Author of two Skylight books on the Arthurian mysteries (Red Tree, White Tree and Gwenevere & the Round Table) Wendy Berg is an experienced practitioner in the Western Mystery Tradition and practical ritual magic. She is an authority on Egyptian, Celtic, Arthurian and Grail magical traditions and has a thorough knowledge of the Qabalah, blending Christian Mysticism with modern Paganism. She is also co-author of Polarity Magic: the Secret History of Western Religion, was a major contributor to Alan Richardson’s Spirits of the Stones, and until recently ran the Avalon Group, the magical fraternity founded by Gareth Knight. Although her books are very popular Wendy keeps a low public profile and many outside of the the immediate community know very little about her. I’m delighted, then, to offer this recent conversation in which she discusses some inspirations and insights relating to her writing and practice.
DS: My experience of writers is that they are either the horn-blowing types with a missionary zeal for their writing (especially in the internet and social media era) or they are the more reclusive and private set (in good literary company throughout the ages) content to let the written word do their talking. Hoping not to sound to reductive, you strike me as more of the latter and many of your readers might not know an awful lot about you. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – and particularly what your writing process is like?
WB: Yes, mostly I am content to let the written word do my talking. My outer life is nicely ordinary. I taught music for many years (I still play the piano a couple of hours a day) then worked in local government adding new public rights of way to the map. I enjoyed that: the idea of setting down paths for others to follow seemed to be an outward expression of my esoteric work. Then I worked in alternative health care for a while, and now I run a hardware shop. I find ironmongery very appealing – nuts and bolts, hand tools, proper brass door furniture, beeswax polish – lovely stuff. But study and understanding of the nature of consciousness and of the Inner worlds remains a compulsion. My interest in the Inner worlds began when I read Watkins The Old Straight Track and I took off from there. I spent many years working in the modern Pagan movement and gradually moved towards more formal Hermetic magic.
I don’t find writing comes easily or naturally, but there is this compulsion to do it. The English language sometimes feels quite foreign to me. I rarely have much idea of what I’m going to write next, but when I have completed one bit the next bit arrives in my head as a sort of condensed seed idea. It’s then a matter of expanding it, developing it, finding the words to express it, teasing out the sense, so that each chapter grows outwards in all directions from the original idea. The whole process is one of pressure building up inside my head which has to be released by writing it down.
DS: To my knowledge Red Tree, White Tree began as a contribution to Gareth Knight’s Arthurian Formula for which the author later paid you quite a compliment: “Wendy has certainly changed the direction of my own thought and research into matters Arthurian…” Can you elaborate a little on how the book came into being?
WB: It was triggered by my seeing a reproduction of a woodcut which shows Eve and the Faery Melusine together holding the spear which wounds the side of Christ. It was one of those moments when the world stopped for a few seconds. When it started moving again, so many things that had been an unresolved puzzle to me both in my esoteric ponderings and in my own being, began to fall into place. Really, that illustration expresses the whole book in a single image. But even before that, it was dawning on me that the only explanation that made sense of Gwenevere was that she was Faery. Otherwise her role in the stories is almost pointless, and it doesn’t make sense if an apparently major character in a story doesn’t have any purpose.
DS: Coming from a literary background I was quite struck by scholarly content in Red Tree, White Tree, which manages to combine a high level of academic research with a bold revelatory thesis about Faery connections. Actually, it’s one of the most comprehensive books I’ve ever read on the Arthurian tradition. Can you talk a little about the research process and what drives you in writing such a book?
WB: What drives me in many things is that it really annoys me when things don’t make sense! So right from the start when I first began to read the Arthurian and Grail legends my response was ‘but what does that mean?’ I read more and more, but found I was going round in circles in which one version of the story could be used to ‘explain’ another version without getting back to the original thought behind them. I like Mysteries but not mysteries, and a symbol such as the Grail must to my mind have actual, real, meaning which makes sense in terms of both the physical world and the Inner worlds. It must connect up properly with both Above and Below. I certainly wouldn’t claim that my explanation is the only explanation, but from the positive feedback I’ve received it seems to have struck the right chord for many people, not least in the affirmation that there can be Faery elements within the human psyche. So from that alone, I feel that I have achieved something worthwhile.
DS: Of course, Red Tree, White Tree and its companion piece, Guenevere and the Round Table are very different books, one being more theoretical while the other offers more practical applications. How different was it writing the follow up and are you planning to do more work in this field?
WB: It was really quite different, because all the research and thinking had been done and what was coming through was a joyful and delighted response from the Faeries of the Round Table who now I’d got the right idea in theory, wanted to tell me how it all worked in practice. I think it’s important that these ‘myths’ shouldn’t be stuck in the past but recognised as a living magical tradition that has to be worked with, developed and re-written according to the needs of the time. The Company of the Round Table isn’t an antiquated collection of knights in shining armour but a group of real Priests and Priestesses, human and Faery, working at the heart of the Mysteries in the 21st century. The power of this Inner construct comes through as soon as you begin to work with it.
I don’t have any more work planned in this field at the moment – perhaps no more is needed until the impetus behind these two books has worked through into actuality.
DS: Your co-authored book Polarity Magic covers quite a lot of esoteric terrain being as its subtitle suggests, a History of Western Religion, but also supplying a number of parallels to Eastern counterparts. Does your own path reflect the variety of these influences or are you drawn to some elements more than others?
WB: My own path has always been one of trying to combine two apparent opposites, both in my own consciousness and in my outer life. Finding a way to resolve the human and Faery parts of me was one aspect of this, but there is also a strong East/West divide in me that is still trying to find resolution. I’ve used Chinese medicine for the last thirty years, I love all aspects of Chinese art and I am hoping to make another visit to Tibet next year as I feel very at home there. As to how West and East can be joined in magical and spiritual practices, I’m not sure. We’ve a long way to go yet. But as things are at the moment, I think a little more understanding in the West of the remarkable ancient Chinese civilisation wouldn’t go amiss. And I do find that the Eastern understanding of subtle energy and the Eastern way of incorporating the constitution of the physical and subtle bodies into meditation and spiritual practice is something that is not adequately dealt with in Western magical and spiritual work, so I use a combination of both in my own magical work.
DS: Finally, can you tell us what might be in store for your enthusiastic readers?
WB: I have some ideas for a book about the Finnish epic the Kalevala, and writing it will surely call for plenty of field research with trips to Finland, sight of the Northern Lights and conversation with reindeer! But for the moment I am occupied with writing about the magical symbolism of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. I’m very excited about what I’m discovering. The hieroglyphs are an extraordinary series of symbols that work on multiple levels and reveal Egyptian magic in a new light as fresh, immediate, and rooted in the landscape!