Review: Gardner, High Magic’s Aid

Gardner, Gerald. High Magic’s Aid. Godolphin House, Hinton WV, revised edition 1996. Originally published 1949 under pen-name of Scire. Paperback, 238 pages.

(Please note: the version that I read is available online. It was typeset by and has a few pages of added material from Gavin and Yvonne Frost. A new edition was apparently released in 2010.)

This book is simply awful. If you don’t absolutely have to read it, don’t bother. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s true. It’s not an attack on Gardner or Gardnerian tradition, it’s an assessment of the book as a book.

This book is like a sausage: it reads as if Gardner ground up average inaccurate meso-pagan romanticisms mixed with the Key of Solomon, added naked women, flagellation, and “witchcraft” for spice, and encased it in a thin film of plot from a badly-written fanfic of Ivanhoe, tied off with a thin thread of fiction related to English Church history.

Because this is a work of fiction, my review is going to be a bit different; I’m not going to summarize the whole plot the way I summarize the contents of nonfiction works. It is unavoidable, however, that the rest of this review will contain some spoilers. Consider yourself warned. Additional trigger warnings for nudity and sexual assault.

Most of the action centers on Thur Peterson, an apothecary-magician, and two brothers who enlist his help in reclaiming their rightful inheritance. There’s even a beautiful “Jewess,” who is a brief distraction, although of course the elder brother ends up marrying the beautiful witch at the end, after they’ve retaken the castle etc etc. Happily ever after and all that.

I would have fewer problems with this book if it were presented as a fairy tale, although it would still be badly written. One thing is certain; it is wildly ahistorical. Two particular anachronisms stick out: although it’s explicitly set in the reign of King John, and more precisely in 1205 (p 17, p 200), there are references to “the spotted death” and many stories of Christian flagellants. The Black Death didn’t arrive until the 14th century. There’s a slight chance that he meant smallpox, which did indeed arrive in England during the Crusades, but other references to “plague” make me pretty sure he was thinking of the bubonic plague. The very first instances of Christian flagellants were not until 90 years after Lackland died, and then they were not in England. The association between extreme flagellant cults and the Black Death reinforces my impression of bad medieval fantasizing.

Aside from that, it’s oddly written in that sometimes it stops and addresses the reader in completely jarring ways. At one point, a brief recap of the previous chapter is given, as if the reader might have forgotten the previous 20 pages in the middle of a paragraph. At another point, Gardner writes:

It is the fashion today to laugh at the magus and his pretensions, to picture him as either a charlatan or a doddering old fool, and bearing the slightest resemblance to the men who were in fact the scientists of the day, who gave us alcohol, but not the atom bomb. (p 159)

And then he blithely goes back to detailing the placement of the incense burners and the procedures for the Solomonic workings under way. Trenchant though these observations may be, it is bad writing and a lack of editing. Instances like this make me wonder if the story was first told aloud, then transcribed and fleshed out without being fully rewritten as a coherent work of prose.

As for the magic in the book, it is in fact nearly all “high magic,” as mentioned in the title, which is completely distinct from witchcraft. Rituals are led by Thur in the style of the Key of Solomon and other high medieval grimoires, complete with significant influences from the Kabbalah, writing in Hebrew, and the conjuring of spirits to materialize themselves in incense smoke. It’s worthwhile to note that the high medieval grimoires and the Key of Solomon in particular didn’t come into existence until the 14th or 15th centuries, so this kind of magic is also completely anachronistic to Gardner’s imaginary early medieval setting.

The witch, Morven, plays a subsidary role throughout. She is a gateway through which power flows, and her athame is absolutely necessary for Thur to make the magical sword with which he does his magical operations, but other than that her main purposes are to be naked and keep the incense burners filled while he does all the work.

Yes, there’s nakedness, a fair amount of it. The rules work sort of like this: common people like being naked, especially outside on an English night (season not specified). Witches have to be naked. People doing magic are naked, except when they’re not (more on this later), because nakedness is important to magic, as well as having fun, all of which are looked down upon by the Church, which goes to show how good they all are.

The other purpose, besides being naked, that Morven serves is to initiate all three central characters into the witch-cult, which is “an ancient brotherhood pledged to mutual aid.” If you think this sounds like the Masons, and that Gardner’s recensions of the rituals look an awful lot like Masonic rituals, you’re on the right track. The rituals that follow are very similar to what the Farrars lay out – the Five-fold Kiss, binding, oath taking, light flagellation, and so on. You’ll learn a lot more about the whole thing from the Farrars than from this work, in fact.

Then, far from being about “mutual aid,” it becomes totally and completely clear that the whole point of the men being initiated is to allow them to exercise power over the common people. Morven “agreed that it would give them greater power over the brethren, few of whom ever advanced beyond the triangle.” (p 187, see also p 180-1) The general idea of the witch-cult being about joy, nature, and fertility seems completely disconnected from the rituals of initiation, which are all about power and ceremonial-type magic.

Once they get the authority to force the commoners to support them in assaulting the castle, they take the castle, Thur dies, and the elder brother finally decides to marry Morven, remembering a saying:  “‘Women and castles are much the same.’ He seized her in his arms and his lips sought hers, she struggled a minute, then hers went on his, eagerly.” (p 209) After this romantic little assault, they are inescapably deeply in love, and she consents to marry him in a Christian ceremony.

Just before the end, there is an odd little side-plot appended. A local monk named Stephen realizes that Thur is doing magic, and blackmails Thur into doing magic on his behalf, so that he can get the power he wants. Stephen objects, however, to having Morven be naked while himself and Thur are robed during the rite. Thur proceeds to give Stephen a lecture about how witches have to work naked, but more importantly, she has to be naked in order for Thur and Stephen to learn to control their minds so they can’t be distracted. (p 197-8)

Thus, the whole book is in two minds about the entire subject of nudity. On the one hand, it’s natural and good because it is natural, but on the other hand, it is also a source of distraction – potentially very bad and dangerous! – that men must use to learn to discipline themselves, so that nakedness becomes of no importance whatsoever. In addition, the person who must be naked, and who does so to put forth power, is clearly in a subordinate position to the magus in all of the ceremonial magic situations. The initiation rituals are not exactly like that, but they’re not an instance of Morven taking control, either.

Morven also only speaks briefly about the witch-cult’s ideas of divinity, while Thur will go on and on about God, clearly the Judeo-Christian singular divinity. This deity is presented as the ultimate arbiter of what is good or not; on the whole, the witch-cult is never presented as a viable, coherent alternative system of belief or practice. They’re sort of animist Christians, or the poor oppressed people who show how evil the Church is, but they’re not some hidden survival that’s maintaining its independence in secrecy. This melding of beliefs may be one of the more reasonable things Gardner presents, historically, but there are so many incidents in the book that are directly contrary, and hence totally unreasonable, that the result is just absurd.

As the final example of the primacy of ceremonial magic, consider the ending, where Stephen says goodbye to Morven. He turns out to be Stephen Langton, a real figure in English Church history who was pivotal in resisting John Lackland and making the Magna Carta happen. He rides off into the sunset, “… to fulfil his destiny with the aid of magic’s high art as she had fulfilled hers.” (p 220)

So the real point of the book has been for Morven to be a tool for men and get married, and for Stephen to go off to become a famous Christian archbishop, all through ceremonial magic. If this was a murder mystery, witchcraft would be nothing more than a red herring. The book lives up to its title by being about ceremonial magic, but it has not retained any value in terms of relevance to Wicca.

There’s nothing of artistic value here that makes it worth reading for its own sake. If you’re an antiquarian or researching the roots of the Craft, you might be intrigued by it, but it is neither a foundational text for Wicca nor “a good yarn” as the Frosts dub it on the back cover. It’s a muddled meso-pagan mess.

Contemporary Deities: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or, What Would Buffy Do?

This is a guest post by Ka Wahine Ahi, High Priestess in the Order of the White Moon and foundress of the Sisters of the Rising Moon school.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.  I happened to catch an episode while flipping channels.  It was entitled “The Witch” and I was totally awestruck by this teenage girl who could take charge, kick ass and save the world.  Her merry band of Scooby friends, as her support network and co-ass kickers, added the right balance of personalities and emotional intensity to the show.  Following the heroic exploits of our beloved Buffy rose close to the level of religious devotion for me.  Friends and family knew better than to call on Tuesday nights from 8-9 p.m.!

I was thrilled and inspired to find a young woman who was tough enough to survive the onslaught of vampires, demons and zombies, while remaining a vulnerable, sensitive human being.  And, she was no dumb blond.  All in all, she was everything that I could have wanted in a female superhero.

By season four, I was a devoted fan.  Her role as the Slayer began to take on larger meaning for me.  What if we were all “slayers” in our own ways?  We didn’t have to fight supernatural critters, but, we could fight wrongs that were in our own sphere of influence.  Buffy became a role model for me.  No, I didn’t patrol cemeteries brandishing a nice, pointy stake in my spare time!  She had qualities that I aspired to attain for myself.  A constant theme on the Buffy fan sites was “WWBD?  What Would Buffy Do?”. I started to consider that in practical ways, like, she wouldn’t back down from a challenge or a difficult situation, and she’d find a way to overcome the forces of evil with a sense of humor, style and backup from her friends.

In Episode 77, “Primeval,” Buffy annihilates the Big Bad, Adam.  As Buffy faces off with Adam, the gang performs an “enjoining spell” to add their strengths to hers in order to make her stronger.  Here’s the spell from the script.

The power of the Slayer and all who wield it.
Last to ancient first, we invoke thee.
Grant us thy domain and primal strength.
Accept us and the power we possess.
Make us mind and heart and spirit enjoined.
Let the hand encompass us. Do thy will.
Spiritus… spirit.
Animus… heart.
Sophus… mind.
And Manus… the hand.
We enjoin that we may inhabit the vessel, the hand…
daughter of Sineya…
first of the ones…
We are heart…
We are mind…
We are spirit…
From the raging storm…
We bring the power of the Primeval One….

Buffy, super-empowered, speaks in Sumerian:

Sha me-en-den. Gesh-toog
me-en-den. Zee me-en-den.
Oo-khush-ta me-ool-lee-a
ba-ab-tum-mu-de-en

Several years later, I began serious study and exploration of Wicca, as it became obvious to me that Goddess was the way to go.  As I progressed, I found an article online about Chaos Magick and using all sorts of interesting characters in ritual, from Star Trek to Bill the Cat to Bugs Bunny.  I had a “Eureka!” moment.  Why couldn’t I call on Buffy, the Slayer, as Goddess?  Why couldn’t I call on the Power of the Slayer to empower me when I need it?  It was so obvious!

As the Scoobies used the enjoining spell to empower Buffy, I used the Sumerian chant as my personal empowerment spell.  I called on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to instill in me the Powers of the Slayer, grant me the strength, courage and sharp mind to conquer the undertaking that faced me.

I have continued to use the chant as my own personal empowerment spell.  It has found a special place in my book of ritual and in my spiritual practice.  I also consider the Scooby Gang as representatives of each of the Elements, as in the enjoining spell, and have called the quarters with Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy.

Not long after this spiritual breakthrough, I found a pendant online for sale.  It was very simple.  It was oval-shaped, made of pewter, enameled in red.  There was a raised cross in the center, and in each of the angles formed by the cross were the letters WWBD.  I could hardly resist!  (And, I got the replica of the Sunnydale High School ring too!)

I wear this talisman for empowerment and inspiration.  When I’m in a difficult situation and it seems that there’s no way out, I consider the inscription on the pendant.  What Would Buffy Do?

Note: Script excerpt from buffy.wikia.com.

Review: Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder

Edghill, Rosemary. Bell, Book, and Murder: The Bast Novels. Paperback, 448 pages. Forge, 1998. Omnibus edition of Speak Daggers to Her, 1994, Book of Moons, 1995, and The Bowl of Night, 1996, by the same author.

These three novels are set in mid-1990s New York, and follow the experiences and exploits of Bast, a Witch who has to draw on all her talents, mundane and magical, as she stumbles into a series of murders, betrayals, intrigues, and even a curse. In the first novel, one of Bast’s friends is found dead, possibly as a result of malefic magic from an unethical coven and coven leader. Bast’s investigation navigates deep currents of what magic means in the world today and how we can and should use it and respond to it; the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, which is one of the things I love about these books.

Edghill accurately represents the uncertainties of working with magic. There’s no hocus-pocus here, no Harry Potter-esque wand-waving that makes lights flicker, and not even any telepathic messages or ominous Tarot readings. There aren’t detailed accounts of rituals, either – very little of the book takes place in the setting of a circle or ceremony.  Instead, Edghill represents magic as we experience it: in the workings-out of intent in the world, with all the attendant murkiness, with multiple causes and effects intertwining, and with a distinct lack of clear-cut choices in most situations. Bast resolves the situation with the potential curse, but the resolution is as magical – or not – as the suspicion of malefic action was in the beginning, depending on how you see the whole situation. (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but also because simplifying the complexities of the plot would destroy the exact effect that I appreciate about this book.)

In the second book, Bast faces the politics – good, bad, ugly, and stupid – of the magical community in the 90s, from Niceness Wicca to an S&M leather coven, from Ceremonial Magic to Womyn’s Goddess worship, plus seekers of all stripes. I can’t speak for the accuracy, not having been in that historical setting, but Edghill’s portrayals come across as incisively accurate and still a good assessment of the kinds of politics and power plays that go on between individuals and groups. Bast herself is something of an insider-outsider, giving her a chance to reflect on the biases of her own viewpoint, which is an exercise that every reader ought to engage in as well.

The third book finds Bast squarely in the middle of a confrontation between neo-Pagans, fundamentalist (often rendered hilariously as “funny-mentalist”) Christians, and the law enforcement agencies who have to try to sort everything out. Villains and potential villains abound; achieving the right relationship between law and justice is more like a complex negotiation than a straightforward set of consequences. This one is the most difficult for Bast personally but also leads to the most reflection on the hard limits to which Bast will and will not go – even in the face of desire.

These works have aged well; there are a few places where a cell phone would have really changed the plot, but those are simple enough to overlook that they don’t distract from the pleasure of reading. Since the explosion of Cunningham-type self-initiated solitaries and the fashion for “magick” (sic) among teens in the Silver Ravenwolf vein, the makeup of the community one finds at open rituals and bookstores has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit, but the population Bast interacts with is familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time around Pagans and magic-users.

The only other big difference from the present day is the lack of an overarching cultural concern about war that has been present since September 11th. For those who can (or want to) cast themselves back to the seemingly idyllic 90s, when whether everyone brought potato salad to the potluck rated as a major concern, these books will be familiar territory.

I’d recommend these to anyone who is pursuing a Pagan or Wiccan path and especially people who enjoy murder mysteries. It’s great to see a well-executed example of the genre set in our sub-culture, and you might just learn something about magic and meaning along the way.