Monday, July 15, 2013

Who’s Who: John Dee

After moving into his uncle’s house Lewis Barnavelt spends time going through a lot of books, including one whose frontispiece is an engraving of this person raising the spirit of a dead woman [The House with a Clock in its Walls; 67-8].

John Dee (1527-1609) was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I and his life is still shrouded in mystery all these centuries later.

Dee began his studies in his youth at St. John's College, Cambridge, travelled in Europe and befriended professional thinkers of the day, and eventually wound back in up in England. By the early 1580s, Dee was growing dissatisfied with his progress in learning the secrets of nature and turned towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge. How? He sought to contact angels through the use of a scryer, or enchanted device, that would act as an intermediary between Dee and the angels. His early attempts unsatisfactory, Dee soon met up with fellow alchemist and reputed necromancer Edward Kelley (1555-97) and the two began a near-decade-long pursuit of supernatural studies.

The popular image of Dee and Kelley “in the act of invoking the spirit of a deceased person” comes from the 1806 edition of the book New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology, by Ebenezer Sibly – also an astrologer and writer on the occult.

There are a handful of legends about Dee that add to his mystique: that he coined the word Brittannia, that he may have once been in possession of what became known as the Voynich manuscript, he may have been the model of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, and, according to Lovecraft, once imperfectly translated the Necronomicon into English.  Right.

We’re not sure how Bellairs first was introduced to Dee. Knowing his penchant for Elizabethan playwrights and history, John may have initially come across the name during his college studies. From there it wouldn’t be hard to imagine John scouring books in Chicago’s Hyde Park and coming face-to-face with Dee, Kelley, and that bonneted woman at O’Gara’s or some other bookseller.  Long time fans will recognize this simply as Dee's first appearance in John's (and later Brad's) stories.

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