Pagan “Northernness”Book Reviews, Culture, Evangelicals, History, Religion — By David Nilsen on September 21, 2012 at 7:00 am
C.S. Lewis once spoke on the allure of pagan “northernness” and how it ultimately lead to his conversion to Christianity. He was “engulfed” by “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northnern summer; remoteness, severity.” I have come to experience a similar love of this northernness. Like most Americans, I was introduced to Greek mythology at an early age (it saddens me now to admit that I enjoyed all the “Greek-inspired” pop culture of the 90’s, from Disney’s Hercules to shmaltzy television shows like Xena: Warrior Princess), but I had never read, and barely knew of, the Norse myths until late into my college years. I was instantly drawn to them, and by comparison Greek mythology seemed less interesting. Now I am always eager for anything and everything that wades in northernness. My fondness for The Lord of the Rings approaches the fanatical (and now is a good time to be a Tolkien fan!). I even enjoyed Marvel’s Thor (despite the narrative problems and the significant departures from actual Norse myth).
Also, I am Norwegian, and my extensive Ancestry.com research* has shown that I am almost certainly a descendent of Thor.
I came across the Lewis quote while reading a book by Doug Wilson and Doug Jones, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth. The book offers a critique of the emptiness of Modernity while extolling the virtues of the Medieval mind. One of Wilson’s chapters is devoted to this “pagan northernness” and how wonderfully different the Anglo-Saxon vision of reality and of God is from the modern evangelical mindset. For the Anglo-Saxon Christian, God is immense like the boundless Northern sky (a dim analogy of eternity). He is a mighty king who grants victory to whom He wishes. He is a God of holiness and splendor, of beauty beyond words, not the god of “cutesy porcelain figurines.” Lewis might add, the Lion of Judah is no tame lion.
Wilson devotes part of the chapter to a mini-commentary on the view of God expressed in Beowulf (which is worth the price of the book, in my opinion). Here are a few noteworthy quotations (the end numbers refer to kindle location, the citations within refer to Beowulf):
The living God is wuldres Wealdend, or “Ruler of glory.” (II. 16-17). Our contemporary theism is really a pathetic and sorry affair. We want an avuncular figure in the sky, someone to hand out celestial candies when we are feeling a little blue. But the true God is the Most High; He inhabits glory, and He is the sovereign Ruler of it (324).
The Most High is ece Drihten, the “eternal Lord.” (1. 108). In our earlier history, Thor and Odin had the power to frighten us – we are pitiful creatures who crawl on the ground, after all – but when all is said and done, we came through the kindness of the gospel to understand that they were mere creatures as well. Thunder is bigger than we are, but a creature still (327).
The Almighty God is sigora Soocyning, the “true King of victories.” (11. 3053-3057)….The Church today is a stranger to victories because we refuse to sing anthems to the king of all victories. We do not want a God of battles, we want sympathy for our surrenders. We need to be taught to sing as Alfred the Great taught his men before going into battle -“Jesu, defend us” (331).
The second quote may be hinting at Tolkien’s view that Thor and Odin are actually real in some sense, whether angels or demons. I have always been attracted to this view, given my affection for Norse mythology, but it’s not important. The important point is that, real or imagined, these mere creatures hold no power over us. Odin may be the Archangel Michael (misunderstood by the ancient northerners), but he cannot ultimately decide our fates, either in battle or on the Day of Judgement.
One reviewer on Amazon described the thesis of this book as “What if Tolkien had been a Calvinist?” I like that idea, but it’s noteworthy that for the ancient northerners, like most Calvinists, fate and free will are left largely in unresolved tension, with the emphasis on fate (or for the Calvinist, Providence). We see this tension clearly in Lord of the Rings, and it is equally unresolved (Tolkien was a true northerner at heart). The question should be, in my opinion, something like “What if Tolkien had been a consistent Calvinist?” (for more on this, check out this book).
In the end, we should caution ourselves against looking at any particular culture or time in history as the one that “got it right.” This northern or Anglo-Saxon view of reality into which Christianity entered has its share of difficulties and we shouldn’t ignore them or rationalize them away. And for the non-Calvinist, the northern emphasis on fate may seem downright unChristian. However we view this peculiar age of early Christendom, however, Wilson is certainly right that it has much to teach the current evangelical church.
This northernness is not necessarily Christian, but when turned to Christ, it is redeemed like all sinful things and stands upright. But we moderns have little interest in such redemptions or their results because the Church in our era is slack and effeminate. We do not look at an unbounded northern sky and by analogy see the eternity of God; rather, we look mystically inward to the swamps and standing puddles of our own hearts and see just what one might expect in such places-but not very much and not very far (306).
The best way to counter the constricting shallowness of modernism, in my opinion, is simply to immerse yourself in northerny goodness. Begin a steady a diet of Anglo-Saxon literature, while reading Scripture (especially the Psalms) alongside, and compare the two. You can start here.
*As it turns out, I may in fact have a distant ancestor named Thor (or Thoren), who lived in the early 18th century. This is, of course, not the “real” Thor.