The Inklings and Paganism
Before he became a Christian, C S Lewis was deeply inspired by ancient Pagan mythology, and he continued to value it as mythopoeia after his conversion, and seems to have sought to reconcile the Christian worldview with the ancient Pagan one (for example in That Hideous Strength). Lewis was also fascinated by the symbolism of astrology: a practice and worldview which started in Pagan antiquity and continued well into the Christian era. Lewis’ book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, deals in part with astrological symbolism as part of the medieval worldview.
Michael Ward has also suggested that Lewis intended the seven Narnia books to be an extended allegory of planetary symbolism. Whether or not he set out to make each book correspond to the themes of a particular planet is not settled; it is however possible to interpret them in that way.
His friend JRR Tolkien also valued ancient Pagan mythology, especially Norse mythology. The earliest inspiration for Tolkien’s invented language and world was the Kalevala, the epic of Finnish mythology; and the Valar, the gods or angels (depending on your perspective) who dwelt in Valinor, were inspired by the gods of Asgard in Norse mythology. The culture and language of the Rohirrim is pure Anglo-Saxon antiquity, with their great mead-hall and burial mounds and love of horses. And the Elder Futhark of the Runes is included in the endpapers of The Hobbit, whence I decoded it at the age of 11 or 12.
The “third Inkling”, Charles Williams, whilst profoundly committed to Christianity, was also steeped in the occult; he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and came up with two linked occult principles of his own devising, coinherence and substitution, which formed the basis of his own occult order, the Companions of the Coinherence. There was a flourishing subculture of esoteric Christianity from the early 1900s to the mid-1930s, so it is not terribly surprising that at least one of the Inklings was involved in it.
The ‘first and last Inkling’, Owen Barfield, was an Anthroposophist and a friend of Lewis for over 40 years; his ideas influenced both Tolkien and Lewis.
The Inklings frequently discussed the concept of mythopoeia. Lewis initially believed that mythology had no value, referring to mythology as ‘lies breathed through silver’; Tolkien disagreed, pointing out that mythology contains spiritual truths. To Tolkien, myth-making was the art of the sub-creator; just as humans were made in the image of God, so we inherit our sub-creative power from God.
Ideas of Paganism in Lewis’s writing
Any reader of the Chronicles of Narnia can see that it has a number of esoteric and Pagan-inspired ideas woven through it, together with a well-worked-out philosophy and ethics of magic. As a child, when I read the Narnia books, the Christian themes in it were completely obvious to me. It was the Pagan imagery that really leaped out at me: the fauns dancing in the woods; the talking trees; the naiads, dryads, and hamadryads; the river god who asks Aslan to free him from the Bridge at Beruna; the Maenads; ettins (an Anglo-Saxon term for Jötunn, the giants of Norse mythology) and wooses (probably derived from woodwose); even the god Silvanus puts in an appearance. These are not merely decorative flourishes in the margins of the main narrative; what Lewis seems to be saying is that the Pagan world has not been banished by Christianity; rather it is part of the Christian order. However, this seems to me (and to other Pagan writers) a bit of a fudge, an excuse to carry on writing about the Pagan themes that he loved, despite his conversion to Christianity. The loving and lavish detail with which the Pagan-inspired characters are described, and the evocation of Nature – woods and streams and wilderness – seems deeply Pagan to me. Like many Pagans, one of my earliest encounters with Paganism was with the Pagan aspects of Narnia and of Tolkien’s legendarium, followed not long after by Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (though it was Kipling’s book that made me realize that my worldview and religion is Paganism).
As a teenager, Lewis saw an illustration by Arthur Rackham for Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and experienced a feeling that he described in his autobiography as ‘pure “Northernness”’. Perhaps this feeling was the inspiration for some of the grittier parts of Narnia, such as the dwarves, the Eastern Marshes, and the Ettinmoors. There are two types of dwarves, the red and the black, which may be a reference to the svartálfar, dökkálfar and ljósálfar (“black elves”, “dark elves”, and “light elves” of Norse mythology, which Tolkien also explicitly referenced).
In the third volume of his ‘space trilogy’, That Hideous Strength (which seems to have been heavily influenced by Charles Williams), and to a lesser extent in the first two volumes, Lewis attempts to reconcile the Pagan and astrological worldview with that of Christianity, using a modified form of Dispensation theology, in which Paganism belongs to the old dispensation, and Christianity to the new. He does this in part through the waking of Merlin and the revelation of the current incarnation of the Pendragon, and in part through the appearance of the tutelary beings of the planets (gods or angels, depending on your perspective). The planetary beings are described as majestic, powerful, and larger-than-life; their descent to Earth causes magical changes in the world.
Lewis on magic
There are two types of magic in Lewis’ scheme of things. The first is natural magic, which Aslan wields, and which can only be asked for by other beings, and occurs in accordance with Aslan’s will. The other kind is unlawful magic, such as that wielded by Uncle Andrew and Jadis (in The Magician’s Nephew), which tends to represent an abuse of power.
The difference is illustrated in several key incidents in the books. The first incident is Uncle Andrew’s abuse of the power of the magic rings, where he sends Polly to the Wood Between the Worlds without her consent, and with no idea of what he is sending her to. The next to be described is the terrible utterance of the Deplorable Word by Jadis, which caused the destruction of the world of Charn. Later in the same book, the beneficial power of Aslan’s magic is illustrated by the gift of the apple from Aslan’s garden. If Digory had stolen an extra apple (as Jadis tried to tempt him to do), the apple would have poisoned him, but because he restricted himself to plucking only the one apple that Aslan had gifted him for his mother, that apple had a beneficial effect, curing her of her illness.
Similarly, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the deep magic from the dawn of time is what gives Jadis the power to sacrifice Aslan; but it is the even deeper magic from before the dawn of time that causes his resurrection.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy finds a book of spells and is tempted to use them, but no good comes of the spell she tries; she only hears a girl whom she thought was a friend being bitchy about her.
At the beginning of The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace are trying to get into Narnia to escape from the bullies at their school. Jill asks if they have to do some sort of magic to get there; Eustace replies that he feels that Aslan wouldn’t approve of such things, so they ask to be let in to Narnia. In contrast to this, the Lady of the Green Kirtle uses base enchantment to ensnare Prince Rilian, and tries to use similar means to enchant Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum into believing that Narnia doesn’t exist. It is such a relief when they burst out from the mine workings into the middle of the Narnian woods.
The ancient Pagan worldview contained a similarly dual view of magic (except for the Egyptians): magic that was aligned with the will of the gods, and magic that went against the will of the gods. Christianity largely inherited this dual worldview, though it has always had an uneasy relationship with magic workers – even miracle-working saints were tested for orthodoxy before being accepted.
The Pagan revival
At the time that the Inklings began writing, the Pagan revival was gathering pace. Around the turn of the century, Rupert Brooke, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and Edward Carpenter had written favourably of Nature-worship and Greek culture; GK Chesterton had inveighed against Dickinson in a collection of essays (Heretics, 1905). The Great God Pan was very much awakening, and had made an appearance in both The Wind in the Willows (1908) and BB’s Little Grey Men (1942). During the 1940s, Ross Nichols reintroduced Celtic mythology into Druidry, and Gerald Gardner began developing Wicca into the religion we know today. There was widespread interest in folklore, folk dancing, Celtic and Norse mythology, and several other factors which fed into the Pagan revival. It is hardly surprising, then, that Lewis and Tolkien were interested in ancient Paganism and mythology; it was part of the zeitgeist. A couple of Pagan writers have suggested that they might have become Pagans if they had been born fifty years later; but if they had been born fifty years later, both they and their books would have been very different. They and their books are a product of their era and the things they experienced, particularly the shattering experience of the First World War.
The Pagan revival has a lot to thank Lewis and Tolkien for; many Pagans received our first introduction to Pagan themes and ideas through their work, including river gods, retired stars, fauns, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, talking beasts, dwarves, elves, gnomes, salamanders, barrow-wights, wizards, and a deep appreciation of trees, flowers, and landscape.
Bibliography & Further Reading
- Patrick Benham (2015), The Avalonians. Glastonbury; Gothic Image Publications.
- Stratford Caldecott (2003), Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R.Tolkien. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
- John Garth (2011), Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. HarperCollins.
- Sørina Higgins (2013), Introduction. The Oddest Inkling.
- Ronald Hutton (2001), The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ronald Hutton (2003), Witches, Druids and King Arthur. London: Hambledon & London.
- Gareth Knight (1990), The Magical World of the Inklings. Shaftesbury: Element Books.
- CS Lewis (1964), The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Grevel Lindop (2015), Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Michael Ward (2010). Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Jonathan Woolley (2015), Reclaiming Narnia: Walking Trees, Talking Beasts, Divine Waters. Gods & Radicals. https://godsandradicals.org/2015/05/28/reclaiming-narnia-walking-trees-talking-beasts-divine-waters/
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my new book, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft.