This is one of those books that I am asking myself why I waited so long to read it. Gerald Gardner published this work of fiction before the anti-witchcraft laws were abolished in England. He had to couch his beliefs and his rituals in a work of fiction to avoid the microscope of suspicion. After those laws were abolished he was able to openly discuss the contents of the book and how each of the rituals and other practices detailed in the novel were based on actual magical practices.
Published in 1949 and attributed to a mysterious fellow simply called Scribe, High Magic’s Aid is the story of a young man, his brother, a witch, and the ceremonialist who has befriended them. This young man knows that he is meant to be something more than he is, that he is meant to live in the castle and rule over the land, not hoe the field and feed the cattle. He has his heart set on regaining that which was taken from his family. His brother, knowing the truth of their family, stands beside him in all things. Even putting his life and soul in peril by becoming the vessel for a demonic spirit to communicate to his brother.
The demon that takes over his brother’s body direct them to seek the Witch of Wanda, and this they do. At this point the novel explores the horror of the witch craze in England and elsewhere in Europe. Taking the three intrepid friends through the country side to a far off village that is in total squalor and finding this witch they were told to find. She is to provide them with the tools necessary for the ceremonial magician in their midst to create the magical tools necessary to draw the demon back into their circle without the necessity of possession. Those tools are the athame and the white handled knife, or boline. The bladed tools of most Wiccan’s practice.
Gardner certainly draws on what would later be published has his book of shadows, in several forms, and become the text used by Gardnarians and Alexandrians alike – in deed by most practitioners of Wicca in the modern age. He also draws heavily on his background and experiences with secret societies such as the Rosicrucians.
This edition, pictured and linked above, is full of typographical errors. I wrote it off to the efforts of non-professionals converting the text to digital format. That may be. I believe that some, if not all, of the errors were intentional. Most of them appear in the text of the rituals, changing the spelling of an angel or demon’s name, making the pronunciation of one of the names of God different from the Hebrew. For Gardner’s text includes detailed rituals and incantations that have been used for a very long time by various societies, including the Masons.
The story gripped me. It told a story that made sense to me. One that rang true for the time setting and for the content of the author’s intentions. What Gardner had set out to do was to share the rituals and spells of his own practice with those who would recognize them for what they were. Those that did not see them as true rites would read them as plot points. But if you read carefully, those scenes read as instructions. Telling the ritualist what he or she would need to do to summon up angels and demons.
Interspersed with these high magical rites are the more simple rites of a hedge witch, a practitioner of the Old Ways. A witch and priestess. Her simple rites are just as powerful as the ceremonies portrayed as the aid given by the master. The two paralleled show what would later be known of Gardner’s beliefs and practices in his later instructional works on the budding movement that would become modern Wicca.
Throwing references to how the Catholic church operated during the witch hunts, Gardner also makes allusions to how the Church taught the ideas of the high magic to some of her priests, but refused to allow them to practice those ideas. He also makes inference that the same Pope who launched the Inquisition was somehow involved in a quest for a particular kind of “high magical aid.” But that is something that few who do not know the history of the Inquisition would catch until … Well, no. If I tell you that it would dampen your enjoyment of the story.
Whether you are Wiccan or some other kind of Pagan, or just have an interest in good fantasy books, I’d recommend Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid. I think this may be a book that add to my “highly suggested” reading list for students of the arts magical.