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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Paganism and Christianity in Juliet Marillier's fiction

Juliet Marillier, author of fiction set centuries ago, in Europe, claims to be a pagan. She states that she belongs to a Druid order.

I read her Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy -- these books won, or were nominated for, various awards) some years ago. I read her Wolfskin recently. Without giving away the plot, I'd like to point out a few things about the book.

First, it presents two pagan religions as if they were real, and gave real connection to a supernatural world. These two are a pagan religion found in the Orkney islands, where much of the book takes place, and a Norse religion. The pagan priestess, in an extreme situation, summons beings from the earth and the sea to help her. The berserker warrior communes with his god in a vision.

The above wasn't a great surprise, both from my previous recollection of her books, and because I knew that Marillier claimed to be a pagan herself. The second thing I point out is that there is a Christian priest, who is presented as if Christianity, too, were real. Marillier says: "A discussion of religion and spirituality creeps into every book I write, because it's important to me. It was especially interesting in Wolfskin, because here we have three different sets of beliefs in potential opposition to one another." Her sympathetic portrait of a Christian was a surprise.

Here's an important passage:
". . . Doesn't your god love even sinners?"
Tadhg regarded her gravely. "Indeed. God is in all of us. Some are clothed in the brightness of the Holy Spirit, and goodness shines from them, a goodness which has its source deep within. Such a sweet wellspring never runs dry. No force or evil can pollute its clear water. But some are weaker vessels, and that small spark of the divine is hidden far within them. It takes a brave man or woman, Nessa, to open up his very being and examine what is there: to lay his soul bare to that burning light. Such a choice is fearful indeed, for one must recognize the fear and anguish, the deceit and duplicity, the lust and the violence, all the wretchedness that mortal man bears in his essential clay. Yet, if a man dare open himself to God's love, his sins are forgiven and the path made new. That is the wondrous truth of which our Lord Jesus told. It is the way of light. . . ." Wolfskin (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2002) p. 149.

C. S. Lewis said, in several of his writings, that paganism wasn't entirely wrong. (He did not propose that paganism was meant to be the way to God -- Christianity is that way.) Perhaps Marillier is a modern-day example of that.

Here's what David C. Downing had to say about this matter (in Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, 2005):
. . . Lewis rejected both universalism and predestination as negations of free will. His position is better described as "inclusivism," the idea that Christ's reconciling work may sometimes apply even to those who are not aware of it. Lewis did not feel that he was being unorthodox in this matter. He refers several times in his letters to Christ's portrayal of judgement in which he welcomes those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick, saying that all such service done for the least of his brethren is accounted as service done to him. (84-5)

and

In The Discarded Image . . . he spends two pages showing that pagans and early Christians had far more in common than either shares with modern thinkers. Pagan is one of those words . . . that has a specialized meaning in Lewis's books. In common usage, pagan and Christian are practically contraries, the first representing a secular, this-worldly attitude, and the second representing its opposite. Lewis saw no such antithesis; he called paganism "the childhood of religion . . . a prophetic dream" For him, paganism was an anticipation, Christianity the fulfillment. (109)

Added July 28, 2010: 
". . . Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He's not evil; yet he's a magician. He is obviously a druid; yet he knows all about the Grail. . . ." (Dr. Dimble, speaking to Jane Studdock, in That Hideous Strength, by C. S. Lewis. New York: Collier, 1962, p. 31.)

The third aspect of Marillier's writing that I want to mention is that her characters often suffer great hardship, and have to make difficult choices. That's not unique to Marillier, of course. But the main thing I recall about the Sevenwaters trilogy is the excruciating anguish of the heroine, Sorcha, over a long period, as she tries to perform a most difficult task, under difficult circumstances. (This was in the first book.) Marillier's main characters can be heroes, in the definition given by R. A. Salvatore.

The second part of this post is here.

* * * * *

I added the quotations from Downing on April 15, 2008.

On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.

Thanks for reading!

8 comments:

Lee said...

Martin, you inspired me. For a while now a way of looking at something has been mulling around in my head. Thank you for bringing it to the foreground. Being Christian and having several pagan friends I sometimes wonder if there isn't a scripture to cover those we love. So I'm headed back to the New Testament and my blog with questions arising.

Peace!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment. God's best to you and your friends.

Intrigued American said...

Intelligence + Christianity + Open Mindedness = a rare find! Great commentary. Very interesting reading list that I may check out. Thanks!

Martin LaBar said...

August 14, 2008: Thanks, intrigued american.

Anonymous said...

Lewis had the capacity to see how things might contain vestigial truth or hint at the meta-truth Christians welcome in the Scriptures. He, unlike many of our day, invited an investigation of the range of human spiritual experience -- not because it was equally valid -- but because the universal longings and many of the cardinal virtues were to be found there. These he rightly (in my opinion, anyway) concluded might serve as guideposts, signs pointing toward the larger reality that is complete only in Jesus Christ.

Even the Apostle Paul does this at times, (as on Mars Hill), for the express purpose of turning those fragments of truth which the Greeks had to his purpose of introducing them to the Person of Truth -- the SOn of God.

It has been a particular pain to me to see how often the religious of the present day go to war with these things that we might put to better use as bridges to God's grace.

-Steve S.

Martin LaBar said...

Amen. Thank you, Steve S.

Anonymous said...

You can see in Eastern Orthodox theology a very different model of seeing salvation and understanding the grace of God towards all of mankind. It is a very healing and refreshing perspective that does not divide humans into Christian and non-Christian. It echoes what you have written here and Lewis' thoughts on the salvation of mankind, while yet not crossing into universalism. Although several Orthodox have been and are universalists, or at least hopeful universalists.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your perspective. I know next to nothing about Eastern Orthodox theology.