Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zanoni [Amazon, Bookshop, Internet Archive, Local Library] by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Lytton Zanoni

Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni romanticized Rosicrucianism for 19th-century readers, and it became a staple of occultist bookshelves. It tells the story of a Rosicrucian adept in the 18th century whose use of the elixir of life has sustained him since the ancient Babylonian empire, and who ultimately sacrifices his magical immortality.

Zanoni refers to the adept’s Holy Guardian Angel or personal genius as “Adonai,” a usage later adopted by both Anna Kingsford and Aleister Crowley, among others. Golden Dawn founder MacGregor Mathers first became interested in the occult after reading Zanoni. He used “Zanoni” as a nickname; his wife and close friends called him “Zan” in conversation.

Zanoni also depicts an ordeal involving “The Guardian of the Threshold.” Madame Blavatsky would evolve this phrase into “the Dweller of the Threshold,” specifically citing Zanoni, and she affirmed the reality of the phenomenon, also referencing “Porphyry and other philosophers” regarding its nature. Blavatsky was so taken with the occult descriptions in Zanoni that the first volume of her Isis Unveiled quotes the novel for more than a full page. “Such,” she writes, “is the insufficient sketch of elemental beings void of divine spirit, given by one whom many with reason believed to know more than he was prepared to admit in the face of an incredulous public” (IU, I, 286).

Crowley later took up this thread in Liber Cordis Cincti Serpente, chapter IV, verse 34: “On the threshold stood the fulminant figure of Evil … .” In his commentary, he relates this figure explicitly to Zanoni’s exposition of “the Evil Persona, the Dweller on the Threshold, portrayed sensationally for the trade by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.”

It is hard to overestimate the influence of Zanoni on occultists in the late 19th century, and the extent to which it was credited as an informed representation of magical adeptship.