Friday, October 18, 2013

Dion Fortune's "novel approach" to Magic


 

In each of the novels that Dion Fortune wrote to illustrate principles described in her textbook The Mystical Qabalah – namely The Winged Bull (1935),  The Goat-foot God (1936), The Sea Priestess (1938) and its sequel Moon Magic (1956), she described a magical working. The circumstances varied but in each case the format was a three-handed one, consisting of hero and heroine overseen by a senior third party.

In The Winged Bull Colonel Brangwyn, who is credited with being a senior adept, is trying to save his niece Ursula from the clutches of Frank Fouldes, who was formerly her fiancĂ© before he fell in with Hugo Astley, an unsavoury figure with a penchant for even more unsavoury rituals. The Colonel seeks to have Ursula form a more wholesome liaison with somebody new, namely Ted Murchisan, an old army comrade down on his luck, and in the process teaching him a species of improvised ritual magic known as the Rite of the Winged Bull, as opposed to the ghastly Astley’s Rite of the Bull which owed something to the legend of Pasiphae. If you don’t know what that is – don’t ask!  After a number of alarms and excursions all is successful and ends with the marriage of Ursula and Ted.

In The Goat-foot God, the leading figure is old Jelkes, who makes no claims to being an adept but knows his way around, having been a Jesuit novitiate in his youth before becoming an antiquarian bookseller with a sideline in occult books. One of his customers is Hugh Paston, a wealthy socialite who is toying with the idea of diverting himself with a bit of black magic.  Jelkes saves him from this insalubrious course by introducing him to ancient pagan beliefs. This leads to Hugh sorting out some of his hang-ups with the help of the artistic and esoterically sympathetic Mona Freeman with whom he performs a spontaneous Rite of Pan in a bosky grove on an ancient site – having preserved their respectability by getting married earlier in the day.

In The Sea Priestess, the feisty adept Vivienne Le Fay Morgan entices Wilfred Maxwell, a provincial estate agent, into helping her locate and decorate a sea temple for her magical work, where she performs with him a Rite of Isis. Here the third and senior party is an inner plane being, a Merlin like figure who is referred to as the Priest of the Moon. In this case, although Vivienne plays fast and loose with the emotions of her occult apprentice there is no question of her becoming involved in any physical relationship with him – let alone marriage. Apart from allegedly being 120 years old, she is totally dedicated to the life of a lone adept. Although before she leaves the scene she instructs a local girl, Molly Coke, in the functions of a moon priestess which Molly, again overseen by the Priest of the Moon, puts into practice after she and Wilfred have wed.

Dion Fortune never completed Moon Magic, which features the same sea priestess, now resident in London and going by the name of Lilith, so we do not know whether Dr Rupert Malcolm, her new apprentice, might have gone on to find a suitable spouse or priestess. But at least he learned a lot about magic and, a changed man, was in a good position to get one.

So does all magical work of this nature end between the sheets we might ask, along with the prospect of wedding bells and orange blossom and holy matrimony?  We might be led to think so, if we did not take into account the genre in which Dion Fortune was writing. That is to say, popular romantic fiction for the patrons of 1930’s circulating libraries – a major institution in their day.

This novel approach (no pun intended!) to teaching occultism to the wider world was a somewhat risky experiment and, as Dion Fortune came to admit, did not  come off quite as she had hoped. She speculated on reasons why in a couple of articles in the Inner Light Magazine (The Novels of Dion Fortune and The Winged Bull – a Study in Esoteric Psychology), both of which are included in a forthcoming book from Skylight Press, Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan,  which gives the rites in full, with cross references to the appropriate novels.  

Whatever the outcome to characters in the books, a real life occult group should not be regarded as a dating agency or marriage bureau, let alone hive of debauchery. For as the sea priestess was at pains to point out, her magical aims transcended the physical and personal levels. Through the psychic tension of their magical working she and Wilfred Maxwell were committed to bringing through the godlike dynamics of a deep polar relationship, not just to themselves but to all men and women via the group soul, the collective unconscious, the astral light, or whatever one likes to call it. Thus in magical work, if sex creeps into the door of the lodge then magic tends to fly out of the window. For the sexual canoodling serves only to short circuit the force, which runs to earth via the physical channels – at best a lightning conductor for those unable to handle the psychic pressure, but with considerable risk of domestic collateral damage.

However, in real life Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and Pan were enacted in very different circumstances from the novels, for they took place not in private but in public, before  an invited audience. In 1936, a “new epoch” had been announced in the growth and organisation of the Fraternity, one consequence of which was leasing an old converted church in Belgravia called “The Belfry”. And here, as well as in lecture demonstrations with lantern slides and chanting at her Bayswater headquarters, Dion Fortune and two or three of her senior colleagues were able to present the Rites. In this respect she was by no means a trailblazer, for a Rite of Isis had been performed in Paris by the Golden Dawn founders S.L. and Moina MacGregor Mathers in 1899 when Violet Mary Firth was still a schoolgirl back in Weston-super-Mare.

She seems to have been quite successful in her endeavours. Bernard Bromage, a London University lecturer and researcher on oriental esoteric systems, who witnessed her Rite of Isis was much impressed. As he remarked in a retrospective article on Dion Fortune in Light, (journal of the College of Psychic Studies, Spring 1960) it remained in his memory “one of the best attempts I have ever witnessed to stimulate the subconscious by means of ‘pantomime’ drawn from the more ancient records of the hierophant’s art.”

The use of the word ‘pantomime’ may perhaps seem a little odd in the circumstances but the good academic is obviously using it more in the classical sense, rather than the modern, which was originally a form of performance by a single mute dancer playing all the parts with the help of masks backed up by a chorus of singers and instruments, where the dancer literally played (mimed) all the parts (panta). This is not quite the way Dion Fortune played it but a fair approximation if one does not want to use the dread word “magic”.

But what of the depiction of rites in her novels? Although, to conform to the conventions of popular fiction, the circumstances surrounding the set up of the magical workings could be quite unrealistic, there is considerable value in her description of what it can be like to experience different levels of consciousness when participating in a ritual. And this is where the value of Dion Fortune’s novels lies. She is describing from personal experience – far beyond the capacities of any popular writer whose knowledge is only theoretical or at second or third hand – and she also showed a gradually mounting confidence in presenting the details of the invocations of a magical working.

Thus it is quite unreasonable to think that in The Winged Bull a beginner like Ted Murchison was capable of spontaneously improvising the role of Priest of the Sun to Ursula’s Priestess of the Earth, even to the evocative violin playing of Colonel Brangwyn as High Priest. Indeed the action seems more in the nature of an exotic tea dance than a ritual working. But even if there was a formal Ritual of the Winged Bull (and there is no evidence that Dion Fortune ever wrote one) she would certainly not have published the script in the very secretive esoteric culture of 1935. After all, she felt she had taken something of a risk by publishing her innocuous textbook The Mystical Qabalah! Nonetheless the The Winged Bull gives a very accurate account of the typical feelings of a magical tyro about to be introduced to ritual working, and also of the possible heights of experience which can at times be reached.

In The Goat-foot God there is a similar unlikelihood of Hugh Paston and Mona Freeman being able to perform a Rite of Pan by making it up as they go along, however atmospheric the time and place. And although there certainly was a written Rite of Pan composed by Dion Fortune at the time of writing the novel, she did not feel it appropriate to include any of it – apart from a fragment disguised as a song sung by Mona as she goes about laying the breakfast table.

Bowl of oak and earthen jar,

Honey of the honey-bee;

Milk of kine and Grecian wine,

Golden corn from neighbouring lea –

These our offerings, Pan, to thee,

Goat-foot god of Arcady.

And so on for three verses. The performance of the rite itself comes only after the last paragraph of the novel and is left entirely to the reader’s imagination.

            However, in The Sea Priestess Dion Fortune threw caution to the winds and almost the whole of the Rite of Isis is to be found scattered throughout its pages, which could perhaps be one reason why Williams & Norgate declined to handle it. She was obliged to publish it herself, a year later, in 1938. It is generally accounted to be her best novel although of course the plot is a highly unlikely one, and the sea priestess herself a somewhat unlikely adept in real life.  Nonetheless, the accounts of what successful magical working feels like from the inside are both accurate and revealing, as is also the case with Moon Magic.

 And although the emphasis of the working of the Rites rests upon the priest and priestess, the scripts are more in the nature of a four handed working, with High Priest and Lector taking up the other positions – in the accustomed well balanced four handed traditional system. In a lodge the positions would logically be taken up by priest and priestess in south and north respectively, and High Priest and Lector in east and west, with any supernumerary members in a circle round about. The Belfry performances took place on a stage with an audience looking on.  

Whatever the mode of working however, even reading the rituals today can be a powerful experience, bringing through a considerable surge of inspiration and energy and even healing. And this is probably their best use for the most part, without need for all the ritual trimmings. In other words, just as Dion Fortune hoped that reading one of the novels would stir the subconscious mind of her readers, particularly if they identified unconsciously with one of the characters, so an imaginative reading the rituals today in a meditative state, identifying with one of the officers, can be an invaluable exercise for those who do not have the facilities for actual well run group working.

And this is all now quite possible through the publication, with permission of the Society of the Inner Light, of “Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan” (Skylight Press), with links provided to the relevant novels, together with a series of appendices of contemporary articles by Dion Fortune from The Occult Review and the Inner Light Magazine between 1931 and 1938.

 

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