Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Tale of Two Wizards

There is more in this vein.

By 'this vein' I'm referring to the discussion of magic I began two weeks ago. I'm aware that the idea is not mine for defining; there are historically rooted practices that make up a body of knowledge and formal technique known as magic. These were well-known and widely used in many cultures for thousands of years, but in the last three hundred they've fallen so badly out of style in Western cultures that most people aren't even aware that magic has ever been more than superstition and fantasy.

Leaving aside the real magic worked by operative mages, shaman healers, and practitioners of voodoo, I want to examine a more fantastical, metaphorical branch of the art. This is the branch in which I have chosen to apprentice, and in which fantasy and metaphor are the bread and butter of the operative. The method I've chosen is both a concrete example of what I mean and an illustrative commentary on the various uses of the Art Magic. The concrete example is a story, (as if you didn't see that coming) and the commentary concerns two wizards whose deeds are commemorated in story and in song, and who followed very different paths on their journeys through this world.

The elder was named Curunír, which means 'man of skill'. He was learned in all ways of smithcraft and wheelwork, with great gifts of hand and mind. When he spoke, it was with a voice both subtle and majestic, a voice that moved the hearts of men to thoughts and deeds they would not have pondered of their own accord. In the beginning of his days he travelled far into the East and returned with much lore and learning, but after this he settled in the West, taking up his abode in an ancient tower tall and strong. Those who sought his counsel journeyed from far and wide to speak with him there.

The younger was called Mithrandir, which means 'the grey pilgrim'. His vocation was to be homeless, wandering from land to land as a friend of all. Many strange countries he knew and many strange peoples that dwelt therein. He was multifarious in tongues, having mastery of many languages both living and dead, and he was at home in the halls of the mighty and in the cottages of the weak. Quick-tempered but with a swift smile on his lips, his goings and his comings were as unpredictable as the wind, but he always seemed to appear where he was needed most.

Curunír and Mithrandir, by the sacred laws of their order, were forbidden to match their powers against the powers of darkness. Though both of them were mighty in their own right, their task was instead to strengthen the wills of all those around them who were able to resist the darkness which in their time was spreading over the earth. This Mithrandir did, and by means peculiar to his character. He travelled far and wide, risking life and limb, speaking hope where fear held sway in words best suited for each of his hearers. By his labours and constant vigilance he was able to call together a last alliance to challenge the darkness before its dominion was complete.

Curunír, on the other hand, learned all he could of the means and mechanisms of the dark arts, at first in the hope of finding a way to defeat them, later out of admiration, and finally out of a desire for mastery. He came to believe that only by appropriating the tools of power into his own hands could he order the world in accordance with wisdom. He forsook what he called the foolish hope of the weak and took upon himself the hope of the strong. He studied, and was seduced, and became himself a power of darkness, fortified in his tower of stone and commanding armies that trembled at the sound of his voice.

To each of the two wizards befell very different fates. If you know of Curunír and Mithrandir already by their more familiar names, Saruman and Gandalf, then you'll already be aware that Curunír/Saruman's path led him to a slavish imitation of the Dark Lord himself, a role which even he in his native power and intellect was not great enough to fill. His own machinations turned against him, and he was defeated and humiliated. Mithrandir/Gandalf, whose chosen path of self-sacrifice had revealed in him greater strength than any but the wisest would have supposed, himself broke the staff of Saruman and cast him from the order of wizardry. Their final confrontation on the threshold of Isengard fortress is one of the most masterful scenes in The Lord of the Rings.

I had a greater difficulty than usual in writing this post, in part because as a writer and teacher the question for me is personal. Which path will I take? On the one hand is the path of machination, of gathering followers and building up around oneself the mechanisms of power and influence. In The Lord of the Rings, this approach to power is expressed in the deceptively simple device of the Ring. It is the machine par excellence, the power one takes up to enhance one's power, perhaps with the intention of working good, but inevitably with the result of multiplying evil. On the other hand lies the path of humility, of renouncing power in order to empower others. Gandalf's gift was to enable his companions to see through the lies of machination and fear, and to envision in their place a practical hope, however fragile it seemed.

For the powers of darkness are not challenged lightly (though I dare say a pun or two here and there helps lighten the work). I have a keen interest in the project of dispelling the very real lies and machinations serving the powers of darkness as they presently stand. I have a keen interest in empowering people around me to arise and take their hope into their own hands, whether that hope looks like an ancient sword or a gardening spade. While it would be nice to build my authority and gain followers by means of the internet and related devices, it would be better if these writings could serve as a mere eye-opener, a head-scratcher, a vision of a different way of coming at things. That is, the blog is a nice thing, but it's what we do with it that matters.

In the coming week I'd like to take a look at how dark magic, as I've conceived of it here, manifests in our day and age. This will be helpful for me both in continuing to clarify my idea of magic and in practicing and promoting Defence Against the Dark Arts. The story I've told here is simplistic; that's because The Lord of the Rings is a story whose strength is in bringing to light certain deep forms hidden beneath the surfaces of things and colouring them in sharply contrasting hues to make them more readily visible. Thus it's often maligned for reading as a tale of black and white, good and evil. Of course things are more complicated in the real world, and Tolkien was not naive to this fact. In the interest of carrying forward the master's work, we'll be looking next week at how the roles of Saruman and Gandalf are taken up in our time.

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