Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard
Recently 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 is 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.
By David Russell Mosley
(Read more by David Russell Mosley at his blog, Letters from the Edge of Elfland)