The Occult Jew, pt. 7

The most welcome appearance of the Occult Jew during the period of the fantasy genre’s consolidation occurs in John Bellairs’ The Face in the Frost (1969). One of my favorite fantasy novels, this book mixes Tolkienian fantasy and occult motifs. Its two heroes, both good-natured wizards, bear names that index, not norse eddas or fairytales, but the medieval and Renaissance worlds of scholarly magic.

One of the wizards is named Prospero—“and not the one you are thinking of, either,” writes Bellairs, which of course makes him the namesake of Shakespeare’s magus, whom some say was inspired by the Elizabethan court magician John Dee.[1]

Bellairs’s Prospero is accompanied by his friend, the wizard Roger Bacon—the name of the celebrated thirteenth-century monk, metaphysician, and scientist. William Godwin in his Lives of the Necromancers calls Bacon “one of the rarest geniuses that have existed on earth.” Centuries after his death, legend attributed to Bacon magical feats, including an attempt to surround England with a brass wall to keep it safe from invasion. Bellairs’s Bacon once attempted such a task, but got the spell wrong and wound up surrounding England with a wall of fragile glass.[2]

Bellairs’s Roger Bacon, illustrated by Marilyn Fitschen

Moreover, Prospero’s teacher, we are told, was the great Michael Scot, the name of another real-life churchman from the middle ages whose reputation was similarly surrounded with magical legend after his death.

The very fact of a teacher is important here. The wizards in The Face in Frost are scholarly types. Magic is not something inherent in them, but is studied and learned by determined, usually eccentric and quite fallible human beings. Bellairs explains in the prologue:

They knew seven different runic alphabets, could sing the Dies Irae all the way through to the end, and knew what a Hand of Glory was. Though they could not make the moon eclipse, they could do some very striking lightning effects and make it look as through it might rain if you waited long enough.[3]

In fact, the plot of the novel concerns the frightening and unprecedented powers acquired by a former schoolmate from studying a rare grimoire. Books are the key to both good magic and bad.

Most significant for our purposes is that, at a critical point in the tale, Prospero is aided by a kindly Jewish magus named Millhorn: the Occult Jew as friendly ally. (Marilyn Fitschen’s illustration of the scene is the image at the top.)

When they first meet, Prospero is awed to find Millhorn “unconcernedly thumbing” through a “huge untitled tome with the Seal of Solomon stamped on the side” and that is “full of black, shaded Hebrew characters.” Prospero asks: “The Kabbala?” and Millhorn confirms it.

Bellairs may or may not have known that the Kabbalah is not the title of a book, but rather the word for Jewish mystical tradition in general, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that, in The Face and the Frost, it takes a kindly, yarmulke-wearing Jew and his mysterious letters to stand up to powerful black magic.[4]

Coming up: the return of the occult to fantasy


Bellairs, John. The Face in the Frost. Ace Books, 1978.

Godwin, William. Lives of the Necromancers. e-book, n.p., n.d.

[1] Bellairs 1978, 1.

[2] Godwin, n.d.

[3] Bellairs 1978, vii.

[4] Op. cit., 161.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s