V as Faustian Wizard: Tricks, Magic, and Orchestration in V for Vendetta

Frontispiece for The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1628) by Christopher Marlowe

Best known for its political themes, V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, is not a simple graphic novel. Many people latch on to the graphic novel’s political dimensions and examine its treatment of terrorism, fascism, and agency. V does play a critical role in bringing down the fascist government of Moore’s dystopian England, but the means by which V attains his goal may not just be in his direct action. V’s character indisputably has an aura of mystery attached to him, but the mysterious elements of V’s character extend beyond his past. In some ways, V can actually be viewed as a Faustian character, performing magician’s magic and ceremonial magic while orchestrating the fight against the oppressor by using any means necessary.

Clad in black as both vigilante and magus, V’s most obvious connection to magic is his tricks. Tricks do not involve any real metaphysical power, yet they stun those who fall for the illusion. V plays the part of the magician when he makes the rabbit disappear. He tells Evey, “As you see, my hands are quite empty…concealing nothing…nor have I anything up my sleeve and yet, with the merest flick of my wrist, the rabbit has gone” (Moore 94). Evey watches in astonishment as V manipulates physical elements to ostensibly create an impossible occurrence. This trick has a menacing meta-dimension when viewing the rabbit in the cage as Evey, innocent and caged, for his next disappearing act occurs when he abandons Evey. V leads Evey blindfolded, almost like a sacrificial victim, beyond the boundaries of the Shadow Gallery, Evey’s new home. She feels that the air has changed but as V responds to her panic and questions, she discovers something is wrong: V is not there. Instead, he has confounded her senses and has left her alone with a dummy and a tape recorder out in the middle of the street. V’s trick is base and reminds the reader of Faustus’ horse courser trick. The horse courser buys a horse from Faustus and ignores Faustus’ warning to not take the horse in to water. The horse courser’s response after taking the horse in to water and having it disappear is “I, thinking my horse had had some rare quality that he would not have had me know of, I like a venturous youth, rid him into the deep pond at the town’s end. I was no sooner in the middle of the pond but my horse vanished away and I sat upon a bottle [bundle] of hay, never so near drowning in my life” (Marlow IV.i.145–150). Faustus gives the horse courser what he thinks he wants, yet despite the warning, the horse courser is still tricked because he is perceiving the course of events from a mundane lens. Similarly, when V abandons Evey, it is shocking and plays all the more like a cruel trick as Evey believes that V is still there talking to her when really he has vanished. Of course, the vanishing horse is a product of Mephistophiles’ magical assistance, rather than just a trick fabricated from material items and sleights of hand, yet it still seems more like a silly college prank rather than a purely supernatural occurrence. Faustus accepts Mephistophiles’ cheap magic tricks as worthy of their price; likewise, when V plays the magician role, in his mind, however cruel, he views them as worth the suffering he may cause.

Moore does not just characterize V as some cheap magician though; instead, he has V actually perform ritual magic in ways similar to Marlowe’s Faustus. In the beginning of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Faustus draws a circle to perform the evocation of the Luciferian presence. He incants:

Faustus, begin thine incantations,

And try if devils will obey thy hest, …

Within this circle is Jehovah’s name (Marlowe I.iii.5–6&8).

Faustus casts his circle with his Jehovian sigil to make a deal with the forces of evil: he will gain earthly power in exchange for his soul. Like Faustus, V is a caster of sigil based circles in the graphic novel and gains a measure of earthly power in exchange for his soul as he devotes his whole being afterwards to exercising his power in resistance. For example, at the Larkhill Resettlement Camp, Delia remarks that V was awarded ammonia based fertilizer for his gardening efforts and that:

It’s arranged around his cell. It makes a kind of geometric shape. He sits motionless for hours in the center of it…the patterns of solvent and fertilizer on the floor of five’s cubicle are becoming so intricate…I couldn’t have known…the ammonia, the grease solvents and all the other things. He’d been making things with them, mustard gas and napalm” (Moore 83).

V achieved the power to liberate himself from the camp with the chemicals provided to him for his projects, yet if making explosives was just his prerogative, then he would not have needed to sit in the center of a geometric shape filled with intricate patterns. The shape is his circle and the patterns become his sigil; his magic is the empowerment he gains in the midst of his magical ingredients, in the midst of the chaos they cause. As William J. Kiesel notes in his Magical Circles in the Grimoire Tradition, “Lonely places were
chosen as sites of magical ceremonies so as to avoid the scrutiny
of the profane. Thus magic circles have been set out on remote
seaside locations, caves, ruins, locked chambers and other places not
frequented by casual passersby. Solitary locations such as seen in the
illustration allowed the operators to concentrate on the ceremonies
proper without fear of distraction from the outside world” (Kiesel 16). In the midst of V’s isolation, he is able to focus intensely on the magical word, much like Faust, but to a different end. He becomes the ceremonial magician, demolishing a place of cruelty with his magic. Although he his operation is spiritual, he still uses the enemy’s methods: violence. V’s motivations are very different than Faust’s, but Moore offers a complex, intertwined perspective of the ceremonial magician as revolutionary, a worker of the spiritual yet not concerned so much with preserving the status quo. V never stops using the ceremonial magic of the circle and sigil throughout the graphic novel. Because “The circle is equivalent to unity as the center and circumference of everything,” its utilization imbues V with the mystical force that radiates through all existence (Shumaker 144). His special symbol, a V within a circle — especially when it is in domino form, exercises a strange power. As V tells Evey, “There…poor little things. You see them? Standing with their numbers on their blank, indifferent faces, Nuremberg in miniature, the ranks of painted wooden men…poor dominoes. Your pretty empire took so long to build. Now, with a snap of history’s fingers…down it goes” (Moore 208). Within V’s circle and sigil, V controls the fates of men as dominoes. Some people see the V within the circle as a modified anarchy symbol, which may be true in some way, but according to Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, the triangle within the circle represents the occult principle of the Trinitarian God creating and containing the world, at least according to Robert Fludd, and as referred to as the circle and the triangle of manifestation (Westman 198). V’s domino circle and triangle is the symbolic representation of his plan manifesting, with the dominoes symbolizing the people involved in the plan whether they know it or not. As Alan Moore explains in a film interview entitled The Mindscape of Alan Moore:

Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art.” I believe this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art and that art, whether that is writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or image to achieve changes in consciousness…Indeed to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words to change people’s consciousness.

Certainly, V’s sign does just that: it causes actions and responses in the material world due to its power over the non-material aspects of reality, primarily people’s consciousness, through symbolism. As the people involved in the uprising by the end of the graphic novel demonstrate, a sign can incite people’s emotions in order to push them towards action.

Beyond the embedded magical imagery in the text and images of V for Vendetta, V, like Faustus, achieves his goals through rather diabolical influences — basically, he gets what he wants sometimes by being or using the bad guy. Before V kills the pedophile bishop, for instance, V is pictured with devil horns and says, “Allow me to introduce myself. I am a man of wealth and taste” (Moore 54). His introduction to the bishop is composed of lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this scenario, the good guy is on the devil’s side, and the man of good is the one who is evil. Moore builds irony by having V fight evil in a diabolical guise. The manner in which V kills the bishop with a cyanide laced communion wafer also disproves transubstantiation, which would be viewed as sacrilege by Catholics. Faustus never actually kills any clergy members, but in Marlowe’s play, he does snatch the pope’s wine and smacks him while invisible with Mestipholes’ aid (Marlowe III.ii.64–67), which from a Protestant’s eyes would have made Faustus seem good for fighting assumed Catholic corruption. Similarly, V fights against the bishop in a way that V almost seems invisible, for his true identity is masked. Additionally, V has a motto “Vi veri veniversum vivus vici. By the power of truth, I, while living have conquered the universe” (Moore 43). As V explains, the motto comes from a German gentleman named Dr. John Faust and “he made a deal, too” (Moore 44). The phrase does not appear in either Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus or Goethe’s Faust, but certainly ties V character to Faustus, for both are intelligent men who use magic and make deals to obtain their goals, albeit exactly what deal V has made and with whom remains ambiguous.

Most important, like a wizard orchestrating vast magical plans, V controls fate in more ways than one. On the bottom rows of pages 182,183, 184, and 185, V is depicted as a conductor of music. As Jordan tower burns, V can be seen with the conductor stick, orchestrating events according to the harmonious melody of his threatening vision. As the government’s surveillance agencies lose their headquarters, V takes a bow for conducting a performance pivotal to the liberation of the country as the people begin to fight against the government once they feel they are no longer being watched. V also orchestrates events in a more fateful way, for he has access to and complete control over the Fate computer system. With power over this technology, V drives the leader Adam Susan further in to madness by flashing the message “I love you” on the main screen of the computer system. V also uses Fate to reveal Helen’s infidelity and disdain to her husband Conrad, resulting in Conrad and Aleister Harper murdering each other. This orchestrated move is critical in terms of the plot, for Helen hopes to have Conrad fill in as the new leader whom she can control, and she plans to use Harper to achieve her goal. As the investigator Dominic claims, “The terrorist…I know how he’s doing it all…He’s got access to fate. He’s had access to fate since the beginning” (209). Dominic is referring to the computer system the government uses for surveillance, yet the pun suggests V’s more occult control over the events in the book. V does not control just control Fate the computer system; rather, he seems to be able to influence fate in a more subtle way. As V cultivates the otherwise extinct roses he presents to his victims before he cuts the threads of their lives, V also cultivates another rose who murders V’s last and most important victim: the leader. When Evey asks V if there is a special rose for the leader, V answers, “Oh no, not here. For him, I’ve cultivated a most special rose” (Moore 221). His comment goes unexplained, but as the events in the book come to pass, it is revealed that Rose Almond, a widow most dejected, is the one who will put a bullet through the leader’s head. V never seems to have any direct contact or correspondence with Rose Almond, yet she is the rose that delivers death to the leader. V somehow influences events in a way that Rose is destined to assassinate the leader as V’s answer to Evey suggests. It is almost as though V’s magical will has pushed Rose Almond to her act of revenge (revenge because her widow benefits were denied) like one of the final dominoes within his occult sigil.

V for Vendetta has many layers and goes well beyond a straightforward plot of bringing down a corrupt government, for his means are problematic in a metaphysical sense rather than just in a material sense. V requires a measure of power in order to fight back. His power is fueled by a love of freedom, but it is also overshadowed by a need for revenge against a government that destroyed his life. Unlike Faustus, V does not have good and bad angels fighting over his soul, nor does he have concerned individuals urging him to repent, but V seems to wear Faustus’ cape as his means are somewhat magical and tied in to his need for power, even if that power is directed towards dismantling the dominant power. Perhaps, V for Vendetta is not about one man’s struggle for salvation but rather it stands as a society’s struggle for salvation.

Works Cited

Di Liddo, Annalisa. Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Kiesel, William. Magic Circles in the Grimoire Tradition. Seattle: Ouroborus Press, 2015.

Marlowe, Christopher. “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.” English Renaissance Drama. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2002.

Moore, Alan. “Interview.” The Mindscape of Alan Moore. 2003.

Moore, Alan & Lloyd, David. V for Vendetta. New York: DC Comics, 2005.

Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Westman, Robert, S. “Nature, Art, and Psyche: Jung, Pauli, and the Kepler-Fludd Polemic.” Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Ed. Brian Vickers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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