Countdown to Doctor Who Season 9! Two days to go! Yesterday I wrote about The Nature of Time. Today, let’s talk about WORDS. Words of power. Magic words.
In the Harry Potter universe, speaking the right words (even inaudibly) has magical results. There’s no discussion of the metaphysics of this: how does it work? Do you have to get the pronunciation right in order to set up certain powerful sound waves? Are you evoking deities who do the magic for you? Or what? Last night I listened to part of a podcast of This American Life episode called “Magic Words.” In Act One, a reporter tells about a book he received as a child that purported to teach him how to manipulate psychic atoms to control objects and people.
In Doctor Who, there’s a quasi-scientific explanation for how words can be magical. In the episode “The Shakespeare Code,” the Doctor figures out that the enemies, the Carrionites, have devised a method for “using shapes and words to channel energy,” for speaking “the right words with the right emphasis at the right time” to cause destruction.
At one point, the Doctor confronts one of these monsters:
DOCTOR: Creature, I name you Carrionite!
(Doomfinger screams and vanishes in a slow flash of light.)
MARTHA: What did you do?
DOCTOR: I named her. The power of a name. That’s old magic.
MARTHA: But there’s no such thing as magic.
DOCTOR: Well, it’s just a different sort of science. You lot, you chose mathematics. Given the right string of numbers, the right equation, you can split the atom. Carrionites use words instead.
SHAKESPEARE: Use them for what?
DOCTOR: The end of the world.
But at the end of the episode, it turns out that the three malevolent aliens—the models for the witches in Macbeth—have dictated the lost play, Love’s Labours Won, to Shakespeare: “the final words like a spell, like a code. Love’s Labours Won. It’s a weapon. The right combination of words, spoken at the right place, with the shape of the Globe as an energy converter!” The idea seems to be that the correct sound waves cause particular physical results, which these creatures know how to harness and use just as we know how to use electric, X-ray, and so forth.
Our heroes succeed by turning the weaponized words back against their enemies: Shakespeare improvises a poem that just happens to hit all the right notes and send the creatures back into the crystal ball from which they have come. Do have a look at this scene:
It’s hilarious, especially as the punchline is “Expelliarmus!”
The only problem is that the poetry is terrible. THOSE are words of power? Give me a break. The last lines aren’t even in iambic pentameter.
So, the point is that words have real, physical, scientific, magical power.
In Charles Williams’s writing, words also have real power. It’s spiritual power, but it certainly takes on a magical tone, and not only in his fiction. Check out this previous post, The Magical Name of God: “Windows of Night,” 1925, and this one, Mysticism, Magic, and Marriage: “The Greater Trumps”.
Throughout The Greater Trumps, naming is particularly important. The young magical practitioner Henry Lee frequently names things as a way of gaining power over them or taking their power for himself. The mad old woman Joanna and her servant Stephen perform a ceremony of calling on the names of their gods. The great saint in the story, Sibyl, ponders that perhaps “the strange and half-mystical signs and names of the Greater Trumps had meaning and life.” When Henry thinks he sees all his plans for world domination going astray. He ponders whether
…the dark fate that falls on all mystical presentations, perhaps because they are not presentations only, had fallen on this; the doom which struck Osiris in the secular memory of Egypt, and hushed the holy, sweet, and terrible Tetragrammaton in the ritual of Judah, and wounded the Keeper of the Grail in the Castle of the Grail, and by the hand of the blind Hoder pierced the loveliest of all the Northern gods, and after all those still everywhere smote and divided and wounded and overthrew and destroyed…
Magic cannot work when the Name of God, the Tetragrammaton, is silenced.
But this is fiction! This is a wild fantasy in which Tarot cards create storms and golden figures dance the pattern of the entire universe. Surely Williams didn’t believe any of this in real life?
In 1944, he wrote to his young disciple Lois Lang-Sims (“Lalage”), giving her instructions on how to draw a Pentagram properly “for the Banishment of Evil Spirits or Elementals and the stabilizing of the good.” He says he wouldn’t dare to draw a reversed Pentagram, nor should he
care to say the Lord’s prayer backwards or (like the Wicked Man in my new novel [Simon Magus in All Hallows’ Eve]) try and pronounce the Reversed Tetragrammaton-if you know what that is. Do you know the Hebrew letters for it—
which are the Letters of the Divine Name that once a year before the Temple fell the High Priest pronounced in the Holy of Holies. Under the Shekinah. But (Blessed be He!) since it fell, we do not at all know the true pronunciation.
According to CW’s biographer, Grevel Lindop, (who has been tweeting 100 odd facts about The Oddest Inkling as a countdown to the publication of the biography), CW was involved in some practical magic. When his platonic sweetheart Phyllis Jones was in the hospital, he gave her Wallis Budge’s Amulets & Superstitions because it had diagram of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and he circled the building sunwise to provide magical energy for recovery! Anne Ridler reported that he psychically detected site of Dark Age battle at Aisholt Somerset; another time he joined Oxford friends using a ouija.
Where did he get all this? Well, he probably got most of it from A.E. Waite, his occult mentor, wrote several works on Kabbalah—the Jewish form of mysticism that includes, among many other features, profound meditation on the Name of God. In Waite’s book The Doctrine and Literature of the Kabalah, a central doctrine is that “that Jehovah is one and his Name is one,” that “It was the form of celestial man that God assumed at the beginning of his manifestation. This is the Shekinah, this the Mercabah or chariot, and this also is the sacred name of Jehovah” (208). One level of initiation “investigates the mysteries of the Divine Majesty, of sacred names and pentacles” (368).
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case: Waite writes that “most popular writers, for almost all encyclopaedias which have not had recourse to a specialist, the Kabalistic art is simply the use of sacred names in the evocation of spirits” (23). And also, those quotes I used above are taken from an historical study, in which Waite is working as an historian to reveal what practices and beliefs have been in the past in particular times, places, and texts. But Aren Roukema wrote in his recent, ground-breaking article on CW’s involvement in the FRC that Kabbalah continued to be an important part of Golden Dawn and later FRC thought and practice.
All this scholarly stuff is to say: CW probably practiced mystical, if not magical, rituals involving the Name of God while he was in the FRC, and apparently continued practicing them forever after.
Tune in tomorrow for CW & DW on coinherence, and on Saturday for True Myth.