreamer” uses his own blood in the elixir, although historical alchemists have used a more dispensable body fluid, their own urine.
But there is a sleight of hand in transformation stories as they come to us in fantasy. Turns out the makeovers to fantasy stories aren’t as fantastic as they might seem. When Harry Potter becomes a hero, or Cinderella a princess, these are just outward revelations of their inner selves. The qualities that make them special have always been there – they just haven’t been recognized.
Most fantasy novels work this way, it turns out the hero of the quest needs to be revealed, not essentially transformed. To extend the chemical metaphor, perhaps they need to be distilled or refined through hardship and sacrifice – to discover their true essence. Or maybe they need to get in touch with others and bond with them, like Harry does with his friends, or Cinderella with his godmother and the prince, in order to become something even more. taller than their original selves.
In either case, although some sort of chemical process may take place, it is not an alchemical transformation, but rather a clarification, a refinement, a revelation.
The only example I know of in the real world of alchemy is reading. When we read, brain circuits designed to process visual, linguistic, and conceptual information are activated simultaneously and letters on a page become ideas and even images and sounds in the mind almost at the same time.
Learning to read is hard work, but the process, once mastered, is truly almost magical. It’s no surprise, then, that alchemy is a metaphor of control, or a fundamental goal, in so much fiction. Alchemical transformation is the goal of literature itself.
In Taylor’s “Strange the Dreamer”, the hero is not the alchemist. This character is actually kind of a cheat, even though he manages to perform the transmutation of lead into gold. He follows a recipe, spills blood, and does something new, but (spoiler alert!) He remains selfish and opportunistic himself even after achieving his greatest success.
The hero, however, is a librarian. Reading through the dusty depths of the archives, he collects the story of a lost civilization, recovers his language, and then joins a group of travelers in their quest to restore this world. He takes the raw materials he found on library shelves, in the pages of old books, and turns them into stories – then into new life. Auberge Nicolas Flamel is right: it’s alchemy.
This article is republished from The conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Elisabeth Gruner, Richmond University.
Elisabeth Gruner does not work, consult, own shares or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic appointment.
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