Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Second reader review: The Book of English Magic

Following Matthew Parker's review of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean published on our Books Blog last week, here is our second reader review of The English Book of Magic.

by Matthew Kilburn

Like the English magical tradition which it seeks to represent, The Book of English Magic is a many-headed beast, and those heads betray English magic’s diverse origins. The purpose of the book is not always clear – it is a hydra with different faces and several distinct voices, and proves reluctant to sever any of those heads in order to let the remaining ones be heard any clearer.

Carr-Gomm and Heygate have compiled a book which includes a good deal of historical material, but it is more a manual than a history, and most of all a document where practitioners describe how magic flourishes in England today. The historical sections vary in quality. Some sections of the book make their debt to Ronald Hutton’s work clear, and others are rooted in the authors’ own research into and experience of modern pagan societies. There are some sections where connections are made on assumptions and traditions of largely modern origin, such as the presumed continuity between pre-Saxon and post-Saxon English magical practices, or the hoary old link between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. Alongside these are contributions by modern witches and rune-makers, many of whom appeal for their authority to oral traditions of witchcraft allegedly passed on from generation to generation for centuries. The format of the book demands that these are treated uncritically, though some scepticism is at the least implied over the claims of significant figures in the recent history of English paganism, such as Gerald Gardner.

The Book of English Magic aspires to be a guidebook to the landscape of English magic. However, it is patchy when it comes to giving directions: those seeking the Neolithic burial chamber, Wayland’s Smithy, in the Vale of the White Horse would be well advised to wear sturdy walking shoes as it is a longer journey than the book suggests from the A420. Moreover, the photograph claiming to be of the ‘Eagle and Child’ in Oxford (page 76) is in reality of a pub in Staveley, in the Lake District, and not of the pub where the literary discussion group known as the Inklings, and whose members included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, used to meet. Given the ease of finding a picture of the ‘Eagle and Child’ (also referred to as the ‘Bird and Baby’) on the internet, this error in picture research is surprising and damages the authority of the book as a whole.

Such self-consciously Christian writers as Lewis and Tolkien might have blanched at being included in this book as patron saints of modern English paganism, but it is not difficult to see Lewis’s Narnia as a world of shamanic animal-spirits, while Tolkien’s love of the pre-Christian north was freely confessed. There was much in the work of both authors that could appear magical in a pagan sense to the non-religious or to those from other Christian traditions than the high Anglicanism adopted by Lewis or Tolkien’s Catholicism. One writer who has his own section in The Book of English Magic, the psychologist Brian Bates, has explicitly cited Tolkien as an influence on his fictionalised ‘recovery’ of Anglo-Saxon mysticism, The Way of Wyrd.

The book’s greatest success is perhaps as a monument to the hold magic has on the English imagination, in spite of and perhaps hidden by a surface scepticism. It features profiles of both well-known and more obscure 19th- and 20th-century occultists, from the founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), to the English author of The Magus, Francis Barrett. The role of neopagan spirituality in the modern environmental movement is celebrated and some myths are also exploded. Modern fantasy authors are referred to throughout. The book’s outward appearance owes much to Susanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and it is appropriate that its publisher is John Murray, a house which plays a facilitating role in her novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The Book of English Magic is published in the wake of Ronald Hutton’s return to matters magical in his history of the Druids, Blood and Mistletoe. In his earlier book The Triumph of the Moon Hutton hailed ‘pagan witchcraft’ as the first religion ever to have originated and spread from England. With its ‘Things to Do’ sections reminiscent of 1970s children’s hobby books and its emphasis on a here-and-now England of everyday working wise women and dowsers retained by resource-hungry PLCs, The Book of English Magic both rejoices in human diversity and determinedly asserts the role of magic in the 21st-century English cultural mainstream. Its historiography is variable, but much of it is readable and its fragmented structure means that it is probably read most rewardingly by dipping in and out over a long period, rather than consumed in one sitting.

The Book of English Magic, Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate (John Murray)

Matthew Kilburn is an independent historian. A former research editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he is a regular contributor to its online edition. He has also contributed to The Cambridge Handel Encyclopaedia and Time And Relative Dissertations In Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who.

To coincide with the publication of his latest book Blood and Mistletoe in May this year, we featured a main article by Ronald Hutton in our May issue in which the author examines the modern history of the ancient order of the Druids. For further information, read Under the Spell of the Druids

No comments:

Blog Directory