Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 16, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2009

The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy, P. G. Maxwell-Stuart.
Continuum Books; London, 2008. 200 pages. $24.95 USD.

review by Lauren E. Gardner

Alchemy is an exciting, enthralling subject. It has captured the imaginations of many generations throughout recorded history, and The Chemical Choir takes the reader through a trip in time, following alchemy’s epic evolution from a branch of medicine in ancient China and India, through the European Middle Ages, all the way through the end of the twentieth century. Maxwell-Stuart vividly describes these cultural backgrounds that are encountered along the path of alchemy’s evolution, but the author writes particularly lucidly on the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

I obtained my review copy of The Chemical Choir through my local university library, and as usual I was the first one to take it home. A quick online search reveals that the author’s academic credentials are impressive, and the sheer depth of the author’s knowledge is staggering. The bibliography contains entries in many different languages (16 entries per page, 16 pages). A large amount of the material has been originally translated. The eight black-and-white plates are not very impressive, and though most of the images are likely familiar to all but the most casual student, they do add a little visual diversity to an otherwise dull text.

Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy is exactly what its title claims—a history of alchemy. With ten chapters varying from ten to fifty pages, the volume follows a mostly chronological course as it covers in great detail alchemy’s presence in ancient China, India, the Roman Empire, the Islamic world, and Europe from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and beyond. Maxwell-Stuart sets the stage for each chapter superbly, painting a rich image of the particular philosophical and cultural environment of each milieu that allows a fairly educated reader without a PhD in History to get a fair idea of context of each chapter.

The text treats fact and fiction, myth and history, with equal interest and he approaches the possibility of transmutation with an open mind, which is refreshing. Maxwell-Stuart’s treatment of the “puffers” and “frauds” is as thorough as those of the so-called genuine alchemists, which adds a unique historical perspective.

One historical arena in which I found Chemical Choir sorely deficient is in the area of modern alchemy. The volume leaves off at the twentieth century, and in fact this chapter is the weakest and most poorly organized of the entire volume. At the end of an involved and difficult read, I must admit I was looking forward to a treatment of such figures as Frater Albertus and the Paracelsus Institute. Those hopes were disappointed when I finally arrived to a chapter treating alchemical favorites as diverse as William Wynn Wescott, C. G. Jung, Armand Barbault and Jean DuBuis in the space of only 12 meager pages. Considering the author’s background in medieval studies, this can be expected, but as he went out of his way to discuss something as exotic as alchemy in ancient China and India, I felt he could have very easily made a more thorough treatment of modern alchemy.

Maxwell-Stuart’s writing style also can be a barrier to readability. The text is more difficult than it needs to be, and many sentences meander in and out of long, complex clauses, almost inevitably losing the subject and leaving the reader to read back ten or more lines to find out what the whole sentence was describing. Long sentences like this could be made shorter for better readability. These long sentences seem to be a by-product of too much time spent in the annals of medieval literature where sentences can sometimes go on for pages at a time.

It is refreshing, however, that Maxwell-Stuart does not resort to the same worn-out anecdotes that other modern writers on alchemy do - that the English word “bombastic” comes from Paracelsus’ middle name, and that the term “jibberish” comes from the obscurity of Jabir’s alchemical writings. Such quaint facts are annoying in every single book on alchemy, and Maxwell-Stuart wisely avoids them.

As one might expect, The Chemical Choir is directed more to an academic audience than to an esoteric one. While it is a vast and detailed work, bringing much clear and lucid information into one place, it is a work of academia, written by a qualified academic and not a practitioner. And while knowledge of the history of the Royal Art may be important in the Great Work, a dedicated student might find his or her time better spent with books focused more to those goals, rather than books aimed simply at showing facts.

For the serious and advanced student, this book can be a valuable reference source. I would not go quite so far as to call it The Chemical Bore, and it does contain a well of solid information and a very valuable and extensive bibliography. For anyone interested in the equivalent of a Master’s degree in alchemy through the ages, Chemical Choir is the book to have. However, for most other readers, it is a text better left at the local university library for occasional consultation or fact checking.