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“Excrement and urine are fine meals for a doctor.
From the one he gathers chaff and from that other, grain.”

-- François Rabelais


From Alchemy to the Union of Root and Crown in Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels

By Shane C. Walters

University of British Columbia
21 November 2004

Literally or figuratively, alchemy means finding value in what is despised and rejected. Alchemy itself is a discredited field, yet retains value; interpreted metaphorically it represents a way of transmuting, in a disinterested fashion,[2] apparently unrelated artefacts to higher wisdom. In his novel, The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies applies this interpretation of alchemy to academia, illustrating how the university preserves medieval traditions, and how scholars transmute purity out of such metaphorical impurities as old ideas, psychological and physical offal, and even people. As new alchemists, many of Davies’ characters highlight his alchemical themes of the mind, craft, body, emotion, or some combination of these. Davies thus uses a metaphorical interpretation of alchemy, ignoring the metallurgical aspect of the “transmutation of imperfect metals . . . brought to perfection”[3] as described by Theophrastus Paracelsus. Given that alchemists often cloaked their language in mysticism to hide its secrets, such an interpretation asks whether they wrote this way to reflect a holistic philosophy. In Davies’ novel, the university’s denizens use alchemical principles, motives, and methods more inclusively and holistically than the utilitarians who attack them.

In The Rebel Angels, Davies, a former university master, suggests that the modern university is a metaphorical alchemy lab, a repository of old and disparate ideas from which researchers derive value. The university inherits the alchemy philosophy directly from medieval scholars who indeed called themselves philosophers. The Turba Philosophorum[4] convened as early as the twelfth century to share knowledge through experimentation. Later, Paracelsus, an important figure in the novel, argued that “if you . . . have learnt anything from the light of Aristotle, or from us . . . bring that knowledge experimentally to light. Preserve now the right of the Schools.”[5] That “right” has two meanings: the right to collect, and to collected threads of knowledge from which to transmute often unexpected gain, and that schools are the right places for doing so. On a still deeper metaphorical level, the original “rebel angels” so central to the novel were themselves rejected by God, yet as the symbolic ancestors of modern professors they retain value in the sharing of knowledge. According to the (rejected) Book of Enoch they taught mankind “the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring.”[6] Not only are these ideas foundational in the university tradition as interpreted by the character of Maria Theotoky, they are also alchemical in terminology. In The Rebel Angels Simon Darcourt overhears Professor Deloney say that “universities were creations of the Middle Ages, and much of the Middle Ages still clings to them, not only in their gowns and official trappings, but deep in their hearts.”[7] Thus the university is a metaphorical alchemy lab or library, preserving medieval traditions in its philosophy and trappings.

In The Rebel Angels the university is not only a repository but also a haven where students and faculty can and should proceed without pragmatic hindrance; yet not everyone sees value in arcane academics. The Turba Philosophorum recognized that “there is one thing which is stronger than all natures, and more sublime in the opinion of philosophers, whereas with fools it is more common than anything.”[8] Davies separates the professor ‘seers’ (in both senses) from demagogues like Murray Brown, who view education in utilitarian terms, unable or unwilling to see connections between discarded items. Brown in fact forces the faculty into justifying curiosity itself. Summarizing him, Darcourt says, “Cut the frills away from education. Teach students a trade to they can make a living. You can’t persuade most of the public that education and making a living aren’t the same thing.”[9] Davies implies that the public, in this case personified by Brown, does not understand what universities do, and should continue doing. This idea is historically deep-seated amongst academics. Matthew Arnold, writing of “this disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects, for its own sake”, bemoaned how “little original sympathy [there is] in the practical English nature.”[10] By raising such spectres amongst his fictional faculty Davies shows that while what is studied, and why, is under utilitarian fire, the university itself is both repository and haven.

University denizens in The Rebel Angels are thus latter-day alchemists. Davies extends the “ars magna”[11] or “great art” of the original alchemists to include the efforts of his characters, who transmute discarded matter into intellectual wealth. Like the medievalists, their aim is humanistic, a deep-seated set of innate values meant to be shared. As inheritors of this tradition Davies’ professors are prospectors of “unconsidered trifles”[12] who must “puzzle out obscurities”[13] condemned by those who think universities should be training grounds for “effective consumption.”[14] Davies suggests that universities should instead continue tracing connections between disparate ideas for curiosity’s sake—the best of reasons. His novel explores metaphorical alchemy in the vicissitudes of its characters as alchemists. Clement Hollier is an alchemist of the mind in his pursuit of the bygone wisdom surrounding medieval “Filth Therapy,”[15] in so doing connecting the folksy alchemy of Madame Laoutaro and its clinical counterpart in Ozias Froats, whose scientific study of excrement makes him an alchemist of the body. Darcourt’s more objective assessment of Hollier and Froats reinforces them as alchemists operating in the best academic tradition of medieval alchemy. Finally, through the lessons gleaned from John Parlabane, Maria undergoes a more spiritual form of alchemy, obtaining value from despised parts of herself, achieving that balance between intellect and emotion denied the others. Many of these salient themes arise through dialogue between characters as new alchemists, a dramatic technique similar to the discussion plays of George Bernard Shaw,[16] a transmutation of ideas in descriptive conversation.

Hollier is an alchemist of the mind because he re-evaluates old knowledge long spurned as ridiculous or old fashioned; additionally, the wisdom he seeks was concerned with the despised matter of bodily excretion. In The Rebel Angels Hollier “rummages about in the ash-heaps of bygone thought”[17] in search of “cultural fossils”[18] like Madame Laoutaro, with her “bomari[19] and tarot cards, and praises Froats’ efforts as paralleling his own. Although the only physical symbol of Hollier’s interest is the “large alchemist’s retort”[20] in his office, Davies uses this character to make connections between alchemy and its past and present practitioners in the metaphorical sense. In The Critic As Artist Oscar Wilde argued that a contemplator creates by responding subjectively to what he contemplates; this explains Hollier’s role, straddling the past through his own research and the alchemy practiced by Madame Laoutaro, and the present or implied future in that of Froats.

Maria’s explanation of Hollier’s wish to meet her mother connects his alchemy to the larger academic milieu; Davies uses this dialogue to illustrate the importance of not condemning old or seemingly useless information. Hollier “wants to write about [the bomari] for a few very learned men like himself who are interested in the persistence of old wisdom and old belief in this modern world.”[21] When it comes to his work, at least, Hollier succinctly sums up his motive and method: “The recognition of oneself as a part of nature, and reliance on natural things, are disappearing for hundreds of millions of people who do not know that anything is being lost.”[22] Davies often reinforces his themes with subsequent dialogue between other academic figures discussing the same matters in a seemingly natural, unsolicited way; Professor Mukadassi says that “in India we know that men every bit as good as we believed things that the advanced members of society look on as absurdities . . . The pride of Science encourages us to this terrible folly and darkness of scorning the past.”[23] As seen by his portrayal of Froats, Davies does not condemn scientific research; he instead condemns condemnation itself, the discarding of any potential illumination.

The Rebel Angels explores the alchemy of ancient folk mores through the relationship between Hollier and Madame Laoutaro. She preserves the kind of secrets Hollier craves, an ancient knowledge requiring “understanding that goes beyond anything the cleverest craftsman can learn.”[24] Here is alchemy at its most mystical; getting at the root of it is Hollier’s goal. The meeting of her culturally “wild mind” [25] and his intellectual one joins different aspects of the same alchemies of obtaining value from discarded instruments and materials. Davies first illustrates this with Hollier's explanation of the bomari as a relic with value. The bomari is “also the balneus mariae or bain-marie, one of the surviving alchemical instruments; even though it has been humbled and banished to the kitchen it still has a certain glory.” [26] The instrument[27] recovers wealth from what is banished, though it is itself humbled. Hollier sums up his respect for Madame Laoutaro by citing Paracelsus’ belief in “old women, Gypsies, magicians, wanderers, and all manner of peasant folk and random folk, and learn from them, for these have more knowledge about such things than all the high colleges.”[28] In a way she is all of these.

Like Hollier and Froats, Madame Laoutaro is an alchemist in the metaphorical sense, using despised and rejected material and deriving value from it—but in a more natural, even superstitious way, the result of a personal tradition as opposed to an academic one. To preserve her fiddles Madame Laoutaro employs “Horse dung . . . the best; thoroughly rotted and sieved, and from horses in mighty health.”[29] She also builds them “by piecing together portions of instruments that had come to grief in some way and so could be bought cheap, and rebuilt with new portions wherever they were needed.”[30] As a salvager of the dunghill and junk heap she thus has much in common with Hollier, who studies her methods and ideas, and Froats, who pays people to provide faeces for his research. Madame Laoutaro also concocts a “nasty philtre, made of ground appleseed and [Maria’s] menstrual blood.”[31] Her working material—dung and menstrual blood—is alchemical even by the terms of the alchemists themselves; one described the potential value of, amongst other things, “the filthiness of the dead bloud . . . earth found on the dunghill putrefied or in horse dung . . . urine . . . stinking menstrues” [sic].[32] Hollier, Froats, and Madame Laoutaro are thus concerned with the same despised material in different but related ways; Davies explores one aspect of its use via Madame Lautaro’s folk alchemy as intrinsic to her character.

The Rebel Angels establishes alchemical connections through Hollier’s summaries. When Hollier excites Maria’s imagination by speaking of the “lapis angularis of the Alchemical Cross, and the stone of the filius macrocosmi[33] which was Christ, the Wholly Good”[34] he connects alchemical symbolisms. This “corner stone” is that “which was set at naught of your builders, which is become the head of the corner.”[35] The stone is despised by utilitarian masons yet holds a metaphorical edifice together. It also represents the body that unites mankind’s collective heart and mind as sundered by the original Fall, an idea important to Maria. Hollier’s further descriptions strengthen the alchemical matrix overarching Davies’ novel by connecting folk alchemy, medieval alchemy, and the clinical alchemy practised by Froats: “What [Madame Laoutaro] is doing is Filth Therapy at its highest—though to call that wonderful substance in which she buries the fiddles filth is to be victim to the stupidest modern prejudice. But I am inclined to think of Ozy as a latter-day alchemist; he seeks the all-conquering Stone of the Philosophers exactly where they said it must be sought, in the commonest, most neglected, most despised.”[36] Hence, just as he recognizes Madame Laoutaro as a living practitioner of old alchemy, Hollier also recognizes Froats as a latter-day alchemist of the body, who “works with human excrement—what is rejected, what is accounted of no worth to mankind.”[37] Davies uses Hollier to connect threads of alchemy in idea, principle, and personification.

With Hollier’s treatment of Froats, Davies bridges the gap between arts and science by implying that an overall picture may be augmented in different ways, using threads of past and future. Hollier notes that he and Froats are “looking for the same thing, but by means which are not [his own], and without any idea of what [they] are doing.”[38] For his part, Froats says he is “not looking for anything.”[39] Davies thus uses alchemy to emphasize the commonalities between disciplines; working without preconception and discovering new things thereby is a fundamental university value whether in library or laboratory. This idea of disinterested discovery is rooted in medieval academia. Paracelsus wrote that the “Arabs and Greeks . . . attained to secret and abstruse mysteries. When these were obtained and partially understood they saw . . . in the course of experimenting, many wonderful and strange effects.”[40] During Darcourt’s Guest Night, Hollier argues, “We simply recognize different things at different times and in different ways. Which throws a new light on the whole business of mythology; the myths are not dead, just different in understanding and application.”[41] Here Davies suggests the alchemical value of resurrecting discarded myths; they are eternal because they describe the human condition. Both Hollier and Froats follow the university tradition of piecing together obscure and mythologized artefacts for their own sake, seeking “salvation in dirt . . . [as] astonishingly similar to alchemy in basic principle.”[42] This view sharply opposes the utilitarian conceptualization of appropriate matter and method in academia. “Our work”, says Hollier, speaking of arts and science, “is more closely connected than a rabble-rouser like Murray Brown could ever understand. I suppose we are both trying to capture the wind in a net.”[43] Although discredited as a discipline, alchemy as a philosophy is about seeing the big picture; Froats proceeds according to an old idea approached in new ways.

Davies depicts Froats as a modern-day Paracelsus[44] in method and matter, a direct inheritor of alchemy’s scientific foundations. Paracelsus wrote that “there must be learnt—digestions, distillations, sublimations, reverberations, extractions, solutions, coagulations, fermentations, fixations, and every instrument which is requisite for this work must be mastered by experience.”[45] Froats’ laboratory is a reflection of such mastery in terms understood even by utilitarians. Froats also inherits Paracelsus’ medical interest in human faeces; he is one of those who, as Paracelsus wrote, “By the art of his preparation corrupts a visible body which is externally vile, from which he excites another most noble and most precious essence.”[46] Froats’ working material is by any definition “vile”; Froats and Paracelsus research via the same medium. Maria points out how Paracelsus “rejected the study of formal anatomy for a consideration of the living body as a whole; he’d have liked what [Froats says] about faeces being a creation.”[47] Through Maria’s interpretation, Davies shows that Froats’ modern rigid adherence to the scientific method does not prevent his sharing Paracelsus’ holistic imagination. Moreover, through Maria, Davies implies that Froats is a “modern magus.”[48] Paracelsus had separated the divine cabala from “Magic [which] is full of natural secrets,”[49] viewing the magi as essentially medical men like himself with a God-given ability to discern nature in terms of scientific understanding. Certainly Froats has this gift of discernment, as Maria observes. Her observation is itself discerning; Darcourt assesses Maria as one of the “Scholarly Elect,”[50] implying that there are those outside the common pale who are natural-born visionaries. That idea seems to justify academic elitism, but Davies uses Maria and Darcourt to illustrate how new alchemists like Froats directly inherit old alchemy traditions.

Froats’ working material resonates in other ways in The Rebel Angels. Davies draws on medieval humourist François Rabelais’ fascination with excretion and bodily functions to further link his themes.  Studying Rabelais directly affects Hollier and Maria; the novel’s action turns on his missing text. Maria views Rabelais as a model of learning “because learning amused him.”[51] Thus Davies positions Rabelais as a medieval representative of university values. Hollier believes Rabelais was even a “student of alchemy”[52] whose scatological subject matter was spurned despite its “wisdom in wild jokes and fantasies.”[53] Rabelais himself connected bodily processes and alchemy:

The mesaraic veins suck out of [swallowed food] what is good and suitable, leaving the excrements, which are voided by an expulsive mechanism along special conduits, and conduct it to the liver; which transmutes it once more, and turns it into blood . . . Think now what joy there must be . . . at the sight of this golden stream, which is their sole restorative. The Alchemists can know none greater, when after long toil, great trouble, and heavy expense they see the metals transmuted in their furnaces.[54]

Thus Davies uses Rabelais’ preoccupation with excretion as another medieval connection with the dominant alchemical theme of finding value in the most despised and rejected materials of all. He connects literal and figurative meanings of alchemy as a theme.

Davies also mimics Rabelais’ style in John Parlabane’s assertion that “For our first nine months we are carried in the womb in a positive hubbub—the loud tom-tom of the heart, the croaking and gurgling of the guts.”[55] Roberta Burns later describes herself in Rabelaisian terms: “Gall and pancreas hard at it, faeces efficiently kneaded into nubbins, kidneys at their wondrous work, bladder filling up, and my sphincters—you have no idea what the whole concept of womankind owes to sphincters!”[56] Nor is Burns the only professor to speak thus. Professor Hitzig argues, “Civilization rests on two things . . . the discovery that fermentation produces alcohol, and voluntary ability to inhibit defecation.”[57] Both fermentation and defecation are related; fermentation is a process of rotting and decay, and defecation is the expulsion of decay. In alchemical terms, there is value from the control of each; Hitzig’s statement is another way of saying that it is such control that elevates mankind over beasts.[58] This is another example of Davies employing characters to reinforce each other’s new-old metaphorical alchemy, and doing it in a very Rabelaisian fashion.

In The Rebel Angels Davies uses Simon Darcourt as an observer who compares the alchemies of Hollier and Froats to those of Rabelais and Paracelsus—Hollier studying Rabelais and Froats studying like Paracelsus—recognizing that their work is fundamentally academic in the medieval tradition of the university as repository-haven. Darcourt is an intermediary between all the characters, a sort of modern father-confessor figure with his own foibles and doubts. In his advising and commentary Darcourt is, like Hollier, also an alchemist of the mind. He, too, “wanted to dig deep in mines of old belief that were related . . . to those texts which the compilers of the Bible had not thought suitable for inclusion in the reputed Word of God.”[59] Also like Hollier, Darcourt’s summaries are a means for Davies to suggest his themes. As Froats and Hollier operate by researching without preconceived notions, Darcourt seconds Hollier’s assessment of Froats even as Froats, under fire from without, is himself somewhat despised. He also echoes Froats’ own appreciation of the despised and rejected. To Darcourt, the faeces “were of extraordinary beauty.”[60] Thus Darcourt recognizes and appreciates the contributions of his colleagues, and is himself invested with the curiosity and drive to learn for its own sake. “What a lot we had found out about the prehistoric past”, he muses, “from the study of fossilized dung of long-vanished animals. A miraculous thing, really; a recovery of the past from what was carelessly rejected.”[61] Again Davies uses a character to reinforce the others’ perspectives. Describing the value of faeces, Darcourt links Froats as a scientist directly to alchemy: “it is the lapis exilis,[62] the Philosopher’s Stone of [the scientists’] spiritual ancestors, the alchemists.”[63] Darcourt’s relative objectivity adds credence and emphasis to what Hollier and Froats are doing; that Darcourt shares the university values of his friends and recognizes the evolution of the university from medieval roots is another way Davies summarizes his connections between past and present wisdom and method.

The Rebel Angels explores still more spiritual forms of alchemy. Beyond the intellect or the body, emotional experience rooted in culture and genetics has value in alchemical terms. As Walter Pagel describes, Carl Jung argued that the contradiction between real science and alchemy’s mystical nomenclature was rooted in “certain processes of ‘projection’ which take place in the ‘psyche’ of the individual alchemist. These psychical processes appear to the adept as a peculiar behaviour of chemical substances . . . What [the alchemist] witnessed in reality, however, was his own unconscious self. Hence the admonition to look into oneself, i.e., the internal light which God has kindled, in order to ‘invent’ (‘Quaeris multum et non invenies. Fortasse invenies cum non quaeris.’[64]). Hence the emphasis laid on the purity of the mind.”[65] A similar theory posits the real aim of alchemists as “the perfection, or, at least, the improvement of man . . . a living sense of the unity of the human with the divine nature . . . a state of the soul, a condition of Being, and not a mere condition of KNOWING . . . a development of the nature of man from within.”[66] This "moral theory of alchemy"[67] as a philosophy may have been the way medieval alchemists tried to find value in their experiences. Davies uses this philosophy in The Rebel Angels to illustrate that while the true educational experience is important, attaining individual wholeness—an education of both heart and mind—is more so.

The professors of The Rebel Angels lack this wholeness, or balance. Even those who have the gift of intellectual discernment may be partly blind, as with the price these “rebel angels” pay for their headlong drive for knowledge at the expense of the wisdom gained in self-knowledge and human relationships. On a deeper level, Davies’ novel examines Maria’s gradual recognition of that gypsy heritage she has rejected and despised in favour of pure academia. The music of her people, Maria believes, “grated on everything the University meant to me; yet I knew it for an aspect of my inheritance that I could never root out, deny it though I might . . . I wanted to be an intellectual, to escape from everything Mamusia and the generations of Kalderash behind her meant, and I knew I could do it only by the uttermost violence to myself.”[68] She idealizes the “Druid circle”[69] of professors and, initially at least, thinks she must cast off her cultural and emotional side as uncouth and inconsistent with the broader Canadian culture she also idealizes, equating it with university intellectualism. “I was not pleased with Bebby Jesus,” she says of her uncle Yerko’s statuette, “who went contrary to what I hoped was my scholarly austerity of mind, my Rabelaisian disdain for superstition, and my yearning for—what? I suppose for some sort of Canadian conventionality.”[70] Davies suggests that Maria must educate her heart in a way the professors have not.

Maria’s desire to ‘root out’ an aspect of herself segues into her process of self-knowledge and acceptance. She learns the value of her spurned self from John Parlabane, Davies’ enigmatic genius-figure who typifies “the over-developed mind and the under-developed heart.”[71] Parlabane is himself rejected as a human impurity even by the university on account of his appearance and behaviour, as symbolized by his book, Be Not Another.[72] It “was a limp, dog-eared mess, unpleasing to the touch, ringed by glasses and cups, and smelly from too much handling by a man whose whole way of life was smelly.”[73] But Parlabane speaks of the value of the despised and is thus a new-age alchemist. His own worth lies in what he teaches Maria, even if he is unable to apply his lesson to himself.

Using the metaphor of Parlabane’s “unseen root,” a hidden and denied part of the human psyche with Jungian overtones, Davies depicts Maria’s gradual personal recovery of self. There is, says Parlabane, “no splendid crown without the strong root that works in the dark, drawing its nourishment among the rocks, the soil, hidden waters, and all the little, burrowing things.”[74] Such “things” are like internal bodily processes, scorned and ignored; Parlabane describes the “messy stuff of life from which the real creation and achievement takes its nourishment. The root is far more like a large placenta than it is like those family trees that are all branches.”[75] Family trees, genealogically speaking, are about cultural roots; there is a connection here between genetics and culture. Parlabane’s speech operates on several levels—the root as emotional, cultural, and romantic, the crown as intellectual. He reveals that acknowledging her gypsy self is the unexpected key to what Maria craves, advising her to “let your root feed your crown.”[76] This holistic doctrine parallels the allegorical or moral theory of alchemy. In this respect alchemy applies to personal growth, an acceptance of the despised self; the lesson is that an individual’s psychological components need not detract but augment each other.

Maria attains wholeness through her spiritual process of alchemy. In this Hollier aids her only indirectly; as he rages about Urquart McVarish’s presumed theft of the Rabelais text, Maria realizes that “this was Hollier’s root, not his austere scholarly crown.”[77] Thus she sees that she is not alone amongst scholars in the opposition of inner dichotomies; she also learns about something essential and unacknowledged in Hollier: his personal lack of balance. But it is Parlabane, Maria’s mother, and Arthur Cornish who offer most to Maria’s healing. “As Mamusia played a friska it was . . . something old and enduring, something that banished the University and the Ph.D. to a stuffy indoors, something of a time when people lived out of doors more than indoors, and took the calls of birds for auguries, and felt God about and all around them.”[78] Maria’s subsequent marriage to Cornish, a man similar to her father who possesses a happy combination of utilitarian and aesthetic sensibilities, symbolizes the completion of her alchemical reconstruction. This is metaphorical alchemy of the sort "when the individual man, by a natural and appropriate process, devoid of haste or violence, is brought into unity with himself by the harmonious action of intelligence and will, he is on the threshold of comprehending that transcendent Unity which is the perfection of the totality of Nature."[79] Davies uses alchemy in the most subtly symbolic ways when depicting Maria’s union of emotion and intellect. Maria inherits her mother’s alchemy, but in more rarefied metaphorical terms.

Davies is not the only writer to delve into this kind of spiritual alchemy. Other figures in literature discover value in discarded aspects of themselves. In his poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, W.B. Yeats describes the way his narrator salvages a metaphoric junk heap of his past and soul. “Those masterful images because complete” arose from “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, // Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, // Old iron, old bones, old rags”. The narrator suffers the epiphany that it is the effluvia of his more banal, difficult, and cultural experiences that have contributed to his poetic virtuosity; he must now lie down in the “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”[80] The Rebel Angels thus inherits and reinforces alchemy themes not only from the medieval period but also more recent literary eras.

The Ninth Dictum of the Turba Philosophorum states, “When the four elements are not commingled, no desire of men is accomplished. But being mixed, departing from their own natures, they become another thing.” [81] This idea, the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, summarizes the intertwining of “elements” in Davies’ book: Hollier, Madame Laoutaro, Froats, Darcourt, Maria, and Parlabane act according to the values prevalent in the modern university as evolved from alchemy’s medieval roots. Each is in a way an alchemist, but in different ways. Of the “rebel angels” Hollier is an alchemist of the mind, Froats of the body, Darcourt as sympathetic to both. Madame Laoutaro practices ancient alchemical secrets. But Maria achieves that personal balance denied the others, having “learned it from Parlabane.”[82] Thus she is the most successful alchemist of all. Balance, synchronicity, and holism are the spiritual goals of Davies’ brand of metaphorical alchemy as descended from Paracelsus and Rabelais.

On many levels Robertson Davies uses the theme of alchemy in The Rebel Angels, both as theme and connector of theme; the very idea of alchemy is in some ways treated as synonymous with the university’s role, in medieval times as now. The despised and rejected include ideas, physical and psychological offal, and people—all potentially laden with unseen value. Davies suggests that, if realized, the “union of root and crown”[83] might bring wholeness, enlightenment, and happiness. The university in Davies’ novel is full of prospectors engaged in the supreme medieval academic scheme of studying for its own sake, of transmuting apparently useless ideas to meaningful wisdom and personal wealth.


[1] François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J.M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1987) 384.Stercus et urina Medic[o] sunt prandia prima // Ex aliis paleas, ex istis collige grana.”

[2] As meant by Matthew Arnold in his essay, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time. See Note 10 below.

[3] Theophrastus Paracelsus, The Aurora of the Philosophers (Chapter IX), trans. Dusan Djordjevic Mileusnic, October 2004 <>. All references courtesy of Adam McLean.

[4] The “Crowd of Philosophers” (My translation).

[5] Theophrastus Paracelsus, The Book Concerning the Tincture of the Philosophers (Chapter IV), trans. Dusan Djordjevic Mileusnic, November 2004 <>.

[6] The Book of Enoch (Book VIII), November 2004 <>.

[7] Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels (Markham: Penguin, 1983) 187.

[8] Turba Philosophorum (Fifteenth Dictum) November 2004 <>. The “it” refers to the Philosopher’s Stone, but the “fools” are unable to see it or value its study.

[9] Davies, 102-3.

[10] Matthew Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, (lines 437-448), September 2004 <>.

[11] Arthur Edward Waite, Alchemists Through the Ages (1888), (Montana: Kessinger, 1997) 10-11. Waite quoted "an American writer, named Hitchcock" (10) who wrote Remarks on Alchemy and the Alchemists (1865).

[12] Davies, 13.

[13] 87.

[14] 174.

[15] 82.

[16] Major Barbara is a good example.

[17] Davies, 170.

[18] 178.

[19] 152.

[20] 7.

[21] 131.

[22] 149.

[23] 179.

[24] Davies, 156.

[25] 157.

[26] 152.

[27] Illustration 1: Images from Greek Alchemical Manuscripts, November 2004 <>.

[28] Davies, 157.

[29] 155.

[30] 207.

[31] Davies, 276.

[32] William Gratacolle, Names of the Philosophers’ Stone (1652), November 2004 <>.

[33] “Son of the greater universe” (My translation).

[34] Davies, 82.

[35] 250.

[36] 157.

[37] 82.

[38] 82.

[39] 110.

[40] Paracelsus, Aurora, Chap. V.

[41] Davies, 178-9.

[42] 82.

[43] 54.

[44] Illustration 2: Portraits of Alchemists and Hermetic Philosophers, November 2004 <>. Inscribed on this portrait (as shown in Waite): “Alterius non sit, qui suum esse potest”, the source of Parlabane’s book title. “Be not of another, if thou canst be thyself.”

[45] Paracelsus, Tincture, Chap. I.

[46] Paracelsus, Tincture, Chap. IV.

[47] Davies, 110.

[48] 112.

[49] Paracelsus, Tincture, Chap. IV.

[50] Davies, 46.

[51] 38.

[52] 92.

[53] Davies, 220.

[54] Rabelais, 300.

[55] Davies, 60.

[56] 185.

[57] Davies, 177.

[58] Ironically, the product of fermentation often makes men into beasts.

[59] 235.

[60] 110.

[61] 113.

[62] “Wretched” or “meagre” stone.

[63] Davies, 250.

[64] “You seek much and will not find; perhaps you will find [it] when you seek not” (My translation). Etymologically, the verb “to find” (“invenire” in Latin) is related to the English “to invent;” one invents what one finds from within or without.

[65] Walter Pagel, “Jung’s Views on Alchemy,” Isis 39 (May 1948): 44-8. October 2004


[66] Waite, 10-11.

[67] 13.

[68] Davies, 133.

[69] 123.

[70] 215.

[71] Davies, 63.

[72] As inscribed on a portrait of Paracelsus (see Note 44 above). In other words, “Know thyself.”

[73] Davies, 273.

[74] 197.

[75] 198.

[76] 205.

[77] 212.

[78] Davies, 227.

[79] Waite, 11.

[80] William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (c. 1938), November 2004 <>.

[81] Turba Philosophorum, November 2004 <>.

[82] Davies, 320.

[83] 319.


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