- "Different Moments in the One Cycle":Alchemical and Blakean Symbolism in Michael Bedard's Redwork
Although it does contain an element of fantasy, Michael Bedard's Redwork, winner of both the Governor General's Award and the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award in 1990, seems at first glance to be a relatively conventional problem novel. That is, it focuses on the actions of a boy who faces a series of problems at home, in his neighborhood, and at work that test and develop his character, giving him new confidence in himself, allowing him to establish meaningful relationships with others, and providing him with a direction for his future life. Redwork goes beyond the narrow limits of self-absorbed adolescent identity, however, because Bedard interweaves symbols and plot parallels based on two related but somewhat arcane systems of spiritual development, that of the medieval alchemists and that of the visionary poet William Blake. The implicit and explicit use of these systems amplifies the conventional theme of a boy's coming of age, making it part of a larger spiritual theme.
Bedard articulated this idea in an interview with Dave Jenkinson: "We are all in very real ways completed in one another. It's a vital concern of mine, and I can see it repeating in the things that I do" (69). In Redwork, Bedard repeats this "vital concern" by tracing the relationship of a young boy, Cass Parry, and an old man, Arthur Magnus. Cass eventually realizes that his meeting with Magnus is actually a self-discovery, a finding of "some secret part of himself he had not even dreamed was there. They were but different moments in the one cycle" (217). This climactic recognition suggests that their friendship represents a spiritual and psychological development, a profound connection between people of markedly different generations. Thus we can see Redwork modifying the conventional egocentric notion of development into altruistic themes of spiritual transformation and mutual completion.
Redwork is intellectually complex, but the alchemical and Blakean symbolism operate within a relatively simple and accessible story. Fifteen-year-old Cass Parry has led a peripatetic life, moving from apartment to apartment while his single-parent mother, who supports them with her meager salary as a maid, struggles to complete a long-delayed M.A. thesis on Blake. Shortly after moving into the upper floor of a decrepit house in a wealthy neighborhood, Cass begins experiencing strange dreams that take him back to the trenches of World War I. He also faces several major problems. Sid Spector, a gang leader, physically threatens him when Cass shows interest in Arthur Magnus, the owner of the house. Sid extorts money to protect children from Magnus, whom children fear as a witch, and does not want contact with Magnus to appear safe. When Cass takes a job at a theater because his mother's salary is not sufficient to buy food, he also earns the enmity of the head usher, Fischer, who thinks he is interfering with his own plans to seduce Cass's friend Maddy Harrington. Fischer thus tries to have Cass fired. Finally, Cass runs into conflict with Magnus himself when he and Maddy spy on Magnus's mysterious nightly activities in the garage, with the result that Magnus, who is an alchemist, tries to evict Cass and his mother. When Cass and Maddy save him from a leaking gas stove, however, Magnus confides in the two adolescents and enlists their help in his alchemical experiments. They nearly succeed in creating the philosopher's stone, the goal of the experiments, but Sid distracts Cass, taking him away from his duty of tending the fire. Consequently, the experiment explodes. Nevertheless, Cass and Maddy receive from Magnus a new purpose in life: they will continue the alchemical quest.
Although the two symbolic systems are interwoven into this plot, alchemy forms both the dramatic center and the thematic core. Dramatically, alchemy provides the quest for the elusive philosopher's stone that has absorbed Arthur Magnus for over seventy years. Bearing a name suggestive of Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280), the learned teacher of Thomas Aquinas and a writer to...