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Malcolm Guite; Poet’s Corner

30 June 2023

C. S. Lewis understood that pagan rites could be brought to Christ, says Malcolm Guite

I VISITED Southwell Minster recently to give a lecture on C. S. Lewis. Before I spoke, I had a chance to revisit the Minster’s remarkable Chapter House, one of my favourite places in England. All the columns blossom into the most beautiful stone foliage, as though the stone were turning into trees, or trees had just that moment become stone; and, above these, are carved some of the most wild and enchanting “foliate heads”, or Green Men, as they came to be called by Lady Raglan in an article in The Folklore Journal in 1939, a name that has stuck.

I do not think that they are in the least out of place in a church or cathedral. On the contrary, they seem to me to represent, in almost human form, the wild energy, fecundity, and green life of nature, the rich ecology of which Christ is also Lord. In some way, whatever their origins, they speak of the One who is life itself, and whose resurrection is the fulfilment and meaning of the rising in spring of every buried seed.

Christ does not come to destroy the old pagan pieties, but to purify and perfect them, to reveal their meaning. If he says “a greater than Solomon is here,” it is also true that, in Christ, a greater than Pan, and a greater than Dionysus, is also revealed.

When I sing my song “The Green Man” in pubs, some of my Christian friends are puzzled or upset; but the ordinary, “unchurched” folk at the bar are the first to see the connections, and to ask “Those lines where you sing ‘I’m the goodness in the bread, I’m the wildness in the wine,’ are they about communion? When you sing ‘If you cut me down I’ll spring back green again,’ is that about Easter?”

Lewis certainly understood that some of those earlier pagan pieties could be brought to Christ, for the goodness and life that they celebrate belong to him. This is very clear in the scene in Prince Caspian when, as part of the liberation of Old Narnia from the oppression of the Telmarines, Aslan summons Dionysus, although Lewis does not give him that name, but, rather, delights to tell us his many other names: “He seemed to have many names — Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram were three of them. There were lots of girls with him, as wild as he.”

Then comes the great romp, the release of joy and energy which is part of liberation from any oppressive regime, and Lucy and Susan recognise their new companions with yet another name. Lucy whispers: “I say, Sue, I know who they are.” “Who?” “The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old one on the donkey is Silenus.”

Then, in a nice touch (and not without theological significance), Susan says: “I wouldn’t have felt quite safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.” “‘I should think not,’ said Lucy.”

The American film, I noticed, omitted this entire episode, as though the US were still locked in Prohibition; but, if we are to reach the many people, such as those who gathered at Stonehenge for the summer solstice, for whom the old pagan reverence is attractive, but the Church seems cold and distant, then we would do well to recover some of the lost language and theology that is there in the foliate faces at Southwell, and kindled for us, also, in the imagination of C. S. Lewis.

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