Solve et Coagula: Part 2 – The Ripley Scrolls, Nicolas Flamel, and Ben Jonson’s Alchemist
by Dr. Beatrice Groves
George Ripley was one of England’s most important alchemists, and he was crucial to the revival of the art in the 15th century. His Compound of Alchymy (1591) shaped English alchemical literature, popularizing in particular two alchemical strands that influenced Harry Potter. These are the “virtue quest” (the idea that the adept must pursue their own perfecting as well as that of the philosopher’s stone), which I discussed in yesterday’s post, and the “alchemical marriage.” In this symbol, the physical union between a “red king” (sulfur) and “white queen” (mercury) forms the central alchemical metaphor. Ripley describes how, in order to make the philosopher’s stone, “the red man & the white woman [must] be made one” – and his work established this idea in the canon of English alchemy. Harry Potter is rife with such alchemical marriages – most clearly in the partnering of redheads (Bill and Ron) with cool, mercurial women (Fleur and Hermione). (For an in-depth exploration of this image, see John Granger’s The Deathly Hallows Lectures.)
Indeed, Ripley’s alchemical writing uses a great number of symbols for the stone that resonates with the Harry Potter books – he describes the stone as a basilisk, a diadem, and a golden egg. It was due to Ripley’s fame, and his use of such symbols, that the Ripley Scrolls, one of the most ornate alchemical documents – which illustrates such symbols in astonishing and often beautiful detail – were named after him.
The Ripley Scrolls, as the image above illustrates, contain a number of symbols that look familiar to Potter fans – this one, for example, recalls both the Deathly Hallows symbol and the Snitch. One of these extraordinary scrolls was central to the 2017 Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at the British Library. (And that scroll – part of the exhibition’s new virtual home – can now be viewed online.) The DVD that was released to accompany the exhibition shows Rowling entranced by this Ripley Scroll, but in that documentary, she also links the symbolism of the scroll with the alchemist who appears within Harry Potter: Nicolas Flamel.
I had a really vivid dream about Nicolas Flamel, during the writing of Philosopher’s Stone. I dreamt that I was in his alchemist’s studio and this kind of symbolism [the symbolism on the Ripley Scroll] was all over his walls.
Rowling is, indeed, correct to link the symbolism of the Ripley Scroll with Flamel, for both come from the same symbolic school of conventional, early modern alchemical icons. The Ripley Scrolls – although named after the greatest medieval English alchemist – likely have nothing to do with him. They are 17th-century “fakes” attributed to Ripley in the same way that all witty sayings end up being attributed to Mark Twain. The imagery of the Ripley Scrolls, in fact, draws on conventional early modern alchemical icons in just the same way as another 17th-century alchemical “fake” – another work falsely attributed to a 15th-century “alchemist”: Nicolas Flamel, His Exposition of the Hieroglyphical figures… Concerning both the Theoricke and the Practicke of the Philosophers Stone (1624).
Nicolas Flamel was, in reality, a 15th-century wealthy Parisian scribe and manuscript seller. It was this 17th-century fabrication that made him into an alchemist and an authority on the search for the philosopher’s stone. Nicolas Flammel, His Exposition has a number of discussions on “solve et coagula” – indeed, it represents it as a crucial step in creating the stone and describes the stone itself as a kind of embodiment of the concept of “solve et coagula.” Flamel writes that the philosopher’s stone is “the solution of the body and the Coagulation of the spirit.” Nicolas Flammel, His Exposition also explains that the repeated solution and coagulation of the prima materia in the quest for the stone will increase its “vertue”: “for look how often thou shalt dissolue and fixe, so often will these natures multiply, in quantity, quality, and vertue.”
The Ripley Scrolls and Nicolas Flammel, His Exposition both illustrate the way that, by the 17th century, there was a commonly accepted storehouse of alchemical imagery and phrases. One of the central phrases in the alchemical quest was “solve et coagula” – the phrase Rowling has now tattooed on her writing wrist.
Many of these popular alchemical symbols, however, had little basis in actual alchemical learning, and another piece of 17th-century literature took the opportunity to ridicule alchemy via the ubiquity of such symbols. Ben Jonson’s Alchemist (1610) took this common alchemical currency and created one of the most brilliant, if caustic, works of literary alchemy from it.
There are reasons, beyond its fame, for thinking that Rowling may have been drawn to Jonson’s comedy during her alchemical research. Firstly, just like Rowling, it treats its alchemical learning with a sizeable pinch of salt. Also, like all of Jonson’s plays, it is driven by intricate plot and comic dialogue: Both characteristics likely appeal to Rowling. And in her writing since Harry Potter, Rowling has revealed herself as a Jonson fan. In The Silkworm – a novel that illustrated her knowledge of some seriously less-trodden paths of early modern drama – she used a Jonsonian epigraph for chapter 18 (from his comedy Every Man in His Humour).
Above all, perhaps, Rowling is likely to be drawn to Jonson because he is the undisputed master of her favorite kind of naming: “cratylic,” naming in which characters are given names that reveal their character. (Anne Barton even coined the phrase “cratylic naming” in a book primarily about Jonson: The Names of Comedy .) Jonson’s busybody Puritan “Zeal-of-the-Land Busy” is probably his most loved cratylic name, but almost all his characters have luminously suggestive names. In Volpone, for example, the eponymous protagonist is named after a fox because he is sly. But it also works on a deeper level as the characters who circle round him, avid for his gold, are named after the creatures who would prey on the carcass of a dying fox. And they even enter the play in the order in which they would arrive at the carcass: first Mosca (the “fly”), then Voltore (the “vulture”), followed by Corbaccio (the “raven”), and finally Corvino (the “crow”). The Alchemist is, likewise, full of cratylic names – such as “Abel Drugger” and “Subtle,” the latter being the name of the fake alchemist who is “subtle” in more ways than one. The main character “Face” is probably Jonson’s most brilliant cratylic name: Opaque in its openness, it speaks of a character who performs his persona so well that he becomes his own mask.
The phrase “solve et coagula” – in its English form of “dissolve and congeal” – is used in The Alchemist to temporize with those who are overeager to reach the stone. In Act Two, Scene Three, Subtle, playing on Sir Epicure Mammon’s greed, explains to him that he must repeatedly dissolve and congeal in order to reach the stone:
… I exalt our med’cine,
By hanging him in balneo vaporoso,
And giving him solution; congeal him;
And then dissolve him; then again congeal him.
For look, how oft I iterate the work,
So many times I add unto his virtue.
Stanton J. Linden has written that “among literary authors, Jonson is unsurpassed in the range, depth, and accuracy of his [alchemical] knowledge as well as in his ability to transmute this knowledge into an incisive commentary on human nature.”¹ The Alchemist portrays the “gulls” (on whom the fake alchemists work) as base metals who – by trickery – are transmuted into literal, as well as comic, gold (as they part with their cash in the hopes of becoming richer). There is a clever “meta” aspect to this, for – as often with Jonson – the plot reflects back on the audience itself. We, too, have willingly parted with gold (the price of admission to the theater) for the sake of Jonson’s words. The Alchemist is set in a house in Blackfriars, and the audience pays for the privilege of seeing the theater transformed into a Blackfriars theater where they watch the antics of Face and Subtle.
Jonson, like Rowling, thinks about his writing in alchemical terms, and the alchemical tricks played in this comedy are not solely ironic. As Anne Barton has written, “The true alchemy of The Alchemist is linguistic… Words… are a potent elixir, capable (at least temporarily) of making the ugly beautiful, the sordid grand, restoring age to youth, and transforming dross into something precious.”² Indeed, the play ends with a fascinating echo of the parable of the talents – a biblical story in which gold likewise multiplies – which may make the audience reflect on what the spiritual ramifications of the alchemical confidence trick might be. The echo of the parable of the talents implies that there might be a deeper moral to the play than its sparklingly ironic surface might suggest.
Tomorrow’s blog, in the final part of this three-part survey of Rowling’s alchemical sources, will argue that “solve et coagula” interconnects with other metaphors which she uses to describe her authorial “process.”
¹ Linden, Stanton J. Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration. University Press of Kentucky, 1996 (119).
² Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson: Dramatist. Cambridge University Press, 1984 (150).
Dr. Beatrice Groves teaches Renaissance English at Trinity College, Oxford and is the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, which is available now. Don’t miss her earlier posts for MuggleNet – such as “Rowling’s Goblin Problem?” – all of which can be found at Bathilda’s Notebook. She is also a regular contributor to the MuggleNet podcast Reading, Writing, Rowling.