Published On: Tue, Jan 9th, 2018

Why is Alchemy Such a Popular Subject in TV and Literature?

Very few people believe in alchemy in modern times. However, it is something that has been used in fiction for hundreds of years. Whether it is used as a type of magic in a fantasy setting, or as a commentary on the beliefs of other people in the world around them in older times, writers have found lots of ways to bring alchemical concepts into their work, from Dante and Chaucer to JK Rowling and George RR Martin.

photo NASA

Indeed, alchemy has even fascinated some of the greatest minds, with Isaac Newton having been somewhat obsessed with the topic, despite his scientific pedigree – he actually wrote less about physics and mathematics combined than he did about alchemy, and did a notable translation of the famed Emerald Tablet, which you can read more about at fabweb.org.


  • Modern Works Featuring Alchemy


Some of the most popular works of fiction of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have alchemy as a major device. JK Rowling used the concept of the philosopher’s stone – a mythical product of alchemy that grants immortality (and can also turn mercury into gold, though this part of the legend wasn’t used in the Harry Potter series). In George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO TV adaptation Game of Thrones, it is implied that alchemy is involved in the production of wildfire.

The fascination with alchemy in fiction is not a solely Western one, either. One of the most popular manga and anime series of all time is Fullmetal Alchemist, written by Hiromu Arakawa. He, as you might expect from the name, uses alchemy as one of its main story elements and the series features a lot of references to alchemical philosophy.


  • Fantasy and Legend


All of these works take place in fantasy settings, where alchemy essentially works and is used as a form of magic. Where some writers like Rowling and Martin draw heavily on mythology of all different kinds, Arakawa actually built her whole setting around alchemy rather than including it alongside other magical elements like magical creatures or prophetic powers.


  • Alchemy in Older Works


Where these modern writers, and other writers from more modern periods such as HP Lovecraft, were inspired by old legends of alchemy, writers who were around at a time when people still believed in it tended to satirize it more. Dante Alighieri, who talked of alchemy in Inferno, was known for using his works to ridicule people he didn’t like, and he gives a rather mocking view of the practice. Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Godwin, and William Godwin also lampooned alchemy in the 1300s.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that alchemy shifted from being a real-world topic regarded as ‘woo’ by intellectuals (rather like astrology might be today) to something to be used as a fictional device for creating fantasy or horror stories. Faust, Victor Hugo, and Mary Shelley are notable writers who included it in their works during this period.

It is interesting to see how writers have latched on to the ideas alchemy presented, but how this – much like other occult topics like witchcraft, went from social commentary on current superstitions to mystical devices for fantasy worlds – is even more interesting.

Author: Carol Trehearn

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