Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Dee, [Dr] John

(1527-1608) UK mathematician, astrologer, cartographer and Hermetic philosopher, who gained an early reputation through his invention in 1546 of a mechanical flying beetle for a production of Aristophanes' Peace. His travels through Europe began as early as 1547, when he met (and was influenced by) Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594); later (circa 1580) he created for the Crown deeply influential charts of newly discovered countries. He drew horoscopes for Mary Tudor after she became queen in 1553, and gave Elizabeth I astrological advice as to the best date for her coronation ceremony in 1559 (> Astrology). His interest in Hermetic philosophy grew throughout his life, and he published prolifically, beginning with Monas Hieroglyphica ["The Hieroglyphic Monad"] (1564 Antwerp), an occult dissertation (> Occultism) on the nature of mathematical form as understood through the Cabbala; he proposed that a single hieroglyph (which represented all the planets in an astrally significant shape) reflected the "monas" (or Oneness) of the world, and that through this hieroglyph the mind might gain some sight (as through a Mirror) of a Portal into that Oneness, which is Heaven. The text was an important influence on Rosicrucianism.

In 1581 he became associated with Edward Kelley, who undertook to scry for him (> Scrying). JD had for years been profoundly convinced it was possible to converse with Angels, and relievedly claimed in 1582 that an angel had visited him (through Kelley's intercession), presenting him with a black stone which served as a Mirror through which other spheres could be accessed (JD's Mirror or "shew stone" remains in the British Museum). His "experiences" under Kelley's influence are recorded (unreliably) in A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits (1659) ed Meric Casaubon; a modern text is John Dee's Actions with Spirits: 22 December 1581 to 23 May 1583 (2 vols 1988) ed with commentary by Christopher Whitby.

In 1583 JD was warned of a plot against his life, and fled to Poland and later Prague. In 1589, JD and Kelley separated; JD returned to England, where he died old.

JD is an Underlier figure for fantasy writers creating Magi, a Liminal Being whose appearance in any text signals the nearness of a Threshold between this world and the Real World. Like so many speculative thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, he was what Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) called a Sleepwalker – one of the visionaries who created the modern measurement-governed world through their attempts better to explore the prescriptive contours of the old. Because JD stands on the cusp of worlds, and because of the passion with which he attempted to arrive at the truth behind the sleep of matter, he was treated as a precursor figure by Theosophy, and has attracted the attention of several 20th-century authors. There is no evidence that JD ever met Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), though Bruno certainly knew JD's work; nor is there evidence that he met William Shakespeare, though he tutored Fulke Greville (1554-1628), who declared himself "master to William Shakespeare", and it has more than once been suggested that the character of Prospero is a portrait of Dee. In Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), Ted Hughes argues that Shakespeare must have been familiar with the work of both Dee and Bruno.

Of the 20th-century responses to JD, Marjorie Bowen's I Dwelt in High Places (1933) is a mundane tale of little interest, but Gustav Meyrink's Der Engel Vom Westlichen Fenster (1927; trans Mike Mitchell as The Angel of the West Window 1991 UK) makes effective use of JD's Prague years in a complex tale involving a contemporary man haunted by JD. JD makes an appearance in Michael Moorcock's Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen (1978; rev 1993), and his Mirror haunts a contemporary investigator in Simon Rees's The Devil's Looking-Glass (1985). The most sustained fictional investigation of JD's actual life and purported findings can be found in John Crowley's Aegypt sequence, where he is the subject of at least two fictional Books written by Fellowes Kraft, each of which is quoted from at very considerable length, and in which JD and Bruno do meet. JD is important to Patrick Harpur's Mercurius, or The Marriage of Heaven & Earth (1990), and the contemporary protagonist of Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee (1993) comes to believe that he embodies the spirit of a Homunculus created by the Magus. [JC]

[Dr] John Dee


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.