Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review of "King Over the Water"

Review of King Over the Water, authored by Nick Farrell
Originally published in Hermetic Virtues, Summer Solstice 2012
By Frater YShY

Every so often a publication comes along on the Golden Dawn that has the potential to change a bit of the history of the old Order; this is definitely such a book. Within its pages we find a new depth to old topics we have not seen considered in print before, and it offers previously unpublished documents that show a slightly different method of how the rituals could have been worked. There is also a commentary by the author that threads its way through each section that is both interesting and provocative. So, this volume provides a variety of content, and I am of the opinion that it will make a valuable addition for any serious magical library, being a must for anyone studying or practising Golden Dawn magic.

King Over the Water starts with a section on the history of Samuel Liddell "MacGregor" Mathers, Golden Dawn co-founder, and Chief of his later GD off-shoot which he renamed the Rosicrucian Order of the Alpha et Omega, or AO for short. An important quality of the book is its historical approach. It has not been composed with the methodology or rigorous standards of history, anthropology; but rather from the magico-psychological perspective of a practitioner of the Golden Dawn tradition. Any brief perusal of its pages shows that it indeed dances between speculation on the psychology of Mathers, and the facts of various detailed historical events; all of which is informed by the knowledge and consideration of magical theory from the perspective of an operative magician.  As magic does not yet have its own characteristic methodology or discipline, the book does not require itself to operate under the rigorous standards of another field of study; and the finished product takes advantage of this latitude. What it is, is a magical book written under the auspices of the Golden Dawn tradition; it is an internal history of GD magic written by a magician, for magicians.

The places King Over the Water  in a different category from the other extant works of GD history. While some other works demean the practical side of the subject, and others are written from a clearly demarcated historical perspective, King is accepting of the magical world-view, and takes a personal approach. All of the above are acceptable positions in my own opinion, depending on the author’s relationship to the historical material. Even the kindest scholarly representations of GD history have been penned carefully to avoid any discussion of the internal and transformative reasons for practising the tradition; in short, they are carefully written to avoid any discussion of magic.

King Over the Water  is not unlike other very popular books on Alternative History and Freemasonry in particular; such as the prolific publications of Knight and Lomas. Like these other books of Alternative History, King Over the Water indeed shares a similar, more casual, writing style. I did notice the use of the common vernacular was consistent throughout the book, and that the same cultural idioms that were oft-repeated.  Some of these slang phrases were unfamiliar to me, and in places I found that a bit difficult to follow. As I progressed past the introduction, I grew accustomed to the style of presentation, which was more conversational and informative than the dry academic reading that I am more used to, and was actually expecting from this book. There was also a dour and surprisingly humorous quality to the content that I fancy will catch a few of the more serious amongst us a little off-guard. I quickly settled into reading King Over the Water and began to enjoy the content immensely.

I agree with most of the conclusions and suggestive interpretations made about Mr. Mathers in these pages. I found the assessments of his faults and strengths to be accurate assumptions, and I was surprised how King Over the Water actually mirrored some of my own speculative opinions closely.  In many cases this amounts to an undignified look at Mathers, but it is not necessarily an unwarranted characterisation, for at times there were indeed very foolish or unsavoury tales that must be told in order for the book to fulfil its stated objective as a historical work. In essence, it was a life story that was at times difficult for me to hear and discover portions of as a reader and GD aficionado, and a few times I found myself wincing at some of the stories.  However, I recognise that the candidness was warranted and provided a most honest picture of the man. In this regard, and most importantly, I found the book's information to be detailed and accurate, and in my opinion the assessment of Mathers’ personality was fair, astute, well-thought out and reasonably communicated. The addition of the detailed obituary by John William Brodie-Innes is of course priceless and well-placed at the end of the book. Because as he was a close associate of Mathers, its fond and lengthy characterisation serves to confirm much of this book's main hypothesis about Mathers personality; all the while soothing out some of our impressions of his foibles with the kindness that a good friendship and long association can sometimes bring between two men.

The book recognises that in any lay person's psychological analysis it is hard to be certain of conclusions such as this with anyone, even with ourselves, and much less with a long-since deceased person. At the same time, the book does not shy away from some of its more difficult descriptions about Mathers. This is a position I respect, for going back to my characterisation of the book's approach as 'magico-philosophical', in modern GD practise this level of self-conscious consideration should be present in the work of every a magician, and encouraging this open analysis is an important process to undergo personally as well as when considering the possible motives of others. In this regard, I heartily appreciated the attempts to interject only the right amount of uncertainty into the research being presented, and in this an academic method is emulated. This has the very much desired effect of rendering the new interpretations presented in King Over the Water as more plausible. For those of us in other areas of expertise who are perhaps unused to reading or participating in this sort of academic work, I would kindly share or volunteer that this is a standard methodology in historical works.  Typically a paper or book presents factual information; makes conclusions which are sometimes new or difficult; provides some possible objections to its own thesis that seem logical, or may be from the intended audience’s perspective or the status quo; and then it finally overturns each of those objections and verifies its original thesis. It will not be hard for the average interested reader who is a non-expert to readily distinguish where the blanks are being filled in by speculation between the harder facts which are usually cited.

While it is not mentioned in the body of the text, the biographical notes in the back cover make it clear that the author is drawing on initiatory experiences and oral traditions in the various GD related groups he has been active in. While reading, one is left with the impression that much of the information without citation is blended oral tradition and the author's own opinions, all of which I enjoyed reading. While it is written from the attitude of a practitioner, and as has already been mentioned, therefore has no obligatory requirement to take up a specific methodology in its approach; nonetheless, as a reader I was so captivated by some of the stories so much that I wished to know more about the sources of some of the information. A small criticism and request would therefore be that I would have liked to have seen even more historical citations presented whenever it was possible. As this book already shows all the hallmarks of a title that will be much sought-after for years to come, I expect will likely be slated for re-prints. Perhaps the need for more citations is something that could be rectified in future or new expanded editions.

In a final analysis, the foray into Mathers and the old Golden Dawn’s history was well done. Particularly the sections on Mathers possible political motives and some of his unsavoury and extreme associations in Right Wing politics were new to me, as I expect they will be to many of King’s readers. I thoroughly enjoyed the political section of the book, while the publication of some of these older documents has been long overdue. The slight dabs of layman's psycho-analysis were warranted and will be much appreciated to anyone following a magical path. I have always felt that a genuine magician’s primary goals would be tertiary in nature: first, to develop a specialised skill-set; second, to better oneself; and third, to improve the world around us. Wisdom and insight are two inner constitutions life's maturity can take, regardless if one is working to better oneself through a magical path or not, and in this regard, ribald humour aside, King delivers.

These commentaries were interesting, and I particularly valued those on the Vault.  The section on the Vault walls was good, as well as the typescript and reprinted sections from an original MSS of Book of the Tomb, which is not available in print anywhere else; it has literally been a long-lost document to many of us. Now we finally have the painting instructions for the inside of the Pastos that are missing from all other published Golden Dawn books.

Furthermore, the author offers a personal dialogue about his efforts building a Vault. While I do not always agree with the more personal magical theories presented in King Over the Water, no matter, because they are worthy as an Adept-level considerations, they are thought-provoking and intelligent, and so I enjoyed pondering them.  I really can not emphasise this enough.  This level of Golden Dawn work is valuable, and by finally printing the Book of the Tomb and providing an insightful Commentary, this book proves to be an excellent reference and will take its place as the primary resource for Vault construction.  For anyone serious magical practitioner of the Golden Dawn tradition, this tiny section alone is worth many times the cover price.

I also thought some of the cipher musings were pretty astute. I have been a proponent of what the book terms as the "reverse-engineered" school for going on 20 years, which is the suggestion that the cipher itself is forged after or during the same time period as the rituals were worked out. I will not support this assertion in this review; rather, you can read all about it in King.

The section on S.L. Mathers is about two-thirds of the book, and is therefore the main feature of attention; however, the original documents such as The Book of the Tomb and the full versions of the Alpha et Omega’s Z Documents, which are both printed here in full for the first time, are where this book really shines for the researcher. There is also a solid document on colour written by an anonymous modern Adept that is informative and helpful.

There are only the most minor editing details that were missed and some Hebrew misspelling, but that is par for the course in any major undertaking such as this book obviously has been. I recall finding far worse mistakes in the various editions of The Golden Dawn by Israel Regardie, mistakes that we have all had to contend with for many decades before they were rectified in the newer editions. As always, when using information of this nature several texts should be compared, as the maxim goes: caveat lector. This small observation should not deter anyone from picking up this excellent book, there were fewer mistakes in King Over the Water than in your average popular novel has these days, and in this regard the editing staff did a good job.

The pencil or charcoal sketches by Paola Farrell also deserve mention. They are very beautiful, and these pieces add a dimension and an elegance to the book that is lacking from other new books on the same subject that are inexplicably peopled with the usual fare of clip-art, or photocopied and pixleated wood-cut images.

All-in-all, I think this book is an invaluable addition to the corpus of Golden Dawn reference books, and I am appreciative of its variety of contents. As the years pass, I feel this is a volume that generations of magicians will be grateful to have access to; and I would not be surprised if various Adepts are now repainting sections of their Pastos and Vault based on these newly available instructions! I have really enjoyed reading this book, and I encourage people to buy this and study it well, your efforts will be well repaid.

King Over the Water by Nick Farrell.
Kerubim Press.  ISBN 978-1-908705-01-3.  362 pages.  (£16.50)

No comments:

Post a Comment