Druid and writer Penny Billington explores the process of occult instruction through the fiction of Dion Fortune.
“Writers will put things into a novel that they daren’t put in sober prose, where you have to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”1
This quote is from Dion Fortune, to my mind the foremost magical teacher of the West. It tells us clearly that in writing fiction, magicians can go out on a limb. They can give us a taste, secondhand but deeply felt, of genuine magical experience. Our esoteric training might be about ideas and techniques, but magical fiction weds these to an imaginary punch that can create conditions for change in the reader.
The Question of Magical Progression
All magical seekers ask this one question: “How can I become an adept, an initiate?”—maybe concluding sadly that they lack the one necessity: a personal teacher. “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears,” is a magical maxim, yet where is that mysterious helper? Will our sincere longing manifest them in physical form? And how many decades should we wait?
When they arrive, we know we will recognise them from books, films, and the music that inspire the magic in us. They will show us a world where magic is easy, where we don’t get bitten or stung, where there is never an overcast full moon or rainy ritual; where study is unnecessary as our intuitive senses flower and provide enlightenment…Wow! But that’s escapism, not magic, which is about becoming more embedded in the super/natural world, and, paradoxically, fiction can help to set us on the magical path.
Training for magic can seem an arduous path even though the more one puts in, the more one gets out. Magic is worth effort, energy, and stickability if we are to reap the rewards. But if we’ve committed ourselves to that training—as Witch, Wiccan, Druid, or Heathen—we can help ourselves along. For we already have one skill that we need for magic, which we see as simple, easy, and fun: to whit, reading fiction.
Looking at how we read fiction for enjoyment, we see that we automatically make a number of assumptions. Excitingly, when we examine them, we realize that they are transferable to our magical training.
We bring to reading the anticipation of private, self-contained pleasure, of a temporary respite from the real world. We will return refreshed and more able to cope with life. That expectation comes from past experience; we know we’re good at this, that it has been enjoyable in the past.
This is exactly how we should approach our magical studies—those templates and glyphs, meditations and inner work. If we regard them as a necessary chore on the way to some magical reality in the future, how can we expect to succeed? Magic is about the moment of expanded life in the everyday world, if it is to enrich our days, not some mythical future.
When it comes to harnessing that sense of enjoyment for our studies, we see the value of keeping a magical journal, and of constantly rereading our experiences and noting all magic—that bird song, that breeze, that ray of sunlight in a grey world. Just as with reading, this is how we build up the expectation of success and joy in our magic.
Often, our sincere desire to do well, to do it right, can be our worst enemy. Preparing for magic, we tense up, and allow our inner critic to jump to the alert position. “Relax,” we tell ourselves, increasing our sense of frustration. How can we???!!!!
Compare this to enjoying a story, where we have forgotten the nuts and bolts of reading, and are left with only the pleasure. We relax and allow a magical relationship between story and self to flow. And we can say that, in one sense, the same can apply to magic.
As reading has become a deep skill that we don’t think about consciously, so is magical interaction. The rational mind (which thinks it’s the boss) can never fully grasp this profound connection, programmed into our bodies from birth. It is the intuitive knowledge of a world larger than the one we can see. It keeps us in synch, with the turning of the planet, the seasons, the sun and the tides. We have been born with this connection ready formed and dormant within us. All we have to do is wake it. And how do we wake a sleeping entity? Not violently or tensely, not with frustration, but gently, allowing consciousness to unfold gradually to a full waking state. And that’s what we must do with our magical selves: we relax and allow.
Our pleasure in reading is completely natural: all humans make stories because we are wired that way. We automatically interpret our lives as stories, thinking those stories are the whole truth until a sudden reality check makes us reassess the situation fast. We are all exquisitely nuanced storytellers. Let’s bring the fun and skill of storytelling to our magic! Within the imaginary world, we can do amazing work of connection and relationship that will not only enrich our everyday world, but also take the pressure off of it: as we develop other resources it no longer has to meet all our unreal expectations. Magic is the opposite of the childish demand to “live the fairytale.” Instead, it gives us a perspective to see our exciting lives as they actually are. Magic is a bright thread in a pattern that is continuously woven by experience; it brings us joy.
- Emotional Connection.
How we suffer and exult with the characters in our favourite fiction! We reread, to re-experience that emotional engagement. And isn’t that the key to magic? Most books agree that Will allied to a strong emotional charge will unlock the door to enchantment: through this portal, we access a wider relationship with the universe. If we can remember the emotional involvement we find with fiction, we can recognise that state in our magical work, and harness it to our Will to effect change.
- Opening the Imagination.
Take a moment to remember that glorious sense of reading, of being completely absorbed into another world. Never doubt that this is real on its own level—and it also describes what happens when magic opens the inner realms to you. Just thinking of it now feels like breathing with the invisible world. Magic, unlike fiction, doesn’t spoon-feed you; you are the author, so it requires more attention and effort. But the principles are the same: we settle down, devote time, relax and allow our inner senses to flower. And, in magic, very importantly, we first align ourselves with all that is good and beneficent; we set our intent to be in harmony with the changing universe.
And don’t the effects of reading return with you into the everyday world? Rousing yourself from a good book can be a disorienting experience. Connect with magic to the same depth, and you will understand why all the manuals tell you to take time to ground yourself afterwards, keeping only the benefits before rejoining your everyday life.
Our Own Magical Practice
If these ideas excite you, why not experiment by revisiting your favourite magical fiction? Respect it. Give it time and space and the right conditions: treat reading as a ritual act. Read short passages out loud; vary the speed and really notice every word, every phrase. Note carefully the effect it has on your body and psyche. Would it be useful to incorporate it into your regular magical practice? Will trying this affect how, when and what you read in the future? Will you choose more carefully? Reading can be one of the many portals into magic, and if the subject matter enlarges our worldview and leaves us feeling elevated and connected to the evolutionary current of the universe, then that is probably exactly what it is doing.
The Promise of Dion Fortune’s Magical Fiction
Any magical fiction is likely to have a deeper effect than general story—our fascination with the subject means that our emotions will be more engaged. There are many great magical fiction writers out there: to me, Fortune is leader in that field, for she writes with the intention of allowing an initiatory experience for the reader. She says that we can gain this by reading her fiction in conjunction with The Mystical Qabalah, her book on the ancient glyph of the Tree of Life. Her promise is that we will be given “The Keys to the Temple.”
And yet, in over twenty years of enjoying Dion Fortune’s writing, I had never actually done what she suggested. She was teaching me, but I had not heard the message as something that I could act upon, for I had always found the Qabalah a challenge. How could an esoteric school of thought from Judaism fit with my Druidic path? What relevance had it to the modern world? Would I have to learn another language? Would I get so bound up in its complexities—a lifetime’s study for many scholars—that I would lose my direction? Was it respectful to utilize it for my own Western spiritual needs? And yet here was the one teacher whom I would have chosen telling me to do just this.
Meeting with my co-author, Ian Rees, whose life-long esoteric training has involved study of the Qabalah, has led to years of discovery. Ernest Butler, himself a student of Dion Fortune, called the Tree of Life, “The mighty, all-embracing glyph of the universe and the soul of man.”2 This is surely a template large enough to underpin our spiritual aspirations, to work with through story and to connect up the lost parts of our souls with the greater universe. Butler also said that, “The Tree is not a map of the undiscovered country of either the soul of man or the universe in which he lives, but is rather a diagram of the mutual relationship of the underlying forces of both.”3
And Dion Fortune was to expound this, as a living experience for the reader, within four rattling good yarns. It’s quite an achievement!
Following her advice, we have worked extensively with her four major novels. Exploring the lives of the characters in conjunction with the wisdom of her The Mystical Qabalah has allowed us to unfold for the general reader the symbolic and spiritual journey that they take to reach a true engagement with the mysteries. This, for the characters and for us, is a real and valid journey, whose effects will be felt in the wider world. The result of our explorations is our book, The Keys to the Temple.
“There are people who think that things that happen in fiction do not really happen. These people are wrong,”4 says the wonderful Neil Gaiman, carrying the torch into the twenty first century: he knows that the imaginal realms are real, and to be understood on their own terms. Experiences there can breathtakingly wonderful, scary and dangerous; they can fill our hearts with wonder; and we can access them through reading almost without our conscious volition. What a gift!
Reading any magical fiction is an enriching experience, reminding us of our inner connections to a larger, sentient world of wonders. If that magical fiction has been written with intent, as Dion Fortune wrote, to open the reader to initiation, and is read with equal commitment, it can form the basis of a true magical transformation: it gives us the Keys to the Temple. The magical current of Dion Fortune, who is long buried in her beloved Glastonbury, UK, can still be, through her writing, an inspiration in the world. Truly, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Happy reading, and a blessing on the work.
- Dion Fortune, The Goat-Foot God (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1999), 33.
- Ernest Butler, The Magician: His Training and Work (London: Aquarian Press,1963), 32
- Ibid: 30
About the Author
Penny Billington is a Druid speaker and author. She is an active member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and has edited the Order magazine, Touchstone, for fifteen years. She regularly runs workshops, organizes rituals, and gives lectures.
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