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The Book of English Magic in America

September 20th, 2010

On October 14th The Book of English Magic is published in the USA. Here’s what the well-known author John Michael Greer thinks of the book:

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Back in the Seventies, when I began my magical studies, it never occurred to me that nearly every tradition of magic that I could find came from a single small island perched off the northwestern shores of Europe.  The few books on the subject that were readily available in those days, when they said anything at all about the origins of the teachings they transmitted, traced them back to the mystery temples of Egypt or the lamaseries of Tibet when they didn’t retreat into obscure mutterings about Atlantis and Lemuria.  None of them described the material between their covers as “English Magic.”
The irony is that every one of them did in fact teach English magic.  Whether they passed on tidbits of Wiccan lore or scraps of esoteric Freemasonry, outlined Dion Fortune’s polarity workings or Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic, taught the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram or gave instruction in the Enochian calls, they drew the great majority of the magical teachings they had to offer from occult traditions that derived from England.
Now it’s only fair to say that had I known that curious detail, it would have done nothing to diminish my fascination with magical lore.  The fantasy fiction that whetted my desire for wizardry in the days before I realized that magic had an existence outside the world of fairy tales was itself mostly from England:  J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, and the brilliant but now forgotten children’s author Joan North were the writers I loved most in those days.  More generally, England itself had a firm place in my imagination, as something like an archetype of the opposite of everything that surrounded me in suburban Seattle, Washington.  England was a place where knights and castles actually existed, where standing stones millennia old broke the sweep of grassy downs, where the thought of ancient magic coursing through the landscape wasn’t as preposterous as it seemed where I lived, in a place where all the history I learned in school started very little more than a century before I was born.
That was my version of the very common American love affair with Britain, and as the example shows, that love affair is a complicated thing.  When cultural critic William Irwin Thompson, in his visionary work At The Edge of History, described America as a country with tremendous energy but no history, he touched on something that’s all the more central to our national imagination because it’s based on a profoundly one-sided view of our past.  I was never taught, for example, that a hill rising up above the Duwamish river no more than an afternoon’s walk from the house where I spent most of my teen years was once the center of the world.
Its name was Sbabadil in those days, and it was the place where the animal powers of Coast Salish legend chanted the world into being from a lump of mud Muskrat brought up from the bottom of the sea.  A mile or so away, in the rundown suburb of Belltown, another hill standing up stark above the floodplain was the house of the old rain spirit Squlats, Stormwind’s grandmother, and one of the most moving scenes in the great Duwamish epic of Northwind and Stormwind took place there.  I would have loved reading about Northwind and Stormwind if I’d had any way of finding out about the story in my childhood. Instead, I read about Gandalf, the Light Maze, King Arthur and the heroes of the Mabinogion.

'The Alchemist' by Sir William Fettes Douglas (1822 - 1891)

The fascinating thing is that the American projection of history onto England has something of  a mirror image on the other side of the Atlantic. When my wife and I were traveling in England a few years ago, we stopped for supplies at a supermarket in St. Albans, and noted that English supermarkets, like American ones, have little motorized rides at the front door to absorb the excess energy of small children on shopping trips.  The device at this store was a little car which bounced and jolted around, going nowhere.  What made it interesting was the imaginary landscape painted on the wall in front of the windscreen.  It was a highly condensed English version of America:  huge skyscrapers on one side, tall cacti and desert scenery on the other, and a great sweeping cowboy-infested plain reaching away to distant mountains in between.
Now of course England has its own grand architecture, and the views from atop the Sussex downs are as sweeping as anything on America’s Great Plains.  Still, America seems to be the place where the English park their dreams of limitless space, just as England is the place where Americans park their dreams of deep time.  To put it another way, as a chance-met acquaintance said to me on that same trip as we walked among the stones of Avebury, the difference between the English and the Americans is that the English think a hundred miles is a long distance, and the Americans think a hundred years is a long time.
In an age when magic is commonly either traced back to the distant past or consigned to it, this odd habit of thinking goes a long way to explain why it was that the vast majority of the magical lore available to an eager student in 1970s America came from England and nowhere else.  Still, there’s at least one more factor involved, which is that England has in fact produced much more than its share of important esoteric and magical traditions.
It wasn’t a passion for Englishness that attracted me to the Golden Dawn tradition of magic, the first system I seriously studied, or later on drew me to the modern Druid movement; it was that the first was among the most comprehensive, detailed, and functional systems of magical practice in the world, and the second combined effective and satisfying magical and spiritual teachings with a reverence for living Nature that I had come to feel was essential to any valid response to the troubles of our time.  Still, it so happens that both these traditions, and many others, did in fact first come into being on English soil.
The remarkable relationship between England’s green and pleasant land and some of the most influential magical traditions of the modern world forms the territory that Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate have set out to explore in detail in The Book of English Magic.  The result is well worth reading, and for several reasons.
First, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of reading, because The Book of English Magic is a lively and interesting book about a lively and interesting subject.  It’s also a very good general introduction to magic:  not just the history and teachings of magic, though it covers these in quite some detail, but some of the basic practices as well, for Carr-Gomm and Heygate spice their narrative with descriptions of how to perform many of the elementary types of English magic.  An abundant selection of resources for further reading and study makes The Book of English Magic among the best sources anywhere for those whose curiosity inspires them to go beyond what any single book can teach them.
Still, to my mind the best thing about this admirable book is that it draws the distinction none of the books I studied in the Seventies managed to make.  It is, precisely, a book of English magic; it links the panoply of occult traditions it surveys to that small island off the northwest coast of Europe where so much magic, and for that matter so much of today’s global culture, had its origins; in the process, in the friendliest possible way, Carr-Gomm and Heygate throw down a gauntlet that I hope many other authors around the world take up.
For there are many other traditions of magic that didn’t originate in England, of course; every land and every people in the world have magical teachings and practices to share.  By turning over the most popular occult traditions of the present time to show the “Made In England” label on the bottom, The Book of English Magic challenges today’s magical practitioners—and the many other people interested in magic and the occult—to recognize that like every other creation of human culture, magical traditions are rooted in particular places and histories, and to look for the magic that might be hidden in plain sight where they live, as Sbabadil was hidden from me in my childhood.  Some of the readers who pick up that gauntlet may well write books of their own about the magic of their own homelands, or the lands in which they now live—and they would be well advised to take detailed notes, as they read The Book of English Magic, for they will find no better example of how to take on such a task and accomplish it with aplomb.

—John Michael Greer
Author, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult
Grand Archdruid, Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA)

You can read more about The Book of English Magic here.

2 Responses to “The Book of English Magic in America”

  1. What a fantastic review! I’ve added your book to my reading list. It’s a close tie between yourself and John Michael Greer as my favourite writers.

    ‘The English think a hundred miles is a long distance, and the Americans think a hundred years is a long time’…How very true!

  2. Hi Phillip

    Got my copy on November 1st & just finished reading it tonight, my thoughts:

    The Book of English Magic just became available last month on this side of the pond. I picked up my copy a several days ago and while I’m not new to many of the subjects covered in this hefty book I find it is written well for new and old alike.

    It is a delightful read unlike many occult books I’ve read in the past and full of many pearls of wisdom. Underlying message starting with chapter one is the importance of intent and discretion. Building upon this through the books dozen chapters one is also blessed with tools to walk diligently along ones spiritual path.

    The Book of English Magic is “The Joy of Cooking” for the magical arts and I highly recommend it.

    Many Thanks

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