Mages in General Ludd's Army - Musings on a Magical Alternative to Industrial-Technological Society

Above: A depiction of General/Captain/King Ludd, the mythical leader of the Luddites who sought to stop the Industrial Revolution while it was only beginning.

Ponderings on the difference between the Magical worlds depicted in fantasy and the Industrial world of real life

Context: Most of the below was written in June of this year, in Gran Canaria, after I had watched a Harry Potter film which reminded me that Magic is often depicted in works of the fantasy genre as a substitute for scientific industrial technology. I began to explore this topic, and wondered whether part of the reason we love stories about magic is that they depict idyllic escapist worlds in which humans can live pre-industrial lives (with all the beauty and adventure that would bring) but while maintaining relative comfort (thanks to magic).

The Empire of the Fairies is no more.
Reason has banished them from ev'ry shore;
Steam has outstripped their dragons and their cars,
Gas has eclipsed their glow-worms and their stars.

In June, while holidaying in Gran Canaria, I watched the film adaption of the third chronicle in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When I told someone else what I was watching she thought I had said Harry Potter and the Prisoner of al-Shebaab. Anyway, this film has always been a strange one for me. When I was a boy, I watched the first two Harry Potter flicks more than once (we had the first film at least on VHS), and this one only once. Therefore, I don’t have the same childhood nostalgia for it as I do the earlier pictures. This contributes to a feeling of detachment it has, for me anyway, from the first two. Released two years after Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), puberty has begun its transformation of the children, and, contrary to the first two movies, its film was digitised. This, along with its change of directors (Alfonso Cuarón rather than Chris Columbus), gave it its visual style which was so radically different to its predecessors.

There were various cast changes, for example: Dawn French now played the “Fat Lady”; Sir Michael Gambon replaced the late Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, and to make this worse his Dumbledore looks, sounds and acts nothing like Harris’ interpretation of the character (Gambon even admitted that while playing Dumbledore he does not “have to play anyone really. I just stick on a beard and play me, so it's no great feat. I never ease into a role - every part I play is just a variant of my own personality. I'm not really a character actor at all...”. That would all be very well and good if he had played Dumbledore from the beginning of the series, but it ruins the suspension of disbelief for me to see two very different portrayals of the same character. “Maybe Prof. Dumbledore was a heavy smoker at the time of the first two stories, and he’s given up by the third” I tell myself to explain his highly noticeable voice change).

The geography of Hogwarts is also visibly different to make way for events in the film; for example, the Womping Willow has been moved outside the school walls, and Hagrid’s home is also farther away. The way the story begins sets it apart from the first two films - there is an almost apocalyptic feeling of things coming to an end as Harry Potter is expelled from Hogwarts and runs away from his familiar home. The Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) also seems more unrealistic in the Prisoner of Azkaban somehow. I reckon this has something to do with the digitisation of the film - perhaps this pixelation caused more of the shortcomings of CGI to become apparent. Maybe they just used CGI more because they could. In any case, these things make it seem as if this film and the films that follow it (the latter of which I didn’t watch until well into my teens) take place in a different world to that of the first two, to some extent. They make the suspension of disbelief difficult and prevent any prospect of me being nostalgic for any of them. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, preferably viewed on VHS, will always be the only Harry Potter films that are truly magical for me.¹

Regardless, it occurred to me whilst watching Azkaban that the “Wizarding World” of Harry Potter relies far less on the technology produced by the Industrial Revolution than does our own “Muggle” (i.e. non-magical) society. Indeed, with a few exceptions, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World can be said to be an alternative to industrial-technological society. Even these exceptions, rare examples of industrial technology in an otherwise pre-Industrial subculture, are notably outdated. They include the Hogwarts Express, a steam engine, the Weasleys’ flying Ford Anglia (this model was produced from 1959 to 1968), and the Knight Bus, like an old-fashioned London double-decker, only with an extra deck (and purple). The magicians of the Harry Potter universe, at the very least, don’t seem to see any urgency in updating the industrial technology they have. Maybe they never will.²

This must be because the Wizarding World, it seems to me, could manage perfectly well without any influence from the Industrial Revolution at all. Everything the Industrial Revolution has thus far produced, the Wizarding World, I suspect, has a magical substitute for. Instead of metal aircraft, there are flying cars and broomsticks. Instead of the railway network (except the Hogwarts Express, of course), there is the far quicker “Floo Network” . Instead of advanced medicine, there are the healing charms and potions of Madam Pomfrey, which heal and restore even where Muggle treatments fail (have we Muggles yet learnt how to make a lost bone grow back?). And why would you need television when paintings move and talk? And who needs factory-produced confectioneries like those of Haribo when sorcerous sweeties can make you authentically roar like a lion or puff smoke out of your ears? Indeed, if this vague, nonsensical force called magic is natural, ancient, and able to be employed by half the human population (as seems to be the case in the Harry Potter universe), then surely Muggles are just, an albeit very large, group of disabled people, who have come up with the Industrial Revolution as a deeply flawed and imperfect solution to their handicap (their inability to use the ancient & natural force of magic), in the same way that the blind Louis Braille invented, you guessed it, braille. Industrial technology is to the Muggles what a wheelchair is to a man with no use of his legs. It is the relatively recently invented³ Muggle answer to magic. These ponderings quite remind me of remarks I vaguely remember being made by the character Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter novels. Mr Weasley, who works in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office at the Ministry of Magic, is astonished and fascinated by the lengths Muggles go to make up for their disability, creating such complex technology to fix problems wizards can fix by a mere flick of a wand (or is it a “swish and flick”?). This is comparable to my own fascination with the often rather complex contraptions used to make the lives of many handicapped people as normal and efficient as possible (eg. the mechanical, computerised wheelchair of someone with motor neurone disease, and the bionic legs of people like the Paralympian Jonnie Peacock).

This comparison between Magic and Machine is also prominently represented in J.R.R. Tolkien’s great pseudomythology (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, etc.). Tolkien writes to his friend Milton Waldman (an editor at the publishing house Collins) circa 1951:

“Anyway all this stuff [the mythology] is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife.

This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall'. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own', the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation. The 'Elves' are 'immortal', at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others — speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans — is a recurrent motive." [A sidenote: regarding this last sentence, Hitler comes to mind, especially as people often compare the War of the Ring to the Second World War. But Stalin also comes to mind. Indeed, Hitler, Stalin, Saruman, and Sauron were all ambitious idealistic industrialists, and this sentence is a perfect description for their utopian ideologies, whether communism, National Socialism, or, err, Sauronism?]

Clearly, then, as Tolkien recognised (and as I noticed while watching Azkaban), Magic and Machine serve the same purpose. They represent the apparatus for achieving will, and for extending the boundaries of the achievement of will (as Tolkien puts it, “the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective”). Say someone wants someone else dead, but lacks the power to fulfil this will. This person could fulfil his will through Magic (by, in the Harry Potter universe, flicking his magic wand while crying “Avada Kedavra!” (the Killing Curse)) or through Machine (by constructing a bazooka and using it to annihilate the poor fellow). Magic and Machine are means to the same end.

But which agent of the accomplishment of will is superior? Magic is natural, whereas Machine is unnatural. I don't want to be accused of an “appeal to nature” (I never automatically think that a “natural” thing is better than an artificial one unless it is rationally proven that it is so), but it does seem to me that what is organic and delicately in tune with God’s delicate plans and designs (or delicately in tune with the delicate product of millions of years of complex evolution… whatever floats your boats⁴) – that is what generally works out in the long run, and fits neatly and snugly into the universe we find ourselves in. Machine, the definition of artificial, crafted by imperfect humans, so often finds itself at odds with the Created natural world (from every soot-stained lung to each radioactive river). Many climate scientists even think that it will be our doom because of this.

Is the prospect of not having to rely on the toxic, dangerous, ugly Machine – is that what is so appealing about a world in which humankind relies on Magic instead, like the Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter and Septimus Heap, and the lands of Middle-earth free of the Machine-dominated forces of Isengard and Mordor? Perhaps as our Machine-dominated world becomes more and more Mechanical, and subsequently and concurrently more and more toxic, dangerous and ugly, the desire for a cleaner, safer, and more beautiful world which relies on Magic rather than Machine will increase. Certainly, this was the case with Tolkien. The first truly Mechanical and (coincidentally?) most horrific conflict, the First World War⁵, and the imperialistic encroachment of industrial Birmingham (I have had great fun pointing out that Birmingham inspired Isengard and Mordor (deservedly, as anyone who has been there will know)) onto Tolkien’s native Merry England prompted him to preserve the vanishing “green & pleasant land” in his writings in the form of the Shire, and to document these disastrous Mechanical events in the same fantastical setting, in the form of the War of the Ring. Ironically, Machine is represented in Tolkien’s writings by a Magician (Saruman, whose name means “man of skill” in the Mercian dialect of Old English, representing his industrialism) and his industrialised nation of Isengard (a.k.a. Birmingham. I suppose that means Brummies are Orcs, or vice versa).

So, we definitely know which side Tolkien was on in the war between Magic and Machine. Knowing all the flaws and imperfections of the Mechanical world as we do, the choice seems pretty obvious to me. Not that the Magical world is perfect. It has its Black Magic, its dark secrets, its Voldemorts and Gollums. However, for some reason the prospect of battling the Magical problem of, say, a basilisk, seems more exciting and somehow less depressing (probably because it is beautiful), even if it means certain peril, than battling the Mechanical problem of lung cancer caused by pollution (probably because it is ugly), which also leads to peril. Conclusively, then, the Magical reality is the preferable reality. The only problem is that we can’t seem to find the Magic.

I'm a spiritual sort of person but the fact of the matter is I haven't seen any conclusive proof that real magick actually exists. Not even one little functioning voodoo doll or love charm. The nonexistence of real life magic is why a paradisiacal non-industrial world, relying on Magic rather than Machine for comfort and the fulfilment of wills, shall never come to be. Maybe, in the deepest hopes of our imagination, and as Tolkien depicts in his pseudomythology, it existed once, in an ancient Eden or Elvish continent (Tolkien’s legendarium chronicles the gradual disappearance of Magic from the world. The world of the Silmarillion creation myth is wholly Magical and spiritual, The Hobbit seems more earthly, and The Lord of the Rings is more earthly still, in which Elvish Magic fades and the Age of Men dawns). Were we to overthrow industrial-technological society tomorrow and return to a more primitive way of life, we would be beset by many discomforts we have not suffered for centuries. Common colds would wipe out families and infected limbs would be amputated with only beer for anaesthetic; Madam Pomfrey would be nowhere to be seen. A quick flight to the other side of the world would be unheard of, with not a flying broomstick or carpet in sight. The Machine would be gone, but there would be no Magic, no “Wizarding World”, to replace it with. The Industrial Revolution is our only ladder out of the pit of earthly suffering. The other ladder, Magic, is too weak to support our frame.

My fantasy, then, of a group Neo-Luddites exploring the occult in an attempt to locate and harness the Magic which would make their primitive non-Industrial ideal so much more bearable (explored in my book, also called Mages in General Ludd's Army. Will be available online soon), probably won’t come to exist, and if it does, won’t be successful. The odd Wiccan charm won’t make life in a primitive era comfortable. For Magic is what makes the pre-Industrial world of myth, legend and fantasy look so idyllic; the idea that back in those times, there was a powerful force which accomplished all that modern industrial technology now accomplishes, with the defect of some Dark Lord or dragon being the only exciting cost. Otherwise, pre-Industrial society can often seem quite brutish and unpleasant. Even if it was beautiful, there was no guarantee you would live long enough to appreciate the beauty.

So, if we can’t do away with all this industrial technology without great pain to ourselves, what are we to do? Well, we must accept the Mechanical, or Muggle, world as our fate, but I wouldn't be so miserable about it. I suspect that industrial-technological society need not be so dull and ugly as the present day is. I hope and pray that those old magical values, of beauty and adventure, are resurrected for Mechanical society. I'm sure scientists are busy working on dealing with the toxicity of artificial creations, steam engines (the Hogwarts Express pictured below) prove that industrial technology need not be so ugly, and the dawn of the Space Age proves that adventure is not dead. Someday, when, instead of brave knights battling dragons, brave supersoldiers with robotic suits of armour battle giant mutants, and when royal palaces are constructed as beautiful space stations at the heart of awe-inspiring nebulas, we may have finally made a Mechanical world anyone would contentedly inhabit.

¹This is not a comment on the objective quality of the films. I enjoyed Azkaban and I'm sure that the later films are good too (I can't really say - I haven't watched them for a long time). I was merely stating that I am not nostalgic for them as I am the first two.

²Of course, J.K. Rowling's real-life reason for including these old-fashioned elements in Harry Potter must be that there is little beauty in most modern electric trains and modern bubble-shaped plastic cars. Funny how we seem to be getting further away from a wholly beautiful world the farther we advance technologically, since the Industrial Revolution. An Edwardian motor car is infinitely more attractive than a modern Renault Clio, and modern factories are uglier than Victorian ones.

³We must assume that magic has been around for thousands of thousands of years, even since the beginning of the world. It certainly seems to be very ancient.

⁴The idiom is standardly rendered “whatever floats your boat”, but I have decided that “floats your boats” should be preferable as it's a perfect rhyme.

⁵“Chivalry here took a final farewell. It had to yield to the heightened intensity of war, just as all fine and personal feeling has to yield when machinery gets the upper hand. The Europe of today appeared here for the first time on the field of battle.” - WW1 veteran Ernst Jünger.