Friday, September 21, 2018

I chose magic

“I Called it Magic” is the autobiography of Gareth Knight (Basil Wilby), an accomplished British esotericist. Knight joined Dion Fortune's Society of the Inner Light in 1953. Fortune had already passed away (or passed on!), the society being led by Margaret Lumley Brown, known to insiders as the Pythoness. When the Society changed direction during the 1960's, Knight resigned, not to return until 1998, when he became a de facto magus emeritus, working to return the SIL to its Fortunite roots. In the interim, Knight had his own group, which seems to have changed directions (or evolved) several times.

What struck me when reading Knight's book is the author's broad range of interests. I suppose you could call him eclectic! He has worked with Wiccan-type trance mediums, the Hermetic Qabalah, the maverick Christian clergyman Tony Duncan, and the colorful and cantankerous William G Gray. Some rituals are oriented to the starry realms above, others seek to penetrate the bowels of the Earth below. Both Christian, Hermetic and outright pagan elements are present in the thought and practice of this man and his associates. So far, Knight has experienced visions of Melchizedek, Jesus and Isis (among others).

Yet, there does seem to be a silver cord tying it all together. First, the already mentioned ritual aspect, coupled with powerful visualizations, often using the Tree of Life of the Qabalah as a template. Second, the positive view towards Christian symbolism and influence. Further, the use of trance mediums to channel information from discarnate entities of various kinds. Finally, the strongly “British” flavor of the group and its symbolism. On all these points, I assume Knight's (and Fortune's) activities owe a lot to the Golden Dawn tradition of “Christian” Hermetic ritual magic. The Brit-centered aspect may be annoying to those of more Eastern or universalistic bents, but personally, I found it rather reassuring. And I'm not British! It gives Knight's group (which is really a modern phenomenon) a homely, native and traditional feel. Arthurian legends and symbols have always played an important part in Knight's activities, indeed, the very name “Gareth Knight” is Arthurian. Like many other British occultists, Knight seems to have a fascination with the House of Stuart, but also with John Dee, Drake and Raleigh. He keeps politics to a minimum in the book, but I get the impression that he somehow wants to reconcile the Catholic Stuarts and the Protestant Elizabethans on the inner planes in order to heal the British nation. Ecological concerns also entered the group at one point, never to leave it.

Some parts of the book may strike the general non-magical reader as somewhat bizarre, for instance SIL's initiation ritual into the Greater Mysteries, which include the visualization of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus, with the person being initiated in the role of Jesus! I wonder where this ritual comes from? Carl Gustav Jung experienced a similar ritual in a dream, although the Swiss psychoanalyst became Mithras crucified instead. (Dion Fortune studied Jung.) Readers with delicate skeptical sensibilities might also be rubbed the wrong way by the author's insistence that John Dee was invisibly present at one of his rituals, or that a medium he employed was possessed by the spirit of a Neolithic girl who had been sacrificed… And yes, I'm being self-ironic, since I would have considered this material barking mad myself just ten years ago or thereabouts.

The book gives rare glimpses into the inner workings of the SIL. Margaret Lumley Brown and her channeled messages played a central, if somewhat secret, role in the society. Some members lived secluded, quasi-monastic lives on SIL property. Most members were never initiated into the Greater Mysteries, preferring to remain at lower levels of the initiatory hierarchy. Some members were West African students resident in London. During the 1960's, the society was rocked by something close to a revolution: Lumley Brown was de facto overthrown and sidelined, Dion Fortune's library of rare occult literature sold off (ironically with the Fortune loyalist Knight as sales agent!) and most magical work suspended. Instead, SIL's members were supposed to concentrate on their earthly lives in the world. Knight resigned, but continued to propagandize Fortune's system through the magazine “New Dimensions” and a number of books. Knight also reveals that many occult activities in Britain (including his own) were financed by a US millionaire, Carr Collins. Interestingly, Knight says absolutely nothing about Findhorn, William Irwin Thompson or David Spangler – not that he must, but I assumed the esoteric milieu in England was sufficiently small for these people to have met somewhere, especially given Knight's pro-Gaian orientation.

A large portion of “I Called it Magic” deals with the minutiae of writing and publishing occult books and magazines, so much in fact that I was tempted to headline this review “I Called it Publish or Perish”. That aside, many of Gareth Knight's books *are* interesting. The most useful one is probably “The Magical World of the Inklings”, which comes with a positive blurb from none other than Owen Barfield himself, who was mightily impressed by it. Another favorite of mine is “Experience of the Inner Worlds”, written under the influence of Tony Duncan. Knight has also written biographies of Dion Fortune (in her earthly incarnation) and Margaret Lumley Brown. I haven't read them (yet). As a publisher, Knight has also launched several other authors on their careers, often with money from the eccentric millionaire Collins.

At the end of the book, Knight wonders whether it was all worth it, and admits that he still doesn't really know. Personally, I think it was worth it – especially since Knight, if he hadn't become a magus, might have ended up working long shifts in a chemical laboratory, or becoming a mediocre jazz musician!

I know you're reading this, Gareth. Just one question: What is your star sign?
You never say…

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