by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
New Page Books, 2004 $18.99 US
Review by Daven
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence:
Let me say this right up front; this is not a simple review. In this book, like the subject matter it covers, nothing is simple.
That said, I will do my humble best to give my opinions of this work. Hopefully they will reflect the scope of this book, and somewhere in the average of my thoughts, you can find something for you.
Heavy is my one word summation. It is a weighty tome and it is also filled with a lot of mind altering information, thus making the subject matter heavy as well. This is not going to be a book you can read in one sitting, unless you are not going to practice the lessons contained within.
I must admit, when I first got this book, several things concerned me. First was the worry that any book written by committee is generally doomed to be bad. I guess it’s the “too many cooks…” syndrome always concerns me having read too many good ideas gone bad. I was also worried about the apparent reaching for the teen dollar. This book seems to be written almost exclusively for the tweeny and young teen market. (A “tween” is any person between the ages of about 9 and 12.) Later conversation with Oberon confirmed that he was writing specifically for the male between 9 and 12 with this book.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: Oberon has pointed out that while other authors contributed to the work, he was the one who set the tone and the material to be included throughout this work. That makes it interesting since he has no one else to blame for the book’s shortcomings.)
Those concerns never truly left me as I read through this book, and it colored most of what I read.
I want to be very clear here, the information contained in this book is excellent. There are few books that contain this broad sweep of information. There is, literally, something for everyone. The promotional material that came along with this mentioned that this was written mostly for boys, since there are a ton of books on the market for girls dealing with Witchcraft, but nothing for wizards.
I could gush for a while about what I read, but a couple highlights are in order. In the section on dream interpretation, Oberon is quite clear in stating that Dream Dictionaries, while interesting and of use in a general sense, are not accurate when dealing with most individuals, because the interpretations MUST be filtered through the lens of the experience of the dreamer. I feel this point is critical and more books on dream interpretation must include this piece of advice.
Oberon goes out of his way to say that this book is not a book of religion or religious magick. He breaks out the elements of religion and shows the reader how those elements can be magickal, but he never really says that this way of doing things is only possible if you worship this God or that Goddess. He is clear that most Wizards and Witches worship some deities they believe in, and that the myths of these Gods can be of use in a general way, but all of this is available without committing to one specific moral or liturgical structure.
There are some truly unique and innovative ideas in this book. One example of this is giving pattern numbers in the section about making your robes and clothing (like jerkins and cloaks) that I have not seen in other books. There is a game that he suggests called “Elven Chess” in which players make patterns with random items they have in their pouch for this game. It sounds interesting and someday soon I plan on trying it.
I could go on for some time about what I liked, but let me go to what I didn’t like.
Oberon is trying to weave all stories ever told into one huge tapestry of magick. I am ambivalent about that approach, and I’m not certain that it can be done. Certainly it is not done with this book. Weaving and associating all stories ever told into one book, and then presenting that as a framework for a magickal tradition sounds good on the surface, but Joseph Campbell failed to do it with his seminal works of mythology, Robert Graves failed to do it in his works, and I feel that Oberon fails to do so here. What comes across is a book that can’t find a way to get the point across without resorting to taking it from others.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: He never said that it was ALL stories, just most fiction/magick stories. Guess that’s why it relies so heavily on material from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Ursula K. LeGuin, Terry Prachet, Star Wars, and many other sources)
In my interview with the author via email, he made it plain that this was deliberate. He also asked how he could have done the same thing any other way. I say that if he was writing a fiction work, then it should be presented as fiction, not as how things are. It’s easy to believe in unicorns in a work of fiction, but to read in a work supposedly based in fact that the author rediscovered a way to make Unicorns in this day and age, and to have him reiterate that in several chapters as well as in an interview, punches all my credulity buttons. This is regardless of the fact that he did manage to breed a goat with one horn, which was proven to be a goat by many sources. The unicorns described by medieval writers didn’t just have a single horn, they had the legs of a horse, the cloven feet of a deer, the tail of a lion and many other qualities that entire books have been devoted to.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: This was apparently the one thing that was the most objectionable to Oberon when he read this review. He claims, repeatedly, that this goat “Lancelot” is actually a medieval Unicorn, directly out of the manuscripts and tapestries. His claim to this seems to hinge on the fact that it has one horn and a beard, just as in the manuscript. I still say that it’s a goat, since the single horn will NOT breed true to descendents, it is a surgical procedure, the horn will not keep someone safe from poison, and the various animal parts do not appear on this Unicorn. I see this as impeaching Oberon’s credibility and trivializing magick, making true magick nothing more than a sideshow for profit..)
Worse than that, in my opinion, is crediting a businessman with motivations that are wholly altruistic, but probably inaccurate. An example is his citation that Gene Roddenberry is a wizard of the highest order because he invented Star Trek. I have read multiple interviews with the man at the time he created Star Trek, and it’s apparent that his motivation for writing the story of Star Trek (Wagon Train in space) was to have a TV show and to make money. But in a later interview, Gene says that he created Star Trek to keep the world from killing itself in a nuclear war and Oberon seized on that as proof that Mr. Roddenberry was a Wizard. That may have been his motivation after the phenomenon, and a good sound byte, but as far as I have seen, it was a paycheck. I’ll credit Gene with being a bard, a creator, a playwright, a man who tells enchanting stories. But I feel that the title of Wizard can only be applied to those who actively seek that state.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: He never came out and said directly that Gene was a wizard, but he happily implies this in that section. He states that Gene is responsible for one of the greatest acts of magick ever, totally preventing nuclear war by giving mankind an alternate reality to choose. Being that this statement is in a book talking about wizards, and then crediting Gene with casting a magick spell, it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that the tween who reads this will see it and connect the dots to the conclusions that Gene Roddenberry IS a wizard. As I said, happily implied.)
I have seen on some discussion lists Oberon taking a lot of heat for the tone of this book. I truly think that is because this book is not one thing or another. It is taking fictional elements and weaving them into a tapestry of truth, which implies that all fiction is true. While it is laudable that he tries to do so, I don’t care how many times he states Hogwarts is real, there is no castle in the north of England or Southern Scotland where Hogwarts is housed on this earth. I could wish there were.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: He never states this, but does say that everything that happens in Harry Potter is real. It’s no stretch that leads to the kid understanding that statement to mean Hogwarts is real.)
Some of the information feels like it was taken wholesale from others. One of the most blatant instances is the section about survival in the wilds. It gave me a strong sense of déjà vu since I was a Boy Scout and had read the exact same material almost word for word and illustration for illustration in the Boy Scout Manual. This is not the only time this happens.
Some of this could be explained by remembering that many of the articles he uses were published previously in other works, such as Green Egg and How About Magick, both from the Church of All Worlds.
Additionally, I was concerned with the use of JK Rowlings’ characters and settings throughout the book. I asked if he had permission to use them, and he told me that he did not. He then went on to defend that in stating that he didn’t have to have her permission since there are all kinds of fan fiction and others citing her characters and settings. I can only assume that he is trying to make use of the “Fair Use” clause of the United States Copyright Law. But I still find it troubling that an author, someone who understands what it is like to have work used without permission, would do this to another author.
There are some sections, like the survival in the wild and the gardening chapters that I feel could have been referenced in good books, rather than included in this work. Speaking of references, while there are at least 4 or 5 books referenced in each section, they tend to be questionable in their usefulness. To be sure there are some very good references, but right next to those are books that truly are the worst kinds of books on magick and mythology. There is no sense that Oberon used any kind of discrimination in choosing what he referenced.
I’m giving this book 2 1/2 stars out of 5, making this work completely average. The information is solid, but the presentation is badly done. I think this could have been so much better than it is. I can see how it would appeal to others and why experienced members of various traditions don’t like it. I can’t recommend it and I can’t say it’s crap. I would advise the reader of this work to read it with an open, critical mind and to take everything with a large grain of salt. Don’t believe it simply because it’s in here.
(Update at Oberon’s Insistence: I’m seriously considering grading this radically downward due to Oberon’s protests that this review is a “hatchet job”. At this point, having read it again and looking at the tone it was presented in again, I’m giving it 1 1/2 stars out of 5, which puts this below average, and the recommendation of keeping your money in your pocket. There are many other works out there that will give all this same information in MUCH better light and tone.)
If you can, get a copy of this out of your public library to understand what I’m talking about and why so many people on various boards are up in arms. You might also get this out to understand what the next set of apprentices are basing their practice around.
(Daven’s update: Let me put these red highlights into context for the reader. I had written Oberon to clarify some points of concern I had with this book so that I could be fair. I asked him about 10 questions on various points, trying to understand his reasoning behind their inclusion. Things like the Unicorns, his use of J.K. Rowling’s characters and so on. My intent was to see if it was a mistake or on purpose. It turns out that all of it was deliberate. So I kept that in mind while I wrote this review at first.
Oberon asked what had become of that interview. I sent him a link to this review. That’s when the shit hit the fan. Apparently my reasonable review, which I went to lengths to make fair out of respect for his work in the Pagan Community over his lifetime, was a “shitty review” and a “hatchet job”. I was sent several pages of an email where various points I criticized were dissected and where I was accused of lying and twisting his words. Apparently he’s allowed to paraphrase and imply in his quoting of others, but no one else is allowed to infer anything from his words.
Finally I got tired of going over and over the same series of questions and points. I told him that I found his behavior reprehensible as a “pagan elder”, that he was identifying too much with this book and taking criticism of it personally. I said that I saw him using this book for his own self aggrandizement, lining his own pockets with the money, giving all flash and nothing of substance, and riding on the coattails of Rowling’s hard work to make a buck for himself. But because I promised to make some alterations to this review, I have done so now.
I have since been contacted by some people who are close to him who have said that he is going on and on on lists he owns/moderates and at his WizardSchl.com (the teaching group attached to this book) about not only my review, but any review that is even slightly critical of his work. Apparently because Oberon said it, it is beyond reproach, although he has never said that, it’s implied.
I have offered Oberon space for a rebuttal to this review here, as yet he has not taken me up on this. I refuse to take this to any kind of public board as it’s an exercise in futility in my opinion.)
(Update 8-7-04: I’ve received many compliments to this article and most state that the original review was more than fair. Oberon, unsurprisingly, has never responded to my last email where I say this to him. He seems to think that I have it in for him, which is not the case.
Zak, of Nine Lives, Many Masters, has written his own take on this book as well as the Wizard School which recently opened online. I’m reposting it here.)