There’s an old chestnut in our community that goes something like this: If Christians are “people of the book,” then Pagans are people of the library. In short, we love books; reading them, writing them, arguing about them, and listing them (we’re a highly educated and literate bunch). Recently the Huffington Post posted a reader-recommended list of 27 essential Pagan texts which almost instantly set off a chain-reaction within our online communities. I saw several complaints as to what was omitted, links to the piece from authors who were included, and alternate lists from folks like Star Foster and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus.
“And, of course, I’m very willing to say and am totally non-self-deluded about the fact that the list of thirty-one books to follow here is very subjective, and quite biased as well because it has four books that I wrote solely, and at least one other that I contributed to in some fashion. What can you do? The books I’ve written have been books I rather wish existed when I got into this–now they do exist, and they’re meant to help people who want to pursue Antinoan devotion, so I challenge anyone who thinks they should not be included to suggest something that will do the job equally well, if not better, at this point. Plus, some books by friends and/or co-religionists of mine also make the list because they’re just that damn good, in my opinion.”
Anyone who’s known Pagans for any length of time shouldn’t be surprised by this. An integral part of just about every Pagan website in the early days was the recommended reading list. Everyone had additions, or personal tweaks, or newer works, or what they felt was an exhaustive overview of their particular area of expertise. You could say that recommended reading lists are an integral part of how we came to be. In his history of modern Paganism in America, “Her Hidden Children,” Chas Clifton spends quite a bit of time explaining how important reading books has been to our development.
“At the end of the 1970s, in her list of reasons why respondents to her Green Egg questionnaire became Pagans, Margot Adler lists seeking beauty and imagination, personal growth, the freedom of ‘religion without the middleman,’ and environmental and feminist concerns, but also bookishness: “In particular, most of the Midwesterners said flatly that the wide dissemination of strange and fascinating books had been the main factor in creating a Neo-Pagan resurgence … almost all [Neo-Pagans regardless of educational level] are avid readers.” Adler’s research was conducted in the late 1970s, but her conclusion remains appropriate.”
So, in short, books are important to us. Our mutual love of books may be one of the few things that we all mostly agree on, even if we can’t all agree on the various titles. Anyone who wants to understand modern Pagans, and modern Paganism as a religious movement, will need to spend a lot of time reading what we read (and what we write). Having said all that, I now feel almost contractually obligated to provide you with a list of my own. Since I don’t really feel like trying to present a “top ten most important books all Pagans should read” kind of list, I thought I’d provide you with something more personal.
Jason’s Ten Favorite Fiction Titles that Have Pagan Themes and He Found Personally Inspiring.
One current that I don’t think gets addressed enough in our history is how much fiction titles played a role in our development. There are obvious instances like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” and the Church of All Worlds, or Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” and the inspirational role it played within Reclaiming and Paganism as a whole in the mid-1990s, but it goes far deeper than that. Paganism, at some level, has always relied on story. From Homer’s epics to Lucius Apuleius’ “The Golden Asse” to Margaret St. Clair’s “Sign of the Labrys” (a novel that ended up with her being initiated by Raymond Buckland). So here are ten novels that struck a chord with me, and maybe some of them struck a chord with you as well.
- John Ford’s “The Dragon Waiting : A Masque of History”:
- Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon”: This is probably the one that everyone else has already read, and this novel has been feted (and criticized) so many times that it seems redundant to mention it here. Still, this tale of the Arthurian mythos through the eyes of its women is a blockbuster for a reason. I went through a phase in my earlier years where I read and reread this, to the point where I don’t think I could ever do so again. In today’s light, where historical authenticity is highly prized, it seems flawed (Atlantis?) and dated (Did ancient Britons really practice what amounted to Wicca?) but Bradley was an expert teller of stories and it was hard to not get caught up in the melodrama.
- Stewart Farrar’s “Omega: A Novel of Eco-Magic”: Yes, it’s that Stewart Farrar, with a 1980 novel from the”Witches save the world genre.” Set in the far future of around seven years ago, it tells a tale of apocalypse brought about by an alternative energy source, a gas that turns people into insane zombies, and a rag-tag group of Witches who fight a Satanic coven, and a corrupt splinter government to win the future. Really, this book has it all, including some inadvertent comedy when guesses at what modern Paganism will look like after the year 2000 are made. I really hope somebody puts this back into print.
- Katherine Kurtz’s “Lammas Night”: Published in the early 80s (I’m sensing a trend.), and out-of-print for years, this was another “Witches save the world” book. This time it’s up to England’s Witches and occultists to save their land from an invasion by Hitler and his evil magical coven. Pulpy and full of high-adventure, Kurtz knows her way around writing about ritual magic, and weaves in the theories of Margaret Murray and divine kingship in a way that’s compelling. I have no idea why this hasn’t been put back into print, or made into a movie. For a contemporary (and darker) take on this same theme, check out “Bitter Seeds” by Ian Tregillis, where Warlocks fight Nazi mutants.
- Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (“The Winter King”, “Enemy of God”, “Excalibur”): Historical novelist Bernard Cornwell sinks his teeth into King Arthur, placing him into a real, dirty, and brutal 5th century Britain. Told in flashback by a fictionalized Saint Derfel, Cornwell shows both the beauty, and brutality, of pre-Christian religion (and Christianity is almost always found wanting in comparison). He does his best to include everything while still keeping things as historically plausible as possible. His Merlin is a real treat, as is his treatment of Druid magic in general.
- Margaret Mahy’s “The Changeover”: This may be one of the first YA novels to deal with Witches in a purely positive light, and is interesting for the way it talks about magical initiation as a metaphor for becoming an adult and taking responsibility. A little gem of a novel.
- Gore Vidal’s “Julian: A Novel”: Speaking of Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, Vidal takes on the work of rehabilitating the character of the much-maligned “apostate,” portraying him as, if not a hero, then an intellectually curious man well ahead of his time. This is a rich novel that takes the time to establish what life and religion must have been like for Julian, and how his embrace of paganism shook the world (or at least parts of the world). It also provides Vidal plenty of chances to critique Christianity, which is done with great gusto and at regular intervals. I great way to start your journey learning about this oft-revered figure within modern Paganism.
- Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finnovar Tapestry (“The Summer Tree”, “The Wandering Fire”, “The Darkest Road”): Kay’s tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantasy epic that is explicitly pagan in its telling. One of the only “regular people get sucked into a fantasy world” series that I truly enjoy, and one that is truly moving. Kay dreams of a truer world, in a tapestry of worlds, one where gods and goddesses still walk the earth, interweaving them with the Arthurian mythos in a way that feels engaging. It subverts the “ordinary men and women learn what truly matters” trope by upping the stakes, and drastically changing the characters by the third book. If you’re a fan of fantasy, or of Celtic mythology, you’ll love this.
- Robert Grave’s “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God”: It’s hard to think of these novels today without thinking of the epic British television series, but Grave’s tale of the Julio-Claudian dynasty seen through the eyes of stuttering, limping, drooling Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus is a masterwork. Thought a fool, but canny and smart enough to survive and grow old in an age of executions and upheavals, Claudius narrates an epic tragedy about family, principles, and duty. These books are every bit as entertaining as the show, and if Graves played with history a bit, well, that’s the prerogative of novelists. These are landmark modern novels of the ancient Roman period.
- Jeanette Winterson’s “Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles”: Let’s end with something published rather recently, shall we? Winterson plays with myth, twisting and turning the tale of Atlas and Heracles, finding new and interesting ways to interact and engage with the story. She finds how these tales fit into our own lives, finding raw, personal, parts of ourselves in the tales of gods, titans, and heroes. Poetic, playful, and moving, she reminds us that the tales pagans told each other in times long past still matter, still live, still breathe.
An early alternate history novel, first published in 1983, it supposes a world where Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus (aka “Julian the Apostate”) did not fail in turning the Christian tide, creating a world where paganism is the norm, and Christianity an extremist sect existing on the margins. However, instead of making this shift the focus on the novel, Ford tells the tale of a group of adventurers who get caught up in saving Richard III’s throne in England. The characters don’t self-consciously comment on how different things are, instead they live and breath in a very pagan England, one where the Roman Empire never fell. It’s the little details that stick with you.
That’s ten! As a bonus, let me endorse the entire oeuvre of Charles de Lint. If you’ve never read anything by him, start with “The Very Best of Charles de Lint” and work your way out from there. Also, I know I didn’t recommend Gaiman’s “American Gods,” but I’m sure someone else will bring it up in the comments. Feel free to share your favorite Pagan-themed or inspirational novels in the comments.