Why do writers write? There are probably as many answers to that as there are writers, but a considerable number would probably say either that they write the books they want to read, having not found them already on the bookshelves, or they write down the stories they tell themselves in their heads. Yet at the same time, every writer is rooted in their culture or context, and that inevitably flavours and shapes their work in some way or another, on a more or less conscious level, and different writers are more or less open and aware of this. Dion Fortune was, perhaps, more aware of this than most.
Fortune, unlike Kurtz or Townsend Warner, was not primarily a novelist, although writing fiction was one of her activities throughout much of her adult life. Trained as a psychologist in the early years of the twentieth century, Fortune is best remembered as a significant teacher and leader in British occult and esoteric circles and founder of the Society of the Inner Light, a magical order working within Christian tradition. A formidably intelligent woman, she brought her knowledge of Freudian and Jungian theory to her analysis and development of occult practice and theory and to her sense of the spiritual as a core and necessary element to human life and health. And she saw her novels as a part of her overall project to enhance and expand spiritual life and knowledge. In her preface to The Sea Priestess (1938), she wrote, “It is because my novels are packed with such things (symbolism directed to the subconscious) that I want my students to take them seriously. The Mystical Qabbalah gives the theory, but the novels give the practice.” This has led to two of her novels (The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic) remaining constantly in print since their first publication, but it has also meant that her contribution to genre fiction and her influence on other writers and particularly on urban and paranormal fantasy has tended to be overlooked, except where her successors are themselves also involved in esotericism.
Unlike Townsend Warner and Kurtz, Fortune is not necessarily an approachable writer, and, as a consequence of her didactic purpose, the structure and form of her novels sometimes does not conform to modern notions of plot and pace—or, indeed, resolution. She does not always explain, or explain in terms that may satisfy a modern, sceptical reader. At the same time, she does not preach, nor does she demand that the reader accept her worldview uncritically or naively. Her novels are concerned above all with the actualisation of potential and with the nature of spiritual health in a modern and often cynical or exploitative world. Unlike her near-contemporary Dennis Wheatley, she does not set out to shock or repulse, nor does she portray absolutes in terms of good and evil. The choice to do harm is precisely that, a choice: there are no characters in her works who were born bad, though they may choose to become so, or become so through circumstance. And no one is beyond redemption. Human beings in Fortune’s fiction are works in progress, vulnerable both to internal weakness and external pressures—and these pressures are often those of convention, conformity and inertia. In a very real sense, the associations and relationships Fortune constructs and validates are counter-cultural.
Her canvas is small-scale: the books are mainly concerned with the fates of individuals—but the consequences of the actions of these individuals often spread beyond themselves in surprising ways. This is most apparent in the linked novels The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, which deal with the magical workings of the priestess Vivien/Lilith Le Fay Morgan and her effects on those who are drawn to her. Morgan is both the most famous and the most frustrating of Fortune’s characters: she is by far the most powerful individual in any of the novels and she is well-drawn, but she remains enigmatic, which is surely deliberate. Morgan is engaged in magical workings for the benefit of all mankind (the details of which are never made clear to the reader) and which she has pursued across several lifetimes and incarnations. In Fortune’s wider esoteric project, Morgan is the Ur-priestess, the representation of the eternal feminine, of the goddess who is one aspect of the ultimate divine and a conduit for wisdom and knowledge. But in terms of the novels in which she appears, she is something of a dea ex machina: she appears in the lives of two different men, who become her partner in magic (but not her lover) and are transformed in terms of their self-knowledge as a result and end up challenging the standards and ideals by which they have been expected to live their lives. Wilfrid, in The Sea Priestess, finds the courage to frustrate his family’s demands and the conventions of his small town and live the life he wants to live; Malcolm, in Moon Magic, finds new and more empathic ways to live and new directions in which to expand his medical knowledge and practice. Neither directly changes the lives of those around them, but the implications are that change will ripple out from how they behave going forward. It is through the transformation of the self and from the recognition of how to live that people can change their immediate world—and through this process, the individual helps to rebalance a world that has become too greedy, too self-absorbed, too narrow, and too lacking in empathy.
While the two Morgan novels best exemplify Fortune’s magical beliefs and practices, the novel that perhaps best expresses her understanding of the role of the spiritual and the need for balance and growth is The Goat Foot God (1936). Hugh Paston is wealthy and aimless; he has recently lost his wife to a car accident, which also made it apparent that she had been having a long-term affair with his best friend. Through a chance encounter with an elderly bookseller, he is drawn into the world of magic and nature worship. While spiritual growth is, as has been mentioned, the key theme in all of Fortune’s works, it is at its most explicit here. Hugh is on the verge of total loss of self, beleaguered by a family who are willing to have him certified mentally incompetent in order to retain control over his fortune and without purpose or sense of self beyond the most basic. His trajectory towards personal agency involves both physical and psychological escape (as was the case with Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes). In terms of plot and pace, this is perhaps the most satisfactory of all of Fortune’s novels to a modern reader, as the stakes are high but there is less melodrama than in her similar, but weaker The Winged Bull (1935). The novel can be read as thriller, as psychodrama, and, as with all of Fortune’s work, as magical exemplar. It should be noted, too, that both these novels, along with the earlier The Demon Lover (1927), can be read in wholly psychological terms, with the elements of ritual and spiritual exploration seen as aspects of a therapeutic and healing process, and Fortune’s background in Jungian psychology is clear in all her work. And it is notable that her earliest fiction, the Dr Taverner stories, are centred on a working psychotherapist who also deals in the occult. Throughout her work the need for inner balance and fulfilment of spiritual as well as material requirements remains central.
She is not often read as a genre author, at least not in the last thirty or so years, and most awareness of her has been with new age circles. She was marketed initially as a mainstream novelist and then in the same “horror” category that took in Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley as well as Dennis Wheatley and collections of ghost stories. She would not, I think, have seen herself as a genre writer as we now understand the concept. And yet, in terms of modern fantasy, she has become an important influence. Most depictions of magic in early fantasy were vague or picaresque: the eccentric wizards of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, or the unexplained powers of fairy lords in the works of Dunsany. Things are magical because they originate with creatures that are magical or that have made pacts with evil, and are opposed or mitigated by spiritual focus (I’m thinking here of Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla and of George MacDonald Fraser’s books).
There are traces of this in Fortune’s work: she grew out of that context. But her concept of magic and the spiritual is complex, ordered, and academic. Spiritual and magical growth requires more than faith: it requires study and practice and knowledge: this is a gnostic universe, drawing on her experiences with the Golden Dawn and the Theosophists and the latter’s concept of how alchemists and magical practitioners of the past worked. This sense of the value and importance of ritual, and of magic as an ordered practice carries over into the works of a number of later fantasy writers, notably Katherine Kurtz, Rosemary Edghill, and Diana L. Paxson. But Fortune’s concept of magic as operational alongside the mundane and of the presence amongst us of magical practitioners of various kinds is a key element in much modern urban fantasy.
Fortune’s work is full of hints of the numinous: like Ray Bradbury, she was adept at showing us the weird, the Other encoded in the mundane. The Winged Bull and The Demon Lover, with their ambitious adepts and warring magical orders, are lineal ancestors of series like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and Laura Anne Gilman’s Cosa Nostradamus, while her depiction of a powerful world of spirits, gods, and powers just outside our own is ancestral to the work of C. E. Murphy, Seanan McGuire, and many others. Her concern with the spiritual—and she was herself a committed Christian—places her work securely in the line of metaphysical novelists, which includes not only the likes of Dostoevsky but also genre novelists like Carole McDonnell, Mary Doria Russell, and Lisanne Norman, whose books encode faith alongside fantasy and science fiction.
She was not a perfect writer: she was often obscure, at least for a casual reader, and there are long discursive sections in all her books. Some aspects of her work have not aged well: her narratives centre on male self-actualisation, and with the exception of Morgan, her female characters can seem weak and malleable. At the same time, mentors can be male or female, and her male protagonists usually surrender to female leadership with positive consequences. Her depictions of race make uncomfortable reading (this is particularly the case with The Winged Bull), and even The Goat Foot God has disquieting overtones about mental ability. Unlike Townsend Warner, her narratives locate wisdom and growth in an overwhelmingly middle-class context. And Vivian/Lilith Le Fay Morgan is really rather too perfect for this reader, at least. Yet at the same time, Fortune is a significant influence on many fantasy writers, and her footprints are clear across our modern genre.