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A Perilous Paganism

25 Apr

Some authors simply deserve to be shot. In most cases, they are guilty of vandalism–that is, clogging the library shelves with stacks of mediocre books. But a few select authors are guilty of the opposite error–criminal negligence. Elizabeth Marie Pope has made it to my personal death row list by being one of the authors in the latter group. She only penned two novels aside from her professional writings, both of them wonderful, and the second of which won the Newberry Honor Medal. I suppose that she might be granted a pardon on account of the thirty-eight years she spent teaching at Mills College, but I’m still inclined to favor capital punishment.

Unfortunately, she died in 1992. I suppose I’ll have to content myself with this rant.

Pope was an English professor, a background that helped her to skillfully weave traditional ballads into her stories. The Perilous Gard, her novel that won the Newberry Medal, is a retelling of the traditional Scottish border ballad “Tam Lin.” The book won its award as historical fiction, but her inclusion of the Fairy Folk, based on a combination of border ballads and Arthurian legend, makes The Perilous Gard far more than an ordinary historical fiction novel.

According to Pope’s understanding of British folklore, the story of the Fairy Folk goes something like this. When Roman Christianity first began to spread across Britain, many of the common people accepted it. The higher classes–the priests and priestesses–did not. With commoners turning to the new religion, the elite members of the old order were driven underground. They would remain in hidden places for the next thousand years. The Saxons invaded, the Danes invaded, and the Normans invaded, but the old order, who styled themselves the “Fairy Folk,” paid little mind. They would serve the old gods in the old ways, and nothing–not time, not pity, and certainly not the castle folk–would stop them.

Sixty-six years before Pope published The Perilous Gard, G. K. Chesterton wrote similar sentiments about paganism, published as part of Heretics, a book of essays. “The first evident fact (in marked contrast to the delusion of the dancing pagan)–the first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperence, are the sad virtues.”

“Unhappily,” observes Pope’s character Master John, “Those in the Well are very strict about keeping to the exact letter of any bargain they make.” By “Those in the Well,” Master John means the Fairy Folk, who receive a large portion of their income from pilgrims who throw valuables into a “Holy Well.” The Fairy Folk are a virtuous people, if not a kind one.

In his Republic, Plato held that a community needs four main virtues–wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and morality. Wisdom he assigns to the ruling class and courage, to the fighting class. “Self-discipline,” he noted, “literally spans the whole octaval spread of the community, and makes the weakest, the strongest, and the ones in between all sing in unison.” The final virtue of morality, he argues, “is keeping one’s own property and keeping to one’s own occupation.”

These four virtues were perfectly kept by the Fairy Folk. In regard to wisdom, they not only had a detailed knowledge of herb lore and the land in which they lived, they were–in keeping with their priestly past–experts in the understanding of how to serve their gods. They exercised their courage daily, from dealing with the unpleasantness of their underground world to facing their enemies. They are incredibly self-disciplined. The heroine of The Perilous Gard, Kate Sutton, realizes this fact after observing the simple lives led by the Fairy Folk. She notes, “Contempt for ordinary human comfort and delight was drilled into the People of the Hill from the time they were children, old enough to stand in the great cavern and watch the mortal women making pigs of themselves out of riches and art.” Morality, too, they have, at least by Plato’s definition. Each member of the Fairy Folk knows exactly what his duties are, and each one follows them to the letter, no matter any personal feelings. The fairy folk are, by the pagan definition, virtuous. They are also cold, cruel, and joyless.

Chesterton writes, “The mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity…the gay and exuberant virtues…. The pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.”

But sometimes what appears unreasonable may produce a society like that of the Fairy Folk–rational, but cold, sad, and ultimately impractical. Chesterton continues: “Now the old pagan world went perfectly straightforward until it discovered that going straightforward is an enormous mistake. It was nobly and beautifully reasonable, and discovered in its death-pang…that reasonableness will not do…. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For reason does not lead to sanity.”

Kate Sutton discovers the limits of reason the hard way. A very rational girl herself, she scorns ballads and romances, preferring to deal with reality, whether pleasant or unpleasant. But by the book’s end she has discovered that reason alone is not enough. She learns to draw her imprisoned friend Christopher out of himself by practicing the virtue of hope. She faces the queen of the Fairy Folk armed with faith–something which the queen, with the narrow logic of her people, cannot understand. And, laying aside all of the dignity that had been so important to her at the beginning of the book, she claims the greatest of the three Christian virtues, charity, and goes to save Christopher’s life.

Like Chesterton, Kate learns to respect the pagan virtues. She greatly admires some aspects of their lives: “There are some things,” she tells the queen near the close of the book, “in which I would still choose to live as you do.” But Kate chooses a different way. Laying aside her reason, she chooses faith, hope, charity–and, ultimately, the way of joy.

Sources

  • Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. (NuVision, 2008).
  • Plato. Republic. Robin Waterfield, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  • Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974).
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