Terry Pratchett: an accidental Pagan theologian

My collection of Pratchett books

My collection of Pratchett books

I have been meaning to write an article about Pagan theology in the work of Terry Pratchett for ages. And this will probably not be that article; my thoughts are still too befuddled to write anything analytical. I knew that he was suffering, and found his speech a few years ago about assisted dying very moving and convincing. But I had not expected his passing to be so soon. I first discovered his books at about the age of 19 or 20, and have been reading and re-reading them ever since, enjoying his wonderfully inventive ideas and witty turn of phrase.

He was one of the very few writers to speculate on how deities come into being, first as particles of energy, then accumulating more energy from the minds of worshippers (in the book Small Gods).  He was the inventor of the wonderful idea of the Dark Morris (the slow and silent dance that must be danced in the depths of the forest in order to make the wheel of the year turn again towards summer). Then there was Narrativium, the stuff of stories. He also had some really nifty ideas about ghosts (in Wyrd Sisters) and fairies (in Lords and Ladies), and what they are all about. I know he was an atheist, but he had a profoundly pagan world-view nonetheless. In any case, one can be both a Pagan and an atheist – and though he did not self-identify as a Pagan, I gather he was rather pleased that Pagans liked his work, and I think he did speak at a number of Pagan events. He was also a patron of the British Humanist Association.

Much of his work explores ideas of social justice. Earlier this year, I read his book Johnny and the Bomb, which had one of the best explanations of white privilege in it that I have seen. He also explored feminism in Monstrous Regiment, and gender identity in one of his other books.

He is one of the few authors to have personified Death as a kindly and merciful figure, indeed as a fully-fledged character. The only other one I can think of is Emily Dickinson.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

~ Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886

And he really really liked cats. I am comforted that he died peacefully in bed with a cat sleeping next to him. It seems strange to be writing about him in the past tense. He was so full of life. I never met him in person, but his work has certainly informed a lot of my thinking. As a witch from the chalk, I will always be grateful for the character of Tiffany Aching. I love the chalk uplands of Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Sussex – my childhood stomping grounds – and the Chalk in the Discworld books is very evocative of that region.

If you haven’t read any of his books, you have a hefty treat in store. His characters – Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, Nanny Ogg, Greebo, the Oh God of Hangovers, the Tooth Fairy, Death, Susan, Polly Oliver, the wizards, are all brilliant.

If you wamt my advice, start with The Wyrd Sisters, then Witches Abroad, then Carpe Jugulum. Then there’s the Tiffany Aching series. And his other universes: the Long Earth, and the world of Johnny. And keep an eye out for Mrs Tachyon. Anything could happen when she is around.

It is obvious from reading his work that he was profoundly well read, and well versed in folklore and folk songs, very aware of landscape, and very interested in people. He leaves a tremendous legacy behind.


Tributes to Terry Pratchett

Edinburgh Eye: Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any good night

Discworld Emporium: On the passing of our friend, Terry Pratchett

The Guardian: Terry Pratchett quotes, 15 of the best

The Guardian: Terry Pratchett, author of the Discword series, dies aged 66

Dark Morris, Steeleye Span

Huffington Post

Articles about Terry Pratchett

Historical and Unitarian Musings: The true meaning of Hogswatch

Sex, death, and nature: Laurie Penny interviews Terry Pratchett




Vampires and Addicts

Vampires are a national obsession right now, especially among young people. TV shows, movies, comics, novels—blood-suckers are everywhere, and they’re big business. For four years, NPR journalist and Pagan Margot Adler shared that obsession. Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side is her attempt to tell us, quite simply, why vampires are more than the latest adolescent fad.

As Adler relates, she read 260 vampire novels before writing the book, which is a long essay on vampires and culture followed by an annotated bibliography of the novels. For Adler, what triggered the obsession was her husband’s cancer diagnosis, and her avid vampire novel consumption continued through her own struggle with cancer. This narrative of her own journey with mortality—the fantasies of becoming immortal, the pain of remaining alive while loved ones die—was one of my favorite aspects of the book, a personal glimpse of a massively influential Pagan writer. (Adler published Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America in 1979; the book is now in its fourth edition, and it is used in college classrooms as well as in Pagan groups seeking to learn more about the Pagan movement.) Adler argues for the ability of non-realistic fiction to effectively capture elements of the human experience that realism struggles to encompass. To have an active fantasy life, she argues, is not necessarily a sign of detachment from reality, but rather a mode of experience that allows the exploration of difficult emotions and situations in another guise.

What, then, can vampires teach us about ourselves? Adler argues that in the twenty-first century, vampires are no longer symbols of the feared other, the way they were in the past. (Dracula, for example, mirrors nineteenth-century Anglo anxieties about the perceived destructive effects of immigration.) Today, vampires in fiction are not monsters to be feared, but protagonists and love interests we are meant to identify with—in other words, they are us, as the title of Adler’s book claims. Moreover, most of the vampires in contemporary novels are deeply conflicted beings who are struggling desperately to be moral—to behave rightly in the face of their predatory natures and their raging addiction to blood. Isn’t this, Adler asks, rather like our present moment in the West? We are complicit in economic systems that are predatory: exploiting the earth’s resources, the underpaid workers who turn those resources into consumer products, and the young people whose sexuality is used to sell those products (whether we really need them or not). We’re addicted to gasoline, Nike sneakers, cheap cornfed beef, and convenient housewares from Ikea and Walmart. To try to wean ourselves away from the products of an exploitative economy often involves partially withdrawing from wider community life (to avoid using a car or airplane; to cut expenses enough to afford the extra costs of locally grown food; to send our kids to schools that don’t push or even require the purchase of corporate products).

Are vampires a metaphor for the way we are drinking other species, the land, and each other dry? Maybe this developing allegory is a stretch, but it’s clear that there’s something about the morally conflicted, damned-but-trying-to-be-saved vampire that audiences are entranced by. Maybe, at the moment, we are no longer confident that we are right or good; in fact, perhaps there’s a suspicion that we are terribly, terribly wrong, even as the power and pleasure of it all continues to be intoxicating, exhilarating. We’re addicts; we can’t stop.

If these issues weigh on your mind as they do on mine—and especially if you enjoy a good vampire novel the way I do—this book will help you track down the very best in genres ranging from historical to romance to sci-fi. And, perhaps, you’ll do as Adler did, and find yourself confronting some of the biggest questions of the human condition, lightly veiled by a layer of compelling fantasy. Happy reading!

Vampires Are Us is a feature in the Patheos Book Club! Click through for more roundtable responses from our Pagan bloggers, vampire video footage, praise from horror novelist Whitley Strieber, and more.


Notes toward a Pagan Theology of Fiction

Pagans widely agree that fiction has spiritual power. In their interviews of Pagans, Margot Adler (Drawing Down the Moon) and Sarah Pike (Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves) both found that Pagans often cited science fiction or fantasy as important inspirations for their spiritual life. In religious studies scholarship generally, there’s an enormous amount of material on how people have engaged novels, films, and other media for spiritual purposes (one good recent example is Invented Religions; some of my own contributions to this topic include papers on matriarchal Goddess novels, Heinlein and Starhawk, and film as religion).  My take has generally focused on how fiction with a spiritual impulse has inspired real-life community practice, followed by individuals re-fictionalizing those community practices in order to better articulate and spread their religious values. As in myth, which tends to focus on spiritual or cultural truth rather than historical truth (though there may be a historical event or person at the core of the tale), Pagans often use fiction to clarify values, describe ecstatic experiences, or articulate hopes in a way that feels spiritually authentic—a purpose for which literal, historical prose accounts are not well designed.

Here at Patheos, we’ve had quite a few posts recently touching on the topic of fiction and Paganism. Sterling, for instance, writes about how the images from a favorite novel allowed her to form a real-life connection to the spirit of a particular river. (Her experience reminds me of the conversation in this blog, where the author argues that the local gods and spirits of a particular place are forced to use images we are familiar with in order to speak to us – such that, while we may seem to be speaking with a deity from across the world, we may actually be relating to a local deity who has clothed hirself in a way designed to get our attention.) Gus diZerega has offered a two-part series on pop culture and the formation of independently acting thought forms, suggesting the power that the media we consume may have on our behavior as individuals and as a society. Sunweaver recently shared about her use of fictional heroes as a way of exploring human virtues, and Aine Llewellyn responded with some reflections on how fiction and pop culture help to inform his work with contacting local and/or previously unknown spirits.

Although I myself have found fiction to be religiously inspiring (especially fiction that includes the worship of historical deities), I largely keep characters derived from pop culture entertainment out of my devotions. There is something compelling in diZerega’s suggestion that given enough attention and energy, a thought-form originally based in a pop culture narrative can become responsive (or, perhaps, a previously-existing spirit will clothe itself in those images in order to make human contact). Yet I still tend to agree with Galina Krasskova that making pop culture the focus of a spiritual practice could distract us from forming relationships with the partially forgotten, but potentially very responsive spirits of our local land and of our particular ancestors. (Krasskova’s post is in response to Sunweaver’s, as is this very interesting post on the nature of film vs. theater and its relationship to ritual by Sannion.)

As someone who makes her living largely at a computer screen, I know I already struggle to be present with my little square of earth and its particular flora and fauna (including the human fauna who are my neighbors). Keeping up with internet communication and its rapid change is intellectually stimulating, but in other ways, its demands directly contradict what I know is best for my health in its broadest sense. Spending time outside, being present with my surroundings, and cultivating a pace of life that allows deep contemplation and deep intimacy is good for me, good for the health of my community, and good for the health of the world—but I find myself summoned to the computer to earn a living and try to disseminate those locally-focused values to the wider world. Ah, paradox. —In any case, I worry that fiction can have an escapist quality, and that engaging with it too directly in my spiritual life might distract me even further from the local.

And yet… Although I find myself sympathetic with Krasskova’s argument, it hinges on the idea that there is a kernel of historicity at the heart of tales of Cu Chulain, Heracles, and Achilles. Krasskova suggests that these heroes’ historical existence gives them a tie to real-life communities that purely fictional characters cannot have. But I am skeptical, because as we know well, the relationship between the tales told of historical people and the historical reality often diverge wildly within even a few generations. Pick up a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and consider the propaganda that passes for history in our public schools—the distortion of even basic facts about important American figures. It is in no way clear to me that heroic legends have the power to put devotees in touch with personalities who are more than literary creations, particularly when the historical gap is one of thousands of years. Even in a post-Enlightenment era where we observe a line between fiction and fact that many ancient peoples did not, our “history” is far more literary in content than we like to acknowledge.

I plan to continue to collect resources on this topic, perhaps to write something more substantial about all the ways Pagans use fiction in their practice and theology. What are your thoughts?

EDIT: I should have mentioned here Alan Moore‘s theology of fiction as articulated especially in Promethea (and which scholar Jeffrey Kripal finds underlying a number of different works of science fiction and fantasy). Moore sees reality itself as narrative—that all beings are tales being told in the mind of God (an idea he derives partially from poet and artist William Blake). This circumvents the claim of a certain group of Pagans that for gods to be real, they need to be historical, not fictional. For Moore, since reality itself is narrative, both human beings and gods are real *because* they are part of the narrative of creation. The line between the fictional and the real is blurred, if not entirely erased; although some fictions are manifest in flesh and others are not, and fictions have varying degrees of consciousness and power, all fiction is understood as ultimately real.