The Occult Jew, pt. 8

The final post in the series (though I will return to the topic).

In the 1990s the occult returned to fantasy literature. An increasing number of works of fantasy, including many of that decade’s most accomplished, feature secret societies, ritual magic, arcane academies, motifs and ideas drawn from Renaissance hermeticism, and historical and urban environments with wizards as ambitious scholars and bureaucrats.[1] These trends continue to the present.

M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart (1992) treats the aftermath of an occult ritual.

Alternatively, we might describe these elements not as a return of the occult to fantasy, but rather as a reflection of the weakening of genre boundaries themselves, with fantasy (already having spawned an “urban fantasy” sub-genre in the 1980s) combining with, for instance, elements typical of the horror and thriller genres.

The occult in fantasy often signals a rejection of (or boredom with) the conventions of Tolkieniesque epic fantasy. The shift since the 1990s has been toward writers indifferent or opposed to the cultural and moral paradigms of Tolkien and Lewis, critical of the masculine heroes of much sword-and-sorcery and series fantasy, and who use fantasy to question historical and political narratives (including the history of fantasy) and to put forth their own.

This is to say, that much contemporary occult fantasy reflects twenty-first century cultural sensibilities and agendas more than the actual occult.

Contemporary occult fantasy reflects twenty-first century cultural sensibilities and agendas more than the actual occult.

Cerainly, the immense popularity of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series derives not only from her skill as a children’s writer and the carefully developed plot architecture of her epic soap opera, but also from her use of the occult as a morally neutral, culturally indistinct set of vessels to which she could add her own lessons about good and evil, her own contemporary teen characters’s emotional conflicts.[2]

Not everyone appreciated Rowling’s project. In his occult fantasia Century (2009-2012), a comic book trilogy illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, Alan Moore retells the history of popular culture from the late nineteenth century to the present as a story of the modern occult. Returning all the occult significations to the vessels Rowling has emptied, Moore picks up the plot of Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild, except that the magical anti-Christ birthed by occultists is a demonic Harry Potter, who murders the entire student body of Hogwarts.

Moore’s Crowley faces off with Harry.

But Rowling’s success spawned other YA series in the mode of occult fantasy, such as Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books (a subject for a later post) and Michael Scott’s Alchemyst series. Scott goes even further than Rowling in raiding names from western esotericism as well as various mythologies.

The presiding figures of Scott’s series are the immortal Flamel and his wife Perenelle, but we also get John Dee, Excalibur, golems, gods from Celtic, Greek, Norse, Mesopotamian, and other sources, all detached from any substantive cultural meaning or connection to their origins. The result is as bland and generic as Josh and Sophie, the San Franciscan teens who are the heroes of the series.

By contrast, G. P. Taylor, the author of the Shadowmancer YA books, dabbled in occult practices himself before becoming a Christian pastor. His books, for all their flaws, evince a seriousness concerning the moral valence of magic that is lacking in the other popular young readers series.

The four Shadowmancer books were written in response to what Taylor saw as the anti-Christianity of Rowling and Philip Pullman—debatable in the first case, accurate in the second. In contrast to the relentlessly accessible Harry Potter books with their consistent poise and sure pacing, Taylor’s books lurch into sudden resolutions, oscillate between overrevealing internal monologues and murky characterization, yet contain occasional passages of dark lyric charm.

Set in the eighteenth century, they have occult plots featuring biblical relics and sinister kabbalistic secrets. The first book in the quartet focuses on one of the golden keruvim (cherubs) from the biblical temple, used by a villainous sorcerer to wreak destruction.[3] The other books include, in addition to other occult trappings (and much suffering of children), an arrogant “master of the Cabala” who reads apocalyptic prophesies from a dangerous tome, the appearance of the Wandering Jew, and a climactic pronunciation of the ineffable Name of God.

The second book in G. P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer series. The villain, Blake, is “an astronomer, doctor, scientist, and a master of the Cabala” who is convinced that “a new age is about to begin, a golden dawn.”

Yet in Taylor’s books, the Occult Jew does not make a direct appearance as such. As I will discuss in a future post, the Occult Jew is an element in the Bartimaeus books by Stroud, but it is displaced.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, readers learned after the fact, from a 2014 tweet by Rowling, that there was a Jewish student at Hogwarts. The character, Anthony Goldstein, is a minor one; his Jewish background does not register in the series.[4] On the other hand, Rowling’s portrayal of the ugly goblin race, downtrodden and ostracized yet in charge of the Wizarding World’s banks, is at the very least an uncomfortable sort of meditation on tropes of antisemitism.

More recently, the sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein—evidently forebears of Anthony—are major characters in the current Grindelwald franchise of Harry Potter spin-off movies, numbing CGI behemoths (three so far) set in the years between the First and Second World Wars. The Goldsteins’ Jewishness is similarly unmentioned, which is strange given the films’ chronological setting and heavy-handed political content.[5]

Queenie Goldstein, marrying out of the faith . . . and the magic.

It would seem for the most part that the return of the occult to fantasy literature has not brought with it a return of the Occult Jew. That trope has been largely discarded, to the extent that it does not linger in displaced form in the standard fantasy wizard with his beard and mysterious books.

In contemporary fantasy the Jewishness of characters need not have any connection to their magic. When parameters of representation constrain Jewish characters in fantasy, they are far less less likely to derive from medieval, gothic, or Victorian paradigms than from contemporary identity politics.[6]

For instance, when Rowling was publishing her Harry Potter series, perhaps the most well-known magical Jew in fantasy was Willow Rosenberg, a character in the hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (The image at the top is of Willow, played by Alyson Hannigan, with Sarah Michelle Gellars’s Buffy.) Willow, though magically potent, was not really an Occult Jew. Her Jewishness was less important than (or subsumed in) her identities as wiccan and bisexual.


Mendlesohn, Farah and Edward James. A Short History of Fantasy. Libri Publishing, 2012. Revised and updated.

[1] Some particularly distinguished titles from this period are Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire (1989); M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart (1992); Elizabeth Hand, Waking the Moon (1994); John Whitbourn, To Build Jerusalem (1995); and Mary Gentle, Ash (2000). I would also cite the television series Twin Peaks, with its Black Lodge, which began to air in 1990 (and reached its shattering finale in 2017). In connection with Twin Peaks, though not anywhere close to the show’s level of surreal brilliance, are the two occult fantasy beach books that Mark Frost, who created the show with David Lynch, published in the 1990s. Frost’s 1993 The List of Seven has Helena Blavatsky and Dion Fortune advising a fictionalized Arthur Conan Doyle in his dealings with an evil secret society. The book’s sequel The Six Messiahs (1995) turns on the theft of a rare edition of the Zohar, and includes a rabbi named Jacob Stern as one of the heroes. For an excellent survey of fantasy in the 1990s see Mendlesohn and James 2012, chapter 9.

[2] See Mendlesohn and James 2012, chapter 10 for a critical explanation and contextualization of the Potter phenomenon.

[3] In the tradition of the modern occult’s shaky Hebrew, Taylor does not realize that “keruvim” is the plural and that his villain possesses not “a keruvim” but a kruv.

[4] A work of Harry Potter fan fiction, Goldstein, turned the character into an orthodox Jew who has to struggle to maintain Jewish religious observance—sabbath, kosher eating, holidays, etc.—while at Hogwarts. Magic is not at issue here, halakha (Jewish law) and the experience of religious minorities are.

[5] The villain Grindelwald—the first Harry Potter book tells us he was defeated in 1945 with the help of Nicolas Flamel—is a magical supremacist who wants wizards to rule over ordinary humans. His machinations conflate Nazism (he is the chronological parallel to Hitler and a magical racist), populism (he is the charismatic demagogue speaking up for, and deluding, the underdog), and conservative Christianity (his schemes depend on the enlistment of a young man traumatized by his oppressive Christian family and church). In the latest movie he tries to steal an election.

In other words, these movies are among Hollywood’s recent big budget allegories for its perception of its conservative enemies and its anxiety over the slipping cultural power of its own elite liberalism. They can be compared with the (admittedly more entertaining) films Wonder Woman 1984, with its Donald Trump villain and plot about the magical brainwashing of the electorate, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a Biden-era sequel in which the protagonist is a walking corpse whose role is to protect a character named “America.”

Interestingly, at the close of the second Grindelwald film one of the Goldstein sisters, Queenie, joins the Grindelwald camp. And she does so because the magical establishment Grindelwald hopes to overthrow will not allow her to marry her boyfriend because he is non-magical. (He is also non-Jewish, though this is not brought up.) But this development is walked back in the latest movie, which ends happily with Queenie’s wedding, which takes place on a rather de-Judaized Lower East Side.

[6] It seems to me that Occult Jews are more likely to turn up in film and television where, even without magic, the visual representation of orthodox Jews is even today often linked with darkness, secrecy, and mysterious books and rituals.

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