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Sunday, December 11th, 2005, 10:06 PM
Paganism and C.S. Lewis: Rethinking Christian Attitudes

by Rev. Rebecca

Paganism,[1] or its current expression, Neopaganism, has experienced a revival and resurgence among Postmoderns in recent years. It is not uncommon to find explicitly pagan themes portrayed in the most popular literature, film, and television programs today. Even a cursory glance at pop culture reveals a variety of pagan images and ideas. In children’s literature, the Harry Potter series about a young magician who is schooled in the black arts, are among the best selling of any children’s fiction in recent decades.

The JRR Tolkien movies based on his Lord of the Rings trilogy sell out in theatres across America and in Europe. Television programs that deal with witchcraft and neo-pagan themes are among the most viewed programs on TV. Any visit to a local bookstore will reveal a large selection of books for sale on various topics on paganism and pagan culture in addition to specialty bookstores in most urban areas that specialize in such material. Celtic and Nordic mythology, along with other ancient religions and cultures, are being seriously studied and taught within academia across the country. Many people have begun to practice these ancient rituals and beliefs in a very personal way and have become self-proclaimed “Neopagans.” In fact, Neopagans have more web pages per capita than any other religious group.[2]

In C.S. Lewis’ day, just over half a century ago, paganism was not as prominent a practice as it is today. This may actually have given him a slightly different perspective on it than we have. He writes of paganism in Miracles, it “is not likely to be a live issue for most of my readers.”[3] I don’t believe we can say that any longer however; paganism has become a “lively issue” once again.

The view that C.S. Lewis took of paganism is rather controversial and radical within today‘s mainstream Christianity however. Many Christians today have responded to paganism by demonizing it in whole and by labeling anything and everything that contains pagan imagery as “satanic.“ There are many within Christendom who wage crusades against all pop culture references to paganism in an attempt to censor it.[4] This has had the effect of creating animosity and a sense of enmity between those who practice Neopaganism and Christians, furthering the distance between us. C.S. Lewis may be a prophetic voice to our generation in offering a different perspective. Far from fearing paganism or distancing himself from all things pagan, C.S. Lewis embraced paganism as a “sister” religion to Christianity and viewed it as a necessary link in the “myth turned reality” of Christianity. C.S. Lewis’ view of paganism offers a bridge for the pagan, and a deeper, broader self-understanding for the Christian.

C.S. Lewis’ Conversion

In a very real sense, C.S. Lewis’ interest and passion for paganism helped fuel his eventual embrace of the Christian faith. According to Walter Hooper, paganism played a large part in Lewis’ own journey to faith.[5] Pagan myth and Christian truth became intertwined for Lewis in a number of ways.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ autobiography, Lewis describes his love for pagan mythology from a very young age. Lewis gives an account of his encounters with paganism from Wagner’s “Ring” cycle to Norse mythology as being some of his first tastes of “Joy.“ He writes, “I passed on from Wagner to everything else I could get a hold of about Norse mythology, Myths of the Norsemen, Myths and Legends of the Teutonic Race, Malet’s Northern Antiquities. I became knowledgeable. From these books again and again I received the stab of Joy.“[6] Lewis’s first significant friendship was sparked and founded on a mutual interest in Norse mythology and is a very telling story about his inner passions and joys. Lewis writes:

I found Arthur sitting up in bed. On the table beside him lay a copy of Myths of the Norseman.

“Do you like that?” said I.

“Do you like that?” said he.

Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing, quoting, talking-soon almost shouting-discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but the same parts of it and in the same way; that both knew the stab of Joy and that, for both, the arrow was shot from the North.[7]

According to Humphrey Carpenter, C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was directly linked to his passion and understanding of paganism.[8] In Carpenter’s article, which appeared in “The Inklings” in 1978, he describes several significant conversations Lewis had with his colleagues at Oxford leading up to his conversion. According to Humphrey, Lewis had come to believe in the importance of myth, but was not yet convinced that myths were anything beyond “lies,” beautiful and inspiring as they were to him.

The concept of myth and its role was the topic of conversation between Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson one night in September of 1931. On one of their many walks around Magdalen College, JRR Tolkien explained to Lewis that myths were not merely lies because humans are not “ultimately” liars. The very human act of making myths, “mythopeia,” to express truth, was also part of God’s self-expression of eternal truth. Tolkien went on to say that just as God had expressed his truth in the images and poetry of pagan myths, so God had done so in Christianity; the difference being that in Christianity God used “real people and actual history.”

At that point in the conversation something suddenly clicked for Lewis and he was able to equate the old “dying god” myth of paganism with the dying Christ that led toward a full embrace of and belief in Christianity. From that point on, Lewis viewed Christianity as the “myth become fact.” This concept was central to Lewis’ conversion. Lewis would later write in his autobiography of his conversion experience, “Sometimes I can almost think that I was sent back to the false gods there to acquire some capacity for worship against the day when the true God should recall me to Himself.”[9]

Lewis’ View of Paganism & Christianity as Myth

Louis Markos writes of C.S. Lewis, “His conversion to Christ not only freed his mind from the bonds of a narrow stoicism; it freed his heart to embrace fully his earlier passion for mythology.”[10] This indeed appears to be the case when one surveys Lewis’ writings on the topic of mythology. Lewis wrote of paganism and its connection to Christianity in his apologetic and non-fiction theological works frequently, but his view of paganism was rooted in his understanding of myth and Christianity’s connection to that myth. He wrote in God in the Dock,

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle… . God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan

Christs”: they ought to be there-it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic-and is not the sky itself a myth-shall we refuse to be mythopathic. [11]

Paganism and Christianity share in this mythic quality and myth is the vehicle by which God communicates to humankind. “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”[12] The fundamental difference between paganism and Christianity for Lewis is that one fulfills the other. Paganism’s myths anticipate and prepare the world for the Christ myth: myth becomes reality and fulfills the hopes and expectations of humanity. Lewis wrote,

My present view, which is tentative and liable to any amount of correction-would be that just as, on the factual side, a long preparation culminates in God’s becoming incarnate as Man, so, on the documentary side, the Truth first appears in mythical form and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate as history. This involves the belief that Myth in general is…at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine Truth falling on human imagination.[13]

In reading Lewis’ words we hear the clear echo of Tolkien’s words to him near the time of his conversion. Lewis seems to have taken Tolkien’s words to heart in a deep way; this concept remained key to Lewis’ entire understanding of Christianity throughout his lifetime.

According to Lewis, paganism, therefore, is intricately interconnected to Christianity historically and theologically through their shared “myth.” In this sense, paganism, rather than the enemy or adversary of Christianity, was the precursor to Christianity, the older “sister” of Christianity. As Walter Hooper wrote of Lewis’ concept, “he viewed paganism not as an evil child of Satan but rather as a ragged and wild but essentially good uncle of Christianity.”[14] Such reasoning makes sense from a man who first experienced the touch of “Joy” through pagan myths and later found his way to God in Jesus Christ through those same myths. It is almost as if C.S. Lewis lived out, in his one lifetime, the great history of paganism’s longings as expressed in pagan myths and then found its fulfillment in the historical person of Jesus Christ.

Lewis’ Fiction and Paganism

Lewis employed countless pagan images and symbols throughout his Christian’s literature, demonstrating his belief that paganism and Christianity are sister religions which reveal the ultimate human hope and vision through divine means. His belief, along with Tolkien’s, was that those deeper mythic archetypes appeal to humankind because their source is founded in something beyond their external and cultural trappings: the human soul. This could explain why, in part, their books are so widely appealing to audiences of many different religions, ages, and cultures.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’ most popular literary work for children, he employs the use of many traditionally pagan characters and concepts. In The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis has the children enter into the magical realm of Narnia through the use of magic itself. In the former, Narnia is discovered through a pair of magical rings, and in the latter through a magical wardrobe. The use of magic throughout the Chronicles is a central theme. When Polly and Digory discover the land of Charn in The Magician’s Nephew, they learn that Queen Jadis’ sister had placed a spell upon the entire city. Later we learn that Jadis herself is a witch with the ability to cast spells and curses. Many of the characters in the Chronicles utilize magic in various ways.

In Narnia itself, many characters stem from pagan religions. In the story of the creation of Narnia, Lewis writes,

Out of the trees wild people stepped forth, gods and goddesses of the wood; with them came Fauns and Satyrs and Dwarfs.
Out of the river rose the river god with his Naiad daughters. And all these and all the beasts and birds in their different voice, low or high or thick or clear, replied: “Hail Aslan. We hear and obey.
We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.”[15]

The Satyrs, from Greek mythology, were half-men half beast nature spirits who haunted the woods and mountains and were companions of Pan and Dionysus with horns and the tails of goats and horses. Naiads were nymph like creatures from Greek mythology who presided over fountains wells, marshes, springs, rivers, streams, brooks, ponds and lakes. Other creatures in Narnia include the horse-turned-Pegasus who obediently serves Aslan, reminiscent of the way that Pegasus, from Greek mythology, served Zeus in bringing him his thunder. The “fauns” were half human-half-goat characters figure out of Roman mythology. What is important to note is that these characters are all viewed in Lewis’ books as ultimately good, obedient followers of Aslan, the Christ figure, and not as evil beings or adversaries.

In Prince Caspian, Narnia is populated with pagan deities and characters. Lewis writes, “Down below that in the Great River, now at its coldest hour, the heads and shoulders of the nymphs, and the great weedy-bearded head of the river-god, rose from the water. …Far away on the northern frontier the mountain giants peered from the dark gateway of their castles.”[16] Later the children encounter Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, and Silenus, his companion who is half-horse and half-human with the Maenads, Bacchus’ female worshippers.[17] In the book these characters are not evil but, rather, take part in the army of liberation and aid in the battle against evil.

Other examples of pagan references in Lewis’ literature are prominent in his fiction for adults as well. In That Hideous Strength, the ancient Greek and Roman deities form an alliance with a Merlin character of the Arthurian legends in order to do battle against the powers of evil. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis retells the Cupid and Psyche myth with the first Priest of Ungit as the symbolic pagan character of the story who believes deeply in the goddess whom he serves. Without a doubt, Lewis draws on the rich mythical traditions from the ancient pagan cultures to capture our imaginations and retell Gospel truths in this diverse but harmonious way.

Lewis’ Critical Perspective on Paganism

It would not be fair to characterize Lewis’ view of paganism as entirely positive. For example, many of Lewis’ fictional characters demonstrate his distrust of certain pagan elements. In many of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series, such as The Magician’s Nephew, it is those characters who seek to manipulate and use magic for their own end who come to be destroyed and controlled by it, including Uncle Andrew and later, Queen Jadis the witch.

Uncle Andrew reveals the level at which he has been deceived by his lust for magic when he says to Digory, “’Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”[18] Digory is able to see through his words and realizes, “’All it means,’ he said to himself, ‘is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.’”[19] A telling statement occurs in Prince Caspian after the children see the parade with the pagan Bacchus, Silenus, and the Maenads. Susan says to Lucy, “‘I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.’ ‘I should think not,’ said Lucy.’”[20] For Lewis, paganism only makes sense with Christ as its ultimate end and focal point.

Conclusions and Implications

Lewis’ view of paganism and Christianity is much less dualistic in its perspective than that of the majority of mainstream Christianity. While Lewis had certain misgivings and concerns about paganism, he saw it as essentially related to Christianity at its most fundamental level. It was this relatedness that gave Lewis the passion to articulate a dynamic dialogue in his fiction and non-fiction alike between paganism and Christianity. The question before us, then, is: what conclusions and implications does this leave us as Christians?

Many object to the idea that paganism and Christianity are related and view Lewis’ conceptions as radical, if not dangerous or heretical. Is Lewis alone in his assertions? Anglican theologian and priest A.G. Hebert writes, Yet many of the early Fathers, and the best Christian theologians generally, have been ready to allow a measure of truth in pagan religions. More than this, we have before our eyes the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which was almost certainly written in Ephesus, in the midst of the splendour [sic] of Greek civilization, and speaks of the Divine Word as the source of all that was good and true in the pagan world.[21]

Lewis is not alone historically in his beliefs and has much within Church history and Scripture to support his view. But if we are to take his ideas seriously, we must be willing to follow through on their implications. First, the implications for Christian self-understanding are far reaching and potentially life changing. Suddenly Christianity is not merely an extension of Judaism, but the fulfillment of the expectations of all ancient pagans as well. Just as Jesus was the long awaited Messiah for the people of Israel, so Jesus is the long awaited dying and rising god of the pagans, the god-man who dies, just as the winter solstice observes death, and rises to life, just as the spring fertility rite celebrates life. Christ becomes the “Fulfiller” of human expectation to the pagan peoples throughout the world. If this is the case, then we, as Christians, must seek to learn more about our roots and learn to be more respectful rather than simply dismissive of our pagan brothers and sisters. The continual demonization by Christians of those who follow the pagan path must cease in light of these realizations.

Second, the implications for greater dialogue between Neopagans and Christians hold some interesting possibilities. We can learn to communicate with one another using the common foundation of our shared myths and learn from one another. We can begin to enjoy one another’s stories and legends without such a critical eye and celebrate books and movies that combine these two traditions including Lewis’ and Tolkien’s fiction. This may be the basis of a deeper understanding and of mutuality as well as an opportunity for us to offer our own understanding of these ancient mythic archetypes.

Christians should stop reverting to Modernist ways of thinking by appealing to materialistic rationalism, demythologizing of the Bible, or anti-supernaturalism, but by emphasizing the mythic, supernatural, mystical, and spiritual elements of our Faith. We ought not downplay those aspects of our liturgy that are, on the surface, similar to paganism’s. We ought to highlight and cherish them in the way we cherish our Jewish roots. As St. Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).


Barlsbaugh, John. “The Pagan and the Post Christian: Lewis’ Understanding of Diversity Outside the Faith.” In Lightbearer in the Shadowlands: The Evangelistic Vision of C.S. Lewis. Ed. Angus JL Menuge. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1997.

Carpenter, Humphrey. “Mythopeia.” In The Inklings. Boston, 1978, 39-45.

Hayes, Steve. Christianity, Paganism, and Literature. www.geocities.com/Athens/7734/xnpaglit.htm (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7734/xnpaglit.htm)

Hebert, A.G. Liturgy and Society. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1935.

Hooper, Walter. C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1996.

Lewis, C.S. “De Descriptione Temporum.” In Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

____. “God in the Dock.” In God in the Dock. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1970.
____. “Is Theism Important?” In God in the Dock. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1970.
____.The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Collins, 1978.
____. The Magician’s Nephew. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.
____. Miracles. New York: MacMillan, 1960.
____. “Myth Became Fact.” In God in the Dock. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1970.
____. Prince Caspian. New York. Harper Collins, 1979.
____. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Harvest, 1955.
____. That Hideous Strength. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
____. Till We Have Faces. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Markos, Louis. “Myth Matters.” In Christianity Today. April 23, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 6, 32.

[1] While there is no one accepted definition of “paganism,” in this paper “paganism” refers to the polytheistic religions practiced by the ancient civilizations of Europe including Nordic, Druidic, Celtic, Roman and Greek religions; it does not refer simply to any non-Christian religion or secular hedonism.
[2] The Google search engine has indexed 1.06 billion web pages. See: http://www.google.com/.
[3] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York, 1960), 8.
[4] For an extreme example of such a crusade, see the website entitled “C. S. Lewis,
The Devil's Wisest Fool” at http://www.granel.org/artikelen/misl...is/CSLEWIS.HTM (http://www.granel.org/artikelen/misleiding/cslewis/CSLEWIS.HTM), a website dedicated to discredit Lewis for using pagan imagery in his writings.
[5] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide, (San Francisco, 1996), 311.
[6] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (New York, 1995), 78.
[7] Ibid., 130.
[8] See Humphrey Carpenter’s article, “Mythopeia” for the full account.
[9] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 77.
[10] Louis Markos, “Myth Matters,” Christianity Today, April 23, 2001, 32.
[11] Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock, (Grand Rapids MI, 1970), 67.
[12] Walter Hooper (ed), They Stand Together, (New York, 1986), 427.
[13] Lewis, Miracles, 133-4.
[14] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide, (San Francisco, 1996), 311.
[15] Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York, 1955), 127.
[16] Lewis, Prince Caspian, (New York, 1951), 156.
[17] Ibid., 158.
[18] Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, 21.
[19] Ibid, 21-2.
[20] Ibid, 160.
[21] AG Hebert, Liturgy and Society, (London, 1935), 45.

Source: http://www.franciscan-anglican.com/PaganismLewis.htm