I have reorganized the list by author and added topic tags; if you prefer a list by topic, have a look at my 2018 post.
Three adventures of very different sorts this month: Yiddish for Pirates, Walking to Mercury, and The Fifth Sacred Thing.
Books I’ve read in August.
I really enjoyed the movie Tolkien but found some of it to be odd. I get that biographical movies have to truncate, elide, and simplify, but they should be true to their subject. Overall this was a very enjoyable film, and Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins were great as Tolkien and Edith. A fine performance from Adam Bregman as Geoffrey Bache Smith, too.
Spoilers after the jump…
So, you want to share your Pagan world-view and values with your kids, without indoctrinating them into it? What better way than to give them the kind of books you loved as a kid, which may have influenced your own path to recognising that you are a Pagan?
Most Pagans believe that you cannot be converted to Paganism, in any case: it wells up from within as a response to the beauty of Nature: “the green Earth and the white Moon among the stars”.
Here are some books that I love and would recommend.
Illustrated books for younger children
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I love this book so much that I bought the French edition as well (it was originally written in French). It’s a poignant story of how an aviator who has crashed in the desert meets a traveller from another planet – the little prince who lives on the asteroid B612. The little prince tells of his travels from one asteroid to another. The story is quirky and charming, but also sad and wistful. It tells of how being a grown-up drains the enchantment from the world, whereas a child knows about seeing the magic and mystery in the world.
The Whales’ Song by Dyan Sheldon and Gary Blythe
This is a lovely book with beautiful illustrations and the evocative story of Lily, a small girl who lives with her grandmother. Her grandmother tells her stories about the whales, and how beautiful they are.
It is presumably meant to be read aloud to small children, but it is enjoyable for all ages.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
An absolute classic ever since it was published, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the story of a gull who is not like other gulls. He lives to fly rather than to eat. Eventually he is shunned by the other gulls, until some come to learn from him. This is a story of individuality and courage, beautifully illustrated with pictures of gulls in flight.
People who make their own rules when they know they’re right…people who get a special pleasure out of doing something well (even if only for themselves)…people who know there’s more to this whole living thing than meets the eye: they’ll be with Jonathan Seagull all the way. Others may simply escape into a delightful adventure about freedom and flight.
Longer books for older children
The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
This is a wonderful series of books on how to use magic responsibly, with unforgettable characters, beautiful seascapes, and an excellent style of writing. The author is a Taoist, and the philosophy of Taoism is evident in the unfolding of the story (but never in a heavy-handed way).
Ged, a mage from a remote island, goes to wizard school on Roke, but one day when he is showing off his powers to the other students, he brings a terrible thing into the world: a gebbeth. He must go on a quest to track it down. On his journey, he has wonderful adventures and meets a dragon and an unhappy priestess.
This is the book that I always credit with making me realise that I am a Pagan. Puck, an ancient earth spirit who lives under Pook’s Hill, is accidentally summoned by Dan and Una when they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer Eve. He introduces the children to a stream of historical characters and incidents. One of my favourites is the story of Parnesius and Pertniax, two Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall who makes friends with a Pict. The adventures of Sir Richard Dalyngridge with the Vikings are very exciting, too.
This is the sequel to Puck of Pook’s Hill, and has even more Pagan stuff in it. The story of the Marklake witches, and The Knife and the Naked Chalk, are outstanding. There is also a wonderful poem, The Way through the Woods, which is very evocative of lost things, and wistful. The book doesn’t have quite such a coherent theme as its prequel, but that may actually be a good thing.
Witch Child by Celia Rees
“compelling and convincing.Rees has become a major writer for teenage readers.” Independent
“every now and then one reads a book which stirs up the deepest of feelings and continues to cause ripples and this book is just such a one” School Librarian Journal
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
This novel has also been made into a film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
This is a story of an orphaned girl who discovers the beauty of the Yorkshire Moors, the value of friendship, and the magic of gardening. The main characters – Mary, the protagonist, Dickon the child of Nature, and Colin the intellectual are unforgettable; and the minor characters such as Ben the gruff gardener and Dickon’s mother, are beautifully drawn too. This has also been made into a film.
The Moomin series by Tove Jansson
Moominvalley is located on the edge of the Gulf of Finland, and the creatures that live there include Moomins, Hemulens, Fillyjonks and their friends. They have a series of adventures; the stories mostly focus on Moomintroll and his friendship with Snufkin, who is a wanderer who doesn’t like to have too many possessions, and is almost Zen Buddhist in his thinking. The whole series has a wistful and charming tone, a keen observation of Nature, and the books are beautifully illustrated.
This is a collection of folktales from all around the world, rewritten for children. One of my favourites is an Italian story about how the birds got their colours, but all the stories are well-written and enjoyable.
‘Authors need folk-tales,’ Richard Adams says, ‘in the same way as composers need folk-song. They’re the headspring of the narrator’s art, where the story stands forth at its simple, irreducible best. They don’t date, any more than dreams, for they are the collective dreams of humanity.’
The gripping story of the journey of five rabbits who escape the destruction of their home warren after Fiver (a shaman-rabbit) has a vision of its impending doom. The friendship of the rabbits, the visionary experiences of Fiver, and the legends of El-Ahrairah, the trickster rabbit hero (who bears more than a passing resemblance to human trickster gods), make this a magical and unforgettable story.
The story opens with a group of people holding a curiously pagan folk ritual in a church. One of them, William Buckley, has learnt to read, which is regarded as a subversive crime; and he is transported to Australia for blasphemy, where he escapes from the penal colony and goes to live with Aborigines. This is a very evocative look at the similarities and differences between English folk mythology and Australian Aborigine mythology, and the differences between folk religion and revealed religion. The English section of the story is based fairly closely on the facts.
Firstly, congratulations to Jennifer L., who won the paperback copy of Seeking the Mystery! Enjoy it!
My fellow bloggers have posted some great reviews and responses to the book. Here’s a round-up of current contributions:
David Dashifen Kees, “Seeking the Mystery: An Excellent Interfaith Resource”
Elinor Predota, “How a Valley in Scotland Changed My Theology,” “Stories of Gods and Mortals: Myth and Pagan Practice,” “The Ordinary, Everyday Occult Knowledge of Herbs, Flowers, and Beasts,” “The Material, the Sacred, and the Erotic,” and “A Sense of Responsibility to Place”
…and a nice shout-out about the book’s success from Jason Pitzl-Waters.
Thanks to everyone who helped me spread the word about the book sale last week! It was really exciting to hit the end of the day and see Seeking the Mystery ranked at #1 in Amazon’s Paganism and Theology categories — but more importantly, it looks like the book is starting lots of good conversations. 🙂
“Then allow me to enter the grove:
I am the child of Panpsyche
and the offspring of Panhyle—
I am favored with a noble and extensive lineage;
I am desired of all and a joy to each;
I am the culmination of all love…
I am Paneros.
I am the love that conquers everything.
And I will enter this grove
for I already live there.”
—All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A Transmythology, p. 117
I’ll be up front and say that this book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If it’s yours, though, you’ll probably want to drink the whole pot.
A Transmythology is an original epic poem by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus. Its narrative involves the conception, birth, and awakening to self of a group of four transgender and/or fluidly-gendered deities called the Tetrad. Their names—Panpsyche, Panhyle, Paneros, and Pancrates—translate literally to the English words of the title (All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power).
I have to admit that when I realized the book was an epic poem, I was skeptical, and not from lack of experience with the genre. My PhD specialization was in religion and literature, and I’ve read Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Milton and others with varying levels of engagement and enjoyment. In popular culture, epic poetry is often seen as so formal as to be inaccessible (and dry translations make it more so). This was often not the case with their original audiences, however. I remember what a revelation it was to hear Stanley Lombardo perform parts of his translation of the Odyssey. His interpretation aimed to help us hear the text as the Greeks would have heard it: and the Odyssey, my friends, is rough and raunchy, full of derring-do and heroism. The stiff nineteenth-century British translations that are often stuffed down our throats in school don’t capture its spirit.
Reading A Transmythology, you can tell PSVL has done eir homework. The poem is stately and gritty, erotic and erudite, and full of references to ancient and medieval myth and poetry—more, I’m sure, than I noticed myself. (The passage I quote above, I believe, is an allusion to a tale of the Irish hero or deity Lugh, who is admitted to the castle of the king because although the castle already hosts a master of each art, no one but Lugh is the master of them all.) The poem is also Not Safe For Work—so, dear reader, you have been warned. 🙂
Most obviously, A Transmythology contributes to the project of developing specifically transgender and queer Pagan traditions. The story itself explores some of the pain as well of the joy of being unconventionally gendered, and how the new gods come to terms with their natures is a significant part of the storyline. There is material here that can be used for healing as well as for empowerment, not just about what it means to be transgender or genderqueer, but also with regard to nontraditional families. PSVL makes it clear that e is doing ongoing devotion to these deities, and e invites the interested reader to do so as well.
The book also brings the reader face to face with the real mechanisms of religious innovation. As Pagans, I suspect we are all at least dimly aware that the roots of myth and ritual are in the spiritual experiences of individuals. Somewhere in the distant past, there was always a first time the story of a god was told, a vision or moment of inspiration or even just an imaginative framing of an important truth. Our gods come to us sometimes as revelation, sometimes as literary creation, sometimes as a tangle of both. In some strands of Paganism, in fact, artistic inspiration and divine creation are considered to be expressions of the same underlying life force–so the issue of whether there is a difference between “discovering” and “creating” a god becomes a complex theological question.
Lupus describes a uncomfortable process of bodily pain, uncanny dreams, and consultations with oracles ending in a burst of artistic production that became A Transmythology. Eir account is refreshingly lacking in attempts to legitimize eir work with shaky connections to historical traditions. And while it is possible to read eir account as claiming authority through this ordeal, I read it as a straightforward description of what being a devotional artist can look like—it may be harrowing, and it may sometimes look like madness, but if the process is successful, the results can be an inspiration to others.
PSVL’s work embraces process theology, a system of thought that sees the world and divinity as ever-changing, with human beings as a fully integrated part of the process. Eir fundamental vision is of new gods emerging from the old, yet not usurping them—these new and old gods are bound together by family ties. I hope that A Transmythology similarly inspires others to ground their writing in existing myth and literature, while also seeking new approaches to the questions of our time.