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Magic and Will

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August 2008
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Aleister Crowley, one of our greatest 20th century mages, defined “magick” (as he liked to spell it) as “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.”  This definition is often quoted and I like it as far as it goes.  However, as a grammatical utterance it does not overtly exclude causation that employs science, technology, machines, political systems, or the craft of the chef in the kitchen.  I think that Mr. Crowley intended for this ambiguity in order to make the point that everything we do has a little magic in it.  Crowley died in 1947, more than a decade before Arthur C.Clarke remarked that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (referred to as “Clarke’s third law”).  These two pithy remarks are each interesting.  Clarke’s remark implies that there is such a thing as magic, and yet probably intends that we should deduce from the law itself that “magic” is simply what people call things they don’t understand. In the broad sense prestidigitation and other tricks of the street conjurer are a kind of “technology” (from the Greek techne, meaning “art.”)  However, what we usually mean by technology these days (and we can assume that in 1961 this is what Clarke meant too) is machinery of some sort.  Gismos.  In other words, to the untutored tribal natives of the Polynesian isles a transistor radio or a television might have been mistaken for magic, or called “magic.”

The corollary of Clarke’s third law is that anything that looks like magic might be explainable in terms of technology, if only we understood how it worked.  It is not true that the law implies that all magic must be technology that we do not understand.  That is how the statement has sometimes been misconstrued by the skeptic who simply wants a clever saying to dismiss any claims of “magic.”  In fact, I suspect that the late Sir Arthur was more sophisticated in his thinking.  For his statement hints that magic and enchantment might be technologies in themselves.  And this, it seems to me, is quite near to what Mr. Crowley was implying.

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien includes a brief exchange between some of the tree-elves (the Galadhrim of Lorien) and the Hobbits in which “magic” is discussed.  Without explaining their methods, the Elves make it clear that “elf-magic” is a particular craft of that hand and mind, an act of creation which conforms to Crowley’s criteria.  Galadriel expresses her will through her magic ring and other Elf crafters place magical qualities into rope and cloth, boads, and food.  Galadriel herself makes the implied objection to the Hobbit (i.e., Human) term “magic” when she gently feigns confusion that the same word should be applied to the works of the Elves as to the works of “The Enemy” (i.e., the evil angelic spirit Sauron).  Galadriel thus implies that what the Elves strive for, the Elf will, we might say, is the will to create beauty — perfection of form and function.  Clothing that will keep you warm or cool as needed, adjusting to the weather, and which will hid you from your enemies by a chameleon power.  None of these qualities of Elvish clothes goes against nature.  Indeed, they all exist in nature, but they are enhanced.

And yet…  It still does not seem like what we should call “technology” in the ordinary sense. That is, if as Clarke supposed, all magic is capable of explanation in terms of “technology,” then the art and craft of the Galadhrim is far advanced beyond our own.  For all our machinery and industrialization, we cannot make a fabric that will actually keep one warm or cool according to need, or actually blend in with any landscape.  We can make camoflage fabric.  We can make synthetic silk.  But these are only pale attempts that fail to achieve what is achieved by the Elves using their methods.

Prof. Tolkien does not give us any reason to believe that the Elves achieve their “magic” by means of machinery or industrialization.  We never hear of anything more “advanced” than a loom.  Elf magic is a magic of making that uses the tools of the mind.  Mental technology, as we might say, begins with images and signs.  These are the roots of language and of geometry  and mathematics.  Although usually outside of the definition of “signs” or “images” because we think of these as visual concepts, musical notes, chords, intervals, patterns, melodies and harmonies are all woven of this same “imaginal” faculty.  Imagination is thus, not limited to the sense of sight but includes all five of our physical senses as well as others — those senses we call intuition or “the Sight” that permits us to “see” with an inner eye into other realities not normally perceptible to the material eye.

The “secret” of such magic has been widely published over the past generation.  It was well-known among initiates of various mystery schools before the present generation.  The technologies of the mind have to do with signs, symbols, and meanings.  Such a thing as Beauty, for example, is a meaning created by human minds.  It is not a “thing” that exists “out there” somewhere objectively.  We take in the facts of the senses and our material perceptions link together with the ideas and patterns woven by our minds.  These patterns of thought are “ideas” but not merely visual ones.  They are patterns, melodies, harmonies of signs that make up what we denote with that simple word “mind.”

The Elvish mind, and to some degree the human mind aspiring to operate in the same way, perceives the world (including the self) with acute senses, not acute as physical scientists imagine the senses of other animals or species of sentient life, but acute in their connection to other dimensions of reality, other possibilities of meaning.  The primary cause of dullness of the senses in human beings is that they simply fail to notice things which have for them no meaning.  Only when we actively engage the world around us to create meaning do we see the possibilities.  One who believes that trees, for example, are nothing but wood for building, fuel for fires, or shade for a hot day, can see no more than that.  But the person who sees so little in a tree does so in part because he or she was never taught that “tree” had any more meaning than those practical human uses.  The person’s relationship to the tree exists on a purely “practical” level (by which we mean material.)  The person — Elf or Druid or Witch — who sees in the tree a living, breathing, pondering, active being, and one worthy of as much respect as one’s own human elders, that person will have a much richer relationship with a tree, and with the race of trees.

Magic is not, as some writers seem to assert, about abstractions.  Signs and symbols are, in a sense abstractions.  That is, they refer to something other than particulars. But they are actually both particular and super-particular. The word “tree” or an emblem of a tree may be generic, a reference to all trees, all members of those classes of beings which we humans decide share the characteristics of trees (as distinct from shrubberies or herbs, for example).  We make scientific definitions (the woody stemmed plants) but we also make poetic definitions which may be much more fluid.  Indeed, they usually are more fluid for a purpose — for the purpose of weaving the most possible meanings.  Those who study language learn very quickly that it is a living thing, slippery and protean, alive, whimsical, playful, even mischievous.  It is not a dead sort of architecture, as some grammarians in the old days used to imply.  There are not even any “dead” languages really, because even a language like classical Latin, which is not used in any evolving culture (except the Vatican), still exists alive outside of time.  The Latin literature and history we possess shows us a living and changing language.  Some scholars may consider ancient literature to be like a fossil or like an archaeological artifact, a “snapshot” in time, as the cliché goes.  But such views are those of scholars who are themselves making meaning out of Latin (or whatever the supposedly “dead” text may be).  Which, gives lie to the notion that anything is ever completely dead.  Only those mortals trapped in their temporal view of the cosmos can convince themselves that some things are alive and others dead.

When a tree or a person ceases to breathe, decays and ceases to exist, he or she fades into memory, but the memory lives and in Eternity so does the person or tree.  Only the eye which sees only the moment to moment march of linear time as reality things that such beings have ceases to be.  The Elves see Time, as we might say, in three dimensions.  They can see the whole timeline, not just each consecutive point along its length, and this makes the whole idea of “linear” time something that is, for Elves, difficult to understand.  Eternity is the medium in which Immortals swim.    And yet, the Immortal mind can choose to live in the moment too.

In Lord of the Rings, Prof. Tolkien relates the story of Aragorn and Arwen, which echoes the earlier history of Beren and Luthien.  Each pair of lovers enact the same drama of Eternity and the Now. For Arwen, she must choose to love a man who will live only a short span of years.  This means, from her point of view as an Immortal that her lover will grow old, his body will succumb to age and decay, and she will eventually have to watch him die.  Tolkien truly wrestled with the deep religious and philosophical questions behind this reality, for it is the same reality as mortal lovers face.  Nine times out of ten, one of the lovers must watch the other die and pass out of knowledge across that veil of mystery we call death.  The loved one will live on in memory and imagination, and one might like to hope Elves are better at communicating with departed loved ones, but Tolkien never touches upon the subject.

We see the same drama played out in Irish, Scottish, and Welsh fairy tales in which the fairy bride comes to a mortal man and eventually must leave him because of the violation of some taboo or geas. Tolkien created a cosmos in which there was a sort of “Heaven” or “Paradise” to which Elves (and some Hobbits) could go to live on an Immortal existence.  Those Elves who chose to go there (Valinor) did so in part because there the Valar had created an “Undying Land” that is a natural world in which there was no decay, disease, or death.  For Tolkien the arch-fiend was the vala who introduced death and destruction into Valinor, Morgoth, the Great Enemy, of whom the later Sauron was but a servant and an echo.  For Tolkien, Paradise continued as a place where one could go after death, even after its “Fall” — that is after death and destruction appeared there.  The Valar restored paradise to its perfect undying form by removing it “from the circles of the world.”  This image is interesting to me because it seems to imply that, for Tolkien, the Undying Lands did exactly what mortal beings do:  It died and passed beyond knowledge, beyond contact.  Tolkien wanted to have it both ways.  One set of rules for the Elves and another for mortals (Men, Hobbits, Dwarves).  He seems a bit unclear about what happened to those Silvan elves who never went to Valinor, when they were killed or destroyed.  Did they travel in spectral form to the Halls of Mandos, even though their tribes never ventured “across the Sea”?  Or did they disappear into that unknown destiny of Men?  It is curious to me that Tolkien, devout Christian though he was, left out the Christian cosmology of Heaven.  He left it a mystery (apparently even to the Men themselves) where they went or what happened to them after death.  There are practically no priests in his Middle Earth, no visible trappings of religion, only those who love and honor light and goodness and those who serve darkness and destruction.

It is a black and white world, to some extent, but it is not the black and white world of Christianity.  It is based more closely on the cosmology of the ancient Celts and Germanic tribes.  Tolkien was professionally a man steeped in Anglo-Saxon lore and the worldview of the Norse and Old English.  These are the cosmologies that modern pagans are seeking to rediscover, and indeed the cosmologies to which Avalon Center is, to some degree, devoted.  Not to the exclusion of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other particular cosmology.  That, for me, is part of the attraction of Tokien’s approach in his books.  He presents us with a cosmology that does not have all the answers spelled out in dogmas.  It is an open cosmos in which we may embark on discovery and the pursuit of mysteries, not to solve them, but to find delight in them.


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