This month we take a look at one of Ronald Hutton’s most recent books; an older book on Shinto shrines; one of Paulo Coelho’s more witchy works; and a brand-new release by one of Patheos Pagan’s own writers!
Paulo Coelho, Brida
Last month Annika Mongan mentioned Paul Coelho’s novel Brida in her post. I actually read this book last year, so I thought I’d write about this novel now.
Brida is a young woman living in Ireland who wants to learn witchcraft. She seeks out instruction from two teachers – “the Magus” who teaches her the “Tradition of the Sun,” and a woman (distractingly named “Wicca”) who teaches her the “Tradition of the Moon.” The story follows her struggles and triumphs in working towards initiation into witchcraft, particularly how her path complicates her confused love-life. As you can imagine if you’ve read Coelho’s best-seller The Alchemist, it’s something of an allegorical tale of personal self-discovery.
Just like The Alchemist, Brida‘s appeal lies in the beauty and simplicity of its writing. It’s sensual, warm and vivid, easily conjuring mysterious and magical landscapes of forests and castles and even the whole universe itself in the reader’s mind. It’s very light and easy to read, perfect for relaxation and escapism – a great holiday book.
I also liked the fact that it was about “real” witchcraft – as in, witchcraft practised by people in the here and now, rather than in a fantasy setting. Although Coelho never makes direct references to Wicca (except in the name of one of the characters, weirdly), it’s clear that the traditions and rituals he describes are inspired by Wicca and other real-life forms of ritual occultism and witchcraft. I haven’t discovered that many fiction books about witchcraft outside of the fantasy section of bookshops, so I found that a treat.
However, I did have some problems with this book. Firstly, I really don’t agree with Coelho’s views on what love is. In both Brida and The Alchemist, Coelho portrays love as something mystical, transcendent and pre-determined; the idea of soul-mates is a very important plot point in Brida. I’ve never believed in soul-mates, nor in the idea that love is something that just “exists” spontaneously; I see love as a wonderful process that takes work, dedication, respect and trust to build, just like raising a child or creating a piece of art. What’s more, I certainly don’t agree that pursuing love and pursuing magic must conflict with each other, which Coelho seems to think; I’ve found Paganism to be a very positive force in my own marriage!
Additionally, some of the portrayals of witchcraft in this book start to creep into disturbing territory. Particularly the relationship between Brida and her Magus teacher. Although their relationship is meant to be a complex one in which the role of teacher and student conflates with that of lovers, you could easily interpret it as an abusive and manipulative one in which the older, more senior figure uses psychological tactics to dominate the younger, weaker person. Some of the more personal interactions between Brida and Wicca also felt uncomfortable, especially when Wicca puts Brida into vulnerable situations over which she has little control. The problem of so-called spiritual teachers manipulating other (often younger) people to do things they don’t want to do is very real, so these instances felt a little too awkward for my liking. Perhaps Coelho actually intended there to be a sinister, cultish element to his portrayal of witchcraft….if so, I’m not sure I’m happy with that as I believe Wicca, when practised properly, is a positive way of life!
I would recommend Brida to other Pagans who are looking for a light read and can see past some of the problems with how the mentor-pupil relationship in witchcraft is portrayed. But I’d be careful about suggesting it to non-Pagans because, if they read it the same way I did, they may come away thinking that witchcraft really does have something sinister about it!