the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. II No. 4
30 November 1997
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly.
Contents copyright 1997 The Nutmeg Point District Mail and assigned to individual contributors. All rights reserved.

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Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072


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ROGER BACON AND VERGIL MAGUS : Notes toward a discussion of Doctor Mirabilis and The Scarlet Fig

Your editor recently (and after long searching) found a copy of Doctor Mirabilis by James Blish (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971). This hard science fiction novel treating the life of Roger Bacon and the roots of the scientific method is the most interesting book encountered in a year filled with many books. Doctor Mirabilis was actually written a decade before, and seems to offer some interesting connections with Avram's life and work. Several observations and conjectures will be raised in these paragraphs, which will in fact serve as a request for concrete information from any who can shed light on the subject. It seems clear from the timing that Blish's fictional treatment of the polymath Roger Bacon is connected with Avram's decision to embark upon an even more ambitious project concerning Vergil Magus.

Three points:

As is the case for both Vergil Magus and Roger Bacon, there is an extensive corpus of legend and fact concerning. Where Blish concentrated on the factual for his novel, Avram drew upon the legendary aspects for the Vergil Magus novel.

Both figures are connected with alchemy, sorcery, and scientific invention. For each, the protoscientifc enquiries are part of a broader attempt to gain knowledge of the functions of the universe. (Talking heads figure directly and indirectly in each author's work -- the Aquinas legend and Vergil's household guardian.)

In Doctor Mirabilis, Bacon suffers a mind-shattering thirteen-year imprisonment; in The Scarlet Fig, or Slowly through a Land of Stone, Vergil loses several years in a drug-induced stupor after being marooned in the land of the Scarlet Fig. For each of them, the world after this period has changed dramatically and irreversibly.

On to the conjectures:

It is essential to a clear-headed assessment of Avram's career to look at why he embarked upon so vastly ambitious a scheme (in the early 1960s, Tolkien's trilogy had yet to sweep through the American popular imagination, and the endless stream of posthumous material was in the unforeseeable future).

The life of Roger Bacon and his vast and ultimately unfinished ambitions to write a book summarizing all scientific knowledge seems relevant here. In a spare, brutal chapter, Blish recount's Bacon's imprisonment and its toll on his intellect. There is a clear parallel in the concluding movement of The Scarlet Fig.

On page 327 of the Dodd, Mead edition of Doctor Mirabilis, there is a passage where Thomas reads in Bacon's later manuscript, and understands that Bacon h