Sigils and Servitors

practical experiments in chaos magic

Gandalf, fireworks and magical training

July 13, 2021 — Glyn

I have a long way to go in my ambition to be as awesome as Gandalf in all respects except one: handling fireworks.

As as a former rigger on professional displays, I find Gandalf’s approach to pyrotechnics in Fellowship of the Ring mildly horrifying, to say the least.

During his first on-screen scene we see Gandalf driving a cart-load of gunpowder into a densely populated part of Hobbiton while smoking a fucking pipe. Minutes later part of his volatile cargo spontaneously (but unsurprisingly) misfires, to the delight of the local hobbit children, who by a stroke of luck escape injury. At this point, finally galvanised into action, he throws Frodo clear and races the cart as quickly as possible away from… Just kidding! Actually the senile old bastard chuckles quietly to himself and continues wending his way, utterly oblivious.

And Bilbo’s party itself… where to begin?! In this one short scene we see him letting off large fireworks surrounded by drunken party-goers – no safety distance, no designated spectator area, no fallout zone. Then he encourages a circle of children – presumably the same children he nearly immolated earlier that day – to gather around a lit firework and chase butterflies made of white-hot burning gunpowder.

And that unsupervised, uncovered cart surrounded by lanterns! Thieves stealing his fireworks was about the best that could have happened when one stray ember could have turned Bilbo’s eleventy-first into a re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme!

I guess when you’re one of the Maiar, it’s easy to forget that not everyone’s a fire-proof demigod like you are.

The point I’m making here (apart from trying to one-up a fictional wizard like a sad and desperate wannabe-adept), is that while many people are justifiably wary of fireworks, they can be awe-inspiring in skilled hands, but if not handled with due respect they can very quickly fuck your shit right up.

The same is true of magic.

The answer, of course, is to train those working in the field in effective risk management and safe working practice.

What does responsible pyrotechnics training look like? For me it was a three-day residential course, divided into short theory classes, followed by supervised practical application of what we had just learned. Each unit in the syllabus built on and reinforced what had gone before. The setting was a safe environment equipped to handle any possible mishaps – a fire-brigade training centre! – and at the end of the three days we used everything we had learned to plan and stage a display for an audience of trainee fire-fighters. It was fun and engaging, and taught me the skills I needed to work safely on large public displays.

Magical training rarely looks like this – particularly the “fun and engaging” part.

Many of you will have started with a book or web-based course on basic magic. When the writer said to spend several weeks doing visualisation exercises, how many of you just skipped ahead to the chapter on summoning demons? In the olden-days the student just had to suck-it-up because only the initiated had access to the Deep Secrets but nowadays everyone has thousands of websites and a library of grimoires a couple of clicks away, so telling an aspirant magician to not do magic is a great way to get them to miss important lessons that they will have to learn The Hard Way later on… just like forcing would-be pyrotechnicians to spend hours ploughing through dusty tomes of legislation before allowing them to set fire to anything would be!

Instead, I’d like to make a case for magical teaching that accepts the reality that, whatever the teacher says, students are going to be doing magic from day one – and possibly even before that! And if they aren’t, then they probably don’t have the healthy level of disrespect for authority required of a magician anyway. So instead lets give a basic grounding in how not to fuck-up, plus some tools for mitigating and recovering from the fuck-ups that do happen.

And at the same time, it you’re a learner following (of cherry-picking the good-bits from) a program of study, keep in mind that somewhere in that three months of daily-meditation and visualisation exercises is probably hidden an important lesson on safe and effective magical practice.