The Christians and the Pagans Sat Together at the Stone Table

One thing you’ll almost certainly notice in the Chronicles of Narnia is that, for a Christian series, there are a lot of beings from pagan mythology hanging out there. In addition to all the nymphs and fauns, there are wood-gods and river-gods, and even an appearance by Bacchus and Silenus.

John Goldthwaite is rather contemptuous of this in The Natural History of Make-Believe, writing, “What is a child to make, for example, of that passage in which Christ is seen sporting in the forest with an entourage of Naiads, Dryads, centaurs, and the like? Would he not conclude, if only unconsciously, that Christianity and Greek mythology are stories with equal claims to the truth, and perhaps even the same story in the end?”

I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a child becoming a pagan because they read the Narnia books. But then, despite C.S. Lewis’ obvious intentions, I’ve never heard of anyone becoming a CHRISTIAN because they read them, either. They’re popular with those who are already Christian, but does anyone go to church because of Aslan?

Now, I have to say that I’m a bit confused by why Lewis stuck so many different supernatural beings into Narnia. If Aslan is omniscient and omnipotent like the Christian God, why would he need help from Bacchus? And why is Father Christmas even in this alternate universe? I guess it’s possible that Narnia celebrates Christmas because its first rulers were English, but did Aslan create Father Christmas, or did he just sort of show up to personify the holiday?

That said, I think the fairy tale is somewhat inherently pagan. I mean, what is a fairy but a minor deity? Granted, not all fairy tales feature fairies, but even the ones that don’t often include some sort of supernatural assistance, quite frequently associated with an aspect of nature. Many of the versions of these tales that we have today, however, also include references to people saying their prayers and other Christian themes. The thing is, I think the form of paganism inherent in fairy tales is a non-religious paganism, if that makes any sense. Look at it this way. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, Dionysus/Bacchus was an object of worship, and hence a god in the religious sense. It’s rare, if not unheard of, to see anyone worshipping the supernatural helpers of the fairy tale world, though. And when Bacchus shows up in Narnia, he’s clearly subject to Aslan/Jesus, and isn’t really presented as a god in his own right. So no, I don’t think Lewis presents paganism as an equally valid religious path, but instead as a convenient place to obtain colorful characters. Now, Goldthwaite’s point that “by associating Christianity with a dead make-believe [Lewis] was implying to children that Christianity might itself be just a make-believe.” It’s just that, unlike Lewis and Goldthwaite, I don’t see this as a bad thing.

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5 Responses to The Christians and the Pagans Sat Together at the Stone Table

  1. ozaline says:

    Father Christmas takes the role of “the holy spirit” in the tirnity of Narnia. The Emperor over the Sea is God the Father, Alsan is Jesus and Father Christmas is the holy ghost… but you’re right it is a bit weird that even if they were to celebrate the birth of Aslan, why all it “Christmas”? I’ve never heard Aslan called Christ in the series.

    As for the co-opting of paganism into a Christian story… This is hardly anything new so why should anybody be suprised. Christmas itself descends from several pagan festivals, winged humanoids were used as depictions of several minor greek deities long before they got co-opted to be angels. Etc Etc.

    This is of course, old hat to you I know… but Lewis wasn’t doing something that hadn’t been done since the time of Dante and before… so I don’t know why people act so suprised.

    • Nathan says:

      Maybe the holiday should be called Aslanmas, or if you want something more Latin-sounding, Leomas.

      Other examples of Christianity using pagan concepts include the griffin being used as a symbol of the dual nature of Christ, and the idea of dead people going to either Heaven or Hell.

  2. Connie says:

    I have two comments:
    1. It reminds me of Paradise Lost in some ways. The story itself is from about Christian stories (Heaven and Hell, Lucifer becoming Satan) but there are some other gods from various mythologies that Milton incorporates. I believe his reasoning is that the fallen angels become the gods and demons of other religions. In that sense, Lewis is saying a similar thing, perhaps something along the lines that all religions have a base of truth to them, but they are all subject to God, or at least in Narnia, Aslan.
    2. I think also that the fact that these elements of paganism hanging out with Aslan at the Stone Table as you would say is very Christ-like anyway. Jesus during his lifetime didn’t just hang around the already converted, he spent time with those who weren’t, those who were considered different or looked down upon by the Jewish elders. So in that way, Lewis is showing Aslan’s Christ-like-ness by having him be around all people, no matter who they are.
    I hope these points make sense. =)

    • Nathan says:

      I think those make sense. There’s a lot of tradition in incorporating pagan mythology into Christian stories, probably mostly because there’s just so much there to work with.

  3. Pingback: Putting the Crap Back in Christmas | VoVatia

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