Monday 19 September 2016

The Old Magic

If you like fantasy fiction, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner (1963) is a must-read. It is not necessary to read the prequel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen - I didn't, when I first encountered Gomrath.

What I find most exciting about this book is that it is about the re-emergence of The Old Magic into the modern world; and what this implies:

Would it be 'a good thing' if The Old Magic came back into this world? Well, it would not be the best possible thing, for sure (we are supposed to go forward not return) - but maybe it would not be the worst thing.

It would be, essentially, turning the clock back and trying again from the perspective of human destiny  - but at least it would be an acknowledgement that we had failed: which would be psychologically healthy.

Was the decline and extinction of the Roman Empire a sign of its deep spiritual malaise - should be have rejected that more decisively? It sometimes seems that the Renaissance was (overall, in net effect) a rebirth of the worst of ancient knowledge - rather than the best; a regression rather than the progression it is commonly depicted to be. That was associated with a resurgence in the High Magic such as astrology and alchemy - which seems like an error, overall and in effect.

Anyway - we can all thrill at the Old Magic - in fiction, at least; and it is never all that far away in fact.


Nicholas Fulford said...

I suppose that depends upon what you mean by "The Old Magic".

Do you mean the shamanic experiences of the archetypes via direct encounter through such means as the ritualized used of entheogens, (e.g. psilocybin mushrooms, peyote cactus and ayahuasca)? If you do, I have no argument that such means can unlock the doors of perception and be very beneficial if used within the proper context - set and setting. There is a actually a renaissance of research through such people as Roland Griffiths of John Hopkins University in the use of these psycho-pharmacologic tools in the areas of PTSD, addiction, depression and end of life issues for people with terminal illnesses.

Despite my avowed a-theism, (which is actually more of an unwillingness on my part to project and frame ineffability in a cloak of beliefs), I have an experiential history of the varieties of ecstatic states that are the basis of mythic and mystical apprehensions. In other words, I get The Old Magic. I have a visceral appreciation of its potency and the insights it provides into the mind and its ability to apprehend infinity as Blake would say:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

I actually think that most people would benefit from experiencing these states if they are not approached as psychic fireworks for entertainment, but as tools for finding and drawing upon the deep roots from which we are a flowering and reflective surface. It may even be that if we are to get past this difficult stage of human history where the Sauron / Shadow aspects of our nature express themselves in such damaging ways that people will need an initiation into these places to awaken them to the beauty and awe that are bound down into the sinews and even the stones. People are in fact starving for an alternative to the life sapping greyness of modern life in the machine. Each year when I go hiking, the disconnect between how we live and define our reality in the machine with the face of nature confronts me with the mask of Agent Smith leering back from the shadows telling me that man is a virus that has infected the world. The stark reminders of the drought stricken trees, and the rich songs of nature which are interrupted by the monotone drone of a jet overhead from a city 100 km away, drill the point home. It reminds me of the Music of the Ainur from the Silmarillion being corrupted by Melkor,

see -

And so, The Old Magic - the magic of light and sound expressing beauty, joy, sorrow, life and death - has a complex and unfathomable depth to it. It stirs from the ancient spaces and rises into spirals of ascending and descending tones, riffs, segues, fugues, silences and crescendos with all the varieties of expression woven in at every point. The best of our music is as an Edison cylinder played with steel needle and horn by comparison.

People need that to be able to access these states, and to take from them a will to rebalance the world of men with the world of nature and archetypes. Periodic visitations and the development of a sensitivity to this music would - I hope - guide us to a better way, which does not bind men to a stunted and destructive path of despair. There is a need to apprehend and in apprehension to morph into instruments of complex beauty which sing with the impulse of life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nicholas - What I got from reading Owen Barfield over the past year, was a recognition of why the Old Magic is not what is required. It is not that the Old Magic is a wholly bad thing (although I think we know that the use of drugs to access such states is bad for most people, most of the time - at least in the modern West)- it is a verions of the spiritual state of children (of ourselves) and hunter gatherers.

But it is not compatible with functioning in public life, any more than sleep or delirium or intoxication is compatible with functioning - at most it may be a holiday or interlude for recharging batteries... But most people will conclude that 'real life' is the mundane and functional everyday world, and the content of altered states is a kind of illusion or delusion.

This has indeed been an aspect of the extremity of post sixties nihilism - the idea that the only way meaning can be found in life is via some kind of delirium; which implies that the meaning is pathologically-derived and false.

So the Old Magic is not the answer, nor are hallucinogens/ entheolgens; and it is not the future - it is not what humans as individuals, or as a species are supposed to be aiming at - it is not our spiritual goal. *That* is a different type of magic which is characterised by a state of consciousness that is both alert and purposive as well as connected, participating, unalienated - Barfield calls the state final participation, and there are many blog entries on and around this theme recently.

Wurmbrand said...

I just reread The Moon of Gomrath, and am wondering if you'd like to comment further about it, since what comes across to me is that it shows a typical New Age mindset avant la letter. The Old Magic is described as "women's magic," "moon magic," etc. The wizard of the earlier book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, here pretty much stands aside for what now gets called "goddess spirituality," present in this book in a Triple Goddess arrangement with the Morrigan, Angharad, and Susan. In this book it's the girl, Susan, who achieves the rescue of the passive boy. At the end the Old Magic is set free, which can hardly fail to include "women's spirituality." I should imagine there are some women clergy in the C of E who love this book. So why the boost here?

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - I'm currently listening to it on audiobook - I may do a more review when I have finished, if the mood strikes. The Gomrath spirituality is not New Age but from the English tradition of neo-paganism which began in the late 19th century eg Kenneth Grahame's Pagan Papers of 1894

Neopaganism is now five or six generations deep in England, which makes it seem very solid to the reader - wherever you turn, you find it - just as if it really was lineally-descended residual paganism (but it isn't. Of course it doesn't need to be - because paganism is the spontaneous 'natural' religion of humans without revelation).

I think this was an aspect of the recurrent, anti-Christian partial Romanticism (resurgent but incomplete Original Participation) with that Dionysian theme from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.

The main proximate influence, which is acknowledged by Garner, are The Mabinogian texts as seen through Robert Grave's White Goddess and his invented, idiosyncratic and highly influential ideas about goddesses and matriarchy.

But from a Cheshire local angle. It is the rootedness in the specific - almost inch by inch - locality of Alderley Edge which gives the books its 'subcreative' reality (together with very high quality prose).

Wurmbrand said...

I recognize the "English Neo-Paganism." It's there in Algernon Blackwood etc. But I don't remember the feminist angle. On the other hand, the feminist angle is there in The Moon of Gomrath and in the New Age movement. Maybe as you review Gomrath it won't seem to you such a feminist-spirituality thing as it does to me, this time. What I made of it at age 13 is another matter.

Wurmbrand said...

A further thought about British literary Neo-Paganism...

You may find if you go back to the books that much of the Neo-Paganism was aimed at boys. Take writings by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (BB) such as The Little Grey Men, which is saturated in that quality (and splendidly illustrated by the author). It's an exclusively male world, with a young boy being the principal human character.

You get the sense that some of these authors may have felt that girls had naturally "Christian" souls, being gentle, patient, tender-hearted, etc., but that boys were naturally "pagan," loving the streams and the woods, loving rto be out all day wandering and hunting, etc.

British literary Neo-Paganism seems often to have been aimed at men when it was intended for adults. Take Algernon Blackwood's "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." As I recall, the husband hears the call of the wild and at last merges with nature, while his wife is a "conventional" woman content with the indoors and, no doubt, Church.

But the New Age movement of the Sixties and thereafter (whatever its possible roots) was strongly influenced by feminism. And I think you will find that that's coming through The Moon of Gomrath. So I'm not saying there's nothing in it of a connection with the B N-P, but I'll need some convincing to see it as having very much really to do with that as I know it, at least. And on the other hand it probably delights "goddoess spirituality" types.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - The 'feminism' - which is actually the placing of the feminine at the root of spiritual reality - that is found in Graves and Garner, is mostly a product of the personal psychology of the authors. It is not primarily political.

Having said that, it is amenable to politicisation because both Graves and Garner were anti-Christian; and both therefore would have to be classified on The Left - both on average and in essence, despite them both expressing multiple dissonant elements that mainstream Leftism finds abhorrent - such as 'essentialism' (the idea that things have an essence).

I think that it is probably impossible to live deeply and coherently from the beliefs that Graves and Garner espoused; at least, I find there to be an element of play-acting (post modern irony) which comes in in their non-fictional prose explanations of themselves. In the best of their works this problem can be avoided, but not when they explain their works.

In the case of Garner, there also creeps in a shallow sixties-ish (and - in origin - Romanticist) idea that mental illness is a kind of bottom line of authenticity (the madman is the only sane person in a crazy world, etc.) - which is again autobiographical. Garner claims a special insight essentially due to his own psychopathology (apparently of a broadly manic depressive type in terms of mood, with some episodes where he may have suffered psychotic features such as hallucinations), which is alo put forward (in his works) as a sign of authenticity, sincerity, depth of response.

My point is that in Gomrath (and Garner - as in Graves) we are not dealing with 'feminism' - which is a politically motivated ideology. The idea has other roots.