In early 2021, while UFOs were enjoying a fresh vogue in the mass media and Washington D.C., I read the 2014 reissue of Jacques Vallee’s third ufological book, Passport to Magonia: From Folklore to Flying Saucers (1969). In this volume Vallee provides something like an inverted form of the “ancient astronaut theory” pioneered by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods (also 1969). Von Däniken’s hypotheses tend to flatten the reality of gods and angels into visiting extraterrestrial humanoids with a sort of “science” that “we” now comprehend. Vallee sees similar trans-historical connections, but instead observes that modern UFOs are a reiteration of just the sort of stories that have been told perennially of gods, angels, and fairies. These are expressly stories of otherworldly people and phenomena that we don’t understand, and we are just as ignorant of today’s alleged ufonauts as the eighth-century French bishop Agobard was ignorant of the visitors in flying ships from the region they called “Magonia.”
The continuities between the fairy faith and the tropes of ufology are conclusive, and drawn out through Vallee’s chapter titles. “Visions of a Parallel World” involve encounters with extraordinary realities and non-human intelligences. These latter are “The Good People” who have their own polity, “The Secret Commonwealth.” The abduction phenomenon is treated in “To Magonia … and Back!” whether the destination is outer space or fairyland. The changeling mytheme and its modern mutations make us “Nurselings of Immortality.”
Passport to Magonia resonates throughout with “The faint suspicion of a giant mystery, much larger than our current preoccupation with life on other planets” (58). At the same time, Vallee never abandons an acute skepticism, and a frustration with accounts that seem like pranks on an enormous scale. The mere falsity of any of the episodes cannot diminish the importance of the larger phenomenon; if nothing else, “these accounts show that it is possible to affect the lives of many people by showing them displays that are beyond their comprehension, or by convincing them that they have observed such phenomena, or by keeping alive the belief that their destiny is somehow controlled by occult forces” (20).
An appendix that is longer than the five body chapters of the book combined recounts “A Century of UFO Landings 1868-1968.” These hundreds of data each consist of a short paragraph of some three or four sentences, indexed by date and location. One of the nineteenth-century items is Aleister Crowley’s sighting of “two little men” in the Swiss Alps (191). (Crowley himself described them as “exactly the traditional gnome of German folk-tale; the Heinzelmanner that one sees sometimes on German beer mugs.”) The acme of these landings in my view were the numerous visitations of the “air locomotive” in its 1897 travels across the United States. These are also treated more extensively in the body of the book under the heading “Look, But Do Not Touch.”
Unlike von Däniken’s superstitious reductionism, Vallee’s careful “systematic documentation and literary illustration” (12) of the legendary dimensions of UFO lore and its precursors did not win him many readers in the decade of its initial publication. Fifty years later, though, it is still worth attention from anyone who would understand rather than fear or hope, when it comes to these perplexing stories. “We cannot be sure that we study something real, because we do not know what reality is; we can only be sure that our study will help us understand more, far more, about ourselves” (164).