The Book of English Magic Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate (John Murray, 2009)
What is a hedge witch? What is the Wyrd Web? Why did J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling study English folklore and mysticism before writing The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books? These and many other fascinating questions are answered in The Book of English Magic. This is not a book about stage magic or sleight of hand—rather, it is a comprehensive introduction to the vast subject of both the history and current practice of the supernatural arts in England. It has often been supposed that magic in this sense is the domain of Celtic magicians and druids, and that the English are rationalist children of the Enlightenment with no time for sorcery. This book provides an important corrective to that narrow view, revealing that not only is there a long English tradition of magic (sometimes spelt "magick" to distinguish it from conjuring tricks), but it has also recently undergone a major revival. Indeed, the preface boldly states that "of all the countries in the world, England has the richest history of magical lore and practice." The following twelve chapters provide evidence to substantiate this assertion.
Each chapter follows a useful pattern, explaining its subject in straightforward but lyrical prose, with summaries of the main theories and topics, short but insightful biographies of major figures, and pictures of the people, places and objects described. There are extracts from some of the seminal magical texts, so that the reader can feel the essence of works which have often spawned entirely new fields of research. There is a section entitled Things to Do—such as joining a group or visiting relevant ancient sites— with web or other addresses, and also a Resources section that lists books and websites of relevance.
The authors necessarily adopt an historical approach, but bring their survey into the modern age. This is shown, for example, by their discussion of Tolkien, noting that he was inspired as an Oxford student by the 'Dark Ages,' the "period roughly between the fifth and the ninth centuries....formed as the heathen world of the Anglo-Saxons interacted with the part-Christian, part-Druid or pagan world of the Celts and the Romano-British." Though they show great breadth of scholarship, the book is not written solely for serious students; it is very digestible, making it easy for a lay reader to become knowledgeable.
A run-down of the chapters shows the diversity of the subjects covered. Ancient Roots and Magic Wands - Caves and the Hidden Treasures of the Land covers ley (sacred energy) lines including the St. Michael Line or Great Ley, chalk figures in the landscape, structures such as Stonehenge, and dowsing. The Magicians Organise Themselves - The World of the Ancient Druid discusses Druids and the Druid Revival, including an explanation of their Tree-Language, known as the Ogham Alphabet. Star-Cunning and Wyrd-Craft - The World of the Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer examines Anglo-Saxon history and magic, Tolkien and his writings, charms and spells, the Wyrd Web, and Runes. The Matter of Britain - Merlin, King Arthur and the Search for the Holy Grail deals with one of the most important cultural and religious themes of English (and British) history, covering the the Grail Quest and the Knights Templar, and the roles of the chalice (Grail) and the sword (Excalibur) in practical magic. Skin-Turning and Spellcraft - The World of Witches and Warlocks lists the three kinds of witches, summarises the history of their persecution and the involvement of the self-styled Witchfinder General, and highlights the modern revival often known as Wicca. Transmutation and Transformation - The World of the Alchemists and Puffers explores the origins of alchemy, looking at Robert of Chester, Roger Bacon, Geoffrey Chaucer, the Islamic influence and the importance of Oxford. The chapter notes that some alchemists came to be derided as 'puffers,' after the bellows with which they tended their furnaces in their quest to turn base metal into gold, and reveals that the Philosopher's Stone is essentially a form of herbal drink. It shows how the magical literary tradition revived and continued in the novels of J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and other modern writers.
The Queen's Astrologer - The Man Who Conversed with Angels mainly concerns the Elizabethan court astrologer and mystic Dr. John Dee, though it also contains an example of astrological magic. Chapter Eight The Shag-Hair'd Wizard of Pepper Alley - Cunning Folk, Girdle-Measurers and the Faery Faith covers many esoteric-sounding practitioners (such as toad doctors), and creatures including elves, fairies and goblins. It explains the difference between High and Low magic and outlines star lore and herb-craft, with a short account of the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper and his herbal remedies. (Nowadays similar content would appear in standard works on homoeopathy and alternative medicine.) 'The English Mercury Lover' - Freemasonry and the Power of Numbers deals with the origins and significance of Masonry and its influence on the Theosophical Society, which was formed to promote the study of world religions and metaphysics.
The Spirits of Dead Magicians - Secret Chiefs, Hidden Masters and Adepts of the Rosy Cross looks at the history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, and covers the nineteenth-century occult revival, psychic research and séances. Opening Pandora's Box - The Great Beast and the Priestess of the Sea contains short biographies of Dion Fortune and the notorious Aleister Crowley, and discusses the English Tantrics, including the post-war 'Tibetan' magician (Tuesday Robsang Lampa, aka Cyril Hoskins) and the Yorkshire Yogi, Dr. Alexander Cannon. The final chapter The Wizards' Return - The Renaissance of English Magic in the Twenty-First Century examines the major reawakening of magical consciousness in England and the world in the 1980s, which can be seen as part of the general New Age phenomenon.
The book is an unusual jigsaw puzzle: each chapter is a piece which can be understood on its own, but when all the pieces are fitted together they form a bigger, coherent picture. It shows that the English and their magical paths are like a patchwork quilt of different fabrics, forming a colourful and harmonious whole like an English field system seen from the air. English magic has not developed in isolation but has been enriched over the centuries by waves of incoming traditions, a demonstration of the English gift for absorbing new ideas from diverse sources. In consequence, English magic is full of those oddities, curiosities and eccentricities which are traditionally the hallmarks of England.
The astonishing diversity and complexity of English magical disciplines are explored both comprehensively and accessibly, enabling the neophyte reader to work through the text swiftly and select an area of interest with ease. The more learned will find the book a useful summary of many aspects of magic that are not always covered in one source book, and it is up to date. Not much more could be asked of an introductory volume that, in fact, amounts to an encyclopaedia. The authors are to be congratulated on what is clearly a labour of love.--Alexander J Betts