Volume 2 / Issue 2 / 2004 – 2005
The Deeper Magic: Paganism and Christianity in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and That Hideous Strength
by Jon Trott © 2005 Evangelical Christians do not, as a rule, understand paganism in its various permutations. When they write about it, the tone is more than likely imperious, overbearing, and (saddest of all) informed by ignorance of their own faith as well as of paganism. Christianity, like paganism, is rooted in Nature and the embodied world of material, tangible, sensual reality. Two writers, one well known to evangelicals and other fairly unknown, are instructive in using an inclusive rather than exclusive approach toward pagans and neo-pagans. The writers, C. S. Lewis and Kenneth Grahame, break nearly every rule of “proper apologetics” from a standard evangelical point of view. Yet I would suggest that they – and not most evangelicals – are the real persuaders when it comes to convincing a neopagan of the earthly, earthy, fully embodied mystery and beauty of Christianity. Consider this passage from Grahame’s Wind in the Willows1, a book that has always haunted me since my father – who also loved the story – read it aloud to us children in a sort of family gathering one usually reads about rather than experiences. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is a straightforward children’s tale featuring talking animals. (Unfortunately, many who know the tale encountered it first via Disney’s cartoon version, which does not at all do justice to the book.) The incident of interest to our discussion occurs as “Mole” and “Rat” raft along the riverbank in search of a missing baby otter, Little Portly. Rat has earlier had a mystical 1
The complete text of The Wind in the Willows is available online. One such repository exists on the University of Virginia’s website: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/GraWind.html
experience, a beautiful dream that just escapes whenever he attempts to grasp it. And as the duo makes their way down the river, a sense of an unseen presence begins to impress itself upon them. Even the baby otter is forgotten as they sense a growing joy and expectation:
`This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,' whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!' Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew. Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered. `Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?' `Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!' Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
There is no attempt to suggest, no overt hint toward the idea, that the Presence here is Christ. Instead, it seems obvious that the pagan god Pan is the one we’re encountering vicariously through the animals. Yet it also seems plain that this is indeed a “type” or symbol of Christ. “Friend” and “Helper” he is called, and all of nature somehow becomes even more real, more embodied even than it already is, at this Ultimate Embodiment of Deity. Here is the shockingly wonderful core of the Christian story: God become Flesh,
Deity dwelling bodily among us. The fact that the horned Pan seems more easily cast as a symbol for Satan than for Christ only makes this analogy all the more deliciously subversive. I do not pretend to say that Grahame had in mind an altar call here, or that he intended the story as some sort of tract. Rather, I think the marriage of Pan and Christ in his story was a sensible parallel, Pan a befitting form for God to take in an animal story as Christ took on human form in the gospel story. The baby otter, protected and safe, seems a sort of parallel to the one lost sheep Christ speaks of in his parable of the one and the ninety-nine in Matthew and Luke: “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” And in a sad sort of ending which any Christian can take to heart, neither Mole nor Rat can exactly remember this incident soon after it is over; it is as though nature and Supernature become too real for their little hearts and minds to bear. C. S. Lewis (and also his “Inkling” friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams2) played extensively with pagan and magical symbols in his writings. It is of interest to note that Lewis cites Wind in the Willows as an example of “the numinous” (a term David Downing3 points out is likely drawn from the writings of Rudolf Otto, whom Lewis openly admitted being indebted to). The most overt blurring of lines between Christianity and paganism by Lewis may take place in two books: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW) and That Hideous Strength (THS). These two books are respectively parts of a seven and three book set; the first being his children’s Narnia series, and the second being his Out of the Silent Planet science fiction trilogy. In LWW, we are introduced to some children who, via a magical clothes cupboard (the wardrobe) enter the world of Narnia. Unfortunately, Narnia is ruled by an evil witch. Starting right off with a bad witch seems hardly the way to impress an average wiccan or neo-pagan. But looks can be deceiving. This witch bears a far greater resemblance to modern totalitarians than she does to the jolly excesses of Pan. She is a destroyer of the environment, a persecutor of animals (she literally turns animals to stone if they disobey her commands), and a hater of nature (she enthralls all of Narnia in an everlasting winter). Joy is sin; any magic but hers is utterly 2
Williams’ use of occultic symbolism can be seen even in the title of one of his novels, The Greater Trumps, which uses a tarot deck in both two and three dimensions as a key plot tool. 3 Downing’s excellent Into the Region of Awe (IVP, 2005) offers an excellent primer for post-moderns interested in Lewis the mystic as much or more than Lewis the apologist.
forbidden; fear is what she desires from her subjects. In short, this witch is a magical fascist rather than a hedonistic lover of nature and natural creation. Neopagans will enjoy disliking her as heartily as Christians enjoy it. Aslan, the Lion, is a thinly disguised type of Christ, and must come to the rescue of one of the children as well as of Narnia. The witch claims the boy, who was a traitor against his own kind before repenting and coming to Aslan’s side:
“You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill.... that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property... unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”
Aslan, to the childrens’ and other Narnians’ surprise, agrees that this is so. All nature is dependent upon “deep magic” that holds it together; violate that magic, and nature itself will come undone. So Aslan strikes a bargain with the witch. To do this, he must suffer a death that both Christians and non-christians will recognize. It is perhaps one of Lewis’ most deeply sorrowful written expressions, and one of the saddest in all childrens’ literature. Yet it is not, after all, the end. The witch relies on “deep magic,” but Aslan knows of a deeper magic still, a magic that subverts her power-lust and hate with a resurrection and restoration of things both natural and human. One might guess the end, but LWW is well worth reading at any rate. (One hopes the December 9 2005 Disney movie4 based on LWW will be better than what happened to Wind in the Willows; early trailers look promising.) Some – including J. R. R. Tolkien – found the Narnia stories banal. For them, Lewis goes much further, and perhaps writes in a darker, more adult vein in That Hideous Strength. This final novel of his science fiction trilogy has an evil group of conspirators, the N.I.C.E., involved in a diabolical plot to take over the earth. Dark occult arts are in heavy play, but so are ultra-rational philosophies which are anti-nature in an extreme. One conversation, for instance, revolves around replacing the “inefficient” trees of nature with metallic trees. Lewis describes the virtual raping of land and forests going on all around the center of N.I.C.E. activities. For Lewis, magic is not the evil; the seeking after power is the evil. In a startlingly dark moment, two characters appropriately named Withers and Frost (the first a representative of dark magic, the second representing modern rationalism) have an involved conversation that ends in their obvious desire to consume one another – literally. This image of evil occurs elsewhere in Lewis’ fiction (for instance, Screwtape Letters) but perhaps nowhere else in as frightening or convincing a manner: 4
Disney’s website for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: http://adisney.go.com/disneypictures/narnia/index.html
They were now sitting so close together that their faces almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Frost’s pince-nez caught the light so that they made his eyes invisible: only his mouth, smiling but not relaxed in the smile, revealed his expression. Wither’s mouth was open, the lower lip hanging down, his eyes wet, his whole body hunched and collapsed in his chair as if the strength had gone out of it. A stranger would have thought he had been drinking. Then his shoulders twitched and gradually he began to laugh. And Frost did not laugh, but his smile grew moment by moment brighter and also colder, and he stretched out his hand and patted his colleague on the shoulder. Suddenly in that silent room there was a crash. Who’s Who had fallen off the table, swept onto the floor as, with sudden swift convulsive movements, the two old men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape. An as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, but then louder and louder, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter.
Mark Studdock, a naïve young agnostic driven mostly by personal ambition for “recognition,” has, while imprisoned, a spiritual encounter with darkness that reveals to him the anti-nature elements of the N.I.C.E. once and for all:
These creatures of which Frost had spoken—and he did not doubt now that they were locally present with him in the cell—breathed death on the human race and on all joy. Not despite this but because of this, the terrible gravitation sucked and tugged and fascinated him towards them. Never before had he known the fruitful strength of the movement opposite to Nature which now had him in its grip; the impulse to reverse all reluctances and to draw every circle anti-clockwise. The meaning of certain pictures, of Frost’s talk about ‘objectivity,’ of the things done by witches in old times, became clear to him….”
Again, into play here is the seemingly standard Christian motif of the evil witch. But also apparent is Lewis’ rather unique take on that symbol, one of being “against” nature, against joy, against the blessed embodiment of life and individual lives in the world. And in one of the more intriguing moments in all his fiction, Lewis borrows a character from Arthurian lore to carry one of the story’s main threads. Merlin, who has been enthralled in a centuries-long sleep, is being sought by the N.I.C.E. to further and perfect their plans. Instead, however, in a highly unexpected turn of events, the magician becomes allied with a secret community in opposition to N.I.C.E.’s program. Merlin is a highly ambiguous character in the story. He is a pagan, a druid, unapologetically so. He is a warrior of the old school, and must repeatedly be instructed that smiting people’s heads off or using his arcane arts in other damaging ways is strictly off limits. At least, mostly so. Because in the book’s climactic passage, it is Merlin who
personally ushers in the judgment of High Heaven against the N.I.C.E.: “They have pulled down deep heaven on their heads.” Merlin is explained this way by one of the hidden community’s people to another, who is questioning Merlin’s goodness: He’s at the opposite extreme [from the N.I.C.E.]. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the [N.I.C.E.] people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits—extra-natural, antinatural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin, which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goeteia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”
Merlin’s paganism/Christian mix, then, is one that is no longer workable without alteration. But it is also one which is at least in part necessary to return to, containing as it does a love for and understanding of our place in nature’s unfolding. Paganism and neo-paganism cannot, from a Christian point of view, be embraced in total. But, as Lewis and Grahame, along with many other writers before and since illustrate, a Christianity without the sensual, joyous, nature-celebrating and fully embodied in nature elements of paganism is a Christianity subverted by modernism. Such themes are found in profusion throughout Lewis’ writings in particular, both fiction and non-fiction. I would hope that we evangelicals would recapture this wonderfully positive element within both our theology and practice. It might be enlightening to see how, in view of Lewis’ rather permissive take on paganism, he treats Christian conversion itself. Mind, this is a story. And for a Christian feminist such as myself, I am not totally easy with all the overtones of this passage.5 Allow it, however, to resonate and suggest possibilities to you whether you the reader are 5
His character called “the Director,” the Christian leader of the hidden community, tells another character that God is the Ultimate Masculine, to which “we are all feminine.” The second character, a female, has resisted having children with her husband, a symbol for Lewis of her rebellion against nature—her own nature first and foremost. To this writer, that sounds more like a patriarchal construct and is not in keeping even with Lewis’ words elsewhere in the same book. This is on some levels understandable, but I think it a sign of Lewis’ cultural blinders as well as in error theologically. God is not a man (Numbers 23:19), though he is most often described as Father. God is also described in Scripture as feminine. Since both man and woman are made in God’s image, it could be argued that God more fully expresses both masculine and feminine attributes than do men and women. Thus, he could be both the Ultimate Masculine and Ultimate Feminine, which in fact is what this writer believes to be the case. There is also the issue of what “masculine” and “feminine” themselves signify, which though of interest to many Pagans as well as Christians, I cannot in this essay hope to adequately deal with.
a neo-pagan, Christian, or somewhere else on the spiritual spectrum. It is a description of a woman (wife of the afore-mentioned Mark Studdock) walking in a garden (the nature theme once again!). Here we see Grahame’s Pan theme played out again, but rather than a Pan-like figure she encounters something both less visible and more substantial:
Then, at one particular corner of the gooseberry patch, the change came. What awaited her there was serious to the degree of sorrow and beyond. There was no form nor sound. The mould under the bushes, the moss on the path, and the little brick border, were not visibly changed. But they were changed. A boundary had been crossed. She had come into a world, or into a Person, or into the presence of a Person. Something expectant, patient, inexorable, met her with no veil or protection between. In the closeness of that contact she perceived at once that the Director’s words had been entirely misleading. This demand which now pressed upon her was not, even by analogy, like any other demand. It was the origin of all right demands and contained them. In its light you could understand them; but from them you could know nothing of it. There was nothing, and never had been anything, like this. And now there was nothing except this. Yet also, everything had been like this; only by being like this had anything existed. In this height and depth and breadth the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, into bottomless distance, like a bird in a space without air. The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others, a thing being made at this very moment, without its choice, in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both, whereof she could not tell whether it was in the moulding hands or in the kneaded lump.
The moment comes and goes in an instant, and in an instant she is tempted to doubt the experience, or demote to merely a footnote of personal history as something interesting, like a tree once seen or flower once smelled. But this counterattack is unsuccessful; she, who we are told was at one point a proper young modernist disgusted with her husband’s sexuality and embodied love, now begins a journey which ends as she enters a bedroom in preparation for being entered by her husband. She has already entered into, and been entered into, by God, as Lewis fascinatingly shows us. Her inward conversion leads not away from sensuality and celebration of nature, but directly to an outward expressing of it. To which one can only say, “Amen!”
Published on Jan 7, 2011