In this edition of Author R&R (Research and Reference) for In Reference to Murder, Joscelyn Godwin, co-author of The Forbidden Book, discusses the inspiration behind writing the novel, described as "occult fiction": a murder mystery set against the conflicts of Islam and the West with symbolism, alchemy, and magic fueling the action. Joscelyn was born in England and lives in Hamilton, New York, where he is professor of music at Colgate University. He is a composer, musicologist, and translator, known for his work on ancient music, paganism, and music in the occult.
It began when Ian Caldwell sent me the novel that he and Dustin Thomason had written: The Rule of Four. He sent it to me because the plot hinges on a real Italian book of 1499 called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which I happened to have translated into English in 1999. I enjoyed The Rule of Four and admired the way the authors wove the Hypnerotomachia and its mysteries into their story. The book deservedly rose to the top of the best seller lists, and I was asked to write a short, unofficial guide-book to it. In about a month I wrote The Real Rule of Four, which showed how Caldwell and Thomason’s novel works, explains all its learned allusions, and introduces the real Hypnerotomachia.
The Hypnerotomachia is an epic fantasy novel set in an imaginary pagan land populated by goddesses, fauns, satyrs, and irresistibly sexy nymphs. The language is a flowery Italian, expanded with rare Latin and Greek words. It’s lavishly illustrated, and the general perfection of its design have earned it a place in the history of fine books. The author, who was a Franciscan friar (though you wouldn’t think it), had a passion for classical architecture, sculptures, tombs, and formal and symbolic gardens. The whole book drips with excess of language, imagery, and emotion. All it lacked was a complete English translation, since the last, incomplete one was made in the 16th century. Since no one else seemed inclined to do it, and the 500th anniversary was coming up, I took it on.
So that was what inspired The Rule of Four’s authors in their blend of Renaissance mysteries with modern ones. No sooner had their book arrived than Guido and I got in touch with one another. Guido already had seven novels behind him. I had never written fiction, but I did see one shortcoming in this genre, which Dan Brown had revitalized. It draws on esoteric traditions, but only for atmosphere and decoration, not as realities. I thought that between us, with Guido’s experience in fiction and my long interest in esotericism, we could write a novel in which the mysteries are real. Neither of us shares the scientific world view, i.e. that scientific materialism does the best job of explaining the universe. Indeed, we hold it in utter contempt. So we would reach into the past, into that wonderful period of Renaissance Hermeticism. We would use it to give our novel not just historical but also metaphysical depth.
The material lay close at hand in the form of another mysterious Italian work, The Magical World of the Heroes published in 1605 by Cesare della Riviera. Like the Hypnerotomachia, it operates on several levels including classical erudition, language games, self-development, and practical alchemy. We would make our chief character actually practice Riviera’s form of magic, and it would have real consequences.
You may think here of the Harry Potter books, because there too the magic is real. But Rowling’s is a different genre. Her readers give temporary consent to the way things work in her world, and don’t expect it to be like our world except in a symbolic sense. In our novel, on the contrary, magic happens in contemporary Italy, as I suspect it really does. We don’t ask you to believe that, nor to disbelieve it. Just consider it as a possibility, and that the world may be a much stranger and richer place than the one most people choose to inhabit.
The Forbidden Book by Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro is available via Amazon and other retailers.