Through a Glass, Darkly

In her utopian fantasy The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish conjures up a convocation of bird-men. Cavendish’s lady protagonist, by now Empress, asks of these myopic bird-men that they share with her what they know of sun and moon, and of stars and air. That they do, in very learned and philosophical ways: though oftentimes in error. The Empress grows irate with the bird-men for their reliance on telescopes and other “optic lenses,” saying “now I do plainly perceive, that your glasses are false informers, and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses; wherefrom I command you to break them, and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes, and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason” (141). Cavendish herself, unfortunately, would go on to be savaged by her critics, much as the bird-men are here savaged by the Empress. Male contemporaries like Samuel Pepys ridiculed her for refusing to speak during her appearance before a gathering of the men of Britain’s Royal Society in May of 1667, six months after The Blazing World’s first appearance in print. Yet surely these critics are mistaken, one realizes now, reading the above-quoted passage again in retrospect. Cavendish didn’t refuse to reply; she replied in advance.

Magic as Paralogical Retort

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.