This is a real curate's egg of a book, some elements of which are well informed and argued, but with one complete section which is absolutely riddled with dozens of mostly minor errors.
It is also unusual among books about Freemasonry in that it is neither a vitrolic attack nor a passionate defence. The author regards Masonry as a quaint collection of largely well-meaning amiable old buffers which is doomed to extinction as an organisation in the next couple of decades because it is too out-of-touch with the modern world.
The three elements of the book are:
1) A summary of the myths and stories told about Freemasonry by outsiders: not just novelists like Dan Brown, though he does have some prominence in the book, but also in the propaganda put about by the organisation's enemies, from the 19th century papacy through the Nazis to the modern american religious right.
2) An assessment of how much truth there is in these myths and stories (the author's answer is usually that there is virtually none, and I agree with him) and a short summary of the author's view of the real history of the organisation.
3) A description of the main masonic ceremonies, written as if to tell the participant how to take part in them. This is the section which is riddled with trivial errors.
The first section of the book provides an accessible and pretty comprehensive summary of myths and legends about Freemasonry. It shows how some of the charges made against the Templars at the time that order was suppressed have re-surfaced as attacks on Freemasonry, though the author rejects the argument made by some writers such as John Robinson, author of Born in Blood: Lost Secrets of Freemasonry that Freemasonry had a Templar origin. He lists and describes some of the other accusations against masonry, from the occasional reputable criticism to smears and forgeries such as those written by Leo Taxil for the papacy or "The protocols of the Elders of Zion" and other Nazi propaganda.
My only real criticism of this section of the book is that, given that the works of Dan Brown are novels which do not pretend to be anything other than fiction, this section of the book gives perhaps more prominence to the myths in those stories than is entirely necessary. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the way this book has been marketed as an answer to them.
The second section of the book, in which the author gives his view of the real history of Freemasonry is accessible, well argued, and well informed. I particularly enjoyed and found informative the account in this book of the story of Prince Hall, an African-American who was made a mason by a British army lodge during the war of independence, was not recognised as such by white american lodges, and therefore founded what was to become a whole independent masonic organisation for african americans. (More than two hundred years later, Prince Hall masonry has finally been recognised by most American grand lodges: in many states this happened literally within the past decade or so.)
However, it is the third section, which attempts to describe masonic organisation and rituals, which really lets this book down.
There are almost as many slightly different versions of masonic ritual as there are masonic lodges. Some, though not all, of the descriptions of masonic rituals which don't match the practice of any of the lodges I have visited may nevertheless apply to other lodges somewhere. And some of the descriptions of masonic ritual in this book which do not conform to present-day practice are merely out of date rather than fictional - for instance I recognised one Royal Arch practice which was dropped 20 years ago. But even allowing for this, there are a huge number of errors.
There is no doubt in my mind that the author spent a long time discussing masonic ritual with experienced Masons. But all of his informants would have sworn a solemn oath not to reveal the signs, tokens and words which might enable an unethical person to impersonate a mason. Unless Mr Gittins was incredibly sloppy in recording what they said - and since the rest of the book is anything but sloppy, I doubt that - his informants must have regarded their obligation to keep that oath as more important than helping him to give a fully accurate description of masonic ceremonies.
Whether they did this by making deliberate mistakes in what they told the author, or they just gave an outline and he made errors in filling in the gaps, this section contains at least one minor error, and the occasional major one, on almost every page.
Any real mason who had lost his authentic ritual book, and tried to learn his part from this book instead (masonic ceremonies are performed from memory), would risk looking silly. And any imposter who tried to use it to pretend to be a mason would almost certainly be detected. (No, he would not be murdered, but he would look very silly indeed.)
So overall this book matches the proverbial saying that "parts of it, my Lord, are excellent." But parts of it are not.
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This book doesn't seem able to decide whether it wants to give a considered history and view on Freemasonry or attack the novels of Dan Brown. I think it assumes that people have read the Brown books.
At times it is an interesting insight into Freemasonry but then gets bogged down with the rituals that soon lose their interest. It's a a fractured book that at times bursts into vitriol about the novels of Dan Brown without realising that anybody with half a brain realise that these novels are purely fictional and are a good read but little else. So chill out a bit Mr Gittins and write something useful rather than jumping onto the code bandwagon.
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