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Gwenevere and the Round Table – Wendy Berg

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Categories: faery, Tags:

This book by Wendy Berg addresses a conspicuously little known figure from Arthurian legend, presenting Queen Gwenevere, not as a mere adjunct to more familiar figures, but effectively as a central character around which many of the events revolve. In so doing, she becomes an initiatrix and guide in a series of workings that the reader can undertake.

At the outset, Berg addresses what can be described as the problem of Gwenevere, in that despite her fame, there is little extant information about her. This absence of evidence effectively plays into Berg’s core idea: that the reason Gwenevere is mysterious is because she ultimately embodies a mystery. Berg argues that Gwenevere’s minimal but unique roles point to her being, not a human, but a faery, for whom the marriage to Arthur is one of interaction between two realms, re-enacting the rituals of sacred kingship. Her subsequent appearances in legends, in which she is often abducted or goes into exile, fit this role too, with the idea being that in these instances she once again provides an interaction between the faery and human worlds.

This is an idea Berg has explored before in her theory-based book Red Tree, White Tree, but here there is more of a focus on practical application, and on the Round Table, which Berg notes has frequent associations with Gwenevere. It is the dowry she brings from Lyonesse, and its return is demanded by a mysterious knight following her death. For Berg, the table is a symbol of the relationship between the worlds of human and fae, and a template for both the order formed around it, and a mystery school attendant to this order. As a faery queen, and the realm’s ambassador, Gwenevere was the prime interpreter of the table’s wisdom, and initiator of the knights into its mysteries.

Berg’s discussion of her Gwenevere theory takes up but one chapter of the book and the rest is an exploration of a magickal system largely based around the division into four faery kingdoms, at the centre of which is a fifth realm, Listenois, the Grail Kingdom. These kingdoms, some more familiar than others, are Lyonesse in the east, Sorelois is in the south, Gorre in the west, and Oriande in the north. Each realm is attributed different characteristics, and progressed through one at a time, each imparting a new lesson.

Berg’s system is low on ritual or artifice and is instead composed almost entirely of guided pathworkings. These use an initial journey to the table as a device through which the other realms can be explored, effectively providing a hub world that the player seeker logs into, receives missions from Gwenevere, before departing to the other worlds and ultimately returning to the hub.

In addition to these general exploration of the faery kingdoms, Berg presents a couple of other techniques, integrated with these journeys but unique enough to stand out on their own. The first is a meditation on colour as a way of connecting with the faery, in which the participant is taught to appreciate a range of colours and to ‘see’ them through faery eyes. The second is a fairly successful system of astral magic where the constellations are used as an empowered guide to Arthurian cosmology. These constellations provide another take on the idea of the Round Table, a wheel of stellar arrays circling the night sky and representing various scenes or characters from Arthurian legend. In concert with this is the creation of a Book of Stars, documenting the journey through the constellations.

When it comes to a magickal system connected with faery and heavily dependent on guided pathworkings, it is inevitable for one’s mind to drift to the work of RJ Stewart. There is an element of this here, but there are some other noticeable styles that one could uncharitably call new age. There’s a lot of talk of consciousness and vibrations, and while there’s nothing wrong with those concepts, the nomenclature has an undeniable whiff of crystal shops and reiki readings. Another element that occurs periodically, and somewhat expectedly given the associations with grail mysticism, is a faery interpretation, shall we say, of Christianity, with a pathworking featuring a vision of the White Christ. This connects with another obvious touchstone, the writer Gareth Knight, with Berg often using his terminology and referring to an Atlantean Tradition that underlies both the faery and grail mysteries here.

As a largely mystical workbook, there’s not a huge amount of academic discussion here, with often only cursory consideration of Arthurian sources or any discursive analysis. And while this is to be expected given the format, it does lead to jarring moments that cause one to pause and wish a more thorough approach had been taken to make for a more convincing argument. Berg often draws from diverse Arthurian sources to build her core concept, but nowhere does she mention the question, let alone suggest an answer, as to how these disparate authors, divided by both time and geography, could have glommed onto some secret truth about Gwenevere and the fae. These sources are not some holy writ that has, at the very least, a pretence of originating from a singular culture or belief system. Instead, they are the works of a diverse group of authors who, one would pragmatically argue, were only interested in telling stories. One could argue otherwise and handwave with hints at some mystical link that Arthurian writers have that taps into mysterious realms of the fae, or something, but because this isn’t done, quibbles like this are more glaring than they need to be.

Similarly, throughout the book there’s an almost disingenuous presentation of information where the lack of thoroughness effectively becomes lying by omission. In discussing what she describes as the faery kingdom of Oriande, and its ruler Madaglan and his sister Jandree, Berg fails to mention that the two could just as easily be seen as Saracens, given that in the chansons de geste the word Oriandes, so redolent of ‘Orient,’ refers to Saracen women, while Oriande is the name of a Saracen town. This is even more likely given that Madaglan and Jandree are shown as being theologically at odds with Arthur and his court, rejecting his New Law in favour of their Old Law, for which Islam is surely intended. This doesn’t invalidate Berg’s argument, indeed, one could argue that the status of Muslims as the penultimate symbol of The Other in courtly literature made them an effective gloss for the equally Other(worldly) faery. But because such a caveat is not made, and given that the source for the idea of Oriande as a kingdom, faery or not, is just one text, the Perlesvaus, one finds oneself becoming something of a cynical reader (well, moreso, right kids?).

It is this kind of thing that means when Berg relays the story of another adversarial knight, Meleagant, son of the King of Gorre, you find yourself running off to fact check against a copy of Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette. Berg has Meleagant refer to a group of nobles he has held hostage as “human prisoners,” thereby highlighting a stark racial distinction between the apparently faery knight and his captives. But Chrétien de Troyes uses no such term, simply referring to them as “knights, ladies, and damsels who belong to thy dominion and household.” While there is a case to be made for Meleagant being more than just a human adversary, given the distinctly otherworldly characteristics of the kingdom of Gorre, it seems deceitful to present this, not as an interpretation, but as something detailed verbatim in Chrétien’s story. This, unfortunately, is a pretty common technique here: mention the source, relay the story as if you’re telling it as it appears in said source, sprinkle liberally with usage of the word ‘faery’ not in said source.

As a workbook there’s a pleasing completeness to the system presented by Berg. It has a coherent structure engendered by both the Round Table and the faery kingdoms, even if I have reservations about the historical and literary rigour given to said realms. The system and its results feel very personal-growth orientated, using that type of nomenclature, rather than the usual veiled occult references to unspecified wisdom. The book is competently laid out in the manner one expects from Skylight Press, with a pleasing typographic hierarchy,

Published by Skylight Press


Liber Nox: A Traditional Witch’s Gramarye – Michael Howard

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Categories: sabbatic craft, witchcraft, Tags:

Liber Nox coverFirst, a eulogy: recently departed Michael Howard (1948–2015) was quite possibly my gateway drug to occultism. His Wisdom of the Runes was the first book I read on runic magic and his magazine, The Cauldron, provided my first tantalising insights into Robert Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain (way back in the pre-internet days when there was a lot less info about and precious little mentions of him and the Clan in books). A survey of Scriptus Recensera entries show that a significant amount of his work has been reviewed here: The Book of Fallen Angels, an issue of The Cauldron, his important tome Children of Cain, and most recently, Hands of Apostasy, which he co-edited with Daniel Schulke. This, needless to say, was not by design but a mark of how prolific he was and how well his oeuvre matched my interests. I always found Michael so thoroughly genuine, something frustratingly rare in these circles where smoke and mirrors dominate and where people spend so much time shoring up their claims to some amazing lineage, or trying desperately to appear privy to some amazing knowledge or in possession of equally amazing skills and power. He had such an obvious passion for the magickal milieu within which he lived. As I remarked in my review of Children of Cain, Michael’s approach to things magickal could be said to have a Mulder-like willingness to believe that was tempered with a Scullyesque critical approach that cautioned him against totally subscribing to anyone’s claim; at least in print. He always seemed willing to entertain someone’s claims, not in a blindly, uncritical manner, but rather in an “it’d be nice if it’s true” kind of way. Witness his patronage of Bill Liddell and the claim that Essex cunning man George Pickingill was actually a grand master of nine covens who had direct influence on everyone from Gerald Gardner to the Golden Dawn. As I noted in my review, it is an appealing theory, and one can’t help feeling that Michael gave it as much space over the years as he did (in both The Cauldron first and later in Children of Cain) because of just how glorious its grand vision is. By no means did he ever state, to my knowledge, his acceptance of Liddell’s claims, but there’s a feeling that he wished they were true. And why not?

Until Xoanon and Three Hands Press publish any of the unpublished texts they have in their archives, Liber Nox is the last major writing from Michael Howard and, in many ways, stands as a fitting testament to him. It consolidates much of what Howard has considered over the years in matters of traditional witchcraft, providing it in a format that prefaces everything with a lot of broad anthropological examples and explanations, and then concludes with a breakdown of the wheel of the year and a series of corresponding rituals. As such, it contains more factual information than your average grimoire, or your bog-standard rituals-and-recipes book for that matter, and is all the more satisfying for it.

In the first section, Preparing for the Rites, Howard explains the symbolism of various ritual tools, elements and procedures. Rather than the usual cursory explanation one would expect in other books, this digression is a significant one that facilitates a wider exploration of the themes of witchcraft. As was sometimes the case in his writing, Howard’s approach here can sometimes be a little info-dumpish, with a wealth of information being presented but relatively little discursive dialogue to provide pacing or highlight, admittedly self-evident, connections or motifs. There is also no referencing, except for the very occasional in-text citing of sources for specific quotes, so while you never doubt the accuracy of Howard’s facts, there is the occasional niggling feeling of needing to fire up the old Google machine to see what his source might have been for a particular nugget of gnosis.

Image by Gemma Gary

A similar approach follows in the second section, The Wheel of the Year, where said wheel and its associated festivals provide an opportunity to consider in depth various folklore and witchcraft themes. A discussion of Candlemass, for example, is able to embrace the goddess Brigid and her saintly incarnation as St. Bridget, as well as the Cailleach, goddesses of Sovereignty, and loathly ladies. Similarly, a discussion of May Day gives insight not just into figures such as the May Queen but unicorn symbolism, the underworld journey to the Castle of Roses and Sir Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight. Often the matters discussed for each festival seem almost tangential to the extent that you lose track of where it all began and which celebration is up for discussion. This is, by no means a bad approach, and in fact I’m rather partial to it. It means that rather than the kind of brief cursory description of a festival you can find in any book on witchcraft, Howard’s style paints a wider, more holistic picture, which places these events within a greater magickal world of interrelating symbolism and themes.

Thus, this second section of folklore and festivals, which is easily half of the book, provides what is effectively a thorough consideration of traditional witchcraft, shot through this anthropological lens. It is only in the book’s third section, the Liber Nox proper (gloriously subtitled The Rites of the Black Book of Shades), that the reader encounters the kind of ritual material one would perhaps expect of the gramarye promised in the subtitle. Howard prefaces his rituals with a consideration of the year which consolidates the mass of material from the previous section into a narrative of changing seasons, rising and falling deities, and elements waxing and waning. He makes it clear that the rituals presented here are not from any particular tradition but have been written entirely for this book, incorporating aspects from various traditional witchcraft sources and obviously the folklore of the wheel of the year. There are certainly elements you can spot, with the imagery of the Clan of Tubal Cain, for example, coming through clearly in the use of dancing mills and castles.

The first of the rituals is an all-purpose casting of the circle of arte, followed by instructions for a concluding houzel and a closing of the circle. Then follows rites for all the previously considered stations of the year: Yule, Twelfth Night, Candlemas, Lady Day, May Day, Midsummer Day, Lammas, Michaelmas and Hallow. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a pleasant, expert style to these rituals, indicative of the experience and expertise that Howard had. The liturgy is beautiful but simple and refined with no ornate archaisms and nothing you’d feel too silly saying out loud; a constant ritual concern of mine. There is also a variety of activities, and despite the use of very specific structure, there’s less of the usual rote feeling of intone *variable,* do *variable,* banish, and goodnight everybody! Many of the rites feature variations of circular dancing, often incorporating intertwining ribbons, while in the ritual for Midsummer Day, two additional stang are used to form a gateway to the realm of Fey through which celebrants visualise themselves passing.

Image by Gemma Gary

With its carefully considered structure of anthropology followed by, erm, ritualology, Liber Nox, makes for a satisfying read. It incorporates so much of what Howard considered in his life as a writer, but distils it in a finely crafted manner, refined and shorn of the distracting spelling errors and generic formatting that marred his similar material in books published by the reckless Capall Bann. There’s no sense of re-treading areas already well-travelled, even though the referencing of folklore was something he often did. Instead, like the rituals written specifically for this volume, there’s a feeling of Howard setting out to write something self-contained and true to itself.

Liber Nox is available as a paperback of 218 perfect bound pages, printed by Lightning Source. The formatting has a confident, effortless style, with the body set in Adobe Caslon at a nice point size with sensible leading; albeit fully justified. Titles (along with the chapter-leading drop caps) are set in the rather lovely Newcomen face, while the subtitles are rendered in the scratchy scripty 1491 Cancelleresca. Liber Nox is illustrated throughout by the black and white illustrations of Gemma Gary, who also provides the stunning image of the horned god on the cover. Her illustrations are often of familiar folkloric images, masks and masques, rendered anew in her stippled style.

Published by Skylight Press. ISBN 978-1-908011-85-5