Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The name given in Western Europe from the 12th century to various kinds of mystical proto-chemistry. Chinese alchemy is relatively well documented, but the evidence about ancient Greek alchemy is confined to a single manuscript, and the Arabic tradition is known only by allusion. From late medieval times onwards Scholarly Fantasy moved to fill this historical void with copious invention.

Alchemy is traditionally associated with two particular quests: for the Elixir of Life and the Philosophers' Stone – i.e., the secret of transmuting "base metal" into gold. More recent revisionist historians tend to argue that these objectives ought to be construed metaphorically, and that alchemy is better regarded as a quest for spiritual enlightenment. The fact that medieval and Renaissance treatises were written in a bizarre symbolic code assists and encourages this kind of saving move.

Early literary works featuring alchemists tend to regard them as petty confidence tricksters, after the fashion of Geoffrey Chaucer in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" (circa 1390) and Ben Jonson (1572-1639) in The Alchemist (1610). William Godwin's St Leon (1799) suggests that success in the traditional alchemical quests would bring no joy, while Honoré de Balzac's La recherche de l'absolu (1834) represents the alchemical quest as an archetypal exercise in futility. The occult revival of the late 19th century, however, brought forth a new wave of scholarly fantasies, usually associated with the various Rosicrucian societies (> Rosicrucianism) inspired (at least in part) by Johann Andreae's Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616). Edward Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story (1861) and Joris-Karl Huysmans's Là-Bas (1891) are the best-known literary works giving evidence of the new credulity, but some Rosicrucian lifestyle fantasists – notably the Frenchman Joséphin Péladan – were prolific writers of bad fiction. Arthur Machen's involvement in such mysticism inevitably infected his work, his most elaborate alchemical tale being "The Spagyric Quest of Beroaldus Cosmopolita" (1923). Gustav Meyrink's obsession with these materials gave extravagant inspiration to perhaps his finest novel, The Angel of the West Window (1927). Alchemical mysticism also plays a muted role in the metaphysical fantasies of Charles Williams, most notably in Many Dimensions (1931). Literary performances by contemporary scholarly fantasists – who usually take their inspiration from such works as Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible (1956) and Frances Yates's The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), but abandoning the conscience and sense of proportion carefully maintained by those authors – tend to be too earnest and/or too recherché for their own good.

Alchemy's intrusions into modern fantasy are not extensive, although alchemists feature in bit roles in many High Fantasies and sorcerers' lairs are often kitted out with the impedimenta of the alchemical laboratory. In Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics (1980) alchemy is discussed as one of five branches in a pseudo-taxonomy of Magic. It crops up in a number of notable historical fantasies, including Alexander de Comeau's Monk's Magic (1931), Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror (1969), John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), Patrick Harpur's Mercurius, or The Marriage of Heaven & Earth (1990) and Derek Beaven's Newton's Niece (1994), and in a few exercises in exoticism – including Frank Owen's "Dr Shen Fu" (1938) and its sequels, which feature a Chinese alchemist – but is shown off to much better advantage in borderline-sf stories. Ian Watson's The Gardens of Delight (1980), which interprets Hieronymus Bosch's famous painting in terms of alchemical symbolism and actualizes its imagery, is the most ambitious exercise to date along these lines. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.