Review by KEN KORCZAK
Over the past couple of years I’ve occasionally seen mention of a book called THE WAY OF WYRD by BRIAN BATES on sites such as Facebook and other online forums. It was one such prompting that motivated me to investigate what this book is about. I was surprised to discover it was published 30 years ago in 1983.
After reading The Way of Wyrd, I can understand its enduring popularity and the fond and even reverential praise it garners from fans.
This is a fictional tale centered on Anglo-Saxon pagan spiritual teachings and mythology. The year is 674 A.D. It tells the story of a Christian monk from England who is sent to some location on the European mainland so that he can study the gods of the Saxons. His purpose is what was always the purpose of Christians of that era – to find out just enough about the ancient pagan systems so that they could wipe it out and displace it with Christianity.
The young monk who gets the assignment is the humble and meek Wat Brand. Shortly after arriving in Saxon territory, he meets a shaman of extraordinary wisdom and power. This Saxon sorcerer, Wulf, immediately agrees to teach brand everything he can about the power of the pagan gods and spirits. The book plays out as a kind of master-student series of lessons in Saxon spirituality.
There is a spectacular amount of magical activity among the blissful natural setting of an unspoiled European forest. This combination of magic couched within skillful descriptions of sparkling rivers, pungent green forests and dramatic mountain landscapes appeals to those of us who long for an increasingly lost, pristine planet — long before earth was tainted by the pollution and ravages of the Industrial Age.
Either by design or by accident, the author benefits from the aura of J.R.R Tolkien. He chooses to call the land of the Saxons “Middle-Earth” which leverages the magic of The Lord of Rings. It’s true that Tolkien didn’t exactly invent the term Middle Earth, but he might as well have. Tolkien was the first to popularize Middle Earth as a modern description for what the ancients referred to as Midgard, Middenheim, Manaheim, or Middengeard.
Tolkien first encountered the term in 1914 when pouring over rare fragments of centuries old documents. He found this line by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf:
Éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended.
Which translates to:
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / above the middle-earth sent unto men.
Before Tolkien, no one was using Middle Earth as a popular description of pre-Chrisitian Europe, but now it’s fair game for all.
While I enjoyed nearly every page of The Way of Wyrd and give it my top recommendation, I think the criticisms of how Saxon spirituality is portrayed are fair. Many question the authenticity of the presentation. The Way of the Wyrd reads as much (or more) like a modern New Age conception of magic as it does a scholarly documentation of what the pagan Saxons actually believed and practiced.
In the introduction of the book, Bates makes a strenuous case that his work is a faithful and accurate rendering of Saxon magic. He says his narrative is based on a 1,000-year-old manuscript written by a Christian monk who serves as the model for his character Wat Brand. He also sites a lengthy bibliography of resources.
But I say, no way. Granted, I’m not an expert in pagan spiritual practices, but my strong impression here is that the author granted himself copious poetic license and overlaid much of this with his own modern interpretations.
Also – the structure of the narrative is one that is tried, true and familiar – the story plays out as a series of lessons between master and student, the same vehicle that Carlos Castaneda used to churn out his best-selling (and phony) series of tales of a sorcerer and his apprentice. Richard Bach also used this structure in Illusions – as did many other authors – all of which hearken back to the Platonic dialogue developed in ancient Greece.
There’s nothing wrong with adopting this formula; it’s just that, Brian Bates is obviously a crafty writer who knows how to write a crowd-pleasing yarn – leverage a little Tolkien, execute the tale with a time-tested formula, and take as many liberties as you need to make the information appeal to a modern New Agey audience.
Good for him, I say, because we’re all winners. The Way of Wyrd is a beautiful book which has bolstered interest in the ancient pagan beliefs of Northern Europe – and those beliefs were more sane and sound than what passes for modern mainstream religion today.
Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA