Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.


The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

2 thoughts on “Pagan Virtue

  1. In Britain, the literary tradition was well established during a time when paganism still flourished. Shakespeare, for example, was writing in an era and in a part of England where pagan practices were still popular. As such, paganism was captured in the British imagination where it has maintained its influence. Plus, nearby Ireland kept its Catholicism which was always friendlier to the pagan worldview.

    It’s strange that so little of that was transferred to the American colonies and the later US. I was thinking why that is the case.

    It’s not just Puritanism, as there were many other cultural traditions that fed into the broader American society. There is the Quakers, although they also lack a pagan imagination for some reason. Puritans and Quakers came from parts of England that had been settled by Northern Europeans, but I’m not sure how that relates to the lack of a pagan imagination.

    The Cavaliers and Scots-Irish (along with enslaved Africans) who settled the South weren’t prone to Puritanism or Quakerism, and Evangelicalism only came to dominate there in the 19th century. In particular, the Cavaliers came from the same area of England where Shakespeare lived. The Old South of the colonial era was a rather secular place where religion was mostly a formality of the government.

    There were many waves of immigrants over the centuries. You’d think that enough of them would have brought enough pagan imagination along with them that would have melded with Native American folklore and so have taken root. You do see that to an extent in places where the Scots-Irish where concentrated, but despite the general influence of the Scots-Irish they didn’t lend a pagan imagination to the American mind.

    Here is an example:


    • That’s an interesting question. The early Puritans obviously had concerns about “pure religion” and early Quakers were closer to the Puritan model than they are today. Historians, however, have shown that pagan thinking persisted into colonial America, but it was kept quiet. Jon Butler is good to read on this point. As American developed its literary tradition the early voices such as Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, came to be replaced with promoters of American pragmatism. No time for paganism there!

      Liked by 1 person

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