The Book of English Magic

Perhaps it is because I started reading it on vacation in New Orleans, but my first impression of The Book of English Magic is that it is a magical travelogue – a guidebook describing the important places to go, history to investigate, people to get to know, and sights to see. It doesn’t give you an in-depth look at any of them, but it does tell you enough for you to figure out what you want to do first and what can wait for later.

The Book of English Magic was written by OBOD Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm and Sir Richard Heygate, who this review says is “a documentarian and author who studies ‘alternative worlds’.” It begins with the preface “of all the countries in the world, England has the richest history of magical lore and practice.” The first chapter covers magic’s “ancient roots” but it explores those roots through early antiquarians such as John Aubrey, who first surveyed Avebury and the study of ley lines and dowsing. The history of the Druids covers in 14 pages what Professor Ronald Hutton covered in a 491 page book. The chapter on Anglo-Saxon magic leans on Tolkien.

Other chapters cover the Arthurian legends, shamanism, alchemy, Freemasons and Rosicrucians, and such magical notables as John Dee, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, and Ross Nichols.

Each chapter includes a description of the material it covers, sidebars on key people involved, interviews with contemporary experts and/or practitioners, suggestions to “read about this period in fiction,” recommendations for things to do and see (some of which are best suited for those who actually live in England and some of which can be done anywhere) and a listing of books and websites for reference on the subject.

This is a perfect book for someone who has tired of introductory “Wicca 101” books and who wants to learn about the many sources of contemporary Pagan and magical beliefs and practices. For many years I’ve recommended Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon for this, but I’ve had few takers – it’s a serious work of serious history and it isn’t particularly easy to read (literally – it’s set in what looks to be an 8-point font). The Book of English Magic is far more reader-friendly and far more beginner-friendly.

But don’t think it’s for beginners only. Because of its breadth, there is something here for everyone. I’ve been doing this for 18 years now and there was plenty that was new to me – most notably the chapter on Dr. John Dee, the astrologer and confident of Queen Elizabeth I. And I found several places I wish I had gone when I was in London in 2007, most notably Treadwell’s Books.

The Book of English Magic was a pleasure to read and will remain on a close shelf for ready reference.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Gordon

    Definitely a top book.

    I live within walking distance of the site of Dee's house in West London. Fascinating guy.

  • Richard

    To the left of the awful "John Dee House" you will find the original wall of his orchard. Rest your head there and see if you can pick up the man himself. Alternatively, read the "Bones of Avalon" by Phil Rickman.