Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Magic of Bond: Hermetic Magic and the Original '007'

"Bond, James Bond."

James Bond is the iconic spy in popular culture. While real life intelligence operatives generally prefer inconspicuous, low-profile positions and lots of boring work, the cinematic Bond travels the world in high class tossing off one-liners as he dispatches baddies and seduces women. He prefers his martinis "shaken, not stirred," and Bond himself acts the same under pressure. However, the modern interpretation and almost stereotypical behaviors of Bond differ from Ian Fleming's original vision. In my blog entry today, I'm going to discuss a relevant topic to supervillainy and mad science, the intersection of spies, magic, and popular culture. I have not yet seen "Skyfall" as of writing this entry, but it is on my mind.

Bond's iconic status has more to do with the movies than with the novels he originated in. The novels portray an often blunt, sympathetic anti-hero navigating the murky world of espionage during the Cold War. This is in contrast to the earlier movies, with over the top villains, zany plot elements, and cartoonish evil schemes. Part of the reason this was done was to lower the rating. More outlandish villains and plots allowed the movies to slip past American cinematic rating agencies, compared to a more brutal and "realistic" one. As a result, the silver screen version of 007 became a much-reduced version of the one in the books (at least in the 60s/70s films).

Ian Fleming himself was the real deal when it came to intelligence operations. He was a member of the British T-Force during and after World War II (a 'technical' force responsible for capturing German industrial and scientific know-how), serving alongside fellow bad ass Christopher Lee. There was also the fact many of Bond's own habits and preferences came from Fleming himself (and Fleming's own death was a result of them). The name for James Bond, according to Fleming, came from the name of an ornithologist. Many of Bond's skills are based on a combination of real life spies, commandos, and covert operatives. But how about 007, Bond's famous callsign?

The answer to that question takes us back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s. John Dee was Queen Elizabeth's court wizard, a scholar who combined magical and scientific research. This is what was also called a 'natural philosopher,' sort of a proto-scientist in an era when the scientific method was not quite hammered out yet. A polymath like Dee saw his Hermetic occult research as merely another aspect of furthering knowledge, combined with his more conventional research (especially in astronomy, mathematics, and navigation) and running rings of informants. He used the number "007," with the "00" signifying he was the Queen's eyes on the world. The "7" was used because of mystical significance. Dee himself was also an avowed imperialist, believing in British dominion over the New World. His use of "occult" knowledge was intended to further the power of his employer, as well as his expansive intelligence network. Again, this is a real life parallel between the "dark arts" of espionage and occultism alike. 

There is a writer who continued this train of thought, connecting James Bond, HP Lovecraft, and workplace comedy together. In his "Laundry" series, Stross has a British covert operative handling battling both supernatural entities and rival agencies seeking to exploit them. In that universe and Stross' "A Colder War," supernatural secrets (often involving powerful Lovecraftian forces) were treated in a similar manner to German research after WWII, with the superpowers scrambling to capture them. Other books, movies, TV series, and videogames involve government conspiracies and agents facing the occult, supernatural, and weird, but few seem to directly invoke the common traits between "mysticism" and spycraft.

There's also a videogame that specifically drew parallels between John Dee, James Bond, and Hermetic philosophy: Uncharted 3. The player's opponents for much of the game are a British secret society with vast resources (highly trained operatives, heavy weapons, lots of funding, etc.). A supporting character mentions they were started by John Dee and used many facades of other occult groups throughout history, such as the School of Night and Hellfire Club. Hermetic symbols are used in many of the in-game puzzles and plot points, including a 'lost lab' of John Dee that for some reason, is under a French chateau. There are also more subtle homages, such as one character using a Walther P5 as a preferred weapon. While Bond used a PPK, the P5 was essentially just a Walther PPK scaled up for 9mm Parabellum. The most common pistol in the middle and later phases of the game is the Walther P99, a 9mm pistol used by Bond in the Brosnan era and the start of the Craig era. Recently, it seems cinematic Bond has gone back to his iconic PPK.

Bond's use of gadgets changes with the films and books, but one thing that remains fairly constant is his pistol. There is a good reason for Bond to use a PPK. Originally, literary Bond used a Beretta in the weak .25 ACP caliber. However, a fan suggested that a Walther PPK in the slightly more powerful .32 ACP would be a better sidearm for Bond. There was good reason for this. The Walther PPK was a compact, concealable version of the standard German P38, intended for use by undercover police officers. World War II had left plenty of surplus weapons scattered in Europe's black market for years. Real life intelligence operatives during the Cold War generally preferred weapons they could acquire locally, use, and dispose of without drawing too much attention. The PPK was one such firearm. There are some other interesting facts even about the ammunition it uses.

If there is a caliber with plenty of historical and technical significance, it is the .32 ACP. It was developed by the legendary gunsmith John Browning, and used in the first pistol, the FN 1900, to employ a slide (becoming a dominant feature in firearms since). It was instrumental in helping start and end major wars in the European continent by being the direct cause of death for two heads of state. Austrian archduke Ferdinand was killed by bullets of this caliber, and it was the caliber of the Walther that Hitler shot himself with. Furthermore, most .32 ACP PPK magazines hold 7 rounds of it. Talk about some fun with numbers. If you follow comics, the magical superhero Dr. Strange was threatened by a villain using Hitler's pistol. Afterwards, Dr. Strange held onto it for a while. (However, the gun drawn is a P38, rather than a PPK.) Even the Doctor in "Dr. Who" used a water pistol version of the PPK in the "Fires of Pompeii" episode.

The use of a Walther pistol by Dr. Strange seems rather amusing, as it unintentionally reconnects the worlds of magic and espionage. According to magician and comic book writer Alan Moore, art is literally magic. Today's black magic does not involve dark rituals and Satanic sacrifices, but instead advertising and corporate logos to shape popular consciousness. In contemporary military and intelligence circles, there is concept of psychological operations. Psyops include the use of informants and infiltrators in rival groups, propaganda, shaping public opinion, and similar things.

Like in John Dee's time, these are often performed to benefit the goals of a government, client, or employer. What Moore calls "black magic," we call other things: public relations, marketing, advertising, and the like. Spies have used "soft power" for thousands of years, currently do so,and will continue to. It is literally an innate feature of the job description. Government intelligence agencies, special forces, and advertising/PR consultants may thus be the modern heirs to "dark arts." These things have their place, as many savvy individuals have realized. John Dee, thus, can be seen as both a spy and magician. 

Bond, in many ways, has come full circle. He started as a character in Fleming's fiction, taking cues from real life. Now, he is an icon unto himself. He is a sigil if there was one, as a suave British accent saying, "Bond. James Bond," can instantly bring him to mind. The most famous fictional wizard out of Britain may not be a boy armed with a magic wand or wear a pointy hat, but may be clad in a tuxedo and holding a Walther PPK. That is how Bond relates to magic. We shall see if "Skyfall" lives up to the legacy.

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