I hate to admit it, but I suck at writing book reviews. Whenever I finish a religion- or magic-related book, I make enthusiastic resolutions to review it… just as soon as I think it over. And then I think about it for six or eight months, and the review never gets written.
So I’m going to try a different approach here. I’m going to give you progress reports on some books of interest that I’m still reading. I offer this disclaimer: I haven’t finished reading any of these books, but I’m not at all the sort of person who feels obliged to finish a book just because they started it. If I’m mentioning a book at all, chances are very good that a) I will finish it eventually and b) I will have positive things to say about it.
Here we go!
I’m on the second volume of Philip Heselton‘s Witchfather, a biography of Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Heselton’s book is written in a chatty, informal style, but it is extensively researched and annotated, with lots of references to primary sources such as Gardner’s correspondence with friends and the author’s correspondence to people who knew Gardner. I don’t think I ever really grasped before that Gardner’s whole involvement in what he initially called “the witch-cult” began after his retirement, when he was in his fifties. He spent much of his childhood abroad because he was asthmatic and sickly and warmer climes were considered the only cure; he spent most of his adult working life abroad because he had no resistance to English weather. He continued to winter abroad for the rest of his life. He becomes a typical eccentric Englishman by spending very little time actually living in England. In addition, his peripatetic childhood deprived him of any kind of formal schooling. I don’t think one needs to speculate that Gardner was dyslexic to explain his bad spelling; I consider it sufficiently explained by his never having had a teacher who insisted on good spelling.
Sadly, the Kindle edition of the book is very clumsily formatted. Instead of compiling all the citations into one list with links in the text, as most e-books have, the little blocks of footnotes appear on their own separate pages within the run of the text, so that you “turn the page” on your Kindle and find, instead of the rest of the sentence you were just reading, three or four footnotes, and you have to “turn” again to pick up the thread of the text. There was also a section from which semicolons were entirely absent, and I’m pretty sure Heselton had been using them correctly for a whole volume, so I attribute their disappearance to the editor rather than the author. Notwithstanding, Witchfather is a very entertaining book, which I recommend to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century witchcraft.
Closely connected with Witchfather is Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. Other biographies of Gerald Gardner have been published, and other histories of Wicca, but I don’t think anyone else has attempted what Carter does in this book. He takes one of the crucial texts of 20th-century witchcraft and paganism, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and slowly, carefully, takes it apart–so slowly and carefully that his analysis is almost as tough a read as its subject.
I’m only about a third of the way into Stalking, but I’m determined to read the whole thing. The White Goddess is, I think, as important to 20th-century Druidry as it is to 20-century Craft, if only because of its extensive use of the Ogham alphabet and of certain poems associated with the legendary (and also historical) Welsh bard Taliesin. While more Reconstructionist pagans tend to dismiss Graves for his treatment of Celtic topics, Aidan Kelly recommends that anyone who takes the Craft seriously ought to read Graves as theology, and I would tend to agree. Carter looks carefully at what Graves’s argument is, what he says about the origins of his own book, and what are his (mostly not specified) sources for his facts. He wrote a guest post on his work for the Wild Hunt recently–check it out.
And now, two titles from Raven Kaldera. The first, which I purchased as a PDF from Lulu.com, is Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. I have actually skimmed this once and am now re-reading it with greater attention. I wish devoutly (pun intended) that I had had this book to refer to when I first began to make contacts with deities (and yes, I did promise to write about them and have not done so yet). Kaldera is one of the clearest, most straightforward writers in Pagan publishing; he writes clean prose, pulls no punches, and never muddies the distinctions between his experience, shared experience, and scholarly opinion. Best of all, this is not just clear thinking but, indeed, practical thinking: Given that we have this theology about multiple deities, now what do we do with it? Just to have it spelled out that one’s relationship with the gods may range from a novice who’s just learning about them, through being a regular devotee or even clergy, to being a god-slave, a horse for spirit-possession, or an actual embodiment of a deity–and that it’s not necessary to try for a gold medal in God-Botheredness, it’s okay just to be a worshipper–is immensely helpful to me, and probably to a lot of other readers.
Kaldera’s collaboration with blogger Kenaz Filan, Drawing Down the Spirits, is sort of the graduate-level text, whereas Dealing with Deities is the 101 book (or even the remedial textbook). Drawing Down the Spirits is about possession, carrying deities or spirits in one’s body, being a “horse” for their presence in the world. While this is not something I think I am called to do, beyond maybe “assumption of god-forms” in the Hermetic sense, the book is fascinating and makes me want to read other books by Filan and to anticipate the authors’ forthcoming collaboration, Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion.
I’m coming to terms with what should be a very simple idea: That just because I call myself a Druid, and think of my path as Druidry and Druidry as my path, does not mean I am not going to be interested in other paths, other religions. I can be interested in just about any religion if someone writes a book that grabs me. Frankly, I can be interested in just about any topic if I pick up the right book. So there’s my progress report.
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