By Russell Moore, Touchstone
Last year, Neil Gaiman published his long-awaited work, Norse Mythology, a collection of the ancient stories of the Nordic gods. This is not a translation, but a retelling. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message is to the Bible, Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is to Norse mythology. The book was widely anticipated not so much because it collects mythic tales as because of the author himself. For many of his readers, Gaiman awakened an interest in the old gods in the first place. And for Gaiman himself, something of this longing for Valhalla started in the wardrobe of a spare room.
At first glance, Gaiman would seem to be of little interest to those Christians who are unfamiliar with his work. Why should they pay attention to him any more than they would to the latest young adult werewolf romance? Gaiman is important, though, because he is not just a bubble on the surface of popular culture but a tidal current within it. We also should give him some attention because he is raising the sorts of questions we will want raised if we are to bear witness to Christian orthodoxy in a “post-Christian” Western culture.
The connection between C. S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman isn’t as obvious as Gaiman’s imaginative debt to, say, Ray Bradbury. After all, Lewis is best remembered as a committed Christian apologist, while Gaiman is decidedly, well, not. But Gaiman is not anti-Lewis, like, say, Phillip Pullman, whose Golden Compass books set out to dethrone Aslan with a bleak, atheistic universe. Gaiman’s relationship to Lewis is more complicated.
However much Gaiman dispenses with the Christian religion, Lewis did indeed “steal past the watchful dragons.” The same has been true for many others, before and since. But how did Lewis do this? It wasn’t his characters. As the other Inklings knew, Narnia wasn’t a carefully constructed mythic sub-creation, as Tolkien’s Middle Earth was. But for many of us, including Gaiman, there was something else at work in Aslan’s realm.
At some level, Gaiman wants there to be a plot to the universe, and perhaps to his own life. And at some level, he seems to fear what is left if there is not. “Ask me with a gun to my head if I believe in them, all the gods and myths that I write about, and I’d have to say no. Not literally,” he writes. “Not in the daylight, nor in well-lighted places, with people about” (Cheap Seats, p. 63). Of course, Gaiman will not always be in well-lighted places; none of us will. The question is whether there is something, or Someone, waiting for us in the dark—someone who has placed for us what Lewis and Walker Percy call “signposts” along the way, in our stories, in our histories, in our life-plots.
That’s why the “hidden dragons” had to be sneaked past. In the Christianized West, the gospel story has too often been presented as a means to an end—to moral behavior or to patriotism or to a place among the “normal people” of the culture. That is a Screwtape religion, not a Narnian one. When the gospel message is heard in unexpected places, in unexpected ways, one can hear something that is far from “normal,” far from a means to some earthly end.
Gaiman may have resented Lewis’s “hidden agenda” when he discovered it; many do. But how liberating it is to find out that Lewis’s hidden agenda is actually the agenda—there is no agenda behind it. Lewis had found Joy, had found Aslan’s country, and simply said to the reader, “Come and see.” The old gods disappoint, and the new ones do, too. But there’s another Story yet.
The work of Neil Gaiman is one more reminder that however transcendence-averse modern cerebra might be, the message has not reached the modern imagination. Even in the sterilized secularity of the West, there are yet signposts in a strange land. There are yet intimations of interest in something, or someone, just out of reach, even when those intimations are safely hidden away in science fiction or fantasy. Christians should take note. Perhaps the way to speak to a transcendence-starved West might include not only a cathedral liturgy or a revival tent, but also, even still, a lion, a witch, and a doorway, just where one least expects it, to Narnia.