Saturday, July 11, 2009


UPDATE:  This post has been expanded under the title 'Wild Magic' and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essaysavailable for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

”In the beginning was nature.”
- Camille Paglia

Last night I went head to head with a chicken bone. It damn near killed me. Got stuck in my throat, about an inch below my tonsils, and hung there for about three hours. Tried to push it down with food, tried to vomit it up. No good. In the end, probably because enough acid washed over it, the thing made its way down.

Try to comprehend this when you have no references: no understanding of human biology, no comprehension of how the throat is construction, nor any conception of why a chicken bone would attack you. Particularly since you have eaten chicken many times and this has never happened before. And what about your family? Ugh and Chu and Pag and Gurt ate the same chicken as you and it didn’t attack any of them.

Primitive humans, as they begin to grasp with their developing minds the world around them, would soon discover many things which their senses could not explain. The world is a huge, dangerous place, ready to destroy without reason or warning every living thing that dwells in it.

Camille Paglia at the fore of her book, Sexual Personae, argues thus: early male hominids lived in a constant state of terror for the world around them. In order to rationalize that world, it became necessary to adapt, emotionally and intellectually ... and thus homo erectus developed a delusion which remains with us to this day. The delusion is that the world is not violent or destructive, that it is beautiful.

Consider: I bring you to a place overlooking a spectacular vista, a wild place, where the craggy mountains rise above the valley floor and the forests clothe the lower slopes of the mountain. A crystal blue lake rests in the bottom land, and a small river snakes from the lake, through a meadow marked with shining white boulders – left behind from some ancient glacier, now long gone. “Is it not beautiful?” I ask. I feel almost compelled to ask the question. No doubt you would have to admit the sight was impressive and – if you were not emo – that it was, in fact, beautiful.

But if I were to ask you to spend a week, naked, in that place, you would certainly decline. You would certainly not see it as beautiful if you were stranded there – even less so if the place were so far from civilization that there was no chance you would be found.

Soon the lake and river would reveal themselves as icy dangers. The forests would be filled with deadfall, predators and insects. There would be no place warm. There would be little food. What you think of as beautiful is, in reality, an awful, dangerous place. You would likely not survive it.

So why is it beautiful? Why is it when the leaves are dying, we do not see dying leaves, we see beautiful fall colors? Why do we not huddle in terror at the thought of leaving our safe cities, even though hundreds die every year from avalanche, exposure or accident? Why do we build houses on fault lines or near volcanoes, when we know what it will mean, eventually?

We do it because we live in denial. We must live in denial. To be too conscious of the dangerous world around us is to become impotent.

The shift from animal to human, in recreating the world in our own conception (not a horror, but an opportunity), occurred, it is supposed, about 40,000 years ago. It is about that time that humans began to aesthetically redesign their tools, smoothing off edges or polishing their appearance – even though this made no difference to the usefulness of the tool. The argument Paglia makes is that this was done with the same sense of mind in which humans retooled their perception of the world – as a place of beauty. This made one significant difference. By not being afraid, we were able to take risks, to experiment, and thus further adapt to our environment.

I have come all this way around the barn because most persons now do not have a firm conception of mysticism, as they might hunting or fishing. Early man, at some point during an attack from a chicken bone, or from being alone amidst the great wide wilderness, began to conceive that there was a greater influence on the universe than what he could detect from the use of his senses. Something that determined where the game would be found, or who would die, or what events would come together to make rain. He could only perceive this force as something which must be nurturing, for otherwise he could do nothing as a species but give up and die. Later on this nurturing quality of the Earth would be personified – but that is a further interpretation. Mysticism alone, unadorned as yet by the later developments of meditation or polytheism, remains only a sense that there is power, and that this power permeates all that exists, in a manner which cannot be seen nor even understood.

At last we can come to D&D. Once we accept that it is a world with magic that is being described, mysticism is not merely an interpretation, but a comprehension of a magic that is beyond the mind’s reach. Think of it as an old magic, abiding within the fabric of the existential plane itself, greater than any god or being that might seek to manipulate it. It is the magic which is not explained in the Vancian methods of the mage, in any mere item or in the conjuring of demons or gods. It is the very power that makes gods – it is the influence whereby mortals become immortal. It is the great power by which the stars move, by which things come into being.

It is the power of birth itself, never explained and certainly not understood by humans throughout their history – arguably, not even now. It is the soul that resides, the ghost in the machine, the atman, the means by which breathing powers the body. It is the magic that makes crops grow and seas rise, that topples mountains and cracks open the earth.

In comparison to this power, an ordinary mage is a charlatan with a bottle of water, wetting a spot in the sand – while mystic forces prepare to flood the desert and wash it into the sea. To tap into this power, even for a heartbeat, is to hold the universe hostage.

It may be the oldest magic, but it is also the least understood. In countless generations, this power has never been fully harnessed. The early druids who were the first mystics tried to harness it. They gained enough knowledge to manipulate to some degree the world around them ... but every druid would know that there was great magic, old magic, which was yet to be found in rock and rill, in every cloud and in the ways of animals. So they watch, and follow, and struggle to comprehend one more clue that will reveal the dragon, as it was called. Explain to your druids that they have not yet begun to plumb the depths of nature, then give them something to find.

As a DM, you are free to define this magic however you like –for the record, it should terrify. How often do we hear that nature is sweet and light, that we think of druids as tree huggers? Nature is a cold blooded murderer, as were the druids themselves.

That the world nurtures its humanoids is only the defence mechanism ... it is not the reality. A meteor strikes the earth and cares nought for what is killed or what might survive. In the world of D&D, meteors are not random – they do not occur because the wheels and turns of the universe produce likelihoods. This sort of thing can only happen because you, the DM, wills it to happen. Admittedly, you’re more likely to do the opposite, and have nothing happen:

If you have ever felt restrained by the rules of magic, by what you think the gods can manage or what spells exist, you have not opened your mind to the source of every kind of power. There are no rules to that source except those which derive from the limitations on you, a living creature living in this world, subject to the mysticism that rules you now as you read this.