Reading The Alchemists’ Council: Chapter 2

William Gass

[UPDATE May 2019: The link to Matthew Graybosch’s commentary on the first three Chapters of The Alchemists’ Council is currently unavailable. Nonetheless, I’ve opted to retain my responses to his commentary in my “Reading The Alchemists’ Council” posts.]

If you haven’t done so already, take a look at this week’s Graybosch & Higby Reading. Our two commentators have taken on Chapter 2 with extensive discussion that ranges from Stalin to Tutankhamun. Truly, I am astounded at the connections being drawn and the breadth of the analysis. As an English professor, I can certainly imagine the emerging Reader’s Guide being an extraordinarily useful resource for students studying the book. Indeed, if I were teaching it, I would assign the following essay:

  • “Choose a specific discussion topic found in any of the Graybosch & Higby Readings. Use that topic as a starting point for your research. Based on your chosen discussion topic and research, develop an argument into a persuasive essay regarding The Alchemists’ Council.”

Of course, I cannot teach one of my own books in my classes, so I can only hope that another professor at another outside world university will consider mining the Graybosch & Higby Readings for essay topics in the near future!



If I were one of the students in the hypothetical scenario above, I would choose either “Making an Unperson” or “Why Turquoise?” as my starting point. I was nodding my head in agreement all the way through Graybosch’s points in these two sections.

Though I did not specifically have Stalin in mind when writing about erasure, I certainly did draw on the general notion of “erasing” undesirables. Graybosch’s reference to 1984 was particularly poignant for me since one of the attendees at last week’s book launch made the identical comment. Perhaps my undergraduate reading from 1984 itself still lingers–fortunately, not yet erased–in my subconscious. (Yes, folks, I am old enough to have begun university in the year 1984 when reading lists inevitably included Orwell’s masterpiece.)

orwell-1984-propaganda CLICK IMAGE FOR SOURCE


The image above is linked to a blog entry regarding teaching 1984, which leads me to suggest another essay topic: “Compare concepts of erasure in Orwell’s 1984 to those in Masson’s The Alchemists’ Council.” Though I am currently between classes, the professor in me clearly does not shut down. (If anyone actually does assign this topic, I would love to see the resulting papers. Indeed, I would even consider posting one on this blog. Contact me!)

Before venturing on to discuss turquoise, I want to re-post here a section of a comment that I originally posted in response to a review of The Alchemists’ Council by Jana Nyman at Fantasy Literature. In the review, Ms. Nyman writes that the book “would have benefited from more clarity concerning the goals of the Rebel Branch and why the Council hates and fears them….” In order to help potential readers understand these motives, I responded as follows:

  • “[F]or me the main conflict of the novel revolves around opposing philosophies regarding free will and power. Since the era of the “primordial myth” with which the book opens, the Alchemists’ Council and the Rebel Branch have been at war. Thus the conflict is as ancient as the dimensions themselves rather than based in particular memories that any living alchemist or rebel may have. The goal of the Alchemists’ Council is to remove the Flaw in the Stone, whereas the goal of the Rebel Branch is to increase it. The Flaw in the Stone is what permits free will. If the Flaw were to be removed completely, the Council believes everyone would be saved in the dimensional equivalent of a unified afterlife. The Rebel Branch, on the other hand, wants to maintain their current existence as individuals with choice (rather than being forced into a collective “One” by the alchemists). This main conflict is explored through a variety of lenses throughout the book. Since I teach medieval literature, much of my inspiration for these conflicts came from philosophical debates on free will found in works such as Book IV of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

In light of Graybosch’s discussion of the “unperson” and 1984, I would like to add to my explanation by saying that the main conflict also involves the abuse of free will. The Council Elders believe they have the right to stop alchemists from dissent. To do so, they erase memories of alchemists from the lower Orders. The rebels assist with this process thanks to the power of the Flaw and its inherent absence within the Stone. (Yes, this is an alchemical paradox.) Thus both sides of this conflict are engaged with the abuse. Neither side is free from blame, yet each blames the other. Thus the conflict continues unabated.

Onward to turquoise…


The pendant featured in the image above is available through Palms Trading Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Click on the image to reach a description of this particular piece.) I myself bought two turquoise pendants when I visited New Mexico in 2009 to present a paper at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference. One of my pendants was purchased at Palms Trading Company; the other was purchased from a woman named Florence at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. (Sound familiar? See Jaden’s purchase on page 113 of the book.) These two turquoise pendants inspired those worn by members of the Alchemists’ Council. As Graybosch suggested, I researched turquoise in particular and came to believe it would be ideal for an infusion of Quintessence. In a future post, I will discuss the concept of the pendants in more detail. For now, I encourage those of you who may be seeking one to explore the myriad of turquoise pendants available at Palms and elsewhere.

The detailed discussion of the Breach of the Yggdrasil is also one that I appreciated reading this week. As with other names I chose for events, rituals, manuscripts, and characters throughout the book, “Yggdrasil” does indeed have symbolic connections to our actual world. The ongoing links to music likewise continue to fascinate me. If not for Matthew, who describes himself as “a metalhead who writes science fantasy,” I would likely never explore these unique tracks. Thank you again, Graybosch & Higby, for opening my mind to new possibilities for the world of The Alchemists’ Council.

See you in the upcoming weeks for Chapter 3!

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