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.