Double review: Fortune, Sea Priestess and Moon Magic

Fortune, Dion. Sea Priestess. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published privately in 1938. Paperback, 316 pages.

Fortune, Dion. Moon Magic. Weiser: New York, 1978. First published in England in 1956. Paperback, 241 pages.

Please note there are spoilers in this review.

These are probably Dion Fortune’s most famous occult novels. Set in 1930s and 40s England, they revolve around the magical workings of Vivian Le Fay Morgan, who at various points is also called Morgan Le Fay and Lilith. In each one she finds a working partner and does a series of magical rituals, and the real fascination of the novels is the way they convey the spirit or atmosphere of what those experiences might have been like.

The rituals Fortune describes seem drawn from both the Golden Dawn as she would have been familiar with it and something much more like Gardnerian Wicca. She uses some of the language and symbolism of the Golden Dawn, including its emphasis on astrology and allusions to Qabala. Sea Priestess is written from the point of view of Morgan/Lilith’s working partner, who naturally cannot comment on the sources of her rituals, but in the sequel, Moon Magic, Morgan/Lilith says explicitly that the rituals of Sea Priestess were part of her work as an Adeptus Minor. (51) And although many parts of the rituals are (perhaps deliberately?) vague, she also specifically mentions using the “Banishing Ritual of the Greater Pentagram.” (66)

On the other hand, much if not most of the narrative of the books as novels is taken up with the emotional reactions and relationships between Morgan and her successive partners. In a way, they are largely psychological studies of the tension inherent in different kinds of attraction and closeness, especially in the social and emotional context of that period’s gender roles, expectations and prejudices. This is unsurprising given that Fortune studied psychoanalysis, but it might be less than fascinating to someone who doesn’t care about what might be called the “complexes” of the time.

Regardless, it is clear that Morgan/Lilith uses her partners to create a wellspring of personal and sexual attraction that she channels for her own purposes: in the first, she builds up her magical personality, and in the second, she seems to be doing a working that is largely aimed at releasing some of the sexual issues of the culture as a whole. I’m still only beginning to acquaint myself with the Golden Dawn, but as presented by Regardie, its basic rituals seem to eschew emphasis on sex entirely, certainly not drawing on it for the motive power of their rituals. This is why I say parts of the novels read much more like Gardnerian workings, and I think that these contribute to their enduring popularity among Wiccans even though Fortune and her society went to great lengths to make it clear that she was not herself involved in witchcraft or Wicca.

Interestingly, the ways that Morgan/Lilith goes about using attraction as a magical force make her seem almost determined to defy Fortune’s own position as laid out in her Esoteric Philosophy of Love and Marriage, where she is takes pains to admonish readers to abide by both the strictest letter of the law and spirit of social constraints on relationships.

In Sea Priestess, Morgan’s partner is a single man who does not mind running some risks to his reputation. When she is done with him, he ends up tumbling into a marriage that almost seems to take him by surprise, but which the narrator assures us is satisfactory. It has some touches of the esoteric, so if it is not as exciting as his relationship with Morgan, it is perhaps more realistic and thus more sustainable. But in Moon Magic, much of the work takes place while the male character is trapped in a defunct marriage, and Lilith and her partner debate and acknowledge how closely they are splitting hairs between what is and is not acceptable in different contexts.

Fortune writes in the introduction to Moon Magic that the character of Morgan/Lilith had taken on a life of her own which compelled the writing of the second book, and also takes pains to point out that “the viewpoint of Lilith Le Fay is purely pagan,” by which she primarily means not constrained by Christian codes of conduct underpinning societal expectations. (9) She acknowledges that Lilith – as the more developed, independent personality that was only beginning to take shape in Morgan – might be Fortune’s own “Freudian subconscious,” but leaves it as an open question.

The plot of Moon Magic itself is a bit of an open question as well, since the narrative ends with the climax of the magical workings. If the work was propelled by the characters themselves, then perhaps Fortune simply stopped when her characters stopped and didn’t bother to try to tag on an ending that would satisfy conventional expectations of either plot or morality.

Let me be clear, though, that Morgan/Lilith isn’t merely depicted as some kind of conventionally attractive succubus; part of the tension of the books is the way they struggle with the gender roles of the time. Both men find their fascination and satisfaction with Morgan/Lilith stemming from the fact that she is so very powerful, and not just magically; she has a dominant force of personality and does not hesitate to take the lead, directing them, even manipulating them for her own purposes. At the same time, the characters tend to stay within the gender constructs of more powerful vs less powerful; they invert them but don’t really subvert them.

For these purposes, although Fortune’s nonfiction work tends to identify esoteric doctrine with mystical Christianity, Morgan/Lilith’s “paganism” comes out in the way she favors a different set of symbols: in both works, she hearkens back to pre-Christian imagery, acting as a priestess of the moon and the ocean, and as representative of the transpersonal feminine personified in the goddess Isis.

The works are replete with (romanticized) Egyptian symbolism and imagery, and everyone has past lives, including ones in Atlantis. Fortune handles these tropes rather better than most authors, perhaps because in her time they were relatively new and hadn’t yet degenerated into cliches that invariably evoke the most ridiculous fluff of the New Age. At the very least, they’re better integrated here.

And on the whole, Fortune is a much better writer of occult fiction than Gardner; her interest in the psychology of her characters lends them greater depth, although it would be harder for them to be shallower than Gardner’s. Still, they are primarily occult fiction: great value of these books is that she does manage to convey a lot of the atmosphere or energy of magical workings; her male characters are by no means enviable, and in many ways are quite jackasses; while Morgan is fascinating, she’s clearly not a normal human being, so it’s hard for readers to identify with her either.

The works really are set firmly in the context of 1930s and 40s England, culturally as well as physically, so there are some things readers unfamiliar with the period won’t really understand (including the horror of divorce and social strictures on illicit relationships). If you’re only interested in the occultism, that won’t matter much, but you should know that she’s not just talking about airy-fairy imaginary worlds here. Although her characters spend as much time in trance as they do in the real world, they do in fact live in the real world as well.

The great gems of these works are her poems. Many readers may be content with looking at these and the more lyrical pieces of prose as excerpted by the Farrars and others, and prefer to skip the novels entirely. Readers interested in them as telling the working-out of magical rituals will probably enjoy them, but people looking for a good yarn will probably find them disappointing and frustrating. Morgan/Lilith makes every aspect of her life serve the ends of her magic, and in much the same way Fortune shows no compunction in turning every piece of the writing towards conveying the spirit of the rituals. At the same time, they are not handbooks for conducting rituals yourself, and while many people – such as the Farrars – have drawn from them to create their own workings, it takes a good bit of adaptation and creativity to do so. Much like their protagonist, these books will only satisfy on their own terms.