Magical Practice, Fantasy and Archetypal Forms
I have always been interested in fantasy as a genre, in magic, and stories of other worlds and lives. I enjoyed Tolkien and CS Lewis and a few others. But strangely, I was always put off by fairy tales, myths, and other old stories. They always seemed strangely dead to me. I look back on this an it makes sense to me now.
The old stories that come to us are basically in ossified forms. They are not living, evolving tales any more, like when they were oral. They don’t change in the telling. And in fact, they seem crusted over with oddities: elements that don’t make sense or are non sequiturs; that seem to be remnants of some other version we didn’t get — or of five or six that were mashed together when it was compiled. These stories seem dead because they are. They’re mostly of interest to the student of (literary) history.
Fantasy genre fiction always posed its own problems for me. I was sympathetic to it, but never read it much — just too repetitive. Yet I enjoyed playing games with fantasy elements; especially open-ended role-playing games with friends. I enjoyed playing around with the highly familiar and over-used forms of fantasy, as long as it was me doing the playing; then there was a dynamic, quality, and the ideas could come to life again.
I don’t think this is just about me and my predilections: it’s a larger truth that fantasy — and magic — is boring if it’s static and unchanging. To be meaningful, it must by fluid and adaptable, and vary by the telling. It must be actively recreated all the time; for the audience; for the society; for what’s on your mind that day or that year.
The particular stories we tell may not be the heart of the matter then. It’s the playing with forms that matters. And the question is whether the forms are alive and well, or not; and what we can do with them. Stories were, in some ways, the most alive when they were oral (not to denigrate modern, written fiction). But telling stories is just one thing we can do with forms. We can, for instance, make and play games. This is active and so more alive — but as we follow rules, we risk losing genuine play, as we try to win and economize (see the note on this below).
This brings us to the practice of magic. I mean witch-craft or “magick,” or any other number esoteric or religious practices. Of course, magic has always had, at its heart, the idea of a changeable reality, and of the significance of our own human will in changing it. It has, thus, also dabbled formally in archetypes and other forms, as in Tarot.
But magic practice has often tended toward ossifying its methods, just as happened with fairy tales — and often before the paint has even dries on whatever methods were just been (re)-discovered. Thus, you have hermetic magicians laying down fixed systems of meaning and symbology — which are obviously far from universal. If we enshrine any of these things, we cease playing around with them, and we treat magic like a science; we see spells as another kind of chemistry formula — never-changing. Or we treat magic like a fairy tale: a curious throw-back to some other place or time, that we think will have power by association alone. But that’s not where magic gets its power: we have to enact it, actively, and fluidly, for it to work.
Useful magic has always been adaptable to the media of the day. Originally oral and kinetic, it expanded to become pictographic, and then to encompass letters and writing when those media become more common. Medieval people used snatches of bible verse — maybe literal snatches of bible pages — in their spells. And today we may still use sigils: plays on the pure forms of letters, in our particular language.
Divination has also been happy to adapt the randomization devices used in games, be it dice or lots, or cards. And these do allow play in their interpretation. But games can offer much more play than that. How we can use other elements of games in our magic, in order to better play with the forms of magic? This will be explored in future posts.