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In a passage from near the end of “Fullmetal Alchemy” I unpack the meaning of two symbols prominently associated with Ed in Fullmetal Alchemist:Brotherhood, the diagram of the Sephiroth on his Gate of Truth and the crucified serpent on his jacket, and how both relate to Ed’s story and character.
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A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about heroic trauma in select anime, including NGE, Utena, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Madoka Magica.
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A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about the real-world alchemical tradition and how Fullmetal Alchemist references and builds on it.
Early access to all videos for Patreon subscribers: http://patreon.com/froborr
Sorry, I was hoping to have more Faultless but my week has been kind of shitty and it just never happened. So here’s a brief Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic I wrote last year, pretty much because the Mark Watches community dared me to. It could conceivably be the beginning of a longer fic, but I have no particular intention of ever extending it, and I think it works well enough on its own.
Sergeant Lem hesitated in front of the door, checking as she always did to confirm her uniform was buttoned correctly and her hair properly up in a regulation twist. Not in front of every door, of course, but this was the door of the Director of Military Intelligence’s office, her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. It was a big deal to be called in here.
Proper attire confirmed, she knocked. “Come in, Sergeant!” came the voice of Colonel Focker.
She entered the room and saluted, but he waved at her to close the door and sit. “At ease, Sergeant,” he said. He laid a folder he’d been reading from on the table. “I’ve been looking over Cryptography’s initial reports on the documents from the Drachman embassy. Looks like they do have a spy in Briggs, and Cryptography thinks there might be enough information there to figure out who. Well done–if this pans out fully there’s probably a medal in it for you, maybe even a promotion!”
“Thank you, sir!” she answered.
“However, it’s going to take them a couple of weeks to fully decrypt everything and compare it to who knows what at Briggs, so we need a short-term assignment for you.” He laid a hand on an envelope on the desk. It was sealed and marked Top Secret. “I have something for you, but it’s highly sensitive, and I can’t tell you much without you accepting the assignment first.”
She smiled wryly. “More sensitive than working in an enemy country’s embassy’s mail room so that I make copies of all the documents I handle?”
Focker sighed. “Honestly? Yes. This could be two weeks of sitting around in a manor garden reading books–or if it goes south, it could get you killed. Either way, there’s a case to be made that taking part will make you an accessory to any of a dozen crimes, from invasion of privacy on up to public endangerment and possibly treason.”
“You had me at ‘reading,’ sir!” Sciezka Lem smiled. “What can you tell me?”
“Well, how do you feel about working with children..?”
Four days later, Sciezka found herself sitting in a chair in the garden of the Bradley manor, enjoying the bright late-spring sun and listening to a small boy playing with tin soldiers. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. “Hello, Ma’am,” she said politely, and the middle-aged woman above her smiled.
“Hello, dear,” said Mrs. Bradley. “Selim behaving himself?”
“Always,” Sciezka answered. “He’s been a delight.” This was true. Selim was a cheerful, quiet, and easygoing child, happy to play with his toys or have Sciezka read to him. Sciezka had never been around children much, but he seemed more mature than she had expected. She quite liked Mrs. Bradley, too–she felt bad about deceiving them both by pretending to be a substitute tutor, replacing the regular live-in tutor while she “visited her mother,” actually a cover for the biennial training and recertification everyone in Military Intelligence had to do.
Guilty as she felt, however, she understood why it was necessary. She’d read the case file, and therefore she remembered every word of it: the autopsies on the Briggs soldiers murdered by the being known as Pride, the report by Hawkeye on her confrontation with Pride, by Mustang on being forced through the Gate, by Ed Elric on how he’d fought Pride and reduced him to a fetal state. She didn’t quite understand the alchemy of it all, but as far as she could gather, Ed had reduced Pride from many souls to one, turning him into effectively a normal human and erasing his memories, after which Mrs. Bradley had adopted him.
However, the other known single-souled homunculus–briefly, Sciezka wondered who that might be–had possessed frightening powers of the sort typical of homunculi, but aged normally. There was reason to believe Pride’s powers might manifest within Selim–and if they did, Sciezka was to report it immediately.
“Well, I don’t know about always,” Mrs. Bradley answered. “Selim, dear, can you come here for a second?”
“Yes, mother?” he asked, standing and walking over to the two of them. “What’s wrong?”
“One of the maids found this in a fireplace,” she said, holding out the mangled remnants of a toy soldier. “Care to tell me what happened to it?”
Selim grinned proudly as he answered.
The moment she heard his response, Sciezka’s blood froze. She stared in horror as Mrs. Bradley snatched up her son and clutched him tightly to her chest.
“Mother!” Selim laughed, squirming. “No, I’m too big for that.”
“Please,” said Mrs. Bradley. “It wasn’t… it was just a child’s prattling. Don’t, don’t tell…”
“You know,” said Sciezka. She could barely breathe. She could see the tears in Mrs. Bradley’s eyes, refusing to fall. “You know who I am.”
“Your face,” said Mrs. Bradley. “When he… you know, and if you know, that means you’re one of Focker’s…”
“Is something wrong, mother?” asked Selim, stopping his struggles. “Did I do something bad?”
Mrs. Bradley clutched her child even harder. “No, Selim,” she said firmly, glaring at Sciezka. “You haven’t done anything.”
“I’m sorry…” Sciezka said. “I’m sorry. I have to.”
“Do what you have to do.” The bitterness in Mrs. Bradley’s voice cut Sciezka to the core, but she really didn’t have any choice.
Three days after that, Sciezka slouched despondently in a corner of a meeting room deep inside Central Command. This is not how I wanted to meet the Fuhrer! she thought despondently. Even if she hadn’t been miserable, she would have been deeply uncomfortable in such a high-powered meeting. Besides her and Mrs. Bradley, who sat alone on one side of the room’s long conference table, straight-backed and expressionless, there were Fuhrer Grumman himself, Colonel Focker, Lieutenant General Mustang, his aide Major Hawkeye, and Lieutenant General Armstrong with her aid, Captain Falman.
That was the reason it had taken three days to have the meeting–in the Fuhrer’s words, when Focker had dragged her into his office three days ago, “It sounds like he’s starting small and not fully aware of what’s going on, so we don’t have to move immediately. I want to bring in Armstrong and Mustang, since they’re the only others outside of military intelligence aware of the Selim situation, so we can decide precisely how to proceed.”
Wait they had, while the telegraph went to Armstrong in Briggs and Mustang in Ishval, and then a longer wait while the two traveled to Central. The meeting had finally begun three hours ago… but to Sciezka, it felt like weeks as she sat in the corner, imagining huge black clouds hovering over her head.
“I fail to see why we’re still discussing this,” said Armstrong. “Kill him and be done.”
“No!” snapped Mustang. “He’s a child who has harmed no one–”
“He’s a mass murderer with tremendous alchemical powers, nearly impossible to contain,” countered Armstrong. “If he learns to use them effectively–”
“That was a previous life!” countered Mustang. “He has never shown any signs of violent tendencies until now.”
“Oh, a previous life of slaughter,” said Armstrong, nodding sagely. “I suppose you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Hero of Ishbal?”
Mustang was half out of his chair, his face contorted with rage, before Hawkeye’s hand on his shoulder gently but firmly pushed him back down. “She has a point, sir,” Hawkeye said. “Selim is a potentially very serious threat to national security, and we have to take that into account.”
“So we’re back to slaughtering children in the name of national security?” asked Mustang bitterly.
“Child,” corrected Armstrong, “and not even that. He’s a homunculus, a created thing, not a child.”
“He is a child,” said a quiet voice. It was the first words Mrs. Bradley had spoken since the meeting began. She drew her shawl around her shoulders, looking very small and very old. “He’s my little boy.”
Armstrong tsked. “With all due respect, Madame Bradley, every man I’ve killed was someone’s little boy. It’s a soldier’s duty to protect this nation from those who would harm it.”
Grumman nodded. “I take it your opinion is that we should kill him, then. Yours as well, Focker?”
“And you, Mustang?”
Mustang ground his teeth. “We should watch him more,” said Hawkeye. “Keep forces ready to attack if he makes a move, but until then, do nothing.”
“Hmm,” said Grumman. Sciezka sank a little lower in her chair, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, especially Mrs. Bradley. She knew what was about to happen, and wished fervently the earth would open up and swallow her before it did.
That was when the shouts started outside, followed by the thuds.
Sciezka couldn’t even see the three of them move, let alone which one was first, but somewhere between one blink and the next Armstrong, Mustang, and Hawkeye were on their feet, Armstrong’s sword and Hawkeye’s pistol drawn, while Mustang’s hand was outstretched and ready to snap.
Their came a ringing crash, metal slamming into the metal door of the room, and it dented slightly. Another crash, and then another, and the door burst open, the automail foot that had been ramming it slamming into the ground.
A tall, blonde man in his early 20s stormed into the room. “And just what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” he demanded.
“Fullmetal–” Mustang began, but Ed cut him off.
“That’s not my title anymore!” he snapped.
“Who told you about this meeting?” demanded Focker.
“That’s for me to know!” shouted Ed. “Who told YOU you had the right to sit here and debate killing a kid like it’s a zoning petition?”
“I told him,” Sciezka said quietly. “I sent a telegram before I went to you, Colonel Focker.”
“Sorry I took so long,” he said. “It’s a long trip from Rush Valley.”
She shook her head. “You made it in time, though.”
“This is a violation of the Official Secrets Act,” said Focker, his face drawn and expression full of cold fury. “Maybe treason.”
“That would make you and Mrs. Bradley the only people in this room not guilty of treason,” answered Riza, smiling slightly.
“Put your weapons down,” said Grumman. “Fullmet–I mean, Professor Rockbell, if you leave now we won’t press charges.”
“I kept him alive for a reason,” said Ed. “Mrs. Bradley deserves a chance to raise her son, and it sounds like she’s doing a good job. I won’t let you kill him.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Bradley said quietly. “Both of you…”
Sciezka stood. “Ex-exactly! We won’t let you!”
“Sit down, Sergeant!” snapped Focker.
Sciezka dropped back into her chair, again sinking low. I am in SO much trouble…
“So, what happened?” asked Ed. The telegram had been very short, just a travel itinerary, with the first letter of each town spelling out the words “SELIM IS PRIDE. COME TO CENTRAL.” Sciezka had remembered Ed’s own notebook, and used a similar code. “Selim’s shadow sprout teeth?”
Mrs. Bradley shuddered.
“No,” said Mustang. “He blew up a toy with a firecracker.”
Ed scoffed. “I did worse than that when I was five.”
“Then he said it was his imaginary friend’s idea,” Mustang continued.
Ed shrugged. “Urey has an imaginary friend, too, and tries to pin things on him sometimes. It’s pretty normal, Trish will probably do the same thing in a couple of years.”
“Yes, but Urey’s imaginary friend isn’t named Solf Jackson Kimblee,” said Armstrong.
One of the other commenters on Mark Watches Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, who goes by rin-chan-san on Tumblr, created some truly hilarious screencaps combining images from FMA with dialogue from Arrested Development. My personal favorite:
The rather pompous title of this post refers to a panel I gave on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood a couple of years back. I no longer completely agree with what I say here–in particular, the section on race at the beginning is appallingly naïve, simplistic, and, dare I say it, demonstrative of massive unexamined privilege, but still I think it’s a reasonably interesting panel.
Apologies for this being a few minutes late. It is, as you may note, rather a bit longer than the typical Wednesday Whatever (in word count, it is more than ten times the minimum length I shoot for on the Sunday articles).
So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’m a regular commenter at Mark Watches. Today, he finished Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the anime adaptation of my favorite manga. Throughout his reviews of the series, I’ve been posting what I call Episode-Specific Alchemy Lessons, quick mini-essays on the history and practice of alchemy in the real world, tied in to the events of the show. I didn’t do them for every episode (not by a long shot), but they were a lot of fun to write and hopefully will be interesting for all of you. All of them are behind the cut, with the rot13 I used to hide spoilers removed.
Episode One: Chinese Alchemy
Alchemy most likely originated in China. There is some evidence for India as well, and Indian and Chinese alchemy cross-pollinated heavily, but China is where we find the oldest documents talking about mixing chemicals to make gold or create life-extending elixirs, dating back to about the second century BCE. The peak of Chinese alchemy was around 400 to 800 CE, and a literal golden age–this was when the Chinese alchemists were most interested in creating gold, while later alchemists were more interested in immortality.
It might seem weird to see alchemy treated like bending–the Western image is mostly of people making potions or mixing hot metals in a lab–but Chinese alchemists often claimed magical powers, because alchemy was as much a spiritual, religious, and magical pursuit as a practical one. The Chinese word for alchemist, fangshi, can equally well mean magician, wizard, monk, mystic, or technician. In particular, many Chinese folktales refer to alchemists—once they have performed the correct rituals to give themselves the power—being able to transmute materials at a touch or with very short, simple rituals.
Al is an interesting case. There are Western precedents for what he is, but we’ll talk about those more later in the series because it has better examples of the Western equivalent to Al. In Chinese alchemy, however, there’s that branch concerned with creating elixirs, and that ultimately evolved into a quest for Immortality. The capital “I” is important, because this was not about extending the lifespan of one’s physical body indefinitely, but rather a quest to transcend the limitations of flesh and become a perfect, eternal spirit being without dying. Al is a sort of parody of this idea, someone who has become a spirit being without dying and desperately misses having a body.
Episode Two: The Sephiroth
The diagram which appears near the beginning of the explanation of alchemy at the episode’s beginning is known as the Sephiroth, and originates in the Jewish mystical tradition of Qabbalah, which influenced medieval European alchemy. The ten Sephiroth represent several related concepts: they are the component parts of the soul, each representing a different aspect of self. They are the body parts of the primordial Man of Light, about whom possibly more in a later alchemy lesson. Read from top to bottom, they are the creative process from initial inspiration to the creation of the physical work, and therefore also the path from God to humanity. Read from bottom to top, they are the stages of progressively more challenging meditation and enlightenment that lead from humanity to God. They are also the Tree of Life, the source of immortality which humanity lost in the expulsion from Eden, which in alchemy represented revealed truth (while the Tree of Knowledge represents truth acquired through reason and experience).
In other words, the Sephiroth are Truth, the world, the universe, God… and they are also you.
Episode Three: Religion vs. Science
Religion (a better term might be mysticism) vs. science is an old debate in alchemy. In the West, alchemy originates in Roman Egypt. Alexandria was one of the world’s greatest centers of learning, and alchemy was no exception. Khemia, as it was called (probably derived from the Chinese word chim, meaning gold), mixed spiritual and practical pursuits just as in China, but instead of Taoism it was rooted in a blend of Aristotelian and Archimedean natural philosophy, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity. As time went on, the center of learning shifted to Byzantium (modern Istanbul), and became much more focused on the mystical and poetic aspects than practical applications.
Following the conquest of Egypt by Muslims, the center of alchemical thought moved to Baghdad. The next few centuries were the golden age of Islamic science and culture, and an enormous outpouring of scholarship and research into the sciences occurred that would later form the foundation of the European Renaissance. Alchemy (Arabic al-khimia, literally “the khemia”) was no exception. While the Egyptian alchemists were more interested in gold, Muslim alchemists focused primarily on the medical applications and secondarily on transmuting metals.
This is where the debate arises; many scholars argued over whether transmutation of metals was real or a metaphor for spiritual and medicinal transformations. (Some even argued with themselves. Ibn Sini, known in the West as Avicenna, both wrote that transmutation is impossible and wrote instructions on how to accomplish transmutation, though modern scholars believe that the latter was actually written by someone else using Ibn Sini’s name to get attention.) A cottage industry of debunking alchemists as frauds grew up, with many scholars (even some who acknowledged that transmutation might be possible under rare circumstances) warning against fake elixirs and philosopher’s stones (though they didn’t use the term).
Early European alchemists focused mostly on the production of gold, because that’s what their state sponsors wanted. Interestingly, the first religious condemnation of alchemy, by Pope John XXII, was not on grounds of resembling witchcraft but because alchemists were getting involved in making counterfeit coins.
In other words, throughout the early history of alchemy there is a tension between mystical/religious and practical/scientific approaches, and this tension is intimately intertwined with fraud.\
So yes, a little girl has died, and that is a tragedy. It is revolting to the senses. But perhaps something can come of this death, so that even though it remains tragic, revolting, it nonetheless can bring forth good. Maggots might grow to flies that are eaten by birds, that they may sing of Nina forevermore.
One of the most fascinating things for me, both as a writer of fiction and as someone who dabbles in the study of alchemy, is that FMA:B is not structured like a traditional story, where things get steadily worse and worse until we reach a climactic catastrophe. There is a climax, and bad things happen at it, but the tone by that point in the series is triumphant; emotionally speaking, the most awful parts of the series are here at the beginning: The revelation of how the brothers lost their bodies, Nina, Hughes. That’s because the series is structured alchemically, and we’re now at the heart of the nigredo phase.
Move forward to 1266 and the publication of Roger Bacon’s Opus Tertium, in which he argues, among other things, that an elixir capable of perfecting metals ought also to be capable of extending life–that medicinal alchemy and transmutation have the same ultimate goal. More on his theories tomorrow.
Later authorities dropped the citrinitas stage, presumably because it sounds like an energy drink. If only they’d gone with the Greek name, xanthosis! That’s way cooler. (More seriously, it was probably a result of alchemy become more a Protestant thing than a Catholic one after the Thirty Years War. Citrinitas was associated with Mary, while the other three were associated with aspects of the Trinity, so…)
Which in turn brings us to the symbol on Ed’s back. It’s actually two symbols superimposed: A cross and a curve wound around it. The cross, of course, is a symbol of resurrection and rebirth, recalling Ed’s sin of resurrecting his mother. The curve is most likely meant to be one of the two snakes twining around the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. Legend attributes the founding of alchemy to Hermes Trismegistus, who is both the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. The caduceus, in a simplified form, is also the symbol for both the planet and metal mercury, which is extremely important to alchemy as the symbol of changeability and transmutation. Thus, Ed’s symbol represents resurrection and transformation, appropriate for the poor kid.
Another way to put AASB is that it’s a total denial of the signifier-signified distinction. The relationship between a symbol and the thing symbolized, according to alchemy, is not only non-arbitrary; the two are one and the same.
Later European alchemists made similar claims. The homunculis was a thinking, speaking creature created through alchemy who, rather like a witch’s familiar, served as an assistant and a repository of alchemical knowledge. Although artificial humans, homunculi were not necessarily human in appearance; usually they were described as much smaller, rather doll-like creatures. What made them humans was their capacity to speak and act, not their physical shape.
There is thus a case to be made that Al (or Hohenheim) is as much a homunculis as Greed, but within the mythology of the show the term seems to apply specifically to the Uroboros Gang (spoiler: and Father).
- The original Chinese magical tradition, which shares a common origin and many features with Taoism.
- Jewish mysticism.
- Neoplatonic mysticism and Gnosticism (an early alternate form of Christianity).
- The Arabic experimental/pragmatic tradition, which ultimately split off to become chemistry and metallurgy.
- Christian mysticism (which is really more neoplatonism).
Ever since its Taoist roots, alchemy has been about balance. A key part of any alchemical ritual is finding the right balance, both in the material and in the self. Part of that is accepting and embracing one’s own drives and motivations, at times in opposition to Church teachings that rejected some impulses as being inherently sinful. There was only occasional tension between the Church and alchemy, but nonetheless alchemists often sought alternative paths to the salvation the Church offered, seeking to blend the material and the spiritual rather than reject the material.
Xingese alkahestry doesn’t actually seem to have much to do with the alkahest, since they’re explicitly more focused on medical applications and the search for immortality, but remember something I brought up back on (IIRC) episode 3:
As for Xingese alkahestry itself, as near as I can tell it’s as accurate to Chinese alchemy as Amestrian alchemy is to European. In other words, it gets enough right (including fairly obscure stuff) that you know the deviations are due to artistic license, not ignorance. Geomancy was extremely important to Chinese alchemy—among other things, it was vitally important to make sure that your alchemy lab was correctly laid out, with the room aligned according to the compass and various equipment placed at precise points around it—so it makes sense that alkahestry is based on the flow of geomantic energy.
Fire has many associations: It is defined as being the hot, dry element, and associated with the East, Summer, yellow bile, the choleric personality, and the xanthosis stage of the magnum opus.
Note that several of these associations work well for Mustang in this episode or the series as a whole: He arrives in Central from a post in the East, has the same eye shape as characters from the Eastern Empire of Xing, and as for being choleric, well…
As for xanthosis, we’ll talk about it more much later in the series, but for now let’s leave it that xanthosis is the third stage of the alchemical process, yellowing. It is the stage in which gold is produced–a valuable product but not the true Stone. The material is transformed, but not itself capable of causing transformation. Contrast end-of-series Mustang with end-of-series Ed, I think you’ll see why this is appropriate for him. There is a reason Mustang will be the last Fuhrer rather than the first leader of the new democratic order.
Xanthosis is the clash of opposites, where the opposing principles within the material–usually the masculine and feminine–meet and unleash energy. That’s definitely happening in this episode, but it’s not the true xanthosis stage of the series–that’s a long way off.
So: Scar, Scarbro, Ed, Lan Fan; the last couple of episodes have been LOADED with characters gaining arms, losing arms, giving their arms to one another… there’s an enormous amount going on here with arm symbolism, too much for me to record it all.
So, in a slight twist on the usual alchemy lessons, I’m leaving it to all of you: Given the significance of arms I outlined above, what do YOU think is going on with the different characters? How do the events that happen to their arms reflect their characters and their relationships to the others around them?
To these scholars, Da’at represented the ten-in-one, the unity of all Sephiroth into a single shining light. Da’at is not a true Sephira, but rather a space within which all the Sephira can coexist. We’ll talk more about Jewish interpretations tomorrow, because spoilers.
By the 20th century, Da’at and the Abyss were identified with one another. Da’at is the gateway beyond which the Sephiroth are inverted, becoming the dark and terrifying qlippoth of the Abyss, which Aleister Crowley (not an alchemist per se, but an influential occultist who did include alchemical concepts in his writings) describes as “the gap… between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual.”
This is one of the first times in the series where it becomes really noticeable that different people have different Gates of Truth. Al’s was shown a dozen episodes ago, but it’s easy to miss that it’s different from Ed’s until they’re shown together here.
Fun fact: In one of the other ways of drawing the Sephiroth besides a tree, as the primordial man of light Adam Kadmon, Malkhut is the genitals. So Ed just dick-punched the Lord.
Okay, I don’t know much about this one, and I can’t find a decent-quality image [Ed.: Here’s a better one! http://s21.postimg.org/7sliq6hvb/Catholicon_Physicorum_p5_selke_mpiversio.jpg] so I don’t know most of what the text says. It’s clearly not the Sephiroth, but it does appear to be a Tree of Life… it might be showing some alchemical process? Maybe even the making of a Stone?
I do know it’s an illustration added in the 17th century to a manuscript from the 15th century, George Ripley’s The Marrow of Alchemy. I have no idea where in the manuscript it went, and I haven’t read the manuscript, but there’s a translation here: http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ripley_medulla.html (I think it’s the whole thing? It inexplicably starts with chapter 61, so I’m not sure.)
One thing I can read on it, though, is that at the bottom, the set of roots on the left are labelled Corpus (“Body”) and on the right Spiritus (“Soul”). So we have the Tree of Life (that is, the Gate) separating Al’s body from his soul… works for me.
Once in the Abyss, the traveler must battle with Choronzon, but not with the goal of defeating him, because Choronzon is formless and shifts endlessly, being not really an individual but rather a chaotic amalgamation of potential entities. Rather, the ultimate victory here is for one’s ego to be destroyed; broken and dissolving, the self is able to integrate into the cosmic, shedding the illusion of individual existence to become One with the All.
It’s rather like the experience depicted as the passage through the Gate of Truth… but then why I am talking about this as being relevant to episode 27?
So we have in these three episodes four characters entering and confronting the Abyss: Ed’s is the most literal, while Al descends deep underground in the company of Gluttony and Mustang confronts the Fuhrer in his lair and thereby loses the most important part of himself, his connections to his underlings. But it is Hohenheim who has the most mystical and hallucinatory journey into the Abyss, who truly allows himself to dissolve and fragment so that he can confront and overcome himself.
This is once again a spiritual alchemy, a process of death and rebirth through the marriage of opposing forces (indeed, multiple such marriages, Hohenheim/Pinako, Hohenheim/Hohenheim, and ultimately Hohenheim/Trisha, which unsurprisingly is the one that resolves the dilemma). It will hardly be the last.
Hohenheim is washing himself clean, in other words; purifying himself in the mystical waters of life—the function of the albedo phase of the magnum opus, which has been starting to emerge in the last few episodes of the first season and is now fully upon us.
The Abyss has been braved, the lowest depth achieved—now we are starting to climb back into the light. The reduction to ash is ended; now the washing-clean begins.
Albedo, “whitening,” is the second phase of the magnum opus, the process of creating the philosopher’s stone. At the end of the first phase, nigredo, we are left with a burnt and blackened mass, the destroyed remains of the original material. In the albedo stage, this mass is washed, dissolved, and processed to create a uniform white substance. Albedo is associated with the element of water, the season of winter, the bodily fluid phlegm, and the phlegmatic personality, which is to say calm, quiet, observant, kind, and passive.
The latter property represents one of the most important elements of this stage. Where nigredo was the Earth, albedo is the Moon, one step higher and brighter. Like Earth, it creates no light of its own, but unlike Earth it can reflect back light from other sources. It brings a cold, pale light to the night, but it is light nonetheless. Unlike the product of nigredo, which is just useless muck unless processed further, the product of this stage (if the alchemist should abandon the work of pursuing the stone) is silver, a substance valuable in itself.
Finally, this is the stage in which the opposing principles within the material—the masculine and feminine forces of the alchemical wedding—become defined; in the next stage they are brought together.
In Jung’s model of alchemy as a spiritual process, albedo is a phase of introspection and coming to terms with oneself. After the despair of nigredo, albedo is not yet hopeful, but it nonetheless recognizes the possibility of change. It is a time of facing past sins and acquiring self-knowledge, a time of spiritual cleansing and absolution in which one faces, and accepts, the demons and errors of the past.
Mustang: Envy [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named Wrathley, but later realized this is a mistake. Wrathley is Mustang’s foil, but not his Shadow.]
Al: Pride, also Kimbley [Ed.: In the original post on Mark Watches, I named only Kimbley, but later realized Pride belongs here as well.]
But then Carl Jung came on the scene. A student-turned-rival of Sigmund Freud, Jung’s rather complex views can mostly be summed up as a belief that stories were the key to understanding people–that the stories we tell ourselves and one another contain fundamental truths about ourselves. He was particularly interested in stories of the fantastic, as these (in his view) contained the purest expression of the universal symbols of the human psyche. (This is back during that brief period between the discovery of the signifier-signified distinction and the realization that it was insurmountable, so the idea of “universal symbols of the human psyche” was not immediately dismissed as nonsense.)
Jung’s belief was that folklore and magic were symbolic systems for grappling with the great psychological truths in ways “primitive” minds and philosophies could handle. He thus argued that the claims of the alchemists were neither fraud nor error, but rather that they underwent a mystical self-realization, and mistakenly attributed their new perspective on things to a change in those things, rather than a change in themselves.
He thus tied the process of alchemy, the magnum opus, to what he saw as the transformational process of self-actualization, and used it as a central metaphor for his entire understanding of the process of psychological development. The first stage, nigredo, corresponds to the realization that one is inadequate–it is the mental illness that compels one to seek treatment, feelings of failure and guilt, or simply a realization that one is not achieving one’s full potential. This leads to “blackening,” psychological darkness and self-hatred. In the second stage, albedo, one is cleansed. This can be in the form of confessing and performing recompense for past sins, or facing and accepting one’s dark side (symbolized in Jung’s system of archetypes by the Shadow). As in alchemy, this is an acceptable stopping point for some people, but not the complete process; it is only “silver,” and both “gold” and the “philosopher’s stone” await.
In the third stage, xanthosis or citrinitas, the true underlying conflict emerges between the Animus (the conscious self and masculine principle–in addition to being kind of a privileged dick about “primitive” cultures, Jung was sexist as fuck) and Anima (subconscious self and feminine principle). As with the Shadow, the two cannot truly defeat each other, but must rather understand one another and find a way to come together in harmony, the “alchemical wedding” that gives rise to the fourth and final stage, rubedo, in which enlightenment is achieved and the full potential of the self unlocked.
Jung believed that, historically, attaining rubedo was a rare thing accomplished only by a select few, the great alchemists and mystics of history, such as Jesus, the Buddha, Avicenna, and Paracelsus. The key feature of rubedo is that, like the philosopher’s stone, the one who attains it not only transforms themselves, but gains the power to transform others, to help them along the path of self-discovery. Jung’s goal was to find a way, through psychology, to understand this process better and make it more accessible, so that most or all people could eventually achieve self-actualization.
Like pretty much all of Jung’s theories (and unsurprisingly so, considering he was more interested in stories than people), it makes for very interesting literary theory but is largely twaddle as psychology. (Oddly, many of his techniques prove useful despite the theories on which he based those techniques being nonsense–yet another thing he has in common with the alchemists.) Still, as literary theory it’s particularly interesting here, since FMA:B is one of the few series I’ve encountered actually structured on the magnum opus.
Hohenheim, interestingly, doesn’t follow the pattern, even though he is described here as a philosopher’s stone in the shape of a man. He doesn’t go any particular journey of self-discovery that we see, and he is not self-actualized, based on his severe personal issues depicted in the other flashback episode or inability to talk to Ed when they met. The two characters who do seem to be on journeys of personal growth are Ed and Scar, so it’s perhaps interesting that they both have signature items (Scar’s eyes, Ed’s coat) the same color as a philosopher’s stone. Both are also in the albedo phase of development at the same time that the series is–both confronted and attempting to redeem past crimes by way of their interactions with Winry.
Bringing Ed and Greedling together has already had some interesting results, in the sense that it’s driving the development of both characters forward. Greed is starting to reflect on his loneliness and need for companionship (and as others have commented, I love love love that the greed for personal connections is a huge part of his character), while Ed is forcing himself to put aside his pride and work for a (former?) “bad guy.”
Day of Reckoning indeed.
Episode Sixty: The Alchemical Wedding
Although there are intimations of it as early as the first century Egyptian alchemists, the alchemical wedding originates as a coherent concept with the Rosicrucian hoax, a set of three documents purporting to be the founding texts of a secret mystical society of great knowledge and power, the Order of the Rosy Cross. Said society did not actually exist at the time, though of course in the centuries since people have occasionally started societies with that name or claimed to be the “real” Rosicrucians.
The third document, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rozenckreutz, is a lengthy allegory about spiritual enlightenment that combines Christian and a little bit of Jewish mystical thought around the central image of a wedding taking place at Easter, and the usual interpretation of it is as an argument for rejecting the Pauline epistles and all the gospels except John from the Bible.
This use of a wedding as a symbol of enlightenment, however, resonated quite a bit with alchemy, and in particular with the bringing together of male and female that characterized xanthosis, while Easter recalls the principle of Putrefaction, of life emerging from death.
This gives us a new way to look at the alchemical magnum opus, as a life cycle (returning to the Chinese origins of alchemy, in which it was seen as a way of accelerating the natural processes of evolution that were believed to occur in all metals). Nigredo becomes a death, albedo the mourning and cleansing of the corpse, following which there is the wedding of xanthosis and the birth of new life in rubedo. By the early 17th century, when the Chymical Wedding was published, the stages were already identified with the Trinity (except, as I mentioned before, xanthosis, which was identified with the Virgin Mary or Mary-Magdalene, or increasingly dropped outright). The alchemical wedding added a new mapping onto the crucifixion of Jesus: nigredo is his death, albedo the three days he spent dead, xanthosis the appearance to Mary-Magdalene and return to life, and rubedo the ascension to Heaven. Plus, by making the entire process about a fusion of masculine and feminine principles, it restores that element, which was starting to be lost as xanthosis began to be dropped from the process.
This bringing together of long-separated opposites and counterparts is all over these last few episodes, especially this one, which opens with the reunion of Denny Brosch and Maria Ross, continues with the violent bringing together of the perpetrator of genocide Wrathley and the survivor of that genocide Scar, and concludes with the merging of Father, our devil-figure, and Truth, the closest thing we see to a God. All of this has at its center the merger of the Sun and Moon, which in alchemy represent the masculine and feminine principles respectively (though they sometimes share those functions with Mars and Venus, which is why the alchemical symbols for those two planets, not the symbols for sun and moon, have become known as the masculine and feminine symbols).
The masculine and feminine, you see, are both inherently incomplete. To have a gender is to not be the other gender; to be a man or a woman is less than the totality of being human. Bring the two together, however, and the infinite potential of humanity is unleashed, and it becomes possible to create life. (To paraphrase Ed way back when, “Alchemists have been trying to create life for years, but we still can’t do what a mother can.”) This can refer to a sex act or hermaphrodite, but in alchemy the symbol is the thing; bringing together symbols of the masculine and feminine principles can be just as (or more) powerful. Also we’re talking about European alchemy here, so it’s heavily influenced by Christianity’s massive sex-negativity. (And yes, I’m aware of how immensely heteronormative this all is. It’s Renaissance Europe, what can you do?)
An eclipse is one such marriage of masculine and feminine principles, and Father uses it to create a twisted parody of the alchemical marriage. He uses the mass deaths of the Amestrian people to create a featureless, blank Gate the size of the country, from which he emerges so that he can drag Truth down. He forces a marriage between the Mother Goddess of the Earth and the Allfather of Heaven, from which there is a burst of light. But far from creative, it is destructive; Father is an inversion of Chronos, a Titan born from the Earth who (rather than devouring his children) consumes his own heavenly father.
And of course there are other examples of this alchemical wedding in the episodes left to the series: there is the union of Mei and Al to bring back Ed’s arm, the union of Mustang and Hawkeye working together perfectly to fight Father, and of course finally the actual wedding of Ed and Winry and their resulting babies.
Episode Sixty-One: The Shadow Archetype
Jung, whom I’ve occasionally discussed before, is an important figure in the history of alchemy, as he is almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing it out of occult obscurity and into the realm of serious scholarship. He is one of the first people to study alchemy not as an occult art or science that works in a material sense, but as a social, cultural, and psychological phenomenon that worked in a spiritual sense. He approached it, in other words, as a belief system, not a source of power.
As with most of his theoretical work, Psychology and Alchemy is more useful and interesting as literary theory than as sociology or psychology. (His practical techniques, on the other hand, remain an important part of talk therapy to this day. Kind of like alchemy, when you think about it.) Regardless, he described the alchemical process as a spiritual process, in which the product appears to have changed because the alchemist’s entire worldview has changed.
One of Jung’s most interesting ideas, from a literary standpoint, is the Shadow. The Shadow comes from Jung’s theory of archetypes, rather than his ideas about alchemy, but nonetheless fits into them well, as the Shadow is a part of the self that is split off and later confronted, much as opposing principles are divided and then recombined in xanthosis.
The Shadow, as a psychological or philosophical concept, is a part of the self that has been rejected. One creates a Shadow by declaring a part of oneself as being unacceptable, usually because one sees it as weak, immoral, frightening, or painful, but sometimes just because it conflicts with one’s self image, and then burying, suppressing, or isolating that part. An essential part of achieving one’s full potential and psychological growth, therefore, is to confront the Shadow.
The Shadow, in other words, is a symbol of everything you hate about yourself. The thing is, the Shadow is created by rejection, and thus it is impossible to overcome it by fighting it. The only way to defeat the Shadow is to accept it and become one with it. Put another way, you cannot change something about yourself until you accept that it is a part of your self, and only then can you make the choice to either channel it to positive ends or grow beyond it.
As a literary concept, the Shadow is closely related to the foil. A foil, remember, is a character who is exactly like the protagonist in some ways, and their exact opposite in others. If a story has a big enough scope for multiple protagonists, it is not uncommon for a character to have multiple foils, and some protagonists may even be foils to each other. Ed, for example, has foils in Al, Mustang, and Hohenheim, while Mustang has foils in Ed, Hawkeye, Olivier, and Bradley. The Shadow, on the other hand, is the dark reflection of the protagonist, the character who personifies everything they reject in themselves. This can be the same person (Ling’s foil and Shadow are both Greed), but isn’t necessarily (Father is Hohenheim’s foil but not his Shadow; Envy is Mustang’s Shadow but not his foil.)
Mustang’s Shadow, as I said, is Envy, the one opponent he cannot burn without losing a part of himself. Envy is a shapeshifter, a deceiver, a trickster who revels in making people dance to his tune, much as Mustang pretends to be a frivolous womanizer to hide his true ambition and truly enjoys the game of feeding false information to the Central forces when Ed and Al try to draw out the homunculi by fighting Scar. Mustang also covets that which others possess, namely the throne of Amestris, and has a furious temper, much like Envy. He tries to separate himself from these truths, but ultimately he cannot; he must accept how close he has come to straying off the path and becoming the monsters he fights, and the only way to do so is by not killing Envy. It is a textbook confrontation with the Shadow.
Another major confrontation with the Shadow occurs in this episode, as Scar faces Wrathley. Last episode, to fight Wrathley Scar had to embrace an aspect of himself he’d long denied, namely that, like his brother, he is an alchemist. Wrathley, however, is in many ways the person Scar began the series as: a human being transformed into a creature of pure anger and violence by Amestrian alchemists, a nameless being who cares about nothing (not even survival) except destroying the enemy in front of him. Scar has tried to reject his rage and violence for some time now, and the result has been subtle but clear: he went from one of the most terrifyingly effective combatants in the show to being almost entirely ineffectual against the Immortal Legion and Wrannabes. Once Wrathley begins insultings Ishvala and suggesting that Scar has abandoned his faith and people, however, Scar once again strikes out in anger. His final speech on activating the alchemy circle makes this clear; he accepts that he is still full of anger and hatred, but that this does not have to be all he is. As he puts it, within him the positive and negative streams are one.
The most literal Shadow in the show, of course, is Pride, who serves as a Shadow to both Elric brothers. Pride represents a host of things Al rejects about himself—that he is an empty shell, a soul devoid of any real flesh, a created thing superior to normal humans. Al’s fights with Pride are all inconclusive, but note that once Al rejects the chance to get his body back—accepting, in other words, that he is living armor and that this does have its advantages—he does not fight Pride again. (Last episode he almost did, but got distracted by Mei’s injury.)
That leaves the main confrontation with the Shadow this episode, the fight between Ed and Pride. Pride is, of course, Ed’s defining sin—his hubris that led him to try to revive his mother in the first place—and Ed has attempted to reject pride from time to time, but never succeeded. He’s still basically an arrogant person, quick to gloat and prone to getting in trouble as a result of underestimating his opponents. He’s gotten better about the last, but note that just one episode ago he was gloating that he could easily beat Pride because he “knows how short people fight,” and now he comes within a hair of being killed.
There are other traits Ed tries to deny about himself that Pride embraces, such as sadism. Pride enjoys making his enemies experience intense physical and emotional trauma, true, while Ed restrains himself to pranking and trolling, but isn’t that just a sanitized form of sadism? The underlying principle—pleasure at making others suffer—is the same. Ed is also, like Pride, a very angry and violent person, but Ed tries to reject this side of himself with his strict taboo against killing, while Pride embraces violence wholeheartedly.
But probably the biggest aspect of Ed which Ed rejects and Pride embraces is the one Ed specifically calls Pride out on: Pride has been abandoned and betrayed by his father, and continues to work with him, continues to feel love and loyalty toward him.
Because for all that Ed hates his father, refuses even to call him that… Ed’s anger is rooted in loss. Ed hates Hohenheim for taking Ed’s father away from him, a loss Ed still feels keenly because Ed still loves his father.
And so, with only a few episodes left, if Ed is to have any hope of completing his growth as a character he must become one with Pride, which he does literally, by becoming a philosopher’s stone and entering his body. Ed strips away everything Pride is, leaving only an infant pleading for its mother—strips it away and takes it into himself.
Because one more feature Ed and Pride share in common, one they have both embraced throughout the series, is the ability to absorb the powers of others. Pride ate Gluttony’s sense of smell and Kimblee’s knowledge of alchemy, just as Ed copied Scar’s deconstruction attacks and Greed’s Ultimate Shield. So as Ed walks toward the final battle, he has taken from Pride the things he rejected from himself: Now he accepts that he is proud, which means he is capable of being humble. Now he accepts that he loves his father even as he hates him. And now he accepts that his hands are not for healing or building like Winry’s, but for fighting.
Within Ed, the opposing forces are at last aligning. He has been largely sidelined the past dozen episodes, one of many equal protagonists… but there is a reason this show is named for him. It’s time once more for him to step into center stage.
Episode Sixty-Two: In the Beginning
This lesson is actually more related to episodes 60 and 61, but there is SO MUCH going on in those two episodes, alchemically, that I moved it here. Plus, there’s a little bit of it happening.
One of the fundamental principles of alchemy was “As Above, So Below,” and one of its major focuses was on the process of creation. It should come as no surprise, then, that alchemical thinkers were interested in the origins and destiny of the universe. In Europe, alchemy was primarily practiced by Christians and so the dominant origin story was the Christian account familiar in our own culture.
However, alchemy drew heavily on two traditions that had Creation myths of their own, and alchemy made frequent use of their symbolism and iconography. The first of these, and less important of the two where FMA is concerned, was the Gnostic account. Gnosticism is generally regarded as a Christian heresy, but historically speaking it is more accurate to say that it was one of many competing Christianities that proliferated in the first three or four centuries after Jesus, of which one happened to get a big-name convert in Constantine and aggressively wiped out the others, establishing itself as a root religion from which most modern forms of Christianity descend. That one wasn’t Gnosticism, but because Gnosticism was a mystery religion (that is, a religion whose rites and beliefs are supposed to be secret to outsiders, and only revealed bit-by-bit to worshippers as they advance in a spiritual hierarchy—Scientology is a good modern example) practiced in secret, it took longer than most to wipe out, and traces of it remained in occult lore down to modern times, when the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (a veritable treasure trove of ancient Gnostic texts hidden in an Egyptian monastery for centuries) brought it back into the spotlight.
By its nature as an often-persecuted, deeply mystical, secretive belief system, Gnostic beliefs varied quite a bit, but the most common and influential begins with the perfect God, whose divine light trickled down in a series of emanations called Aeons. The Aeons come in male-female pairs, and each pair is lower and less perfect than the last, but still divine, until at last one reaches the lowest and least perfect pair, Sophia (Greek for “Wisdom”) and Christos (Greek for “Messiah”; of course this is the English word Christ, but I’ll use the Greek name because the concept is rather different from modern mainstream Christianity). Sophia has a desire to create, and tries to make a divine being, but because she is the lowest of the Aeons she fails and instead creates Ialdabaoth, the Demiurge, who is variously described as being evil, mentally unbalanced, or simply massively incompetent. The Demiurge believes itself to be the supreme divine being, and creates the material universe, an utterly corrupt place of pure evil and darkness. However, he unknowingly traps Sophia within it, and she becomes the sole source of light in that darkness; specifically, she becomes the human soul. The Demiurge becomes the God of the Old Testament and tyrant of the universe (why yes, Gnosticism DID start as one of the Hellenistic, anti-Semitic branches of Christianity, how could you tell?) until finally Christos comes to try to rescue Sophia. Working through a purely human mouthpiece, Jesus (and helped by Sophia’s human mouthpiece, Mary-Magdalene), Christos spread the secret knowledge (Greek gnosis) that grants Enlightenment and salvation, allowing those who fully comprehend it to escape their material shell and become pure soul, merging back into Sophia—and when everyone is free, she will be free and this corrupt universe of darkness will collapse.
(Fun thought: Christos is an alien being who works through human agents to spread occult knowledge and secret rituals that cause those who know them to die, with the ultimate goal of wiping out humanity and destroying the universe. The only difference between him and Nyarlathotep is whether or not you like material existence.)
Truth seems rather inspired by Sophia, a divine being of light and knowledge who does not take any active role to govern the universe or claim to have created it, and who exists both as an independent entity and within every human soul. Father also seems quite demiurgic; he is a tyrant who pretends to godhood but is actually pathetic and corrupt, the creator of Amestris, and responsible for trapping both Truth and countless human souls. However, there really doesn’t seem any parallel to Christos; Hohenheim and Ed are, ultimately, human, while the Christos stand-in would be on the same order of being as Truth.
This Gnostic creation myth is basically a dark retelling of the rather more positive Qabbalistic story of creation. This story is a parallel of sorts to the Genesis accounts, meant not as a correction or replacement (as the Gnostic story explicitly is) but rather as an alternative view of events that are ultimately beyond human comprehension anyway.
The Qabbalistic myth begins slightly before the Genesis account, with a perfect, infinite, omnipresent Light, the chief Qabbalistic metaphor for God. Because this Light is omnipresent, nothing else except perfect Light can exist. Since God wishes to create, he must first make a space that isn’t him, so he retracts his light from the universe, creating the primordial darkness, the chaos of Genesis 1.
But God wants more than just darkness, so he trickles a little bit of Light into the dark, creating the universe. This Light is gathered into ten vessels, the ten Sephiroth, but it is too much for them to contain; they shatter into a multitude of tiny sparks of Light, scattering the Light throughout the universe. This is no accident, however—God is perfect, and makes no mistakes. Rather, this is intentional, to give the universe purpose—the sparks must try to gather again together, and restore the universe to its primordial perfection.
The sparks are fractal—each contains the complete Sephiroth within itself, albeit in a fractured and imperfect form—and of course they are the souls of humanity. Through meditation and spiritual practice, this inner Sephiroth can be ascended, reconnecting with the Source of the Light, the Aur Ein Soph, God, but it is an enormous challenge that few achieve in their lifetime. Ultimately, however, everyone will manage it, and the original state of the universe be restored in tikkun olam, the healing of the world and fulfillment of its purpose and promise.
The alchemists saw in both Gnosticism and Qabbala mystical systems based on knowledge and scholarship. In Gnosticism, the material world is an illusion and a trap, and the spiritual is real; in Qabbala the spiritual reality and material reality are one. In either case, the gathering of knowledge is a spiritual quest, and the immortality promised by the philosopher’s stone could be considered the same immortality as that of the soul, a way to ascend and connect to the source of all things.
The Qabbalistic Tree of Life, one of the ways to depict the Sephiroth, was thus identified with the process of creating a philosopher’s stone, and we see this in the progression of Gates of Truth, which we can now understand as fragments of the primordial vessels of the Sephiroth. The first Gate we see, Ed’s, is a purely spiritual Sephiroth, rooted in the heavens and borne up by angels. Al’s is a hybrid, a process of making the philosopher’s stone depicted as a Tree of Life. And finally, Mustang’s has no trace of the Sephiroth or Tree of Life, a purely alchemical diagram that nonetheless depicts a path from Earth to Heaven.
The ultimate goal of the process is thus not merely to make an elixir that maintains physical life or a stone that allows unlimited, perfect transmutation. It is a spiritual transformation, a union with the Divine… but that discussion is for tomorrow.
Episode Sixty-Three: Enlightenment
There seems to be a pattern to alchemy, where in a given culture it starts out pragmatic and exploratory, then gradually turns inwards and becomes more spiritual, after which its cultural relevance fades. It happened in China with the increasing pursuit of the immortal, spiritual self rather than making medicine and transmuting elements. It happened in Egypt, where it coincided with the shift from Alexandria to Byzantium. And it happened in Europe, where it formed one branch of the split between alchemy and chemistry.
In Europe, the quest for physical immortality and the transmutation of the elements became a quest for spiritual immortality and enlightenment. But what is enlightenment?
Literally, of course, to be enlightened is to be illuminated, to discover or release light. There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to go about doing this, the inward-pointed and the outward-pointed. The inward-pointed involves private study and meditation with the intent of finding light within oneself; the outward-pointed involves going out in the world and working with the intent of finding light within others. The former is what we usually mean by little-e enlightenment, but the latter is the kind found in the big-E Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, humanism, and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Alchemy, like Qabbalah and Gnosticism, largely pursues an inward-pointed enlightenment. In the case of the latter two traditions, the goal is to reach inside oneself and find the part that connects to the divine. In alchemy, the goal is to create a perfect substance, and by dint of having created perfection, become perfect oneself.
But what is the point of linking in and up if you do not also link out? What is the point of finding your own light if you don’t find the light in others?
FMA:B is not kind to those who turn inwards for their enlightenment. The clearest example is Father. He does exactly what the medieval alchemists were trying to do: he uses alchemy to perfect himself, to attain oneness with God and yet remain on this Earth. But in so doing he sacrificed any possibility of connection to others, and found no light at all, only more and greater darkness. His Gate is blank.
My own theory on Father, based on the blankness of his Gate and his pleading not to go “back” when Truth pulls him through it, is that he is a fragment of the darkness behind the Gate. What, then, is that darkness? It is the stuff of which the universe was made, the primordial, chaotic darkness from which God withdrew his Light before trickling it back in. That is why the Gate contains infinite knowledge of alchemy, because it contains the makings of the entire universe.
And it’s also why Father craves to absorb God so very much. The darkness remembers that once it was full of Light, and it wants that Light back.
Father contains no Light, nothing for his Gate to depict. He has no trace of the positive inclination. But he’s tried to sever all of his negative inclination instead of channeling it, and as a result he is nothing but negative inclination. Put another way, all seven homunculi are Father’s Shadows, aspects of himself he has rejected, and because he is never able to accept any of them, he is never able to escape the flaws they represent: arrogance, an instrumental approach to others, a desperate craving for recognition and power, a tendency to react rather than act and let others do the work for him, jealousy of the light within humans, the desire to consume and absorb that light, and vicious, raging hatred. He insists that he has severed these things from himself, and so of course as a result he is incapable of seeing that they control and define him; that’s how it always works with the Shadow.
Had he confronted himself, accepted and embraced these aspects of himself, he might have put aside his anger and his arrogance to see that the light he envied, wanted to possess and devour was in others all along. He might have put aside his reactivity and passivity and instrumental approach to others, worked past his hatred, and attained the second kind of enlightenment, the kind you get by connecting to others. As Truth says, he saw the answer, but he rejected it.
Ed, on the other hand, embraces it. He realizes that the enlightenment offered by alchemy, the inward turn, is inherently self-centered and selfish. It cannot transcend, only send someone deeper into a cycle of sacrifices that ultimately ends up rejecting the world and becoming like Father. But who needs alchemy, anyway? All the light he needs is in other people. He can see the light in himself reflected in them, and reflect their light back at them.
Mark asked, “Is he transmuting himself?” Yes, Mark. Yes he is. The question is, into what? But that’s for tomorrow’s discussion.
Episode Sixty-Four: Rubedo
The final stage in the creation of a philosopher’s stone is rubedo, reddening. This is the stage in which the stone itself is produced. If nigredo is the black night of the soul, albedo moonrise and xanthosis sunrise, rubedo is the bright new morning. It is the new life created by the alchemical wedding, associated with the element of air, the humour blood, the sanguine temperament (cheerful, impulsive, creative dreamers), God the Son, and spiritual enlightenment.
The power of rubedo is the power to transform. Throughout the magnum opus, the material has been acted upon, transmuted—but the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, can transmute other things. It is the reification of change, a perfect substance that transforms and elevates everything around it.
To Jung, the magnum opus was a purely spiritual process. He believed that the alchemists, on attaining rubedo, thought the material was perfected and exalted because they were looking on the world with new, enlightened eyes. This appears not to have been the case; Jung underestimated the cultural differences between himself and the alchemists (who regarded as fundamental changes in materials we would dismiss as superficial), as well as their capacity for wishful thinking and, occasionally, outright fraud.
But the creation of the philosopher’s stone is, nonetheless, a deeply spiritual process, because the core principle of alchemy, “As above, so below,” means that the symbol is the thing, the spiritual is the material. No less notable an alchemist and occultist than Sir Isaac Newton gave us his third law, “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.” To transmute something is to yourself be transmuted.
This series, I’ve noted more than once, is structured like the magnum opus. It begins with darkness and horror and death: the Elric brothers transmuting their mother, the death of Nina, of Hughes, the revelation that the homunculi control the state, the descent into Gluttony’s abyss. It continues into a cleansing phase, all white snow and the revelation of sins past—Briggs, the Ishbal flashback, Hohenheim’s flashback, Scar’s slow turn away from vengeance. Then there is the clash of opposing forces and rapid transformation of the Promised Day. And here, in the final episode, we have the product, the new day.
But have we gained a philosopher’s stone? This episode makes a point of showing to us, in two separate scenes, two moments of characters pulling out trump cards: Knox pulls out Marcoh, and Ling pulls out the stone Marcoh showed the Elrics in Episode 6. Remember that episode? Marcoh explained that the stone, like all the stones produced by the Amestrian researchers, is incomplete. It is not a perfect substance; it can be used up. Nor are Father’s and Hohenheim’s stones complete, for the same reason. Up until this episode, we have never seen a true philosopher’s stone, only an incomplete, fake stone.
And of course they’re incomplete! They are not created via the magnum opus, but by consuming human lives as a shortcut, a cheat. They’re all false stones, full of blood but without the breath of life. But the show, the show has followed the recipe. It is a magnum opus, a true and traditional one. So there should be a true philosopher’s stone, here at the end. Something which has been transformed, something which has been broken down, cleansed, tried by fire, and emerged with the power to create transformation.
“You can’t gain anything without losing something first. Although, if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle.”
That is the true philosopher’s stone. It is Ed, who finally, by uniting with Winry, has the power to create life. It is Al, who, returned from the dead, journeys to the east to find a cure for chimerae. It is Scar, who has left the path of destroying his people’s enemies and instead works to use those same hands rebuilding his people’s culture. It is Mustang, who helped destroy Ishbal, and now helps restore it.
The magnum opus is a material process with a spiritual product. The true philosopher’s stone can take many forms: it can be an elixir, a crystal, a gel, a stone… or a heart.
“Yeah, a heart made fullmetal.”
Lust: Prepare for trouble!
Envy: And make it double!
Lust: To transmute the people of this nation!
Envy: And make blood seals of devastation!
Lust: To denounce the evils of Truth and love!
Envy: And rule all things–as below, above!
Lust: Team Homunculi, crushing humans with our might!
Envy: Surrender now by red soul-light!
Gluttony: Can I eat them now?
Warning: Extensive spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood spends a lot of time tackling some fairly complex ethical questions for a shounen series, not least of which is its examination of vengeance and situational ethics. Of course, situational ethics tends to get a bad rap, being characterized (much like ethical relativism, to which it is related but not equivalent) as a sophistic cover for amorality. But really, situational ethics is nothing more than the trivial observation that the context of an ethical decision can alter the outcome. On some level, this should be obvious; it is clear that curling one’s index finger caries different moal implications depending on whether the finger is pressed against the trigger of a gun or not. But FMA:B goes beyond the trivial in its examination, and as such, has earned some undeserved criticism for inconsistency on the question of whether revenge is justified.
A significant factor in this criticism is that we live in a culture where two major ethical systems dominate, the Manichaean and the utilitarian. In a Manichaean worldview, morality is determined by ingroup and outgroup status—anything which helps the ingroup or harms the outgroup is good, and anything which does the opposite is bad. The same action may thus be regarded as good when done to the outgroup, and bad when done to the ingroup, or vice versa. This is the moral view generally embraced by militaries (“support your comrades, kill the bad guys”), and can be found in quite a few places in our culture, such as most action movies and video games, the Harry Potter series, and the Republican party. Contract the ingroup until it consists of only the individual self, and you have capitalism, libertarianism, and objectivism.
At the other extreme, expand the ingroup to include all of humanity and you have the utilitarian view: anything which net benefits people is good, anything which net harms them is bad. It’s certainly a more progressive worldview than Manichaeanism, but still based entirely on the outcomes of actions. It does not matter why or how you benefit people, as long as you do. Which sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you realize that depending on whether you count misery as a small amount of happiness or a negative amount of happiness, utilitarianism either says that a world of 50 quadrillion miserable people is better than a world of 5 billion happy people, or it says that murdering severely depressed, unloved people is not only morally permissible but mandatory.
FMA:B, on the other hand, mostly follows an ethical system that is largely disfavored in our culture, virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, an action is good if it demonstrates that the person doing it has the qualities of a good person, and bad if it demonstrates they have the qualities of a bad person. This is where we come to the question of revenge, because FMA:B quite consistently argues that pursuing revenge turns you into a bad person.
Key to this are the characters of Scar and Mustang. Scar is the survivor of genocide; most of his people are dead, murdered by the Amestrian military and particularly its State Alchemists, their homeland of Ishbal is ruined and largely abandoned, and most of the survivors live in slums scattered throughout Amestris. Early in the series, Scar is introduced as an antagonist, murdering every State Alchemist (an organization which the main character joined long after the Ishbalan War) he can find. From the start, Scar is depicted as inhuman: nigh-superhumanly fast and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, cold, implacable, without even a name—he is known only by the prominent facial scarring he received during the attack that killed his family. As the series progresses, however, Scar slowly turns away from vengeance, ultimately adopting the twofold goal of making Amestris admit what it did to his people, and reform in order to ensure it never happens again. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, as Scar acquires companions—a cowardly, disgraced Amestrian soldier, a foreign child on a journey of her own, and ultimately Marcoh, a medical doctor driven by guilt over the experiments he performed on Ishbalan prisoners of war—and is thus given opportunities to demonstrate emotion and character depth. Key in his development are his two confrontations with the character Winry, whose parents—Amestrian doctors who tried to help the Ishbalans during the war—were Scar’s first victims.
In the first encounter, Winry learns that Scar is responsible for her parents’ deaths and points a gun at him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Details of the scene cause Scar to flash back (post-traumatic stress disorder is another recurring theme of the series) to the death of his family, in a way that places Scar in the position of the State Alchemist who killed his family, main character Ed Elric in the position of Scar’s brother who died saving Scar, and Winry in the position of Scar. Scar flees in confusion, and soon after spares Marcoh’s life in exchange for learning more about the Ishbalan War, showing that already he is acquiring motivations other than mere revenge.
In the second encounter, Scar is immobilized and wounded, and several characters are debating whether to kill him, given that he has information they need. Winry steps in and begins treating Scar’s wounds, stating that although she does not forgive him, it’s what her parents would have done. At this point Scar’s transformation begins in earnest, and the series begins moving him from antagonist to, arguably, tritagonist or even deuteragonist.
Contrasted heavily to Scar is Mustang, an Amestrian State Alchemist regarded as a war hero for his participation in the genocide of the Ishbalans. From the start, Mustang is depicted as somewhat morally ambiguous, but mostly good. He seeks to become the head of the Amestrian military dictatorship, but not solely out of ambition; rather, he sees it as the only way to institute reforms. His explicitly stated plan is to become dictator, transform the country into one where genocide and dictatorship are not tolerated, and then turn himself in to a war crimes tribunal for his actions in Ishbal. Early in the series, Mustang’s best friend, Hughes, is murdered, and Mustang spends much of the series pursuing the mystery of who killed him and why, although like most of the cast he spends much of the second and third phases of the series too busy dealing with larger events to spend much time on personal goals.
Relatively shortly after Hughes’ death, Mustang encounters Lust, who contributed to Hughes’ death but is not the one who personally killed him. Lust is an extremely dangerous fighter, among the series’ more lethal antagonists, and manages to permanently disable one of Mustang’s closest followers, seriously injure Mustang, and nearly kill Mustang’s right-hand woman Riza (who is also strongly implied to be his love interest) and their ally Al Elric, Ed’s brother. Mustang responds with a furious show of force, brutally and efficiently killing Lust in an agonizing fashion. The scene is deeply uncomfortable, but played as a triumphant victory nonetheless, and indeed it is the first real victory anyone has had against the main antagonists of the series.
Much later, in the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale, Mustang finally meets Hughes killer, Envy, who not only confesses but brags and taunts Mustang about the killing. Mustang proceeds to violently, painfully, and methodically demolish Envy in a lengthy fight sequence that spans two episodes. Unlike his attacks on Lust, which looked and sounded extremely painful but were nonetheless clearly Mustang trying to kill her as quickly as possible using whatever resources he had on hand (Lust finally dies mere centimeters from striking a killing blow on Mustang), his fight with Envy is clearly torture. He gives Envy time to recover between attacks, allows him opportunities to attempt counterattacks (all of which Mustang immediately defeats), and deliberately uses attacks designed to be painful and disorienting rather than lethal (such as burning out Envy’s tongue and eyes). The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and clearly the series very much intends it as such, because immediately after Envy’s defeat Riza, Scar, and Ed confront Mustang, persuade him that this pursuit of revenge and hatred is inappropriate for the man who will become the country’s leader, and force him to back off from striking the killing blow.
Finally, in the last episodes of the series, nearly the entire cast gathers to fight Father, the immortal power behind the throne of Amestris. Al sacrifices himself to save Ed, and Ed attacks Father in a berserker rage, seriously injuring him. There is then a brief fight between Father and another character, Greed, after which Ed strikes a final blow on Father, causing his body to be destroyed and his soul to return to the primordial chaos from which it originated. This entire sequence is again portrayed as a heroic act, with the assembled characters chanting Ed’s name as he fights Father.
Here, then, is the apparent inconsistency: Why is it wrong for Scar to kill State Alchemists, Winry to kill Scar, and Mustang to kill Envy, yet right for Mustang to kill Lust and Ed to kill Father? And the answer, of course, is context.
The latter two incidents have in common that the antagonist being killed is an immediate and deadly threat, is highly capable of defending themselves, and has only just caused serious harm to someone close to the protagonist doing the killing. The protagonist, in other words, is both acting in the heat of the moment and “punching up”—attacking someone more powerful than they. In addition, in both cases the protagonist has been well-established as a fighter, though Ed has been consistently portrayed as refusing to kill up until his fight with Father. Finally, they do not draw out the attacks more than is necessary; they are clearly acting to defeat the opponent, not cause them to suffer for its own sake.
All of the other incidents differ in at least one respect. Winry is consistently depicted as a non-combatant, as her confrontation with Scar makes clear: Ed tells her “these hands were made for healing, not killing” when he talks her down. Scar’s attacks on State Alchemists are based on old pain, and represent a premeditated plan; in addition, he targets all State Alchemists indiscriminately, not just those who participated in the Ishbalan genocide.
Finally, there is Mustang’s revenge on Envy, which of all of these scenes gets the most attention from the narrative, taking up the last seven minutes of episode 53 and the first ten or so of episode 54. That it gets this much time is especially notable given that, at this point in the series, there are no fewer than fifteen separate groups of characters being actively followed by the narrative, allowing an average of 1.47 minutes per group per episode—to give a single confrontation more than ten times that much screen time clearly marks it as both a major plot event and a key moment of character and thematic development.
All of which it is. The audience has minimal empathy with Envy in this scene, as he has been thoroughly vile throughout the series, killing beloved characters, taunting and tormenting others, and gleefully recounting his participation in multiple horrific acts, including deliberately setting off the conflict that culminated in the genocide of Ishbal. If anyone in the series deserves to die, it’s him—and yet the visuals repeatedly depict Mustang as a figure of terror, his face contorted in rage (including shadows noticeably similar to Scar’s scar) as he clinically describes precisely how little of a threat Envy is and how he plans to cause Envy maximum pain. After Envy attempts to flee, Mustang becomes much like a horror movie monster, unstoppable, implacable, and inescapable as he pursues Envy and just keeps hurting him, over and over and over again.
Mustang is consumed utterly by hatred, and the contrast between this and him fighting Lust (or Ed fighting Father) could not be clearer. In those scenes, the protagonist was immediately, furiously angry, but still recognizable themselves. They were not given over entirely to their anger, and thus still appeared human. Here, Mustang is monstrous, much like Scar in his early appearances, existing solely to make the enemy hurt without regard to any other concerns.
In both the fight with Lust and the fight with Envy, the effect of Mustang’s actions is identical: a lethal and dangerous enemy who has committed terrible crimes (and intends to commit more) dies painfully. However, the circumstances of that killing (the situation part of situational ethics) make it clear that against Lust Mustang is acting out of desire to protect his friends, loved ones, and allies, and anger at the immediate harm Lust has caused. In the latter, Mustang is acting out of desire to see his hated enemy suffer as much as possible. In other words, against Lust Mustang is being righteous, protective, loyal, and just; against Envy he is being sadistic. The former are virtues, the latter a vice, and thus under the series’ virtue ethos the former is right and the latter wrong.
This is primarily Scar’s argument in the scene where the other characters talk Mustang down, but it is not the only argument used against him. Ed and Riza instead use a slightly more complex variant of virtue ethics, in which the virtues themselves are situational—specifically, individual personality and social roles both influence what virtues apply for a particular person. This goes back to Winry’s “hands of a healer”; Ed’s argument in that scene is that it is wrong for Winry to kill because she is inclined to the virtues of compassion and empathy, and because her role in society is as a healer and maker of prostheses. The implication is that it would be wrong for Winry to kill, even in a situation like Mustang’s fight with Lust, because it would go against her core virtues and contradict her social role. Mustang, on the other hand, is neither particularly compassionate or empathetic, and as a soldier, his social role requires killing. However, as Ed points out, he seeks to become the ruler of Amestris in order to reform it. Is the kind of person who sadistically tortures hated enemies the kind of person who can transform a military dictatorship into a just and peaceful democracy?
The series is quite clear that the answer is no, and so Riza (whom Mustang ordered years ago to kill him if he ever became corrupted by power and ambition or strayed from the path of reforming Amestris) pulls her gun on Mustang and tells him that if he kills Envy, she will kill him, finish out the current mission, and kill herself. It is this ultimatum which finally breaks Mustang out of his berserker rage and forces him to back down from torturing Envy (who, for complex reasons outside the scope of this essay, commits suicide shortly thereafter).
Situational ethics, as I said, often gets a bad rap. Like moral relativism, it is frequently characterized as being a cover for underlying amorality. In truth, any sufficiently complex ethical schema can be gamed to justify basically anything, and so the extreme case of a complex ethos such as situational ethics or relativism does shade into amorality. On the other hand, simpler ethical schema lack flexibility and nuance, and so the extreme case of a simple ethos such as utilitarianism or deontology shades into extremism. FMA:B is not particularly inconsistent in its ethics, as critics allege; rather, it consistently portrays a complex virtue ethos in which the morality of an action is as much or more a function of the motivations, goals, social role, and emotional state of the person performing the action as it is a function of who the action targets or what outcomes it results in.