Thursday 18 August 2022

A History of White Magic by Gareth Knight (1978)

The prolific author Gareth Knight (a pen name of Basil Wilby) died recently at the age of 91; and this was one of his earlier books. I found it very enjoyable, and spiritually stimulating. 

Knight was himself a Christian ritual magician (initiated in The Society of Inner Light - which was founded by Dion Fortune; and his Christianity is foundational to the argument of this book. It takes a very broad view of 'magic' to include imagination generally, the development of human consciousness; and is indeed a history of these matters from a Romantic perspective. 

Structurally, the book is woven around summaries of a very large number of authors and religious/ spiritual movements across a span of history from the ancient Hebrews and Greeks; through the transformative coming of Christianity, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the 18th and 19th centuries; right up to some significant books of the middle 1970s such as Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

Throughout, and particularly in the closing chapters, Knight makes thoughtful analyses and commentaries, in pursuit of a thesis concerning the proper and desirable nature of Good/ White/ Christian magic - and the pitfalls of other kinds. 

In this respect, AHOWM reminded me of Colin Wilson's Outsider series, and his books on the Occult/ Mysteries theme. Anyone who likes Wilson's style of writing philosophy, will probably enjoy this in a similar fashion.  

As I have said elsewhere, reflecting on Knight's and other accounts, I think that ritual magic had been a valid mode of Christian life from the late 19th century and up to the middle of the 20th - but that from around the 1980s it began to cease to 'work'; in a fashion that parallels (and ultimately has the same causes as) the decline in all forms of positive and desirable groups and institutions (including the churches). 

I mean that the rituals of White Magic seemed to lose objective efficacy, and became instead essentially psychological (therapeutic, or creative-stimulating) in nature - and often explicitly so. The ability of magicians to work formally, and reliably, in institutional groups, and by organizational rules, began to dwindle considerably. 

In his later life, it seems that Knight's 'magical' practice became something ever-more individual, improvisatory, and like meditation - when compared with the formal rituals of his early training. 

As such, this history of magic is a fascinating instance of the 'evolution of consciousness', the innate development of Man's thinking and relationship with the divine - as described by Owen Barfield - who gets a single mention here for Saving the Appearances

Indeed, Gareth Knight's The History of White Magic could be regarded as one man's account of the genealogy of Romantic Christianity

Note: Later Knight came to know Barfield personally, and wrote insightfully about his ideas in The Magical World of the Inklings (1990, 2010.) 

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