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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the magic world

Two days ago, in search of some basic information on the phenomenon of taboos, I pulled out my thick copy of J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough and searched through it. He defines taboo as "negative magic"--"Do not do this, lest so and so should happen." I was digging into the ancient institution of ritual purity, which appears to be an extension of the still more ancient notion of taboo.

Frazer's book, originally published in 12 volumes in 1922, is a famous landmark in the study of comparative religion and mythology. I of course have only an abridged edition in one teensy-weensy paperback volume of 972 pages, a very well-made Macmillan paperback with a cover illustration by Peter Goodfellow that I've always liked: a young man, in classical drapery, seen from behind, sits on a white unicorn that lies on a rock, gripping its horn and surveying a fantastic landscape that has strong affinities with Bosch--little naked figures, bearded satyrs, mermaids, all in and around a magic lake surround by rocky bluffs.

I got the book so long ago that it was before I started inscribing the date on the inside along with my name, which I started doing in 1979. But I remember exactly when I got it: in the late summer of 1978. My mother got it for me to take with me on what was intended to be a year-long world trip with my friend Tim (it lasted six months and we only got as far as Italy--no complaints!). She hadn't read the book, but had heard that it was supposed to be a widely acknowledged authority on mythology. I hadn't heard of it, but I packed it with me, along with the white Bible that Tim and I had agreed we would read through as part of our traveling education.

I picked up other books to read on the trip as we went along, but I did start The Golden Bough and kept up with it as a kind of background read, finding it strangely compelling, even though it was mainly, even in such severely abridged form, a long mass of examples of magical beliefs, superstitions, and rituals from primitive cultures around the world, ca. 1900. It was fascinating in many ways--an eye-opener. I felt I was peering into a dreamlike world, which was also the world in which the great majority of humanity has always lived--a world alien to my own upbringing in the comfortable, materialistic suburb of North Vancouver. It seems that most people's lives, for almost all of human history, have been governed mainly by magical thinking.

I didn't finish the book--in fact, I still haven't. But it did form an important thread in that trip. Indeed, the farthest point of our journey was actually Nemi--the lake south of Rome on whose shore the ancient grove of Diana was, where the succession of her priesthood, the so-called Kings of the Wood, aroused the curiosity of Frazer and prompted him to write the book that would turn out to be his entire career. The King of the Wood guarded the sacred oak to which he was also, apparently, married. At any time of day or night he might be attacked and forced into mortal combat. If his attacker vanquished him and killed him, then the attacker became the next King of the Wood, and must stand guard the rest of his life until his own unknown successor eventually killed him. This priesthood was ancient even in Imperial Rome, its origins shrouded in legend.

I remember when Tim and I stopped at the roadside overlooking Nemi, still a beautiful little lake nestled in the Alban hills. In the deep rural quiet we ate our salami, bread, and cheese in our red Westfalia van, looking down at the dark-green trees standing in the very spot where the King of the Wood once guarded his tree-goddess-wife. I felt strange stirrings of both connection to and distance from that ancient practice and the passionate beliefs that underlay it.

The world is mysterious. Our presence in it and our actions in it are also mysterious. Everything we do can be looked at as a straightforward, literal action; but somehow the echoes of our deeds reverberate through a strange chasm of unconscious purpose and meaning, ensuring that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

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