Any journey into magic–as this blog and the series it’s part of purports to be–ought to begin with a proper Call to Adventure.
So let’s imagine you’re out one day in whatever hamlet, burg, or -opolis you call home, when an old man in a funny hat with a long pipe points at you from across a crowd and declares that you are the one. It is time for you to learn some spells and save the world.
Or maybe you’ve become lost in the sub-basement of an old library. You could swear the curved hall you’re walking down has left the confines of the building and placed you somewhere beneath the neighboring river. Either that or you’re now in some mirror dimension out of a Borges story–an endless labyrinth of books. A quiet voice starts calling your name and you look to the shelf from which the sound originated. There in the midst of a set of leather bound volumes with glowing titles written in a script of glyphs and sigils, a hefty tome nudges itself toward you.
Or perhaps you’re out on a walk in a wilderness when the wind picks up and a swirl of leaves becomes a woman’s form. She leans over to speak to you, the force of her simple words shears past every artifice and convention of your constructed self and plunges to the burning core of your primitive being where you are naught but nerves and instinct. “Now. Here. This. Magic…” she begins and you resonate like Fitzgerald’s tuning fork struck upon a star.
In any case, after the unfamiliarity subsides and you gather your wits, you’ll surely have some questions for your magical mentor. Let’s dispense with the surface ones–the how-did-yous and the what-are-yous–and get right to the vital whys and whats. Why should I study magic? What exactly is it?
First, a Disclosure
Actually, before we get to the whys and whats, we might need to work a bit on the who so you know where this is coming from.
If we go back to the man in the funny hat, let’s further imagine him stepping into the street to walk toward you with his bounteous wisdom and his flowing robes and his mighty staff and yada yada, he gets plowed over by a bus. Behind him on the sidewalk, blinking at you with giant owl eyes is a befuddled apprentice with his finger in his ear. That’s me.
Or if you prefer the library image, let’s say the nudging book starts rubbing his neighbors the wrong way. After all, they’ve been packed together on the shelf for centuries and now this uppity fellow decides to make a break for it? They get irritated and jostly and pretty soon the whole shelf starts bouncing about. The friction sparks a flame and the whole lot of ’em goes up in a poof of green smoke. On the next shelf over, you find a composition notebook filled with the doodles, ramblings, and pat simplifications of a primary student in a prior age. Me again.
Or finally–ole’ lady nature with the plunging voice–yeah, I’m like one of the swirly leaves on her boob. Or maybe a barely animated, epilepticky twig in her wake.
The point is, the series of posts you’re presently embarked upon is in no way penned by a master. That said, I do think I can offer some reasonably intriguing leaping-off-points if you’re willing to do the leaping. And I hope you’ll let me know in the comments what you find when you do. Perhaps together we can test these hypotheses, come up with some new ones, and truly bring magic back to the world.
So now, let’s get to…
The Why and What For
There seem to me to be three primary types of magic in our storybooks:
- Tricks for…
- Knowledge of…
- Power over…
On the tricks end, we’re talking about things like flying through the sky or blasting fireballs from wands. I’m uninterested in most of these. After all, we’ve got airplanes and handguns and plenty of other modern marvels with which to work the world. I mean, sure it sounds nifty to leap into the air and speed away to lands unseen but think of the bugs you’d suck up your nose or the pigeons you’d have to dodge or the duck hunters (or F-15s) that might mistake you for a target. Gimme a Kindle, a cramped seat, and perhaps a beverage service and I’m happy enough.
As for special knowledge, if someone gave me a magic cauldron for my birthday in which I could see the fates and futures of all mankind, I would regift it at my first opportunity, and probably to someone I didn’t like. Knowing everything would take the fun out of learning anything. Every single piece of enjoyable fiction in the world is at its heart a mystery story in which you’re always eager to find out what happens next. And that’s one of the primary joys in life as well. Take away the mysteries and I think you’re left with the equivalent of having nothing to read but thousands of blogs or beauty magazines in which the same top ten tired cliches are blandly reiterated without a speck of wit or wisdom. To me, that’s as good a definition of hell as any I’ve heard.
Which leaves us with the last category–power.
What I don’t want is power to make others do anything. As much as I sometimes vainly wish I could take over the governments of the world for an afternoon and set things straight, I know I’m way too ignorant to do it properly. Indeed, I’m certain I’d just make a further mess of things and then I’d have to add personal guilt to my litany of frustrations about how things are.
In addition, if I had the power to make people do my bidding I might no longer truly appreciate any good thing anyone did for each other. This would be a real problem since some of my greatest joys in life are witnessing spontaneous human kindness and experiencing genuine love. If I (or anyone) had the power to force such things, we’d live in a world where all good grace was suspect. Another hell.
I also don’t want the power to possess anything I want–money, trinkets, robot slaves. It’s that whole diminishing marginal returns thing you learn about in Econ 101. As soon as you get something you’ve really been wanting, its value to you and the pleasure you get from it decline until the object is little more than another piece of junk cluttering your life. If you had everything, all things would soon be worthless.
So what’s left? What magic would I like to learn from the great wizard (or the epilepticky twig, anyway)?
Just this: the power to fulfill my calling.
After a couple of decades spent studying many of the great scriptures and doctrines in most of the world’s major religions as well as a fair bit of western philosophy, I’ve not found a better statement of purpose for life than–become what you are.
More than happiness, or spiritual purity, or worldly accomplishment, or even enlightenment, ontological consonance (the state of being in harmony with what you feel compelled to be) strikes me as the greatest purpose any of us can strive toward. Now, I’d be happy to write a series of blog posts on why I think that’s true, but for now let’s focus on the magic it takes to get there.
Our society does not seem overly disposed to helping each individual find her own consonance. Indeed, it sometimes seems the opposite. Our economic order insists on each person filling a predefined role in service to capital and those who wield it. Our educational order supports the economic order, while our social order demands we act and speak and live in accordance with general norms that may work for some but certainly don’t work for all.
To break free of the roles and responsibilities prescribed of us in order to become fully harmonious with our inmost calling can therefore take some doing. Becoming a self-sustaining artist or writer in a world where far less than one percent of those who attempt such a feat actually succeed is just one example of the degree of difficulty involved. I think those who haven’t even found something like art or writing that fully animates them have an even greater task. The point is, we could probably all use something major to help us answer our call.
So what I want from magic is this:
1) The power to create something grand (a great book, a beautiful piece of art, a suitable living, etc.) from naught but thin air and diligent effort–and I don’t mind if it takes awhile to learn and perform such a spell.
2) The ability to outmaneuver fate. We all are heavily acculturated by the time we feel the longing to become something other. That acculturation is wrought by our family, our class, our race, our gender, and countless other pressures that force us into a groove we may not belong in. Thus, we often repeat the doomed patterns of those who’ve come before, no matter how we rail against those patterns, simply because we lack the power to break free.
3) The confidence and clarity to maintain course through all difficulties, knowing we are each sufficient to the task. For reasons I’ll explain another time, I call this mau.
So what can help serve these three objectives? What force is sufficient to overcome fate, to conjure greatness from mere human effort, and to calm our fears, soothe our doubts, and assure us of the rightness of our task even in the darkest of times?
That’s what I’m going to call magic.
Stay tuned…the Substance of Magic is next.
Prior post: A Book of Wordly Magick.