Literary Alchemy

fairy talesI admire British actress Keira Knightley. She’s talented, intelligent, and independent-minded. Now that she’s a mother, Ms. Knightley has given some thought to the influence of fairy tales on our children, particularly our daughters. In the fall of 2018, during an interview on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, she admitted to banning the Disney films Cinderella and The Little Mermaid from her daughter’s view. Cue the media shit storm.

It’s easy to pile on Disney for its corruption/sanitizing of tales as old as time, but the question underlying the brouhaha is this: What, if any, value will fairy tales have in a post-misogynistic world? (Yes, we are getting there.) Before answering this question, we need to answer an even more basic one: What is a fairy tale?

Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes. (Marie-Louise von Franz, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales)

Shape-shifting is one of the fairy tale’s dominant and characteristic wonders . . . More so than the presence of fairies, the moral function, the imagined antiquity and oral anonymity of the ultimate source, and the happy ending (though all these factors help towards a definition of the genre), metamorphosis defines the tale. (Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers)

Let me state this plainly: Intuitively, after working with them for so long, I know what a fairy tale is. Can I easily define it for you? No, I cannot . . . I am not going to give a neat, pat answer since I don’t think one exists. Scholars like to look for a pat definition to help control the large, living body of tales found all around the world. (Heidi Anne Heiner,

So: instead of looking at how fairy tales have been disparaged, let’s celebrate their form. To do this I’d like to focus on four elements of traditional fairy tales: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. (Kate Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale“)


Psychic processes, metamorphosis, intuitive, hard to pin down, flat, abstract, magical. If I didn’t literary alchemyalready have a notion of what a fairy tale is, I would feel as if I’d been shot ashore by a rogue wave. Most attempts to define fairy tale are necessarily too broad or too narrow. J. R. R. Tolkien’s most widely read essay, “On Fairy Stories,” takes nearly thirty pages of dense text in the heroic struggle to pin their wild wings, once and for all.

So many scholarly minds grapple with fairy tales for a simple reason: they wield power. So, the next question becomes: From whence this power? Many fairy tales, particularly “Cinderella,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” have been revving our engines for hundreds (some say thousands) of years. But why?

John Granger, the so-called “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars,” has written popular and highly readable books about J. K. Rowling’s authorial wizardry, with particular attention to her use of literary alchemy: the application of certain alchemical principles to storytelling.

We first see that the [Harry Potter] books are largely about the resolution of contraries, especially the battle between the hot and dry Gryffindors up in their tower and the cold and moist Slytherins in the dungeons beneath the lake. Harry’s adventures are about his transcending this polarity, marrying the contraries, which purification happens in, you guessed it, a black and a white and a red stage. Every book and the series as a whole come with a complete set.

In the individual books, the black stage, or nigredo, is almost always launched on Privet Drive, where Harry is treated horribly and, at least in Philosopher’s Stone, lives in a cupboard under the stairs. The work of breaking Harry down continues each year when he gets to Hogwarts and Severus Snape takes over, a black figure if there ever was one. But Hogwarts is the home of Albus Dumbledore, whose first name means “white,” and Hogwarts, the “white house” if you will, is where Harry is purified of the failing identified at the Dursleys as he and the Quarreling Couple solve that year’s mystery. The understanding he gains through these trials is revealed in the book’s crisis, the confrontation with the bad guys, in which he always dies a figurative death and is reborn. From Privet Drive to his chat with Dumbledore at book’s end, Harry is always purified and transformed. (John Granger, “Literary Alchemy via ‘Harry Potter’–An Introduction“)

John Patrick Pazdziora, a writer, editor, literary critic (and an admirer of Granger’s theories about literary alchemy), has taken notions about alchemical storytelling and used them to analyze “Cinderella.(This hyperlinked version is based on D. H. Ashliman’s 1812 translation. It is pertinent to note that it’s impossible to know for sure how many versions of this tale exist worldwide. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why comments such as Ms. Knightley’s stir controversy–we don’t all have the same ideas about what constitutes “Cinderella” in the first place.)

According to Pazdziora, the tale “follows a structure basic to Western narratives of redemption and spiritual purification: it is told on a threefold alchemic structure. ‘Cinderella,’ in other words, is an alchemic tale, a quest for immortality.” This structure begins in the nigredo (black) phase, whereby Cinderella is virtually stripped of her identity. She is abused, degraded, nearly starved. Even her name has been dipped in ash (“Cinder” having been added to “Ella”).

Peck, peck, peck, peck, it went as fast as if twelve hands were at work. When they were finished, the pigeons said, “Cinderella, would you like to go dancing at the ball?”

“Oh, my goodness,” she said, “how could I go in these dirty clothes?”

“Just go to the little tree on your mother’s grave, shake it, and wish yourself some beautiful clothes. But come back before midnight.”

So Cinderella went and shook the little tree, and said:
Shake yourself, shake yourself, little tree.
Throw some nice clothing down to me!

She had scarcely spoken these words when a splendid silver dress fell down before her. With it were pearls, silk stockings with silver decorations, silver slippers, and everything else that she needed. Cinderella carried it all home. After she had washed herself and put on the beautiful clothing, she was as beautiful as a rose washed in dew.

rubedoIn the albedo (white or silver) phase, Cinderella undergoes purification. In the passage above, she is rinsed with water and clothed in silver and white, to become “as beautiful as a rose washed in dew.” The red rose embedded in this bright scene hints at the next phase.

After the ball and the flight home by midnight, the rubedo (red) phase begins. In this case, it is more than figurative.

Then the oldest one went to her bedroom and tried on the slipper. The front of her foot went in, but her heel was too large, so she took the knife and cut part of it off, so she could force her foot into the slipper. Then she went out to the prince, and when he saw that she was wearing the slipper, he said that she was to be his bride. He escorted her to his carriage and was going to drive away with her. When he arrived at the gate, the two pigeons were perched above, and they called out:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

The prince bent over and looked at the slipper. Blood was streaming from it. He saw that he had been deceived, and he took the false bride back.

The second stepsister took it a step further and cut off most of her toes! But the pigeons alerted him once more. Of course, we know that the prince then finds his true bride. He and Cinderella enter the final, golden phase, when they are married and live together in wealth and comfort.

As John Pazdziora states, the black-to-white-to-red-to-gold transformation is only one way of analyzing the text. There are many ideas about the structure of story, what works and what doesn’t. Given the staying power of “Cinderella,” it clearly has nothing to prove. As an example of literary alchemy, it has distinct phase boundaries and even actively displays the phase colors.

In the end, great stories transform our leaden souls into gold as we read, no matter who we are. “Cinderella” does this better than most. In a post-misogynistic age, rather than ban popular fairy tales, we should encourage everyone, no matter their gender, to partake.

First Image Credit: British Public Library, Flickr Commons
Second Image Credit: Prawny at
Third Image Credit: melkhagelslag at