Giovanni F. Bignami. The Mystery of the Seven Spheres: How Homo Sapiens Will Conquer Space. Springer, 2015.

Astronomer Giovanni Bignami has obviously written this book with the intention of providing information for young people who might be interested in pursuing a scientific career. He introduces his account of the progress of astronomy and space exploration, manned and unmanned, by telling his readers, in considerable detail, how he was influenced by the works of Jules Verne.

The descriptions of human progress, beginning with the expansion of humanity to occupy all the inhabitable parts of the Earth, and going on to describe exploration of the atmosphere, the seas, the moon and planets, and the study of the stars, is given in interesting detail. The idea of the Seven Spheres used in these descriptions is based on ancient cosmology in which the universe was imagined as a series of crystal spheres with Earth in the centre. This idea, we are told, was developed by Eudoxus of Cnidas, who in the first half of the fifth century, guessed there to be 27 spheres to account for the motions of the planets and the stars. Later, Aristotle devised a system that needed 55 spheres.

After dicussing the exploration of land and oceans, and the development of earth sciences, we are given an often fascinating account of the development of rockets, leading to the moon landings.

Details are given of the development of orbiting space stations, stimulated by rivalry between the USA and USSR, culminating in the agreement, in 1993, to jointly build a large space station, the International Space Station. Bignami notes that the ISS is within the Earth's magnetic field, which protects it from hard radiation which astronauts venturing into deep space would have to be protected from.

This is followed by a lengthy description of the Moon landings, with details of the technical problems which had to be overcome to make them possible. We are then given a chapter on the exploration of Mars, including details of the construction of nuclear powered spacecraft to send astronauts there, and what would need to be done to make Mars habitable in the long term.

Bignami does not stop at the solar system but goes on to consider the technical aspects of possible interstellar travel, in the distant future presumably. Of course, finding the money and resources for intensive space travel would be rather difficult, but the book ends with a consideration of the possibilities.

The translation from Italian is somewhat clumsy in places, but this work will undoubtedly appeal to technically minded readers. -- John Harney



Joseph P Laycock. The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism. Oxford University Press, 2015.

While praying for the recovery of Senator Robert Kennedy after he was shot, Veronica Lueken (1923-1995) became aware of a strong smell of roses. This was to be the first of a series of anomalous experiences that included visions of St Therese of Lisieux, channelled messages from her, and eventually visions of the Virgin Mary and channelled messages from her.

Most of these messages were aimed at defending traditional practices within the Catholic Church against the reforms of Vatican II, and groups of devotees gathered around her. Her messages included many conspiratorial themes, mainly anti-communism and anti-freemasonry, but with more than a hint of antisemitism and with a strong apocalyptic content. One of their beliefs was that Pope Paul VI had been kidnapped and replaced by a double under the control of the Communists and Freemasons.

Laycock’s book traces the development of the groups that surrounded Veronica and their paradoxical relationship with the Catholic authorities and the hostile reaction of the local residents association towards their prayer vigils. The reaction of the liberal-minded local bishop Father Mugavero, who refused to damn and exclude them rather confused them, and made them assume they must have some degree of support.

Veronica Lueken
Laycock notes how their apocalyptic and anti-communist rhetoric mirrored that of the Protestant right, and also included a number of themes from the more secular new age. Despite this the group was bitterly hostile to Pentecostalism and to charismatic movements within the Catholic Church.

Among the interesting sidelines to come out of this study, is the role of Lueken in helping to promote the Satanic abuse scare, via her connection with Detective Henry Cinotti, who became convinced that the ‘Son of Sam’ killer David Berkowitz was part of a vast Satanic cult. Veronica ended up accusing some perfectly respectable neighbours of being leaders of this cult. Cinotti became one of the main informants for the ‘investigative journalist’ Maury Terry, whose book The Ultimate Evil was one the foundation texts of the myth.

UFOs also featured in Veronica’s world view, but these were not alien spaceships but rather demonic vessels from the earth’s interior. Another rather science-fictional trope was the idea that the world was going to chastised by the crash of a giant asteroid.

A predecessor of Veronica was Mary Ann Van Hoof whose visions started with her lying fretting in bed one night, when she heard a noise outside and thinking it was one of her children, went to investigate. She was confronted with the figure of a woman wearing a veil. Mary Ann went back into her bedroom, where the figure followed her. Mary Ann kept her back to the figure, praying for it to go away. This sounds like a very typical ghost story and it is only when her husband suggests that the figure was the Virgin does Mary Ann become a BVM visionary.

Both Veronica and Mary Ann’s visions come at periods of stress and ill health. Veronica suffered from numerous ailments and Laycock rather suggests that her husband was a fairly feckless sort. Veronica comes to believe that her health and financial problems and traumas such as the death of her favourite son at 20, are evidence that she is suffering for the sins of the world. From being a typical housewife she is now the voice of the Virgin denouncing the powerful.

Historians of religion will find the discussion of how the Bayside groups organised and eventually split after her death as a valuable has to how religions develop. For Magonia readers what will be of perhaps the most interest is seeing how a pre-existing belief system and social support network can give validation for anomalous personal experiences. However heterodox from the viewpoint of the Catholic mainstream Veronica might have been, pre-existing ‘folk Catholicism’ gave a structure and ready-made language to her experiences. -- Peter Rogerson.



Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough. Return to Magonia: Investigating UFO Reports in History. Anomalist Books, 2015.

Chris and Martin follow the footsteps of Charles Fort by seeking out reports of UFO-like reports recorded in documents over the past 400 years. Unlike Fort, who ruined his eyesight poring over dusty old volumes in public libraries, they note that today we can easily search such treasure houses of information through the Internet. Indeed, Chris has been responsible for making much of this data available through his Magonia Exchange project, which is a private Yahoo group for Fortean researchers of pre-1947 aerial anomalies.

Rather than just record these instances and use them as a punch-line to mock scientific pomposity and certitude, as was the manner of Fort, the authors have concentrated on reports that have date, location and witness details. Using this information they have checked it with a digital planetarium to discover if the ‘weird apparitions’ in the sky match with known celestial events. They were surprised to find that

‘... when looking at the aerial phenomena described in the Annus Mirabilis, a 17th century collection of celestial prodigies assembled as political propaganda and usually neglected as fables. We found many accounts recognizably depicting a planetary conjunction and other natural phenomena, despite their origin as religious superstition, and despite the publishers’ political agenda.’

Other digital resources used by the authors were genealogical records to determine if alleged witnesses were real people, or made-up names to give authority to a rumour. They also used Google Earth and other digital maps to identify sighting locations.

The source of many Fortean stories, including wonders in the sky, from the 15th Century until the 17th Century when newspapers began to appear, are pamphlets and broadsides, or compilations like the British Mirabilis Annus (‘Year of Wonders’) trilogy published between 1661 and 1662 or the Spanish El ente dilucidado. Tratado de monstruos y fantasmas (‘The entity elucidated. Treatise on monsters and ghosts’) published in 1676.

Reviewing this material in Chapter 1, they note that most of these miraculous events were used for political or religious reasons to indicate ‘God’s opinion of current activities on earth’. Certainly, some were invented or provide insufficient information for analysis, but using computer simulations they found that many did relate to real events like meteors or mirages. Like the UFO phenomenon of today, there remain a handful of cases that defy any explanation.

The following chapters concentrate on specific cases or types of sightings. In Chapter 2, for example, they look at a sighting of ships in the sky doing battle accompanied by "...a flat round form, like a plate, looking like the big hat of a man... Its colour was that of the darkening moon, and it hovered right over the Church of St. Nicolai. There it remained stationary until the evening. The fishermen, worried to death, didn’t want to look further at the spectacle and buried their faces in their hands. On the following days, they fell sick with trembling all over and pain in head and limbs." This was viewed by fishermen on 8 April 1665 near the Baltic city of Stralsund, and sounds like a very early account of a flying saucer and it’s even associated with physiological effects!

The authors look at different explanations for this sighting, from flocks of starlings, sundogs, clouds, smoke, tornados to ice crystals. In the end they conclude, due to the length of time it was seen, that it is a "remarkable case".

They go on to look at fiery exhalations - that were common in Wales from the 17th Century onwards - UFOs from the sea, globes of fire, discs and saucers (and how the term ‘flying saucer’ originated from a sport using aerial projectiles patented in 1882), unusual clouds, lunar conundrums and flaming objects associated with entities, triangles in the sky, dark objects, mystery balloons, aerial machines, graveyard UFOs, airborne coffins, oblong lights, mystery airships, an electric disc seen in October 1899, a huge starfish UFO seen in 1901, luminous entities, the Aldeburgh Platform sighting of 1917 and giant flying eggs seen in February 1947 over Australia.

These indicate the rich variety of things reported in the sky over the centuries and the scope of this book, which gathers this material and attempts to explain them in terms of science rather than through the cloud of religious, political, folkloric and superstitious interpretations. Nonetheless, they still find it difficult to explain many of these reports and wonder if they represent instances of poorly understood natural phenomena. They conclude ‘...we cannot state categorically that there were real, unknown phenomena involved. Still less can we say, “This was the work of an alien intelligence.”’

Return to Magonia presents the most thorough and detailed review and analysis of historical aerial anomalies cases, making it essential reading for everyone interested in Fortean and UFO topics. -- Nigel Watson.



David Sivier travels back to the future to look at an example of how popular culture affected, and was affected by, the UFO mythos.

Marvel Preview (1) was one of the magazines the mighty comics empire published in the 1970s. It appears to have trailered new ideas and characters for possible development into future comics in their own right. This edition of the comic appeared at roughly the same time as the release of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though the comic's writer and editor declares in the first paragraph that the two are definitely not connected, and that this story would have appeared in the magazine's previous issue, which would have come out very much before that film's release. Kraft insists that the story is very different from Spielberg's – which it certainly is – but ends his editorial by recommending the forthcoming comic book adaptation of Spielberg's masterpiece by Marvel stalwart Archie Goodwin.

Alongside the central comic strip are various articles by Kraft, Doug Moench, D. Jon Zimmerman, H. Aberdeen Harvey, a short story by Don Pendleton, and an extract from Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger, discussing how he came to believe (or not disbelieve) in the Illuminati. Kraft in his editorial talks about his own UFO and alien sightings growing up in 'very rural region' of North Dakota. Moench's article is on Jimmy Carter's UFO sighting, while the article by Kraft and D. Jon Zimmerman is on John Lennon's close encounter. D. Jon Zimmerman and H. Aberdeen Harvey also review Project Blue Book.

The tone throughout is that UFOs are real, nuts and bolts alien spacecraft, and that John Lennon definitely was not hallucinating when he saw one over the Golden Gate bridge. As the spiritual inspiration for legions of youthful hippies at one time took so much LSD that he was on the way to becoming the classic acid casualty, a hostile sceptic could argue that it could have been an LSD flashback. More likely, his head was clear, and it was a classic case of misidentification.

It's the comic strip itself that I remember. This was reprinted over here as one of the supporting stories in Marvel's Star Wars comic. This follows a young girl, Sissie, and her father, Tom, as they flee, pursued by malevolent alien machines and the creatures that built them, across America, to France and thence to Egypt. The father is a scientist, working on pyramid power. Inspired by Wilhelm Reich's concept of 'Orgone' energy, he builds a pyramid 'energy accumulator'. At this point, the alien machines attack, killing his wife, the girl's mother. During their flight across the world, the father experiences a series of hallucinations, dragging him back to his past lives, in which he witnessed the appearance of UFOs in ancient Egypt, as a fighter pilot during the First World War, and as a fugitive from the Nazis in Hitler's Germany.

During the voyage from France to Egypt, the aliens attack and sink the passenger ship the two are travelling on. They seek refuge in the father's energy pyramid. The aliens retreat, but the two together share another hallucination, in which they witness the destruction of a Brazilian airliner. Tom is convinced that they ancestral memories, and that exposure to the pyramid and its energies is awakening special, latent powers within them. Entering the pyramid again, they witness a meeting between the aliens discussing the scientist and the threat he poses to them. The aliens are a degenerate species, dependent for their survival on harvesting psychic energy. They are determined to prevent the pair from going to the great pyramid of Cheops. Emerging from their pyramid, the two resolve to go to the the Pharaoh's monument. On their way through the desert they are attacked by the aliens themselves, disguised as bedouine.

Arriving at Cheop's pyramid, they go back into their own to experience further revelations. There they witness the aliens harvesting psychic energy from humans via high technology. One woman revolts, and is gunned down by the aliens. They witness the aliens draining the life force from one of the captured men in order to vivify an alien baby. The aliens are racially degenerate, and can only survive by feeding off the psychic energies of captured humans. Power levels inside the scientist's own pyramid are building to potentially lethal and explosive levels. He gets out, only to be killed by the aliens. Sissie stays inside, surrounded by the aliens, feeling the power build up inside her, awaiting not just her death, but the slow and painful death of her alien tormentors.

It's a grim tale, especially as much of it is told from the girl's point of view. It's also very much a product of the 1970s, containing many of the elements of the later abduction myth popularised by Streiber et al. The aliens are very definitely not the Space Brothers of the contactees, but more like the Greys, though tall and spindly rather than short. Like the Greys, they are a species long past their evolutionary peak, and have declined to the point where they need to find on humans. This, however, is clandestine, and there is no suggestion of a conspiracy with human collaborators in the story.

It also obviously includes many of favourite ideas of the emerging New Age counterculture at the time: Wilhelm Reich (left), pyramid power and race memories. Part of Marvel's success was in matching and taking on developments in youth culture at the time. In the 1960s this was Surrealism, particularly in the art of Steve Ditko. Their heroes were frequently anti-authoritarian rebels. Bruce Banner's transformation into the Hulk, for example, was due to his own exposure rushing a teenager, Rick, to a nuclear shelter to protect him from a nuclear test explosion. Rick was an alienated teenager, very much in the mould of Rebel Without a Cause. The Hulk's nemesis was a general, the father of Banner's girlfriend, adding an element of generational rebellion to the strip. In the original Spiderman strip, the figure of oppressive authority was Peter Parker's editor, the boorish and reactionary J. Jonah Jameson. There was also a brief period when Captain America, in disgust at the corruption of contemporary America, doffed his patriotic name and attire, to become Nomad, a superhero with no country. All this could make Marvel seem more left-wing and countercultural than it actually was.

How many read or were influenced by the comic is questionable. It was only one of a number of SF, UFO and related paranormal comics and related merchandise around at the time. The story itself was a one-off, and doesn't seem to have spawned a continuing strip. Despite this, it does show clearly the increasing darkness of UFO myth and the evolution of the Greys as malignant species.

1. Marvel Preview, no. 13, Winter 1978. David Anthony Kraft, writer and editor, illustrated by Herb Trimpe and Klaus Janson, cover by Jim Starlin.



William J Hall. The Haunted House Diaries: The True Story of a Quiet Connecticut Town in the Centre of a Paranormal Mystery. New Page Books, 2015.

If you want a good ghost story this is it; the tale of a family living in an old farmhouse in a rural suburb of Torrington, Connecticut, who experience all sorts of spooky things, documented in diaries kept for a period of almost 50 years by now owner, who inherited it from her mother. There is nothing dramatic here and no resolution or indeed apparent meaning behind the events. That certainly seems “real” in way that over dramatic stories don’t. How real is “real” here is of course a moot for a reviewer. Skeptics might point out that Hall is listed as the author of the book and not the editor, and the early diary entries look rather adult for a teenage girl to have written. They are described as transcribed, though I suspect something more than mere transcription is involved. There are other investigators mentioned, at least one, Paul Eno is a real person.

On the assumption that the various experiences recounted here actually happened, the main impression is that most are connected with the liminal zone between sleep and waking, and , thus, can probably be ascribed to hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, dreams, false awakenings etc. Others involve things seen out of the corner of the eye, strange noises and the like.

In one case the source of a false awakening nightmare is quiet obvious; the teenage daughter “wakes” to see her recently deceased aunt scratching on her second story window. It looks like her aunt but is somehow changed and sinister. The scenario comes from the TV series and film “Salem’s lot”, in which a boy vampire hovers outside the window of a former school friend.

The ghost story seems to be linked to various other odd experiences, including a car journey into an unknown landscape, tales of secret military basis etc. The area appears to one of those on the boundary between habitat and wilderness, often associated with reports of anomalous experiences.

An idea which is worth exploring in these cases is that house can be seen as symbolically as an extension of the self or the family. It might be significant that one set of grandparents of this family were both adopted by the same woman, regarded as “great grandmother”. Their biological parents are an absence on the family tree, could this be part of what is “haunting” this family.

This seems a more interesting line of enquiry than the various speculations of the investigators, though Hall seems by far the most sensible of these. -- Peter Rogerson



E. L. Risden. Tolkien's Intellectual Landscape. McFarland, 2015.

The work of J.R.R.Tolkien has had a profound effect on contemporary fiction and film-making. Often disparaged by critics, Tolkien's fiction created a market for the 'fantasy trilogy' and his academic work represents an innovative contribution to the field of philology. In the 20th century, his fiction bridged the gap between 'learned' and 'popular' readerships. Today the fantasy genre continues to grow, moving energetically into film, gaming and online fan fiction. This book describes how Tolkien's imaginative landscape continues to entertain and inspire, drawing new generations to Middle-earth.

It has been said of Tolkien's greatest and best-known work, The Lord of the Rings, that the world is divided between those who have read it and those who are going to read it. In 2003 it was named as Britain's best-loved novel of all time in a comprehensive survey conducted by the BBC. Since its publication as three volumes in 1954 and 1955 it is now the second best-selling novel of all time, having sold over 150 million copies. Only Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities has sold more copies worldwide, now over 200 million. Peter Jackson's magnificent and highly successful film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings has brought Tolkien's epic to an even greater audience.

Dr Risden's scholarly work is clearly aimed at fellow academics and teachers rather than a popular readership. Unless you already have an extensive working knowledge of literary critics, terminology and subjects this book may seem rather daunting and heavy going in places. It does not help that on many pages the text is laid out in rather long, dense paragraphs that are crying out for a bit more space and variation. One also gets the impression that throughout the text there is some unnecessary repetition of points that have already been made. If a second edition is to follow, improvements could be made by judicious editing and re-arranging to make this worthy book more accessible.

However, having made a few critical comments, I must now say that for lovers of Tolkien's work such as myself there are many great nuggets of insight into Tolkien's themes and techniques to be found here, and much else of great value besides. Risden's 'Intellectual Landscape' is very broad indeed, and he allows himself free rein to examine the cultural and historical context of Tolkien's whole life's work. He even spends several pages waxing lyrical about fractals and cathedrals in relation to Tolkien's style. As Risden says in his introduction: "My study here aims to expand on the context and ideas of Tolkien's work, to stretch the critical compass for additional examination of the landscape of his thought, and to extend the argument that Tolkien's writing fits rather better than one may guess amidst the intellectual movements of his lifetime."

In this regard it must not be forgotten that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was principally a philologist and university professor before he became better known as a fiction writer. He was a natural genius at languages far too numerous to mention here, but including Anglo-Saxon, Old English and Old Norse. Even the learning of Finnish, a notoriously difficult language, was for him a pleasurable hobby. He based his created Elvish high language partly on Finnish.

In Tolkien's particular case as a writer, the word 'fiction' is not entirely appropriate. He created works that may be described as 'classic high fantasy', in which he formulated entire languages, names, characters and worlds that the reader can enter as an alternative reality. Like so many other millions of readers, I will never forget those magical months when, as a teenager, I read the whole of The Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth became real to me. In fact I had my own Middle-Earth, a vast wild wooded area by the River Irwell in Salford where I grew up. Only in recent years did I discover that Tolkien had his own Middle-Earth during his childhood in Birmingham, particularly Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog. When I visited those places I felt the same magic, that spiritual connection. At the heart of Middle-Earth is, of course, the Shire.

In a newspaper interview Tolkien fondly recalled the area, saying that the Shire was "inspired by a few cherished square miles of actual countryside at Sarehole". From one small area there grew a great world in Tolkien's fertile imagination. Even the name Saruman, the corrupted wizard, may be drawn from Sarehole, where there was a mill which exists to this day and may represent the encroaching industrialisation of the English countryside. This immediately brings William Blake to mind, and Risdale makes these perceptive comments in the chapter 'Afterword: Mechanized Landscape and Spiritual Landscape': "Like William Blake, with whose interest in world creation he had quite a good deal in common (as well as their mutual Christianity, love of England, and love of art-making), he encouraged others to create for themselves: the act of sub-creation continues the creative act of God and represents humans at our best, our most godly, most inspired, most alive."

English readers naturally associate the Shire with England at its best, a 'Merrie England' whose folk live happily on the land and enjoy a peaceful life in villages with friendly ale-houses and tobacco is smoked in pipes. Many academics link Rohan to Mercia, that great Anglo-Saxon nation of the Midlands where Tolkien spent his youth. George Sayer, who wrote the biography of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien's great friend at Oxford University, recalled hiking with Tolkien in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, and said he openly compared some parts there with the White Mountains bordering Rohan and Gondor. On holiday in Venice in 1955, after he had completed The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien remarked that Venice resembled Gondor, and that Gondor's power to build the "gigantic and massive" resembled Ancient Egypt. It has been suggested that the illuminated clock tower at the University of Birmingham, visible across the city, might have inspired the ever-watchful 'Eye of Sauron', the Dark Lord. The towers of Perrott's Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks may well have influenced his descriptions of dark towers.

In a letter to his son Michael, Tolkien wrote that a memorably impressive trek he made through spectacular scenery over mountain paths in Switzerland in 1911 inspired Bilbo Baggins' journey from the Elvish settlement at Rivendell to the Misty Mountains. One further example of real-life experience that deeply affected Tolkien was his service in the British Army during World War I. He admitted that the scenes of devastation and of corpses lying in pools in the Dead Marshes, that so terrified Frodo Baggins, "owed something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme". Many of his closest friends from school died in the First World War.

He later wrote that "all but one" of his close friends had died by 1918. But, as Tolkien wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings: "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soils of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous".

Risden's study goes much further and deeper than these speculations about where Tolkien got his ideas. In the chapter 'Tolkien as Scholar, Narrator, Stylist' he explains thus: "While critics have plenty to say about Tolkien as philologist, as Christian, as sub-creator mytho-poet, and as post-war writer, the impact of his fiction often so outweighs that of his scholarship that we fail to pay sufficient attention to exactly what he says about the works that influenced him most and perhaps most drove him to creative work of his own. His own particular way of parsing Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lead us directly to some of the most potent philosophical problems of The Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien had a fondness for saying his fiction wasn't really about anything, that he sought in it an integrity of plot, character, and world all its own, any writer who begins as a scholar inevitably brings a toolbox - I won't say baggage - from his or her scholarly world to a fictional construction project. He did so perhaps mostly as a protection against rude questions."

The acknowledged greatest living expert on Tolkien and his work is Tom Shippey, a British scholar of medievalism, medieval literature including Anglo-Saxon, fantasy literature and science fiction. He first met Tolkien in 1972 in Oxford. They both had much in common, both academically and personally. Shippey acted as a consultant to dialect coaches working on Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings. Risden quotes extensively from Shippey, and here provides us with a keen insight into the reasons for Tolkien's enduring and increasing popularity. "In Author of the Century Shippey pursues the reasons why several British polls placed Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings at the top of their list for most important, influential, and/or enjoyable writers or works of the twentieth century." 

Shippey suggests that the reason is that Tolkien, and a few other authors including C.S. Lewis and George Orwell,were "deeply involved in the most traumatically significant events of the century ... and had to find some way of communicating and commenting on them." Tolkien stands out among those authors as master philologist, a subject which he knew better "than anyone else in the world" ... "Intense interest in and attention to language increase the potential of story."

Risden quotes and compares many literary critics and sources, giving argument and counter-argument from the academic world. That Tolkien's fiction has drawn negative criticism may surprise those who thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it, but Risden explains it in this way: "Tolkien's work draws attack, I suspect, because those who think themselves above it fear its lack of sexual-identity questions, existential angst, and self-obsession. Tolkien's work is less about Tolkien than nearly any fiction from any time or anywhere is about its author, despite the fact that it comes largely from his own imagination. It deals with his world, not with him."

Tolkien stands apart from most of his fellow twentieth century authors who "rejected what they saw as the staid, weak, overly serious and narrow humanism and manners of the late Victorians and Edwardians in favour of a preoccupation with style, ornament, splendor and high manners. They maintained an interest in a kind of realism of the rich, traveled, and influential classes ... one can see why Tolkien would have nothing in common with them, and they would have taken no interest in him. He looked like a thoroughly conservative academic philologist with a devotion to Roman Catholicism and his own abiding narrative with deep grounding in the great perennial, perplexing questions of human existence - and he was." Risden states that among those other authors, only Ian Fleming, for his influence in the spy genre, Graham Greene for his novels, and to a lesser extent George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh have maintained a presence in popular culture.

It is perhaps in the chapter 'Good and Evil, Choice and Control' where Risden best expresses the real essence of Tolkien's uniqueness and cultural value. "The twentieth century had much to say and much to show about the nature - and practice - of good and evil. It had much to teach about leadership, and about how we follow leaders, good and bad (mostly bad). Tolkien saw a great deal of evil, and of leadership problems, in person."

Perhaps in all of Tolkien's creations the greatest embodiment of wisdom is Gandalf, but along with that quality come courage, integrity and loyalty to friends and to the cause

It is in Aragorn, one of the central characters of The Lord of the Rings, where we find the issues and dilemmas of leadership perfectly embodied. "Aragorn has willingness to serve and eagerness to lead - the tasks to which in Tolkien's world he was born - but he will not take power except with the consent of the governed and having proved himself worthy of it ... Gandalf, similarly, has in his nature both to serve and lead, but knowing the dangers that leadership engenders for one as powerful as he, he tries instead to inspire others to lead..."

These themes of leadership, moral dilemmas, the meaning of friendship and community, the dangers and corrupting effects of power and temptation, the yearning for peace and how to maintain it, are all the very stuff of Tolkien's world. In the twenty-first century, as more crises and conflicts arise around the world, communities are tending to fragment and the powers that be seem intent on producing yet more of the same, these issues are ever more relevant and urgent.

As with all the greatest literature, from Greek Tragedy to writers such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Tolkien, its lasting gift is not mere entertainment or diversion. The presentation of characters, with all their inner conflicts, fears, hopes and wishes, and the situations with which they are presented, can give the reader the greatest gift of all: wisdom. Perhaps in all of Tolkien's creations the greatest embodiment of wisdom is Gandalf, but along with that quality come courage, integrity and loyalty to friends and to the cause. Gollum, one of Tolkien's most interesting and memorable character creations, is by contrast a self-conflicted individual who can be very nasty indeed yet has some redeeming and somewhat endearing qualities. At the end, Gollum falls to his complete annihilation, whereas Gandalf, after his fall to destruction, comes back resurrected. Frodo, the hero of the story who so nearly fails at the end, is left permanently injured. His end, with Gandalf, is not death but a transition to another world.

Whatever we are facing in the world at this time, even the threat of apocalypse, Risden has wise words here that neatly encapsulate the significance of individual roles within the cosmic drama:

"...the potential for the greatest evil occurs within Mount Doom when Frodo nearly fails to destroy the Ring: without Sam and, most ironically, Gollum, he probably would have failed, as might any of us in such a circumstance. The apocalyptic moment, Tolkien might have said, comes for all, even the smallest of us, and tests each one. The apocalyptic world is as much personal as it is cosmological." -- Kevin Murphy


For another Magonian view on Tolkien see Facts, Fraud and FairytalesMUFOB New Series 9, Winter 1977-78



Christopher M. Moreman (editor) The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking With the Dead in America and Around the World. Three volumes. Prager, 2013
Volume 1: American origins and global proliferation;
Volume 2: Belief, practice and evidence for life after death;
Volume 3: Social and cultural responses.

While this set is not the comprehensive history of the global spiritualist movement and its offshoots that the title might suggest, but rather a collection of academic essays, it is by no means without interest.

It is not possible in a short review to summarise the contents of a work of three volumes and 43 papers, but there are a number of interesting points which arise from a number of the papers. For example, Stanford Betty’s description of the afterlife as presented through various mediums, tells much more about the cultural background of the believers than about the afterlife, which is presented in very material terms and envisages essentially a utopia for the late Victorian and Edwardian respectable working class and 'clerkocracy', a post-industrial service-based economy in which nasty, smelly factories have been abolished, or at least exiled to the celestial sink estates which are the preserve of the rough working class. It is not imaged as a multicultural metropolis but as a sort apartheid regime, where the natives are kept in their respective Reserves or Bantustans.

When the aristocracy and upper bourgeois intellectuals become involved, as for example in the famous “cross correspondences”, we see a shift to more openly millennialist goals, such as breeding a new race of messianic children, to be led by Henry Coombe-Tennant, the product of his mother’s love affair with Gerald Balfour. One can compare this with Annie Besant’s promotion of Jiddu Krinshnamurti as the Great World Teacher. Both renounced their messianic status. The idea of the saving elite also has echoes of H. G. Wells 'airmen' and 'samurai'. Experience of Messes Hitler, Stalin and Mao has rather put us off the notion of the Great World Leader.

If the spiritualists afterlife is rather materialistic, so also are the outcomes of physical mediumship, none more so than ectoplasm, as produced in the erotic, not to say pornographic, performances of Eva Carriere (alias Marthe Beraud) and Mina (alias Margery) Crandon. These include for example the production of ectoplasm from their vaginas in a grotesque parody of giving birth to the dead rather than to new life.

Materiality is also at the heart of the electronic voice phenomenon, associated with Konstantin Raudive, here shown to be essentially a Catholic traditionalist, despite that religion’s hostility to spiritualism.

Other themes than run through a number of the papers include mediumship’s association with shamanism, spiritualism and prior folk belief, as a means on integrating anomalous personal experiences into a coherent belief system, the role of women.

The principal audiences at which this set are aimed are students of theology, comparative religion and the history of religion, although much will also be of interest to general social historians. Psychical researchers and parapsychologists also should find much of Volume Two in particular of interest. I suspect that most of the latter might prefer to examine the contents online and just download those papers of interest. - Peter Rogerson.



Richard J. Bleiler. The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons”: Arthur Machen’s World War 1 Story, the Insistent Believers, and His Refutations. McFarland, 2015.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the most enduring legend of the First World War, The Angels of Mons. BBC Radio 4 called it ‘the first example of an urban myth’. Their usage of the word myth implies a false belief, but the historian A.J.P. Taylor disagreed. He believed the clash between the British Expeditionary Force and German troops at Mons, in Belgium, on 23 August 1914 was the only battle in the Great War where ‘supernatural intervention was observed, more or less reliably, on the British side’. Taylor was one of thousands of people who, during the war and afterwards, became convinced that divine intervention had occurred on the side of the Allies. 

In my 2004 book The Angel of Mons I reported on the results of my own research, funded by the British Academy, in pursuit of this ‘reliable’ evidence. After reviewing primary and secondary sources on the battle and the Flanders campaign, I could find no such evidence or indeed any convincing first-hand testimony from any named soldier who saw angels at Mons. I was not alone. In 1915 the psychologist Helen Verrall, on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research, launched an investigation of the rumour and appealed for eye-witnesses to contact the SPR in Cambridge. Her inquiries also drew a blank.

A librarian from the University of Connecticut, Richard Bleiler, is the latest to enter the fray but treads carefully and does not attempt to ‘solve’ the mystery. He has sifted through many of the same written sources that I consulted in order to curate this engaging collection of forgotten angel literature. Much like the UFO phenomenon, the Angels of Mons generated believers and sceptics by the cartload and, by the summer of 1915, a small cottage industry appeared to cater for the public demand for angel literature. Newspaper columns were filled with stories about them and publishing houses hastily churned out books, booklets, pamphlets, sermons and sheet music. There was even a long-lost silent movie starring Peggy Hyland and Bertram Burleigh.

Much of the printed literature went into second and third editions, but today most are rarities and some exist only as single copies at the British Library. Few complete texts exist in digital format or are available online, so Bleiler has performed an invaluable service by making them accessible to a 21st century audience. In doing so he has also rooted out some additional, long-forgotten texts that eluded me and his introduction and extensive references provide useful context.

The book opens with Arthur Machen’s seminal short story The Bowmen, published by the London Evening News on 29 September 1914 (one month after the battle). Despite Bleiler’s erudition and familiarity with his sources, he makes a fundamental error when he says that Machen’s copy was headlined ‘The Bowmen: The Angels of Mons’ (p12). That was patently not the case. This might seem a minor caveat but it is central to the process whereby Machen’s story of phantom bowmen evolved into an urban legend, ‘the angels of Mons’, with its own cast of witnesses, proponents and faithful believers. The phrase ‘angels of Mons’ was coined not in September 1914 but in April 1915 when a Hereford newspaper published a new version of Machen’s story that was based upon a rumour. This version substituted St George and his troop of Agincourt bowmen with a troop of shining angels. Machen recognised one part in his story, that refers to the bowmen as ‘a long line of shapes, with a shining about them’, as the connecting thread between his fiction and the snowball of rumours. But by that point the story had, to adapt a modern phrase, ‘gone viral’.

This collection republishes 13 texts including Machen’s booklet The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915) that was hastily published in August 1915 when the controversy was at its height. In his preface and afterword Machen provided an explanation both for his inspiration and for how his story became transformed, via rumour and gossip, into what folklorists now call an urban legend. Sandwiched between this and Machen’s ‘final word’ on the subject, published by the Evening News in April 1916, is a collection of counter-narratives that were issued by the ‘divine interventionists’, or angel-ologists. Their literature ‘show clearly a determination to believe and to justify these beliefs to a larger audience’ and also a tendency for opportunism ‘at the expense of the truth’.

The angel-ologists argued with passion that Machen had falsely claimed credit for a true occurrence that was supported by the testimony of hundreds of people including soldiers and others who had seen angels on the battlefield. Many comparisons can be made between the stories and beliefs that circulated in 1915 and today’s UFO Truther literature. Both place faith in the existence of divine beings with supernatural powers who visit Earth to save humans from destruction (hence the stories about UFOs interfering with our nuclear weapons).

Both angel-ologists and ufologists point to clutch of celebrity believers and the testimony of credible witnesses as ‘evidence that would convince a jury’. Bleiler’s list of those who publicly expressed belief in the angels reads like a roll-call of pillars from Edwardian society: G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle and C.S. Lewis to name just a few.The book includes texts by other, less well known characters like the satirist T.W. H. Crosland who teased Machen with his parody The Showmen: A Legend of the War and the nurse, Phyllis Campbell, who hated the Germans so much that she was driven to invent stories about atrocities and happily mixed them with deathbed visions of angels and saints.

Perhaps the most intriguing text is that by author and patriot Harold Begbie who in 1915 became the figurehead for those On the Side of the Angels, the title of his book. Bleiler transcribes the entire first edition, subtitled A Reply to Arthur Machen, and compares its text with that of three later editions. In doing so, he found evidence that Begbie had invented some of his stories and quoted testimonies from people who did not exist. Far from his claimed probity and rectitude, it seems Begbie was a hack writer who took advantage of an opportunity to make money.

Bleiler hints darkly that he may have been paid to spread the story of the Angels of Mons, naming the British intelligence officer, Brigadier General John Charteris, as someone Begbie must have known from his contributions to the propaganda campaign waged on the Home Front. Charteris also played a murky role in spreading a number of invented propaganda stories including that of the macabre German ‘corpse factory’. This is an intriguing theory but the evidence, much like that for the angels themselves, is thin on the ground. There can be little doubt, however, that Begbie was "a person willing to fabricate data and alter his stories to suit somebody" and "one is left wondering who was paying him and his publisher".

For his part, in his old age Machen grew tired and irritated by what he called ‘the confirmatory allegations, quotations, asseverations and anecdotes’of the angel-ologists. Bleiler gives Machen the last word and, in doing so, accepts that his simple patriotic story was indeed the true source of the legend, and laments the fact that he had to fight throughout his lifetime to be acknowledged as its creator. The satirist T.W.H. Crosland summarises his predicament in this passage from The Showmen (published in 1915):

"Good people, do you know, this excellent man, who sat down to write a story out of his own head and for the perfectly legitimate purpose of earning an honest shilling (an exceedingly rare thing among journalists, by the way)…do you know that this good, great and innocent man has been so pestered and harassed by persistent attacks of people who know of their own knowledge that the story… is true, that he is actually beginning to believe they may be right when they call him a liar? Isn’t it terrible? This sensitive person of genius … now goes about under a sinister cloud, suffering from benumbing consciousness that while he knows and I know that he wrote [the story] clean slap bang out of his head and nothing else, there are hundreds, nay thousands who think they know better than both of us, and don’t scruple to tell us so." -- Dr David Clarke, Sheffield Hallam University