Mouse’s Way: Philip Heselton’s Biographies of Gerald Gardner
A serious scholarly biography of Gerald Gardner, the effective founder of the Wiccan religion, remains to be written. Philip Heselton has now written four books on Gardner’s life, but his vision is near-sighted and close to the ground, like a mouse seeking food in the grass, unaware that there are tall trees around him.
Heselton is a master of the trivial detail: He tells us that contrary to the Jack Bracelin biography, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960), Gardner sailed from Sri Lanka to England in 1907 rather than in 1905, and a naive reader might be impressed by such a correction. He spends pages on minute details regarding the real-estate dealings behind English nudist resorts.
But as he did in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (2003), he continues to miss the implications of the chronology that he himself lays out.
• 1939. Gardner says that he was initiated into one of (or the only) surviving English witch covens at a house owned by Dorothy Clutterbuck in Hampshire on “the most wonderful night of his life.”
• 1946. Gardner is ordained in a Old Catholic church, this one called the Ancient British Church. Would a man who had found his heart’s desire seven years earlier in a Wiccan coven now become a heterodox Christian priest?
• Circa 1946. He is also involved with the Ancient Druid Order, also known as the Universal Bond, and joins its rituals at least until the key year of 1951 (Witchfather, 328–31).
• 1947. He pays Aleister Crowley to give him an upgraded initiation into the Ordo Templi Orientis, with authority to take over its activities in Britain.
• 1947–48. Inspired by his contacts with Crowley, he starts copying old magical texts into a big book, “Ye [The] Bok of Ye Arte Magical.”
Is he thinking about witchcraft at all? He writes a novel, High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949, but the supposedly medieval witchcraft in it is actually Renaissance ceremonial magic with the addition of a naked woman — and she is more of a passive psychic medium than an active high priestess and leader. It does not resemble what we know as Wicca much at all.
Later he will claim that “the witches” gave him permission to write the book if he concealed their “secrets.” Even that statement would have made good advertising, but it does not appear in the original 1949 edition — only later, when Wicca is up and running. I suggest instead that it was a story made up in order to mesh with the story of the 1939 initiation.
• 1951. He and Cecil Williamson open their museum of witchcraft and magic. Gardner will later buy Wiliamson’s share. Gardner now goes public with Wicca and writes two more books, although he pretends to be an anthropologist and not a participant.
Despite the 1939 initiation story, during the 1940s Gardner bounced from one esoteric and magical group to another. He was still a “seeker.” By contrast, the 1950s–1960s Gardner totally committed himself to Wicca. That comparison alone tells me that Wicca began in 1950–51.
It is a chicken-and-egg question: which came first, Wicca or the museum. I suspect that it was the museum that forced Gardner’s hand. Now he had to have a coven of witches, in order for said coven of witches to be able to loan ritual objects to the museum — objects which, as his correspondence shows — he was having manufactured to order in some case, whether by theatrical prop-makers or the local blacksmith. Whichever way it was, 1951 was the crucial year for Wicca, not 1939. But having once told a whopper about 1939, Gardner had to keep inventing new stories — some of which Heselton innocently repeats.
A scholarly biographer would realize that others had attempted similar tasks, acknowledge that, and show where his conclusions were different and more certain. In Gardner’s case, that other writer is Aidan Kelly, who in Crafting the Art of Magic (1991) , republished as Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion (2007, points out one important fact: Our only source for the alleged 1939 initiation and the 1940 anti-German invasion ritual is Gardner himself. There are no independent corroborating sources.
Heselton, in contrast, quotes such other historians of Wicca as Kelly and Ronald Hutton only briefly, and only when they seem to support his basic belief in the truth of the Official Myth of 1939. When they do not support him, as Kelly in particular does not (and Hutton too, if you read between the lines), he ignores them.
Heselton can build edifices of speculation. He can try to make lists of who might have been in a 1939 coven, but there is no other evidence that the 1939 coven itself ever existed other than Gardner’s say-so. (Yes, Dorothy Clutterbuck wrote nature poetry. That of itself does not make her a Pagan witch.)
Throughout Witchfather, Heselton writes that Gardner engaged in “deliberate mis-representation of what he wanted to do” (512), “definitely enjoyed intrigue and deception” (529), and “was a trickster and had perfected this to a fine art” (641), to give just a few examples.
Yet his adherence to the Official Myth of 1939 makes him unable to ask if it, too, was a bit of “intrigue and deception,” designed to make Wicca look older than it was. When another writer on Wiccan history, Allen Greenfield, writes of the “the new witch cult” in the 1950s, Heselton feels obligated to add [sic] after the word “new” in the quotation, because it violates the Official Myth.
Heselton has the evidence in his hands, but he does not see it. He admits that Gardner bought a fake PhD from a diploma mill in Nevada so he could call himself “Dr. Gardner.” (Witchfather 167–68). He mentions Gardner’s using out-of-date stationery when writing to Aleister Crowley because he “might have just wanted to impress Crowley with the grandness of his address [which suggested a large country house]” (Witchfather, 301). But he misses the larger pattern.
Call it vanity, call it obfuscation — Gardner wanted to seem to be more than he was, and he wanted the new religion of Wicca to seem older and larger than it was in the early 1950s when he and it went public.
So he backdated it, creating a false origin myth, the “Stone Age survival” that fooled Margaret Murray. (See the first sentence of her introduction to Witchcraft Today.)
Again, had Heselton studied new religious movements, he might have seen a pattern here.
Let it be said that once Wicca was launched, Gardner devoted himself to it. No more OTO, no more Old Catholic Church. He taught, wrote, and publicized Wicca, giving himself 101 percent to the Craft up until his sudden death by stroke in 1964. Now he had found what his heart desired, but he could not admit to having largely invented it — or, if you will, served as a channel for the old gods to bring it back.
Heselton himself writes at the close of Witchfather, “he never lost his enthusiasm for witchcraft from the moment he was initiated  until the end of his life’”(637). Here again, he does not see the implication of what he has just written. If the “enthusiasm for witchcraft” had existed in the 1940s, would there have been all the excursions into other spiritual and esoteric groups? After 1951, there were no such excursions.
When Heselton turns away from the Official Myth, as in his chapter on the relations between Gardner, his covener Jack Bracelin, the Afghan nobleman and Sufi mystic Idries Shaw, and the writer Robert Graves, he suddenly becomes more analytical and even something of a literary critic. Why? Because nothing here threatens the Official Myth. He can look up from his narrow pathway and see the trees.
If I sound a bit frustrated, it is because I have saying for years that Gardner deserved a good biography— and that if I can, I would be happy to see it through to publication. And I have been told, “Heselton is writing it.” But this is not it. There is no analysis and no awareness of Wicca and its chief founder in relation to other new religious movements and their founders.
Now if only someone could combine Heselton’s research with scholarship on new religious movements and less blind obedience to the Official Myth, then we might have the scholarly biography that Gerald Gardner deserves.