Meet the Magus, Part 2:

The Universal Dance in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Snakes and Ladders

When we discuss the relationship between Alan Moore’s artistic works and magic, clearly marked boundaries become, instead, borderlands of relationship. Taken out of context, a particular statement by Moore could easily refer to magic rather than writing or vice versa. For instance, in his Writing for Comics, he instructs the aspiring writer that artistic success “becomes a matter of tuning your perceptions to notice little quirks of circumstance that might otherwise go unnoticed, studying your own behavior and the behavior of people and events surrounding you, until you feel you have developed a coherent angle upon life and reality, at least one which relates to a perspective upon events that will suggest original and individual story ideas” (8). What Moore is suggesting is that altering your mental state away from the social “norm” is necessary to view the world in an individualized way. Concepts like these confirm the close relationship between Moore’s ideas of magic and ideas, particularly, of language. It was the pursuit of spoken language, geared toward performance at a particular place and time that led Moore to continue to stage “workings” like The Birth Caul with his secret co-conspirators, the Moon and the Serpent “group.” It became clear through the success of these workings that experimental work with language and experimental work with magic were one and the same.

The Moon and the Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, an entity or non-entity “producing more publicly available material than any genuine magical organization in the world at this moment” (according to Moore as interviewed by Campbell), came into existence, or non-existence, as a “truly magical organization…that doesn’t actually exist, or have any members.” Alan Moore and longtime friend and colleague Steve Moore (no relation) cooked up the idea of a “Secret Society” so secret that it didn’t actually exist and thereby succeeded in producing magnificent collaborations with other non-members, “a bloody fantastic trick” (Moore). The biggest focus of the Moon and the Serpent has been to produce magical event “workings” that are “unrepeatable in space-time,” and yet have also produced recordings, comics, and artwork as separate artifacts.

Workings in Context

Just as Moore’s Birth Caul went through three phases of transformations of separate art forms before making its way into comics (namely a ritual that established the course of action, an actual performance of a “working” as a magical act in itself, and lastly, and adaptation of the language of the working into a comics visual narrative by Eddie Campbell), Snakes and Ladders took the same route. Other workings, however, took place between The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders. They were not converted into comics but were recorded and released as CDs. These include The Highbury Working in 1997 before Snakes and Ladders and, following in 2001, Angel Passage. Both had unusual features compared to other workings: The Highbury Working was an invited performance by the Moon and Circle members who had hosted The Birth Caul, and Angel Passage was part of a staged multi-media tribute to the visionary Romantic poet William Blake (open to the public). Within this diversity, however, there are many consistent features that indicate their magical nature and particular goals in their composition and performance.

Like The Birth Caul, The Highbury Working was, as Millidge explains, a “site specific” performance with “psychogeographical connections” to the district where it was performed (262). It was not, however, specifically focused on Moore’s own life and experiences but rather the heritage of the location, in a way expanding on one of the secondary elements of The Birth Caul, wherein Moore took the audience back to the prehistory of Northampton. As a working, it took challenging artistic leaps beyond The Birth Caul performance and displayed a wide range of possibilities for future events. It included a much stronger musical soundtrack beyond repeating sound effects (as used for The Birth Caul) by Tim Perkins and brought in dance, aurally and visually guiding the audience through the characters and events of the area that Moore felt to be magically salient: travelling shows, murders, violence-charged sporting events, and the inspirations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, before introducing the audience to a unifying, more numinous identity in the presiding Angel Highbury, who harmonized these chaotic traits. The journey was structured around an expression of the four elements, each with two parts, suggesting a more carefully arranged and symbolic structure for this working than The Birth Caul. It successfully engaged the audience and had such a strong aural presence that the CD, released in 2000, is still considered a masterpiece.

It was the artistic and magical success of these workings that inspired Eddie Campbell’s next project with Alan Moore: Snakes and Ladders. Snakes and Ladders has its own unique history as another “invited” performance, but this time, entirely for an audience of magical practitioners (members of the Oxford and London branches of the Order of the Golden Dawn) to take place in Red Lion Square in Holborn, London, in 1999. It, too, would be a mixed media performance with a single “happening.” Because Moore was presenting to an audience with a degree of magical knowledge, the magical themes in the working were particularly pronounced and developed, and he attempted to bring connections between magic and modernity to the fore. The “snakes” referred to in the title take on symbolic manifestation and expression as DNA, staircases, and even Moore’s snake deity Glycon. The “ladders” of the second part of the title may refer to the pathways by which pilgrims may attain higher spirituality and awareness, and perhaps by which all of humanity may “ascend.” Oliver Cromwell, the pre-Raphaelite model Lizzie Siddal, author Walter Gibson (of The Shadow fame), and horror writer Arthur Machen become the starring features of the working, all tied to Red Lion Square geographically. However, Machen receives more consideration as a magician-guide to the geographical themes of the magical event. This is particularly fortuitous since Machen had ties to the Golden Dawn.

Reactions to the event were highly favorable, since, as Moore says, “nobody in magic does stuff involving performance in quite the way we do” (qtd. in Millidge 267). The recording was not, however, released until four years later (in 2003), reminding us that the primacy of the event stands. The working may take altered forms later, but initially, and essentially, it remains a singular live event with its own particular impact. Eddie Campbell pursued adaptation and publication of Snakes and Ladders with his own personal verve, producing it under his own imprint in 2001, before the CD release. He also felt that Moore’s magical beliefs and influences might be best explored in a series of interviews which he places in his own Egomania magazine and which now form part of the Knockabout compiled trade with The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders as a fascinating exposition of the interweaving ideas in many of Moore’s works.

Angel Passage was a one-time performance with a specific venue and audience, and when Moore was invited to contribute, the idea of celebrating the contributions of William Blake at The Tygers of Wrath (on the Southbank in London in 2001) was an immediate incentive. He had incorporated some of Blake’s ideas and work into From Hell but had since developed a particular affinity for the poet and artist’s work, feeling that “at its best has the power to insist on a different reality,” which was particularly in keeping with a magical perspective (qtd. Millidge 269). Like The Highbury Working, Angel Passage was divided into four sections, but these were based upon areas of Blake’s life work and formed a development from Innocence to Hell to Experience, and finally, to Heaven. Moore’s process for composing these verbal poems was even more exacting than previously: he used collaborator Tim Perkins’s musical composition first, then with a stopwatch composed a “narrative piece” to suit the musical movement. Angel Passage might, superficially, seem to differ from the other workings, in that it focuses on Blake himself more than upon a location. Scholar Jason Tondro, in his excellent edition of the performance, reminds us of the continuity of geography in these events by pointing out that the poems composed by Moore may be “attempting to invoke a person, not a place,” however, Blake himself is “inevitably tied to London,” and the geography of his London life forms the trajectory of the narrative (396). Moore felt that the event, which also included other contributors of film, music, and dance, produced the desired result of introducing a “fugue state, where there are too many vectors of information occurring at once,” an ideal derangement of the senses “overwhelming the audience’s normal critical faculties” to positive effect (qtd. in Millidge 269).

Snakes and Ladders

I. “The Gate of Tears”

In the first section of Snakes and Ladders, entitled “The Gate of Tears,” we are introduced to the detritus of the 20th century’s material culture (the event was staged in 1999, approaching the millennium). The location, Red Lion Square, is where we, now the reader-audience of the comics-adapted working, are “caught in the cross-hairs of geography and time like sitting ducks” and yet have been brought “here” to the performance by the winding roads of personal life-continuity. Moore traces those threads back to his native Northampton and finds connections to Red Lion Square in the person of Arthur Machen, who once performed in a troop of players at an asylum in Northampton and was a resident of Red Lion Square. The thread that leads backward, for Moore, is also the thread that has led forward to the present moment, both in time and space.

From this return to the “present,” Moore journeys back in time to the beginning of the universe, recounts his own version of a cosmological myth, then follows time forward, channeling the narrative through the location of Red Lion Square. Moore’s cosmology blends a frank discussion of science and its uncertainties, wherein Eden was almost certainly “white hot and radioactive,” and vast passages of time resulted in the progress of human beings “burned in like details on an exposed Polaroid.” These vague sketches of identity give way to the foundation of Red Lion Square in 1684. Moore notes thematic resonances between recurring events in Red Lion’s historical narrative, such as the exhumation of both Oliver Cromwell’s body and also that of Pre-Raphaelite artists’ model Lizzie Siddall, wife to poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Arthur Machen, struggling with the death of his first wife, becomes the focus of the narrative, whose depression teaches him “Love and Death, working in a tag team, will undo us all.”

What does any of this have to do with magic? If you haven’t asked yourself that yet, I’d be very surprised by your patience. Remember that, at the original “working,” a room full of magicians were listening to this narrative, constructing their own ideas of how all this might apply to their lives. Magic will eventually be the explicit subject of Moore’s discussion in Snakes and Ladders but not until some very human characters and characteristics have been established. It’s good writing, and it makes good comics, but it also suggests that these kinds of threads of perspective in magical space and magical time make good magical workings. Moore goes on to describe the “chemicals” and “math” of the universe, showing a deep-seated modernity in his concepts as a jumping off point for magical thought. When the “cosmos gazes on itself, adores itself, breaks its own heart… Through us,” he is getting to the heart of the matter. The Birth Caul starts with magic, the mysteries of death, and leads us through the mundane back to magic, the mysteries of birth, but Snakes and Ladders will build from the mundane perspective to the universal perspective through focus upon characters until the final “trick” of perspective is revealed.

II. “Stars and Garters”

In part two, “Stars and Garters,” some of the master-strokes are finally laid down to establish the direction of this working. Moore personifies the universe as if it’s aware of its own progress or lack thereof, noting the “nail-biting stretches of anxiety” seeking “substance.” This humanizing of the consciousness of the universe prefigures Moore’s explication of the Universe Tarot card image, a card depicting a dancing female figure. In a remarkable folding together of parallel events, Moore and Campbell present the unveiling of the universe’s form as an event in a theatre with expectant spectators, a “working” in itself, a magical rite. The “Theatre of Marvels” is preparing to reveal its mysteries, but deciphering them accurately may depend on the audience. When the curtain rises, we find ourselves back in Birth Caul territory, or more specifically, picking up at the magical instant of space / time / language that exists at the close of The Birth Caul. First, the spiraling serpent appears; in one guise, a metaphor for DNA and cellular structure; a “Midgard Serpent,” “Ouroboros,” and “snake-god,” winding “upward” into consciousness.

Moore reveals the layout of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot card in words while Campbell displays the card itself for readers, and both explore the complex symbolism of both the serpent and the woman across cultures and time and the “dance steps” of love and death with which she engages the serpent.

She who is “hardly there at all” is, in fact, “imaginary,” Guiding the movement of physical life is the “dance-partner” Imagination. For Moore, this is the “great Romance” and the source of “Dream.” The Crowley card he refers to would have had even more complex associations for Moore’s magician audience, as Crowley says: “One of the most important doctrines of the Ancients was that of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm. Man is himself a little Universe” (28). If the serpent and the dancer are the entire Universe in all its glory, a manifestation of the relationship between matter and imagination, this pattern must also be played out on a lesser but no less remarkable level, in the individual, who is also a mirrored combination of DNA and the imagined. Perhaps it was Crowley’s cryptic reminder in his Book of Thoth that prompted Moore to personify the Universe of the card more fully when he said: “Each card is, in a sense, a living being” (47). It is exactly between the dancer and the serpent, in the mysterious zone of interrelationship contained within the dance, that magic exists. It also is within this zone the Universe becomes manifest and perceptible. This suggests that the function of the universe itself is predicated upon a continuous magical event. It is the epitome of a “working” in action.

III. “Baghdad”

Moore follows this remarkable revelation, grounded so carefully in the physical through Eddie Campbell’s ten detailed panels depicting the “dance” of the woman and the serpent, with a return to the historical narrative and an attempt to show the meaning of this universal magic in human time. Moore chooses the traumatic loss of Machen’s wife as a starting point for Machen’s descent into the imagination, a journey between the extremes of the physical experience of death, when “life’s floorboards crumble” and the complete abandonment of the physical in the zone of immaterial and imaginary. As a writer, Machen conjures an imaginary place he calls Baghdad, in an “exalted state” he calls Syon. Campbell visually takes us there, along its strangely angled avenues, until it becomes clear that this is “Moontown,” a position on the Kaballah’s tree of life also associated with imagination, rising above the material manifestation of Malkuth, Earth. This is a place where madness can prevail if the Universe’s dance breaks down, the dancer and serpent disengage, and the magic fades. Campbell, famously, made his own visual “discovery” in depicting this stage of the narrative, when he hauntingly overlaid the “double-helix” of a DNA spiral with Burne-Jones’s painting of the “Golden Staircase,” an underlying pattern bringing form even to “Moontown.”

IV. “Art”

Machen survives the wild fantasies of his imaginary Baghdad to progress into the stage of “Art,” as “imagination is a lovely quicksand without Will to govern it.” The alchemical “Great Work” must continue, harmonizing opposites through direction and will to produce the “Medicine” of the Philosopher’s Stone. Campbell presents the reader with Crowley’s Thoth Tarot card “Art.” What has been an underlying subtext until this point in Machen’s narrative is explicitly stated at this point: Machen is a pilgrim in progress. He is the microcosm who, in this case, also helps us understand the journey of the macrocosm. When Machen flees Baghdad into the arms of “Art,” he parallels the universe moving from excess of imagination into a harmonic relationship, the balance of the dance, a “glimpse of meaning” in which we may “deduce a soul.” A nuanced prose-poem discussion of the nature and meaning of “art” is visually presented by Campbell in the form of narrow blocks of text alongside an vertical ladder, suggesting that art “ascends” through the application of will, an “uphill climb out of the squalls of personality that we believe ourselves to be into the essence of what we know we are.” As the universe strives for self-awareness, glimpsing it, perhaps, through the eyes of its myriad microcosms, so the individual strives for true identity or true “essence.” Ascending this ladder, creating the magical relationship between matter and imagination, results in an “essence” or “self” that emerges onto “the white-hot streets of Syon,” Machen’s heavenly city.

V. “Syon”

Syon is the end of the road for Machen and for audience and reader alike, but it poses many questions. In Syon, Machen perceives “archetype and glory, in the roaring avenues,” where “Space and Time fold in” and all of time exists in a “grand simultaneity.” The connections in the “folds” of time establish a clear meaning between events that have occurred in Red Lion Square. Machen’s drama, struggling in the “dark” over the loss of his wife has led him, in a game of Snakes and Ladders, into the “light” of Syon. It’s a light wherein “even the pain of life, is perfect, golden.” Moore clarifies that Syon can also be designated Tiphareth, a “higher” position on the Kabballah’s tree of life suffused with light, a position from which grace descends to lower levels of existence. The final realization of “essence” and identity, the cap-stone, so to speak, of this architecture of the universe evinced by Moore, is the discovery that the “fourfold city is inside us.” And if it is “inside us,” the microcosm, it is inside the universe, the macrocosm, contained at its heart and bringing “meaning” to its extremities through the circulation of the dance. Machen returns from the “sweet and dreadful light” of this apocalyptic experience to the “boulevards” of Holborn, a changed man, seeing “meaning” wherever he looks because of the “glow that’s in his eyes.”

The two major magical revelations of Snakes and Ladders, a work designed for the edification of magicians, are firstly, Moore’s interpretation of the Crowleyan Universe card as an interaction of physical matter and spiritual imagination, and secondly, the final explanation of the parallel, interrelated development of the microcosm and macrocosm toward self-awareness. These truths depend upon language because their progression depends upon language as a magical focus. Through the original working, Moore conjures locations in space and time through the collaboration of words and music, and language becomes the medium of imagination and participation for the audience and, later, for the reader. Delving into these inherently magical works by Moore may seem like a far cry from reading one of his more “mainstream” comics, and yet, that perceived distance is illusory. Moore’s open declarations of his status as a magician may have only begun on his 40th birthday, but his own statements suggest a firm line of continuity constantly informing his perception of time, space, and language. These workings most fully demonstrate Moore’s magical use of language in ritual form, however, his own emphasis places magic within the sphere of ordinary daily life.

As Millidge says, though Moore is less involved in ritual magic these days, it “permeates his life and affects his relationship with the world in every way” (311). Moore himself feels that “Magic is, in a sense, a kind of language with which to read the universe, a language of symbols with which you can extract meaning from the most mundane things” (qtd. in Millidge 311). Searching for meaning can take many forms, but for Moore, it seems to be one of language’s most important, or perhaps simply its original, function.

Works Cited

Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth (Egyptian Tarot). San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books, 2008.

Moore, Alan (w.), Eddie Campbell (ill.). A Disease of Language. London: Knockabout Limited, 2010.

Moore, Alan (w.), Jacen Burrows (ill.). Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. Rantoul, IL: Avatar Press, 2010.

Millidge, Gary Spencer. Alan Moore: Storyteller. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011.

Tondro, Jason. “Angel Passage: An Edition.” The International Journal of Comic Art Fall, 2003. 392-423.

Coming up next time: “Conjuring the Deep Green and Jack of the Green in Swamp Thing.”

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Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book, as well as scholarly blog-posts for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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