Title: Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism
Publisher: Moon Books
Author: Rebecca Beattie
Price: $10.95/ $5.49
It is a well-known joke in contemporary Pagan circles that we are a people of books. Not the book, but books, plural. Many of us come to Paganism through a love of literature: history, mythology, fantasy, poetry, science fiction, and more. In Nature Mystics, Beattie takes a look at ten authors who either explicitly influenced modern Paganism or laid the groundwork for its development: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W.B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R. Tolkien, and E. Nesbit.
As Beattie notes, none of these authors would identify as Pagan or polytheist. Some engaged in spiritualism or practiced occultism, while others, such as Tolkien, were devout Christians. Nonetheless, their work has influenced the modern revival of Paganism, both directly and indirectly.
My own personal spirituality draws heavily on both nature and literature, so I was looking forward to reading Beattie’s text. I was not disappointed. I went into it knowing a little bit about a few of the authors and nothing about others. I had read smatterings of Keats and Lawrence and Yeats in school, of course, and I knew of Hardy and Nesbit. And I’m probably the only person in the world who has seen the movies, but not read Tolkien’s original novels. Webb, Warner, von Arnim, and Butts were utterly unknown to me. When I finished this short book, I came away with a new appreciation for all of them, and an extensive To Read list (before I even finished Nature Mystics, I purchased two volume of Yeats’ poetry).
Beattie discusses the authors in loosely chronological order. Given her own area of interest, it is no surprise that Beattie focuses on British authors of the late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries (Keats being the one outlier).* All of them were born and most died before the repeal of the Witchcraft Act 1951, and they cover a wide range of sexualities and political philosophies; Tolkien was an arch-conservative Catholic who loved and wed one woman in his life, Warner was a lesbian who worked with the Communist Party in Britain for many years, while Nesbit was a serious occultist who took numerous lovers throughout her life and publicly raised two of her husband’s illegitimate children as her own.
What they all have in common, though, is their love of nature. Not just love, but an intimate, aching, soul-deep attachment to the natural world. This connection, through which these authors derive support and sustenance and even a reason to live, suffuses their writing. The beauty of the world as seen, heard, breathed, experienced by them surrounds us in color and scent and texture, even in the short excerpts offered by Beattie.
While Beattie makes her case for including these authors in the pantheon of Pagan-friendly literature, she also takes pains to note that these works were written in a very specific time period, in a very specific cultural venue. As such, some of the political and religious opinions of the authors can strike modern Pagans as odd, objectionable, or even horrific. Tolkien had no love for the counter-culture hippies who adored his books, while Butts was not only a life-long drug addict, but also a racist and a classist.
Nature Mystics is a terrific introduction to an important topic: our sources of inspiration. Who do we call our own? Whose work do we draw upon for ritual, poetry, fiction, and mythology? Why? Who has been lost and should be rediscovered? Should we embrace those with whom we might disagree philosophically, religiously, and politically? What do we have in common across religious and cultural divides? Beattie’s text is just an introduction, however, as she herself points out several times. Start here, and then make use of the included bibliography to add to the pile of books on your nightstand — just like I did.
*(I would love to see a continuation of this series, with future volumes examining authors from other eras and locations. Which French authors before the mid-twentieth century had an influence on the development of modern Paganism? What about Russian authors? Spanish? American? Canadian?)
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer.]