Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard

David Russell Mosley

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Epiphanytide
7 January 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Yesterday an article went up on The Atlantic by writer Colleen Gillard titled, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories.” A friend sent it to me today and I will admit initially to being sympathetic to the title. After all, as most of you will know, fairy-tales, of which the British have many and Americans few, are my bread and butter. Nevertheless, as I continued to read the article, I could not bring myself to agree with the precise reason why British children stories are superior to American ones.

Things were going along fine at first. The first line of the article, a kind of one sentence summation of the article in toto, says, “Their history informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tends to focus on moral realism.” Gillard goes on to provide evidence for this by first contrasting Huckleberry Fin to the Harry Potter stories. As Gillard writes, “One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong.” American children stories especially from the nineteenth century onward tend to focus on life in the frontier and usually have a strong moral ethic to them that involves working hard, or being cunning enough to get others to work hard for you, sticking to your guns against an immoral society or an amoral nature. Gillard, citing Harvard professor Maria Tatar, connects the American side to the Protestant work ethic. Again, I find myself agreeing. Yet it is when Tatar suggests that it’s simply that, “the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore…. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard.” Now Gillard, and Tatar, is going a bit awry if you ask me. First of all, King Arthur, while an essential story within British culture, is not exactly the country’s origin story. That’s not quite the role it’s meant to fill. But putting that aside, Merlin being a wizard and Arthur’s tutor (which sounds much more like Gillard is getting her Arthurian legend through T. H. White rather than, say, Chretien de Troyes or the Gawain Poet or many, many others) doesn’t make those stories pagan.

The rest of the article goes on to pit Britain’s pagan past against America’s protestant, and particularly puritanical foundations. This is, I think, quite, quite wrong. I’m not adverse to giving the pagans their due in forming some of the foundations for what would become later British fairy-tales and children’s stories. But there is something else I think that is missing from this picture: Britain’s Catholicism, both Roman and Anglo. Gillard seems to forget that if Arthur is famous for having a wizard as a counselor, he is just as famous, if not more so, for the quest for the Holy Grail, the cup in which Christ’s blood and water was caught when he was pierced by the centurion. She forgets that Tolkien, who’s riddle game in The Hobbit is given as an example of pagan folklore, was a devout Roman Catholic who admitted that The Lord of the Rings existed in Catholic, albeit pre-Christian, Cosmos. She forgets that Lewis was a High Church Anglican and Christian apologist, that Philip Pullman wrote his stories as an atheist anti-Narnia. She forgets that Rowling herself admits that Harry Potter is an essentially Christian story. Paganism, or better Faërie, plays an important role in the British imagination, one that is often lacking in the American imagination, but it is Faërie baptized more often than not.

One of my favourite fairy-stories, the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, makes the connection between Faërie and Christianity quite firm. Gawain is on a quest to find the Green Knight and receive from him a blow with an axe on his neck, Gawain had given the knight such a blow and severed his head, which the Green Knight summarily picked up and rode off with. During his quest to find this knight and receive the blow from him, Gawain quite clearly enters into Faërie. This is clear when he enters “countries unknown” where “with worms [dragons] he wars, and wolves also,/at whiles with wood-trolls that wandered in the crags,/and with bulls and with bears and boars, too, at times;/and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells.” Here we see Gawain, who it should be noted had a picture of the Virgin Mary painted on the inside of his shield, battling normal creatures one might meet in the wild––wolves, bears, bulls, boars––but also with the darker creatures of Faërie: dragons, wood-trolls, and ogres. Clearly, Gawain has left the human world behind and has entered Faërie. But perhaps the most obvious connection between  Faërie and Christianity is when Gawain is lost in Faërie on Christmas Eve and prays for a place to celebrate Mass and a castle appears before him. The people he meets there are evidently denizens of Faërie and yet the worship the Holy Trinity. You see Catholic Christianity as it spread throughout Europe did not simply do away with the old stories and beliefs; neither did they simply change out gods for angels, heroes for saints, pagan celebrations for Christian ones. Instead there was a baptism of the pagan. The old stories were seen in a new light, in the light of Christ, God become man and the cosmos attendant to that. For Christianity during this period angels moved in the heavenly spheres, bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus Christ, water and oil became vessels of God’s grace. All of creation, from the highest Empyrean to basest matter is imbued with grace, is upheld by and participates in God at all times. It was a cosmos where angels were attendant at the Mass and in the home. And it was a cosmos that had room for the longaevi, the long-lived, the elves, the fairies.

This is what Gillard, and in my opinion the experts on folklore, are missing. They don’t understand the relationship between Christianity and Faërie. They don’t understand that Arthur is a Christian King whose exploits often take him into Faërie or at least its edges. Now, they are quite right that much American story-telling is missing this as well. The kind of protestantism that served as the religious foundation of America was a denuded one (though it should be noted that the Puritans were often famous for reading omens from God in everyday events). Nature slowly became an un-Christian space to be conquered, rather than our fellow creatures. This is not to say that Faërie is necessarily absent from America, but that white-American culture at the least lost the ability to see it, if they ever had it.

A final point before I leave you: I read fairy-tales still. They are not, as the article somewhat suggests, only or even especially for children. This is a lesson Tolkien learned after he wrote The Hobbit when he wrote and delivered his lecture On Fairy-stories. Instead, fairy-tales and fantasy ought to serve as continued reminders that creation is a gift (something the article somewhat notes), that it is graced, and that for those who have the eyes to see it is enchanted. And all this is so, not because it is pagan, but precisely because it Christian. Precisely because reality is sacramental, because the cosmos is itself liturgical, is it enchanted, is there a place for Faërie. This is what the Beowulf Poet, the Gawain Poet and earlier Arthurian authors understood, what Chaucer understood, what Shakespeare understood, what MacDonald, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien all understood: British fairy-tales aren’t better than American ones because they are more pagan, but because they are more Christian.

Sincerely,
David

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31 comments on “Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard

  1. As an Englishman I agree with you entirely. A reading of Chesterton’s The Ethics of Elfland rather undermines Ms Gillard’s argument as does Tolkien’s stated determination to create a mythology for England, based upon his conviction that England lost its native mythology at the Norman conquest. Nevertheless she does ask an interesting question of the United States. Why does it lack a mythology? Is it possible for one to develop one in modernity? Tolkien would argue that it is. What about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do I jest?

    • MisterDavid says:

      Have you read American Gods, Stephen?

      ‘”This is a bad land for Gods,” says Shadow.’

      I’m surprised the original article didn’t touch on superheroes and cartoons – including Buffy. To my mind they are certainly the American mythological figures.

      • No, I have not read that, David. I don’t want to pick on the USA here. My first introduction to the idea of modernity as an inhospitable environment for the gods came in reading Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill. It was a book my father had long wanted me to read. The day when the fairies left England made me very sad. As with Tolkien I don’t want to meet a dragon today but I want to live in a world where that might be a possibility.

      • David,

        I agree that it’s odd that comics weren’t mentioned. But perhaps this is because they are, relatively speaking, such a new development. Also, I think many of them would still fit within those notions of Protestant Work Ethic and the conquering of nature.

    • Stephen,

      I agree that we can make new myths. But keep in mind that even as Tolkien attempted to do that, initially anyway, for England, he still set it in the distant past. Buffy is in the present (or was when it was on). I think there we Americans run into a real problem if we don’t want to erase Native Americans and our maltreatment of them from our past (something the Old Westerns occasionally attempted to do).

      • I do agree with you about the setting of the LOTR mythology in the distant past. As I said to David Rowe, in Kipling’s Puck of Pook Hill the fairies left England when modernity took hold. I was deeply impressed by your reflection on American mythology and the relationship to Native American culture.

      • I find the movement to creating modern fantasy, often called urban fantasy by authors like Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Terry Windling, and Emma Bull to be quite heartening. In fact, I think back and recall Joan Aiken, who I read all through my childhood, writing the same sort of thing without the need for her own (sub)genre. Faerie has not died; we just closed our eyes to it, trying like Susanna Clake’s Mr Norrel to pretend that our modern world did not need it. But it’s still there, whether we acknowledge it or not…

  2. Jim Baker says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The points you made were absolutely correct, insightful and important to recognize. I am a fan of fantasy/ fairy stories myself, especially Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowland. I immensely enjoy Lewis and Chesterton’s nonfiction as well. I’m glad there are Christian scholars out there spreading the word that we need not equate fantasy works with paganism. Thanks for taking the time to post this, it’s been the highlight of my day so far to read it.

  3. Christoph says:

    Hey David,

    I like it. You should test the theory, maybe spin it into a paper. I suggest you check other Christian countries, such as pre-Napolean France, pre-Reformation Germany or Spain and see if your theory holds true, or perhaps if it is the unique Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-Norman-Christian mix that creates this (which I suspect). I find the stories we tell are reflective of the culture as a whole.

    What strikes me is that Grimm’s Fairy Tales (rather the fairy tales they collected) is a lot more gory and fatalistic. Though I understand they also altered them as well. Also, and this is interesting, most of the tales they collected came from French Huguenots.

    Anyway.

    Oh, and this is not a criticism, Sehnsucht like all German nouns in capitalized.

    • Chris,

      Thanks! In some earlier posts here, I look at the differences between the Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm version of several fairy-tales. What is interesting is how Christian and even Catholic the French versions remain while the German ones don’t. For instance, fairy-godmothers are absent from the German versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty but are present in the French versions. Still, you’re quite right that it would be fascinating to delve into this deeper and look to continental Europe as well.

      Thanks for the note on Sehnsucht.

  4. Amber says:

    If you’re under the impression that King Arthur is a Christian story, then you aren’t going back far enough, either. T.H. White and Chretien de Troyes took Arthur from the Mabinogion, which is a decidedly pagan text.

    Christianity overshadowed the pagan elements in an attempt to subsume it and drown it out, but it managed to stand its ground, and continue to show itself in the writings of even ‘Christian’ authors such as Tolkien and Rowling. Pagans had always believed the earth and its creatures to be sacred- if Christians are claiming this belief, it came from Pagans first.

    • 1) King Arthur was either a Christian or a Neopagan. A Christian like previous Roman and Celtic nobility, or a Neopagan like subsequent Penda of Mercia, if he had Celtic and Christian roots, as Belloc supposed.
      2) It is therefore as likely that Mabonogion toned down his Christianity as that CHrétien de Troyes added to it.
      3) Mabonogion is a mythological text about Pagan mythology, but could have been written by a Christian, like Gylfaginning and the rest of Edda certainly was. In that case Arthur’s Christianity could have been left out because author knew he was Neopagan and fitted the mythology around it – or he could have been writing a book of mythology in the first place, crowned it with some Arthuriana, and left out a real Christianity in this person in order to fit it with the mythology he had included.

    • Dear Amber,

      That’s not only not entirely true, but it’s rather simplistic. To say that there’s only one source for Arthur, other than the man himself, is rather short-sighted. Many texts and oral traditions gave rise to the stories about Arthur. Also, you ought to keep in mind that why we have many of the texts we do, as others here have pointed out, is because Christian monks copied them and put them in libraries. Also, what’s with the scare quotes around Christian in reference to Tolkien and Rowling? Read Tolkien’s letters, you’ll never meet a more devoutly Christian man. Read this article about Rowling’s use of religious symbolism: http://www.mtv.com/news/1572107/harry-potter-author-jk-rowling-opens-up-about-books-christian-imagery/. Also, Christianity and Judaism predate many European pagan societies. Don’t forget that before Christianity made it to Europe, it was flourishing in the Middle East. I think you might want to learn a bit more about Christian history before you start suggesting that key Christian ideas are really pagan.

  5. “Mabinogion, which is a decidedly pagan text.”

    Er, no.

    Mabinogion, if containing Pagan mythology, was, as much as Gylfaginning, written by a Christian.

    Also, one cannot say the Mabinogion is necessarily the direct or indirect source of Arthurian lore.

    Also, if Arthur might, unlike his ancestors (and like a successor called Penda of Mercia, in that case) been pagan, it may also very well be that Arthurian lore in Mabonogion was given a sifting of material in which Christian references were sifted out to fit the mythological context in Mabonogion.

  6. Rosaria Marie says:

    Dear David,

    I just stumbled upon your blog today, already being a follower of “A Pilgrim in Narnia”, and have really enjoyed looking through your archives. I am the editor of “The Fellowship of The King”, an online magazine which focuses on a lot of the same themes/topics as you guys: http://www.thefellowshipoftheking.wordpress.com

    Reading over the above article, I very much agree with your balancing the score as to the Christian influence that permeates British story-telling. Might you possibly be interested in having your above piece republished on TFOTK, with accompanying links an credits of course?

    Blessings,
    R.M.

  7. Reblogged this on the theological beard and commented:
    Hear, hear!

  8. loreguardian says:

    Loved this article and the points made, esp. about Christian influences. Your response to Gillard is trenchant and you should consider creating a paper out of it. I plan to come back to this site often!

  9. […] because of the pagan roots of British fantasy. I think that is adequately refuted in this article Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard — Letters from the Edge of Elflan…, and the author’s reaction to Gillard’s article is similar to […]

  10. Christine says:

    Great response. I read the article a few days ago and was arguing wit it in my head since. I wish the Atlantic would publish yours as well!

  11. Jose Allen says:

    I, as “a Simple Person” (that is a quote!) hesitate to comment upon the learned article and the comments above. However , no one mentioned Sir Edward Strachey’s excellent editing and introduction to Le Morte Darthur or William Caxton’s great introduction to his first printing of Sir Thomas Malory’s book. The latter explains much of what seems so opaque to modern readers about the various ‘Types’ for Arthur. (no, that is NOT a printer’s joke, either !) While talking about types (of another sort) and printers no one has mentioned that Tolkein , Charles Williams and C.S Lewis were very much influenced by the translations of Icelandic folk tales by two other Oxford scholars, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones during their travels in Iceland.. even though the picture heading of the article was by Burne-Jones; so obviously EBJ is not unknown to the editors of this (excellent) magazine.

    • Jose,

      I’m not sure where you’re quoting “a Simple Person” from, certainly not my article. You are, of course, correct that I did not mention Mallory’s excellent work, nor the Icelandic influences on the Inklings. Mallory was merely a matter of space, as well as what I had on hand (I happened to have my copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on me when I wrote this). As for the Icelandic myths that influenced the Inklings: two points. 1. Tolkien may very well have read Morris’s translations, I don’t know. I do know that he could read Old Norse. 2. It’s equally important to keep in mind that many, if not all, of the Norse mythology we have today comes after the advent of Christianity in those countries. Snorri Sturluson himself attempted broadly to recontextualize Icelandic myth within Christianity, making Odin a magician from the East, etc.

      In any event, thank you for your kind words. Calling this a magazine is a bit much, it’s just me here. But I thank you.

  12. Stephen Law says:

    Tolkien lamented the loss and lack of an authentically English mythology, which he blamed on the discontinuity or interregnum in English culture caused by the Norman Conquest, occurring as it did during the centuries when in other countries the old folktales and myths were being written down by monks. It was partly in an effort to recover or substitute for this lack that he began his own Legendarium, which was as far as possible informed and inspired by the enigmatic and suggestive fragments that did survive.

  13. Tulika B. says:

    I remember reading the article and being shocked at the writer’s misconceptions. I’m glad you posted such a fitting response. Good job!

  14. […] Catholic or Pagan Imagination (David Russell Mosley) – This is a fantastic rebuttal to an Atlantic article that asserted that the British tell better children’s stories because Great Britain’s literature has its roots in paganism instead of puritanism. […]

  15. Rosaria Marie says:

    Greetings, David!

    Here is the republished version of this article on “The Fellowship of The King”:

    http://thefellowshipoftheking.net/2016/01/10/catholic-or-pagan-imagination-a-response-to-colleen-gillard/

    Thank you so much for being our guest!

    If you could please sign up as a follower of our magazine site, and possibly spread the word about our existence on the web to your contacts, it would be much appreciated! 🙂

    Blessings,
    Rosaria Marie

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