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John Dee and the Matter of Britain - Fantasy, History, and Science Fiction

Peter Christensen

Although the life of John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609) has for the last fifteen years been popular in historical novels, science fiction novels, and fantasy/esoteric novels, his connection to British history and/or to the Matter of Britain in these fictional works has not sufficiently been noted. Because Dee saw himself as descended from ancient Welsh royalty and promoted the Tudors as heirs to the rightful Welsh-descended heirs to the British crown, his intellectual concerns make his enterprises relevant to our Conference theme. Dee was a good friend and ex-teacher of Queen Elizabeth's favorite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, and Elizabeth visited Dee at his home at Mortlake, where his great library was kept. He helped her to plan the date of her coronation through astrology and he used his interest in astronomy, mathematics, and navigation to further the plans of the Frobisher voyages to find a Northwest Passage. He encouraged Elizabeth to found colonies in the New World and to extend the realm of Britannia so that England could become a major world power.

Although there is some debate on what is actually included in the Matter of Britain, by any standard John Dee can not be directly involved in it since he was a figure from the Tudor Renaissance. The Matter of Britain in its strictest sense refers to the legendary history of England attached to King Arthur and figures in the generations before and after him. Some scholars feel that other legendary British kings such as Cymbeline and Lear should also be included under the material for the Matter of Britain. In either case, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is an important source, especially since it is widely suspected that Geoffrey created legends to suit Henry II's political agenda.

In this paper we will first look at the interests of John Dee and the different ways that they have been treated by historians. We will then go on to discuss fiction about John Dee, particularly three novels that weave the 16th and the 20th century together so they look at the Matter of Britain. Peter Ackroyd's novel, The House of John Dee (1993), proves to be more concerned with it than those of Gustav Meyrink (Der Engel vom westlichen Fenster 1927; English translation as The Angel of the West Window 1991) and John Crowley's D?monomania (2000).

Dee is connected to the Matter of Britain insofar as studies or novels about him are tied to his support of the Tudor political tactic of legitimation through recourse to Welsh legends, including so-called lost manuscripts that probably never existed but which were used by writers specifically to be present only through their absence. In Renaissance literary studies, Dee has been connected with the Welsh Elizabethan myth expanded by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene. Furthermore, he knew Sir Philip Sidney and the circle of intellectuals around Elizabeth's favorite, Robert Dudley.

A strong tendency exists to separate the John Dee who communicated with angels via Edward Kelley's skrying and who also tried to create gold alchemically to please Rudolph II from the John Dee who before 1583 was a great promoter of Elizabethan exploration and colonization efforts. Obviously, it is when we leave the world of exploration that it becomes harder to understand Dee and evaluate his ideas. [1] Nicholas H. Clulee sets out the issues very well in the Preface to his John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion (1988) in which he evaluates previous research on Dee as an exponent of Renaissance Hermeticism, an issue which he says has created much controversy. He writes:

It is not my intention to consider all the issues raised by the historiography of Hermeticism, but Dee is relevant to two of the central issues: the relation of Renaissance Hermeticism to the nature and status of magic, and the relation of magic to science. Dee is well suited as a test case for evaluating these claims because he was one of the few individuals of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries who was a genuine mathematician, knowledgeable and practiced in astronomy, optics, navigation, and mechanics, an avid student of astrology and the most esoteric alchemy, and finally an unabashed practitioner of kabalistic angel magic. The suggestion that hermetic magic was a direct and positive influence in the creation of the new science that emerged in the 'scientific revolution' of the seventeenth century has generated perhaps the most controversy but is not a particularly useful statement of the problem in this context. (17)

Clulee claims that our giving a priori definitions of pre-modern science, pseudo-science and non-science can only distort our perceptions of what Dee was doing. In addition, he feels that it is important not to lump multi-stranded traditions, such as hermeticism, into one overarching tradition and crucial not to homogenize Dee's chief works from different periods of his life into one large philosophy that emerged full-blown early in his long career. In short, Clulee feels that the influential works of I. R. F. Calder, Peter French and Frances Yates have made generalizations concerning Dee which only confuse our understanding of him. It may be that these three scholars from the 1950s through 1970s have created a biographical understanding of the unity of John Dee's life which has overcompensated for the previous view, which left the interests in magic and alchemy as very unfortunate detours in the career of a man both brilliant and by and large admirable as a human being as well. Indeed, the wife-swappng with Edward Kelley, which Kelley said that the angels commanded. is generally considered as a violation of morality on Dee's part that he would hot have condoned had it not been for his strange trust in Kelley's communication with the angels. Dame Frances Yates's view of Dee as an integrated personality who in some major sense is explained by his dedication to the Hermetic tradition is probably more widespread that Clulee's view that Dee's life moves in discrete stages. We know that at least one novelist, John Crowley, was influenced by Yates's approach to Dee, so it is worth noting the nature of Clulee's objections to her position. In Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1969), and The Rosicrurian Enlightenment (1972), Yates created "an imposing historical synthesis of Renaissance intellectual history centered on the theme of magic as promoted by the Hermetica" (Clulee 5). Clulee sees French as subscribing to Yates's picture and Calder as representing a variant of hers, but replacing Hermeticism with Neoplatonism. In this view, Hermetic magic and Neoplatonic mathematics are "preparatory to the development of early modern science" (7).

How Dee's angel magic, for which he was ridiculed from Meric Casaubon's publication of A True & Faithful Relation (1659) up until the 1900s, fits into his Hermeticism is also not clear, although it has fascinated many people and strongly influenced the Order of the Golden Dawn and other groups. Indeed, for many people, Dee's Elizabethan period is less known than his stay on the continent from 1583-1589, particularly his trip to Rudolph II's Hapsburg court in the company of his scryer, the mysterious Edward Kelley. Dee's presence in Prague at the time of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1525 -1609) has prompted some novelists to have Dee encounter the Golem. Although it is generally agreed that Kelley was a fraud of some type, there are different evaluations as to the nature of his deceit and self-deceit. and he seems to have had some gifts with the paranormal, since the language of Enochian magic that he transmitted to Dee is complicated and remarkable.

In the recent popular biography of Dee by Benjamin Woolley, The Queen's Conjuror (2001), we learn that in 1577 Gerardus Mercator sent Dee, a friend of his, a letter now in the British Library and discussed by E. G. R. Tayor in 1956

[. . .] in which the great cartographer related the story of King Arthur's incursion into the northern "indrawing" seas around the Pole in the year 530. Mercator cited sources showing that some of the 4,000 members of the expedition who were lost had survived, the proof being that eight of their descendants appeared at the king of Norway's court in 1364. (Woolley 127)

Dee was trying to find a legitimation for Engish imperialism and a way to skirt the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal.

Wooley also points out that at the same time that Dee was writing the General and rare memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation (1577), he was also composing the then unpublished essay Brytanici Imperii Limites. In this work, Dee referred not only to King Arthur but to Madoc, a Welsh prince, said to have sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1170. Here he used the term "Atlantis" for America (Woolley 119), and this reference to Atlantis has been picked up by the novelists.

In addition to the references to the Matter of Britain that Dee made in his correspondence and writings of the 1570s, we also have the legends that related him to Glastonbury Abbey. In the 1600s stories circulated that Kelley had received the powder that he used to convert metal into gold from Glastonbury, which was where the grave of King Arthur was said to have been found by the Glastonbury monks in the time of Henry II, a king who was also concerned with establishing his own legitimacy in a country that had earlier in the twelfth century seen the civil war between Matilda's forces and King Stephen's.

The school of thought of Yates and Calder, which tries to account for Dee's backing of Kelley's alchemical interests, in the view of Nicholas Clulee, is oversimplified, but it has provided a backdrop for genre blurring in fiction. When we look at the genre of science fiction, we tend to come to it with a Newtonian bias about natural phenomenon unless we are given markers at the start not to approach the text in this way. Thus a work dealing with Dee's career in promoting exploration, casting horoscopes, and summoning up angels (his Actions) could potentially fall into fields of science fiction, fantasy, occult, alternative history, or historical fiction, depending on what the author chooses to stress. Readers may not agree on how to classify the novels about John Dee. These novels in chronological order are as follows: Marjorie Bowen's I Dwelt in High Places(1923), Gustav Meyrink's The Angel of the West Window (1927), Ianthe Jerrold's Love and the Dark Crystal (1955), and, more recently, Peter Ackroyd's The House of Dr. Dee (1993), Claude Postel's Le Mage de la ruelle d'or (1995), Donald Tyson's The Tortuous Serpent (1997), John Crowley's ?gypt (1987), Love and Sleep (1994), and D?monomania, (2000) [the fourth and last novel of this series has not yet been published], Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door (2002), and Liz Williams's The Poison Master (2003). Dee is also featured in Michael Scott Rohan's Spiral tetralogy (1990-1997) and Armin Shimmerman's Merchant Princ trilogy (2000-2003).

In three novels, Gustav Meyrink's The Angel of the West Window, Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee, and John Crowley's D?monomania John Dee communicates across time with someone in the present. Each novel is of very high literary quality, and for that reason I have chosen them for my comparison. All three capitalize on the fantasy rather than the science fiction potential in Dee's life story, and each also has more elements of the historical novel than of science fiction. Although about a dozen books on Meyrink have appeared, along with a half dozen monographs on Ackroyd and a collection of essays on Crowley, criticism of these novels has hardly been exhausted. [2]

In both Meyrink's novel and Ackroyd's, Dee's ability to communicate with the protagonist in the present time turns out in the end to be a helpful experience. In Crowley's novel, working on the novel about John Dee left unfinished by the late Fellowes Kraft ultimately enables the protagonist Pierce Moffat, despite his writer's block, to overcome his sense of false control over events in the world. In addition, two objects related to John Dee are circulating in the present of the story in September to December 1979. The first is Dee's quartz scrying glass in the possession of five-year-old Samantha Mucho and the second is expert clockmaker Jost B?rgi's long, black, beeswaxed chest in the keeping of Sister Mary Philomel's Queen of the Angels boarding school in Pikeville, Kentucky. Whereas Pierce Moffat is more symbolically identified with Giordano Bruno through the figure of the ass than with John Dee, Pierce's independent development of a kind of Rosicrurian philosophy in Kentucky when he was a boy in 1953 also makes him a potential magus in the tradition of Dee as well.

The novels by the two other authors move toward a blending of Dee and the protagonist. The protagonist of Meyrink's The Angel of the West Window, not identified until the end of the novel as Baron Muller, puzzles his way through the manuscripts by and about Dr. Dee that his relative John Roger has bequeathed him. He also inhales a mysterious powder to provoke visions. In doing so, he blends more and more with Dee to the point where they seem to be the same person. At the end of Meyrink's novel, Muller dies in a mysterious fire which parallels the fire that supposedly occurred at Mortlake when Dr. Dee was away in Prague. Meyrink seems to have been under the assumption, once widespread, that Mortlake was burned as well as robbed when Dee left his home in 1583 to go to Central Europe.

In Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee, the protagonist, Matthew, inherits from his estranged father a mysterious, haunted house in Clerkenwell in London which once belonged to Dr. Dee and which functions as the equivalent of Dee's home at Mortlake, which was actually located outside of London. Matthew is able to overcome some of his selfishness and lovelessness with a new sense of purpose and faith in life as he feels Dee's ghostly presence in his new home and comes to understand Dee's difficult relationships with his father, which reminds him of the cold relationship he had with his own father. The father of the protagonist of Ackroyd's novel (as is also true for the protagonist of Crowley's novel) has led a secret homosexual life. As Matthew researches Dr. Dee he finds out about the books of French and Clulee, Yates's Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, as well as F. R. Johnson's Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England and E. G. R. Taylor's Tudor Geography (132). He even discovers Marjorie Bowen's novel about John Dee (133). Thus he touches on both of Dee's two major interests.

All three novels under discussion interweave sections on John Dee with sections about the protagonist. Ackroyd's is more closely related to the Matter of Britain than are Ackroyd's and Crowley's because Ackroyd is concerned with the largest stretch of years in Dee's life. Meyrink, who covers a greater part of Dee's life than Crowley, makes the second greatest connection to the Matter of Britain. Because Crowley is almost totally concerned with Dee's trip to Central Europe from 1583 to 1588, his D?monomania is the least connected to the early British materials, although he shares an interest in hermeticism with Meyrink absent from Ackroyd. The fact that Ackroyd is British, Meyrink was Czech, and Crowley is American may also be a contributing cause. Crowley's novel has about twelve out of forty-eight chapters and sections devoted to Dee and / or Bruno, in other words, about one quarter of his book. Ackroyd devotes a little over half of his, for he interweaves chapters about Dee which are given names such as "The Spectacle," "The Hospital," and "The Library" with numbered chapters of Matthew's story. Sometimes in the latter part of the novel there are two chapters in a row devoted to Dee, and, ultimately, the views of the two protagonists end up together as Ackroyd blends the two characters' voices. In contrast, Meyrink's novel has no specifically designated chapters at all, but according to my understanding of the structure has six sections of John Dee's story interlaced into seven sections of Muller's story. The interlace structure and the tendency to blend Dee into the protagonist constitute a line of continuity among the three novels.

In The House of Doctor Dee, many of the connections to the Matter of Britain are made in the chapters about Dee, particularly, "The Abbey," in which Dee meets Edward Kelley, who engages with him in a conversation about Bernard Ripley. Dee remarks of Ripley:

' I have his chronicles in my library here, in which he had demonstrated that the isles of Albion and Ireland should be called Brutanicae and not Britanicae, after their noble discoverer and conqueror Brutus. It was Ripley, also, who in his chronology of this island proved that Arthur, the descendant of Brutus, was the first true king of Britain [. . . ]. (Ackroyd 50-51)

Dee, who admires Ripley, is astonished when Kelley tells him that Ripley died a raving man after he made an important journey of discovery to Glastonbury, where, according to Kelley, "Arthur in sorrowful and reverend state lies somewhere beneath the ruins" (153). At Glastonbury, Ripley sent for Ferdinand Griffen in order to tell him what he had discovered--a stone as clear as crystal which was a token from the "lost and ancient city of London" (244). As they talk about the "long-buried and long-forgotten London," Dee notes that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Brutus, who was descended from the demi-god Aeneas (155), built the city of Trenouant, which King Lud repaired c. 1108 BCE. For Dee, "the island of Britain was no island at all but part of the ancient kingdom of Atlantis, which, when it sank beneath the waves, left this western part to be our kingdom" (155) This conversation prepares us for the joyful conclusion of the novel a hundred pages later:

John Dee heard all these things, and rejoiced. And, yes, I see him now. I put out my arms in welcome, and he sings softly to me.

'London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down...'
Oh you, who tried to find the light within all things, help me to create another bridge across two shores. And so join with me, in celebration. Come closer, come towards me so that we may become one. Then will London be redeemed, now and for ever, and all those with whom we dwell -- living or dead -- will become the mystical city universal. (247)

The reader is asked to accept the metaphor of London as the mystical city universal, and so in a sense Ackroyd is validating the continual relevance of the Matter of Britain to the current imagination. The leap of imagination to understand the lives of people of past ages is also an exercise in compassion.

Whereas Ackroyd does not plunge deeply into the hermetic tradition in order to use the Matter of Britain, the same is not true for Gustav Meyrink in The Angel of the West Window. At the end of this novel, the narrator dies in a fire similar to the supposed one at Mortlake rather than surviving his initiation into the occult through the manuscripts by Dee that he inherited from his cousin, John Roger, along with some related old documents and a miniature portrait on ivory of Dee. Because the Baron considers himself to be a descendant of both John Dee and (even farther back in time) of the historical Welsh prince, Hywel Dda (cf. Dee's ideas of his own Welsh ancestry), he has an immediate interest in the manuscripts. In addition, the novel is also concerned with other objects, which prove to have extraordinarily complicated histories and provenances (as do the wooden chest and the piece of quartz in Crowley's later novel). These include a red and a white sphere, each the size of a ball; a spearhead which is reworked into a dagger; a tula ware box, and piece of coal used for scrying.

It is gradually revealed that Hywel Dda's spearhead was cheapened by Hywel's descendants from his son Rhodri into a family heirloom in the form of a dagger and later lost by John Dee on the night when he encountered a phantom of Queen Elizabeth under the intentional misdirection of the evil Bartlett Greene. The family of the evil Princes Assja, the nemesis of Baron Muller, found it after Dee lost it, but again it disappeared and ended up in the possession of the Old Man at Elsbethstein Castle. The Old Man gives it to Jane, the Baron's beloved, and Jane stabs Assya when she apparently tries to get it back. Neither survives the crash of their chauffeur-driven car, and the Baron puts it in the tula box shortly before his house burns and he dies.

There is no possible way that one can summarize the plot of Meyrink's complicated novel in a short space of time. Suffice it to say, that in Meyrink's version Dee early in life was unfortunately mixed up with Bartlett Greene, who obtained magical powers from robbing St. Deniol's grave in Glastonbury and that Queen Elizabeth is not just a historical figure here but a representative of the good female archetype with whom Dee is supposed to be united. In contrast, Assya represents the bad form of Isis, who must be avoided. Although Hywel was a historical person, and we know such things about him as his formulation of a code of laws, Meyrink uses Hywel as a kind of legendary ruler and never gives any specific historical information about him. Rather it is said that he got his sword with the assistance of the White Elves (310), thus associating him with the world of legend. Meyrink also ties in the Elizabethan colonization plans to Dee's concern with Tudor expansion. Dee writes, "At that time, too, I had drawn up my plans for a military expedition to take Greeneland and to station there a garrison which would serve as a bridgehead for the conquest of the northern regions of America" (120).

John Crowley in D?monomania asks us to subscribe to Renaissance Hermeticism in a way that the other two novelists do not. His narrator is omniscient, and it takes some reading to see that there is no irony intended behind this omniscience. In 1979 the earth is moving through "passage time." On September 21, 1979, the Autumna Equinox, a fierce wind blows, which is one sign that our world is ending: "the ending doesn't come all at once but passes and repasses over the world like the shivers that pass over a horse's skin" (Crowley 11).

Among the people characteristic of this time phase is Beau Brachman, who seems to be a kind of gnostic and who has mysterious powers that are never entirely explained. At the end of the novel he saves the life of little Sam Mucho, who has been kidnapped by the Protestant religious fanatics of the Foundation. In the course of the novel, we are asked to accept the fact that recently deceased Boney Rasmussen appears after death at his niece Rosie's delayed Halloween masked ball in December and counsels Pierce without anyone realizing who he is. (see Turner 360, where in an interview Crowley states that it is Mal Clichy, the hedonist, in the devil's suit.) Ultimately we must also accept the fact that the little hillbilly girl Bobby Shaftoe saw on various occasions various dead people in a church when she like Pierce was growing up in Kentucky in the 1950s. Her grandfather Floyd is one of those men who believes that he is able to leave his body and fight the forces of evil, a belief that connects him to Jan the werewolf.

Crowley shows the continuity between European religious beliefs of the 1500s and the present by having John Dee help a young man who claims to be a werewolf and who has been injured severely in his foot and captured one night when he was out fighting his natural enemy, the witches. Dee uses his knowledge of catoptrics to focus rays in mirrors to help Jan the werewolf get better and escape from Rudolph II. Later Bohemians with similar beliefs will take up mining and then immigrate to Appalachia and become miners there as well. They will become the "bohunks" and carry with them traditions that no one understands any longer. Somehow in this Czech migration Sister Mary Philomel and her nuns became the guardians of the chest that Jost B?rgi had when he was trying to get Edward Kelley and John Dee to remain in Prague. Appalachia turns out to be the Czech version of Atlantis: when Dee is trying to get Jan to flee from Prague and Jan does not believe that there is any place to which he can escape to, Dee suggests Atlantis.

Although Queen Elizabeth I is mentioned several times in relationship to Dee's position as a counselor to her, Crowley is not concerned with the issues of Tudor legitimacy and he makes very little use of the Glastonbury connection other than to state that Kelley came to Dee with "a powder that he had been given, that he claimed to have found among the monks' tombs at Glastonbury (123). No King Arthur material is used at all.

Like Meyrink and unlike Ackroyd, Crowley exhibits a type of extreme Romanticism in which the goal of life is connected to finding that which is hidden behind everyday reality. For Meyrink this is directly connected to battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, but Crowley does not divide the world into such categories. Although it is clear that the Foundation is made up of people who will do many bad things because of their arrogance in thinking that they have a direct connection to God, even they are not presented as forces of evil in the abstract. Meyrink and Crowley through their intellectual power avoid the pitfalls of the kinds of occult conspiracy novels that are popular today. Crowley makes a relatively free use of history. We have no record of Dee meeting Bruno, although it is likely that they were both present at the debate in Oxford where Crowley places them in Love and Sleep , and Dee is unlikely to have met any figure like Jan the werewolf, whose story is distilled from the material in Carlo Ginzburg's Ecstasies. Similarly, Meyrink's Dee's relationship with Bartlett Greene is extended far beyond what a historian would believe. Ackroyd even goes so far as to create a house for Dee in London rather than a Mortlake. All three find truth in poetic license.

In conclusion, the science fiction takes a back seat in these three novels. However, Crowley offers of the three by far the most comprehensive sense of the belief system that Frances Yates believed characterized the Renaissance, and no one should be surprised at this fact since Crowley admits to being influenced by Yates (Taylor 351). He is able to integrate astrology and commentary on the Zodiac in a meaningful way. Perhaps this is why his novel is of the three under discussion the least involved in the Matter of Britain, which is a belief system promoting claims to political legitimacy both at the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth and in the time of Tudor writers like Raphael Holinshed. The roots of this legend go back to the fall of Troy in classical mythology and precede the Renaissance hermetic world which was developed according to Yates during the fifty years from the time of Pico to the time of Cornelius Agrippa.


1. For further work on Dee, see Deacon (1968), Escobedo (2004), Fell-Smith (1909), H?kansson (2001), Harkness (1999), Roberts (1990), Shumaker (1982), Sherman (1995), and Wilding (1999). For Dee's own writings, see Fenton (1998), Peterson (2003), Shumaker (1978), and Whitby (1988).

2. For writings on Ackroyd's novel, see Altem?ller (2004), Fiorato (2003), Gibson and Wolfreys (2000), Ja?n (1998), Ja?n (1999), and Mart?nez (1999); for Meyrink, see Baranowski (2001-2002), Caroutch (1976), Heym (1976), Konieczny (1996), Marzin (1986), Mathi?re (1985), Montiel (1998), Qasim (1981), and Smit (1988); for Crowley, see the articles by Clute, Davis, Hynes, Riggs, Sleight, and Swift in Snake's Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley, edited by Alice K. Turner and Michael Andre Driussi (2003).


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