10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!

 

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