I was interviewed by Pino Longchild in Magickal Light for February 2009. This is the official e-zine of http://www.magickaschool.com/ which seems to be a most interesting site for any of you of the neo-pagan persuasion.
PL: First of all let me say how pleased I am that you have agreed to be interviewed for The Magickal Light Ezine:
I believe you were 23 when you first came across books by Dion Fortune which led you to the Society of the Inner Light and the first taste of an esoteric order. I was wondering though, what provided you with the inspiration to set out on a spiritual quest before that?
GK: Oh I was always interested in magic from as far back as I can remember. Mixing up mud and water in the back garden whilst still a toddler and calling them “witches’ pies” is about the earliest manifestation of this interest I suppose. In my early teens had read most of the psychic research section in the local public library. Also a desultory interest in ouija boards, hypnosis and such like. Then onto books I could not understand like Eliphas Levi’s “History of Magic” before eventually having all bells rung loud and clear by coming across Dion Fortune’s “The Esoteric Orders and their Work” and “The Training and Work of an Initiate”. I immediately recognised a familiar voice in these. If there were such things as initiates I wanted to be one, and such things as esoteric orders, then I wanted to join. Which I promptly did – and I suppose never looked back.
PL: You were in touch with a variety of famous occultists such as Israel Regardie, Gerald Gardner and Pat Crowther. Do you have any particular recollections of these individuals you could share?
GK: I was quite shaken when I first came across Regardie’s “The Art of True Healing” which seemed to set out practical magic in a daringly uncompromising fashion. Consequently when I first set up as a publisher this was the first book I produced – absolutely delighted to have discovered that Regardie was still around. To my youthful mind he was somewhat of the status of the old gods! He turned out to be a charming man, somewhat mellowed from the time when he had been such a thorn in the side of those he rated as “the inepti” of the Golden Dawn. I met him some years later when he came across to London for one of Carr P Collins Jnr’s esoteric parties and found him very much a kindred spirit. Knowledgeable, modest but with scant respect for phonies. It was indeed Regardie that first put me onto Carr, who bankrolled my early publishing efforts.
I never met Gerald Gardner although we corresponded when I was editing “New Dimensions” magazine in which I featured all aspects of occultism from spiritualism to ritual magic and at a time when the “wicca” were beginning to come out of the closet – so he was part of quite a high powered team that wrote for me about this side of things, including Doreen Valiente, Pat and Arnold Crowther, Roy Bowers and others, despite pressure on the part of several self-appointed guardians of “the public good” to cease featuring articles on witchcraft. As I wrote in my Editorial for the May 1964 issue, which also contained his obituary by Pat Crowther, “Unfortunately we never had the pleasure of meeting him personally – but only through business postal correspondence. Even so, we feel a sense of loss. We could not agree without some degree of reservation with what he believed in and stood for, but he was that regrettably almost rare kind of person in occult circles – a man with a sense of proportion and a sense of humour. Not only the witch movement, but the occult world in general has lost a great champion in Gerald Gardner. He was also, to an outsider’s point of viewpoint, a great unifying figure in a movement which tends at times to a degree of inter-group factionalism. And his appearances on television on behalf of the Craft gave the lie to the usual distortions and sensationalism put about by the Sunday press. May his soul rest in peace – or in active work! – in whatever pagan afterworld it chooses to go to.”
Pat Crowther I first met in completely secular circumstances, entertaining her and her husband Arnold to lunch to discuss publication of his popular children’s book “Let’s Put On A Show”. A professional conjurer, he was an entertaining and convivial companion, full of fun, with a wide knowledge of esoteric lore and they both provided me with articles on witchcraft and related lore. Our paths did not cross again except by way of editorial correspondence although I did come within arms length of Pat some years later, after Arnold’s death, at one of Carr’s massive parties but regretfully never got round to chat with her.
PL: You worked with W. E. Butler on the /Helios Course on the Practical Qabalah/. W. E. Butler is a favourite author of mine for the gentle way that he encourages students and the practical no-nonsense advice he gives. What was it like working with him?
GK: I did not actually do a great deal of work alongside Ernest. I had written the first six lessons of the Helios Course, (based on Regardie’s “Art of True Healing”) and Ernest was commissioned to take it on from there, which he did, extending it to fifty lessons in the end, a unique course that utilised evocative symbolism from Arthurian legend based upon a sub-structure of the Tree of Life. So it was simply a matter of letting him get on with it, of which he was well capable, recruiting senior students to help him with the supervision.
He was considerably my senior in age, magical experience and knowledge so a comparative young whipper snapper like me did not mess with him too much, for if he felt his preserves were being trespassed upon he could be quite tetchy, which he justified by citing Irish and Yorkshire ancestry!
I shall always remember him from a couple of choice sayings of his. One was about the demerits of those esoteric schools who promised more than they delivered, quoting the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”: The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today!
The other was chanted with chuckling gusto defining the attitude of schools or teachers of an exclusive frame of mind:
We are the few, the chosen few, let all the rest be damned,
So fasten up those pearly gates, we can’t have heaven crammed!
Ernest was, above all, of the inclusive persuasion, with a deep and genuine love of all students, and humble pride in the role of being an esoteric teacher. He never compromised his principles and was certainly one of the more liberal dispensers of esoteric jam I have been privileged to know in my occult career.
PL: You set up what is now known as The Avalon Group in 1973 (now run by Wendy Berg). How did this group come to be?
GK: The time came when having passed through the grades of Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light and come out the other side in 1965, I spent a few years working out the way I thought esoteric teaching and practice ought to be going, through a combination of the magical input of William G Gray and the mystical input of the Rev. Anthony Duncan, books by both of whom I also published.
There was no point in muscling in on the foundation that Ernest Butler had built, which was now launched as the Servants of the Light organisation in the capable hands of Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki and her husband Mike under Ernest’s direction for the rest of his life. Accordingly I started completely afresh, writing and publishing “Experience of the Inner Worlds” on which all my personal band of students were trained.
This initiative received a shot in the arm between 1979 and 1986 when I did a series of workshops at Hawkwood College, now quite legendary, which built up a considerable momentum until the power levels reached such a pitch that they were difficult to control in a public free for all. I therefore decided the time had come to shut up shop and continue to work with just a core of personally trained students. This later became known as the Gareth Knight Group until, in 1998, having ruled the roost for 25 years, I decided to hand over to a succeeding generation.
This is now known as the Avalon Group, under Wendy Berg, although another off shoot is the Company of Avalon under Mike Harris and Steve Blamires. I also had another job waiting me as an esoteric consultant back at a rejuvenated Society of the Inner Light, which included editing and publishing a number of Dion Fortune’s previously unpublished works.
PL: Since the 1960s Tarot has become terribly popular. It was through a desire to understand the Tarot symbolism better that I originally came across your work, most notably /A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism/. I have noticed that although many use the Tarot for divination, far fewer have any in-depth interest in its symbolism and Qabalistic correspondences. What are your views on this?
GK: Well I think it a pity and tried to build a half-way house by launching a book and course called “The Magical World of the Tarot” in the early 1990’s, which sought to teach Tarot divination by first teaching the first principles of what the cards stood for, rather than mugging up “meanings” from out of a book. This had a modicum of success but was not worth devoting any major part of my life to. The book is still around though, and I was much touched by receiving a letter from a sergeant in the US marines to say that he did not know a lot about occultism but this book was the best on Tarot he had ever read and had helped him a lot in life.
PL: You have produced your own symbolically rich set of excellent Tarot cards, which appear to be based largely on the Golden Dawn attributions. A number of high profile occult practitioners have done similarly, most notably A. E. Waite and Aleister Crowley. Although based on the Golden Dawn attributions both sets include ideas that are not in the original design schema. Does it matter that whoever produces a set of Tarot cards is to a greater or lesser extent giving their own take on things?
GK: I think my own set of Tarot cards somewhat apprentice work, although probably none the worse for that. Indeed in training seriously committed students for my group, each and every one of them was expected to design and produce their own set of 78 cards. The criterion not being, of course, artistic ability, but by meditation upon the Tree of Life or other symbolic schema to work out their own “model of the universe” which is essentially what the Tarot is.
In one sense it is encouraging to see so many different published designs nowadays but producing your own deck, however crudely executed, would be a far more fruitful enterprise than buying one. Indeed, in the course of life, one might produce more than one set, as realisations change and mature. Although I realise that this may be a somewhat unrealistic counsel of perfection.
Exception must be made for decks produced by experienced and proven teachers. And I have myself found one or two to be highly instructive – for instance Hallowquest by Caitlín and John Matthews and the Dream Power Tarot by R J Stewart. It is surprising however, on analysis, how many designs derive (with or without acknowledgement) from those of A. E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith.
In practice I opt for one of the old crude Marseilles packs, which at least have not been influenced (or contaminated) by other people’s esoteric ideas, and I visualise my own ideas upon those rough archetypes.
PL: Many high profile celebrities are featured in popular magazines professing a belief in Qabalah, such as Madonna and Victoria Beckham. How do you feel about this?
GK: It does not impinge much on me as I am not a reader of popular magazines - particularly those that feature high profile celebrities. It could be all to the good to the celebrities themselves and their followers if they get beyond the superficial. Otherwise I suppose it does no more good nor harm than any other fashion accessory.
PL: Does it matter that the occult world has become increasingly commercialised?
GK: I think it has its up and down sides. Useful if it spreads the word that there is more to life than the material side of things - even if in the process of hawking superstitious nonsense. It may well lead some to enquire after more fruitful lines of enquiry. One welcomes what has been expressed in some quarters as “the externalisation of the hierarchy” but it is perhaps inevitable that this will bring with it a certain amount of trivialisation – which I suppose is better than being totally ignored or persecuted by religious or political authority – which is still the case in many parts of the world.
PL: Throughout your life you have been heavily involved in the publishing world in one way or another. If you could recommend 5 books that were essential reading for a beginning student keen to learn more about magic what would they be and why?
John and Caitlín Matthews: The Western Way. Subtitled “A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition” that is exactly what this two volume work is. The first volume devoted to the native tradition and the second to the hermetic tradition. An excellent introduction, with exercises, to all aspects of the western tradition that any beginner could possibly wish to know. Only wish I had written it myself!
R J Stewart: The Living World of Faery. A general introduction to a vastly important field of esotericism that has been unduly neglected and misunderstood, and that will also serve as an entry point to this important writer’s series of books that go deeper into underworld initiation, earth light and power within the land.
John Matthews and Marian Green: The Grail Seeker’s Companion. An elementary but comprehensive guidebook to all elements of the mysteries of the Grail - its history, ritual, myth and literature along with meditation exercises, advice and instruction – in fact everything you need to start you on the way to your own quest.
Gareth Knight: Magic and the Power of the Goddess. Now in its third incarnation having come out of a collection of lectures and practical workshops as The Rose Cross & the Goddess and then refurbished as Evoking the Goddess, it seems to go from strength to strength so maybe was ahead of its time. It gives an historical take on various aspects of the feminine divine principle along with practical exercises.
Gareth Knight: The Practice of Ritual Magic which with Magical Images and the Magical Imagination are two little primers specifically with the beginner in mind on all you need to get going on the much misunderstood practice of ritual.
PL: One of my favourite books of yours is /A History of White Magic/. This is because you explain magic as encompassing both science and religion in a coherent way. You are one of the few authors to do this. Do you think enough is done to explain the rationale of magic? The reason I ask is that the world of science has become increasingly aware that it needs to do more “outreach” work and explain itself and its value to the world. Do you think the magical world should do likewise?
GK: I think this is already happening. A number of universities are offering degrees in esoteric studies and so the whole field is beginning to be taken seriously albeit in terms of history of the subject, or in terms of anthropology, but as Robert Persig pointed out in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” universities are “temples of reason” and therefore somewhat ill equipped to deal with matters beyond the rational mind. However, it’s a start. Mention should also be made of The Tenemos Academy in London, founded by the poet and mystic Kathleen Raine which is a high powered academic flag waver on behalf of the esoteric approach. Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical movement has also made significant strides into the practical worlds of agriculture, education and other disciplines over the years.
PL: What are your latest projects?
GK: I have just produced after a great deal of research a book on faery in Arthurian legend as a consequence of taking a university degree in French, concentrating on the work of the first Arthurian romancer Chrétien de Troyes. Described by the publishers as “one of the most significant esoteric texts about the connections between Arthurian and Faery Tradition ever written” it is a mind blowing re-take on the function of the ladies of the knights of the Round Table – how in the earliest romances they were faery women acting as guides, guardians and lovers to the knightly heroes, inciting them or enticing them onto quests that were in reality initiations into Faeryland. And how this is equally applicable today.
This has just been published as “The Faery Gates of Avalon” by R J Stewart Books.
Another long term project has been into the history and legend of the faery Melusine of Lusignan. However this has been put on the back burner for the time being as I concentrate upon my autobiography, as yet untitled, which seems to have quite a high priority as I approach my ninth decade.
On the practical front I help out a bit at the Society of the Inner Light which is where my esoteric journey started from, thus completing the magic circle in a sense. I have however retired from public workshop and lecture work.
PL: What are you currently reading?
GK: An academically annotated edition of the works of Lewis Carroll – notably “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” along with “The Hunting of the Snark”. All excellent sources for magical analogies, such as the one already quoted by W. E. Butler and the one that appears in the prelims of my “Experience of the Inner Worlds”:
‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Unicorn ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
‘Yes, if you like,’ said Alice.
PL: What makes Gareth Knight sing?
GK: No great singer, but likes to fantasise about one day playing the piano as well as Dave Brubeck or Count Basie.