THE WESTERN ESOTERIC TRADITION
& POPULAR CULTURE
0n the face of it the Western Esoteric Tradition and Popular Culture may seem a contradiction in terms. After all, "esoteric" means “for the few", whilst popular culture is obviously for the many. So how are these two reconciled? Where do they meet?
I have to say, in a manner that is often clandestine and generally misunderstood. And this is not helped by the fact that the Esoteric Tradition, because it is an embodiment of the Perennial Philosophy, has an element of permanence about it, whilst popular culture is essentially transitory and ephemeral, a thing of the moment, ever changing. So how does the permanent and the esoteric shine through the temporal and popular?
An example that comes to mind lies in the Tarot cards, which have an interesting role in cultural history since their appearance five hundred years ago in Renaissance Italy. The first book I ever wrote, a somewhat esoteric tome, attempted an analysis of their relationship to the Tree of Life of the Qabalah. The cards were certainly more esoteric than popular then, at any rate in London in 1961. I had the utmost difficulty in finding a set of Tarot cards on sale in the whole of Britain, and where found, they were likely to be highly priced antiquarian rarities.
But in the early nineteen seventies some kind of cultural explosion occurred that shot them into popularity, albeit as a means of fortune telling. They have even been featured in a James Bond film, in a special design no doubt crafted in the mystic shrines of Hollywood. Anyhow the fact remains that nowadays there is a plethora of Tarot packs to choose from, a hundred and fifty at the very least. Nor do we have to make an esoteric pilgrimage to Watkins or the Atlantis Bookshop, for they can also be found on display as novelty items in various shops and department stores. Perhaps not quite so much now as in recent years, for as I said, popular culture is ephemeral.
Popular culture is also regional and over the several hundred years since its first appearance the Tarot had certainly been popular in Italy, Switzerland and southern France, not in any esoteric capacity, but as a popular card game. Any relevance to the Western Esoteric Tradition was not proclaimed until the end of the eighteenth century. Then, after an efflorescence of popular fortune telling in post‑revolutionary France, they were declared an integral part of Qabalistic symbolism by the occultist Eliphas Levi in the eighteen sixties, and have been so regarded in certain esoteric circles to this day.
It had always been my assumption that elements of esoteric philosophy were deliberately built into the Tarot from the start. That, possibly along with some of the paintings of Botticelli, they had been commissioned as a set of meditation symbols, as a result of an interest in the Hermetic texts recently translated by Marsilio Ficino. This assumption has recently been challenged a redoubtable academic team led by Michael Dummett former Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. Their contention is that they are not, and have never been, anything other than playing cards, around which occultists have weaved their own private fantasies.
Their works on the subject, Michael Dummett's own The Game of Tarot in 1980 followed more recently by A Wicked Pack of Cards - the Origins of the Occult Tarot and A History of the Occult Tarot 1870 – 1970 are, I have to say, models of dedicated scholarly research which the esoteric field sorely needs. But although I can lay no very great claims to academic distinction particularly in the field of art history, I do reckon to recognise esoteric significance when I see it.
Michael Dummett, with whom I developed a quite cordial relationship in the course of his later research, was rather surprised that I should be quite relaxed over claims of his which had set other esoteric afficianados buzzing round his ears like a nest of hornets. And I suppose it is understandable for esoteric students, at a stage of development when implicit belief is important to them, to tend to view academic research with the same fear and suspicion as religious fundamentalists regard textual criticism of the Bible. However, my own position remains that we have nothing to fear from the facts. It is the way the facts are interpreted that is important.
So whether the Tarot Trumps were consciously designed by a school of Hermetic philosophers, or whether some inspired artisan simply plucked images out of the air, or out of his own head, or pinched them from a common stock of Justice, Victory, Sun, Moon and the like, makes very little difference to me in pragmatic terms. Whatever its historical provenance, in the Tarot we have a collection of evocative images that are capable of esoteric interpretation.
I know this from my own experience in training myself and others over a number of years. If we chose to put this in terms of psychology, we might say that the origin of the symbols lies in the collective unconscious, along with a great bank of other mythopoeic images, of which the Tarot Trumps may be a random, but nonetheless very useful selection.
Nor does it matter very much that different occultists should have different interpretations of their significance. For we are not operating according to the laws of logic. A symbol is what a symbol does. It may act in a different way from one individual to another, from one group of individuals to another, in different locations of space or different periods of time. Trying to make sense of all this is a matter of balancing intellect and Intuition, for neither are really adequate on their own.
Now the popular mind will make a fortune telling system out of anything. There once was the system of Virgillian lots, opening the pages of the poems of Virgil at random in order to obtain an oracular message. And I have also seen the method used in pious hands with regard to the Bible.
Perhaps more striking nowadays, even than the Tarot, is the utilisation in popular journalism of the signs of the zodiac, for daily, weekly or monthly star readings based upon the month of one's birth. This is all part of the entertainment industry and a far cry from the extremely complex and ancient art of the astrologers. I do not claim to be one of this dedicated band, as I manage to muddle through my life fairly well on a combination of mother luck and intuition, with a little help from my wife and my friends. Although I have to say that I am prepared to concede that there may be more to this ancient art than meets the vulgar or the academic eye. Not only because I have come across one or two remarkable astronomical coincidences, but also because something that is ever on the periphery of human popular consciousness must have something in it somewhere.
But we need not remain dabbling in the shallows of popular fortune telling, for some of the deeper issues of the influence of the 'Western Esoteric Tradition on Popular Culture are to be found in popular literature. Here again I hope that the terms "popular" and “literate” are not regarded by anyone as a contradiction in terms. If so I ask you to bear with me and to include popular versifying in the realm of the poetic, and genre fiction in the realm of literature, as broadly, understood.
The first person who comes to mind in this respect is the poet Alfred Noyes. He is somewhat neglected nowadays, but in terms of the number of his books sold he was probably the most successful poet of the 20th century. His narrative verse attracted a huge following in the English speaking world, and although he flunked his degree at Oxford In 1902, because he was having a meeting with his publisher on a crucial day of his finals, he was later awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature at Yale in 1913 and appointed visiting Professor of English Literature at Princeton from 1914 to 1923.
In light of his current neglect it may perhaps be useful if I quote the opening lines of one of his successful narrative poems:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding
Riding ‑ riding -
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.
This is good old rumpty‑tumpty stuff, and with a good romantic story line of how Bess the inn keeper's daughter went to her death to save her highwayman lover from the red coat troopers waiting to arrest him. It might not be great poetry, but my goodness it was popular, and it is one of the most anthologised narrative poems in the English language.
But we may search for his name in vain in any modern reference book of English literature. The most recent academic comment upon his work I have found is by Professor David Perkins in the Harvard University Press History of Modern Poetry of 1976. And I quote:
“Like most poets of his day, he celebrated English landscape, history, and character, which he conceived only in literary conventions. He has an elvish England of twilight witchery, turnstyles, and cottages; a merry England of country roads and inns, highwaymen and red coats. "Drake": his blank‑verse epic in twelve books, follows the adventures of the seagoing hero up to the Armada, and sees in Drake and in England embodiments of political and spiritual freedom His patriotism is almost embarrassingly simple minded and fervent, as may be seen also in his "Tales of the Mermaid Tavern": which deals with the same period of history.”
Now my interest in Alfred Noyes derives precisely from his choice of subject matter, which runs closely in parallel with esoteric tradition insofar as it has to do with the world of heroes. With Noyes this was first apparent in his long epic poem on Sir Francis Drake. Now you may wonder what this may have to do with the esoteric tradition. And the answer lies in the interface between history and legend.
Some historical figures develop a certain charisma that manifests in their becoming the focus of a body of legend. Drake, in his pioneering voyage round the world, is one such figure. The theme of a long voyage to distant and unknown lands can be a form of initiatory experience, as it is a paradigm of the processes of the human soul, going right back to ancient Greece and the adventures of Odysseus or the Voyage of the Argo. In addition, Drake was one of the first “planetary” men. Someone who had actually , gone round this globe in space that we inhabit, as significant to the progress and self awareness of the human race as are spacemen in our own age.
It is therefore not surprising, that over the years a certain body of legend grew up about him, ranging from his galloping over Dartmoor to cause springs to rise up to provide a water supply for Plymouth, to a cannonball falling from heaven to prevent his girlfriend Elizabeth Sydenbam from marrying another while he was away on his world voyage. The cannon ball can still be seen incidentally if you go to the lady's ancestral home. Spanish sailors called him EL DRACO, which associates him with the circumpolar stars of DRACO ‑ the world dragon ‑ so that in another sense his fame is elevated to the stars, and to a constellation that has particular traditional roots with creativity both human and planetary. I know that to any Rationally rooted person, and not least to Professors of Logic, or even of English Literature, this may sound like a concoction of high flown non sequiturs. Nonetheless, some of us whose expertise runs in other directions consider that there may be some kind of “string theory" connecting them.
This also applies to Noyes' Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, which is an evocation of other charismatic figures of the Elizabethan age, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Mary Queen of Scots, Dick Wittington and Sir Walter Ralegh amongst others. And despite what Professor Perkins might have us believe, this is no mere sentimental nostalgia. To put it in psychological terms, these characters and others like them form the equivalent of archetypes in the racial or national unconscious. And if you begin surfing the net of inner space you are very soon likely to come up against them, and you do not have to be a paid up member of an esoteric organisation to realise this. The implications are all too clear, once we realise that images like this can act as a focus for emotive convictions to do with national or regional identities, and the heroism, the ideals or fanaticism that can sometimes go with them. Certainly they can be manipulated on behalf of political ideologies, from regional separatist movements in nation states, through to their wholesale abuse in totalitarian states or in racist movements. On the other hand they can be a clarion call to national identity in times of need, as was Sir Laurence Olivier's filmic evocation of Shakespeare's Henry V in the 2nd World War.
And these archetypal figures are not necessarily confined to a national level, which Professor Perkins seems to have overlooked. Noyes developed this in his later work, in a trilogy called The Torch Bearers in which he celebrated great discoverers in the whole range of human endeavour. First in the realm of discoverers of the stars, with Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and William and John Herschel; then in more earth centred natural philosophers and scientists from Pythagoras and Aristotle, through Avicenna and Leonardo, to Linnaeus, Lamarck, Goethe and Darwin. Finally, he celebrated the miracles of modern technology represented by the invention of Radio; that is, the utilisation of unseen waves and vibrations that have nowadays become not only scientifically respectable but generally taken for granted.
These figures are treated by Noyes in an evocative and highly imaginative way. A typical example is of Tycho Brahe who, on his island of Venusia, between Sweden and Denmark, built a great foursquare castle called the Uraniburg, devoted to the study of the stars. An Odin like figure, a nobleman who wears a gold mask, he forms part of a fourfold magical mandala, with his peasant wife Christina, his assistant Johannes Kepler, and his faithful servant the half witted but prophetically gifted Jeppe. All this is based upon history, but history being transformed into legend, which is a fashion of speaking deeply to concerns of the soul.
Now if this should seem like an abuse of history, I would tend to counter with the argument that so is most historical writing. Our view of the past is conditioned very much by what we are in the present, and so it is arguable if there is any such thing as truly objective history. This of course is no news to professional historians, who have learned to live with it, so I simply state how I am nailing my own colours to the mast. Which is close to Thomas Carlyle, the sage of Chelsea, who also wrote a book On Heroes and Hero Worship recognising various forms of heroes as divinities, prophets, poets, priests, men of letters, or kings, and whose tumultuous treatment of The French Revolution remains a challenge to more prosaic treatments of the period in giving us a chance to experience and reconsider what it all meant. A treatment that John Stuart Mill called an epic poem as much as a history. And what is wrong, one might ask, with historians being asked to be epic poets?
But there is another level, that lies beyond the legendary, and that is the mythopoeic which accounts for another strand in the work of Alfred Noyes. If we go back to that early poem of The Highwayman we find that not only was it the most popular thing he ever wrote but that its opening lines came to him in an unusual way.
He had just come down from Oxford and was living in a cottage on Bagshott Heath in Sussex, which in those days was still quite wild country. And the first lines of the poem floated into his mind from the sound of the wind in the trees. What is significant about this is that, although he was in many ways a very conventional kind of chap, Alfred Noyes confessed to an inner guide that came to him first in childhood in west Wales, when he spent many hours in the woods overlooking the sea near his home.
As he describes in his autobiography, Two Worlds for Memory, it was here he fed his imagination, not only on the natural sights and sounds amongst the bracken and the fir trees, but on the images within the books that he brought with him. These, remarkably for a nine year old boy, included Keats, Wordsworth and Walter Scott as well as Spenser's Faerie Queen And although he understood little of the intellectual content of Spenser's poem, its bewitching imagery merged into the woods that grew around his boyhood den; which was a clearing no more than twelve feet square, on a cliff face overlooking the tops of the pine trees below, and with a clear view over the western sea. This he discovered to be a truly magical place, for beyond the intimations of beauty and design he found in the natural world about him, and the visions that were aroused by his reading, there came into his head the presence of another. A being not seen by anyone else, a strange fey creature who seemed to slip into his awareness like the dappled shadows of the leaves upon the page of an open book. And so the name he gave to this faery visitant was naturally "Shadow‑of‑a‑Leaf".
There are, of course, many children who have imaginary companions, which fade with approaching adulthood as "the shades of the prison house begin to close", but in Alfred Noyes' case, Shadow‑of‑a‑Leaf never left him, and he later described him as “an invisible friend ... a kind of Ariel who could open doors into unseen worlds." Shadow‑of‑a‑Leaf could not have been far away when Noyes wrote his first famous narrative poem and he also appears from time to time in his later work, either as character or as inspirer.
Noyes, who was naturally a bit defensive about this kind of thing, chose to call Shadow‑of‑a-Leaf no more than “a psychological curiosity”, which I have to say is a device that I and some of my esoteric colleagues choose to fall back upon, on occasion when challenged as to the validity of some of our experiences. However, there is in fact a wide gulf between psychology and the inner worlds of the esoteric tradition, despite the superficial parallels. Fundamentally psychology is subjective, a mental sphere whose circumference is bounded by the human skull. The esoteric world is objective, a cosmic sphere whose centre is to be found within each human spirit.
Alfred Noyes never went out of his way to pursue the esoteric or the psychic, and found his spiritual home in the Roman Catholic church, but he seems to have been a natural intuitive and mystic, for as he says in his autobiography, after someone had been vainly trying to interest him in spiritualism,
"Let me add that for years I have felt quite certain that communications from the invisible world do come unpredictably, in quite a different way, subtle as the language of music or the colours of an evening sky, in aid and consolation to the lonely heart of man."
This accounts for an early strand in his work, the World of Faery, in two long dramatic poems and a play about Sherwood Forest based on the Robin Hood legends. They do not read too well nowadays, but appealed to Edwardian sentiment sufficiently for Beerbohm Tree to want to produce one of them as a follow up to Barrie's Peter Pan, whilst W.B.Yeats was keen to have another of Noyes' poems chanted to the accompaniment of a psaltery at an Abbey Theatre production. For a better exposition of this type of dynamic however, we can turn to a more recent and popular evoker of the mythopoeic in J.R.R.Tolkien.
Like Noyes, Tolkien was theologically quite happy to be a member of the Roman Catholic church, although he is also lauded by neo‑pagans because of the dedication and purpose with which he set out to write and renovate the fragmented mythology of north‑western Europe. This amounted almost to a sense of religious mission, because he firmly believed, not only in the power of the imagination, but in its sanctity.
Whether or not directly influenced by Coleridge's celebrated views on the matter, or Blake's, he was firmly convinced that imaginative writing was a species of sub‑creation, particularly in the realm of myth making and legend. Indeed that spiritual truths could be revealed by it. He expounds his views on this in his important essay On Fairy Stories where he coins the term Faerian Drama. This is an ability to produce fantasies within the minds of others "with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism." This has the effect of transporting the individual into another world, and although it has sometimes been compared to dreaming, or even identified with it, it is a dream that some other mind is weaving. This is quite startling stuff. He is not simply talking about his own mind affecting the reader's mind. He is talking about his own mind having tapped a certain level which the reader's can then tap through the reading of his words. The physical world is what he calls the primary world of reality, which is the same for elves or for men. It is a reality however that happens to be differently valued and perceived by the two races.
Preferring to avoid the word "magic" because of its misleading and historically dubious associations, and not much enamoured of the psycho‑philosophical term “secondary belief”, Tolkien prefers to use the word "enchantment".
Magic, In its vulgar sense, claims to produce changes in the primary world about us. Of such, it seems to me, are the highly popular but fundamentally shallow adventures of Harry Potter, which I see largely as good old fashioned school stories with a liberal dash of wish fulfilment fantasy. Enchantment, on the other hand, evokes a secondary world in which two worlds, the faery and human, can meet. Writing or telling fairy stories in Tolkien's view is the nearest human equivalent to this elven enchantment. Whether approached from the human or the elven side, enchantment is not a self‑centred desire for power. Nor is it a vehicle for glamour, bewitchment or delusion. Rather is it a seeking for shared enrichment, with partners in co‑operative and delightful enterprise.
There has of course been a long, tradition of the mythopeoic in varying degrees in children's literature starting from the mid nineteenth century with the collectors of fairy stories such as the Brothers Grimm These were translated into English in 1853 the same year as the works of Hans Christian Andersen, who happened to be a great teller of tales rather than just a collector of them. It is arguable whether such material is restricted in its appeal to any particular age group and although Andersen's first edition was entitled Stories told to the Children this was soon changed to Stories for the Household.
It was not long before the baton was picked up by the myth making George MacDonald, with his Phantastes and Lilith, hardly stories for the young, the first of which had a profound effect upon C.S.Lewis Certainly Tolkien saw any association of children with fairy stories as no more than an accident of domestic history, and thought that children as a class neither like them more nor understand them better than adults do. And that fairy story, if it is worth anything at all is worthy of being written for and read by adults.
And he means read by, not studied far less analysed. Nor was he content with Coleridge's definition of a “suspension of disbelief” which he thought but a halfway house to complete imaginal involvement in the Secondary World of fantasy. Fantasy, in his view, was “not a lower but a higher form of Art indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent." And to present this Secondary World of fantasy so vividly as to command Secondary Belief, or beyond that of Enchantment, demands a special skill that he called “a kind of elvish craft”. As he went on to say:
“Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story making in its primary and most potent mode.”
This comes very close to the aims of the practical worker in the esoteric realm. But in the literary field we have not only Tolkien's great sagas in The Silmarillion and its offshoots, plus The Lord of the Rings but also a few shorter pieces, such as Smith of Wooton Major which in its way is every bit as instructive and important as his essay On Fairy Stories.
In the specific realm of fantasy in children's literature we have of course had a thriving tradition over the past hundred and fifty years. Beginning perhaps with the blind Irish story teller Frances Browne, and Grannys Wonderful Chair in which the little girl Snowflower can sit in the chair and say "Chair of my grandmother, tell me a story" or "Chair of my grandmother, take me on a journey" to be transported through time and space. The line continues after George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin to Rudyard Kipling with Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies where the children evoke a sprite, a kind of genius loci who takes them on journeys through time that are rather more significant than history lessons for primary school children. And Kipling's mentor to some extent in this genre, was Edith Nesbit, whose esoteric connections included membership of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who wrote a number of tales of children coming to terms with various other-wordly creatures to take them on magical journeys through time and space in The Psammead, or Five Children and It, in The Pheonix and the Carpet and The Amulet to name but three. John Masefield later tried his hand with The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights and in the latter half of the twentieth century a whole galaxy of writers appeared, of whom Alan Garner demands particular mention for this close involvement with the esoteric traditions of his own neck of the woods, around Alderley Edge. His work also demonstrates a transition from conventional juvenile fantasy in The Wierdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath through increasingly adult modes via Elidor, The Owl Service and Red Shift to a Iiterary tour de force in The Stone Book quartet, where inner and outer worlds meet in symbolic and real juxtaposition through four generations of a local family.
However, it is popular culture rather than literary fiction that concerns us for the moment, which demands a consideration of the visual media of television and film and how they are likely to be an adequate vehicle for the esoteric tradition.
In this respect we can draw a salutary lesson from P.L.Travers, who in 1934 launched an ancient goddess in disguise upon the modern world. One who was blown in by the wind and blown away when the wind changed. Who understood the language of birds, defied gravity, carried all her belongings in a magical bag, could make medicine pleasant, heard what the wind said, and had control over stars. Amongst the often amoral and subversive enchantments, stars came to earth, marble statues ran naked in the park, babies chewed fingers snapped from hands of witches, innocent passers‑by were whirled into the air. The name of the goddess was Mary Poppins.
She was, and is, a far cry from the sweet and glamorous confection of the Hollywood film of 1964, which goes to show that modern modes of mass entertainment may not always be best fitted to preserve ancient traditions. It is indeed, quite difficult nowadays to read the Mary Poppins books without the image of Julie Andrews singing A Spoonful of Sugar makes the Medicine go down rising up before one. Miss Travers hated the film and steadfastly refused to allow any sequel or musical stage adaptation.
Pamela Travers took the esoteric tradition very seriously. Although born in Australia, of and Irish parents, she made her way back to Ireland and became a close acquaintance of writers of the Irish Celtic renaissance. Of course going to Ireland did not necessarily mean discovering an implicit connection between esoteric and popular culture. As she soon found out, not all her Irish friends and relations shared her enthusiasm for friends like Yeats or George Russell and bluntly told her,”We don't like you gallivanting around with men who see fairies!”
Nor did she have much luck when she went searching for the Isle of Inisfree just before she first met Yeats. As she tells us in her essay Only Connect, she happened to be travelling to Dublin by train when she suddenly realised that it went past Lough Gill, which is where Yeats' poetic island of Innisfree is supposed to be. On impulse she determined to visit the island, and from the train charged a boatman to take her there.
“Ach, ther's no such place,” he said.
“0h, but there is, I assure you. W B.Yeats wrote about it."
“And who would he be?”
She told him.
“Ah, I know them, those poets, always stravaiging through their minds, inventing outlandish things. We call it Rat Island!”
And so, to Rat Island or the Isle of Innisfree, they set out on a rough passage under lowering clouds, accompanied by a young priest who appeared from nowhere. She found no log cabin, no nine bean rows, or bee loud glade on the island, which was very small, but was covered with rowan trees. She determined to take some rowan branches back for Yeats and gathered a great armful. On the way back, the wind rose and the rain fell and the waves of the lake grew higher. She noticed that the priest, as white as a sheet, between one wave and the next was telling his rosary, with one hand, and plucking off rowan berries with the other, to drop them in the water. Whether to invoke pagan as well as Christian divine aid was uncertain. Anyhow, it did not impress the boatman.
“Ah, Father,” he said, “it's not the weight of a berry or two that will save us now!”
Once safely ashore, she caught the next Dublin train, and arrived soaked to the skin, and unannounced, at the house of the great poet, whom she had never met before, but who received her courteously, and of the friendship that subsequently developed she had this to say:
"These men ‑ AE, Yeats, James Stephens, and the rest ‑ had aristocratic minds. For them, the world was not fragmented. An Idea did not suddenly grow, like Topsy, all alone and separate. For them, all things had antecedents, and long family trees. They saw nothing shameful or silly in myths and fairy stories, nor did they shovel them out of sight in some cupboard marked 'Only for Children'."
Which is very much what we have found to be the attitude and sentiments of Tolkien, who had his own problems with makers of films. One of the most amusing items in his Collected Letters is his response in 1958 to a proposed film treatment of The Lord of the Rings where he expostulates in no uncertain terms about the intrusion of a fairy castle, a great many eagles, not to mention incantations, blue lights, some irrelevant magic and a preference for fights over story line ... and so it goes on for seven pages. This is long before, I have to say, the recent three part version of the film directed by Peter Jackson which I have to say certainly impressed me and I imagine might not have entirely displeased Tolkien himself.
And so the question remains as to whether film and television are suitable media for works of the deeper imagination. Those who doubt whether they are includes C.S.Lewis, in his collection of essays Of This and Other Worlds. He argues that neither cinema nor television can replace popular fiction because they exclude precisely that which gives the untrained mind access to the imaginative world. That when it comes to stimulating the imagination, there is death in the camera.
Tolkien even had his reservations about the live theatre. And similar reservations have been expressed about pictorial illustration in books. I must say I am not too sure about all this, and as far as I am concerned, the jury is still out. Although I would say that I think that radio and audio media can be very good ways of expressing the imaginative tradition, and used sympathetically, can be a modern equivalent to the bard or minstrel telling the ancient lays around the communal fire. But best of all, of course, is the voice of the inspired story teller with a live group of people. Be it esoteric workshop of children round a gifted teacher.
Another important point is the source of the imaginative material ‑ which must be in the imagination of the prime creator, allowing the images to rise. This was certainly how C.S.Lewis and Tolkien worked. Lewis tells us that he was nagged for years by the recurrent image of a fawn carrying umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. Eventually he followed it up and finished up with the seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia. Similarly J.R.R.Tolkien, whilst engaged upon a boring task of marking elementary examination papers came upon the image and phrase “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” In following this up to discover what a hobbit was he produced The Lord of the Rings. Whilst P.L.Travers insists that she did not contrive Mary Poppins, but simply that one day, parrot headed umbrella carpet bag and all, she just flew into her life.
How can this kind of thing be coped with by organisations of mass entertainment? One example can be found in the form of a guide book called The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. The author, Christopher Vogler, a dedicated professional if ever there was one, has apparently evaluated thousands of screenplays for the big, motion picture studios. He provides a guide for plot structure and characterisation of the story line of the typical hero, based upon his understanding of the work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell.
I was interested to see, however, that between editions, on giving lectures further afield than Hollywood he had been confronted with some severe challenges to his universal panacea. Apart from a basic objection that such an analytical approach to the creative process was likely to lead to stale repetitious formula rather than to organic form he met with various accusations of cultural imperialism - American values and assumptions threatening to smother the unique flavours of other cultures. To say nothing of radical criticisms that questioned the role of the hero anyway, in terms of stemming from a warrior culture, to say nothing of problems of gender.
Vogler was straightforward enough to admit and to face up to these arguments and there is obviously food for considerable discussion in all of this in the field of cultural studies. In our more restricted field of the interface between the esoteric tradition and popular culture what interests me is the popular interchange between the particular and the universal. How the broad patterns
of the cosmic and universal may be expressed in terms of any particular place and time. We can see this demonstrated to some degree by scanning the pages of an encyclopaedia of world mythology.
Another, slightly offbeat angle on this, is, I think to be found in the highly successful novels of Terry Pratchett. They are based on a fantasy world that he has made up ‑ the Discworld "flat, circular, and carried through space on the back of four elephants who in turn stand on the back of ... a turtle ten thousand miles long, dusted by the frost of dead comets, meteorpocked, albedo-eyed. No‑one knows the reason for all this, but it is probably quantum." Yet it is difficult to imagine this world being very far away in conceptual terms from traditional England ‑ almost the England of Alfred Noyes in fact.
What is more, although Pratchett casts his net wide in terms of subject matter, there is a strong ambience of the esoteric within his world. This seems to me a most interesting cultural indicator. For it implies that the esoteric is nowadays sufficiently familiar for Pratchett's readers, who run to millions, to appreciate a comical and satirical treatment of it, and through which, moreover, some serious points are occasionally made. For, like Charles Williams and C.S.Lewis, whatever his personal attitude to the 'esoteric' may be, Terry Pratchett certainly seems to know a fair bit about it.
might take as an example his novel Lords and Ladies, the plot of which hangs around the conflict between
some white witches and the elven powers behind a
stone circle that sonic dabblers in the occult have inadvertently evoked.
This could be serious
We might take as an example his novel Lords and Ladies, the plot of which hangs around the conflict between some white witches and the elven powers behind a stone circle that sonic dabblers in the occult have inadvertently evoked. This could be serious
stuff indeed, and in other hands, such as Dennis Wheatley or Charles Williams or C.S.Lewis or M.R James. However with a mini-coven of traditional witches consisting of Granny Weatherwax, the much married Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick
"of the red nose and unkempt hair and tendency to be soppy about raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens"
we are projected into a world that is at once, more ridiculous, and yet at the same time more believable.
Certainly there seems something very familiar about the aspiring younger generation of new age witches Diamanda Tockley, Perdita Nitt and Amanita DeVice with their penchant for floppy black velvet hats, black painted finger nails, stark white make up, and dagger‑and‑skull tattoos, who, having done a bit of candle magic and some scrying, now fancy their chances at raising the power at a stone circle.
Owing to an odd combination of circumstances their evocation is more effective than they bargain for and a rather pushy elven Queen attempts to come through, who however, eventually gets her come‑uppance from Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.
These two redoubtable heroines have no romantic illusions about the Faery Folk. They grant that they may be beautiful and glamorous beings but at the same time realise that they might have different ideas of behaviour from our own. Who might even smash the world if they thought it would make a pretty noise. Granny Weatherwax tends to class them with cats.
"Elves are beautiful. They've got," she spat the word, "style. Beauty. Grace. That's what matters. If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are."
Let me say that I am, nonetheless, quite fond of cats, and even, for that matter of elves, but I think Granny Weatherwax has a point. With neither species does one take liberties especially big cats. Lion taming, along with hobnobbing with the Fair Folk, the Gentry, the Shining Ones, the Star People is a somewhat specialist vocation, that is perhaps best left to the Robert Kirks and Thomas the Rhymers of this world.
However there is another side to it, as P.L.Travers records in her collection of reflections on myth, symbol and story. What the Bee Knows. When she met Laurens van der Post, he was fascinated by one element of Mary Poppins' accoutrements, her carpet bag. It reminded him of the story of a primitive bushman, who saw one night a crowd of beautiful girls coming down from the stars on a cord. Each one had a little basket and he caught one of them, who agreed to be his wife on condition that he never looked in the basket without her permission. Of course, as happens with as such prohibitions laid on from another world, one day he disobeyed the injunction and took a look inside, then he roared with laughter His star maiden suspected what he had done and accused him of looking into her basket. He admitted it, and asked why she had made such a secret of it, because there was nothing it. At this, she looked at him very sadly, and walked away into the sunset. Because he could not see all the wonders she had brought him from the stars.
Van de Post saw this as a parable of the way that the pundits, the intellectuals and critics look into the basket of star stuff and say it is all rubbish and superstition. That there's nothing in it.
However, when Mary Poppins at No. I7 Cherry Tree Lane, the children looked into her carpet bag and they too thought it was empty. But they were lucky, Mary Poppins took it all in good part and did not walk away. Out of it came all her mundane possessions, a starched apron, a large cake of Sunlight Soap, a toothbrush, a packet of hairpins, a bottle of scent, a small folding armchair, a box of throat lozenges, seven flannel nightgowns, four cotton ones, a pair of boots, a set of dominoes, two bathing‑caps, a postcard album, a folding camp bed, complete with blankets and eiderdown, and a bottle of medicine that tasted of whatever you liked best, all a foretaste of her magical powers. It was in effect another form of the cauldron of the goddess. The same that belonged to Keridwen and from which Gwion drank some drops, to be drawn, after a series of elemental transformations into union with the goddess, after which he was reborn as a bard and poet ‑ Talessien. Which all goes to show that the esoteric tradition is where you find it, even in the most unlikely or popular of places.
But we cannot part tonight without a thought towards our founder Kathleen Raine, who conceived the idea for this series of talks and who was sat here just before me when I gave the first of them. I recall that, as an example of those who could see nothing in the star lady's basket she was fond of castigating Dr Johnson who felt he had refuted idealistic philosophy simply by kicking a stone.
This reminds me of some remarks of Thomas Carlyle, who was called the Sage of Chelsea, much as Kathleen might be regarded as the Guardian of Ancient Springs, in much the same location. Here is what he had to say in regard to Dr Johnson and his attitude toward ghosts.
The English Johnson longed, all his life, to see one; but could not, though he went to Cock Lane, and thence to the church vaults, and tapped on coffins. Foolish Doctor! Did he never, with the mind's eye as with the body's, look round him into that full tide of human Life he so loved; did he never so much as look into Himself? The good Doctor was a Ghost, as actual and authentic as heart could wish; well nigh a million of Ghosts were travelling the streets by his side ... Are we not Spirits, that are shaped into a body, into an Appearance; and that fade away again into air and Invisibility? This is no metaphor, it is a simple scientific fact; we start out of Nothingness, take figure, and are Apparitions; round us, as round the veriest spectre, is Eternity.
And so, my fellow embodied ghosts, gathered here tonight in this place, and in Eternity, I would close by invoking, through the words of Carlyle, a realisation of the continuing fellowship with our friend and mentor Kathleen Raine:
“Is the lost Friend still mysteriously Here, even as we are Here mysteriously, with God?
Know of a truth that only the Tune‑shadows have perished, or are perishable. That the real Being of whatever was, and whatever is, and whatever will be, is even now and forever.
This, should it unhappily seem new. thou mayest ponder at thy leisure, for the next twenty years or the next twenty centuries Believe it thou must: understand it thou canst not.”