Archive for the ‘Tolkien’ Tag

Listening to Each Other — Recent Comments   5 comments

A series of recent comments here has been helpful to me, even as I try to gauge how to approach these posts, and how far and where to take them.

I had breakfast with a Druid friend this morning, a short while before he’ll be off for an extended cross-country skiing trip, far from regular tourist routes, hiking in and out, and camping and staying in trail-side shelters. I value him in part because he’s a good listener, and as a consistent character trait, he seeks to find balance in his own reactions to his daily inner and outer life, even as he shares them with others. It makes for some priceless insights, if I shut up to catch them.

Such reflection is a gift, something to cherish and encourage in others. I try to listen here in the same spirit, when you comment in posts about what’s going on in your worlds and experiences. Often of course I don’t not know enough of your circumstances to comment usefully, but I keep listening partly for that very reason. Who knows the whole story, even of our own lives? (The late ABC commentator Paul Harvey called his popular broadcast The Rest of the Story. We keep paying attention, if we’re wise, because the story hasn’t ended yet by any means, and we’re all part of it, telling our piece as we live it. And if you suspect reincarnation is an accurate aspect of the story, its chapters can grow quite lengthy indeed.) Listening, patience, gratitude: a triad cutting across all traditions, proven countless times over and over in its profound power.

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Krista writes:

Dean, I’m always especially interested when you write on this particular topic. Having been raised in the Christian Faith, and having had no quarrel with the Christianity of my youth, my own Druid practice always has something of a Christian flavor to it even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. But I don’t consider myself Pagan either. Always was a bit of a square peg. So throughout my Druid journey I’ve become very comfortable blending and assimilating and it works quite well in my private practice. It’s a bit more challenging in community practice, but I’m working on it and I adapt when it’s called for. I think it would do the Druid community a world of good to acknowledge, and have more discussion about, different Druid perspectives rather than focusing almost exclusively on the Pagan perspective. Thanks for taking it on!

How many of us hear even a part of our own experiences in what Krista shares here? Neither Christian or Pagan. It’s a perspective and an experience I suspect is more common than we recognize. “Square-pegged-ness” could probably define a number of us, and in fact much contemporary spiritual practice across traditions echoes this sense of having to find and tread our own paths. Because what price “purity” of belief or practice strictly within the confines of one tradition or school, church or community, if spiritually we’re suffocating or starving there? It can take a deal of work just to recognize such a priority, and honor such a spiritual imperative.

The influx of the divine that swirled and took shape in and around Christianity still has valid things to teach us, even as individual churches and whole communions and major denominations struggle to find their way.  The existence today of over 20,000 Protestant denominations, to say nothing of other Christian traditions, testifies to the difficulty of satisfying the questing individual soul with system and conformity, doctrine and creed.

Group practice and community often mean more to many people than words of affirmation recited at a particular portion of the weekly service, though they may describe much of value, too. But the flame that burns at the heart of what is called Christianity does not appear to keep itself neatly smouldering within any bounds set by humans, any more than it does in other spiritualities. If it did, how much would it really be worth? Instead, it kindles and warms anyone who brushes up against it for any length of time. Inconveniently so, dynamically so, wonderfully and provocatively and endlessly “inspiritingly” so.

What other perspectives or flavors of Druidry do we often overlook, besides the Christian one(s)?

Until we can begin to answer that question adequately, I’m borrowing, for the space of a quotation anyway, some monotheistic but non-Christian flavor from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, hearing in it an echo of Druidic awen, and a further gift of the elemental fire that kindles us all:

Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

And disabledhikernh writes:

Thank you for this post. I am hard pressed to find other Druid Christians, so I have felt kind of isolated as such. Now I don’t 🙂

Isolation, that challenge to solitaries — and how many of us are solitary, even if we enjoy a local community of others, before and after we gather with them? The anvil of solitude can forge us spiritually in ways nothing else can, though the costs can be correspondingly high.

(One of my spiritual practices, for what it’s worth, found in other interesting places, too: If this experience is happening for me rather than only to me, what can I take from it? Where can I travel with it? What doors does it open, and not just close? What beauties glow behind the doors? What deities flare and bloom there? How far, I whisper to myself, half in fear, half in wonder, how far can I really go?)

Steve has been sharing something of his journey in previous comments, and writes:

This series of posts is proving to be a thoughtful and thought provoking treatment of what is a “delicate” subject in many circles. When I first encountered some of your earlier posts on the intersection of druidry and christianity I admit to taking a very cautious approach, almost an attitude of “this is too good to be true”. With time to read and think about what you are saying it seems more likely that you are speaking from hard won, first hand experience. Thank you for doing this.

“Delicate” is apt. Steve’s caution here sounds at least as hard-won — and needful — as any experience of mine, and vice-versa. My caution in how definitively I assert something, how deep I dig, how far I push, what I ask that I can’t answer, is ongoing. Rather than encounter walls, or provoke readers unnecessarily with observations I can’t back up from experience, I want to explore respectfully — mostly so I miss as little as possible of value as I go.

One of the most startling overlaps or intersections of traditions for me happened during an initiation. I still don’t know altogether what it “means”, though it was over five years ago now. In a clear inner encounter, all the more unexpected because I hadn’t opened a Bible in many years, I saw how

out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and his face was like the sun shining in its strength (Revelation 1:20).

Rather than “meaning” anything at first, the experience shaped me within its own context, just like other profound experiences, whether of pain or joy, grief or wonder, which we analyze only later, and put labels on, as we “process” them, seeking to incorporate or reject them, expanding or contracting them to “fit” what we can accept at the time. At the time, this experience confirmed for me the energy and love behind the initiation, flagging it as powerfully memorable.

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Milan’s bosco verticale — vertical forest, completed in 2018*.

(After a car accident over three decades ago now, I surveyed the overturned and totaled car I’d been driving, walked gingerly over a puddle of broken glass to retrieve my wallet, flung from the dash out the window by the impact, massaged a sore neck that was my only physical outcome of the event, and marveled in gratitude that no one had been hurt. Anything the accident “meant” came only later: Insurance claims. My sometimes-psychic brother, agitated all morning before my phone call home to explain what happened and ask to be picked up. The eventual replacement of the car. The job interview I was returning from, the mantra I’d been chanting, my mindset, the weather, the other driver, and so on.)

Part of the gift of the initiation experience is that I was largely able to let go of what it “meant” at first and focus on accepting its effects on my awareness. What it “meant” and “means” has continued to unfold, though not necessarily along “orthodox” lines. And that no doubt drives some of what I write here. Images and metaphors as divine “transparencies” or hierophanies, ways to connect to the limitless, ways it “shines through”, are part of our spiritual furniture, and part of my bias or individuality or inner architecture. They may or may not be yours, but you have yours.

May you find and explore them richly.

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IMAGE: urban trees — public domain; Bosco Verticale — Milan, Italy’s “vertical forest”.

*For more info and pictures of the Vertical Forest, see this article.

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“The Provocations of Now”   2 comments

[Solstice light and fire can fill us with energy to tackle the big stuff.  At least, that’s my sense of this post, after drafting and revising it. Here goes.]

fire circle -- crystal collins

MAGUS ’18 fire circle. Photo courtesy Crystal Collins.

The title for this post comes from a line in a recent column in the UK paper The Guardian. (I routinely skim the foreign press both as an escape from the breathless hyper-partisanship of U.S. media and also for key perspectives often wholly absent from American consciousness.)

Every age has ’em: the issues screeching for our attention, promising imminent peril and world-flattening disaster if we don’t ramp up our paranoia, doubt, fear and despair to the pitch of the writer, pol, preacher, activist, etc., etc. If you haven’t developed a nervous twitch just from hearing certain triggering labels in the 24-hour news-cycle, you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

Which is exactly what I try to practice and quietly urge on others, if they choose to give me space to talk. Often they don’t, and I don’t insist. Stop paying attention, which is a form of our energy, to absolutely everything, just because it asks for it. Pay attention specifically to what builds, to what gives joy and life to you and others. Otherwise, why bother?

What follows is geek-talk, if you’re not a Tolkien-fan. You might as well use the search box at the top left to find a topic that interests you, or wander elsewhere on the Net to track down what will feed and nourish your powers. Surf well.

OK, you’ve been warned.

Remember the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings? In that remarkable extended scene with its many speakers, Gloin recounts how an emissary from Mordor comes to Dain Ironfoot, king of the Dwarves in Moria, and demands Dain’s compliance with a request. Dain answers prudently:

“I say neither yea nor nay. I must consider this message and what it means under its fair cloak.”

“Consider well, but not too long,” said he [the emissary].

“The time of my thought is my own to spend,” answered Dain.

“For the present,” said he, and rode off into the darkness.

We’re always asked to decide, to react — preferably as-quickly-as-possible — but certainly not to spend our time considering the messages we receive, or to originate a response that’s not simply a manipulated reaction for or against.

The time of our thought is our own to spend, if we reclaim it, which is precisely what we need to do if we’re to find a balance and poise that will let us act prudently, navigate our own lives with a measure of confidence and joy, avoid inadvertently assisting the dis-eases of our times, and possibly aid the forces of light.  (Yes, sometimes the admittedly exalted and grandiloquent language of fantasy has its place in a realist view of things. In times that feel over-the-top, eloquence and dramatic language fit perfectly. If they move us in any way to preserve our own integrity, they merit a place in the action.)

And we each need to do this in our own ways, which means no single formula that I or anyone else proposes will suit us all. No OSFA.* The Druid tradition of the triad quietly tells us to look beyond crippling polarities — it bids us ask where the third factor lies, and what it contributes to the situation — but it’s far from the “only solution”. Other factors shape any situation, but threes at least have the virtue of avoiding the potential deadlock of twos. A tie-breaker is built-in, so to speak. Freed from the grip of either-or, many a situation opens onto unexpected possibilities and directions.

I refuse — with the defiant gesture of Galadriel repulsing the Shadow — to spend my hours in despair, like Denethor, who thought he saw truly with his palantir, when all he perceived were the visions Sauron fed him. And a corollary: If I can’t contribute effectively to matters I care about, I will work where I can create and originate something positive, however modest. Instead of complaint, muddying the atmosphere for myself and those around me, I will build as much as I can.

And I vow — with the wisdom of the exchange of Elrond and Gimli following the Council — to keep faith with my own ideals, even as I test their validity.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.

“Maybe,” said Elrond. “But let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.

“Or break it,” said Elrond. “Look not too far ahead, But go now with good hearts!”

But what does that mean in my case? Showing up to write this blog, I reach 400+ people who find some value in what I say. If I can help raise spirits, I’ve found one way to serve. We each have many, and to identify them and give them attention can be a revelatory experience. We each matter much more than we believe or feel most days. (What dark magic have we allowed to enspell us that we think so little of ourselves?)

Lastly, I swear fealty to what I know of the highest and best, trusting that any purgation I face, should I fall short of my own ideals — as I have and will again, no doubt — will necessarily restore me at length to the commitment and service I aspire to.

There, a triad for myself, and for any others who may find value in adapting it to their situation, experience and capacities.

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*OSFA: “one size fits all” — a personal meme reminding me to suspect the single fix, the one answer, the sole acceptable response, the cloned ideal, the mono-culture, etc.

Sovereignty and Time   Leave a comment

sovereigntySovereignty, Lady of an inner realm which flows ceaselessly into this one, you birth, nourish and sustain us. May my deeds serve not my own will alone, but your larger shaping for the good of all. In my words here, in my deeds, thoughts, feelings and dreams, let that light and song and fire illumine where it can, whom it may.

If conditions here no longer allow for the manifold inner purposes and directions to manifest outwardly, physical life may well withdraw from one world, moving to another. Yet in spite of the uncertainty and dark despair that may arise in our hearts from time to time, this lovely, difficult, damaged world is far from exhausting its spiritual purposes.

As a sacred laboratory for experiences for many beings, and for spirit to inhabit all lives, possibilities and forms to know itself again, the world unfolds still, rich with potential. Both established forms yet with us and new ones coming into being offer choice, beauty, misery, destruction and growth. From the small to the great, from the inner to the outer, from seed and leaf to flower and fruit, through decay and transformation and renewal, it has ever been so.

True it is, that all realms touch, intermingle and answer each other. Events here send their ripples and taproots elsewhere for good and bad, and a shift there brings about a corresponding change here. The walls of the world echo. The great wonder is not that we have no influence on life, but that our influence often exceeds our knowledge. Day to day is not always the place to look for vision, though what we see elsewhere in vision and dream returns us here to labor anew.

Because that’s what makes a uni-verse, a one-turning. We are part of the work and movement of a marvelous many-faceted whole. It’s a measure of our priorities and the fading of the ancient heritage we have received and often abandoned in our pursuit of other things that many of us no longer know this in our bones, that we have to re-learn it through often bitter experience before we can begin again to make use of it to shape something better. But our cells know better, and our dis-ease may yet call us back to here and now, our suffering may still wake us to rebellion and questioning and discovery, our losses may perhaps stir us to compassion rather than endless lament and blame and surrender.

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The seed of ritual, planted. The promise of spring, uttered. The shaping of hands to make each thing happen, foretold and prefigured at the birth of each woman and man into this world, from the great family ranged behind and all around us, that family of blood and friendship and teaching in the other worlds. Ancestors, hear us.

Slowly we apprehend what is essential and what is not, the long journey fashioned and felt and followed as we abide in multitudes of forms.

For us, the essential thing is that there is everywhere a conception of the end and the beginning of a temporal period, based on the observation of biocosmic rhythms and forming part of a larger system — the system of periodic purifications (cf. purges, fasting, confession of sins, etc.) and of periodic regeneration of life. This need for a periodic regeneration seems to us of considerable significance in itself. Yet the examples that we shall presently adduce will show us something even more important, namely, that a periodic regeneration of time presupposes, in more or less explicit form — and especially in the historical civilizations — a new Creation, that is, a repetition of the cosmogonic act. And this conception of a periodic creation, i.e., of the cyclical regeneration of time, poses the problem of the abolition of “history,” the problem which is our prime concern in this essay. — Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History.

Lady, we gather in your grove, where your blessing yields all seasons at once. You abolish time in each moment, directing us forward and back, to ends and beginning, seed and leaf and fruit and fallow time. You regenerate us constantly, your dark and bright moons, this daily sun, stars overhead — who cannot see it?

Often, we cannot. Teach us again, three by three by three.

“The Goddess of Sovereignty gives three drinks from her cup, purveying the white milk of fostering, the red milk of lordship and the dark drink of forgetfulness. These she offers successively in her aspects as Foster-Mother, Consort and Renewer” — Caitlin and John Matthews, The Arthurian Tarot, pg. 43.

Clothed in rags, we walk the streets of the cities and wastelands, forests and plains and mountains of Time.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned … — J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”.

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“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,”
(some wishes are horses – watch out where they stride!)
but my words are wingéd – they fly to your side
to wish you a happy New Year ’17.
It’s not for myself that I say it – I mean
may you flourish and grow, whatever the weather:
as long as we’re in this, we’re in it together.

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Image: Sovereignty.

Tools for “Thrival”   2 comments

— not just survival. That’s much of what I aim for with this blog. (You know almost as well as I do how I don’t always hit the target.)

Not tools for “social transformation” or “regime change” or advocating for somebody else’s large-scale fixes that may or may not ever reach me (or you) in anything like helpful ways. In U.S. terms, that means neither Trump nor Hillary will help more than they will hurt. (Only differently.) In U.K. terms, that means “to Brexit or not to Brexit” isn’t the question. Generally, that means binary choices often aren’t very useful ones.

Whoever “wins” won’t change what needs changing. (That ultimately lies with me. I win as I listen to what yearns to be heard most deeply.) Forces in motion that we launched decades ago, larger than politicians or parties or even empires, will see to changes. A wiser course, for me at least, is to work with forces that build, and learn to ride the ones that don’t, as skilfully as I can. Those aren’t up to a vote. They’re not democratic. If I want, I can put myself in agreement with their effects through anger or ignorance or blind acceptance. But I keep learning the hard way that none of those are profitable responses.

What’s the third — or at least a third — option? (There are always more than two options. If I don’t see them yet, right there is a place for me to work at listening and paying attention.)

Do the necessary work on myself and, as much as possible, avoid feeding energy to the rising political hysteria — of any flavor. “Chop wood, carry water” is a beginning. Yes, but also honor the trees as I do so. Bless the waters, waste less, thank more. In-form the heart, not out-form it. Love works better as a fountain, ever-flowing, than as a reservoir of “hold on to what you’ve got.” Turn down the volume on the shouting. Duck when necessary. Plant seeds for the long view. Share even modest harvests. Stay mindful of the Dao De Jing’s counsel: “Extremes do not last long.” And also: “This world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be ‘improved.'” Or if you prefer, as humble recipes say, leaving it up to us in the end: flavor to taste.

So I keep bringing back my monkey-mind to focus here on what I can create and transform through awareness and co-operation, hoping to model in my limited way a version of what I see others I respect trying out in their lives and succeeding at.

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When building, start small.

Start small, because in the end that’s the only place anything starts anyway. But watch for when I touch infinities in those grains of sand I garden in. Revel in eternities that spring from my hours.

Have you ever reached a limit to joy? Not happiness which — often — is superficial, and — often — not worth pursuing:  peace to that old Declaration we claim to fancy and which offers such pursuit as one leg of a Founding-Fathers triad that provoked a 240-year-old Exit of our own.

No, I mean joy, a stranger to many, it seems. What Tolkien’s hobbit Pippin could perceive, in the middle of all-out war, in the Maia Gandalf:

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.*

True kingdoms to you.

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Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith.”

Thirty Days of Druidry 10: Both Trees   Leave a comment

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In Tolkien’s legendarium, his two trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, are silver and gold, both fruit-bearing, and the originals of the moon and sun.

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Either-or? How about both-and?

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The jury’s just heard the last of the testimony. The voices of the four defendants — two humans, one animal, one deity — still seem to echo in the paneled courtroom.

The DA rises slowly from his chair and approaches the jury to give them their charge before sending them off to deliberate. As he stands before them, he leans forward a little, resting his hands on the railing at the front of the jury box. At such close range, they can see shadows under his eyes. His suit is rumpled, and the once-crisp blue tie is stained and hangs loosely knotted. His trim physique looks pale, and his eyes rather glassy behind the heavy metal-framed glasses he has worn each day as this case goes forward. He speaks:

OK, folks. You’ve heard everyone involved tell their side. The facts are clear: God plants a garden in Eden, puts the man there, makes all kinds of trees grow out of the ground, good to look at and good for food. In the middle of that garden stand two trees. Let me refresh your memories here: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The DA pauses and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He looks around slowly, catching many eyes. Then he resumes his summary.

God tells the man, “You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When you eat from it, you will die.” Note that God doesn’t say “if” but “when.”

God realizes it’s not good for the man to live alone, and after a dry run with animal companions who just don’t fit the bill, he puts the man to sleep, and from him makes a woman.

The serpent says to the woman — and everyone agrees on his words — “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman answers, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” It’s here that confusion enters the record. Does Eve know which of the two trees to avoid? Or has this all-important distinction already been lost?

I know we’ve arrived at the appearance of “he said-she said,” but it’s important to note everyone still agrees what was said.

“You certainly won’t die,” the serpent says to the woman. “God knows when you eat your eyes will be opened, and you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil.” Again, “when,” not “if.” Up to this point everyone agrees on what was said.

Now the serpent claims he tried to get Eve’s attention at this point, before she moved from her spot in the middle of the Garden, staring at the Trees of Knowledge and Life, and took that famous fruity bite. His words don’t appear in any of our official transcripts, and here’s the first disagreement. But I repeat his testimony here:

“Hey, Eve. Eve! EVE! A piece of advice. Eat from the Tree of Life FIRST! The tree of LIFE!”

Again the DA pauses, rubbing his eyes and cleaning his glasses, which he prefers over contacts. This time he takes so long that the judge is just about to admonish him, when he suddenly resumes, as if startled out of a dream.

When Eve sees the fruit of the tree is good for food and good to look at, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some and eats it. My next question to you is this: how does she know these things before she eats?

Folks, to make short work of the rest of the story, which again nobody contests, God finds them. There’s an ugly episode of shirking responsibility and buck-passing to the serpent who can’t blame anybody else (though you might look again at God).

God curses the three of them, serpent, Adam and Eve. And this is my final observation to you. In spite of what we’ve heard today, neither Adam nor Eve dies for many more centuries.

Consider these things carefully, and you can only arrive at one verdict. All right, ladies and gentlemen. You’re dismissed.

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But what is the verdict? Is there, can there be really only one, in spite of how we often interpret the story? A better question or at least a more Druidic one: what’s the range of possibilities?

My apologies to those of you who know this story well. I taught it in high school for a decade and a half in a “Bible as Literature” unit, and we looked at characterization, at gender, at issues of truth and specificity, and the implications of distinctions like if and when, and what the story may subversively teach below and around and in spite of what we’re traditionally told it teaches. (A small detail: as many of you also know, there’s no apple anywhere to be found.) And we looked at over-reading the story, too, which teachers are infamous for doing, and which I do here.

I’ve also manipulated the story, and added to it, for my purposes. The “if/when” distinction, however, does appear in the New International Version, which comes in for its share of criticism for instances like this, and many others.

Student atheists in my class often didn’t know the story, Jews and Christians who actually did know it (and not all did as well as they thought they did) expressed often widely disparate views on what the takeaway is or could be. It’s safe to say all our eyes were opened. If we left some discussions feeling uncomfortable, it was a useful discomfort.

Among the reasons I like this story as a Druid is that trees are mediators of such potent energies as wisdom, moral law, and life. And as the song “The Wisdom of Trees” says, “Church bells ring, and I’m glad they do, but …”

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Therese1896Let’s refuse to choose between wisdom and life. Like Thérèse of Lisieux, when presented with a choice, will I say “I choose all”?

IMAGES: Therese.

Thirty Days of Druidry 6: Call and Response   3 comments

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A (dreamily): If you call, they will respond …
B (annoyed): Who are “they” and why should I care?
A: Oh, well, uh, you don’t need to care. I was just saying …
B: Then why mention it?

And thus another chance at discovery gets shut down. Yes, of course it’s happened to me as it no doubt has to you, and more than once. But I’m more interested in how often I’ve provided this unkind service for somebody else. If in the midst of human self-pity or fatigue or temper, I can’t muster enthusiasm for another manifestation of Spirit, can I at least offer silence? (These days that can count as an invitation.) My own actions I have some control over. I’m not answerable for other people’s, thank the gods.

Fortunately, the awen does not depend on human kindness or indifference. It flows from deeper wells, and it will out. I can slow it, temporarily shunt it aside from blessing me or the local situation or the whole cosmos, but never altogether block it. The Galilean Master knew this: “I tell you, if you keep quiet the stones will cry out.”*

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The call went out and I responded. In this case, for afternoon “exploratories” — informal classes in a skill or craft at a neighborhood high school, after regular classes end for the day. I jumped through the hoops of paperwork, the routine police background check, got fingerprinted (digitally), so I could then offer a six-session class on conlanging.** I even went to a school meeting a week ago to talk it up with my “Top Ten Reasons to Join the Conlang Class.”*** Now I’m waiting to see if initial interest turns into enrollments and makes the class happen. The teacher who organizes the exploratories helped: he’s a fan of conlangs himself and knows a few kids he thinks might find them “just the right amount of weird to be cool,” as he put it.

So what’s particularly Druidic about conlangs? Well, not everything has to demonstrate an immediate link to Druidry, does it? Conlanging is something this Druid does, and you’ve read this post up to this point, so stay with me. But if you think about it, language and language craft are after all domains of the Bard, and my Bardic self is always responding to the call of language and words and sound and human awareness of the cosmos as we talk and think about it.

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Take the Welsh phrase from a recent post, y gwir yn erbyn y byd, and you’ve got a fine example of conlanging to work with.

(Wait, you say. Welsh is a real language. Well, so are many conlangs, if by “real” you mean that they exist and people use them to communicate and you can say anything with them that you can say in your native language. How much more “real” can anything be? If by “real” you mean they have thousands or millions of speakers, well, Welsh stands around the 500,000 speaker mark, depending on who’s counting. Many Native American languages have only a few dozen speakers left. Mere numbers are just that. Besides, as a wise one once said, some of the same minds that created all human languages are at work on conlangs. At this point, the word real starts to look less than altogether useful and more like a comment on the person who uses it.)

One of the initially daunting things about a foreign language is simply that it “looks (and sounds) foreign.” But this Welsh phrase has almost a one-for-one correspondence to English. The different words mask vast similarities that make both Welsh and English human languages, and make them learnable and usable. Here’s a word-for- word rendering of the Welsh:

y gwir yn erbyn y byd

the truth in despite (of) the world

What this means for conlangers is that surface differences are one key to conlanging.

(The “fake glasses and a moustache” school of conlanging gets a lot of mileage out of surface differences. Make your conlang too much of a cleverly disguised English, though, and conlangers will call you on merely making a relexification, which is a learned way of saying you’re just replacing word by word, rather than creating a unique language where a one-for-one translation is usually impossible. But don’t worry: many conlangers go through a fascination with relexification. Tolkien himself made a childhood relex called Nevbosh, which means New Nonsense. He and his cousins played with it and even could make limericks in it. He probably also learned a fair deal from its making.)

Welsh and English both have articles: the and y(n). They both have nouns. They make phrases in a very similar way. And sentences. Yes, Welsh and English word order differs in a few important ways. Sounds interact somewhat differently. From a conlanger’s point of view, that’s window-dressing to play with.

In English we say “just add -s to make a noun plural.” What could be simpler? So you may shake your head when you hear that Welsh forms plurals in over a dozen different ways. But consider: English “cats” adds -s. But “dogs” adds a -z, though it’s still written -s. And “houses” adds an -iz, though it’s written -es. Add in ox/oxen, wolf/wolves, sheep/sheep, curriculum/curricula, and so on, and you get a different picture. Native speakers make most of these shifts instinctively. The same happens in other languages. That’s the reason that when a child says “I goed to school” we may think it’s cute. We may correct her (or not), but if we think about it a moment, we understand that she’s mastered the rule but not yet the exception.

All hail the awen of human intelligence!

Go a little ways into conlanging, and you may discover a taste for something different from (here British English requires “to” rather than “from”) SAE — “Standard Average European.” There’s a rather dismissive word for it in the conlanging world: a “Euroclone” — a language which does things that most other European languages do. Nothing wrong with it. I’ve spent years elaborating more than one of my own. But many other options are out there to try out, in the same way that the eight notes of an octave aren’t the only way to play the available sonic space.

Take Inuit or Inuktikut. Just the feel of the names shows they inhabit a different linguistic space than English does. I-nuk-ti-kut. For a conlanger, that’s a sensuous pleasure all its own, a kind of musical and esthetic delight in the differences, the revelation of another way to configure human perception and describe this “blooming buzzing confusion” as psychologist William James characterizes a baby’s first awareness of the world. But of course that “BBC” does get converted into human language. (Language origins continue to fascinate researchers.)

In the case of Inuktikut, “… words begin with a root morpheme to which other morphemes are suffixed. The language has hundreds of distinct suffixes, in some dialects as many as 700. Fortunately for learners, the language has a highly regular morphology. Although the rules are sometimes very complicated, they do not have exceptions in the sense that English and other Indo-European languages do.” (I’ll be lifting material wholesale from the Wikipedia entry.)

Agglutinating or polysynthetic languages like Inuktikut tend to be quite long as result of adding suffix to suffix. So you get words like tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga “I can’t hear very well” that end up as long as whole English sentences.  As the entry innocently goes on to acknowledge, “This sort of word construction is pervasive in Inuit language and makes it very unlike English.”

Tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga begins with the word tusaa “to hear” followed by the suffixes tsiaq “well”; junnaq “be able to”; nngit “not”; tualuu “very much” and junga “1st person singular present indicative non-specific.” The suffixes combine with sound changes to make the word/sentence Tusaatsiarunnanngittualuujunga. So if you want to create something other than English or your average Euroclone, Inuktikut is one excellent model to study for a glimpse of the range of what’s possible.

Now if this sort of thing interests you, you’re still reading. If not, you’re saying “Well, he’s just geeked out on another post. Where’s the Druidry, man?” For me, Druidry has wisdom and insight about all human activity, and can deepen human experience. I’m in it for that reason. May you find joy and wisdom as you live your days and follow your ways.

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*Luke 19:40

**conlanging: the making of con(structed) lang(uages). Tolkien’s one of our patron saints. You can find other posts about conlanging on this blog here. Here’s the obligatory Wikipedia entry. And here’s a link to the Language Creation Society., cofounded by David Peterson, one of the best-known conlangers working today, and creator of Dothraki, Castithan, Sondiv, and a dozen other conlangs.

***Top Ten Reasons to Join the Conlang Class

10: Languages are cool — conlangs are even cooler: Game of Thrones has Dothraki & Valyrian, Avatar has Na’vi, Star Trek has Klingon, Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit have Elvish, there’s Castithan in Defiance, Sondiv from Star-Crossed, Esperanto, Toki Pona, etc.

9: I’ve been conlanging for decades, can help you get started, gain a sense of the possibilities, & keep going after the class ends.

8. Making conlangs can help you go “inside language” (like Lewis said of Tolkien) & discover amazing things about our most powerful human tool.

7: Conlanging is one of the cheapest arts & crafts I know: all you really need is pen & paper. (Of course, a computer can help.)

6: Nerds need to stick together or our 3 big Nerd Secrets will get out — we’re all nerds in some way, nerds are cool, & nerds have more fun.

5: You’ll learn enough to participate in the international conlang community which is very active online & also in print.

4: You too can learn to say things like Klingon Tlingan Hol dajatlaH & Valyrian sikudi nopazmi & Elvish Elen sila lumen omentielvo — & more importantly, you’ll know what they actually mean.

3: You can join the Language Creation Society & create languages for others for fun & profit.

2: You can keep a secret diary or talk to friends in your conlang & no one else will know what you’re saying.

1: You’ll have your own conlang & script by the end of the last class.

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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