Magic in the Real World


As players of fantasy games, we are all familiar with the concept of magic, but how many of us believe that magic exists in the “real world”.

I do.

Allow me to clarify…

At university, I was taught by the amazing Professor Susan Blackmore. Sue taught me many lessons, and introduced me to the work of Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter. As a result I became what I then called a “devout atheist”, a materialist, a logical positivist. I would gleefully taunt religious types and “airy fairy” thinkers, in a way that I now see frequently (not least by Dawkins himself) and which makes me cringe.

It took 25 years for me to learn better. What changed my mind were the good folks of Festival 23 and specifically Anwen, owner and head witch of the aptly named Airy Fairy.

Now, if you are expecting me to reveal how to cast fireball or levitate “in the real world”, let me first say that my change of mind is largely the result of a shift in my understanding of the semantics of the word “magic”. But if the fact that this is “only semantics” sounds like an anti-climax, please don’t let it be. It is through semantics that we largely construct the model of the universe inside our heads – what Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson called our Reality Tunnel. And magic, the type which I subscribe to, can have a very significant impact on the world.

Alan Moore talks about this type of magic in a very cogent and enlightening manner in the video below. To summarise: the word “magic” is interchangeable with the word “art” (or, if you prefer to keep a bit of hocus-pocus in your terminology, “The Art”). Art is something which we humans conjure up, apparently from nowhere, which then leaks into the “real world” and can alter this world profoundly. The most adept and self-aware practitioners of magic in our modern times, says Moore, are advertisers (I would add to this the people who pull the strings of our politicians). They very intentionally practice the spewing-out of ideas which affect the consciousness and thus the behaviour of millions of people.

But magic, or art, used to and still can affect the world in far more positive ways. I was reminded of this most dramatically a couple of weeks ago, when I attended my first Toxteth Day of The Dead. In brief, this is a new approach to the ceremonies surrounding death, and the way we remember the loved ones who have left us, a piece of magic cast by the artists formerly known as the KLF, and assisted into being by the Green Funeral Company. There is a Radio 4 documentary with much more information here, but I don’t think that the depth and emotional resonance of this emergent ceremonial can really be felt without attending one. We inherited most of our funerary practices from the Victorians and their forebears, and most of us feel that this is the way that death must be, the only dignified response to the loss of a loved one. But the Toxteth Day of the Dead demonstrates the falsity of this belief, and enables us to come up with our own rituals which better reflect who we are, both as individuals, as small units of friends and family and, perhaps most important of all, as entire communities, grieving and celebrating together. Sure the event is, as Bill Drummond bemoans in the documentary, dominated by a rag-tag band of Discordians, Chaos magicians and people who are determined to find a special significance in the number 23. But these people are the vanguard. New approaches have to start somewhere. The People’s Pyramid will, at the current rate, take 1,000 years to build. This is a feature, not a bug. We have become a society of short-termists, but sometimes it’s important to do ancestor work.

What has any of this to do with gaming? Trust me, I’m getting there… (although even if I didn’t, this is stuff worth thinking about, right?) To bridge that gap, let me talk about the Book of Horkos. Horkos was (is?) the son of Eris, Greek god of Chaos. He himself governed oath, takers and oath breakers: breaking an oath would result in Horkos sending the oath-breaker on a prolonged visit to hell. The Book of Horkos is a piece of magic cast by Daisy Campbell (actually, Daisy Eris Campbell – that damned Greek goddess crops up everywhere) – herself an astounding character who also plays an important role in the Toxteth Day of The Dead and, among her other spells, took a group of 69 “pilgrims” on a bus trip from Cerne Abbas in Dorset to CERN in Geneva (“the large hard-on to the large hadron”) to immanentise the eschaton and reset the universe. (I was there; it was magic: intensely creative, life-changing, world changing. Perhaps in a similar way that the Sex Pistols’ notorious gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall was world-changing).

Every six months, “Horkosians” gather to write their pledges in the Book of Horkos. This places them, and all of the other Horkosians, in great jeapordy: if any one pledge is not accomplished by the time of the next meeting, the books is burned and we are all “sent to hell”, and no similar endeavour may be attempted for many years. This has ramifications. The book itself is not only the most impressive leather-bound wodge of paper I’ve ever seen – with records of, as of now, six years’ worth of pledges – it also, as I discovered when I got to be “keeper of the book” is the memorial book from the funeral of Daisy’s dad, the “maverick theatre director” Ken Campbell. That’s quite a weight of memories to let burn.

And the book works magic. In its time it has birthed books, plays, artworks, poetry and more. One of this year’s bestselling books (and not coincidentally the most visceral, artful, novel and timely thing I read in 2021) Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden started out as a Horkos pledge.

Turning, at last, to the subject of this blog: tabletop role-playing games – in 2019 I pledged to write (and publish as a PDF) a D&D adventure of at least 23 pages. And I completed my pledge. Knowing my own track record for completing things I start, this would never have happened had it not been for the magic of Horkos (highlighed by the fact that, in the year since putting out that PDF, I have radically revised the adventure with the intention of producing a new PDF and a print edition… but have been stuck about 75% of the way through this project since April). Magic gets things done!

(Since “completing” my adventure Nice Weather for Fish I have been working some Horkosian-adjacent magic to learn to draw trees; more of that in a future post). 

So, art is magic, magic is art. If you ask me whether art has ever changed the world, I would counter: has anything other than The Art ever changed the world?

Think of that next time you are sat around the table playing a game. You are doing magic. Real magic. You are bringing into being thoughts and experiences that never existed before you sat down. You are changing people’s minds. You are changing the world.






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