The Problem with Dr. Taverner

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law

 For nearly a century, a particular archetype has dominated occult fiction, particularly the sort written by Initiates. I will call it the Dr. Taverner model, after Dion Fortune’s alienist cum Adept. Though the pattern precedes her work, Taverner is the most well-known example of it, and arguably one of the most well executed. The basic archetype, which has seen little variation over the decades, is that of a confident pedant with the sort of character that middle class English people of the 1930s would have called “impeccable.” He (almost never do we see a female version) steps in and solves problems that stump ordinary mortals with wisdom gained from years of walking the Path of the Mysteries.

I think there are several problems with the continued appearance of this archetype. First and most important is that I think we are capable of creating a new character of our own. One that, at the very least, bears some resemblance to the sort of person we are likely to encounter in our post-modern, cynical era. They need not be on the extreme end of moral ambiguity, though that is the direction I tend to take in my own fiction. But in a context such as our own, he or, preferably she, really ought to have a few “spikes.” Even Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict, for instance, and he is a clear antecedent for Taverner and all the Tavenerlets that have followed.

Further, the clones of Taverner show marked genetic deterioration. In many ways, Dion Fortune was a novelist first, and a purveyor of occult teaching second. The same cannot be said of her literary descendants. There are occult detective stories out there that make Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni look like a subtle character study.

And, we might as well be blunt about this, in any other literary context a completely self-assured character of “impeccable” morals would be the foil for dramatic or comic irony. We would be waiting for the moment when their pretense comes back to bite them on the ass. When some detail, dismissed as if it were a fly buzzing near the foil’s ear, is revealed to be the fact that the entire affair hangs upon. This is not a post-modern or even modern tradition in storytelling. It goes all the way back to good old, Aristotelian Tragedy. The general flaw was called Hubris, subdivided into different variations, each adding a particular tone to the story.  To have such an individual breeze through their predicament with little doubt as to the outcome is, simply put, bad narrative form.

The point of experiencing a story is to watch a character or group of characters undergo some fundamental change. Television shows and special-effects showcase movies often forget this, but the best ones do not. The shows we remember, the movies we watch over and over again, do not simply pander to our desire to see shit get blown up or heroes battle impressive monsters. What Samwise in The Lord of the Rings might call “stories that matter” invariably show us a protagonist who has not only overcome the obstacles set before them, but also become a different person in the process.

Dion Fortune’s best work, The Sea Priestess or The Goat Foot God, for example, does a fine job of this. The protagonists in both of those books end the story in a place very far from where they were at the beginning. And while there are shades of the Infallible Adept in Vivian Le Fay Morgan, nothing of the sort can be found in Goat Foot God. If you’re going to mimic a better writer, why not choose to imitate her best work, rather than her embryonic first effort?

Perhaps it is sentiment, but I think it goes back to pandering and egotism. The Dr. Taverner model is a very effective version of what is called a “Mary Sue,” a sock puppet for the author. A Mary Sue actually does two disservices, one to the author, the other to the reader. It allows the author to reify her ego, rather than explore the parts of her that need to express themselves in the story. She is effectively asking the reader to either accept her received wisdom, or to actually identify with her, or both. This demonstrates a certain neurotic insecurity as well as a total lack of understanding as to what fiction is really there for. The reader, by either identifying with or succumbing to fawning admiration of the author, is robbed of the cathartic experience of living through a pivotal experience with a well thought out character.

What I’m arguing for is not necessarily the retiring of Dr. Taverner type characters. I think it is more important that occultists who venture to create fiction at least attempt to learn something about the craft of narrative composition before they foist their works upon the public. If you’re going to go the detective/psychiatrist/fill-in-the-blank- who-is-also-an-Adept route, at least make them a person. Give them flaws. Take the time to construct a psychologically believable human being. We owe that to the reader, and to ourselves.

Love is the Law, Love under Will

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