Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Literally, "knowledge of God". The Theosophical Society was an occult organization founded in 1875 by H P Blavatsky and two colleagues. Theosophy has a relationship to Fantasy similar to that which 19th-century Spiritualism has to Supernatural Fiction: each was a Playground – with some elements derived from earlier fiction – that could be easily entered (and transformed) by later writers of fiction. Transactions of this sort between realms of human behaviour and thought are common enough (> Lifestyle Fantasy). Because Blavatsky was probably a conscious charlatan, and certainly an opportunistic packrat when it came to assembling her cosmology, her own two main books – Isis Revealed (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888) – turn out to be anything but drily didactic; they are in fact enormous, entrancing honeypots of Myth, Fairytale, speculation, fabrication and tomfoolery – and so diffusely voluminous that it is difficult to know where their direct influence ceases and the spirit of the time takes over. But if there is any mystery about the speed with which fantasy in the late 19th century began to inhabit the kinds of environments J R R Tolkien would later define as Secondary Worlds, and to tell tales gripped by a sense of Time Abyss and irradiated by a movement towards Eucatastrophe, then it can be claimed that Theosophical cosmology played some role.

In Isis Revealed, Blavatsky concentrates, rather unoriginally, on ancient Egypt; it is in The Secret Doctrine that the full intoxicating complexity of her system is revealed. In presenting that system, we follow the numbered elucidation provided by David Morris in The Masks of Lucifer: Technology and the Occult in Twentieth-Century Popular Literature (1992):

1. As in much of the occult tradition, a Great Architect of the Universe underlies the created world, but does not operate directly upon it. 2. That world is an Agon, both spatially (for Good and Evil are contraries in constant conflict) and temporally (for – as in The Worm Ouroboros [1922] by E R Eddison – the conflict recurs and recurs in a great Cycle, though on different levels). "The war of the Titans," Blavatsky says, "is but a legendary and defiled copy of the real war that took place in the Himalayan Kailas (heaven) instead of in the depths of Cosmic interplanetary space." 3. The universe (like almost every secondary world to come) is animate: "This cosmic dust," she says, "is something more; for every atom in the Universe has the potentiality of self consciousness in it; IT IS AN ATOM AND AN ANGEL." An author like John Crowley need not, in other words, bother to trace this notion back to its Gnostic roots (> Gnostic Fantasy): it is available here. 4. Each soul is complexly connected to a Universal Oversoul. 5. Governed by the Law of Karma, each soul progresses through a cycle of Reincarnations. 6. This refutes Darwin. 7. Each soul passes through 7 (> Seven) rounds of reincarnation, and on each round traverses the 7 planets, there being life forms on each planet. 8. On Earth, each reincarnation represents a progress into greater corporeality and higher consciousness. 9. Each of the 7 rounds take place in an Age, and each Age has a "root-race" whose nature is inescapable (> Theodicy). In the First Age, humanity lived on a continent called "The Imperishable Sacred Land" and looked like astral jellyfish. In the Second Age, we lived in the polar continent of Hyperborea (the name was later appropriated by Clark Ashton Smith who set a series there). In the Third Age we were hermaphrodites in Lemuria (where Lin Carter set his Thongor sequence); in the Fourth we were Giants in Atlantis. The Fifth Age is now. Each root-race is, moreover, divided into 7 races, the 7th of each representing the seed (> Pariah Elite) of the next root-race. The Negroid hermaphrodites of Lemuria have left as fossils on Earth the Negroes and some other Black races (it is here that T works as a justification for racism and imperialism, because the Lemurians are lower than us in the cycle; and as a generator of the "philosophical" background of many Lost Races/Lost Lands and Continents tales). The 7th subrace of the giant Mongoloids from Atlantis are the Semites, who bear the seed of the White man today. 10. The portrait of humanity's long evolution through the cycles incorporates the knowledge that humanity, having been created by a Superior Being, pre-exists other forms of life on Earth; and that the holocausts which end each cycle happen because humans err and sin – i.e., they are caused by the subsequent karmic disturbance. 11. All Souls are equal, but some souls are more equal than others: ours. 12. Satan is the Prometheus figure who helps humanity, the Serpent in the Garden who brings us light. 13. Jehovah is an important Angel, but fatally opposed to the bringing of the light. 14. Christ was an adept, one of several, and his teachings were occult – i.e., intended for the elect.

Just as important as the actual doctrines of Theosophy is the justifying narrative which accompanies their exposition. Blavatsky claimed to have been accorded the wisdom presented in The Secret Doctrine by the Hidden Masters or Secret Brothers (> Secret Masters), who have resided since the beginning of things in a Polder in the heart of Tibet; underneath their feet, in a Library secreted in an intricate network of Underworld caverns (> Edifice), is stored the occult knowledge of all the ages. The Masters' messages to Blavatsky constitute a secret history, which has been given to her (and to the elite which listens to her) as an explanation of the "inner government of the world", which is constituted in the form of a Great White Lodge of Hidden Masters. In its content, and by virtue of the framing devices which intensify the effect of that content, Theosophy is a sacred drama, a Romance and a Story. Those whose souls are sufficiently evolved to understand that drama know the tale is enacted in another place, beyond the Threshold, in a longed-for Elsewhere, within a Land exempt from secular accident. It cannot be suggested that Blavatsky consciously created a playground for High Fantasy, or that any Theosophist consciously anticipated the use to which fantasy writers might put the Theosophical tendency, but it is clear that Theosophy paced along with figures like William Morris and Lord Dunsany as they began to move away from the Wonderlands and Lands of Fable of mid-19th-century fantasy towards the Secondary World. Nor is it insignificant that Robert E Howard and Clarke Ashton Smith both made use of the Theosophical canon of earlier worlds. Smith's Zothique sequence, moreover, places in a Dying-Earth setting a highly ironized and decadent (> Decadence) revision of Theosophy's transcendental dream of future and higher stages of consciousness.

It is also noteworthy that John Crowley, whose Little, Big (1981) can be read as a summae theologica of modern fantasy, has one of the Bramble family describe the meaning of the book's title (i.e., that the inside is bigger than the outside [> Little Big]) in a lecture – concerning the nearly infinite interior worlds of Faerie – that he delivers to the Theosophical Society.

Writers and others of interest involved in the Theosophical Society include Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Kenneth Morris, William Butler Yeats and Ella Young. Edgar Rice Burroughs made some superficial use of Theosophy in creating his worlds. Many late lost-world tales – examples include James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933) and various novels by Talbot Mundy, in particular Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley (1924) – show the influence of Theosophy. Though she began in 1919 as a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, by 1923 Dion Fortune had moved to the Theosophical Society, a branch of which she spun off into her own Fraternity of the Inner Light, writing her later novels to illuminate this vision. Nor can the influence of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) – who began as a Theosophist then formed a breakaway group, the Anthroposophical Society, which espoused ancient sciences and postulated a spiritual world accessible primarily through a time- and space-transcending inner Perception – be ignored. Later writers of fantasy affected by Anthroposophy include Michael Moorcock, who attended a Rudolf Steiner school and whose Temporal Adventuress is an unmistakably Blavatskyan person. [JC]


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.