The following post contains race and spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist.
My introduction to alchemy was through a well-paced and accessible primer on its history, philosophy, metaphysics, and practice. I had some prejudice about alchemy being a lot of superstition, prejudices which did dissolve upon taking the interpretation that all the physical acts were metaphors for a more subtle process. Or, at least, that this is more actionable as a system of beliefs (for example: one thing can transform into another thing given an understanding of the potential, the conditions, and the process to reify that potential) rather than units of beliefs (for example: put a rooster’s egg in a snake’s nest and it will hatch into a dragon, go on, just do it, this is a true fact, and if you have no dragon to show for it then it’s because you did it wrong.)
When it comes to fiction, spectacle is better than out-of-fiction practicality. Any rules or explanations for the backwash of pathetic fallacies, no matter how spectacular or subtle, are more likely for the sake of the story. It’s nothing intended or possible to apply to anything beyond that.
But no storyteller can control every audience member’s perspective, and I’m one of the loopy ones.
From Granny Weatherwax, I’ve learned to transform myself into an animal and bypass the law of conservation of mass (by sacrificing some of my human sanity each time…naturally.) To move heat energy, or to manipulate somebody else’s pain as if it were a real physical force instead of a perception, I won’t bother with. To work responsibly within a community is the most important lesson she had to offer…that I don’t have half as much interest in cultivating as I should.
Serafina Pekkala taught me the fiercely held modesty that allows a person to turn invisible, although I didn’t learn it very well and perhaps shouldn’t have started. She taught me better ways to fly in dreams, which I’m tempted to get Freudian about. Kyuubei taught me the basics of some very dangerous arts, that of the Statement of Intent, and how they always come from one’s True Name. Maybe it really doesn’t work that way, but it’s worked for me well enough so far. Harry Dresden and Souji Seta have both given helpful tips for how to conduct oneself in The Otherworlds.
So, when I wonder how else to branch out in alchemy, I find no reason to exclude a fiction that has Alchemist in the title.
The Story and Themes:
I do believe that storytelling is a particular, and peculiar, kind of metaphysical art all by itself. I admire the narrative structure and the powerful themes of this one. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood manages to align The Hero’s Journey with political intrigue and cosmic horror. At no point did I wish that those two prepubescent boys who lead the Hero’s Journey vein of the story would leave the series and let me watch the sophisticated grown-ups do more interesting and important things. At no point did I disapprove of Colonel Mustang’s ambitions and manipulations in the government as unimportant in the face of a giant eldritch blob of a being reaching out from the surface of the earth to the gate to godhood beyond the stratosphere. At no point did I let Van Hohenheim off the hook for being a crummy hubby and dad, just because he had some heroic vigilante double life and got busy implementing plans to reverse an occult-originated nationwide extinction of people.
These different storylines weaved a masterful tapestry of the story as a whole.
Animated series have a terrible reputation for being pure wish-fulfillment, formulaic, calculated pandering to a demographic. Any media doesn’t seem to need much more than that, really, to catch people’s attention and be counted as entertaining. Fullmetal Alchemist is entertaining. It’s full of glowy magical lights in pretty colours, blinkmiss-pace fight scenes, and running jokes. It didn’t need to be more than that, but I’m glad that it is.
One of my favorite themes are the examination of science and ethics. Ed Elric’s alchemical talent positioned him closer to a scientist than to a wizard in a world where alchemy provides results in advance of understanding. “We know we’re not gods and we’re not demons,” Ed says, after a fellow alchemist, under professional pressure, performs a series of experiments that culminate in combining a human child with a dog. (That is so much more horrifying in the anime than I made it out to be in the previous sentence.) “We’re human,” Ed continues, “We’re only human!” Scientific experimentation, in the world of Fullmetal, as in our own world, can only be done. It can’t be undone.
Another strong theme is that of racism. The blond and blue-eyed Elric brothers consider the nation of Amestris their home, and they live with its bloody history. The most significant event, one before their time but one that plays into their lives, was when combat alchemists had been deployed to suppress a rebellion in one of the colonies of Amestris, populated by the dark-skinned Ishvalans. Members from both sides of the conflict are given voice to the painful memory, and flashbacks, and as the story unfolds they are all moved to bear witness to the consequences and the true causes of this violence. Through this, there comes some hope of healing. (If only it were as easy as realizing that we’ve all been puppets of some secret supernatural overlord with insidious plans that oversee the rise and fall of civilizations.)
Other major themes include the moral grounding provided by friendships and family, the lines of ethics that a person shouldn’t cross, the value of human relationships, the value of a human “soul” or life, and a magnificent subversion of a trope that I’d come to take for granted as narrative necessity: one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
The creator of this story did a fair bit of research, and applied that with artistic license to create a marvelously robust setting where everything makes enough sense. That doesn’t mean I can turn it into wishcraft.
While the alchemy in this series does sometimes involve toiling in dungeons and brewing up weird things in bottles, it is mostly about moving vast amounts of matter with the power of the mind. One alchemist makes fireballs appear by snapping his fingers. Several times, misguided alchemists try to resurrect deceased loved ones, but their loved ones come back from the dead wrong, and then some otherworldly dimension eats the alchemist just for trying to sin against nature.
One recurring catchphrase in the series is “equivalent exchange”. This is the limit or structure put to the practice of alchemy. I gathered that it means that any creation requires an equal amount of matter that would result in the final product, plus taking as much out of the alchemist as the act of alchemy takes to move all that matter into the final form. I was never too clear on this point, though, because the phrase “equivalent exchange” gets co-opted in the story for everything from shady deals with unscrupulous people to courtship rituals. It’s vague enough for me to believe that The Philosopher’s Stone is important and desirable because it offers the opposite: a way for a practicing alchemist to work their powers for nothing. Even though it looks like alchemists do that anyway. (Except for resurrection rituals, which get the alchemist’s body parts eaten.) If the goal, then, is to create something out of nothing, then there is a historical precedence in how many alchemists sought to create human life without heterosexual intercourse as well as extending any existing life into immortality. Many alchemists recorded their work in codes and puzzles, which is also shown in the series.
That’s all good worldbuilding.
When it comes to something I could use, though, what I found myself most drawn to was the use of symbolism in this series. The registered alchemists of Amestris identify themselves by wearing the Caduceus symbol, members of an underground movement are identified by Oubouros tattoos…that looks cool and sets up some plot twists.
But the other main limitation of alchemy in this series is the requirement of what they refer to as a “transmutation circle”. Snapping one’s fingers to generate magic fire is stylish, but could (generally) only happen if the alchemist wore gloves patterned with those circles.
Symbols are gross. That’s not a bad thing. The word “gross” is alchemical jargon for (in some sub-alchemical contexts) anything not of the spiritual realm or of a subtle nature. Symbols are not the thing itself, they are the lie that leads to the otherwise inaccessible and incomprehensible truth. The connections between the gross and subtle in alchemy are proposed in the following mystical pronouncements: As above, so below; as within, so without.
In Fullmetal, alchemists who attempt to resurrect the dead and who do survive the consequent om-nom-nom can intuit how to perform alchemy without the transmutation circle. Well, perhaps there does remain a circle, only it isn’t the gross symbolism recognized by the name “circle”. Whatever a circle shape would have represented remains active…in spirit, so to speak. The metaphysical substance of human consciousness and the otherworld are taken for granted as real in the world of Amestris, but travel to-and-from the otherworld is an alchemical achievement of breaking human laws and getting deeply frowned upon by society. So, the story provides narrative barriers to transcending the reliable, mechanical, symbol-driven alchemy.
MacCoun wrote of the circle as a prison. It represented a paradigm sustained by circular reasoning, not one of self-correction. Even self-correction was a fallacy, as any paradigm ought to be mutable to the greater world. MacCoun asserted that belief systems ought to have a flaw in the logic, some contradiction or ambiguity, so that “fresh truth can come in” from the world.
While I agree that most bubbles are meant to be broken, I look to the symbolism of a circle in other media.
Shown above: Albedo, in alchemical terminology.
HEEERE I STAAAAND.
Some aspects of Fullmetal imply to me that even this greater world would itself be a sort of circle. The concept I came to from all this was how, while the ultimate goal is to transcend all power struggles, the process to that transcendence is itself a power struggle. We need the circle (on which to stand, from which to propel ourselves,) at least as much as we need to keep breaking it.