Aleister Crowley is one of the most notorious occultists of modern times. His name is known by many, even outside esoteric circles and those whose interests touch upon such matters. When compared to his contemporaries, Crowley’s name is probably the most familiar to laypeople. Whether one is a Fortean or not, his name is widely known and he is, in one form or another, still influential on popular culture. Often, despite his fame, this effect is not initially obvious, as is the case with certain writers such as W Somerset Maugham and musicians like Jimmy Page. It is probably fair to say however, that his fame extends far wider than that of most gurus, certainly in this day and age.
The series of books produced under the banner A Beginner’s Guide goes back to well before such series as For Dummies and An Idiot’s Guide. Influenced by comic books, whose appeal in using pictures to convey much of the narrative won over generations, writers and artists worked together to produce a new kind of learning aid. Covering such subjects as socialism, ecology and quantum physics, they combined quirky illustrations and pithy explanations in order to teach their subjects simply and in a less daunting fashion than traditional textbooks. Since then this has been a popular format, especially for those who may be put off by what they may see as too sequential and verbose an approach.
The stated aim from the back cover is that this book neither promotes nor condemns him. Covering a broad brief, especially for a small book, it attempts to look at as many aspects of his life and influence as can be squeezed into this compact tome. It also wishes to act as an introduction to the man himself, feeling that he is simply too strong an influence in the wider world to ignore. There is also the not inconsiderable obstacle that it seems that, for everyone who has heard of Crowley, there is a separate opinion. So, this is someone who, at one end of the spectrum, is a demon, a charlatan or deluded, to being a mystic, a poet or hierophant sans pareil. The author and illustrator have set themselves quite a task, then.
Provided that the reader does not expect the rigour and analysis of a more lengthy and traditional biography then this small volume covers much of what it sets out to do. Many aspects of Crowley are covered and, whilst one gets the feeling that the author is living up to the brief and looking at him from many sides, that there is an undercurrent of approval, slight though this may be. The birth of Thelema, the religion that he started, is included as well as the more mundane factors of his upbringing, education and so on. Details of how he interacted with the world are covered, even those of an improbable nature. When these are included, then they are labelled as such. The line drawings are accurate caricatures of the subjects. The artwork in general is bold and moves the narrative onward in both an efficient and an entertaining manner. Subjects rarely cover more than a page or two, thus making this ideal for dipping in and out of. The reader can get as much from it in this way as from reading it serially. The pages are referred to at the front of the book under the contents, and this also acts as an index, albeit without being alphabetical. There is a bibliography at the end.
As a beginner’s guide, this succeeds in covering a lot of ground, especially for such a small book. It conveys a mostly even-handed treatment of this extraordinary individual’s existence. The mixing of text and illustration not only comforts some, it also works as a teaching aid. This friendly approach should work in bringing more data concerning the Great Beast to a wider audience. -- Trevor Pyne.