Josef Djugashvili (goddlefrood) wrote in hp_essays,
Josef Djugashvili

Alchemy - What might have been

Darkness will appear on the face of the Abyss; Night, Saturn and the Antimony of the Sages will appear; blackness, and the raven's head of the alchemists, and all the colours of the world, will appear at the hour of conjunction; the rainbow also, and the peacock's tail. Finally, after the matter has passed from ashen-coloured to white and yellow, you will see the Philosopher's Stone.

- Heinrich Khunrath

I've been considering whether to rewrite and post the below effort for a while. I had my mind made up by slashpine, due to this comment on woman_ironing's recent essay imploring those disappointed with DH to reread it.

I have added little or nothing based on book 7, what follows is more of an intellectual exercise rather than any attempt to show that the series is based on any alchemical system; that there are links to aspects of the alchemical system should be clear enough by the end. However, alchemy can by no means be said to be the way of explaining the series. The series did not reach the end of the alchemical cycle, particularly the more involved seven stage cycle. IOW, the series did not follow Harry far enough for the alchemical process to conclude. By my reckoning it reached around two thirds of the way into the three stage process and less than half way into the more involved seven stage process.

I always thought there was very little in the alchemical based theories to predict death and I'll explain why in this essay. There are, for starters, a multitude of alchemical systems. Herein I limit myself to two relatively well-known examples.

(i) The three stage system.

Stage one - Nigredo - meaning blackening. This stage of the alchemical process refers primarily to what happens before there can be any progress towards the goal. All that has been formed is broken apart and becomes dark and dead. It would have been more appropriate to compare the basic stage system to Harry's reactions to death rather than to try to have made it into a pattern of how the deaths roster proceeded. Few, if any, alchemy essays and / or speculations seemed to consider this, excepting my own.

Basically, Sirius's death leads to a shattering of all Harry's beliefs in the inherent underlying goodness in the wizarding world. Black's death marked the end of Harry's wonder of all things wizarding. From that point on he is focused to his task of tracking down and destroying Lord Voldemort and all his evil works.

Stage two - Albedo - it refers to the whitening or enlightening of the process. Albus Dumbledore throughout HBP had been preparing Harry for what lay ahead. Harry is being taught and through that teaching he reached the point by the end of HBP that he was aware of what he must do to move forward in his quest.

The wise old wizard must be got out of the way for the hero to proceed, this has been achieved and JKR has also referred to it as something that had to happen. The upshot is that Albus had to die, but not because his name meant white, as Albedo on a literal translation does not.

Albedo in fact has its roots in washing or cleansing. Harry had gone through the process of cleansing himself to proceed by both coming to terms with the deaths of his mentors and by accepting what he must do.

The final stage - Rubedo - has its roots in love, despite it often having been interpreted as the reddening phase for the alchemy based death prediction theories (leading to Hagrid's death - which, as we all know now happened). It was be through love that Harry conquered Lord Voldemort. There doesn't seem to be much real dispute about that and it had been a theme that had run throughout the series. Love being the power Voldemort knew not was his ultimate downfall.

Oh, sorry, no it wasn't. Despite the build up and the many references to love, ultimately it wasn't love that led to Voldemort's demise. It was luck, which was foreshadowed a long time ago when Harry once said something along the line of: "I didn't know what I was doing, I got lucky."

Rubeus Hagrid was fine. Fred Weasley's death lends no credibility to the Rubedo stage predicting the death of someone linked to red. That Fred had red hair was by the by.

(ii) The seven stage system

1. Calcination
2. Dissolution
3. Separation
4. Conjunction
5. Fermentation
6. Distillation
7. Coagulation

There are four, and possibly more, ways of interpreting the seven stages of the alchemical cycle as set out above. The four would be chemically, psychologically, physiologically and societal. It is the latter of these that is dealt with in what follows. It may enable you (generic) to fit Lord Voldemort's, and more importantly perhaps, Harry's journey into a scheme that tallies with the seven stage process as opposed to the three stage process that has been referred to earlier.

As mentioned in section (i) an alternative way of construing the three stage process can lead to a conclusion that it is Harry's development through that that could have been a key to understanding how his journey towards his goal was to be achieved. Like I said though, it only works up to the second stage and the third stage rather puts the kibosh on alchemy as a way of explaining what was going on in the series as a whole.

Taking the societal method for the seven stage process and transposing that onto the seven stages of Voldemort could lead us somewhere interesting. With no further ado here it is:

1. Calcination in societal interpretation is compared to heroes or revolutionaries who attempt to subvert the status quo. In terms of fitting that to PS/SS it does not really work. However, if we go back to the beginning of Lord Voldemort's first rise it may do so. His goal appears to have been to oust the existing regime and impose his own rule over the wizarding world.

2. Dissolution is the time of purging the Earth of all that is deficient and it seems to me that in his own mind Lord Voldemort wanted to do just that. This is quite easily divined from his spiel towards the end of CoS as well as GoF. His two lengthiest speeches in canon in fact. The first from his younger self and the latter from his contemporary self after he had regained a body.

3. Separation then equates to the formation of a new order. This appears to me to be a reasonable extrapolation of what Lord Voldemort wanted to do. It starts once the process of ridding the wizarding world of its chaff, as he saw it, had been achieved. The ground has been prepared in stage two for stage three to progress.

4. Conjunction is simply where the new society has been created and is moving along the road to its final form, as it kind of was post the Ministry's fall.

5. During the fermentation stage the new culture is developing its own ideology in terms of arts, sciences, magic development (as this is tied to the fictional world of Harry Potter). In the typical system espoused comparing the seven stages of societal development this is also the point at which religion becomes established in whatever form that might take.

6. It is at this point that it is no longer reasonable to compare the sixth stage of societal development (Distillation) to what Lord Voldemort had contemplated. This is because the sixth stage is where nirvana is reached through a process of society commingling into one and striving towards a common search for truth.

Momentarily I will attempt for my next trick to fit Harry into the seven stage societal alchemy schemata.

It fits Harry rather better than it fits Lord Voldemort, as I hope will become clear. It also somewhat complements part (i). The difference is that the reading of the societal version can be used to project what Harry has to do from the end of Deathly Hallows (excluding what I will loosely call the Epilogue).

Thus distillation and the final stage of coagulation do not easily fit in with comparison to Lord Voldemort's story arc, IMO.

Up to a point, therefore, it was possible to fit Lord Voldemort's story into the seven stage alchemical cycle, but it falls down after stage 5 as far as I'm concerned. It is my view that Lord Voldemort's chosen path the second time around was very similar to his previously chosen path. He repeated his errors and that ultimately led to his second and permanent downfall.

Before going on to Harry there is, if interested, available a good outline of the seven stage alchemical process from four perspectives, being chemical, psychological, physiological and societal offered at this site: (Edit 13/2/08 - This link is broken, this:

works, and is the first stage of seven, the second page links from the end of the first etc.)

Perhaps someone else might be interested in using that as a basis for a theory on how the process was at work in the series, if it was at all.

Back though to Harry. Making some comparisons to the societal method led me to a similar, but distinct, conclusion. Using the same system outlined above, let's go back to stage one. This is, remember, based on the societal version of the seven stages of alchemy:

(i) Calcination compares to heroes or revolutionaries who attempt to subvert the status quo.

Harry set out his stall early in terms of not accepting help from the Ministry of Magic, for my purpose the established regime. He had his own plan, albeit one that relied a great deal on luck rather than good judgment. On that basis he subverted the method that had been used against Lord Voldemort during his first rise as much as Dumbledore had with the establishment of the Order of the Phoenix.

(ii) Dissolution is the time of purging the Earth of all that is deficient.

This goes hand in hand with Harry's primary goal in that to achieve that goal he must first overcome many obstacles, which included, but were not limited to, the destruction of the remaining Horcruxes and the resolution of various conflicts with others who barred his objective. These others were Lord Voldemort's massed forces of darkness consisting of the giants, the Dementors, the Inferi, the werewolves and the Death Eaters - not all of whom actually did take a part in Voldemort's offensive.

(iii) Separation then equates to the formation of a new order.

This stage goes mostly to what will need to be done once Harry succeeded in neutralising Lord Voldemort. There should be a process of cleaning up the wizarding world in general that may include a new Minister of Magic or even a new system of Government entirely within the wizarding world. It should also precipitate more equality for less favoured magical beings and improvement in relations between the magical world and the real world in terms of potential co-operation between them, but not in terms of realignment of the two.

(iv) Conjunction is simply where the new society has been created and is moving along the road to its final form.

This in and of itself is self-explanatory and needs little further expansion.

(v) The fermentation stage of the new culture is when it develops its own ideology in terms of arts, sciences, magic development. This is also the point at which religion becomes established in whatever form that might take.

That also seems clear enough. I had thought that JKR would give some expansion of how religion within the wizarding world worked, a forlorn hope as it turned out.

(vi) Distillation. This sixth stage is the point at which the society progresses further and justice and truth have taken a firm grip so that the society can finally be realised in its final form in stage seven.

(vii) Coagulation is the last stage at which point there is a return to a paradisaical state and that would have been a rather satisfying point to have reached by the end of the story.

Post-DH it seems to me that in terms of Harry's story arc comparative to the seven stage societal based alchemical cycle the story only progressed as far as stage 3. Some vague hints were there that progress was being made towards a more enlightened and tolerant society. Those pointers were sometimes so vague as to be almost unnoticed, and in any event were of little or no consequence. What happened next is something that we are all left free to decide, always presuming that Ms. Rowling does not want us to take her post-DH statements seriously, as I do not.

Nota Bene - IMVHO alchemy does not assist too much in our understanding of the Harry Potter series as it stands, whichever way one slices it. Care to convince me otherwise?
Tags: characters:potter family:harry, characters:tom riddle/voldemort, wizarding world:society
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