Magical Economies (Part Three)

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Here is the last of three installments of my musings about magic. In the first episode I dealt with fictional stories portraying magic as an arcane study. Following this, I reviewed the sinister side of magic with ill-made pacts and potent items luring characters to their doom. In this last part, let’s consider the act of self-sacrifice made in hopes of ridding the world of some great evil.

Below are links to the other two posts referenced above. Please check them out if you haven’t already.

In all of these different applications of magic or supernatural power, I argue there is always a price to pay. Nothing is really free.

Dying for Others

The most basic instinct of any species is survival. Humans contain the capacity to conceptualize the future and are uniquely positioned to consider their own death. This burden of awareness of one’s own mortality haunts all of us at some point in life. Yet, it presents humanity with a unique opportunity when confronting death. We, alone of the animal kingdom, are capable of influencing when, how and why our death occurs. Throughout the ages, countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order to save others. Soldiers, public safety personnel and everyday, ordinary, good samaritans are honored and celebrated for their willingness to put their lives in danger, so that others may live. 

Self-sacrifice is enshrined within the mythos of many spiritual traditions. These faiths believe eternal life, unobtainable to mortals, is secured with an incomprehensible divine gift. The narrative of a god becoming human, suffering and dying to vanquish death, is the ultimate illustration of the adage, “You can’t get something for nothing.” This prodigious concept has had a perennial effect, rippling through generation after generation of humanity’s collective consciousness. It is a notion consistently revisited and explored in the stories we create. Literature classes, worldwide, discuss and dissect pieces of writing, attempting to make sense of what has become know as a “christ-figure”. This literary term denotes a character, who willingly sets aside their own life to accomplish some greater good. Fans of The Lord of the Rings recognize Tolkien’s works are replete with examples of a willingness to die for the greater good. Gandalf’s sacrifice battling the balrogin the Mines of Moria, Boromir’s attempt to save Pippin and Merry from capture, and Sam and Frodo’s taking of the Ring to Mount Doom are merely the more recognizable instances of putting the life of others first. 

In the Star Wars, we all remember watching Obi Wanallow himself to be struck down by Darth Vader. This is a rich plot element not easily pinned down. His sacrifice allows the others to escape the Death Starwith the battle station’s design plans. On the face of things, this noble act gives the rebels a chance at destroying the super weapon. The jedi’s death saves millions of lives. Yet, Obi Wan has other motives. He is playing the long game, hoping to irrevocably turn the younger, impressionable Skywalker away from his father, Darth Vader. Ensuring Luke became a jedi was central to Obi Wan’s mission of restoring balance to the Force. The original 1977 movie was incapable of conveying the vastness of Lucas’s story concept. But, years later with the making of The Clone Wars series, fans finally learned the larger, cosmic backstory. With the rise of Emperor Palpatine, the very Force itself manifests to Yoda. He is given rare training providing a new understanding of the Force. Not unlike, Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation, a story about the creation of an enduring repository of knowledge for rebuilding civilization after utter destruction, the remaining jedi, armed with new insight, lay plans to safeguard the fading embers of their order. Under Yoda’s guidance, Obi Wan learns individuality can survive physical death, transitioning to a new, powerful state of existence. While remaining true to his oath to honor and protect life, Obi Wan’s new perspective empowers him to sacrifice his life for others. There is no evidence of fear. Viewers are treated to a figure tranquilly confident. He recognizes the loss of his physical body pales in comparison to what he’ll become. We all love Obi Wan’s line before he is slain, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” An older, weaker man during the time of the creation of the Death Star, Obi Wanhad much to gain by passing into the Force. The price of his physicality seems inconsequential.

The New Jedi Order book series, set years later during the time of the New Republic, tells the story of a novel threat from beyond the confines of the galaxy. An enemy wielding sophisticated, biologically-based weaponry is bent on total domination. Artificial intelligence and technology, the norm in the galaxy, is abhorrent to the invaders. They seek to eliminate all traces of it and reorder every world to align with their organic-based civilization. Similar to the Na’vi of Pandora from the movie Avatar, their way of life is entirely constructed around merging with other lifeforms in symbiotic relationships. However, unlike the inhabitants of Pandora, the Yuuzhan Vong dominate and genetically alter life to suit their needs, rather than working in harmony with it. This extragalactic society is ruled by a theocracy of warrior priests worshipping a cruel pantheon of gods. Their culture celebrates acts of self-mutilation, pain, treachery, egomania and war. Complicating matters, the Jedi can not sense Yuuzhan Vong within the Force, negating advantages Jedi typically have when fighting other species. The original characters of Star Wars remain actively involved in the story, along side a younger generation of Jedi. In the spirit of redemption, Han and Leia have named their youngest son, Anakin. He is a powerful jedi. In a desperate mission behind enemy lines, he desperately draws ever more of the Force within himself to save his friends, siblings and the mission. Readers discover the physical body has limits though in terms of how it can interact with this mystical energy. As Anakin pulls ever more of the Forcein, beyond safe limits, performing impossible feats, he burns the very life out of himself and dies. The episode is an exemplification of the magical economy at work. Possession of great might always takes a devastating toil on the wielder. Anakin saves the day, like Tony Stark does in Marvel’s, Avengers: Endgame, but interacting with such forces kills both. 

Finally, let’s consider the Thomas Covenant series. The main character, a true anti-hero, is hopelessly flawed and overtly resistant to helping anyone, but himself. We are confronted with his heinous crime, early in the series, and most readers are bewildered, as other characters resign themselves to helping Thomas Covenant. Sacrificing their own ethics and sense of morality, his victim and her family lay aside justice to save their world from its ancient enemy, Lord Foul. The Land, the name of the world in which Thomas Covenant finds himself transported, is inhabited by an archaic people, who consider white gold as an element of ultimate power. Thomas Covenant wears a white gold wedding band. To the people of the Land, he is the reborn embodiment of an ancient hero. He spends much of the series refusing to believe he is experiencing anything other than a dream. Continually playing an unsympathetic figure, he is confronted repeatedly with others sacrificing their lives in the belief he is the Land’s savior. Eventually, he comes to accepts his role, but finds himself ineffective and bereft of any sense of how to save the Land. He is in unable to reliably access the power of the white gold. This is a story full of great loss and tragic defeats. But, the ultimate battle isn’t meant to be won in the traditional sense. To defeat Lord Foul,the Despiser, brutish power will avail Thomas Covenant nothing. Salvation arrives only with the surrender of the white gold and sacrifice of himself. Through his own destruction, he enables the white gold power to use his essence to protect the Arch of Time from Lord Foul’s attempts to destroy it. Ultimately, the evil Despiser, Lord Foul is defeated not through any potent strike against him, but by his own use of the power surrendered to him.

Humanity is easily tempted. Many would be willing to pay a high price in order to achieve great wealth, power, fame or love. Even without magic, there are real world examples of men and women sacrificing morality for gain. Greed, pride, jealousy, zealotry and hunger for power are age old human conditions. These elements of humanity perpetually sow conflict throughout our world. Perhaps, storytelling is a form of catharsis for the entire species, allowing us to focus on acts of generosity, love and altruism. Historically, there is ample evidence of the ability of power to corrupt those with it. Yet, even the meekest have been know to display acts of sacrifice, tipping the scales to save many. Science fiction and fantasy offer the opportunity to explore  exaggerated situations, helping even the dullest of us contemplate the struggle between good and evil. Power always comes with a price and great responsibility. 

Magical Economies (Part Two)

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In part one, I explore magic as an arcane study. If you haven’t read that part, click the link below.

Is This Really a Good Deal?

Last I checked, you still can’t get something for nothing at the “Magical, Paranormal, Special, Super Powers Store”!  It’s downright outrageous… the prices they’re asking fictional characters to pay these days! Oh well…limited supply; great demand will inflate prices. Previously, I explored the tedious path of exhaustive studies to gain greatness. I also talked about sacrificing something greatly valued, as another way to secure fantastic outcomes or abilities. Now, let’s consider magic with “strings attached”! There are some delightful examples of “items of power” harboring evil intelligences within.  These hidden presences patiently wait with deadly agendas and excessively, domineering wills all their own. 

Something deep within the human psyche seems to enjoy a good fright, especially, if couched safely and comfortably within the bounds of a story. The sheer quantity of books, television shows, and movies narrating the exploits of supernatural evil elements attests to this fact. Many presume fantasy focuses solely on the eternal struggles between good and evil and expect to be regaled with scenes of epic battles. Yet, there are many tales about subtler forms of malevolence wrecking havoc, if not more! Within these sinister plots, woven throughout, are tantalizing snares attractive to those thirsty for power.  Fair-faced villains cajole, bargain with or outright trick characters into promising payment in return for the bestowal of unnatural gifts.

An absolute favorite character of mine, Elric of Melniboné, was created by Michael Moorcock during the mid-twentieth century.  Elric is a weak, albino prince, who hails from a mighty sorcerer race. He is reliant on an endless supply of potions and magic only just allowing him to live a stilted, embarrassing existence. Complicating matters, there is a cousin eager to usurp the imperial throne and have the woman Elric loves. Additionally, the people Elric presides over find him odd, even distasteful as a ruler. Needing to find a way to remedy his inborn weakness, he forges pacts with chaotic gods to rid himself of his frail constitution. This leads Elric to a demonic sword aptly named, Stormbringer. The sword grants Elric strength, vitality and great power, but only if he kills and feeds the sword souls. The blade, having an insatiable appetite, demands ever more. Its evil nature yearns to feed on everyone Elric holds dear. He is dependent upon the sword, yet abhors the evil acts it demands. Initially, the perfect solution to his problems, it ultimately brings much ill to Elric. The books are difficult to obtain now, unless you enjoy graphic novels. But, it’s worth the trip to your local library! Thankfully, later this year, the series is being reissued by Tor Publishing! 

The mythos of a crossroads demon is brought to life on the television show, “Supernatural”, with enormous dramatic appeal. These diabolical fiends will grant a person whatever they wish, in return for the person’s soul at the end of a set period of time. They are attracted to intense desire for fame, fortune, power or other desperate worldly yens. “Supernatural” uses a legend surrounding the late, famous blues musician, Robert Johnson, to introduce these demonic characters to the series’ storyline. Johnson burst onto the music scene, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly garnering accolades and fame in the early twentieth century. Popular opinion at the time insisted only a pact with the Devil could account for such an overnight success. His death at a relatively early age only fueled speculation and added credence to this tale. An episode of “Supernatural” begins depicting a frightened, bedraggled Robert Johnson hiding, late at night, in a small, isolated, ramshackle shack. The agreed upon period of ten years has transpired and the time to pay for his unnatural musical talent has come. Doors locked, lights all on, salt on the floor to bar out demonic forces, he sits with a rifle. All the precautions are all to no avail though. Invisible, sulfuring-smelling, giant dogs prowl outside the house. These are the hellhounds of myth. Well…you know what happens. The demons penetrate Johnson’s defenses and his soul is devoured, right on schedule. 

Even Disney writers frequently dip a hand into the murky waters surrounding bargains with evil. A recent example from the plot of the animated movie, “The Princess and the Frog” contains a refreshingly, new look at magic and the desperate promises one make to obtain it.  Doctor Facilier, a practitioner of dark voodoo, is a greedy man with high aspirations. His target is a wealthy, young prince. Facilier attempts to entrap the spoiled, foolhardy royal. But, working with magic usually caused things to go awry and this time is no different. The prince escapes, but not before being turned into a frog. Facilier requests further aide from evil voodoo spirits, vowing to hand over to the otherworldly forces all the souls they desire, once he is in control of New Orleans. Flush with supernatural assistance, he banks all his hopes, putting into motion a plan guaranteeing dominance over the people of the Big Easy. Failing to outwit the protagonists, Facilier is doomed to repay his “friends on the other side” the only way he can. The villain is devoured, body and soul by the spirits. Not an easy scene for an adult to watch, let alone a youngster!

I would be remiss without mentioning the One Ring in Tolkien’s, “Lord of the Rings”. The gradual devouring of Sméagol’s “humanity” is elegantly evidenced. Despite being initially taken in by the insidious glory of the master ring, the hobbit is, temporarily at least, an effective foil to Sauron’s plan. Perhaps, it is his simplistic, pastoral mind which prevents him from seeking vast power over countless others. Yes, Sméagol does initially create trouble for his small community, but ultimately chooses to run off and hide with his Precious. How different and interesting would it be if the character, Sméagol, was more worldly and learned. What if he held a place of prestige and authority within his river dwelling hobbit society? We could assume, he would have taken control and ruthlessly used what meager resources they had to expand his rule. But, how would it have looked? Perhaps, Sméagol and his fellow stoors would have sought to create a powerful, mercantile enterprise controlling the trade along their river? Would the ring have tolerated such a diminutive exercising of power? Certainly, Sméagol’s cruel, domination of his fellow hobbits would have attracted the attention of Sauron and the Nazgul would easily have recovered the ring.

But, despite Sméagol pouring his heart, soul, love and very essence into the ring, he doesn’t seem desirous to master it or wield it. Rather, the ring becomes a bosom “friend”, ally, and confident for the river hobbit. I would suggest the ring replaces the friend Sméagol kills to obtain it. It seems our poor hobbit might have had a shred of a conscious at one point. Nevertheless, Sauron is still able to conquer Sméagol, who becomes twisted, demented and wholly enslaved to the ring. Becoming ever more jealous, delusional and distrustful, he is unwillingly to share the ring and convinced there is a constant threat to his possession of it. Sauron’s master ring utilizes these character flaws to dominate Sméagol and Gollum is born. In turn, the hobbit is able to become invisible and lives far beyond his natural lifespan. But, it is the ring itself that Sméagol desires, not power or riches. This appears to be something Sauron never anticipated…an individual uninterested in commanding the latent, immense power the ring held. Sauron’s failure to anticipate others could resist the ring’s allure, simply because they did not desire power, was the only weakness Gandalf and the White Council are able to use against him. 

The master ring is the prime example of an evil object of power hiding behind a beautiful facade. Interestingly, Sauron, himself, was at one time able to mask his treachery in fair form and with silvered-tongue speech. But, he lost this ability when destroyed with the men of Númenór, long before the events retold in the “Lord of the Rings”. I recommend reading J. R.R. Tolkien’s true masterpiece, “The Silmarillion” to learn about the origins of Sauron and the rings of power he created. The master ring, Sauron created, was truly master of all! One has to ask was it the ring that was wielded or did the ring wield the wearer? The one ring, in a sense, ensnared even its creator, who poured so much of his own essence into its making, he ultimately couldn’t properly survive without it. It boggles the mind! 

In part three of Magical Economies, I’d like to consider those character willing to sacrifice everything, even themselves, to purchase magnificent gains in magic or power to defend and save others.

July, the Fair, a Phone and Aging.

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The amiable, carefree, grandeur of July consistently catches me of guard. August has yet to cover everything with its smothering, hazy oppressiveness. Gone is rainy June weather, typical of Cape Cod. Nights, still relatively cool, host clear skies affording amazing opportunities to stargaze along the shore. Constellations, Scorpio and Sagittarius, hang high in the south, while the Summer Triangle glimmers straight above. Arrival of the perennial onslaught of tourists, coupled with inexperienced summer help, had created utter havoc with local businesses a month earlier. Now, with kinks worked out, stores are moving and grooving, serving four times what they might at other times of the year. It’s the height of the season. A sense of hope permeates, promising plenty of time remains to squeeze all the fun in.

As a means to exploring the passage of a year, artists have richly painted scenes full of imagery detailing the stages of a human lifespan. I keenly resonate with this creative device employed to personify the seasons. Youth portrays the essence of spring. The prime of adulthood represents summer. Autumn is characterized by the newly retired, enjoying the fruits of years of labor. Old age depicts winter. Accordingly, July is the zenith of growth and vitality. Oxymoronic in nature, it is the crossroads where young and old meet. The festivities, annually occurring this month, echo this middling of the tides of time. Fourth of July is a riotous event displaying national pride, hope in the future and honoring the history of this great political experiment. Also in July on Cape Cod, the Wampanoag Powwow celebrates the continuation of the tribe, while paying reverence to an ancestral way of life. Lastly, July signals the arrival of Cape Cod’s annual county fair.  It has changed considerably from the agriculture event it was in days long past. Yet, enough exhibits of livestock and garden produce remain inducing a sense of nostalgia.  

A memory from visiting this county fair distinctly reminds me of an experience where I felt “old”. This wasn’t the first time I had reckoned with the reality of my age. I “died” a little when I realized my hair was thinning, reluctantly gave up my goatee because it was mostly gray and nearly fainted upon discovering my co-worker was younger than my kids. A younger me laughed listening to “Older” by “They Might Be Giants” Haven’t heard it? Check it out on Spotify or Youtube. See… I’m still hip. Maybe? The lyrics go something like: 

You’re older than you’ve ever been…and now you’re even older…and now you’re even older … and now you’re even older….” 

Terrifying, yet true!  Relax. Listen and take heart. The memory I’m about to share with you is an effective antidote against the downside of getting older. All the fuss about aging is due to our insistence on splitting every aspect of life into good or bad. Think of a time you struggled fitting a facet of life into one of two polar opposites. Usually, things are not that easily rendered down in such fashion. I enjoy pondering the adage, “There’s a thin line between love and hate.” Anyone who draws breath, walks this planet and shares their life with another will leap up and shout, “Amen!” My point? Most things lie on a spectrum. This includes getting older. I propose, if you look carefully, you will identify a key moment when you realized aging isn’t all loss and pain. There is joy in remembering the way things used to be. One becomes the steward of the stories, the perspective, the wisdom and the history.

Please click on the link to my historical writing portfolio page to read an amusing story about the time my twelve-year old son didn’t know how to use a telephone. Spoiler: the phone was avocado green, plugged into the wall, and used a rotary-style dial. Can you hear the disco playing?