Books have always had a powerful impact within the Pagan community, the two best examples being Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land’s influence on The Church of All Worlds and Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. However, while these books influenced the Pagan community internally or helped Seekers realize that Paganism exists as an option, they didn’t affect non-Pagans’ perceptions about our religions. The Paganism depicted was either too easily dismissed from serious thought as too vague, too exotic to be connected to anything in real life. One author who is changing non-Pagans’ perceptions of our religions through realistic Pagan characters is S.M. Stirling.
The books are set in a contemporary post-apocalyptic America and many of the main characters and heroes of the tales are Pagans of some variety. For a look at what the books are about please see this article.
Mr. Stirling was in town Tuesday on a promotional tour for his new book, The High King of Montival. The book is the fourth in the Sunrise Lands series, which is a continuation of the Dies the Fire series. I entered Uncle Hugo’s book store excited at the prospect of having Stirling sign my Nook. Yes, I am that much of a geek. I was also excited at the prospect of talking to some of my fellow non-Pagan book geeks to judge the impact of Stirling’s books.
Greg Dalen and Charles Morrison were happy to talk about all things Stirling. When asked what they liked about the Dies the Fire books, Dalen said, “I don’t like how in most post-apocalyptic literature they end up with everyone fighting everyone. That’s not realistic. People would organize. People would pull together like the Clan Mackenzie. (the Wiccan group formed by main character Juniper Mackenzie) The characters are gripping.”
The characters are gripping and the author’s understanding of Wicca and Heathenry is both deep and nuanced. When asked, in a separate interview, how he accomplished that feat, Stirling responded, “Partly pure research, more a matter of getting in contact with a fairly substantial number of actual Pagans and Heathens, Kier Salmon, Diana Paxson, and others, and having them go over rough drafts of my work, correct errors, tell me stuff, and point me in the direction of necessary information. Also the ability to do ‘projective empathy’ is really necessary for a writer. You have to be able to see the world through other eyes.”
Being able to see through other eyes, and then conveying those thoughts and emotions, can open other peoples’ eyes to new experiences and ways of living.
Morrison jumped in at Dalen’s mention of the Mackenzies, “I didn’t know anything about Wicca before I had read the books, it was very eye opening. It opened my eyes to a different point of view.”
Dalen expanded,”Before you are exposed to something you only have stereotypes. You know, dancing naked in the woods and all that.”
Both men said that they had a much more positive view of Paganism after reading the books than before they had read them. “It helped being exposed [to Paganism] in a non-proselytizing way,” said Morrison, ” The books did a great job of explaining the religion and letting you see it in action without proselytizing.”
I let Stirling see the responses by Dalen and Morrison and I asked him if he had any idea, when first writing the books, that he would positively alter how readers felt about Paganism. “No, though I hoped people would be interested and that I could correct some misconceptions. I’m pleased and flattered that things turned out this way. One of the things I tried to do in the books is show Paganism ‘from the inside’ as it functions day-to-day as the faith of a community in the Changed world.”
One reader who read this view of Paganism ‘from the inside’ was Grand Meadow resident Owl. “I had fallen away from church and wasn’t really into religion anymore. It felt so false. So artificial. When I read Dies the Fire it was such a moment of revelation for me. I couldn’t get enough of Juniper. I kept thinking, that’s what I have felt to be true for years and I ignored it because I didn’t think anyone else believed that. Since then I have studied with a Priestess in Rochester and I’m so happy. I owe such a debt to Mr. Stirling. If he hadn’t written those books, I think I would still be spiritually lost.”
Stirling, an atheist, feels a bit bemused how his books have sparked many a Pagan conversion, “Well, it’s amusing, since I’m not religious of any sort myself; but I certainly have no objection if people find their way to something compatible with their needs through my work. I have many Pagan friends who I respect and admire, and I’m glad if I’ve helped. I’m also frankly rather proud of being able to ‘get into the heads’ of practitioners!”