King Over the Water: Samuel Mathers and the Golden Dawn, Nick Farrell. Kerubim Press, Dublin, 2012. 361 pages. $25.00
review by J.S. Kupperman
King Over the Water is one of Kerubim Press’ two freshman publications, written by veteran Golden Dawn writer Nick Farrell. An effective sequel to Farrell’s Mathers’ Last Secret, published by the Rosicrucian Order of the Golden Dawn, King Over the Water successfully divides its attentions between Mathers’ role in the development of the Order of the Golden Dawn, its various off-shoots and the rituals and grade material on the one hand, and analyzing some previously unpublished, or only partially published, advanced grade material.
The history Farrell presents is both interesting and important. There have been a handful of attempts to demonstrate the importance, or lack thereof, of Mathers in the Golden Dawn. As Farrell points out, these have typically been flawed in two ways. First, they come from an either staunchly pro-Mathers or anti-Mathers perspective. This has the potential effect of skewing the authors’ reading of material related to Mathers’ life, and so influencing the entire outlook of the book.
Second, such books are typically written by people who do not work the Golden Dawn system and have not experienced the effects of the initiation rituals. Even if one posits magic does not exist, it is clear Mathers and the rest of the membership of the early Golden Dawn did. This is important, because even if magic does not work, the members would have behaved as though it did, and acted accordingly, both in reaction to their normal magical work, but also in relation to the magical initiation rituals they had undergone. By being a practitioner of the Golden Dawn system of magic, Farrell is able to understand, from a firsthand perspective, something similar to what Mathers would have experienced in his occult work.
The first part of King Over the Water attempts to understand Mathers’ role in the creation of the Golden Dawn and its magical teachings. Was Mathers a genius of occult knowledge? Did Westcott actually do all the work? What of the cipher manuscripts and the mysterious Fräulein Sprengel who was supposed to have given Westcott a warrant to start the Golden Dawn in the first place? The stories spun by Mathers and Westcott make for a dizzying array of lies, apparent lies, half-truths and, maybe, some actual honesty.
Farrell examines all of the stories, as well as a great deal of first-hand evidence and the work of previous Golden Dawn historians. In doing so he neatly demonstrates that Mathers both was, and was not, a genius. But that is not the genius of the book. What is really important about King Over the Water is that it delves into the meta-history of the Golden Dawn: all of the otherwise hidden influences that Victorian society, the Theosophical Society, Jacobite politics and the rest had on Mathers, as well as his contact with the “Secret Chief” of the Golden Dawn, which may have been the real source of Mathers’ magical acumen.
The second half of the book focuses on four advanced magical texts: The Book of the Tomb, Ritual W, the Z Documents and the original magical sword consecration. Of these, only partial or altered versions of Ritual W, the Z Documents and the sword consecration have been previously published and Farrell has produced an edition of the Book of the Tomb that is available through his website. Even if you are uninterested in the Mathers history, the presentation of these papers, especially the Book of the Tomb and the complete Z Documents, are worth the price of the book. Ritual W and the Book of the Tomb deal with the Golden Dawn’s (or, really, the Inner Order’s) use of color in magic and within the Vault of the Adepti, where one is initiated into the Inner Order. In many ways the use of color is at the heart of the Golden Dawn magical system and having the complete papers, as well as commentary by Farrell and an anonymous adept is invaluable for anyone working the system. The complete Z Documents, which discuss how magic actually works in the system, as well as its commentary, is equally important.
That is not to say everything is wonderful; there are a number of issue one might take with the book. If you are expecting a history as written by a professional historian, you will not find it in King Over the Water. The book is filled with colloquialisms and contains several examples of amateur psychological analysis. While Farrell’s accounts of Mathers’ mental state may be accurate, it does not appear that Farrell is qualified to make such judgments based second hand material. It would have been advantageous for him to have. This in no way invalidates some of the conclusions made in the book, and does not touch on those not based on Mathers having or not having mental issues stemming from a lack of a father figure in his life, but it is something to be aware of. Second, there are a number of editing errors throughout the book, perhaps more so than one might expect from a professional edited and published book, there often being two or three such errors on a single page. This may be due to Kerubim Press’ relative newness, but again it is something to be aware of. This is especially true as there appears to be something of a bit of drama surrounding both this book and Mr. Farrell and could be used to distract from the overall quality of the book.
If you are interested in either the history of the Golden Dawn, or its magical system,Nick Farrell’s King Over the Water is a must have. The book delivers an insightful reading of the role of one of the Golden Dawn’s founders in the order’s administrative and magical development that helps place it contextually within its own, often purposefully decontextuzalized history. It also offers several important magical texts, the oldest versions extant and so without the editing done, with little understanding, by later scions of the order. Both are important for any magician of working within the Golden Dawn tradition.