Preface for Nigel Pennick's "The Eldritch World"
The modern world is a wasteland. We can say this in a polemical sense, but there is also a more immediate way in which modernity has quite literally wasted the land. We might speak of deforestation, urbanization, and the accompanying loss of biodiversity, but on an even deeper level, there is a sense in which the land has lost its meaning. This is especially true in America, where people of European descent have set down only the shallowest of roots in a land that has been ours for just a handful of centuries. The gods of the indigenous peoples still wander the less-inhabited portions of the continent, and our own ancestors almost certainly brought some trace of their native gods here as well. But for the most part, our relationship with the land (and its spirits) has been one of hostility and conquest. For the Puritans, the forests and other unsettled areas of New England were not only a hiding place for wild and fearsome Indians, but for witches and the dark, malevolent presences which they summoned at their Sabbats. At least this was an acknowledgment that the forest was, to some degree, haunted by beings of an otherworldly caste. For our contemporaries, the rationale for clearing forests and domesticating every part of the landscape is far more pedestrian: it is simple financial gain. Land is parceled out into easily transferrable units, allocated through zoning ordinances for specific purposes, and bought and sold like any other commodity. Modern towns and cities are built with little thought of history, placement, or even basic considerations of aesthetics, ensuring a dreary uniformity that is now almost inescapable. Wherever you go, you will likely see the same bland and uninspired housing developments, strip malls, and chain restaurants. Christian services were once held in grand cathedrals or cozy, candlelit parish churches. Now, these have been replaced with hideous steel and sheet-metal “mega churches” with laser shows, rock bands, and telegenic celebrity pastors. The gods may not have fled the land entirely, but the process of disenchantment first described by Max Weber has made them harder and harder to find.
The same forces of secularization and commercialization are of course at work in the British Isles and Europe. However, here there are deeper layers of history, myth, and folklore that cling to the land and its people, and which are not quite so easy to sweep away. Nigel Pennick is an expert on these things. He has written scores of books, articles, and pamphlets on geomancy, runes, sacred landscapes, European traditional culture, and the history of our own ancient ancestors. But Pennick is not approaching these things out of mere curiosity, although he once worked as a biologist and still has something of the scientist’s eye for detail. He wants to help us catch a glimpse of what he calls “the eldritch world”—a world that exists alongside our own mundane reality of work, the distractions and disappointments of “current events,” and manufactured entertainments of every sort. Unlike the entirely transcendent spiritual universe of monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Islam, however, the eldritch inheres in the very same places where these other, more hum-drum, activities run their course. The trick is to see these places through eyes attuned to the uncanny, and with a mind that can grasp their mythic and historical significance. It is then that our world, which is both local and familiar, reveals itself as simultaneously otherworldly and mysterious. This is how the process of re-enchantment begins.
Because this is a book about the magic of place and all that it entails, we have decided to leave Pennick’s British spellings and other verbal colloquialisms intact. After all, the adoption of American English as the lingua franca of international business is a perfect example of the process of global homogenization that is paving over every access-point to the eldritch. But this is a minor detail compared to what may strike American readers especially as the sheer linguistic wyrdness of Pennick’s word choices. We may wonder what he means when he states that “we shall progg all these corners like a true creep-hedge,” or when he speaks of “dealing out crumps and shaking the box.” As an editor, I found myself looking up many of these words and phrases, and often discovered that they were referenced only in long-forgotten Victorian books of folklore or obscure snippets of Elizabethan poetry. This language can give the present volume—which has more of the texture of a meditation than many of Pennick’s other books—a hallucinatory quality. This is not at all inappropriate for a subject like the eldritch. But the attempt to revive a way of speaking that is almost entirely forgotten is itself an act of communion with the dead, and a subtle method for prising open their secrets.
Of course, as anyone familiar with his work can attest, Nigel Pennick is much more than just a writer. He is a magician, a pagan, a craftsman (he makes beautiful stained-glass windows, among other things), a fine artist, a mummer, and a performer of traditional music. All these activities represent an attempt to connect with the land of his ancestors in a way that is consistent with the theme of this book. The process of re-enchanting the land is a practice, and not just a topic of intellectual interest. Pennick has a phrase for it, that is also something like his personal motto: “keeping up the day.” This might be a bit modest, and Pennick has a second catchphrase, which comes from Old West Surrey: “We won’t be druv.” In this dark and dreary age, where the digital has taken the place of the magical, and the youth gaze into their iPhones as if they were scrying mirrors, it is a succinct statement of defiance against every stifling encroachment of modernity. It is precisely this spirit of resistance, coupled with a mindful openness to the eldritch, that might yet lead us back to a place worthy of calling home.