By the end of the first volume of this biography of Gerald Gardner, he had been initiated into a coven in Highciffe and that coven had performed a ritual intended to prevent the Germans from invading England. World War II lasted another four years, but once the war was over, Gardner returned to living in London, and took that next logical step that many of us have contemplated in the years following our own initiations: getting ordained as a Christian priest.
To be fair, the small sect into which Gardner was ordained was highly heterodox, and Gardner appears to only have been interested in the group because they operated a small park of historical reenactment that included a witch’s hut that Gardner very much wanted to own. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that Gardner ever did anything with his ordination, or considered it important in any sense at all. Nevertheless, Heselton’s new biography makes it fairly clear that this episode was part of a common pattern of behavior which is probably familiar to many us in the movement that grew up after Gardner. Gardner was a bit of a collector of initiations and titles.
Ultimately, the importance of a book can only be determined through the passage of time as the book is read and referenced. Thus, I cannot say right now that Witchfather will be as important as Drawing Down the Moon or Triumph of the Moon; nevertheless, I can say that the quality of investigation contained therein is on par with Adler’s work, and that Witchfather takes our understanding of formation of modern Wicca a bit beyond what Hutton was able to uncover. If you wish to understand the history of modern Paganism, then you should own this book as well as its two well-regarded predecessors.
As we come to understand Gardner through Heselton’s detailed examination of his life, it appears that Gardner was probably a great person to have in your tradition, but a terrible person to have in your coven. After his retirement he had a pattern of joining groups that he was interest in, contributing funds, and, then, trying to wrest control of the group away from the people in charge. He tried to do so with his naturist club, and he did so more successfully with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic on the Isle of Man. And he fought for control with at least one of the covens he created. Nevertheless, the creation of the museum, and the publication of Witchcraft Today he brought Wica (the spelling they used at the time) to the attention a much larger group of people than would have discover the tradition otherwise.
The second volume of this biography has a distinct advantage over the first volume, in that a few of Gardner’s initiates are still alive and are able to share their memories of him. The book is probably worth purchasing for the extended quotes from Fred Lamond alone. Lamond has his own book on the subject, of course, but Heselton has the advantage of weaving Lamond’s perspective into the context provided by the words and writings of the others who encountered, worked with and practiced the craft with Gardner. The impression is that most people liked Gardner even if they got frustrated with him on occasion, and they were fairly forgiving of him, even after one incident when he outed some members causing one coven member to lose her job.
Interestingly, Heselton is almost entirely tacit on the subject of who wrote the Wiccan Book of Shadows. The Charge of the Goddess and the Law of Threefold Return are each mentioned once in passing, and the Rede is not mentioned at all. He does mention how the various early versions of the Book of Shadows are currently designated by scholars, but does not even hazard a guess at when they might have been compiled and what sources other than Crowley might have influenced their contents. He is clear, however, that Crowley almost certainly had no direct involvement with the Wiccan Book of Shadows, and that any material from Crowley came from his published work. Heselton only mentions Leland in the context of Gardner’s second novel, High Magic’s Aid.
I cannot say where exactly the scholarship on the issue of Pagan survival stands now. I supose that strict followers of Kelly will not be convinced by Witchfather that either Edith Woodford-Grimes or Dorothy Fordham before her were in covens before Gardner came along because there is no written evidence that they were. Nevertheless, Witchfather clearly demonstrates that Gardner’s stories are plausible with respect to his initiation. The character of Gardner that comes across in Heselton’s biography is one of a person who was amply able to romanticize witchcraft, but who does not particularly seem to have had the skills or the inclination to have made the whole thing up. He was never a poet, nor was he particularly interested in western ritual magic before his retirement, for instance.
Personally, the evidence in Witchfather has made me believe that it is likely that Gardner was initiated into an existing tradition. I still think that unbroken Pagan survival is unlikely, but I have to acknowledge that you can only keep pushing back the goalposts so many generations before Wicca as a twentieth century creation becomes untenable. That being said, I really wish there were a shred of evidence for a coven practicing in the years immediately before the publication of Witch Cult in Western Europe. It just seems too likely to me that modern trads arose in response to the theory rather than the other way around. I can sympathize with anyone who disagrees, however.
In any case, Heselton has done a great service to the community in conducting and publishing this research, and Witchfather contains a large amount of evidence which must be considered in future research in these matters. Furthermore, he has done so in way that is eminently readable and engaging. He has provided a portrait of Gardner that seems to be fair and accurate, and has approached his subject and sources with a healthy degree of skepticism. He presents Gardner as a flawed but interesting man who had a pivotal role in bringing Wicca to life and popularity. Heleston does not manage to lay to rest any of the fundamental questions associated with Wicca, but Witchfather is likely to remain the definitive biography of Gardner for the foreseeable future, and a cornerstone of future insight and understanding.
 I’m not sure how to mention this without it coming off as a humblebrag (when I really would rather that it be a brag-brag) but when I was in training I got to participate in a small group ritual with Fred. We got to talk to him for a couple of hours after the ritual. I got to discuss with him a bit about the thealogy of “polarity”, and I explored what he knew about the group Gardner was initiated into. In those pre-Hutton days, Fred thought it might have been a theosophical study group. In any case, my impression was that Fred is an absolutely lovely gentleman, and I feel extremely lucky to have gotten to meet him, and share some Cakes and Ale with him. [Return]
Being kind of Feri-adjacent, I was at least told why pagans around here hate Kelly: he outed an entire list of Pagans in the early 80′s in one of his publications without their permission. I have expressed skepticism that doing so had much effect on the people so outed, but was told on one forum to “…tell that to the people who lost their jobs.” [Return]