I’ll expand on Hardy’s paganism. Or that of the narrator of Far from the Madding Crowd, easily the most important character in the book. I do not remember how common mythological references were in other Hardy novels, but Madding Crowd is full of them, and they all come from the narrator. He is one odd bird.
Some references are mere metaphors. A group of drinkers “grew as merry as the gods in Homer's heaven” while they listened to “a ballad as inclusive and interminable as that with which the worthy toper old Silenus amused on a similar occasion the swains Chromis and Mnasylus” (Ch. 23) Virgil’s sixth Eclogue, if you are curious. The narrator is not afraid of making me look up one of his allusions. His characters, farmhands and shepherds, would have no idea what he is talking about.
At least one classical reference is pure comedy. A sheep has just been sheared:
The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece – how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized – looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment… (Ch. 22)
I hope that was meant as comedy.
But as the metaphors and jokes and so on accumulated, I began to realize that none of this figurative language was actually descriptive. Virgil and Venus do not help us see the scene – metaphor as an aid to precision – but rather add a layer of meaning. All of my notes are from the middle of the book or later, because early on I did not understand what I was seeing in the text. I did not understand that when the narrator pulled in a Greek god he meant it.
This was the strangest one:
Although she scarcely knew the divinity's name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba instinctively adored. (Ch. 41)
Only the narrator (and the reader) see all of these gods swirling around the humans and their sheep.
It was an odd experience reading E. R. Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational (1949) alongside Hardy:
The Greek had always felt the experience of passion as something mysterious and frightening, the experience of a force that was in him, possessing him, rather than possessed by him. The very word pathos testifies to that: like its Latin equivalent passio, it means something “happens to” a man, something of which he is a passive victim. (Ch. VI, 185)
The passage describes three of the four major characters. Or what about the link between Pan who is the god of panic, sheep, and panicky sheep (Ch. III, p. 95), all important parts of Hardy’s pastoral novel. Or the discussion of Eros as “divine madness, “the one mode of experience which brings together the two natures of man, the divine self and the tethered beast” (Ch. VII, p. 218). This chance meeting of books made Hardy’s, or the narrator’s, paganism and related irrationalism stand out clearly.
Dodds gives a hint about Hardy’s deeper purpose, too. The classical scholar is pushing back on the simple idea of Greece as the birthplace of Reason. He argues first that there were always other competing traditions, and that as Greece declined those traditions filled the vacuum, sometimes in decadent forms. Hardy’s pagan view of life is itself a reaction against – a warning to? – or just an expression of unease about the rationalism of his own time, a reminder of the power of the gods we instinctively adore.