I know I’ve not been very active lately here on this blog. I’m wrestling with some stuff in and outside of my head -it’s not because it’s in my head that it isn’t real…- and though I do have a lot of unfinished posts on various subjects that will hopefully be finished and posted one day although a lot of them might see the light, I’m quite unsure about what to write at the moment. This post is another impulsive train of thought that just needed to be written down, and it does most probably fit somewhere in my demodersiation-project.
As some people know already, I’m an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and scifi and likewise books, so after re-reading some Narnia, LOTR, and a few Terry Prachett books late last year I’m currently (re)reading Ursula Le Guins Earthsea series. I do say (re)reading because I’ve only been reading the first 4 ones before, and now I’ve also reading the collection of short stories called ‘tales from Earthsea’, and the last novel ‘the other wind’. It’s both interesting and challenging to me that the worldview in those books is sometimes much further away from mine. LOTR, Narnia, and even Harry Potter (indeed, Harry Potter) do have a pretty Christian background-worldview, while Earthsea seems to have some taoist and pagan (Native American?) concepts incorporated that are further away from my own thinking, with sometimes concepts and philosophies that I can’t agree with, but still very interesting to think about.
For this post there is just one idea I want to touch upon, which is the background behind the magic in Earthsea but also interesting outside of that context: the power of the old speach, which is the language of the making of the world. For those unfamiliar with the books: the world of Earthsea is created by some creator being name Segoy, more specifically it is called into being using that ‘true speech’. (There is a parallel with Christian thought here, but also differences: the world is called into being by the word of a creator as in genesis, though not ex nihilo, nor is the creator very active in the world anymore. So maybe there’ a more deist touch here even…) Wizards in Earthsea still use this very language of old speech since it is very powerful, if you do know the ‘real name’ of something (or someone) you have power over it. It is sort of the language underneath the universe of Earthsea.
Now outside of those books, the idea is still a very interesting one, and, dare I say, important one: If you know the language of creation, the language by which the world was made, and can speak it, you have power over the world.
I don’t think that true name magic is very original, nor do I expect Le Guin to claim that it is a new idea. Ideas like this do exist in a lot of cultures and more ‘magical’ thought (it’s behind the idea of most ‘spells’), but in a way the same idea also lies underneath modern science. We just don’t expect that language by which the world is made to be an actual language with words.
Let me explain what I mean with that: We modern people describe the world in formula and theories, looking for the ‘true name’ of things in the abstract language of mathematical equations and weird symbols, so we can not just explain the world around us, but also have power over it. We can visualise how an atom looks, and split it, either to make energy and electricity, or to make one of the most abominable weapons ever. We can unravel the language of DNA, and not just to find out how certain characteristics are coded in our genes, but also to alter organisms.
If you learn the language of the making of the universe, which is the same language the universe still speaks, you sometimes can control it. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of scientists are still looking for the ultimate formula that describes everything. We want to unravel the code in which the universe is programmed, so we can be able to re-program it in our own taste… Which is still the same goal that any serious magician had. I’ve said before that science and magic are like twins in a way.
And yes, it is true that to do anything at all, you need to understand the way the world works, learn the language, and submit to it. It is in submission to the rules of the language of the world that we can gain power over it, not just by writing symbols on a board. By submitting to the rules of the grammar of creation we can make the word submit. And as humans we do want this to be absolute. But the question here is ‘can we?’? I do find the modern idea that the universe can be completely understood ‘rationally’ in our terms, in our language and abstract system, to be naive hubris at least.
Now, science is only one attempt to try this, and one that is very useful in one area (the visible, material part of the world), but there are more dialects of the true language of the universe that the universe speaks, and though magic might not be in vogue in the high places nowadays (although our technology can be more evil than a lot of dark magic), there are working systems of magic that have found bits of the language to the universe useful to exercise power. (Chaos magic can be quite effective in the right (?) hands I think for example, if we get outside of the realm of more traditional occult magic(k) )
Let me note here that religion can probably be viewed in similar ways, but with a big difference: the ‘control’ part on our side should be absent for healthy religion, lest we fall back into some form of magic. This is often the case though, and not just in pagan systems, but also in some parts of Christianity. But that would be one more adventure in missing the point. We can use the language of the world (insofar we decipher it) to be able to understand and master nature, but we can only learn to speak the language of God (or the tao, or the order of the universe, depending on your tradition) in order to align ourselves more with Him. But we can’t put the Source of Being in our pocket or use it as a pet hawk to catch the hare we want to eat for Christmas…
In the end we are part of a bigger whole. We humans are not to be masters of the universe. We are almost gods maybe (see psalm 8 in the bible), but we never will be gods. We didn’t make this place, and didn’t invent the rules that were written in all of creation…
So we can try to learn to understand the language of the universe (in part, and in our fallible human way) but we will never be God, never be the Source of being, and in the end we will always be answerable to the Ultimate Source of Being.
(And as a Christian I must add that, while it is impossible for a human to really learn ‘the language of God’, it actually works the other way. God came down and learnt to speak our language, and became human in the person of Jesus. This is the opposite of all our power games. God did not come to make us submit in that way of power, He came as we are. See also this post)