Early on in the semester ahead, we’ll need to discuss magic, positing the latter as a paralogical retort to the patriarchal Royal Society and its imperial science. Also a coping strategy, a response to lives disrupted by war, authors displaced and dispossessed, as in the case of Cavendish. Magic is a way of knowing and doing that persists and evolves alongside the New Science, refusing and contesting the latter’s bid for supremacy. Tolkien takes up much the same cause in his poem “Mythopoeia,” written following a discussion with C.S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson. In the course of this famed discussion, Lewis is said to have denounced myths, describing the latter as “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien’s poem replies in character, its words spoken by “Philomythos” (or “myth-lover”) to Lewis’s “Misomythos” (or “myth-hater”). Tolkien composed the poem in heroic couplets, the preferred meter of British Enlightenment poets, so as to critique the latter on its own turf.
Figures like Tolkien and Lewis were part of a circle at Oxford known as the Inklings. The group formed around Tolkien in 1926 with the intent of reading sagas and myths in Icelandic. Lewis started out as a staunch atheist, and was converted to Catholicism partly through the efforts of Tolkien.
Fantasy is dangerous. The genre has its share of royalists, reactionaries, and racists. Tolkien and Lewis, who taught together at Oxford, were devout Catholics. Writers of the Left sometimes dismiss the genre as ideologically suspect, preferring science fiction in its stead. But no such distinction holds. Science fiction writers of the Left have written works of fantasy, and rightwing fantasists like C.S. Lewis wrote works of science fiction, like the latter’s WWII-era Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). Each genre remains anyone’s game.
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.”
Wizards often stroke their beards as they think. Picture it — as in a Halloween costume. ‘Tis a trope of the genre — as with Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Wizards don’t have to fit this image — but there’s a long tradition of bearded wizards, sages who clutch staffs, canes, walking sticks, wands. The particulars vary from culture to culture. Tolkien is said to have acquired the trope from an ancient Finnish epic called The Kalevala, at the heart of which is a mage named Vainamoinen — old, wise, long beard, performs magic using voice and song. Esoteric secrets and forgotten knowledges grant all such figures special powers, distinct from the powers of their peers.