Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
In my first column for The Monthly Aspectarian, I told you that I set out to create a reading program in science fiction and fantasy that would be a valuable adjunct to your occult studies. Since then, in these pages, I have explored a new genre I see emerging, a genre I call Intimate Adventure because the characters must display heroism and courage in their relationships in order to solve their problems, and problem solving is what magic is about. Now, as a step in developing this reading program, I want to bring your attention to a single element that turns up in many science fiction or fantasy books, Ritual Magic.
I must assume here that, as readers of Monthly Aspectarian, you are familiar with the many and varied practices of Ritual Magic in your daily life. Everything from the Catholic Mass to buying a lottery ticket can be viewed as Ritual Magic. It is too big and amorphous a subject to be tackled as a whole in a column like this. So I'm going to try to cut out a tiny corner of the subject to discuss.
Fortunately (??by mere chance??), I have two relatively new, easily found, books before me that define this corner of Ritual Magic.
The Spirit Ring, by Lois McMaster Bujold, Baen Fantasy hardcover, 1992, $17.00. (It should be available in paperback, too, but your library probably has copies.)
Return to Bloodstone House, by Jane Toombs, Silhouette Shadows #5, pb., April '93, $3.50.
The fiction writer often uses ritual magic to set up or solve a problem. Writers, being readers too, will often notice how another writer used a magic ritual as a springboard to launch a story and imitate the "device." Thus magic ritual has become a casually used plot device in fantasy, and is often used by writers who have not done their homework.
A science fiction writer would never dream of using a bit of science as a story springboard without researching it thoroughly. They know that no sf editor worth selling to would let them get away with sloppy science (unlike tv producers!). The fantasy field has, alas, not yet achieved the high standard of Analog Magazine. Writers and editors have assumed that there is no homework to do on magick, that a writer can just invent their magick to suit their story.
Thus, the reader must keep critical faculties on-line (or at least TSR and hot-keyed) when reading fantasy.
I believe Bujold was deliberately writing to such critical fantasy readers when she drafted The Spirit Ring.
Bujold is best known for her Hugo Award winning science fiction series which revolves around the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, a runted cripple who is the heir of a powerful royal family and must become a leader of a rough, tough, macho military charged with defending a planet. Bujold uses cognitive dissonance to generate a situational humor which is itself a commentary on military science fiction. Every one of these books is a swift, riveting read, but what makes them memorable is the characterization and the style her misfit hero develops to deal with his relationships. The book titles include, Barrayar, The Warrior's Apprentice, Brothers in Arms, Borders of Infinity, and The Vor Game, all in paperback from Baen Books. They should also be available through your library in hardcover and all are recommended, especially for those working out personal problems in the proper use of magical power.
Bujold has brought this same clean, tight, elegant style of story construction to her fantasy novel, Spirit Ring. Here she deals with a hero who is a woman, Fiametta, the daughter and not-highly-regarded apprentice of a mage who is often commissioned by the local court to produce magically empowered items. The latest commission is a table salt dispenser which can reveal the presence of poison in a dish as well as neutralize that poison -- whatever it might be.
Without the supervision or approval of her father, Fiametta undertakes the creation of a ring that will bring her the love of her life, her true mate. Of course, when the poor bloke turns up as a result of her summoning, she takes one look and rejects him, assuming something went wrong with her spell. They all become caught up in the side-effects of her magic (and that of other not-so-friendly mages) that have dire political consequences, war, invasion, and a last-ditch magical effort to save the day with a bit of creative wizardry somewhat beyond their rated abilities.
On the surface, The Spirit Ring, like the Vorkosigan adventures, is a just-for-fun romp. The critical reader, however, will notice that, like the Vorkosigan adventures, the magical rituals and their objectives form an insightful commentary on not only literary "magick" but on everyday real-world magick.
The theme that ties the Vorkosigan adventures to The Spirit Ring is the use and abuse of power -- which at bottom is what the use of magical ritual as a problem solving method is all about. It's also what the martial arts in fiction and life are all about.
Bujold illustrates, with her hero's attempt to create a Spirit Ring, how even the smallest, whitest magic can act in ever widening ripples to affect larger events. She shows how chains of "coincidences" form patterns that divert lives from their comfortable and safe tracks. She presents two sorts of magical effects -- the pyrotechnic, Light & Magic Inc. FXs necessary to sell fiction to the non-initiate, and the subtle, nearly invisible, but much more significant karmic consequences of any use of power -- magical, military, political, charismatic, or economic.
And here we come to the crux of the problem with depicting magical ritual in fiction -- the author knows he/she is selling to the non-initiate. The author who knows ritual construction and the Words of Power can't use real rituals because they can do a lot of damage. The author who does not know "fakes it," and can do even more damage.
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD ANYONE EVER ATTEMPT ONE OF THE RITUALS PRESENTED IN ANY WORK OF FICTION. Such rituals, even in the books of authors who have the most impeccable magical credentials, are designed to illustrate principles, to reveal the essence of a character's subconscious drives, to provide a story springboard, or to illuminate and discuss a thematic issue -- such as the use and abuse of power.
The rituals presented in works of fiction are there to be critically analyzed in the light of what you have learned through initiation and practice under the firm guidance of a teacher. A WORK OF FICTION IS NOT A TEXTBOOK OF MAGICK.
Remembering that fiction's main function is to stir emotional response, and that magic's main fuel is the emotional pitch of the operator, you can see that your ability as a ritual magician will grow as your ability to respond to fiction grows. The same mental faculty that allows you to enter a fictional (i.e. astral) world and laugh, cry, and gasp with your alter-ego will allow you to enter a real-life magical ritual and let your emotions flow into manifestation.
Most people have enough imagination to do this. Doing it is not a problem; targeting is.
Jane Toombs discusses targeting in Return to Bloodstone House, a classic little tale for the new Silhouette Shadows line, a Romance genre line of books which is part of the hybrid or "hyphenated" genre movement I've discussed in previous columns. Here Romance plot and character is mingled with occult elements in the background. Chances are if you really hate Romance, you won't like these books, but if you just don't normally read Romance because they seem vacuous, you might find something worthwhile here. Jane Toombs is never, ever vacuous.
Jane Toombs is a natural for this new hyphenated genre as she has aptly shown in her werewolf trilogy, MOONRUNNER, from Roc Fantasy, in paperback. Though she has been working in historicals lately, she has a firm grounding in the occult and treats the magical elements with the same respect she accords historical fact.
In Return To Bloodstone House, the hero, Valora Roland, manages her life, her career, and her encounters with physical danger with all the courage and tenacity any reader could wish. But when it comes to love affairs, she's a wimp -- confused and much too easily manipulated. Her one saving grace is that she knows her weaknesses, and like any adult, she compensates for them. Because this is Romance Genre, in the end the men solve the real problems for her -- but then in real life, sometimes being adult means knowing when to delegate a responsibility.
The plot has the typical gothic elements of a dreadful old house inherited under odd circumstances as well as encounters with two ex-flames -- with the requisite ambiguity about which is friend and which foe.
It gets interesting when the careful researcher in the author comes to the fore and mixes modern California Indian culture with old, traditional Indian magic.
But that's still in the foreground. The really interesting parts of this book are in the background where only the critical reader will find them. Valora Rolland is raising an adopted daughter whose parentage is in question. The father was probably one of her old flames -- but which? The mother is dead -- mysteriously. The daughter knows things a child of her age couldn't possibly know. And the daughter is the product of a rape that took place during a magical ceremony constructed and led by a rank amateur, imitating something out of a book he didn't understand, for purposes no one can quite grasp.
The problem is that this ceremony took place on an old, traditional sacred mountain of the local Indian tribe -- and the ceremony has stirred up some dark forces chained there by Indian magic.
Like Lois McMaster Bujold's The Spirit Ring, Return to Bloodstone House discusses the results of magic in the hands of amateurs -- "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" archetype -- but Bujold deals with the results of a well-meaning, well trained white magician and Toombs deals with the results of a non-initiate seeking personal power.
Both books have female lead characters who are competent in their daily lives yet turn into confused children when confronted with the onslaught of masculine Will.
Last month, I discussed the hyphenated fantasy-adventure-Romance of Rebecca Brandewyne, and how Jane Toombs had taught me a maxim of the Romance genre -- the traits admirable in the hero are not necessarily admirable in the heroine. The reader who is following this column as a reading program in the occult should contrast and compare Brandewyne's heroine (and hero) with Jane Toombs' heroine in Return to Bloodstone House. Veteran Romance readers should read Bujold's The Spirit Ring with special attention to the traits of the lead female character who is the hero of the book, noticing how inept she is at dealing with men her own age.
The veteran reader of non-fiction self-help books on subjects such as assertiveness training for women will see how all of these writers are creating main characters who mirror the traits of the majority of women readers -- traits that majority is convinced cause most of their problems.
These writers have created main characters with whom the majority readers can identify. Male readers can recognize such female characters as someone they know and watch the story unfold, hoping to discover how to deal with such a woman.
Having established a character with whom the reader can identify and thus having drawn the reader into the story, the writer then discusses the relationship options available to a person who is supremely competent in one field of life but utterly incompetent in another.
Both Return to Bloodstone House and The Spirit Ring discuss male/female relationships, and both end with some sort of resolution of the main character's problem regarding the men in her life. The reader who is seeking to gain competence in ceremonial magic should read these two books followed immediately by two of Dion Fortune's novels, Sea Priestess and Moon Magic (Fortune's novel The Winged Bull is also relevant). All of Fortune's books are available in editions from Samuel Weiser Inc. -- check your occult bookstore.
Fortune attempted to present another option for the male/female relationship, one in which both individuals could be competent adults without either one needing to dominate the other. (Her success must be judged against the age in which she grew up.)
Popular fiction writers like Bujold and Toombs bring occult elements into the fabric of the story with great care not to disrupt the uninitiated reader's ability to believe in the characters and their problems. Fortune wove the fabric of her stories out of the occult elements and created fictional characters whose karma required them to live those stories.
All three writers use magical ritual as story springboard and plot moving element. To be successful, a magical ritual must be tailored to the identity of the operator and key into the emotional wellsprings idiosyncratic to that operator. It must also be targeted at a goal much cherished by that operator, much admired. In other words, the goal must grow organically from the root of the identity.
If the book is well written, study of the rituals can reveal much about the book's characters. If the reader is attentive, study of his/her emotional reactions to the characters can be a glimpse into a mirror of truth.
And is it not written over the door to the mystery school -- Know Thyself? And is not one of the most tricky of the trick questions leveled by the Guardian at the Gate to the Inner Planes -- Who Are You?
A contrast/compare study of these three authors -- Bujold, Toombs, and Fortune -- against the background of the reading previously suggested in this column with special attention to Katherine Kurtz and Marion Zimmer Bradley -- can serve to reveal to the reader facets of their own identity previously unsuspected. Thus the student of ritual can learn why their rituals don't always "work right."
Honorable Mention this month goes to a pure science fiction novel. The only ritual involved is the anthropological type which helps the author depict a truly alien, non-human culture. This one is by Paula E. Downing and is called Fallway. It's a paperback from Del Rey, published Jan. '93. The lead character is female, human, and supremely competent, but raised in a non-human dominated environment. She waxes utterly incompetent in managing a relationship with a human male raised among humans -- but to me that makes perfect sense. I couldn't have done any better in her place. Read this one when you need a refreshing change of pace.
BOOKS FOR REVIEW IN THIS COLUMN SHOULD BE SENT TO JACQUELINE LICHTENBERG, POB 290, MONSEY, N.Y. 10952.
Find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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