Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Crossing the River: L. M. Boston's 'An Enemy at Green Knowe'

It's a tribute to the evocative nature of the modern Craft that, even as the Craft itself was taking shape, it had already begun to influence contemporary popular literature.

Anthony Gresham has remarked on the thrill that those of us reading our way into the Craft at the time would experience when encountering these literary confirmations of what we were already knew from the “nonfiction” of the time. (I remember this experience with nostalgia myself.) Not to be overlooked, of course, is the confirmational nature offered by this cross-referencing as well. The more wide-spread the information, the more authentic it appeared.

One very early (and frequently-overlooked) example of the modern Craft's influence on contemporary popular literature is L. M. Boston's 1964 An Enemy at Green Knowe.

Boston's acclaimed Green Knowe series of young readers' books revolve around a young boy—Tolly—his great-grandmother, and an 11th-century house in Buckinghamshire called Green Knowe. (Knowe, interestingly, means “barrow” or “burial mound,” although the mound as such does not figure into the books.) The series is beautifully-written, subtle, and filled with magic, featuring the young hero's encounters with previous inhabitants of the house, so delicately drawn that one can hardly call them ghosts.

Although magic figures in all the books, it comes to the forefront in An Enemy at Green Knowe.

The eponymous enemy is a thoroughly bad-hat witch named Dr. Melanie Powers (the name Melanie derives from the Greek word for “black”: get it?), who is trying to get hold of a grimoire that she believes was left behind at Green Knowe by an alchemist who lived there during the 17th century. It's Melanie's dark magic versus the light magic of the house itself and of the old woman and boys who love it. (Mrs. Oldknow laughed.... “In a house like this, there is room for questions as well as answers.” Miss Powers made a sound like polite laughter, though her look was sharp. “So you have answers?” “Luckily, yes. Some. Enough to be going on with” [49].)

I distinctly remember reading the book for the first time, during summer vacation of 1965. The book begins with this Note:

Crossing the River” is the real name of one of several traditional languages used by witches. I have seen the alphabet but do not know what letters the signs represent. I have used it as it suited me for the purposes of this book and offer my apologies to any person reading it who is familiar with the language and knows the correct usage (6).

“Holy shite!” I can remember thinking at the time. “So there really are real witches!”

And for one skinny little towheaded 10-year old boy on a back porch in a suburb of Steel City, USA, the Wheel began to turn.

The witch's brew of Boston's narrative is spiced with weird, witchy details: an embroidery of Green Knowe itself stitched entirely in human hair. A witch's abecedarium scribed on the wings of a mummified bat. (I want one!) Not to mention “the language known to us as Crossing the River” itself: written backwards, of course, right to left, mwa-ha-ha. Intended audience notwithstanding, this book contains one of the most thoroughly nasty curses that I've ever come across, involving the tanned skin of a child's hand. Yikes!

As mentioned, Melanie D. Powers is as bad hat as it gets, and thoroughly unscrupulous. She's wholly dedicated to the Lord Belial and to the acquisition of power. She works her magic and makes offerings to the Dark Lord in her garden, where Tolly and his refugee friend Ping find the ashes of a bonfire in front of a socket in the ground. Later they find in an outbuilding that which stood in the socket during Melanie's magicking: the very image and likeness of her Horned Master.

It was the very ordinariness of this other thing that for a long time prevented them from seeing it. Among the ladders, toothless rakes, and wooden curtain rods, was a single pole like a laundry-line prop. But it had goats' horns stuck on the top. Tolly saw the shadows of the horns on the wall before he saw the real thing. They recognized it at once as absolutely evil (132-4).

The stang is the forked or horned pole that, in branches of Old Craft deriving from Robert Cochrane (1931-1966), stands-in for the Horned Lord when he's not present in Person. To the best of my knowledge, the reference in Enemy at Green Knowe is the stang's first literary appearance of modern times. I can't help but think that Cochrane himself, who committed suicide two years after Boston's book was published, would have been pleased if he had known about it. I hope that he did.

My thanks to you, L. M. Boston. I've read—and continue to read—your books with pleasure, and they helped me take my first steps of the journey of a lifetime.

As one who Crossed the River long ago, let me say to you now: Apology accepted.


L. M. Boston (1966) An Enemy at Green Knowe. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich


Photo: Bruner Soderberg

Hidden Falls Park (Pig's Eye, MN)

Bealtaine 2008


The traditional “languages” of modern witches to which Boston refers are clearly the magical alphabets of Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia (1531), of which the so-called “Runes of Honorius,” more commonly referred to as Theban script, is one. Among them there is indeed a script (not Theban, though) called “Passing the River."

Personally, I like Boston's version of the name better. "Crossing the River" has got to be one of the most evocative names ever given to an alphabet. Even to learn the ABCs is to begin to Cross the River.

Which River are we speaking of here? Well, I think I know.

And I think you do too.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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