Archive for the ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ Tag

Slowly, Then All at Once   Leave a comment


“As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars.

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Slow, then sudden — this two-part rhythm is more widespread than we often notice. Not only with love, as John Green’s young-adult novel observes, but with much else besides.

If you garden, the seeds you plant can seem like they “take forever” to germinate, but then abruptly poke through the soil as if it’s really the first day of their existence and they’re busy to get on with it. A “breakout” artist shoots to fame “overnight” — except that happens very rarely. The apparent “overnightness” in truth often is years in coming. “A watched pot never boils” — until it does. Never mind the behind-the-scenes activity, the preparation, the earlier drafts, the years of sweat and doubt, the obscurity and perseverance. The American myth of “instant success”, like instant coffee, is a poor substitute for the slow-brewed original.

sine-waveWhat then can we make of this pattern and rhythm? If it’s built into the universe as one kind of energy flow, it deserves study. And of course in other guises it has indeed been studied for a long time. We hear of critical mass, we’ve seen plots of the sine wave, the surfer knows how to ride the ocean’s waves, and researchers looking for alternate energy sources attempt to capture the power of the tides and the rise and fall of sea surges.

Magic, like so much else, can often manifest this way: “nothing happens” and “nothing continues to happen”, until something does.

One of the things this tells me, anyway, is that attention, practice, energy can all accumulate. Repetition doesn’t automatically mean wasted energy. We dance because the universe dances — it looks like a primary parameter of the cosmos that merits our respect and imitation.

The child hounds the parent because past experiences suggest he or she will, sooner or late, cave. The clutch of gangly skateboarders hogging that sidewalk or parking lot repeat and repeat and repeat that impossible trick or sweet move, failing and failing and failing — until they succeed.

“Third time’s the charm” goes the proverb — maybe not literally accurate, but a piece of observational wisdom about the value and power of repetition. Even by the third attempt, we often see with many things that we can “improve the move”.

Animals do it. The play that the young of so many species engages in isn’t “for real” — until it is, and all those rehearsed moves, the testing of the limits of flesh and bone and sinew in self and other, the reflexes, the rhythms, the habits of feint and parry, attack and retreat “pay off” in victory or dominance or “simple” survival.

The profligate production of seeds in the plant kingdom mirrors this principle: bombard the Land with possibilities, and some at least will take root and flourish. Jesus offers the Parable of the Sower in the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8) as an image, as we might choose to read it, of the “spiritual kingdom” of our actions:

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

If we’re all “sowers” or planters of seed, initiating actions, putting energy into manifesting what we desire, making choices, responding poorly or well to situations and challenges, growing and dying and being reborn throughout our lives, do we have the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, this profound pattern inherent in the “way of things”? If not, we’re missing out on a powerful strategy for living.

Almost as important, I don’t have to aim big from the very outset (though it’s true that will teach me a whole host of things I can’t learn so quickly any other way). I can start small; I make a habit of saying “thank you” in many ways and mean it, and slowly build a reputation as a respectful and courteous person, setting in motion a vibration that accompanies me wherever I go. Or I don’t. I gather with fellow Druids, or do rituals alone, and the regular practice, daily and at the “Great Eight”, slowly attunes me to a larger harmonic that helps hold me together when chaotic energies flash around me intermittently. A practice builds stamina, even as it plants the seeds for the breakout, the germination, the mastery, the arrival, the highpoint, the culimination.

ADF Druids ask, “Why not excellence?” knowing its achievement may well take place “as fast as a speeding oak!”

And one ideal among Native Americans recognizes the time that full manifestation can take. Wikipedia notes that “Seventh generation stewardship

urges the current generation of humans to live and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. It originated with … the Great Law of the Iroquois – which holds it appropriate to think seven generations ahead (about 140 years into the future) and decide whether the decisions they make today would benefit their children seven generations into the future. It is frequently associated with the modern, popular concept of environmental stewardship or ‘sustainability’ but it is much broader in context … [applicable] in all our deliberations …

Wisdom, insight — these too seem to follow the same rhythm, accumulating like water in a well, until they fill and we can draw on them.

As a Druid I try to have the sense to apprentice myself to the living world. As the late U K LeGuin writes in A Wizard of Earthsea of her main character, Ged:

From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

O maple I transplanted four days ago, from where you were poking through the hedge, hungry for light, I’m trying to listen.

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Images: sine curve;


Enchantments Re-enchanted   3 comments

All things listen to each other, even if they don’t intend to, because they share one world. As if on cue, New Republic‘s deputy editor Ryu Spaeth devoted a 6 February 2018 article to “An Education Through Earthsea“.

Admiring and condescending by turns, Spaeth opens with a strong claim: “The most beguiling promise of fantasy fiction is that of self-knowledge”. Maybe. Let’s see where Spaeth wants to go with this.

Because such stories typically feature young adults perceiving that promise and striving to claim it, their characters and plotlines can become hackneyed and cliched. Spaeth asserts that “Although rooted in our oldest legends, they hold less appeal to adults in the twenty-first century than Le Guin’s more critically celebrated works” that treat of gender, social structures and mores — human worlds and all their potential to limit as much as to liberate. Quoting Le Guin, Spaeth observes, “Enchantment alters with age, and with the age”. Odd, then, that it’s our oldest legends that have re-surfaced and that continue to appeal to so many.

But does “enchantment alter with age”, in any sense Spaeth would have us understand?

“In our age, movies and television have taken over the enchantment business”, he says. Taken it over? Yes, in many quarters. But often badly — ruling it no better than contemporary political parties and social movements do our human worlds. Enchantment is no “business”. Le Guin also wrote for the ones who walk away from the Omelas* of mass society and its blindnesses,  of its imbalances in our times of ravening consumption and cold indifference to “all our relatives”, as the Dakota Sioux call them, these many Others who share our worlds, furred, finned and feathered.


nearby February snowfield

Spaeth ultimately condemns the fantasy quest for wisdom as a product of a particular time and place:

It is an approach that may be out of step with the times; to treat life as a mission to discover oneself can read like solipsism, especially when we know that so much of identity is shaped by factors beyond our control, by race, gender, class. Perhaps only a white American in the postwar period could have written the Earthsea books, could speak of an autonomous self within its own narrative, waiting to blaze forth; writers and filmmakers are more conscious now of systemic forces and the undertow of history.

Both a seemingly “woke” critique and also a deeply oblivious and superficial one: neither Le Guin nor her Earthsea wizard-hero Ged, after all, stop at self-knowledge as any kind of endpoint, but continue on an arc that ultimately finds him old, stripped of the glamours and powers of the difficult wizardry he has practiced much of his life, and at length “done with doing” in Tehanu which follows the trilogy. And each of these things, just as Ged’s beginning does, arises from “systemic forces and the undertow of history” present in Earthsea. Different ones, but hardly absent! To take just one instance, Ged is dark-skinned; the foreign Kargs who attack his village, and spur him to his first act of magic, are white. It’s because of “systemic forces and the undertow of history” that we need self-knowledge and wisdom, along with the strength to quest for them — in spite of the distractions and barriers every age has provided.

The same book Tehanu ends with mortal rescue by a dragon (and not some contrived deus-ex-machina salvation, but one motivated by and in response to human love for a child), followed by an even larger revelation of magic at the very heart of Earthsea which I will not spoil here, and lastly with a woman’s dream of planting a garden — not in some newly-recovered Eden, but a late planting, “right away if they wanted any vegetables of their own this summer” (Tehanu, Bantam 1991 edition, pg. 252). The oldest of magics, dragon and green world, rooted squarely in the midst of human life.

Any worthwhile enchantment survives Spaeth’s dismissal wholly unscathed.

The old stories flourish because they have something to say to us we’re not getting from Washington and Hollywood and Industrial Light and Magic, however temporarily beguiling they may be. Enchantment in the end can never be an “industry” or “business”, whatever glamours its often debased versions toss our way. We earn them, but we can’t purchase them.

And because we each do have our “own narratives”, whatever else we may be, we do have choices, however hard, and at least in part we are our stories, especially if we know and tell them well enough that we do not merely justify all our choices, but grow through them into something more than we were before.

In these days of growing light, along with a typical February snowstorm coming to the Northeastern U.S., the Enchantment of Brighid continues to unfold.

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*A discussion of Le Guin’s genre-defying “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”.

Winter Passages   Leave a comment

Author and activist Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, most famous for her Earthsea trilogy and for The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, passed on Monday, aged 88.


Le Guin in 2014

You can read an assortment of obituaries and tributes here: CNN | NYTimes | Oregon Live | The Washington Post.

To hear Le Guin in her own words, a keen delight for her many fans, here [Vimeo link] is the 2014 National Book Award introduction by Neil Gaiman and a 5-minute acceptance speech by Le Guin, with her wit and sharp intelligence on full display [her remarks begin around 5:27].

Among other salient points, Le Guin observes in her short speech, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, and can even imagine some real grounds for hope”.

Le Guin’s masterwork for many will remain A Wizard of Earthsea, the book that brought us a school for wizards decades before Rowling’s Hogwarts. No, it’s not a competition, but first loves hold a special place in the heart. The first installment of the Earthsea trilogy, Wizard is 50 years old this year, appearing in 1968.

Everyone has their justifiably favorite passages; mine remains this one. The main character Ged has recovered from the stupor of severely overspending his power in an attempt to save a dying child, the son of his friend. Without the touch of his pet otak, he realizes he might never have awakened.

It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry. From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees (A Wizard of Earthsea, 1984 Bantam Edition, pg. 82).

With a clear moral vision of profound responsibility we hold along with our power, Le Guin cuts through the lies we tell ourselves, and reminds us with her clean and powerful prose of our birthright, our duty and our promise.

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Image: Le Guin.

The Kinship of All — Druid & Christian Theme 4   Leave a comment

[Themes |1| |2| |3| |4| |5| |6| |7| |8| 9|]

face-unityI’m off to MAGUS, the Mid-Atlantic Gathering, in a few weeks. For those who can manage to attend, Gatherings can give a taste of true community. For Christians, ideally the power of baptism clothes everyone in unity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:29). A deeper spiritual union does connect people who outwardly appear different, talk differently, live differently. It’s a measure of our struggle how often we lose sight of this profound truth.

Some two millennia on from Paul’s confident assertion of unity in Christ, issues rooted in social status, privilege, gender, class, ethnicity — all the things that keep rocking today’s headlines — haven’t gone away. Early Christians “held all things in common.” Druidry likewise points us towards our common wealth in each other, in all the millions of species we live with, and the planet we live on. We dimly remember this old understanding, if at all, in the names of things like the Commons, the Commonwealth in the names of states and nations, common ground, Holy Communion, community, even discredited Communism and other old words and ideas misunderstood, abused and abraded by ignorance and human weakness.

Druidry likewise celebrates the essential kinship of all things. “What we do to the land we quite literally do to ourselves”, as we keep discovering to our dismay and bitter relearning. Linked to places and ancestors, we inherit both specific and planetary pasts, and shape the future of our own bloodlines and also the biosphere we live in. “Rain on Roke may be drouth in Osskil … and a calm in the East Reach may be storm and ruin in  the West, unless you know what you are about,” says the Master Summoner in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

So often we plainly don’t know what we’re about. But the Web of Things does yield to power regardless, in hands wise and foolish. What have we summoned? Whether knowledge or ignorance launches an action, what goes around still comes around. Simple and difficult: until we value and claim our unity as more important than our differences, it’s the differences that will dog us and define who we are and what matters. Depending on your understanding of the purpose of life at this rung of the spiral, that’s cause for weeping, rage, incomprehension, humble acknowledgment, redoubling of efforts …

When we consider the nationalist fervour sweeping the West, surely we might benefit from wider practice of such awareness of unity. While the broad tolerance of difference that Biblical verse expresses can also appeal broadly to many Druids, side by side with it is a celebration of particularity. Sometimes Christians call this the “scandal of particularity”: the difficulty of accepting a single individual man — Jesus — as the savior for everyone. You know — what traditional Christianity teaches about his exclusivity: “no one comes to the Father except through me”. As in, “my way or the highway”.

kim and missilesThere are many ways to work with assertions like these. We know all too well, on the evidence of centuries, what literalism offers and where it leads. Political religion — the system of creeds and salutes, conformities and genuflections to whoever holds the stick — exists in every culture. To pick just one blatant and current example, North Korea has made a religion and cult of the Kim family. Metaphorical understandings, because they grant freedom to each person, have always been suspect in some quarters. “Power-over” dies hard, keeps dying, never quite dies out.

Nonetheless, there are Druids who sit in pews and recite the creeds with no sense of hypocrisy or incongruity. That doesn’t mean that church attendance is anything like the only way to find even a fragile unity. It’s merely one option. Nor does that mean Druids who do sit in Church surreptitiously fingering their pentagrams and awens beneath street clothes have necessarily somehow immersed themselves in any of the myriad alternative understandings of Jesus as great moral teacher, example, political gadfly, Jewish mystic, cleverly-disguised New Age guru, just one of a series of divine avatars* and so on.

[*avatar: (Sanskrit) 1) an incarnation in human form of a god. 2) That icon of your net presence? A second meaning of the word, fast eclipsing the original.]

Options, options. How about Jesus as the inner consciousness in each of us that leads us on the next spiral beyond the apparent world? Or Jesus as a man working within the confines of a monotheism that his ongoing experience of the divine kept bursting at the seams? How many of us are, like him, the sort of people who, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40)? Do we even want to be? Why (or why not)? What would such close identification and intensity mean in this coolly detached age?

J. M. Greer in his The Gnostic Celtic Church which I’ve cited here previously offers one valid way among many to experience such kinship between Druid and Christian, noting that

a rich spiritual life supported by meaningful ceremonial and personal practice can readily co-exist with whatever form of outward life is necessary or appropriate to each priest or priestess … and the practice of sacramental spirituality can be pursued apart from the various pathologies of political religion (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church: A Manual and Book of Liturgy, AODA, 2013).

To create forms that will answer to widely perceived inner need and aspiration will take devotion and dedication, but the seeds are many, and some have already germinated and flowered and borne fruit, in both likely and unlikely places.

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This series of themes points to possible directions, and offers a few leads here and there, but in most cases doesn’t offer anything like a full-grown practice — the thing waiting, a project ready for many hands. (I have my own version of such a project, half-complete, still very much a work in progress. I’ve taken it on as a study of awen and experiment, rather than an urgent spiritual quest. Right now I drink from other wells, myself.)


By way, then, of appendix or commentary or prophecy or something else to this theme, I quote below at some length from Kipling’s Jungle Book, now in public domain. Here Baloo, the wise old brown bear — not the manipulative Bill Murray-voiced version in the recent 2016 film — talks to Bagheera about teaching Mowgli the Master Word of the Jungle:

“A man’s cub is a man’s cub, and he must learn all the Law of the Jungle” [said Baloo].

“But think how small he is,” said the Black Panther, who would have spoiled Mowgli if he had had his own way. “How can his little head carry all thy long talk?”

“Is there anything in the jungle too little to be killed? No. That is why I teach him these things, and that is why I hit him, very softly, when he forgets.”

“Softly! What dost thou know of softness, old Iron-feet?” Bagheera grunted. “His face is all bruised today by thy — softness. Ugh.”

“Better he should be bruised from head to foot by me who love him than that he should come to harm through ignorance,” Baloo answered very earnestly. “I am now teaching him the Master Words of the Jungle that shall protect him with the birds and the Snake People, and all that hunt on four feet, except his own pack. He can now claim protection, if he will only remember the words, from all in the jungle. Is not that worth a little beating?”

“Well, look to it then that thou dost not kill the man-cub. He is no tree trunk to sharpen thy blunt claws upon. But what are those Master Words? I am more likely to give help than to ask it” — Bagheera stretched out one paw and admired the steel-blue, ripping-chisel talons at the end of it — “still I should like to know.”

“I will call Mowgli and he shall say them — if he will. Come, Little Brother!”

“My head is ringing like a bee tree,” said a sullen little voice over their heads, and Mowgli slid down a tree trunk very angry and indignant, adding as he reached the ground: “I come for Bagheera and not for thee, fat old Baloo!”

“That is all one to me,” said Baloo, though he was hurt and grieved. “Tell Bagheera, then, the Master Words of the Jungle that I have taught thee this day.”

“Master Words for which people?” said Mowgli, delighted to show off. “The jungle has many tongues. I know them all.”

“A little thou knowest, but not much. See, O Bagheera, they never thank their teacher. Not one small wolfling has ever come back to thank old Baloo for his teachings. Say the word for the Hunting-People, then — great scholar.”

“We be of one blood, ye and I,” said Mowgli …

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Images: face; KimBaloo.

Deeper than Yin and Yang, Part 1: “The Darkness Also Had Spoken”   Leave a comment

[Part 2]

So your spiritual practice – i.e., your life – is going well, and moments of insight come to you like the god-kissed gifts they can be. The afternoon light slants a certain way, bees hum in late-summer flowers, the sweet air itself intoxicates you, and the golden pollen of August dusts your eyesight. It’s what the SBNRs, the spiritual-but-not-religious, count among the “treasures outside the walls” of a church or temple. Walk but a little deeper into such moments, hone that attention ever so finely, and you may more fully participate in what the Lakota call Great Mystery:

A bird sings in a nearby tree, and “in that moment you understand the singing of the bird … the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirs the leaves … it may even seem to you that you yourself are a word spoken by the sunlight” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg. 35).

woe-legThese words are slightly adapted from Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy, a source of wisdom I count among my teachers in book form. Such a charged sensibility as Le Guin describes glimmers at the edges of our awareness all the time.

Of course as we age, we learn how to turn it off, shut it down, dull its sheen into an occasional daydream, because in full spate it can remind us painfully of what we have forgone in our quest for other things we thought mattered more. Often I abandon the greater magic for the lesser – and the spell I cast, the one we cast together – works all too well.  Exhibit A: just look around, or check out the shrieking headlines.

Or it’s nothing, as far as I can tell, that I’ve done, or left undone.

Nevertheless I search my thoughts and actions for a clue, plumb my mood and my intent, skim my spiritual journal (if I’ve been keeping it up to date, if I keep one at all).

And sometimes, as over this past six weeks, I know precisely where the imbalance lurks. I’ve just finished a teaching intensive, working with international high school students in a residential summer program, doing evening dorm duty, teaching classes, chaperoning day excursions – the kind of all-encompassing, immensely rewarding and exhausting work I’d already done for sixteen years, and which I’d consciously left two years ago. So I knew exactly what I was getting into.

And I could see how out of balance I was getting day by day, postponing regular and vital “inner time” till after the meeting about a troubled boy in the dorm, after I’ve had breakfast — I’m starving!, after teaching three straight classes, after grading this stack of papers I’d promised my kids for yesterday, after a nap I’ve got to have now, or I’ll fall over. After, after, after. Because after all, these things are i m p o r t a n t ! I’m serving, giving, helping, connecting, making a difference! (Best seduction ever.)

In the middle of all this supposed selflessness, my wife and I found our arguments escalating and cutting deeper. I shirked tasks and cut corners, pleading fatigue. And when I didn’t step forward quickly enough to deal with a cluster of dorm incidents — including sexual hazing, secret videotaping, and two fights, all within a 24-hour span, and the deans took over and dismissed my complaints that I was cut out of the solution they had to impose in my absence — I took refuge in ugly self-pity.

Of course, nothing new. As magician and poet R. J. Stewart characterizes it,

lma-cover-rjstewartWith each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Living Magical Arts, pgs. 20-21).

We respond to stories, to myth, because they are our own lives writ large. My little drama, echoed in epic. It does not pay for me to ignore the second teaching, after the pleasant mysticism of sunlight and glorious connection. “Once … he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid” (A Wizard of Earthsea, 66).

O, shut up, says my severest critic. Can you contemplate getting over yourself for a moment?! The story’s a cool story, and your human pettiness is no different than most other people’s. There’s no cosmic link. Stop your posturing, make your point and be done with it already. So I will assay nothing better than to close, once more with Le Guin’s words — the epigram that opens her book.

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

[Part 2 looks further at dark, light, and the field they appear on.]

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Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam/Parnassus Press, 1984. Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st Century. London: Blandford, 1987. Images: A Wizard of EarthseaLiving Magical Arts.

Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (2) — What About Power?   Leave a comment

woe-leg[Part One]

[For a previous series on this topic, go here.]

What I want to talk about here, others say well and beautifully, so this post will invoke quotation for these two potent magics. And in anticipation of what’s to come, if you haven’t given yourself the wise pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, promise yourself you will soon — your library may well have its own copy or can get you one through interlibrary loan — a “magical familiar” as powerful as any in the pages of medieval grimoires.

A “young adult” fantasy, Wizard has as much to say about magical power as any book I know. If you haven’t read it, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and I feel I succeeded. And if you know of a book that teaches more than Wizard about these things, please send me the title!

Here’s more from J H Brennan as he continues to recount his first steps in magical training:

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power. Nothing grandiose, of course. I had no burning ambition to rule the world or enslave hordes of beautiful women. (Well, maybe just one or two beautiful women…) But I was undoubtedly a prey to a disease which is becoming even more prevalent with the increasing complexity of modern society: a feeling of helplessness.

There are many reactions to such a feeling. Some people embrace political credos. Others get religion. A few (usually male) take to beating their spouses. I turned to magic, which seemed to me to be the ultimate antidote: for what is magic if not a secret system which promises control of damn near everything?

You will be desolate to learn it did not work. Although I spent some nine years in daily Qabalistic training and learned a great deal in the process, I remained Clark Kent: no amount of magical leaps into ritual phone boxes could turn me into Superman.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

If you’re honest, your first reaction to Brennan’s admission may well be, “Then why bother with magic?!”

In fact it’s a deeply legitimate response, tangled with helplessness. In so many peoples’ lives today — I’m thinking only of our own time — so much anger, pain, suffering, despair, all because we sense a deep truth about ourselves, but one that the world does much to discount, deny and distract us from: our spiritual selves are strong. LeGuin captures this wisdom at the outset, in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea. Her mage hero Ged is still young, but even untrained, in a moment of crisis he draws on a profound truth about himself: “He … raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength” (A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition, 1975, p. 8).

Our detestable weakness never quite overwhelms that inner knowing, though we may well go under without a lifeline, without support, without confirmation, without some practice that sustains us, whether it has the label “spirituality” or not. Despair at not being able to get at our strength has destroyed many lives. It’s cruel, that despair. In our search for a door to the power in us that we dimly recognize, but which seems to elude us day after wretched day, we may clutch at a cause, as Brennan notes — politics, or religion, or magic — or, if we’re half-under already, at abusive behaviors that may not target others in our lives, but ourselves, though all abuse brings “collateral damage.” Which is double-talk for karma.

The appeal, the draw of power, is clear.

Ged’s teacher, a wizard named Ogion, tries to show Ged the realities he faces in a world where power can be used well or badly. After Ged encounters one who uses her power in a questionable way, and has had his own terrifying encounter with a dark spirit just before this conversation, Ogion admonishes him:

The powers she serves are not the powers I serve. I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well. Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise.  Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay!

When we hear this, it’s too much.  More evasion, more powerlessness! We’ve apprenticed ourselves to those who claim to know, and instead of — at last! — affording us even a little taste of power, they scold us for not knowing anything, and set us instead to memorizing, or visualizing, or some other repetitive task that smacks of elementary school drills. (For of course that’s where we are — in school, at a beginner’s level. Again. How long this time?!)

Predictably, Ged rebels. Note what motivates his response:

Driven by his shame, Ged cried, “How am I to know these things when you teach me nothing? Since I have lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing–”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

We seek power, yet once we commit to a magical or spiritual path, often the first thing we meet is darkness. In ourselves. Distinctly not fun.

Ged was silent.

Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold.

There it is in plain words — Ogion demonstrates literally the “Path of the Hearth Fire” that is one of the magical and occult paths we can take.  And he does it not in words but in actions LeGuin describes — the daily tasks of an “ordinary life” that can be done with magical awareness of their place and purpose, a responsibility that we can serve while we learn — a way that actually leads to our ideal “inner Hogwarts” without fleeing from the obligations of our “mundane” world which have far more to teach us than we know.

Then still kneeling [Ogion] said in his quiet voice, “Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great. Greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will. Now choose …”

(A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition 1975, pgs. 23-24.)

Power greater than pride: Ogion nails the issue. As J. H. Brennan notes, implicating many of us:

The problem with arrogance is that it is a quality for which I have a sneaking admiration. Consequently it plays a greater part in my character than it really should.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

There’s a whole book of wisdom to be unpacked from Ogion’s words, which deserve extended meditation. I’ll zero in on the last two: “Now choose.” How can we choose before we understand the consequences of choice? As Tolkien says (in talking about translation*), “We constantly need to know more than we do.”

Choice? That’s another post …

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Images: A Wizard of Earthsea — cover.

*translating Beowulf. In J R R Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, pg. 191.  For much more on this that you probably could EVER want to know, come to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI this May 2015, where I and many others will be delivering papers on Tolkien’s translation — and in my case, on his peculiar theories of “correct style” and how this intersects with his whole legendarium and the power of imagination.

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