The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm & Richard Heygate is one of my favourite books of 2020. In case you don’t know, Philip Carr-Gomm was the head of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (OBOD) and has written many books on Druidry and its relationships to other disciplines.
The Book of English Magic is a hefty work- including notes it is 540 pages long. Because of its large size, it is incredibly in depth and well researched. The book begins with a preface, which reads
The Book of English Magic explores the curious and little-known fact that, of all the countries in the world, England has the richest history of magical lore and practice. English authors such as J R R Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Susanna Clarke, Philip Pullman and J K Rowling dominate the world of magic in fiction, but while children accept the magical world without reservation, most adults are not only sceptical of its place in modern society but are ignorant of the part magic and magicians have played in English history.(Carr-Gomm & Heygate, pix)
This speaks to me because in Britain, it is usually Scotland, Wales and particularly Ireland that are renowned as having the richest and most magical history. It is of comfort to this Englishwoman to have someone saying that in fact, England itself has a rich tradition of magic that is worth remembering, exploring and continuing. Adding to this, there is a Magical map of England highlighting all of the places of magical interest in the country. I think that this is a lovely touch, and you could actually use it to plan a country wide magical road trip. The map includes Pendragon Castle, Mother Shipton’s Cave, Pendle Hill, the White horse of Uffington and of course, Stonehenge. They also include some possibly lesser known sites, which would be fascinating to explore. To top this off, the book then includes a magical map of London, which of course features Treadwell’s bookshop, where Carr-Gomm & Heygate begin their introduction, saying
Our story begins in a bookshop. Treadwell’s in London’s Covent Garden is everything a bookshop should be- warm, inviting, comfortable- and yet most people hurry past it, because it specialises in a subject they don’t believe in: magic.(p3)
They then talk a bit on the history of magic and the importance of occult book stores such as Treadwell’s, not just to the occultist, but to everyone, saying ‘Who should read this book, you may ask? The answer is simple: anyone with an open mind who seeks adventure…’ (p7)
Carr-Gomm & Heygate include a lot of references to fiction in their book. They particularly focus on JRR Tolkien, as he borrowed a lot from the Anglo-Saxons to inform his Middle-earth. He also quotes Suzanna Clarke’s (2006) The Ladies of Grace Adieu in his introduction, where she says ‘Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make you drunk.’ (p7)
The introduction is followed by twelve chapters. We shall use the first chapter, Ancient Roots and Magic Wands, as our case study, as each chapter follows a similar formula.
Ancient Roots and Magic Wands
This chapter begins with the statement ‘there are now more practising wizards in England than at any other time in her history.’ (p11) showing that we are currently living in England’s Golden Age of Magic. I think this is such an important message, as we often find ourselves daydreaming of a (usually pseudo-medieval) magical time of dragons, wizards and wise women living in the forest. Yet actually, if we are looking for a thriving magical landscape we need look no further than the here and now.
Each chapter has a Read About this Period in Fiction section which I particularly like, as it indicates a lack of purist ideals in the part of the author. Often fiction is snubbed for not being about ‘real magic’ and although Carr-Gomm & Heygate are particular about what books they recommend, the fact that they recommend fiction definitely makes them an endearing authors, and I trust their judgement wholly.
They also refrain from sugar-coating, warning the reader to ‘distinguish between the charlatan and the genius, that sometimes exist within the same person.’ (p11) And this down to earth standpoint makes them reliable and neutral authorities on the subject of magic.
They include a very detailed section on caves on page 12, which is dense with information and historical research, particularly on ‘Cresswell Craggs, [from] 12,000 years ago [which] shows that by then [caves] were being decorated, and used for magical ceremonies.’ (p12) They then go into further detail about caves in France and Spain to put their findings into historical context. When talking about Silbury Hill and the White Horse of Uffington, they go into so much detail that you know that they have been there. In fact, you get this sense with every location described within the book- I have difficulty believing that they haven’t visited every place that they mention.
Each chapter also includes mini biographies of important people in the history of the subject. In this chapter, he includes John Aubrey, William Stukeley, Alfred Watkins and John Mitchell.
They then include a section called How to Hunt for Ley Lines. This book is full of tips and tricks, indicative of someone who knows. When referring to ley hunting, they recommend winter, as ‘In the winter the undergrowth will have died back, so that you are more likely to spot a significant-looking old stone hiding under foliage.’ (p28) They also advise the reader to look at old tithe maps that were drawn up in the time of the Enclosure Acts, as they may include tracks that are no longer there.
In the section on dowsing, they include A Dowser’s Story- Peter Taylor which is written by Peter himself. There are plenty of these first-hand accounts littered throughout the book, providing different perspectives and valuable insights. There is one from Christina Oakley Harrington, the founder of Treadwell’s bookshop in London, there is even one by Professor Ronald Hutton, which I found fascinating. However, here we get to my only pet peeve of this book. These sections are written in a light grey text, which makes it rather difficult to read unless in very good lighting. I found this to be quite a strain on my eyes trying to read in my little dimly lit cottage. However, if you just make sure that you have a decent lamp, or read in broad daylight, you will be fine. It is certainly not a deal-breaker, but it is a shame.
In the section Traps for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, they admit that there is no evidence to categorically support dowsing, saying ‘The most sensible approach to ley lines and to dowsing seems to lie in being open-minded and unattached to any particular theory.’ (p38) showing that the main goal is to be curious when approaching magic.
My favourite section of this book is the Things to Do sections at the end of each chapter. I like that the book encourages you to actually get up and do things, almost making it part manual, bringing older practises right into the modern world.
I am also impressed with how the Resources section is laid out, as it is split into The Ancient Landscape, Ley Hunting and Dowsing (p45-6) which allows you to very easily find more resources for the specific topic you are interested in. Every Resources section at the end of each chapter is split into appropriate themes, which adds to the books usability and shows that the reader is being considered all the way through.
Overall, I think that this book is a must have for anyone with an interest in English magical history, in either an academic capacity or a spiritual one. It is very detailed, but written in an accessible way, and is split into sections to make it easily digestible. I think that this is a seminal work, and I am so very happy that I now have my own copy that I can scribble in!
If you would like to see a more detailed review, and an overview of the rest of the chapters in this book, watch my YouTube video here: