Author: Philip Heselton
Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: Capall Bann Publishing
Publication date: December 2000
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Wiccan Roots represents an attempt by Philip Heselton to examine in great detail
the setting, circumstances, and people surrounding Gerald B. Gardner's initiation as a
witch in 1939, and the events which followed therefrom. It is the result of a significant
amount of original research, and includes information which, insofar as I am aware, has not
until now been available to many of the people who have an interest in this subject. In
his Introduction to the book, Heselton says:
I wanted to draw together what had already been published about the modern witchcraft
revival, including vital books such as Gerald Gardner: Witch and obscure articles in
defunct magazines, which could nevertheless reveal some unusual aspects of the subject.
It would be safe to say that Heselton has been successful in that aim, at least. Whether
the conclusions he draws from the information he has unearthed are justified is another
Wiccan Roots begins with a fairly detailed examination of Gerald Gardner's life up
to his retirement to England in 1936, establishing Gardner as a gentleman of independent
means with a complaisant wife, and an active interest in esoteric subjects. After setting
the scene by discussing the geography of the New Forest area, including the village of
Highcliffe where Gardner eventually settled, Heselton examines the Rosicrucian Order
Crotona Fellowship, which established the Garden Theatre in the village of Somerford,
between Christchurch and Highcliffe. It was among the membership of the Crotona
Fellowship, and the casts and crews of the various plays produced by the Fellowship in the
Garden Theater that Gardner is supposed to have found "a small group of people apart from
the rest." It is this smaller group which is supposed to have been made up of members of
the New Forest Coven, and which eventually initiated him into "the Craft of the Wica."
Heselton identifies several of these persons by name, and provides some details of their
lives. Among these is the woman known as "Dafo," who became Gardner's initiator and first
magical partner, and who later broke with him over the question of publicizing witchcraft.
Heselton then spends several chapters addressing the issue of "Old Dorothy," more
properly known as Dorothy St. Quintin Fordham (nee Clutterbuck,) and the nature of her
involvement (if any,) in witchcraft and the New Forest Coven. He includes several excerpts
from her "diaries" (which might be more properly characterized as journals or daybooks,)
and while he admits that the evidence is far from conclusive, Heselton makes it clear that
he believes her to have been both pagan and a practicing witch. The remainder of the book
discusses the nature of the New Forest Coven, the legendary gathering of witches in the New
Forest on Lammas Eve of 1940 to perform a great working to prevent an invasion of Britain
by the Germans, and finally, some related issues, such as the possible influence of the
Order of Woodcraft Chivalry on the modern witchcraft revival, and the possibility of a
connection of some sort between the New Forest Coven and Sybil Leek's Horsa Coven. In his
final chapter, Heselton outlines a scenario which is consistent with the information
developed in his research, and which he believes provides a plausible explanation for the
mystery that has always surrounded Gerald Gardner's account of his initiation.
The book itself left me feeling ambivalent. Philip Heselton has clearly performed
a great deal of original research, at no little cost to him in time and trouble. He
presents the information developed out of his research in a clear and reasonably
straightforward manner. It is, I suppose, the conclusions that Heselton draws from his
information, and the manner in which he draws them, that trouble me. Heselton has a bad
habit of suggesting in one chapter that the available evidence may indicate that
such-and-such is true, and then beginning his reasoning in the next chapter as if the
such-and-such mentioned in the previous chapter was an established fact. One sees this all
too often in the popular press, (Holy Blood, Holy Grail being but one horrible example of
this sort of reasoning,) but it is disturbing to find it in a work intended to be a piece
of serious scholarship. Heselton also makes what I view to be a serious error in his
interpretations of the various entries in Dorothy Fordham's "diaries." He clearly views
her allusions to a number of common images from classical mythology in those diary entries
as evidence that Dorothy was pagan. In doing so, he, ignores the fact that Dorothy, who
was born in 1880, received the sort of private, classical education traditional for a young
woman of Britain's upper classes during the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.
Flowery allusions to classical themes were common features in formal writing (particularly
of poetry), in the society in which Dorothy was raised, without being accorded any special
meaning beyond being decorative. Such things were, in essence, evidence that the author
had been properly educated. The inclusion of such things in a piece of verse would only be
considered significant of something else when viewed from the context of a society where
such ornate forms of writing have fallen wholly out of favor.
It is in large part because I feel that Heselton has not proved his arguments
regarding Dorothy Fordham that I have problems accepting his conclusions in their entirety.
That having been said, I must also state that I think that Wiccan Roots ought to be read
by anyone with a serious interest in the history of the modern witchcraft revival. It
makes a useful companion piece to Professor Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon, and Professor
Hutton has in fact contributed a short forward to Wiccan Roots. In the long run, I think
that Wiccan Roots' greatest value will be as an encouragement to further research and
debate, rather than as a definitive resolution of the issues Philip Heselton has explored
in its pages.
Wiccan Roots is footnoted, and contains an index. It was published by Capall Bann,
which unfortunately means that it has had only very limited distribution in North America.
However, I was able to obtain a copy with little difficulty (albeit after a wait of several
weeks) from the UK branch of Amazon.com.
Reviewed by Brock (High Priest, Tangled Moon Coven, Clarksville, TN)