Do Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the heroes of Tolkien’s fictions, pass through portals? Their home in the Shire features a circular door, through which they step when they begin their journeys. ‘Tis a magic circle, of the kind theorized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. The world in the circle is the realm of Faerie — or what Huizinga would call the realm of play. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
Tolkien, as one of the preeminent figures of twentieth-century fantasy, shares Huizinga’s interest in this other, “temporary” sphere born of play. That the worlds that result from this sphere are temporary in nature leads Tolkien to assume them “sub-creations” — “secondary” worlds, as he says in his 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories” — but not in a way that diminishes their value. In keeping with his Catholicism, he believes that humans are handiwork of a single god, a single divine creator. And therein lies our magic, he argues. Created in that being’s image, he says, we too possess a capacity to create. We who are “created sub-creators” in one reality get to be creators of worlds of our own.
So sayeth the Fantasist.
“But what if, instead of distinguishing these worlds as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary,’” adds the Narrator, “we opted rather to call them ‘partner worlds,’ or ‘corresponding pairs’ — as in the Hermetic saying, ‘As above, so below’?”
“What if, in so doing,” replies the Traveller, “we followed the paths of the Alchemists and the Surrealists? What if, as Magico-Psychedelic Realists, we brought them together, allowed them to merge?”
The day is a difficult yoga session writ large. I hold poses through tasks required of me: grocery shopping, lawn mowing, parenting. When time allows, I sit eyes closed and meditate. There is an alchemy in this working-through, this processing of desire. The day is the site where one practices care for an absent other. Come afternoon and suddenly it’s a pool day, world redeemed by popsicles and coconut bars. I rise up onto the surface of the pool and float there, big happy smile on my face as I imagine the act shared with another. My friend at The Alchemist’s Studio reminds me of a saying attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Yellow is capable of charming God.” The charm of that rhymes later in the day with “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’),” the 21:24 B-side to Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics.
Hassell passed away yesterday at the age of 84. After listening and giving thanks, I receive J.R.R. Tolkien’s St. Andrews lecture, “On Fairy-Stories.” For this is what we wish to write, is it not? A story about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” As Tolkien emphasizes early on, “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” Tolkien also calls Faerie “the Perilous Realm” — the source of peril, I presume, having something to do with the realm’s magic. Faerie’s virtue lies in its capacity to satisfy various desires: “to survey the depths of space and time,” for instance, and “to hold communion with other living things.”
The Fool is Tarot’s main character, the first and last of its “Major Arcana.” Are all of us fools? Or do the cards only speak for those who learn to read them? Are fools the ones drawn to the Tarot? Or is the Fool archetype one each of us manifests and embodies time and again, the pattern of the journey a timeless one — universal, perennial? Sarah Cargill, host of the Tarot for the End of Times podcast, reminds me that after The Fool comes The Magician. The latter is a figure who makes use of the Word, setting in motion an alchemical process: an exertion of intent, followed by a release (so sayeth the podcaster) of “egoic attachment to results.” Stepping away is a crucial part of the manifestation process. One must place faith in the invisible and trust in the larger unfolding.
How about groaning laundry rooms and animated films that scare little kids? How about blue mermaids with turquoise chains? By following a few simple rules, we can feel at home amid the alchemical symbolism of Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” A librarian from my childhood confides over my shoulder about the limits of her compassion. She refuses to care, she says, for those who come back sunburned after a day at the beach, likening these latter to hungry ones who refuse to eat. I smile and pretend not to differ, even as I ruminate about what it would mean to approach the Tarot as a book, or the fragments of one.