What is literary alchemy?

I’m pleased to host Professor M.C. Gore, Maestro Philip Wilson, and Angie F. M. Trotter while they are on their WOW! Women on Writing virtual book tour. Their children’s book, All is Assuredly Well, is   about how hard a king had to work to be worthy of becoming a father.

Here, Professor Gore, shares with us her thoughts on literary alchemy – a term I wasn’t familiar with until now. Hopefully my Choices readers will learn as much as I have about it by reading her essay below. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to how to purify our souls?

Want to Join Our Secret Society of Literary Alchemists?
by Professor M.C. Gore

In the Middle Ages, alchemists believed they could purify their souls through the process of turning lead into gold.  Getting rich wasn’t the goal; purifying their souls was.

An alchemist saw no distinction between the actor (himself) and the object acted upon (the lead) as he worked his craft in the Sacred Mysteries.  The alchemist and his lead were inseparable prima materia, the base substance of the universe to be transformed into gold and thereby perfect his soul.

Or that was the plan.  I don’t think anyone ever succeeded in turning lead into gold, so I don’t know whether doing so could perfect one’s soul. But the ideas behind their alchemical process works for me and my partners in writing and illustrating. I like to think of us as part of a great secret society of Literary Alchemists.

I learned about Literary Alchemy through attending a John Granger (The Unrivaled Head Literary Alchemist) presentation and then reading all his books and online posts.  From him I learned that Literary Alchemy presents the same three phases of ancient alchemy: nigredo, albedo, and rubedo(black, white, and red).

In nigredo, the character is degraded from prima materiainto putrefaction. He becomes the lowly element lead.

In albedo, he is purified by responding nobly to trials and tests.  He is transmogrifying elementally.

In rubedo, he reaches enlightenment.  He becomes the lofty element gold.

Permit me use our new children’s book to illustrate.

All is Assuredly Well is the Kirkus star-winning children’s picture book we recently released on Amazon. In the story, King Phillip and his loving husband, Don Carlos, live in harmony for decades.   Although we don’t explicitly state it, the king seldom leaves the castle.  His days are marked only by Don Carlos’s ringing the castle bell to awaken the villagers in the morning and put them to bed at night. The king is prima materia, ready to begin his transmutation into gold.

The transmogrification starts when the king dreams that he and Don Carlos have a baby girl. He then decrees that they must secure one.  His stunned and bewildered husband asks how.  King Phillip thinks securing a baby will be simple.  He only need ask Blue Star and she will make a baby appear in the castle nursery the next morning.  (Or not.)

That night, King Phillip asks Blue Star for a baby girl.  In the morning, he searches throughout the castle but finds no child.  Devastated, he enters nigredo and becomes increasingly broken when for 777 nights he implores the star to produce a child, and for 777 following mornings, she refuses to do so.

Blue Star will never bring King Phillip a baby; instead, when she has thoroughly broken him, she requires him to take the Hero’s Journey to make himself worthy of a child.  He enters albedo as he is purified by passing each of the trials to which she subjects him.

Blue Star finally leads the purified king to his child, and he achieves rubedo. He is now enlightened. He has been transmogrified into gold and is worthy of fatherhood.

Artist Angie F. M. Trotter illustrated our text with clues to the stages.  On the cover, King Phillip is dressed in red-on-red nightclothes as he holds his child.  He is rubedo: fatherhood perfected.  (In truth, at my request, Angie had originally made his nightclothes solid red, but he ended up looking exactly like a skinny Santa Claus. We laugh now, but we weren’t laughing then.  Angie reassured a panicky me that she would come up with something to keep him clad in red but lose the Santa look.  She succeeded with a red-on-red tartan nightshirt and purple diamonds on a band around his red-on-red tartan nightcap.)

In contrast to the bright red of the king’s gown on the cover, in the book before the king has become a father, the windows of the castle are consistently dark.  No flowers bloom on the hillsides.  The dark windows and lack of brightness in the landscape demonstrated King Phillip’s nigredo stage as he is being broken down by his unfulfilled need for a child.

When Blue Star had fully broken the king and led him to the forest on his Hero’s Journey, the forest was dark, but he was led through it by the light of the blue star, her light (although it was blue) symbolizing his albedostage as he passed the trials that purified him.

Finally, Angie ensured that when the king entered the clearing where he found his baby in a fairy circle of flowers in a thousand brilliant hues, a great red cardinal carrying red flowers was descending to land upon his hand.  The red symbolized his soul’s entry into rubedo, or perfection.

The takeaway? I encourage you to consider using literary alchemy as a lens through which to examine your protagonists’ development.  Can’t hurt. And might revolutionize your writing as it did ours.

I further encourage you to consider providing alchemic color cues for your readers.  As your protagonist is being broken down, emphasize dark colors in her scenes.  As she is passing her tests and trials, begin adding lighter colors.  Finally, when she has reached enlightenment, add a bold dash of red in a symbolic way.  She dons a red flannel shirt as she starts her new life as a trucker.  She lays a bouquet of red roses on her father’s grave as she at last has forgiven the man who has abused her.  Or she tucks a new red journal in her backpack as she heads off to a new career teaching English in Botswana.

A casual reader won’t pick up those clues.  But another Literary Alchemist will. He will read your secret language, and he will nod, and smile, and know that you share a Literary Alchemist’s soul.

Book summary

King Phillip the Good and his husband, The Most Excellent Don Carlos Emiliano Felipe de Compañero y Campañero, live sedate, uneventful lives until King Phillip dreams of having a baby girl. Structured around The Hero’s Journey, King Phillip must follow his mentor, the Blue Star, and encounter allies (a newt and a bluejay) and overcome gatekeepers (a biting fish and a bear) as he completes a series of tasks to prove himself worthy of becoming a father. Once proven, the Blue Star presents him with a baby girl in the middle of a fairy circle of a thousand different flowers in a thousand brilliant hues.  He returns home to present Baby Milliflora to his husband, and the loving husbands joyfully become loving fathers.

Genre: Children’s Books
Publisher: Camille Lancaster Literary Children’s Books
ISBN: 978-0-9998880-0-1
All is Assuredly Well is available as an ebook and print at Amazon.com.

Brief bios of authors and artist

Professor M. C. Gore holds the doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas. She taught first grade through graduate school for 36 years in New Mexico, Missouri, and Texas.    She was a professional horse wrangler and wilderness guide and continues to play clarinet in two community bands.  She is Professor Emeritus from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas where she held two distinguished professorships. Her books for teachers and parents are shelved in over a thousand libraries throughout the world.  She is retired and lives in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.

Maestro Phillip Wilson was a public-school band director, music teacher, composer, and arranger for 28 years.  His primary instrument is the trumpet, and he is also a campañero (bell ringer). Although he is over 80, he continues to serve as Music Director and Cantor at his church.   He is a life-long resident of New Mexico and was born in Santa Fe. Although his genotype is Dutch and Scotch-Irish, his soul is Hispanic.  He was Professor Gore’s music teacher and band director, and although the loving biological father of seven musical children, he is a soul-father of the hundreds of students he has taught.

Artist Angie F. M. Trotter holds a BA in Religion and Fine Art. Her pen and ink illustrations are a fusion of icons, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass window design, and her spiritual life. She is also a chronic migraine suffer and her art helps calm her symptoms. Her mother was a folk artist; her father was an architect and fine artist, so she has been surrounded by art her whole life. Her work has been compared to the masters of the Golden Age of British book illustration.  She lives in Arkansas.


Please, everyone! Let’s have a great discussion about literary alchemy. 


  1. Madeline, thank you so much for hosting us on our WOW Women-on-Writing Blog Tour for our new book, All is Assuredly Well!

    We hope your readers will find that thinking about Literary Alchemy as they write will enrich their journey as writers, and will increase their writing Choices!

    • Madeline Sharples says

      Dear Professor Gore, Thank you for coming by Choices. I wish you huge luck on your new book.

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