The following is a paper I penned during my senior year at Hannibal LaGrange College for my Communication Theory class. It represents what later became part of the underlying philosophy behind how I see the world and understand my place in it. This, in turn, deeply affects how and why I write. Sit back, relax, and open your mind...
Once upon a time...
Stories, Mythos, Fantasy and Fairy Tales serve both as a mirror reflecting and a lamp illuminating (God’s) Truth. Pagan (or pre-Christian) stories reflect and illuminate God’s Truth too. Many bright eyes have seen the writing on the wall across all creation and within life. These stories, both written and oral, hold within themselves rare, timeless beauties to be treasured and retold-- not censured. Brooding tales found in the icy, Viking north such as in The Poetic Edda, or the plethora of oral Celtic tales told by firelight for thousands of years or even The Heliand all, through myth-telling, speak God’s story.
We are seemingly estranged from these ancient peoples. Many would refer to them as “heathen” while failing to understand the connotation, a common treatment of all things not found in the Christian bookstore today.
“Hedinen ‘some one who lives out on the heaths, a heathen’
'Heath' originally connoted wasteland, and later came to mean the scrub vegetation on it. A ‘heath person’ is therefore someone who lives away from the farming and fishing communities, and is deemed ignorant and backward. Christian urban prejudices made this the word for a ‘nonbeliever’ in Germanic, analogous to pagan in Romance speech.
If God is truly real and the events He tells us about in the Bible have, are, and will happen; if what is pure and right and true, and if what is evil and vile and wrong are also real (both true and factual), then these elements will turn up in other stories besides just the Judeo-Christian mantras. This is a lovely, freeing idea because it means the entire world and everything in it is speaking God’s ultimate action-adventure-romance story which we are all in and actively apart of. It’s not us (Christians) versus them (Pagans), it is all of us together, telling stories about the God who is really there- about goodness that truly exists and about heaven reaching down to earth. This does not excuse evil or injustice within our own stories, rather it draws it out like venom from a wound, while simultaneously not insisting on explaining away the fantastic and/or supernatural either. If we are all talking about the same God and the same events, about the same beauties and the same darkness then, perhaps we are all on to something, describing the same God-reality all around us. If this is true then perhaps there is stock in Christianity past the back pew after all. When the Israelites were still wandering in the desert, the Celts were encountering I Am in the virgin forests of Britain; when the last piece of gold was taken from the Temple of Solomon for the first time, the Viking’s grandfathers sailed the wild Baltic seas, pillaging at will; when Christ was dying on a cross, peoples far away also knew gods who hung on trees. We are all being drawn to the echoes of heaven through the recounting of the everyday- through the telling (and retelling) of stories.
The Vikings knew. They spoke guttural tales about gods and men reaching for greatness and immortality through bloody heroism hewed with cunning strokes and mighty words. They saw heaven too. Whether it was the mysterious allusions to the stark end-of-the-world-battle, Ragnarok, or Odin’s never ending quest for secret wisdom, the Norse poets and bards spoke of the Truths and the Heaven they had seen and touched with their own hands. And so it should not surprise us when Ragnarok sounds chillingly familiar to the war(s) mentioned in Revelation:
“Circling the world is the Ocean in which lurks the Midgard-serpent, a monstrous serpent which will attack the gods at the end of the world (Ragnarok).” - Larrington xiv
In Christian tradition, Lucifer is also often portrayed as a dragon or serpent.
“More serpents lie under the ash of Yggdrasill
than any fool can imagine:
Goin and Moin, they are Grafnitnir’s sons,
Grabak and Grafvollud,
Ofnir and Svafnir I think for ever will
Bite on the tree’s branches.”
- Grimnir’s Sayings, stanza 34
This poetic stanza conjures up images of the common Norse understanding of Dragons eating away at the roots of Yggdrasill, the World Tree, the Viking’s conceptualization of metaphysical reality. Both Biblical and Norse texts recognize that there are many adversaries (demons), and both tend to locate them underneath the earth in reference to Hell.
Ragnarok and Christian eschatology both allude to a highly similar end, perhaps each description representing either culture’s attempt to comprehend and describe them:
“Then the glorious son of Earth,
Odin’s son, advances to fight against the serpent,
In his wrath the defender of earth strikes,
All men must leave their homesteads...”
- Seeress’ Prophecy, stanza 56
“Then the powerful, mighty one, he who rules over Everything, Will come from above,
to the judgement-place of the gods.” - Seeress’s Prophecy, stanza 65
Both describe the world ending in fire as well
(“Muspilli” in Old Germanic), echoing the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians.
Finally, there is the curious case of Odin, the Norse god of wisdom:
“I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.”
“No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.”
- Runatal, or, Odin’s song. Stanzas 138-39
While Christian scholars enjoy boasting about how the practice of crucifixion was not even a known punishment in the Ancient Near East when Isaiah first foretells Christ’s legendary death, Odin, a god, was already a seeming expert at it. Where and how the now unknown Norse poet(s) envisioned gods sacrificially dying on trees in order to gain something, we may never know; or how both deities were refused food and drink while hanging and were wounded by spears should continue to puzzle and intrigue us.
The Celts, luckily for us, were usually not quite as grizzly and graphic as their Norse neighbors, yet their spiritual insights are uncanny, all the same. Unlike the Norse, the Celts favored a strong oral tradition of story telling instead of written, literary works. Poets were often times more powerful than kings, especially in Ire (the ancient name for Ireland), and their works endure longer too. The quotations of stories I am using are derived from author Peter Berresford Ellis, who grew up in the British Isles telling these stories in his own family. Aiding in the credibility of Ellis’ work is that not only does he attempt to strain out the Christian flourishes which early Irish and Catholic priests added later, but also he personally journeyed to the villages and hamlets where the stories are still told orally by natives today. After collecting as many variations of a legend as he could, Ellis compared them in order to and retain the elements most commonly retold for maximum pre-Christian story retention.
“… there came that time when the Children of Mil flooded into the Island of Destiny and when the Children of Danu were driven underground into the hills, which were called sidhe, which is pronounced shee, and in those mounds they dwelt, the once mighty gods and goddesses, deserted by the very people who they had sought to nourish. The descendants of Mil, who lived in the Island of Destiny to this day, called the Children of Danu the aes sidhe, the people of the hills, and when even the religion of Mil was forgotten, when the religion of the Cross replaced that of the Circle, the people simply called the aes sidhe by the name of fairies.”
- Cath Maige Tuired Manuscript
Remember, this story is much older than even the faintest footfall of the first Christian missionaries. There is even a story of Mac Cuill, a son of Ogma, the Celtic god of literacy, believing in Christ and becoming a Bishop. - from Island of the Ocean God from native oral tradition. Celtic Myths and Legends, Ellis 155-163
(arguably my favorite story in his collection).
The Celts, like so many other ancient peoples, also remembered The Flood and told stories about it for ages and ages- after all, flooding the world is kind of a big deal… Another Celtic historian, T.W. Rolleston refers to a curious symbol which, while first attributed to the Celts at New Grange, has been rediscovered again and again in Sweden, Egypt, Babylonia, Gaul and North Africa. The symbol? A ship. Always, it is depicted with a similar prow design; always, with (what do you long for after seemingly endless days of rain?) the sun shining full and high over head.
- Celtic Myths and Legends, Rolleston 71-76
These recounted stories, along with many other similar moral and ethical beliefs, draw undeniable parallels between Pagan and Judeo-Christian sources. When you read these stories, you can easily connect with the legendary and mythical creatures and characters. Right action is still right action, and noblesse is still as much of an ideal then as it is (or should be) now.
The final reference is reserved for the Heliand, “The Saxon Gospel”. The Heliand is a Dark Age work fit for mead halls and kings, crafted by a daring monk in response to the failed and hypocritical attempts by Emperor Charlemagne to Christianize the nearby pagan Saxons through force. Charlemagne, after defeating Saxony, gave them an ultimatum which is, sadly, now quite common: be baptized (convert) or die. Immediately, many thousands of Saxons were baptized, but after only a few months later, went straight back to pillaging Charlemagne’s towns, slaughtering his missionaries and priests. Missionary after missionary were killed by the Saxon kings until one anonymous monk got a better idea: Retell the gospel in order to win the heart of Saxony for Christ.
“Its theme is not, as one might think, the mighty exploits of a hero in the mold of Beowulf, Seigfried, or Roland, but rather the life and deeds of Jesus, retold in an unexpectedly beautiful blending of the Germanic and the Christian. Bethlehem becomes a hill-fort, horses and horse-guards replace sheep and shepherds at the nativity, the prophets Simeon and Anna are soothsayers, and the twelve apostles are transformed into household warriors. Jesus himself both outfights his enemy and works powerful magic; he is the greatest of chieftains, the Chieftain of Mankind.” - Murphy, The Heliand
The work is simply spellbinding, and breathes life into an otherwise stale tradition of Bible hermeneutics:
'Godspell', ‘God’s speech', 'Gospel’
Originally, in Anglo-Saxon, it was “the good speech’, but in The Heliand the ‘good’ is understood as ‘God’s.’ It is not possible to distinguish easily between the two words by spelling, thus the change must have come easily. In addition, the author desires very much to explain the gospel as not just good speech, but God’s speech. (Murphy, 4)
Another highly intriguing example of modern-ancient word play is
found in the word “Hell”.
[With] “hellea ‘the region of Hel’… The poet here gives both the Northern and the Mediterranean visions of hell, one cold and damp, the other hot as an inferno.”
“It is curious that in both English and Old High German the Germanic word for this place has won the contest for survival in modern the English language (hell, Hoelle), but the flame-filled Latin concept has won in our imagination.”
- Murphy, 32-33
Clearly, not only can Pagan stories and the Gospel speak of the same story, they are interwoven seamlessly if understood accurately and in the proper context. They tell of the same story because they deal with the same God, rescuing and restoring the same humanity within the same world.
If moving myths oftener than naught speak true, then they are valid; even more so, they are on to something. In a much more recent work, From Homer to Harry Potter, a Handbook on Myth and Fantasy, authors Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara also agree likewise with The Heliand:
“What this shows is that the Bible has immense mythic power and is indeed centrally mythic. The author of the Heliand recognized that the Bible is not merely religious creed but “God’s spell.” That is, it is not in essence a theological or philosophical system, but Story. This spell- the great biblical Story- embodies ideas that have been key in informing nearly all the myth and fantasy of the West. There ideas include the importance of storytelling to forming and maintaining community; the use of parallel worlds to gain insight into this world; the notion that there is an invisible moral battle in which the visible world participates; the falsity of theistic or material determinism and the concomitant reality of human moral freedom; the importance of speech; the idea that the world is reasonable and so susceptible to inquiry (as opposed to being random or guided by the unpredictable whim of the gods); and the goodness of this created physical world.”
- Dickerson and O’Hara, 67
“In the beginning…” reads the famous first line of Genesis. Creation is story. God spoke reality into existence, not merely speaking but by telling- Creating with words, and through them bringing life and existence to all. And within this mighty story filled with beauty and chaos and brilliant light and sinister sable mankind also exists. We are made in the image of God and thus hold sub-creative powers of our own. The most beautiful story is the one we most love to tell and retell- it is the eternal story of God’s love. Within it, we sub-create via story. As C.S. Lewis says in Surprised by Joy,
"There have been civilised people in all ages", writes Sir Maurice Powicke, [and] In all ages they have been surrounded by barbarism.”
Despite a few thousand years and technology upgrades the abyss separating us and the ancients doesn't seem so vast anymore; swiftly the realization dawns that we are very much on the same Earth with the same Truth- and if we are really lucky (or blessed), we will witness the same mythic God-love too.
“On a deeper level, they set the tone for understanding myth as much more than mere tales. Myth for the Greeks meant thinking about everything from the nature of the universe to our deepest moral attachments and obligations. At the deepest level, Greek myths use natural and fantastic characters and settings to probe the questions of who we are and how we are related to the gods- and God. Great early Christian thinkers from the Apostle Paul to Augustine found in the myths novel and fruitful means of communicating the gospel, from which we continue to benefit today.”
- Dickerson and O’Hara
All of Creation is God’s story, and humans are sub-creative story tellers. While God creates ex-nihilo (out of nothing), humanity sub-creates ex-terrae, out of what has already been given us.
“Human artistic endeavor is similar to what God does, but different. Though we cannot give to our creations new material reality, we can create new worlds in story.” - Dickerson and O’Hara, 52
Fantasy is sub-creative art at its best, most free form. Deriving from Tolkien’s logic, Dickerson and O’Hara gives a helpful definition for Fantasy:
“Fantasy is imaginative literature that gives glimpses of subcreative otherworlds, literature free from the domination of observed fact, providing instead images of things not found in our primary universe.” - Dickerson and O’Hara, 53
Fairy Stories, in, near or bordering upon the Perilous Realm of Faerie, is the prime subject of J.R.R. Tolken’s stunning
work On Fairy Stories. When the Norse mythologizes Odin sacrificing himself to himself on a tree, they are really wandering the far green lands of Faerie. There, the story-teller journeys (or trespasses) in a reality bound and defined only by that which God, the ultimate story teller, is bound by, and defined only by His definitions. The stories and piecemeal story elements which our imaginations sub-create echo the real story God is telling right now. Tolkien imagines a story soup of sorts as well. There figments of the oldest of tales and heroes simmer together collectively, waiting for a cunning, far-seeing author of daring imagination (and a good deal of luck) to ladle out the story for his generation to hear. Because these stories and storytellers draw on God’s ever pervading arc-story, those that write just may weave a tale which illuminates the long forgotten beauties the myths themselves treasure. But it is more than retelling alone which wins the day in the end.
“History often resembles “myth,” because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.” - Tolkien, Fairy Stories, 30
This is because, as Dickerson and O’hara while summarizing Tolkien’s ideas that the literature of Faerie (exactly what, or where the depths of imagination and story come from and are) seamlessly tie history, legend and myth together. Hence the opening lines to the recent blockbuster sensation, The Lord of the Rings,
“History became legend, legend became myth…”
What ever it is which simmers down through the ages to our particular literary taste palates out of the pot of stories, the ever elusive flavor, glimmering Faerie seems to be an intimate part of what we so earnestly yearn to reach forward to and look back for. It speaks of Heaven’s higher tale- an earthly fairy tale.
“True Myth is timeless”, states Dickerson and O’Hara - They are right on target.
If Myth from Faerie, through human sub-creation, illuminates and reflects God’s own fantasy here on Earth, who is to say it remains only in ancient works? If Myth is timeless then it is, in fact, not bound by time. Which means that our modern day Myths describe these same Truths to be self-evident. If Myth echoes God’s story, regardless of whether the author is “Christian” or not, they present modern-day epics which can whisper the beauties of heaven too. The timeless elements are NOT exclusive- they are all faint flurries of hope- echoes of a nameless (our words do not even do remote justice) joy. This is the adrenaline racing through our words like fire in our souls- it is an aching, a longing laced through the marrow of today; Faerie is not only softening and preparing ancients to hear God’s spell (Gospel); it is softening and preparing people today. It is the sound of trumpeting heralds ushering on the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. God is near. He is in our very words and stories. Not even the least of bedtime tales is without Him. But we are not always dealing with kind, happy stories- even Jesus had his scourging, even our story soup has its bones.
Tolkien speaks about a story which stuck with him from childhood, The Juniper Tree.
It is a tale strewn with gruesome bones, cannibal stew and vengeful bird spirits - a ghostly reckoning of times gone past when monsters and witches were not idle, childhood fancies but honest beliefs which had their root in some real thing. “Without the stew and the bones,” states Tolkien in Fairy Stories, “which children are now too often spared in mollified versions of Grimm- that vision would largely have been lost.” The visions of far away and long ago do never attempt to dance around or censure the then modern evils the authors had to face in real life- nor should Christians avoid tales merely because of vulgarity or explicit evil. It is naïve to pretend that stark evil and diabolical wickedness do not exist, or that we are somehow separate from them.
That forbidding realm of “R” rated movies to the conservative Christian never was meant to be abandoned or supplanted. It was meant to be viewed, engaged and enjoyed by the audience it was intended for. The Myths are still timeless and Faerie still beckons us on. Books like Harry Potter employ an essence of Faerie we desperately need to hear. Obviously, the stories that inspire us mean something to us. So, God works in these stories, telling us about himself, in the movies from Hollywood, in the news broadcasts, and through the newspapers everyday. Magic can be used for evil as well as for good. The boycotted list of movies cry out, demanding justice, the elements of timeless Mythos within them are laden with God’s Spell: 300, BraveHeart, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta, Saving Private Ryan, Sleepy Hollow, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix Trilogy, and Kingdom of Heaven (along with countless others) all beckon the unwitting and open-hearted. Modern entertainment media, our culture’s myths, can give us little glimpses, snippets of the heart of God. We have all been raised on these stories, especially in the information age, and our hearts are primed, waiting only for our dogmatically narrow visions to clear. We only wait for a Story, The Story of one more man, who happened to be God, one more story to bring it all together, to make all the other stories make sense; stories where Christ shared the Truths of Heaven, in the Bible and elsewhere. Faerie declares to all who hear the glory of God. When God sends us on our Great Commissions, the fairy tales were sent out before us like John the Baptist in the Wilderness- making straight paths in the wildernesses of our own world, preparing all humanity for Salvation. “Go out in to all the world to preach,” Christ tells us. It is because all the world is ready. It is because God is urging us, “Go, I already set it all up; all you have to do is talk.”
So, God works in these stories, telling us about himself. From the powerful, rich people to the drug-addicts on the street: people are telling and hearing stories all the time (and God is softening us up). Our culture “declares the glory of God,” and people can still recognize Faerie in a good tale if it’s served up right. We just need the key, the final piece, which brings it all together. We need to tell others about God (and be told as well). While we don’t need to call Odin down from his tree, we needn’t worship him either; we need to take a page or two out of The Heliand and tell the story like it is- like it really is and always will be. The joy and the beauty and the timeless power found in Mythos must not be tamed or ignored,
We need Arthur re-throned and Merlin unbound- so that what is good, what is pure, what is lovely, and what is right will continue its inherent legacy of relevance- people freed through stories with real meaning for a life with a real God who loves them.