I wish all books on occult history were as clearly written, as entertaining and as full of fascinating facts as The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate.
It is a big door-stop of a book and when I got it, about a week ago, I thought it might take me ages to get through. But it certainly didn't - instead I didn't want to put it down.
The Book of English Magic reminds me of The Dangerous Book for Boys - which teaches grown-up boys (and girls) how to thrash someone at conkers, race a go-cart or swot up on the solar system in a nostalgic style harking back to some golden childhood that probably never existed, while still imparting useful skills for adults, perhaps with their own kids. Although, of course, The Book of English Magic teaches how to dowse for water, cast a spell or swot up on the famous magicians in English history rather than anything as mundane as conker fights.
I'm sure the similarity between the books is deliberate, with this being published at the same time as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reached English cinemas, boosting interest in anything schoolboy-wizard related.
But I would say the book's style is no bad thing, whatever the reason behind it. It makes it very easy to read while still being extremely informative.
The book begins with the ancient roots of magic - cave paintings and standing stones left by our early ancestors. These hint at prehistoric attempts to tap into the power of the land, honour the dead and ensure good hunting - although no-one today really knows their purpose. Chapters move forwards through the centuries, covering druids; Anglo-Saxon sorcerers; Merlin and the Holy Grail; witches and warlocks; alchemists' attempts to make the philosopher's stone; John Dee in the Elizabethan age; cunning folk; freemasonry; the 18th-century Age of Reason leading into the Victorian era and a renewed fascination with magic; Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune; and finally the modern era of "The Wizards' Return".
Each section includes potted biographies and personal accounts by experts in the traditions covered. You may not go along with everything these luminaries claim, but it is interesting to read their stories alongside those of others. One of the lovely things about this book is that it seems to encourage the reader to take what interests or inspires them and ignore the rest.
There are also lists for further reading - both fiction and non-fiction, ideas for places to visit to see the sites of occult history for yourself and suggestions for practical magic experiments to try at home (perhaps sometimes using metaphorical round-ended scissors). It even offers warnings called "Traps for the Sorcerer's Apprentice", including not getting too attached to theories that may be proved wrong and not letting fortune telling dominate your decision-making. Very sensible.
My only real criticism of The Book of English Magic it is that it sometimes claims for England important figures and movements that weren't entirely English. This includes author CS Lewis, as was earlier pointed out by a reader of my blog. CS Lewis certainly lived in England, and the book does state that he was born in Ireland, but I could understand the Irish feeling that he shouldn't have been in a book dedicated to English magic at all.
Nevertheless, as an English magician myself, I can't help feeling a little thrill of pride in reading a book that states "of all the countries in the world, England has the richest history of magical lore and practice".
And now I'm going to duck while I wait for the barrage of comments pointing out that other countries have just as rich a magical past...
The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate is published by John Murray Publishers and is available through Amazon.
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