stephen lawhead catholic

The Inklings, the greatest fabulists of the twentieth century, never came to a consensus regarding the importance and profundity of the various King Arthur legends. Blatantly British and Christian, the Arthurian mythology should have moved Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams dramatically. Well, it did move Lewis and Williams, both of whom used it as a backdrop to some of their most important and innovative mythopoetic works. And according to Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion in 1974 and 1975, even Tolkien had written a longish—perhaps epic?—unfinished poem on Arthur, entitled “The Fall of Arthur.” Unfortunately, it remains unpublished.[1] Lewis had even seen the stuff of Arthur in Tolkien, making a composite of Tolkien and Williams into the Arthurian character, Ransom in the Space Trilogy. In his own personal correspondence, though, Tolkien remained skeptical that much could be done with the Arthurian legends. 

Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with the English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.[2]

Tolkien, as is well known, hated allegory, which he believed would tend toward propaganda rather than art. A true artist taps into the truths of God’s Creation. He does not take blatant truths and make them more blatant. The Arthur mythology seemingly did that.

Stephen Lawhead, a veteran writer for various American evangelical publications, has brilliantly recrafted the Arthurian legend. And, despite Tolkien’s fears about art becoming propaganda, Lawhead has done so successfully from an openly Christian perspective. Best known to readers of the Saint Austin Review as one of the contributors to Joseph Pearce’s edited Tolkien: A Celebration (1999), Lawhead has a large following in evangelical circles and is an accomplished musician as well as a best selling author of fiction for both adults and children. His most important work thus far is the six-volume Pendragon Cycle which follows the story of Arthur, beginning with the great Christian Bard, Taliesin, and ending in volume six, the cycle’s postscript, Avalon: The Return of King Arthur, in which a reborn King Arthur claims the British crown early in the twenty-first century.

Lawhead does several things exceedingly well in his version of the Arthurian legend, especially in his appreciation of the pagan and the need to Christianize it, the vital importance of the Eucharist, and in his depiction of the heroism of sainthood. It is in the last area where Lawhead really shines. Like the Inklings, whom he very much admires, Lawhead is best when making the good interesting. Following a century in which the diabolical imagination ruled, it is wonderful to see new writers embrace the moral and poetic imagination. Lawhead also brilliantly interweaves historical research, legends of the saints and miracles, and ancient and medieval folklore in his works.[3] Though bookstores and publishers label his works fantasy, they are often no more fantastic than Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Indeed, Lawhead can very effectively make the supernatural miracles of God quite real and believable in the material world. After all, when one of the characters of the Pendragon Cycle asks about the meaning of life, Merlin repeats a story that the druids had passed down. “Some men were digging a well and came upon a great, flat stone.  It was, they discovered, the foundation stone of this worlds-realm, so they decided to lift it up and see what lay beneath it. This they did. And do you know what they found? . . . . Love.”

In the Pendragon Cycle, Lawhead’s vision is sympathetic to Catholicism. He introduces the reader to the Faery, or Fair Folk, refuges from the destroyed islands of Atlantis, seeking refuge in the British Isles. There, they encounter and intermix—culturally, religiously, and biologically—with the Celts. Throughout the first five books of the cycle, the Celts and the Fair Folk, are slowly accepting Christianity. Some do so by encountering the grace pouring through Saint David (Lawhead uses the older spelling, Dafyd), the first bishop of Wales. In one of the best scenes of the cycle, St. David encounters one of the Fair Folk named Charis. They meet at a Catholic chapel at what will become known as Glastonbury, or the Glass Isle.  Upon their encounter, David believes he is witnessing an apparition of the Virgin Mary. “Ave Maria,” he cries, full of ecstasy. After Charis explains that she is not Mary, she asks, “She is your Goddess, this Mary?” To which David correctly replies, “Goddess?  In the name of Jesu, no!  We worship no god but the True God.”

Others convert through mystical visions. Following the Celtic, druidic ritual of entering the Otherworld, Taliesin meets “the Ancient One,” known to Christians as Yahweh. After a long conversation between the two of them, Taliesin, whom God calls “Shining Brow”—reminiscent of Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major—understands that all of his druidic training has led him to recognize the True God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Full realization comes when Taliesin sees St. David for the first time. “Behold!  The servants of my Lord draw near.” Taliesin runs to them, falling on his knees before them. When the bewildered priests ask Taliesin his name, the Holy Spirit fills him with song. These are not singular events in the cycle, but major plot points. In the second volume, Merlin, St. David says mass to commemorate the birth of Christ. After a homily on 1 Corinthians 13, St. David “invited us to the Table of Christ to receive the cup and the bread, which was Body and Blood to us.” Characters also frequently pray for the dead. And, when St. David dies, his face becomes young again, a sure miracle.

Lawhead’s vision of medieval kingship—as least as presented by Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur—is almost identical to the theological constitutional monarchy of St. Thomas Aquinas as expressed in On Kingship, book 1, chapters 1-6. “The imperial Sword of Britain will be won by he one king among you will bend his back to lift other men; it will be gained by the king who puts off pride and arrogance, who puts off vanity and puffed-up ambition, and takes to himself the humility of the lowest stablehand; it will be earned by the man who is master of himself and servant of all,” Merlin states, moved by the Holy Spirit through the druidic awen. “He will be a man such as other men will die for; he will love justice, uphold righteousness, do mercy.  To the haughty he will be bold, but tender to the meek and downcast. He will be a king such as has never been in this worlds-realm: the least man in his camp shall be a lord, and his chieftains shall stand head and shoulders above the rulers of this world in kindness no less than in valor; in compassion no less than in prowess.  For he will carry the True Light of God in his heart.” When the kings of Britain express skepticism, Merlin, in holy anger, thrusts the sword into the stone. It is, of course, Arthur, who can withdraw and wield the stone. He will live out what Lawhead calls “The Kingdom of Summer,” the dream of Taliesin.

There is a land, a land of shining goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all tribes live under the same law of love and honor.  It is a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge and falsehood is banished, where children sleep safe in their mother’s arms and never know fear or pain.  It is a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water, and where men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty above comfort, pleasure or selfish gain.  A land where peace reign in the hearts of men.  Where faith blazes like a beacon from every hill and love like a fire from every hearth; where the True God is worshipped and His ways acclaimed by all.

This represents a dream, of course. But, it a stunningly beautiful and enticing dream that is deeply imbedded in myth, a myth that has held much of the western world captive for fifteen hundred years. As with all myths, it contains elements of truth. “The Arthurian and the Jacobite are united in the authenticity of the authority they represent. They are bound by the Faith and in the Faith,” Joseph Pearce wrote recently in the pages of this journal. “They are the timeless defenders of Christendom against the infidel.  They are beyond the transient rebellion of Time. They have fought the Long Defeat without ever losing sight of the far-off glimmers of Final Victory. They are unconquerable. They will return.”[4] The truth was not the return of any random king, no matter how good, but a longing for the return of the True King, the Divine Wisdom. It is this spirit that Lawhead has captured with the Pendragon Cycle.

If Lawhead could do this with the Arthurian legend—making the Christianity, the miracles, the dreams, the desires, the characters very real—what could he do with the life of a real saint? I had asked this to myself before I heard that Lawhead was writing a biography of St. Patrick, simply entitled Patrick: Son of Ireland, released on St. Patrick’s Day, 2003.

Claiming to have drawn on newly-discovered sources regarding St. Patrick’s life, Lawhead follows Patrick’s life from his pre-captivity days, through captivity, to a high office in Roman government, and back to Ireland as the “voice of the Irish.” But, whereas Lawhead exalted King Arthur as a true reflection of Christ, he drags St. Patrick through roughly 418 pages of muck and filth before Patrick realizes his saintly calling. This was difficult reading, filled with gratuitous pre-marital sex, wenching, lying, and bad bodily humor. And, strangely enough, whereas St. David served as a vital catalyst in the Arthurian legends, Pelagius of all persons serves as the finger of grace in Patrick! When Patrick asks Pelagius why he is so hated, Pelagius replies,

“As to the charge of heresy, I have stood before the pope himself in Rome to receive his judgment.  I defended my teaching and I was acquitted.” Pelagius was no longer the jolly monk, his voice taking on the fire of conviction. “Their charges, their court, their council—and I alone, by myself without a friend in the room. The pope heard me out.  The pope ruled: ‘I find no fault in this man!’”

This, Pelagius declares, is “not God’s way” but the way the world works. “Truth against the world—ah, now, that is God’s way.” In other words, for Lawhead, the Roman Catholic Church, at least in Patrick, represents worldly wisdom, Pelagius God’s wisdom.

After this discussion, Pelagius convinces Patrick that he has reached the end of what will alone can accomplish. Only grace can take Patrick further. Pelagius then gives Patrick the name Patricius for the first time, the name by which history will remember him. Following the encounter, Patrick has a divine revelation, in which the Irish call to him to evangelize them in the name of Christ. Hearing his true calling, Patrick returns to Ireland, and, in the “epilogue” we finally see the Patrick that probably every reader of the book would liked to have seen from the very beginning of the story. In his actions, this heroic Patrick of the epilogue is almost the Patrick of popular memory. With grace-filled confidence, Patrick humbles Loegair, the king of Ireland who refuses to acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Patrick declares “I arise today through a mighty strength! Christ my shield and my defender!”before his band of followers as they scattered Loegair’s forces.

And yet, despite Patrick’s success against Loegair, there is something not quite right about this Patrick of the epilogue. He is not a member of the Catholic Church, but instead is a priest of the Ceile De (old Celtic for “Servant of God”), a group of druids who arrived at Christianity independently of the Church. Lawhead has been toying with this idea for his last several books, but he seems to give it the greatest weight in this novel. Whereas the paganism of the Pendragon Cycle recognizes errors and is sanctified upon encountering the Church in the figure of St. David, the paganism of Patrick claims an equal if not superior status to the Church in its independent acceptance of Christianity. In a telling conversation in Patrick, the chief of the Irish Ceile De and Patrick speak about the druidic acceptance of Christianity. The chief sings the following song:

In every person there is a soul,

In every soul there is intelligence,

In every intelligence there is thought,

In every thought there is either good or evil,

In every evil there is death,

In every good there is life,

In every life there is God.

After singing it several times, the chief asks Patrick if his grandfather, a Roman Catholic priest, would agree with the theology behind the song. Patrick says yes, to which the chief explains,

This we have believed from the beginning. But many people—especially the Roman priests of Britain—have forgotten this. They look upon the Ceile De and see enemies where they should see brothers. Everywhere they go, they strive to uproot our traditions and plant their foreign observances instead. Yet we have been in the land far longer than they. Our traditions were not passed on to us by men but were given to us by the All-Wise himself.

Though generally regarded as an evangelical Christian, Lawhead certainly seems to be flirting with other forms of Christianity. In particular, his most recent writings seem to reflect the beliefs of certain groups calling themselves some variant of Celtic Orthodox Catholic/Christian. On his website, www.stephenlawhead.com, Lawhead posted the following:

. . . as a result of my researches into various aspects of the Celtic church, I’ve come to the conclusion that Pelagius was not only a member of the Célé Dé, he was certainly far from  the heretic he was made out to be by his enemies.  Moreover, while he was one of the more noteworthy expressions of   the Celtic Christianity of Britain and Ireland, he was not the only one; there were many more. As a product of his homeland and culture, the views of Pelagius were by and large the views of the Celtic church–views which Rome increasingly found irritating for one reason or another. For example, the Celts were all for taking the Good News of salvation to the Barbarians, while Rome considered this anathema. So, when Rome finally decided to crack down on the Celtic church, there began a long and dirty campaign of suppression. Branding Pelagius a heretic was only one part of this campaign–although they were unable to do this during his lifetime and had to wait until after his death, when he could no longer defend himself, to do so. To the Celts, however, St. Pelagius remained a hero of the faith and someone to be admired.

And, in the same section on his website, Lawhead admits that he has far more sympathy with the Celtic monks of one of his later novels “over that of either the Roman or Byzantine Church of the eleventh century.”

Whatever Lawhead’s religious beliefs, he is one of the best fantasy writers of the present-day. And, even if he may come across a bit anti-Catholic, he is no more so than C.S. Lewis or Charles Williams. If for no other reason, Lawhead should always be remembered for the brilliance of his rendition of the Arthurian legends.  Still, if Lawhead could have done for a St. Patrick—or, imagine, for a St. Boniface!—what he did for King Arthur, he would truly accomplish something permanent in the annals of Christendom. As Lawhead admitted in 1991, “But what makes the legends important, what makes them live is not the factuality—the ability to say ‘Arthur really existed.’ What makes the legends live is their mythic power.”[5]  Amen.

Heroism, now more than ever, needs a place in the lives of Catholics. Lawhead has the gift. Let us hope that he is willing again to use it.

[This article originally appeared as "Stephen Lawhead and the Conundrum of Celtic Catholicism," St. Austin Review (March-April 2007): 9-12.]

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

[1] Charles Noad, “A Tower in Beleriand: A Talk by Guy Gavriel Kay,” Mythprint (April 1989): 3.

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 144.

[3] Donovan Mattole, “Interview with Stephen Lawhead,” Mythprint (April 2001): 3.

[4] Joseph Pearce, “The Once and Future King,” St. Austin Review 2 (December 2002): 1.

[5] Mattole, “Interview with Stephen Lawhead,” 4.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Brad,

    I'm a big fan of Lawhead, as you might be able to tell from my site … I've written nearly 20 posts about SRL and his novels.

    My own work is currently unpublished, although I do have a publisher looking at a proposal right now. Thanks for the unexpected plug!

    -Robert

  2. One nitpick: I'm pretty sure that Arthur didn't discard the sword and fight his battles with the stone, as your review implies. But then, I suppose this was the Dark Age…

  3. Even in the Pendragon Cycle, Lawhead seems to be syncretizing with New Age beliefs. However, they were also written in a time when the diocese of Rome had not yet tried to extend its imperium over the Celtic Church (or even the Church in many other parts of the world.) Some degree, he may just be being historically accurate, this is rather before the Synod of Whitby.

  4. I agree w/ Steve above. The article does not give full weight to the role of the Celtic church in Lawhead’s novels. Celtic Christianity is central to Patrick, and is portrayed — not as post-800 AD when the Roman church was looking for a ‘homegrown’ saint to help with their land-grab in Ireland — but as an authentic brand of Christianity in its own right. Patrick the man, after all, was a Briton and his grandfather was a priest of the Celtic church. (BTW – it is also true that Pelagius was a Celtic Christian who wowed Rome when he took up residence there — which perhaps goes some way toward describing why he was so persecuted by the same men who welcomed and befriended him initially. Jealousy can be a powerful thing. Also, Pelagius did answer charges of heresy before the pope and was acquitted in his lifetime.) Something to think about.

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