About Alchemy and Magic in Fantasy

Power, Wealth, and Immortality

spiritual alchemy, painting by David Teniers

Alchemy is an art, a philosophical system, and a magical system. Moreover, it is also considered a proto-science. In fact, it is the precursor of chemistry.

Alchemy is the sister discipline of astrology, but whereas astrology dealt with the stars and their movement, alchemy was worried about more mundane things such as the elements and how to change one element to another.

In effect, alchemy is a magical system of transformation, and it belongs to the magical school of transmutation. But instead of relying on sorcery and spells, it mixed and matched elements and chemical compounds.

Alchemy is not new, it is quite old.

Ancient China and India practiced some form of alchemy. Indeed, traditional Chinese medicine’s Five Element Theory is based on combining alchemy with Taoist principles.

Greco-Roman Egypt practiced alchemy too, but alchemy will become more prominent during the Middle Ages, especially within the Muslim World (who was ahead of Europe in math, medicine, and astronomy at the time).

alchemical lab, image: Deposit Photos

To remember, this was the time of the Crusades, feudal lords, and there was no separation of Church and State. In many cases, like the Papal States, the Church was the state.

This was not an age of science and learning. And yet, individuals experimented with “magic” in secret, hidden from the Church for fear of being accused of witchcraft.

So, why did they exposed their lives in pursuit of alchemy?

For the same things that motivate modern humans: wealth, power, and immortality.

Heck, with those promises, even I will risk the inquisition’s fury. But what was alchemy really about?

Magic in the Laboratory

alchemist wallpaper, AccessWallpaper

Alchemy comes from the Arabic word al-Kimiya, itself derived from the Egyptian word for black. Black magic? Not quite.

Alchemy is not your stereotypical magic system. Real alchemy was made in the lab by combining solutions and chemical compounds. Alchemy labs were not so different from modern-day labs.

Alchemy was a way of experimenting. Dangerous experiments, but experimentation nonetheless.

By the way, before you ask about homunculi, a typical alchemy trope, I won’t discuss them since they deserve their own post.

alchemist wallpaper, Pinterest

Magical ingredients, mixed with magical properties to create elixirs, tonics, potions. Transmutation of liquids into solids and gases…

Yeah, I can see why people would confuse it with witchcraft.

The notion of turning one element into another is not itself magical. It happens in nature. After all, Hydrogen and Oxygen make water, no?

And despite the idea of change and transmutation sounds a bit like chaos theory, it is not either. Chaos theory is about nonlinearity, unpredictability, disorder whereas alchemy is about predictions, order, sequences.

Furthermore, this art was shredded in absolute secrecy, hidden in secret codes and alchemical symbols.

Hidden not because the art was dark or dangerous magic but because the closed minds of the time will interpret it as “witchcraft” or satanic and try to suppress it.

The alchemist was seen by the general population as a wizard while in reality, he was a regular person using rudimentary chemistry to achieve four goals that would bring him power, wealth, and immortality.

image: Pinterest

These four main goals of alchemy were to find:
  • The Philosopher’s Stone could turn metals into gold.
  • The Panacea, the elixir that could cure any disease.
  • The Alkahest or universal solvent.
  • The Elixir of Life could make people not age and live forever.

Money, health, youth, eternal life? I would want to be an alchemist too. Where do I study?

Sadly, it was not real. Real chemists prove there was no truth behind those claims.

However, alchemy is not dead. Alchemy lives, in fantasy literature.

Alchemy in Fantasy Fiction

alchemist art by Rodrigo Ramos, Deviant Art

For one of the most famous magical systems with a long history–and practiced through history by renowned figures, there is not much alchemy in fantasy fiction.

In anime, we have the excellent series Full Metal Alchemist and its quest to find a philosopher’s stone to bring people back from death and state alchemists who fight monsters.

Yet, outside of anime, there is not much love for alchemy.

Perhaps because writers rather focus on characters who are magical and control magic instead of characters that mix elements to create magical potions–which is not much different from watch witches do.

Conversely, the fact alchemy was treated as “scientific” rather than magical by its practitioners, and the fact that it used scientific principles do not seem to endure it with fantasy authors.

I have seen a few short stories here and there, and a scant offering of novels.


However, this means alchemy is not overdone like other tropes and readers will welcome stories featuring it.

Here are a few reading recommendations:
  • The Lady Alchemist (2020) by Samantha Vitale – this steampunkish tale is the best. An imprisoned woman makes a deal with a magician to escape. She has one year to create an alchemical body for him or give up her firstborn child. Can she pull it off?
  • The Alchemist (1908) – a short story by H. P. Lovecraft about immortality and a curse where people die once they turn 32 years of age.
  • River of Ink: Genesis (2016) by Helen Dennis – an amnesiac teenage boy and mysterious alchemical symbols make for a fantasy mystery.
  •  Masks and Shadows (2016) by Stephanie Burgis – a castrato and a female spy star in this historical fantasy although the magical elements take a step back to the conspiracy and court politics.
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist Daughter (2017) by Theodora Goss – this is borderline alchemy, more focus on Dr. Jekyll’s daughter’s investigation of her father’s murder, but there is a secret society of alchemists pulling the strings behind the main characters.

alchemist mixing potions, Wallpaper Flare

Again, not much to choose as a reader. Which means, lots of opportunity for writers willing to write about alchemical magical systems.

Alchemy fits perfectly in a historical fantasy or high fantasy setting.

The conflict writes itself. Magical, forbidden knowledge that opposes Church teaching? Lust for immortality, wealth, and power? Playing God with the elements and nature?

Seems like a good recipe for fiction. What do you readers think?


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March 2023