Monday, March 21, 2016

On Beyond Broomsticks

I don’t think much of J.K. Rowling’s lumbering Harry Potter series. There, I’ve said it, and no doubt a tolerably large fraction of the readership of this blog will fling itself at their computer screens in a wholly reflexive attempt to wring my neck. Still, some dimensions of my reaction to that much-hyped series of books and movies are actually relevant to the project of this blog, for a curious reason: certain of the reasons behind that reaction relate to some of the chief difficulties faced by any attempt to make sense of magic and the other traditional occult sciences in our time.

Now of course part of my lack of enthusiasm for the boy wizard and his chums is purely a matter of personal literary taste. I read the first three books in the series, and found the first mildly enjoyable as a mashup of the classic English schoolboy novel and generic modern fantasy fiction. That enjoyment wasn’t enough to bear much repetition, and then the books began to sprawl; a chapter or so into the fourth book, I glanced at the sheer volume of paper still ahead, rolled my eyes, flipped the cover shut, and took the thing back to the library where I’d checked it out, and some other reader was doubtless overjoyed to get it a few days earlier than anticipated.

I didn’t, and don’t, begrudge that reader their enjoyment. My tastes in literature, as in other things, are as irreducibly personal as everyone else’s; there are things I heartily enjoy that are frankly trash, and things that are unquestionably great literature that I simply don’t like and haven’t opened since my college days. That said, the things that made me roll my eyes and lose interest in the heroics of young Harry and the iniquities of Lord Moldywarp, or whatever the fellow’s name was, weren’t limited to matters of literary taste. There were two other factors, and neither one of them suffers from any shortage of contemporary relevance.

The first was the way that Rowling constantly relied on shopworn clichés from existing fantasy fiction to fill out the details of her story. Sometimes the borrowings are very specific, to the extent that you know the literature at all well, you can often tell exactly which scene from which novel she was thinking of when she sat down at her keyboard—I’m recalling here in particular a bit from the first novel that was lifted nearly verbatim from one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Far more common and far more tedious were the things that came, not from a single novel, but from the vast hordes of derivative fantasy novels that gather in serried ranks on bookstore shelves these days; and of course the biggest and most boring of these, the one that’s generated more dull fantasy fiction than any other single factor, is that weary, dreary, all too unavoidable figure, the generic Dark Lord.

Mind you, I have nothing whatsoever against villains in fantasy fiction. A good solid villain—a suave and sneering cad full of simmering rage, a narrow-eyed megalomaniac whose neuroses have morphed into raw thirst for power, an authority figure who’s secretly addicted to the rush he gets from hurting people, or what have you—can make an otherwise mediocre story memorable; what’s more, such people exist, and many of us have had to deal personally with one or more of the types just named, so it’s entirely reasonable to find them in the pages of fiction as well. Generic Dark Lords are another matter. They resemble no actual person, living or dead; they’re evilly evil—in fact, they’re the evilest evil that ever eviled—out of sheer evil evilness, full stop, end of sentence. They have no lives or purposes of their own, other than to act out in two dimensions the author’s favorite stereotypes about what really awful people are like, and of course to give the hero (or, very occasionally, the heroine) a flat black background against which to strike a series of heroic poses.

It may be objected that Dark Lords thus belong to the same category as hippogriffs, centaurs, and moderate Syrian rebels: that is, imaginary beings who are appropriate fodder for fantasy fiction (and White House press conferences, which arguably qualify.) This I freely grant, but I’d suggest that most readers would lose interest in fantasy fiction if half the novels published in the genre each year had a plot centering around a hippogriff, and I’d also point out that in fact a good many people have lost interest in White House press conferences because moderate Syrian rebels, economic recoveries, and certain other imaginary critters appear in them rather too predictably.

When J.R.R. Tolkien deployed the Dark Lord trope in The Lord of the Rings, it was a carefully chosen element of the narrative strategy by which he highlighted the heroism of his apparently unheroic hobbits. That worked well enough that no doubt some further exploration of the idea in other fantasy novels was merited. The difficulty, though, is that in Tolkien’s wake, Dark Lords crudely cloned from his example of the species started turning up under every damp rock, and once most readers forgot that there had been fantasy fiction before Tolkien—a process that was substantially complete by the 1980s—you could pretty much grab a fantasy novel at random off a bookstore or library shelf with your eyes shut and, when you opened them, odds were that a Dark Lord would be cackling at you from the pages, going through the self-same motions as all the other Dark Lords you didn’t happen to pick.

Fantasy used to be more imaginative than that. Even when the Dark Lord trope got used, back before Tolkien’s trilogy swept all before it, it was very often more nuanced, not to mention more entertaining. I’m thinking here particularly of a Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Dark Eidolon,” one of the tales he set in the last continent of a dying Earth. You’ve got a protagonist obsessed with the wrongs done to him in his childhood—and they were real and serious wrongs—who has devoted his life to achieving the magical power to get even by means of mass murder. As he gets everything ready for the big day, he summons the archfiend Thasaidon, Lord of Evil, to help him. The Lord of Evil, though, isn’t interested; he points out that the monarch and city the man wants to annihilate are cruel, lustful, avaricious—in a nutshell, Thasaidon’s kind of people—and suggests to the protagonist that, when it comes right down to it, living evilly is the best revenge. The protagonist isn’t willing to change his plans, and the story rolls ahead toward its ghastly conclusion...but can you imagine any of the current crop of cardboard-cutout Dark Lords displaying Thasaidon’s panache?

There’s a good deal to be learned from the pervasive popularity of generic Dark Lords in contemporary pop fiction, but most of it belongs to the other blog rather than this one:  it has to do with politics rather than magic, and more specifically with the way that the habit Carl Jung called “projecting the shadow” has morphed into a convenient and highly overused tool for avoiding uncomfortable issues.  Once the other blog starts up again next month, in fact, I plan on pursuing that discussion in earnest—among other things, by talking about the bevy of industrious Democratic tailors who are currently measuring and fitting out Donald Trump with his own Dark Lord outfit, all duded up with the latest fashionable touches in evilly evil evilness.  Still, that’s a discussion for another place and time.

The occult community has by and large been free of that particular obsession. Now and again you get people in that community who excuse their own dubious behavior on the grounds that they’re fighting some evilly evil evilness or other, and now and again you get the even drearier spectacle of somebody who’s decided to act out the role of evilest evil that ever eviled—their idea of “being evil,” of course, typically works out to not bathing often enough, posting anonymous schoolboy insults on other people’s websites, and fantasizing about having mildly kinky sex someday, if they ever manage to get another person to join them in that activity. Still, both those habits are minority tastes.

No, it’s the second thing (other than issues relating to personal literary taste) I found annoying in the Harry Potter books that bears most directly on the project of this blog. That second issue was pointed up, in a certain inadvertent sense, in the comments to last month’s post by a reader who’d gone back through some of the earlier conversations here, noted my lack of enthusiasm for the books, and took it on herself to chastise me for not being suitably deferential to the kid wizard and his pals.  After all, she claimed, Rowling’s novels had introduced many young people to magic, and wasn’t that a good thing?

Well, no, it wasn’t, because Rowling’s novels did nothing of the kind. There may be many things in the Harry Potter stories, but magic, in the strict sense of the word, does not appear in them at all. That’s something they share with a great deal of fantasy fiction, including most of the books that claim to be about the exploits of wizards, sorcerers, and mages of all kinds, because Harry Potter magic has no more to do with magic than Christian Science has to do with science.

From the perspective of the practicing occultist, remember, magic is not whatever you want it to be. It’s a specific, long-established, and very thoroughly developed body of traditional lore and practice with equally specific purposes and results. If you claim that you’re writing about agriculture, it won’t pass muster to portray people swinging oars at the sky to knock halibut down from the clouds, and if you say you’re writing about physics, it won’t do to show researchers weighing the grin of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland on a scale made of chicken-flavored ice cream in order to decide whether Rhett loves Scarlett or vice versa. For exactly the same reason, if your story portrays people babbling scraps of fake Latin to make broomsticks fly, you’re not writing about magic, no matter how much of the verbiage and hardware of magic you use as window dressing for your tale.

Yes, I know that the word “magic” also has its figurative sense, referring to a quality of wonder and amazement, the sort of thing most people like to imagine they would feel if they encountered, say, a real wizard practicing real magic. (They wouldn’t actually feel that—most people in the modern world who encounter anything that even dimly suggests real magic freak out and run like rabbits—but that’s a theme for a different post.)  This usage is comparable to the figurative sense of the word “chemistry” we use when we talk about two people having great chemistry together. Most of us, I hope, are aware that this latter kind of chemistry is not usually something that involves test tubes and Bunsen burners, and I also hope that nobody thinks that experiencing the figurative kind of chemistry is any kind of useful introduction to the stuff chemists do in laboratories with test tubes and Bunsen burners.

Magic, in the nonfigurative sense of the word, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. That’s the definition proposed by Dion Fortune, one of the twentieth century’s most widely studied operative mages and magical theorists; it could usefully be expanded in several ways, but we’ll stick with it for now. The stuff that appears in Harry Potter and other works of fantasy fiction under the label of “magic” isn’t presented as a means of causing changes in consciousness. It’s presented as a means of causing changes in matter and energy.  This is what technology does, not what magic does—but the fake magic of Potteresque fantasy fiction does that without any of the limitations, challenges, or downsides that actual technologies have.

Rowling’s novels aren’t the worst offenders here by any means. Most fantasy fiction—we’ll talk about the exceptions in a bit—has magic doing things that magic simply doesn’t do and can’t be made to do, and these pretty predictably amount to things that technology either does or could possibly do. (The Clark Ashton Smith story mentioned above, for example, does this every bit as relentlessly as any Harry Potter novel; annihilating an entire kingdom in a matter of a few hours, it bears noting, is a task that requires warheads rather than warlocks.) As noted, though, while fantasy magic supposedly does what technology does, it doesn’t have to cover any of the costs or put up with any of the limitations. When people in Rowling’s “wizarding world” want to make a broom fly, they utter a spell, and up it goes. Energy source? They don’t need no steenking energy source. No fuel is required, no pollution produced; you tell it to do something, invoking the magic words—Crismus Bonus, no doubt, or something not too dissimilar—and lo and behold, it’s done.

That is to say, the “magic” of this kind of fantasy fiction functions the way that modern people like to pretend technology works, rather than the way technology actually works.

Now of course filling the collective imagination of our time with images that reinforce some of the worst habits of contemporary thought has plenty of downsides, but here again, most of these relate to the topics covered in the other blog. What I want to point out here is that Potteresque magic tends to induce in its readers two mistaken and highly counterproductive ideas about actual magic. The first, as already noted, is that magic is supposed to do the same kinds of things that technology does, such as making things fly, rather than doing the things it actually does, such as changing consciousness.

The second mistaken idea? The notion that magic is easy.

There’s a wry joke among the occultists I know that tends to pop up when someone says that this or that happened “like magic.” The usual response to that phrase is something like, “Oh, you mean that it took years of dedicated study and practice, followed by a lengthy period of difficult preparations and the performance of an exacting and exhausting ritual with unbroken concentration, followed in turn by a waiting period of indeterminate length, until finally all the circumstances line up and the purpose of the working is accomplished? Got it.”

That’s the way magic actually works. It’s not easy. By and large, in fact, if you can accomplish what you want to accomplish by nonmagical means, that’s usually a better bet. Most operative mages I’ve met got into magic for the sake of the magic, not because they wanted to get any of the usual worldly things that figures in fantasy stories get via magic—and those operative mages I know who have achieved their goals in the world, or are in the process of doing so, have learned to back up their magical workings with intelligent planning and plain hard work.

The ironic thing, at least to me, is that you can do real magic in fantasy fiction just as easily as you can do fake magic, and get a rousing story out of it. I can say this with confidence because it’s been done. Algernon Blackwood did it with gusto in his John Silence stories and some of his other tales, for example, and the same Dion Fortune whose definition of magic was cited above did it effectively in the short story collection The Secrets of Dr. Taverner and several novels, of which The Goat-Foot God is to my mind the best. For that matter, a story of the Harry Potter sort could be written that had real magic in place of the broomsticks et al., pitted Harry and his friends against the real challenges of learning and working magic instead of making them run a gauntlet sponsored by the Fantasy Gimmick of the Week Club, and made at least as good a story out of it—if not a better one.

With this in mind, I’d like to announce—well, not quite a contest, because this blog has a much smaller readership than the other one, and I have no idea if enough people are interested in attempting what I have in mind and making it work. Let’s call it a challenge instead. I’d like to encourage readers of this blog who like to write fiction to try their hands at fantasy fiction that uses real magic. The publisher of the four (so far) After Oil anthologies, Founders House, has told me that if I get enough stories of the sort just described to make up a decent-sized book, he’ll publish it. This is a paying gig, folks; if a book comes out of this, writers whose stories go into the anthology will receive a portion of the royalties on every copy sold. If you fancy a career as a writer, that’s something you can put in your next query letter that will make editors sit up and take notice.

Those of you who’ve followed the Space Bats contests on the other blog already know the mechanics of this sort of project. For those that haven’t, what you have to do is write your story and post it to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or Wordpress. Post a link to it in the comments section of this blog, preferably in the comments to whatever the latest post is, so everyone sees it. Stories are due by the last day of September, 2016, so you have plenty of time to work on it.

Here are the rules I have in mind:

- I’m interested in short stories between 2500 and 8500 words in length, and there’s also room for a couple of novellas between 10,000 and 16,000 words in length. 
- Stories submitted should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work—i.e., no fanfic, please.
- They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- The setting may be the world we know, past, present, or future, or an invented world of the author’s own creation.
- The laws of nature as known and understood here and now should be assumed to apply. Strange creatures such as unicorns, mantichores, etc., are fine, and so are freshly invented beasties, but make them biologically possible. If you want to have improbable hybrids of the centaur or mermaid variety, some hint at an explanation in the backstory would be helpful. (Genetic engineering by some ancient and long-vanished civilization, for example, will do.)
- There should be no Dark Lords—that is, no antagonists who are evilly evil for evil’s sake, and whose defeat by the protagonist is the sole plot engine of the story. That’s been done to death, and it’s boring. Villains are fine, but give them plausible motivations—and by “plausible” I mean that you can readily imagine yourself doing the same things for the same reasons if you were in their place.
- No space travel. That’s been done to death, too, and it’s just as boring.
- Magic should play a significant part in the story, but it should be realistic magic. Stories set in our world, unless they’re set tolerably far in the past or the future, should probably use some form of magic that actually exists, or that can reasonably be extrapolated from existing magical systems. Stories set in the distant past, the far future, or in wholly invented worlds can come up with novel magical systems—but those systems should work the way that actual magic does, and accomplish the kinds of things that actual magic can do.

Those of my readers who are operative mages will have no trouble with that last rule—they know what they can accomplish with magic and, more importantly, what they can’t. Those of you who don’t have that advantage will have to do some reading. There are plenty of good basic introductory books on magic out there, and of course we’ve covered a lot of the basics right here on this blog; I’m also willing to offer advice in the comments pages of this blog when asked.

You’ll notice that I haven’t specified the kind of story to write, and that’s quite deliberate. Fantasy fiction has also suffered lately from an unfortunate narrowing of options in this department. Spooky fantasy? Great. Adventure fantasy? Go for it. Romantic fantasy? Ditto. A murder mystery in which the weapon is a spell meant to drive the victim to suicide—yes, there are workings for that purpose; no reputable operative mage will stoop to such things, but not all operative mages are reputable—or some other nastily lethal bit of change in consciousness in accordance with will? Neat. Something else entirely? I’ll look forward to it.

Magical fantasy, but with real magic. See what you can do.

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On the subject of good basic introductory books on magic, I was delighted to learn a little while back that a book I studied carefully in my misspent youth has finally found its way back into print. Magic: An Occult Primer by David Conway provides a good basic overview of magical theory and then two “master rituals”—one Cabalistic, the other Egyptian—that can be adapted to any of a very wide range of magical purposes. It’s a solid introduction to magic as an operative art, worth attention from beginners as well as experienced mages looking to broaden their horizons a bit. I’m also pleased to say that the publisher, Aeon Books, is offering free shipping worldwide and a 15% discount for readers of this blog; the code to use in the checkout process is MAGIC2016.