Secondary World part 2: Visiting Other Worlds of Magic

Last week, I talked about how Coleridge’s "suspension of disbelief" can be used to understand how more than one magical system can make sense, even if they’re mutually exclusive. In short, a work of art that is not convincingly "realistic" tugs on your heart by reminding you of "inward truths," and I compared that to how one might sympathize with Yggdrasil not because one believes the world hangs from the boughs of a tree, but because one believes trees are central to the survival of our ecosystem on Earth.

This week we’ll go even further. Tolkien’s famous essay "On Fairy-stories" developed an idea called the "secondary world" and we can conceive of magical systems as secondary worlds that we visit. If they’re coherent, we may keep coming back!

What’s a secondary world?

As opposed to the Coleridge chapter from last time, if you want to read Tolkien’s essay legally, you’ll have to buy it. Here is a good breakdown of the history of the essay and some of the points it makes. I do recommend the Flieger edition. I’ve also written about this essay in the past if you want a simpler dive into it than I’m going to (try to) do here.

In short, Tolkien argues that works of fiction, and particularly "fairy-stories,"[^1] create another world, a "secondary" world, effectively within this one because they are within the text and the reader. Readers enter that world when they read the work. If you just think of fiction you may find this more satisfactory than Coleridge’s "suspension of disbelief." We don’t disbelieve the story at all, we simply engage it on its own terms and "go to it,"[^2] and within that space the things within it are true.

The rest of the post kind of writes itself, doesn’t it? In short, when we visit a place, we live by that place’s rules, just like how I drive on the right-hand side of the road where I live, but I cetainly will not insist on still doing so if I go somewhere else.

Magical Worlds

There’s another topic Tolkien talks about, which I want to go into at length in the future, called "sub-creation." In short, the author is a creator like the creator of our world, in that they are the sole genesis of the world they are creating. If this sounds wildly heretical for the staid, Roman-Catholic Tolkien who once said he didn’t really know anything about theology, it isn’t really, because it just reiterates the idea that humanity is created in the image of deity. There’s probably a post to be written comparing the ideas of sub-creation to the Hermetic doctrine "as above, so below" honestly. Look forward to that maybe!

The reason it’s relevant here — enough, at least, to demand I kind of crib from future writing — is that just as this world was made by God (in Tolkien’s magical worldview) but is not constantly micromanaged by God, so too are secondary worlds made by authors but not totally under their control. Tolkien comes quite close, in some of his work that’s only now being published, to claiming that the capital G God isn’t entirely in control of this world — presumably that’s part of the reason those bits and pieces of lore about Iluvatar didnt make it into the more common works, like The Silmarillion. But it shows he was thinking about that relationship.

Now, transpose that relationship onto magical worldviews. We already discussed, last week, that all magical systems are maps, not territories: they are not the world we live in, they simply model that world for us, so we can make decisions and function. And if we need a different map, we get one out of the glove compartment.[^3] A world, by definition, must cohere in a holistic way. I’ve banged on about this before. It’s a whole world, it’s an ecosystem, things rely on other things. So now we can start to think about not only approaching a work or worldview fairly but also how to judge it while not being unfair. If something does not hold together, if it ejects you from its world because it doesn’t have the kind of cohesion that the entire world appears to have, then it isn’t working. You may take or leave Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hermeticism, Solomonic work, Wicca, or any other major religion or magical worldview, but they all hang together. They look like secondary worlds. Compare that to something like scientology[^4], where it just seems like word salad. It doesn’t hang together when you move outside the influence of a guru and a community hell-bent on keeping everyone inside the fence. It’s not a place, it’s an ideology.

And look, the ways that religions, magical worldviews, and ideologies intersect is a whole other essay, and honestly I suggest you just go read the work of S. Jonathan O’Donnell if you want to really dive into that rabbit hole face-first. I am arbitrarily separating these things for purposes of this essay, not because I am trying to argue that they do not mingle.

Coming back home

Last week we saw that things can be "true" because they "transfer" things from our inward selves, and this week we see that places "exist" not because they are ontologically true but because they hang together, related to us as the world we live in relates to us. We go inside texts, of all sorts, and our magic is a text in this case. We go inside it, and we don’t always live in there. Sometimes we need the map to the Old Tree that takes us away to the Fairy Wilds, and sometimes we need the map that shows us where our new grocery store is. Different maps for different purposes.

But the thing to keep in mind is that they’re both equally "true" maps. They serve different purposes. That doesn’t mean one disproves another. Allow a magic to speak to you, and even if you don’t start using it yourself, you will find yourself enriched, just in the same way it’s good to travel, if you can, without intending to move everywhere you go. You know you’ll come back home. But you’re better for having been away.

[^1]: the essay was originally a speech given at a celebration of the work of Andrew Lang, and so the term "fairy story" may seem odd, but it’s the term often used for Lang’s work.

[^2]: I won’t go into this for this essay, but it’s worth pointing out that Becca Tarnas has argued that Tolkien was doing a kind of Jungian shadow work project at first, "entering" Middle-Earth as though it really were a place, not necessarily in the way we might enter other planes of magical reality, but in a psychological way that is still particularly powerful. All I’ll note here is that it makes the way Tolkien would phrase some things make sense, because he often seems tentative and unsure, as though he encountered these things somewhere, rather than inventing them.

[^3]: Or on our phones yes I know.

[^4]: Don’t come at me complaining; it’s a cult in the bad, modern sense of that term.

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