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Why English culture is bewitched by magic
From Merlin to Harry Potter, English magic has a long tradition. But what does it say about today's culture?

English occultist, bohemian and author Aleister Crowley defined magick as "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will". Crowley's will was aided by the inheritance age 11 of a tidy fortune, and took him on a hedonistic ride through a life of sex, drugs and occult practice. Member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, founder of the mystery religion of Thelema, self declared spiritual master and Magus and, significantly, accomplished chess player, Crowley revelled in his notoriety as "the wickedest man alive". The Great Beast's polyamorous lifestyle would barely contend for such a title in today's more liberal and permissive world, and the philosophy of ordering your world in line with your will is one that seems entirely accepted in our individualist society.

The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr Gomm and Richard Heygate offers a thorough and illuminating history of magic and magicians in England. It reveals a 5,000-year tradition of English magic, stretching from Neolithic shamen and Anglo-Saxon "Wyrd Crafters" to modern Wiccans, New Age spiritualists and Neo-Pagan revivalists. Along the way it catalogues the remarkable interplay of fictional and historical figures who have influenced and shaped the history of English magic. The fictional wizards from Merlin to Harry Potter who have shaped our perceptions of magic. John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, occultist and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, who like Crowley and other "practicing magicians" crafted a powerful fiction around the cult of their charismatic personality. And the writers and artists who have drawn on magic as inspiration for their creations or even, like WB Yeats, have been drawn in to the world of the occult.


Reading this secret history, ensconced in Topping & Company bookshop of Bath, the kind of independent bookseller that will gladly bring an idle browser a cup of tea as he muses on the nature of magic, and a location that could easily have been pulled from the pages of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I was struck most by the rich history of magical English stories it catalogues. Also in Topping & Company could be found magical stories by JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and of course the mighty JK Rowling herself (you don't have to have multiple initials to write magical stories for children, but it helps). Regardless of how you view The Book of English Magic's more eccentric thoughts on the reality of magic, it reminds us that Englishness and the English cultural identity have been intertwined with magicians and magic throughout their history.

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The Guardian