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Aleister Crowley and the secret history of UK witches in World War II

For his new graphic novel, Doctor Who and Elemental writer Paul Cornell was inspired by the incredible true story of the witch who fought the Nazis during the darkest hours of World War II.

My new graphic novel The Witches of World War Two is historical fiction about a group of amazing real people, all practitioners of magic who lived in the UK during the war.

Doreen Valiente (1922-1999) developed an interest in the occult founded upon a childhood incident where she felt she’d protected her mother from abuse. This interest led, over decades, to Valiente becoming perhaps the central figure of modern witchcraft, someone who did more than anyone else to shape Wicca into the movement it is today. 

The latest research concerning Valiente – who at the time of our story still went by her birth name, Dominy – indicates that she didn’t actually work as a translator at Bletchley Park, as has been widely believed, but she did spend long periods out of the historical record around then, and never talked about what happened. [It’s possible she was a spy.]

In real life, she didn’t meet our other hero Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) until the early 1950s. Gardner, through his interactions with the New Forest Coven (who attempted a series of magical workings to defend Britain from invasion) had discovered a tradition the coven members called ‘Wica’, which he strove to popularise. 

Valiente and Gardner’s friendship and work together, their building of covens and organisations, and their publishing careers – plus their subsequent battles and split over how public the business of magic should be – this creative synergy was how modern Paganism was created.

In reality, Gardner didn’t meet Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) until the year of Crowley’s death. Crowley initiated Gardner into his Ordo Templi Orientis, and effectively made him his deputy. More has been written about Crowley than any other figure in the history of magic, and, uniquely among my cast of characters, I feel he might have enjoyed the liberties I’ve taken with his timeline. 

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His interactions with British intelligence are all a highly fictionalised (often by himself) matter of conjecture, though he probably did correspond with Nazi mystic Rudolf Hess. Almost uniquely, he was an open advocate of German fascism who was allowed his freedom by the British authorities during wartime, and thus probably an agent provocateur

Dion Fortune (1890-1946) is one of the central figures of British occultism from the generation before Valiente, responsible for popularising the movement in the 1920s, initially in a Christian context, through psychotherapy and Theosophy (the history of which underlies so much of modern culture, but which has now been largely forgotten). Her organisations, novels and other publications represented a positive path, the light to Crowley’s darkness, and have become more and more influential on Goddess-centred belief systems. She spent World War Two working practically as well as spiritually to protect the home front, leading a group of charitably-inclined society folk, and popularising soya milk. 

Much less is known about Rollo Ahmed (1898-?) who was certainly known to Valiente, Gardner and Crowley, but who, by his own account, tried to steer a path away from black magic and to exorcise those involved in it, as well as teaching yoga. He impressed author Dennis Wheatley enough that a fictionalised depiction of Ahmed appears in The Devil Rides Out. Ahmed was also arrested on several occasions and imprisoned for fraud. He claimed various national origins, while actually having been born in Guyana. His novel I Rise (1936) is an early depiction of the racism encountered by a Black man in Britain. I suspect such racism played a part in his activities having been placed by history on the wrong side of the line between magic and fiction. 

I’m very much a fan of all of our leads, and I hope this book encourages readers to learn more about their lives and read their own works. It’s been a great pleasure to watch artist Valeria Burzo and colour artist Jordie Bellaire bring these characters and their world to life, with brilliant character acting and detail.

We make them part of an espionage game, and then take them on adventure into Nazi-occupied Europe, events that didn’t occur in real life, but which make them part of one of the most intriguing true events in the history of the war. I also give Dominy a meeting that didn’t take place with a Winston Churchill who doesn’t much resemble the depiction in a lot of recent dramas. In that respect, I may have aimed closer to the truth. 

The Witches of World War Two cover

The Witches of World War Two by by Paul Cornell (author), Valeria Burzo (illustrator), Jordie Bellaire (colourist), Simon Bowland (letterer) is out now (TKO Studios).

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