September 15, 2010


by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate
576 pages, Overlook Hardcover

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

In all honesty, who wouldn't want to be a magician? Not the typical rabbit-out-of-a-hat, sleight-of-hand trickster but a genuine, spell-casting, wand-waving, pointy-hatted sorcerer? To the despair of the Christian-right (and my own personal amusement) the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books now means we have a whole generation of children growing up wanting to be wizards. Can you blame them? Much as I dislike the media-circus that has grown up around J.K. Rowling's books, one can't deny their appeal to young people. The boundless powers that even a novice magician can wield taps right into most children's wish-fulfilment fantasies. The unprecedented success that the series has enjoyed in the adult market is testament to the enduring power of such fantasies. It appears that there are legions of adults who long for a bit of magic in their lives.

The Book of English Magic examines the history of magic in England and the role that it has played in shaping the religion, traditions and culture of the country. From the forgotten rites of the ancient druids to Queen Elizabeth I's personal sorcerer Dr. John Dee to Aleister “The Great Beast” Crowley and the birth of modern wicca, the book covers a vast array of topics. Carr-Gomm and Heygate have clearly done their homework, collecting a huge number of disparate ideologies and forms of magic and bringing them together in one accessible and immensely readable book.

As well as giving the reader an overview of dozens of different magical practices, the authors also provide useful primers in the topic so that readers, if they so wish, can have a go themselves. Ever fancied dowsing? In this book you'll find out how to make your own dowsing rods. Fancy learning the druidic language of Ogham? No worries, this book will put you on the right path. Love spells and alchemy, astrology and numerology, spirit summoning and reading tarot cards... the book is a perfect introduction to countless magical activities. The authors even provide helpful tips along with suggested texts for reading should the budding wizard in you wish to explore a topic in more detail.

The sceptics out there won't find too much to grumble about. This isn't a book that purports to reveal magical secrets to those who take the time to read it cover to cover. Although Carr-Gomm and Heygate are undoubtedly believers, the book is not so much a how-to guide but rather a comprehensive overview of magic in Britain. Even those (like me) who think the majority of these beliefs are complete and utter piffle will still find the book an interesting read as the fact / bullshit ratio is exceedingly well balanced. Written in a clear, no-nonsense style, Carr-Gomm and Heygate are able to present even the most ludicrous traditions with a degree of gravitas. It's unlikely to convert anyone to paganism nor inspire the reader to attempt summoning the spirit of Aleister Crowley but the book provides a fascinating insight into a hidden world.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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