John Dee, whose life is summarized here on Wikipedia, and here on the Dangerous Minds blog (@DangerMindsBlog), is a fascinating person: mathematician, navigator, writer, scholar, magician, alchemist, astrologer, and consultant to royalty. It’s said that he was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Please note that the Dangerous Minds link contains a video that, while it will not start playing automatically, does contain nudity. However, it also contains Alan Moore as an added bonus.
Dee pursued knowledge in all its forms; his personal library was the largest in England and one of the largest in Europe. Dee did not distinguish between science and magic. Nor did the world really. Remember, he lived at the same time as Galileo. The Catholic Church was not only suspicious of heliocentrism, but also mathematics itself. A horoscope that predicted a monarch’s death was considered treason.
Dee’s early talent with mathematics led to his interest in navigation. He collected a variety of instruments, invented others, and trained many who would go on to pursue his idea of a British Empire. But Dee wanted to go deeper.
So he turned to the occult and scryer Edward Kelley. Kelley and Dee would gaze into a crystal ball in the hope of communicating with angels (but fearing they might be demons instead). It was hoped that the angels, as intermediaries for God, would reveal divine secrets to Dee and Kelley. Dee recorded these sessions and the messages angels revealed. These messages included an Enochian language–a divine language that was allegedly imbued with the power of creation.
Kelley’s reputation as an alchemist was increasing. At this time, he informed Dee that the angels had asked he and Dee to share wives. Dee, believing this was some sort of test, was torn over the fate of his soul as the price for knowledge, but ultimately complied. But this spelled the end of the men’s relationship. Dee would later die in poverty, and Kelley would die in prison (or perhaps attempting to escape from prison) after royals doubted his claims that he could transmute base metals into gold.
In the end, if Dee is remembered, he is remembered as someone who pursued knowledge despite the costs to his reputation, his physical safety, his friendships, his marriage, and even his soul. He was a driven and ambitious man, likely a very divisive man. But this personality, combined with mathematics, the occult, magic, communication with angels/demons, and astrology add fantastic elements to the story. It is no wonder he inspired such characters as Doctor Faustus and Prospero.
What if your story took place in a world where magic and science coexist? Not magic as a proto-science, but a field of study as well-defined and as well-developed as Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics? What if this field was taught to all university students? What would your world look like?
How would the various institutions in your world react? What if various monarchies competed for the one magician who had the philosopher’s stone? What would they be willing to do to get access to unlimited gold, even if it meant killing, defying the Church, or starting a war? What would the Catholic Church do to protect its monopoly on the communication with God? How would it persecute magicians (legitimate magicians that is, as opposed to claims made by the Inquisition)? Would all math and science be considered black magic? Might there be a magical equivalent of the Reformation? A magical Martin Luther?
What if violating social or moral taboos enhanced or increased magical power? What would your magician do? How far would he or she go? Is there a line your magician would not cross? What would it mean to live without such lines?
What if your magician’s ambition was such that he or she was willing to do anything, but in return received divine powers? What would your magician/god look like? What would your magician/god do with such powers? Keep them to himself or herself? Use them for good? For evil? For good, but with terrible consequences? Might your magician teach these powers to others, creating an army of gods? What if such an army became divided, and used the various kingdoms to fight personal battles?
Let me know what you think. I think this thread is ripe for a great conversation and further “what if” questions.