Kit’s Crit: Magic In Western Culture (Brian P. Copenhaver)

Copenhaver

Magic In Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015)

Brian Copenhaver’s Magic In Western Culture traces occult beliefs From Antiquity to the Enlightenment.  His study starts in Ancient Iran, Greece, and Rome, and moves through the early Christian Church to the influential thinkers of the Renaissance.  Magic is treated as a tradition that derives from classical philosophy, as Copenhaver examines why European intellectuals “repudiate magic in the Enlightenment, after having previously accepted it for more than two millennia” (xiii).

Copenhaver suggests that before the Enlightenment most educated Western people believed in magic – a tradition handed down from Herodotus.  But the early Catholic Church claimed any supernatural activity in The Bible was the result of divine miracles (not earthly magic), which created little problem until Thomas Aquinas insisted that if there were heavenly angels there must also be hell’s counterparts – demons.  Thereafter, devils were seen as tempting the faithful with magic powers and turning them into witches.   This belief persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond.

As further medical advances were made, traditional magic was superseded by new therapies – regimen, pharmacy, and surgery.  Doctors of Physic practiced a natural philosophy whereby physical treatment (not ritual or religious) aimed to produce the correct mix of humors in the body.

During the Renaissance, natural philosophy gradually gave way to mechanical science, particularly after the invention of the telescope and microscope.  Men like Descartes favored reason, method, and metaphysics over occultism, but this was not a clear-cut process.  Isaac Newton, for example, spent much of his scientific career as an alchemist searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, and was later called “the last of the magicians” (288).  But over the centuries, magic gradually succumbed to the dual pressures of religion and science until it fell out of fashion with the European intellectuals.

Magic In Western Culture is a dense, scholarly book, lightened in part by the rich illustrations.  Copenhaver has sifted through the murky realms of early belief to piece together a well-researched, cohesive analysis of the occult tradition.  His section on Newton is particularly fascinating.  I also enjoyed the references to Shakespeare’s plays that highlight the intersection between intellectual development and common folklore.

If you have an academic or historic interest in the rise and decline of magic you will find this book an impressive read.  Highly recommended!

Kit’s Crit: Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Golding

Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tops my list of all-time favorite books!

In the wake of a nuclear war, a group of school boys are being evacuated from England when their aircraft is shot down.  The survivors land on an isolated tropical island with no adult presence.  Here,they have to fend for themselves. The children ultimately form two rival gangs and soon cross the line from civilization into savagery.

There are three main reasons why Lord of the Flies is the perfect novel.  Firstly. it is an allegory that makes readers question their moral, spiritual, anthropological, and psychological beliefs about childhood innocence.  Secondly, Golding produces a beautiful cocktail of modern and poetic language where every sentence advances the action, or reveals something important about one of the central characters. And thirdly, he incorporates mythology, magical realism, anthropological research, religion, and psychology to build up the tension with carefully crafted foreshadowing and symbolism.  This is a very tight, taut, controlled horror story full of unpredictable events, where the only relief comes right at the end.

Lord of the Flies exposes the darkness of the human condition.  It is a pessimistic examination of everything we hold sacred.  And that is why it so wonderfully terrifying.

Kit’s Crit: The Familiars (Stacey Halls)

The Familiars is in many ways a modern gothic romance set against the backdrop of the Lancashire witch trials. It tells of seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth’s plight to provide an heir for Gawthorpe Hall after three unsuccessful pregnancies. She enlists the help of a mysterious local wise woman – Alice Grey – who later becomes one of the accused victims. After a string of dangerous adventures, however, things reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Unlike other recent books on the Pendle Witches, Stacey Halls chooses a minor, overlooked historical character as her focal point. Alice Grey is a midwife who may or may not be associated with a familiar in the guise of a red fox, though any magic we see her perform is practical herbalism rather than supernatural spell-casting. Yet we experience Alice through the eyes of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a privileged narrator far removed from the violence and poverty of the accused witches, who only rushes to help the midwife for personal gain. Halls’ description of the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle is the closet we get to understanding the harrowing ordeal that these real prisoners went through. But having read some of the early reviews, such sanitizing of historical unpleasantness may be necessary for the modern squeamish reader.

The Familiars is an enjoyable story based on the few facts known about the events of 1612. I particularly liked the thoughtful observation that bearbaiting in London was popular because the bloodthirsty townsfolk did not get a chance to hunt!

Halls’ historical research is sound, the setting well-crafted, and the characters consistent with the gothic romance genre. This novel will appeal to readers who want to taste what living through a witch hunt may have been like, but without any graphic information.

Kit’s Crit: The Hangman’s Daughter (Potzsch)

The Hangman’s Daughter is the first of a seven-book series set in medieval Germany. It tells the tale of Martha Stechlin, a local midwife and herbalist accused of witchcraft. Several children die in a small Bavarian town and each has a strange witch-mark tattooed on their shoulder. The local hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is sent to torture a confession from the accused, even though he does not believe in her guilt.

Jakob’s daughter – Magdalena – is an intelligent young woman in love with the local physician’s son. They both know Martha Stechlin is not a witch, and together they set on a mission to uncover the truth behind the false accusations.

The Hangman’s Daughter is an interesting read, steeped in the local superstitions and folklore of the period. Oliver Potzsch paints a vivid portrayal of an oppressive, patriarchal society where everyone’s lives are pre-ordained at birth. But against this stifling backdrop, he makes the hangman a compassionate, human, multi-faceted character, who remains loyal to friends and family even in personal adversity.

There is little difference between Martha Strechlin’s craft, the hangman’s renowned herbal cures, and the local doctor’s medicine – except the female practitioner is the only one selected as the scapegoat. This irony is not lost on the reader. And many parallels of misinformation, personal bias, malicious gossip, and fear skillfully demonstrate how “witch hunts” still gain traction in our sophisticated, high-tech society today.

There are, however, several unfortunate modern colloquialisms in the text that jar the reader out of the Seventeenth-Century setting, but I trust this is a by-product of translation and not an inherent flaw in Potzsch’s writing.

Kit’s Crit: Wicked Enchantments (Froome)

What if the Lancashire Witches were actually guilty of practicing magic?  Joyce Froome’s book, Wicked Enchantments: a history of the Pendle Witches & their magic (Lancaster: Carnegie,2010) explores this possibility from the prespective of the two teenagers involved, James and Alizon Device.

Froome

Froome’s website describes her methodology.  She uses “quotations from a wealth of original sources, such as trial records and books of magic,” alongside “photographs of magical artifacts.”

This unique compilation – based on the sound scholarly research of an assistant curator at the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall –  focuses on the seventeenth-century rituals and spells that the poor cunning folk of Pendle may have used to eek out a living: love potions, healing tonics, protection charms, curses, good-luck talismans, fertility magic, and fortune-telling paraphernalia.  In addition to multiple illustrations, there are also photographs of a modern family recreating many of the ancient rituals.

The only negative comment I have is that the binding of my book fell apart from frequent reading!  But aside from this, Wicked Enchantments  is a fascinating, well-documented, alternative portrayal of the Device family.  Their spells are clearly explained.  And I fully concur with Froome’s conclusion that centuries later “there were still cunning folk around Pendle Hill . . . . Magic had survived both demonisation and ridicule” (310).     

Wicked Enchantments could have become a dry, intellectual, historical examination, were it not for the clever organization, and Froome’s subtle humor shining through the pages.

I love her opening warning: “You are strongly advised NOT to attempt any of the spells described in this book – particularly the one that involves removing a tooth from a live wolf” (iv).  Reader beware!

More information is available at Joyce Froome’s website: http://www.joycefroome.com/wicked_enchantments.htm

Kit’s Crit: The Wise Woman (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

This historical fiction begins in 1540 and follows the tragic life of seventeen-year-old Alys, a young peasant girl in Tudor England.  Alys grew up on the moor with a harsh foster-mother called Morach, the local wise woman.  But turning her back on superstition and the pagan arts, Alys decides to join a nunnery.  For a time she finds contentment in this orderly sanctuary.  She enjoys the rigid structure, comparative luxury, and the safety afforded to the Holy Sisters.

But Alys happiness is short lived.  One night the monastery burns to the ground, a casualty of King Henry’s Reformation, and the young woman is summoned to the local castle to work as a scribe for the ailing lord of the manor.   Here she falls in love with his married son and heir, Lord Hugo.  She grows intently jealous of the Lady Catherine, and seeks to replace her in Hugo’s bed.  Calling on all the cunning tricks she recalls from living with Morach, Alys devises a difficult, disturbing plot to gain her heart’s desire.  At this point the novel slips into magical realism.

Gregory’s story has many Faustian overtones.  Alys conjures up the powers of darkness to possess the man she fixates on, aware that her actions are prompted by self-promotion rather than genuine love.  By the end of the book the Wise Woman is exposed as self-centered, unlikable, and evil – and therefore she meets with a hellish end.

The Wise Woman can also be read as a morality tale.  Although Alys is a victim of historical circumstance, feudalism, and gender, she serves as a warning against forbidden love and obsession.  She tries to take the rightful place of another woman – a place where she can never truly belong.  Alys discovers she has the power to unleash terrible things on the world, but by the time she realizes she has little control over them, it is too late to go back.  She sinks further and further into witchcraft.

I enjoyed the atmospheric setting of Gregory’s novel, and not expecting to sympathize with the central characters I was pleased to find them portrayed in a refreshingly honest way – warts and all!  The historical research is sound and convincing, and any book set in the medieval era must acknowledge the common superstitious beliefs of that time.

This is not a feel-good story.  It suggests everything in Alys’ world is a sham – magic, life, love, faith, and family.  But one of the great joys of reading is the ability to close the book at any point and find yourself back in the twenty-first century!

Kit’s Crit: The Witch (Movie)

The Witch (2015)

Dead Forest                  

 

Robert Eggers debut film The Witch is a masterpiece.  Precisely because it is not the typical action-packed Hollywood horror movie it is far more realistic and terrifying.  Eggers has created “A New England folktale” that is seen through a seventeenth-century lens.  We experience the slow-fuse tension in the same way as the Puritan characters.

The plot is fairly straight-forward.  A family is banished from their village because of differing religious beliefs.  They find a remote spot next to a forest and build their home.  A few years later a baby boy joins the other four children, but he disappears beside the woods while his sister Thomasin is looking after him.  This triggers a series of events that suggest Satan is at hand in various guises – a mysterious wood witch, a curious hare, a sinister black goat, and perhaps one of the two daughters.  Things go from bad to worse until the family are split apart by suspicion and quarrels.  One by one the members die until only one virgin is left to fulfil her destiny and join the local coven of witches.  Satan emerges as the victor because he has wrestled these Christian souls away from God.

Several things make this movie stand out from others in its genre.  Firstly, the historical accuracy.  Eggers and his crew have gone to great lengths to recreate the costumes and sets of the early Colonial period.  Then there is the superb attention to detail, especially in adhering to traditional religious beliefs and occult superstitions.  Thirdly, the wonderful cinematography recreates the beauty and wildness of the remote countryside.  Another strength is the convincing cast, particularly the child actors involved.  Further, I enjoyed the accents and dialog that made the period more authentic.  And finally, there is the originality of the tale.  The Witch takes us back to a time when people believed Satan was a real presence stalking the earth in search of vulnerable souls.  The magic we see is evil, harrowing, and deadly; it seduces and corrupts the innocent.  And sadly, the dark side wins.

Unlike many other supernatural films, The Witch does not show a group of beautiful women dabbling in magic for their own gains.  Eggers makes the horror lie in the fact that no matter how Christian or good one might be, the Devil will always find a way to claim those he wants.

Highly recommended.

 Photo: University of Illinois

Kit’s Crit: The Inferno of Dante (Robert Pinsky)

Dante

Robert Pinsky was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997-2000, and therefore my expectations for his translation of Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece The Inferno were very high.  I was not disappointed.

Pinsky recreates the medieval world view of religion and society -the original political subtext – the stunning imagery – and the 3-line interlocking stanzas of the terza rima rhyming scheme to great effect

Staying close to Dante’s intent, Pinsky underscores the symbiotic relationship between poetry and love.  He draws parallels between the narrator’s journey from Hell to Heaven with that of Ulysses’ adventures in Homer’s Odyssey, maintaining the power of the original poetry and making it accessible to the modern reader.  The Italian text is printed alongside the revised translation.

Dante’s work has influenced a wide range of intellectuals from Galileo through to the Modernists of the early 20th Century, particularly T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.  Many artists have chosen to illustrate The Inferno in their own style.  This edition contains 35 interesting monotypes by Michael Mazur, although I personally favor the earlier illustrations of Salvador Dali.

Kit’s Crit: HEIR TO A PROPHECY (Mercedes Rochelle)

Any one fascinated by Shakespeare’s Macbeth will love the question behind Mercedes Rochelle’s debut book: How do the sons of Banquo come to rule Scotland?  The three weird sisters tell Macbeth’s companion that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” – a promise that sets in motion the deadly events of the famous play.

Heir To A Prophecy (Hampshire: Top Hat Books, 2014) follows a fragmented trail through Scottish history –  tracing the line from Banquo’s son Fleance to King James Ist of England – with a similar mix of fact, fiction, and supernatural interference as found in the original tale.  We know that Banquo is murdered on Macbeth’s orders, but that his son Fleance escapes.  In Rochelle’s version he goes into exile in Wales at the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, where he woos and impregnates the king’s daughter, Nesta.
Nesta bears an illegitimate son called Walter, who enlists in Harold Goodwineson’s service and ends up fighting at Dunsinane and Hastings.  Along the way he befriends Prince Malcolm, King Duncan’s heir to the Scottish throne.  Years later, Walter settles in Malcolm’s court and is rewarded for his services, becoming the first Steward of Scotland.  This legitimizes his position, and prepares the way for future descendants of the royal house of Stuart.

Rochelle’s portrayal of the three witches is particularly interesting.  They appear at various points in her story to advance their original prophecy, but rather than being the weird old hags of Shakespeare’s era they are associated with the Norns of Scandinavian mythology – fates who control mankind’s destiny.  But aside from this nod to the bard, Rochell wisely does not attempt to imitate one of the great literary masterpieces with a sophisticated, high-brow response.  Instead she writes a plain, rollicking tale that should have broad appeal for those readers who like a fast-paced romp through history.

This novel is nicely edited and presented.  The setting, however, is too broad a time-period to examine and explore the various situations in any great depth.  Heir[s] To A Prophecy could well have been a whole series, with each book focusing on one central character – Fleance, Walter, and so on!

Kit’s Crit: Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) is a classic example of magical realism, but it is also a satirical historical fiction.  The unreliable narrator – Saleem Sinai – is one of 1001 children born between midnight and 1.00am on August 15, 1947, which was the moment of India’s independence from Britain.  Although he is the bastard child of a beggar woman, a nurse switches him at birth with another boy called Shiva, so he grows up as the only son of a wealthy couple.  All of the children arriving in the same hour as the birth of the new nation are endowed with special powers – “transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry,” but Saleem has the most powerful gift of all.  He is telepathic and able to communicate with the other gifted youngsters across the country.  Saleem persuades them to form the MCC (Midnight Children’s Conference), but even with all their combined powers they end up being persecuted by the authorities.

Rushdie uses magical realism to construct a parallel history between the person (Saleem) and the state (India) in the fairy-tale style of the Arabian Nights.  The hero becomes entwined in a series of events that are not only fantastical, but are often scientifically dubious at best, and historically inaccurate at worst.  This creates confusion, uncertainty, and a shift in the reader’s reality that many critics have found disturbing.  Rushdie’s symbolism is also  heavy-handed.  There is little subtlety in his continual reference to snakes, ladders, noses, and knees.

The strength of Midnight’s Children lies in the central theme: What is reality?  Rushdie makes us question history, fact, truth, memory, and narrative.  Ultimately, truth depends “on perspective and belief.”  He decides that, “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”

Midnight’s Children is often compared with Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.  Both novels are mystical, philosophical, and enchanting – yet the German Classic has an additional lyrical element that I found more compelling.

SR 3

 (Photo: Kit Perriman)