Reports and comments on the recent Dion Fortune seminar have been coming in over the past few days, suggesting that it was a very good do, with support from members of a number of related groups and individuals. All topped off with some interesting and unusual lunar phenomena which will not be seen again for another generation. With this in mind it seems appropriate to round things off with a piece I once wrote on Dion Fortune’s last novel – “Moon Magic” – where the sea priestess moves off to London to do her stuff on the banks of the Thames. I think my piece was intended as a Introduction to an American edition of the novel but in the end was not used. However, the story in all its glory is still available from Red Wheel Weiser.
In Moon Magic Vivien Le Fay Morgan, Dion Fortune`s charismatic “sea priestess” from the novel of that name, reappears to work some more of her unique brand of magic. She is now far from the sea, living in London, although not entirely disconnected from the element of water, for her apartment overlooks the River Thames. In keeping with the slightly changed nature of her magical role she has also taken a change of name, now preferring to be known as Lilith Le Fay Morgan.
Lilith has also chosen a rather different type of man to train as her priest in the magic she has in hand. In place of the small town estate agent dominated by his mother and sister she now finds Dr Rupert Malcolm, a highly successful medical consultant at the top of his profession, yet married to a demanding invalid. His earthy masculinity combined with a domestic life of sexual and emotional frustration make him an irascible tyrant to patients, nurses and students alike.
Dion Fortune had a great feeling for the sense of place, as she has demonstrated in her evocations of the western coast of Somerset in The Sea Priestess. This sense of place is now extended to London and the river that runs through the city. Rupert Malcolm`s first awareness of Lilith Le Fay Morgan is upon the north side of the river, upon the Victoria Embankment, along which, after finding her haunting his dreams, he compulsively follows her, along the stretch from Blackfriar`s Bridge, past Cleopatra`s Needle, to Westminster Bridge over which she turns. She now resides in an old converted church on the south bank, whose lighted window can be seen across the river from Rupert Malcolm`s own apartments.
Nowadays this location is taken up by the Royal Festival Hall and other leisure facilities extending down to the New Tate Gallery and the Millennium Bridge, although in Dion Fortune`s day it was composed mainly of warehouses. Yet the original building that inspired Lilith`s house and temple still exists, although it is located north of the river, about a mile distant from Chelsea Bridge, in West Halkin Street, Belgravia. Known as the Belfry, it started life as a Presbyterian church in about 1840 but was eventually converted to secular use, and for a time acted as the headquarters for a somewhat idiosyncratic spiritualist organisation.
In 1936 a wealthy member of the Society of the Inner Light leased it for the use of Dion Fortune, and it was here that she staged, to invited audiences, celebrations of her Rite of Isis, extracts from which are featured both in The Sea Priestess and in Moon Magic. The outbreak of war in 1939 put an end to these activities, but the striking looking building remains and in latter days has operated as a restaurant.
Dion Fortune did not find Moon Magic an easy book to write, and made several false starts before she turned to writing it in the first person, in the words of Lilith herself. Then it began to gel. She also had some difficulty in finishing it, probably because of the exigencies of war, which put a great strain upon her energy and organisational abilities. And when shortage of paper had all but crippled the publishing industry, the writing of novels might well have taken a low priority in a busy life. As a consequence the manuscript was incomplete at the time of her death in 1946.
In consequence of this the book falls into three parts. The first part, (chapters 1, 2 and 3), may be regarded as the best of her early attempts to start the novel. It sets up the action, introducing Dr Rupert Malcolm and his meeting with Lilith, at first telepathically and then in the flesh.
In the second part, (chapters 4 through 15), Lilith takes over, explaining much of herself and her intentions, her magical temple, and the work that she intends to do within it with Rupert Malcolm as her priest.
The third part, (from chapter 16 to the end), which brings the magic to a natural close through the eyes of Rupert Malcolm, was provided by a close associate of Dion Fortune, who attempted to channel the material after the latter`s death. The completed novel eventually saw publication in 1956, some twenty years after Dion Fortune started it, and ten years after her death.
Dion Fortune claimed that she mostly wrote her fiction by allowing the images to rise, letting the characters have their head and listening to their conversations, not entirely sure what the eventual details of the story would be. This applies to the style of her narrative in Part One, as well as the whole of The Sea Priestess and her earlier novels. In Part Two, she pursues much the same method, but writing in the role of the main character herself, brings about a much more vivid ambience. We might say it gives a more direct glimpse into the soul of the author than does narrative written in the third person.
Once again, as in The Sea Priestess, there is a fairly close identification of the character with the author, in her mode of dress – the large floppy brimmed hat, the long cloak, the furs and the chunky jewellery. What is more, she goes out of her way to justify this mode of attire, explaining that it is not simply the facile exhibitionism of a poseur, but a way of creating a role in which to focus the magical imagination of those with whom she comes into immediate contact.
Now that she was writing directly from Lilith`s point of view, she began to find that the character was also taking on a greater feeling of independence from herself, which led her to wonder, half in jest, if she had created a kind of “dark familiar” for herself, or that the character might well represent her Freudian subconscious. Certainly we are here at the borderline between the mental processes of the creative artist and those of the mediating occultist, which is by no means a hard and fast one.
She recognised that she had a great deal in common with Lilith Le Fay but that there was also a great deal that they did not have in common. Lilith revealed far deeper knowledge of magical things and taught Dion Fortune a great deal she had not known before. Dion Fortune throughout her life was staunchly Christian in principle, if a little unorthodox about it in practice. Lilith Le Fay, on the other hand, as Dion Fortune admits, was purely pagan, a rebel against society, and bent upon its alteration – which she intended to do by magical means.
One strange point in common between author and character is the idea of being some kind of changeling. (Oddly enough, a thought that also crosses Wilfred Maxwell`s mind with regard to himself in The Sea Priestess). The origin of this story came from Dion Fortune`s mother, Jenny Firth, who confided to her more intimate friends that the child she bore had died soon after birth, but had revived some hours later with a completely different look in its eyes, as if it were another being. This idea Dion Fortune revealed in a paragraph in an issue of The Occult Review, a major esoteric magazine of the inter-war years, and it is much the same story that appears in Lilith`s introduction to herself in the novel.
The claim to being 120 years old we can perhaps best regard as a symbolic statement, deriving from Rosicrucian or numerological lore, rather than speculate what she might have been doing since 1815 or thereabouts.
An odd sequel to this melding of author with character is that after the publication of the novel in 1956 a certain confusion developed in peoples` minds between Dion Fortune the author and Lilith Le Fay Morgan the character, exacerbated by the paucity of photographs of the real woman that were then available. Therefore a year later an attempt was made to lay the character to rest by a further sequel, called The Death of Vivien Le Fay Morgan. This short piece entered the public domain as part of a collection of Dion Fortune articles under the umbrella title Aspects of Occultism in 1962, with the annotation: “This fragment which was mediumistically received after Dion Fortune`s death, is an epilogue to Moon Magic.” The medium concerned was Margaret Lumley Brown, some of whose remarkable work I have edited, along with her story, in Pythoness (Thoth Publications) and her account of her remarkable psychic beginnings in Both Sides of the Door (Skylight Press).
In this fragment Vivien, or Lilith, prepares for her death, and after taking leave of her friends, ritually assisted by a fellow senior initiate, voluntarily passes out from her physical body to enter into the dissolution processes of the post mortem state, described under the ancient Egyptian symbolism of the Judgment Hall of Osiris.
It is interesting to note the ancient Egyptian ambience of this fragment, as compared to the largely ancient Greek basis for Dion Fortune`s Rite of Isis. But as Bernard Bromage notes, a London University academic who befriended Dion Fortune and attended a performance of the Rite of Isis, the costumes she used were more Egyptian than Greek; and on being asked about this confided that it was the ancient Egyptian overtones to the Greek symbolism which had always attracted her.
In any case, Bromage came away impressed by what he witnessed, afterwards writing that it was “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.” Whilst his use of the word “pantomime” may seem odd in a modern context, he is using it in its original technical sense, which was an ancient art form with a close connection between ceremonial and theatre. One principal difference from modern theatrical performance is that ceremonial magic is performed for the benefit of the participants rather than the spectators, in addition to whatever objective results, via the inner planes or the collective unconscious, might be deemed to accrue therefrom.
Objective results were certainly sought by Lilith Le Fay Morgan as (in chapter 15) she tries to explain to Rupert the existence and nature of etheric magnetism, which is given out in any form of human interchange but more especially when the emotions are aroused and focussed upon a single person. What Lilith is trying to get across to Rupert is that the process of magic requires the two of them to form an imaginative, not a physical relationship, one with the other. An important point being that magic of this type, although dependent upon the polarity of gender, is not preliminary or an accompaniment to erotic games. A physical relationship, should it occur, would simply be the operation of a safety valve if the forces – via the instincts and emotions – ran out of control, and would consequently spell failure in magical terms.
As she explains: “The physical is simply the end result, and we never let it get there. When you and I work together in ritual, you are the archetypal man and I am the archetypal woman…What I do to you, I do to all men; and what you receive from me, you receive from Great Isis Herself, for I am Her priestess and you represent the people…Telepathy is the active factor but it is more than that. We are telepathing the group mind of our race, but we are transmitting cosmic forces…This was what was practised in the temples of the Great Goddess in ancient times. It is practised to this day in India, and they call it Tantra.”
At the time Dion Fortune was working upon her novel and practising the Rite of Isis at the Belfry, she was also in close contact with Bernard Bromage, a specialist upon Eastern religions at the University of London. His current research included texts on Hindu tantra, and he put some of this material at her disposal. She began to draw her own conclusions from this in a series of articles published in the Inner Light Magazine from February 1939 to August 1940, under the title The Circuit of Force (subsequently published in volume form by Thoth Publications), in which she examined what, in her view, constituted “the lost secrets of western occultism”.
It is of some interest that her immediate successors in the running of her Fraternity did not share her enthusiasm for this line of work, and probably not without reason. It is a type of magical relationship which is easily misunderstood, even by sympathetic colleagues. As Lilith had warned it can easily run out of control and if sex creeps in through the door, magic flies out of the window – to say nothing of whatever personal and social consequences may result if those concerned have obligations outside their charmed esoteric circle. As Dion Fortune had pointed out years before, in Sane Occultism and Practical Occultism in Daily Life, this is an area of esotericism that is fraught with hypocrisy, involving specious claims of reincarnationary links, twin souls and linked destinies that at root are no more than mutual self deception.
Its most positive manifestation, outside of the esoteric world, is probably best seen in the function of the poetic or artistic muse – where the artist is stimulated by some desirable member of the opposite sex without necessarily entering into a physical relationship. Examples abound ever since the troubadours of Languedoc spun enchanting lyrics inspired by inaccessible 12th century ladies, and perhaps saw its apogee when the young Beatrice transported the imagination of Dante into writing one of the greatest works of western literature.
Lilith reveals at the same time something of her high magical intentions and the difficulty of retaining the necessary impersonality of the adept at the end of Part Two (and incidentally in the last words of fiction written by Dion Fortune herself): “As I thought of him as he lay sleeping in the room below with my cloak thrown over him, there came to me a wave of such intense tenderness that it alarmed me. I must not feel like this towards my priest, I thought, or I shall spoil the magic; and then it came to me that only thus could I do magic with him – the magic that was to be done through one man for all men in order to lift burdens grievous to be borne in a world that has forgotten the holiness of the Great Horned One.” By this somewhat unusual title, it should be said, she refers to the goddess Isis, whose head dress is the horned moon, rather than to the god of the witches, “Old Horny”. For that side of things she had already written The Goat-foot God with its Rite of Pan.
By the “burdens grievous to be borne” she has in mind the rigid sexual and social mores of the 1930`s. This was a time when, for instance the heir to the throne of England, who would have been Edward VIII, had just been forced to abdicate for insisting on marrying a divorcée. At the same time a play by Charles Morgan, The Flashing Stream, caused something of a sensation, provoking the playwright to justify himself by publishing an explanatory book. Dion Fortune was moved to call it “one of the great plays of all time.” It certainly was not that, but its theme was close to her heart, that “the face of the whole world would be changed if the experience of sex were considered to be innocent unless its circumstances made it guilty.” Such an idea might be regarded as commonplace today but was quite beyond the pale in 1938.
The subsequent liberation of sexual mores in the succeeding decades would have been much in line with what Lilith Le Fay Morgan was trying to aid with her magical rites. As she later says to Rupert: “We have done what we set out to do. Something is present in the world that was not there before, and it will work itself out in its own way.” Perhaps it began to do so in the liberating decade of the 1960`s.
However, for the inner side of the magical experience we must turn to Part Three, which reverts to third person narrative, although expressed largely from the point of view of Rupert. In the magical climax of the novel he finds himself passing through a number of stages of consciousness, as memories of incarnations of the distant past come welling up from the depths of the instinctual and emotional levels. These his rationalising mind tries to cope with, explain or justify as best it may. Then passing through the levels of consciousness of the personality in the world, he finds himself at a level of higher awareness that transcends all previous doubts and justifications and rationalisations.
He feels the beginnings of the gathering of power as the magic starts to work. He feels a tide rising within him along the hollow rod of the spinal column until with a flash the spiritual and physical levels coalesce, beyond the bounds of physiology and even of psychology. He finds himself floating amongst the stars, with Lilith as Isis before him. The two have passed beyond personality, are no longer two circles bounded by their peripheries, but two centres of radiation, whose contact and interchange is like a lightning bolt as the cosmic forces run down through the lower levels, blowing clear all obstructions and blockages. After this virtual initiation he feels as a man utterly reborn or re-made.
He has, in other words, passed through “the Door Without a Key”. This is the subtitle of the concluding part of the novel, and it has been previously defined by Lilith, as “the Door of Dreams; it is the door by which the sensitive escape into insanity when life is too hard for them, and artists use it as a window in a watch-tower. Psychologists call it a psychological mechanism; magicians call it magic, and the man in the street calls it illusion or charlatanry, according to taste. It does not matter to me what it is called, for it is effectual.”
Here speaks the voice of the pragmatic magician that was Dion Fortune, and in this, the last of her novels, she demonstrates how, and in what way, it can be effectual. The tools of her trade may be the magical temple, with its symbols and mirrors and lights, but within that construct is the power of the trained mind and imagination honed into diamond sharpness by an unreserved dedication to the forces of light as she understands them.
Note: Similar essays of mine on Dion Fortune’s The Secrets of Dr Taverner, The Demon Lover, The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic can be found in THE OCCULT FICTION OF DION FORTUNE published by Thoth Publications in 2007. Also recommended is Dion Fortune's Rites of Isis and of Pan Skylight Press, 2013.