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 British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
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.”