Alchemical Symbolism in Enclave

I just finished reading Enclave, by Ann Aguirre, and found it to be a very good book. It is thrilling to realize, more and more, that the prose quality of Twilight is not entirely the standard fare for YA fiction these days. Some folks can construct a real story with good characters and solid prose. Anyway, I’ll be reviewing the book for Fantasy Book Review in a week or two, but I wanted to throw some insights out there which I saw in the book. Of course, if you haven’t read the book and would like to, the following contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Mostly this consisted of alchemical symbolism. You didn’t used to see this sort of structure in fiction much at all before Harry Potter, which is, of course, hugely popular and also deeply structured with alchemical scaffolds. It appears as though the Potter books have initiated a new stage or movement in literature, which depends upon alchemical symbols as the grounding metaphor for transformation. Now, I don’t see near as many details in these books that are alchemical, but the structure is still clearly there.

For those who don’t know, alchemy was not primarily about turning lead into gold. It was actually a sort of externalized symbol of what the alchemist hoped the process would do to his inner being. So the true alchemist pursued alchemy not for material riches but for inner transformation from a heart of lead to a heart of gold. The process worked in three broad stages, the negredo (black) stage, the albedo (white) stage, and the rubedo (red) stage.

In the black stage, the object to be transformed into gold is put into the crucible and melted down so that it returns to its original elements. Next, in the white stage, the dross and impurities in the liquefied metal floats to the top of the crucible and is skimmed off, and the metal purified. Finally, in the red stage, the material that has been purified is re-congealed into a new form, which if done properly the alchemist hopes will be the Philosopher’s Stone. The Stone then produces the elixir of life and turns anything it touches to gold. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that, but that’s the basis structure which we see turn up in post-Potter fiction. I should point out here that the three stages of the alchemical process mirror the three stages of Christian salvation, that is, of dying to yourself/conviction of sin/baptism in the black stage ; the white stage mirrors our sanctification and progressive purification by Christ; and the red stage mirrors our glorification and being remade as new creations in Christ.

Enclave, which is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel, participates in this alchemical structure in the general colors of the novel, and in some of the details. It begins underground as our protagonist, a girl named Deuce, goes through a primitive ritual to become a huntress for her tribe. No one underground lives past twenty-four. They live in a small enclave in what we find out later are the subway tunnels of New York City. It is pitch black underground, so they must create the lights they need. They never live long because there are creatures living underground with them, out in the tunnels, dangerous and vaguely humanoid monsters known as Freaks, who feed on human flesh. This section of the novel represents the black stage in the alchemical process, where the character is broken down, disillusioned, stripped of all their internal identifications so that they can be remade into a new creation. This is very much present in the underground stage of the book, which spans the first third of the novel. At the novel’s start, Deuce is completely submissive to the harsh rules of their enclave, wanting to find her place in them. As this part of the book progresses, she begins to realize that the rules are harsh and arbitrary, and that the leadership keep everyone in the enclave obedient by lying to them and encouraging their fears. Then, when Deuce and her hunting partner Fade discover that a nearby enclave has been overrun by Freaks, who seem to be growing more intelligent, they are not believed. They press the issue, and end up being exiled to the hostile surface. This marks the end of the first, black stage. Deuce has been stripped of her illusions and beliefs, and can now be purified and reformed into a new girl.

The second part of the book, spanning the middle, mark the white, purification stage. Deuce had been told that the overland was impossible to survive in, that the rain would melt their flesh and so on. This turns out to not be true, and so she and Fade are able to survive for a time. There are threats on the surface too, however, the Wolves, bands of roving gangs of teenage boys who will kill and rape you if they catch you. These gangs are generally paralleled to the Freaks. Naturally Deuce and Fade are captured, then escape with another girl (good only for “breeding” for the gangers). This section is replete with symbols of the purification stage. Water references abound, characters tear up, there are rivers and rain constantly, and in the second half of this stage, there is snow. The moon frequently gleams “silver” every night. Fade heard stories about settlements to the north, so they make their way northward in hopes that the stories are true. The gangers catch them, but as soon as they must fight, Freaks also find them. Somehow the Freaks have found their way out to the surface. Out of the battle, only the head Wolf of the gangers survives, and comes with them. This is where the internal purification comes in. Deuce’s former categories are refined – she realizes that compared to the barbarism of the gangers the leaders of her underground enclave weren’t so bad after all. She must face the reality that the gangers aren’t really like the Freaks either as she gets to know Stalker, the head of the gangers. This is important, because the chief end of alchemy is the resolution of all contraries into itself; so that the differences between characters disappear as they are knit into a new body together.

Finally, the red stage begins. This stage is where all the dichotomies and tensions are drawn back together, and the characters are drawn together. They must all band together if they are to survive in the elements and in Freak territory. The contraries between the characters are gradually resolved, climaxing in the injury and fever of Tegan. The hatred which Deuce harbored for her enclave and its leaders is resolved when advice they give to Deuce results in saving all of their lives. Fire is common imagery for this final, red stage of alchemy, and thus this scene that finally resolves everything for Deuce and she is able to forgive them at last, and her relationship with Fade is repaired, fire plays a heavy and substantial role. Finally, their salvation is at hand when a man (a real, middle aged man) appears, arriving from (you guessed it) a village outpost called Salvation. When they arrive at Salvation, Stalker, the Wolf who had abused Tegan long before, finally breaks down and confesses that he respected her for her strength to survive (a major concession for a teenage boy ruling what is essentially a tribe that functions with a patriarchal honor-warrior code), and at last all is resolved. The Philosopher’s Stone has symbolically been reached.

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