Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Flame Between the Antlers

Let me tell you a secret.

You know King Arthur, him we call Artos the Bear?

Well: at the heart of his story throbs the Witches' Sabbat.


I first read Rosemary Sutcliff's flawed amethyst of a masterpiece Sword at Sunset when I was still in elementary school—too young, really. It was my first Arthurian novel, and—quite frankly—it ruined me for anything else. Mallory's knights in shining armor, White's sly satirical anachronisms, Bradley's horrible nun-priestesses: none of them quite stack up in comparison to the real thing.

Because that's what you think when you read Sword: this is exactly how it must have been.

Sutcliff's Artos—our Artos—is a Dark Age Keltic chieftain in a gritty post-Roman Britain where Old Gods and Old Ways are still vibrantly, resoundingly alive, a world in which a grizzled old horse-herd, after a lifetime of work in the breeding-runs, can believe that the Horned One has finally sent him the perfect horse. A world in which Artos the Bear is raised to kingship in an impromptu coronation (after a resounding victory in battle against the Saxons) on the Eye of the White Horse of Uffington.

Sutcliff knows three things supremely well: the land of Britain, the history of Britain, and the Old Ways of Britain. In Sword at Sunset, these three knowledges, which are one knowledge, converge in one splendid, shining tale of fierce battles and piercing loves.

And at its very heart burns the blue-dark flame of the Witches' Sabbat.

Confined to a wheelchair since childhood, Sutcliff read voraciously: history, archeology, all 12 volumes of the 3rd edition Golden Bough. (It's fashionable now to pooh-pooh Frazer and his theories as armchair anthropology, outdated. Well, yes, but what if we read the Bough, not as anthropology, but as theology?)

More to the point, she knew her Margaret Murray.

Sword at Sunset's master narrative is Frazer's story of the Dying God, which of course is Artos' story as well: the ancient tale of the paradigmatic God-King who dies for his people and rises again, immortal.

And the novel's master ritual is the Witches' Sabbat, but reimagined—reengineered, one might say—as the pagan ritual of death, life, and fertility that Murray would have us believe that it once was.

But let Artos tell it himself:

A low, thrilling murmur, a kind of moan, rose from the crowd, and as one they surged inward almost to the outer surface of the standing stones, as though drawn by the thing within them, the thing that drew me with the rest, as it had drawn me when I was a boy among my own hills, but so long ago I had forgotten...The mist seemed to have gathered more thickly within the stone circle, and out of the midst of it, tangible as the musky stink of rut, was flowing a vast Power. Somewhere a pipe called silvery, small and remote as a bird over the moon-washed moors, more compelling than the war-horns of an army. And as though at the command of the pipe, the mist began to lift. Somewhere at the heart of it came a blurred blink of bluish light, that strengthened into a small, clear jet of flame springing from between a huge sweep of shadowy antlers.

On the throne of piled turf in the exact center of the Nine Dancers, his arms folded on his breast, sat a tall man, naked and shining, with the head of a royal stag.

Oh my people, Sword at Sunset is a book that will break your heart.

Let you read it, and rejoice.


Rosemary Sutcliff (1963) Sword at Sunset. Coward-McCann


Above: John Vernon Lord (b. 1939)

Illustration from Sword at Sunset (Editio-Service edition: Geneva, 1975)




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Monday, 05 March 2018

    I took a class in Arthurian Literature in college back in the 80's. I had read some of Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy as a teenager: The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills; I never got to the last book. I still have my copy of Mallory that I bought for the class. Recently I read The Book of the Sword and The Book of the Spear by Diana L. Paxson. I plan on getting the last two books in the series. I recommend the Hallowed Isle series if you have not already read it.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 06 March 2018

    While I've come to love Mallory for his language and mystery, despite his medievalism, I find both Stewart and Paxson's Arthurian characters to be entirely modern: their thought and speech is entirely 20th century. They're moderns in Dark Age garb.

    But Sutcliff's characters think and speak convincingly as people of their own time. In this sense, her work can teach us how to begin the long, slow process of learning how to Think in Pagan.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Sunday, 01 April 2018

    I ordered a book. Haven't gotten it read yet. Thanks for the recommendation.

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