Gareth Knight, an author of some forty books on a wide array of subjects following his training in Dion Fortune’s Society of the Inner Light, is now firmly established as one of the world’s foremost authorities on ritual magic, the Western Mystery Tradition, occult history, Qabalistic symbolism, Tarot, the Arthuriad and other mystical texts of antiquity. So the official and public CV goes… but there is so much more to the man than most of his readers are aware of. It has been my privilege to work with Gareth on a number of recent books (including new works, reissued older works, and various commentaries on the works of colleagues and peers) and I’m constantly amazed by the sheer energy and work ethic of a man entering his ninth decade. The following is our recent conversation conducted through the airwaves as we both await the coming of a rather shy Spring….
DS: It strikes me that your work is now coming to a second perhaps third generation of readers who perhaps aren’t quite as aware of your background. You have retired from public service but continue to be a prolific author on quite a few fronts. Tell us a little bit about how you work and what you are up to these days.
GK: Third generation? Yes, sounds a bit awesome. Especially when I reflect that my first book, A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism, and still going strong, was written fifty years ago. Having reached my ninth decade most of my esoteric activities these days are done sitting at a computer keyboard. And a lot easier that is, I must say, compared to the old days of hammering away at a secondhand typewriter with three carbon copies jammed in the roller. Correcting a mistake was a real hassle, a messy job with an India rubber applied to all copies. I feel lucky that people still seem to want to read my work and that Skylight Press is there to design it so well and distribute it.
DS: It has come to my attention that you are a pianist and lover of music, particularly Jazz. Is music an escape or release from your work or is it a part of the mystical experience? What are your listening or playing habits?
GK: The best thing about music making is doing it along with other people. I led a traditional jazz band in my misspent youth, spent summer weekends playing flugal horn and glockenspiel with a local brass band in my middle years, and until recently filled the piano chair in a rehearsal big band playing anything from Count Basie to Stan Kenton. I also had a go at writing music arrangements, somewhat a bit off the beaten track, such as modern jazz or old ragtime numbers for the brass band, including a cheeky version of “The Stripper” (never to be played on Sunday afternoons or at church fêtes!).
I still play the piano a bit at home, and would be what might be called an improvising musician – never playing anything the same way twice. As for listening, I like any jazz from ancient to modern – pianists Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk, and with a particularly soft spot for cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Classical music does not do a lot for me although I have recently been smitten by the astonishingly gifted and lovely virtuoso Alison Balsom playing baroque trumpet.
DS: You have written on the Oxford Inklings, the various texts of the Arthuriad, and more recently have translated works from mediaeval French literature. Coming from a literary background myself I also notice a lot of literary allusions in your esoteric work, often the Romantics and Victorians (with Coleridge seeming to be a particular favourite). Can you elaborate on where this might come from and whether or not you have a conscious approach to the literary realm?
GK: The magical imagination has been best demonstrated and theorized about by nineteenth century romantic poets – a fact I learned from the former Hawkwood College principal Bernard Nesfield-Cookson, from the poet Kathleen Raine, and from reading What Coleridge Thought by anthroposophist Inkling Owen Barfield. I simply took the hint and plunged in.
I have always had a leaning toward the French and when I retired from work took an external BA degree in French at the University of London which gave me the ability to translate a few interesting texts – introducing the faery Melusine of Lusignan to the Anglosaxon world and getting closer acquainted with early Arthurian romancers such as Chrétien de Troyes.
DS: My introduction to your work was through Experience of the Inner Worlds, which was first published almost 40 years ago. Recently, you have worked on quite a few new editions of texts from your early days, which must be quite an experience. Can you tell us what it is like going back to these works? Do you feel that you have changed or grown across the arc of your books?
GK: The one I would really like to get back to is A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism as it is showing its age in some respects – most of the occultism is all right but there are some embarrassing social comments which I would no longer identify with. I was able to go some way to make amends with a new Introduction to the paperback edition in 2000, although I am not sure that many people read Introductions!
As for my later works, it may sound a bit complacent or conceited but I have not found much need to revise them – in fact I have been quite awed by my former erudition. Did I really read and comment on all the works of C.S.Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield for The Magical World of the Inklings? So in all honesty it is not so much with a big head as realizing I might have passed my best!
Not likely to pull off that kind of thing again, any more than doing unscripted weekend workshops off the cuff. Time to pull in the horns a bit and play to what remain of my strengths. Funnily enough, I share the experience of Dion Fortune in having, more than once, picked up a book and read it with interest before realizing it to be one of my own!
DS: Many readers might not know that you spent many years working in the publishing trade both as a submissions editor for a large publishing house and a proprietor of a small press. A lot has changed since then. How do you see the current publishing world in comparison to those days? What advice would you give to an aspiring writer in your field?
GK: I think large publishing houses are much the same apart from getting larger and multinational in place of the old family firms that had thrived for the previous couple of hundred years and more. When I was with Longmans it was still run by the family since its foundation in 1724. In the modern world a middle sized publishing firm finds it hard to make ends meet.
On the other hand small publishing is a lot easier with the advance of technology making short print runs feasible, and with increased distribution and promotion opportunities via the internet. In my early days when printing was done with slugs of hot metal in a Linotype machine the only way I survived was by scrounging money from generous benefactors and having a specialist mail order bookshop on the side as a customer base. Mind you, publishing is still not as easy as it might look!
As for advice on writing – read a lot and write a lot. Read the very best in your chosen genre, whether it be highbrow literature, journalism or pulp fiction. And write at least a thousand words every day – most of it will be rubbish for the first hundred thousand words or so but paper is cheap and recyclable. Above all enjoy it, don’t give up the day job and be lucky! Very lucky! If getting rich is your object you might do better to play the national lottery. Chances are about the same, and you can use the money you might have wasted on a creative writing course.
DS: Much of what you write is sought out by what seems to be a robust ‘speciality’ or ‘niche’ audience of practitioners, theorists, students and neophytes. But in a mainstream sense it is all lumped together in the ‘New Age’ or ‘Mind Body Spirit’ sections along with Alien conspiracy theories and blissed-out Angel picture books. What is your sense of your readership – who do you write for?
GK: I suppose I more or less write for myself. A personal quest to research into something and hope a reasonable number of like minded souls might care to pay the cost of a book to be looking over my shoulder, so to speak. Which is not a very good formula for earning a living but I have only ever looked upon it as a congenial hobby.
The esoteric world is a very fragmented one – with almost as many “isms” as there are readers to go round. Just look at the shelves on a specialist occult book shop. And then cast a glance at the occult shelf of a big book store to see a smattering of elementary books geared to the lowest common denominator.
DS: As perhaps the foremost ‘elder statesman’ in the Western Mystery Tradition and yourself a part of Dion Fortune’s legacy do you have strong notions of lineage within the community? Is there a core of new writers and thinkers to be excited about or have things become too diffuse in our digital age of ‘anything goes’?
GK: As to lineage I suppose that I am a Dion Fortune man. I was bowled over by her books when I first came upon them, and learned my occultism in the society she founded, and have continued on from there as the path has opened at my feet – for details of which see I Called It Magic, my esoteric autobiography. Some people now talk of a “Dion Fortune/Gareth Knight tradition” so I suppose I must have done something right! However, the tradition is wider than that, and flourishing in many ways with some very bright people coming through. For specific examples of which consult the list of authors at Skylight Press!
DS: Finally – people often comment on the vast range of your subject matter and expertise – can you give us an inkling as to what you’re working on at the moment? What new topics can we expect?
GK: Currently girding up my loins to cope with the proofs of my forthcoming blockbuster The Book of Melusine of Lusignan in History, Legend & Romance. On the translation front I am two thirds of the way through another book by André Lebey, L’Initiation de Vercingetorix a fascinating evocation of the Celtic world of two thousand years ago, probably to be called Druids against Caesar.
As for the next bit of original work, I am teetering on the edge of an ambitious and possible foolhardy attempt, if I should live so long, to cast some esoteric light on the modern scientific world, (or scientific light on the modern esoteric world), with the provisional title of Stellar Alchemy & Magical Harmonics. Might as well aim high and end with a Big Bang rather than a whimper.
Interview conducted on Friday, April 19, 2013
Photograph circa 1990 by Rebecca Wilby
Skylight Press will shortly be publishing The Book of Melusine of Lusignan: In History, Legend & Romance, a collection of related texts edited by Gareth Knight. His other Skylight titles include To the Heart of the Rainbow, The Magical World of the Inklings, Yours Very Truly, Experience of the Inner Worlds, A History of White Magic, The Romance of the Faery Melusine, I Called it Magic, The Abbey Papers (with Rebecca Wilby), Merlin and the Grail Tradition, Faery Loves and Faery Lais, Tarot & Magic, The Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend and Magical Images and the Magical Imagination. He has also contributed to other such titles as Red Tree, White Tree, At the Gates of Dawn, Both Sides of the Door, Gwenevere and the Round Table and The Magical Battle of Britain (with Dion Fortune).