This is the second installment in a series on faith, myth and allegory. If you’re just landing here, read post No. 1 here.
Neither Lewis nor Tolkien claimed to be writing original myth. They both claimed that there was truth in their accounts and that their characters stood for something more and they imbued universal truths and morals. Both men recognized the difference in kinds of myths and were clear in their defining of the Gospel as a divine myth, a myth that is both historically true and universally true. Both Tolkien and Lewis discussed fairy stories and myth as it relates to the Gospel. Both men were men of faith – Tolkien a devoted Roman Catholic, and C.S. Lewis a committed Anglican. Both give special status and attention to the Gospels as myth.
How did the idea for Middle Earth and Narnia come to Tolkien and Lewis? C.S. Lewis said once that his stories came from images in his mind, “not with an apologetical teaching intention … I’ve never started from a message or a moral, have you? …The story itself should force its moral upon you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.” For Tolkien, the idea for Middle Earth also came from an image. He got the idea for hobbits from a student. Though the ideas came from an image, the image is a picture of a greater reality and a deeper meaning. Tolkien wrote about the glimpses of underlying reality in fairy stories. These glimpses lead to people asking, “Is it true?” Tolkien says the Gospels include a fairy story; it is “a story of a larger kind that embraces all the essence of fairy stories.” It has the beauty, miracles and marvels that are so beautiful in myths. Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe” to describe the turning of events in a story that lead the protagonist from harm. In Lord of the Rings, an example of a eucatastrophe would be when Frodo and Sam are saved from death the eagles, Clyde S. Kilby, an author and professor, wrote in an essay on Tolkien. Christ’s birth was the eucatastrophe of the history of man, Tolkien wrote. The resurrection was the eucatastrophe of the incarnation. Theologian and author John Warwick Montgomery describes Tolkien and Lewis’ role in myth:
In a century when most secularists and theologians are busily stripping away alleged “myths” (in their sense of “non-factual stories”) from Christianity, our apologists of eucatastrophe find in myth (in the proper sense of archetypal tale) the objectifying literary apologetic for Christian truth—a pointer nonpareil to the fulfillment of mankind’s longings in the factuality of the Gospel story.
For Lewis, all of Christianity could be described as a eucatastrophe. Lewis famously wrote, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also fact. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” The beauty, for Lewis, is the union of myth and fact, something that does not happen in the common myth. “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.” Many philosophers and apologists shrink from calling the Bible myth, for the connotations that could be drawn, and the possibility of others drawing parallels in the world.
We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “Pagan Christs”: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoetic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less that to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” Myth became fact.
Evans writes that Lewis did not believe that the entire content of the Bible was present in pagan myths, just some semblances. Lewis was aware of the differences. Evans summarizes Lewis’ arguments by identifying the human need for “psychological wholeness and healing.” Humans need to grasp the world they live in and how they fit in. By highlighting the element of myth in the Gospel, these needs are met. “Highlighting the mythical dimension of the incarnational narrative helps one to see one of the reasons that the narrative is important to people now,” Evans writes. “The Lewis claim emphasizes the power of the narrative to articulate such truths without denying either its historical character or its unique status as irreplaceable divine revelation.” Pagans recognize these needs and write myths to describe how the needs can are met, not knowing or believing in the original myth of the Gospel—a myth that man did not devise, but a myth that came from the Creator of life and the universe. “For Lewis, classifying the story as myth is not rooted in a judgment about the literary style of the New Testament … It is rather a way of highlighting the way the story speaks to people at all times and places.”
When arguing for the reality of literary myths, whether or not they actually happened is not really why people read them. One does not read Harry Potter truly believing that it did indeed happen, save for the most ardent Twitter fans who devote their entire online presence to Hogwarts and its inhabitants. No, the reader does not discard the story after learning it did not exist. Reading books like Harry Potter is an invitation to a journey and an adventure and this adventure is desirable. If the story wets the appetite, it succeeds, Tolkien would say. Now, whether or not Tolkien would classify Harry Potter as a fairy story is unknown. Tolkien spends a portion of his piece, “On Fairy Stories” measuring stories on his scale of fairy status. Lord of the Rings is such a story – a story the reader does not base his or her enjoyment on whether Frodo really went on the journey with the ring – the enjoyment was in the story. The beauty of the Gospel is that the stories are read because they are true and because they are desirable. The Bible transfers an adventure and truth in an enchanting way that has present and eternal benefits. The beauty of the Gospel is that it is not simply a made-up story that communicates truth generally. The Gospel is even more beautiful because the characters are not fictional ones who speak in generalizations. The beauty of the Gospel is that the characters are real people who lived, breathed and died, and the message they gave was just as true then as it is in the slums, cities and suburbs of 21st century.
Does this mean the myth of Narnia and Middle Earth should be completely discarded? No, stories like The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Narnia series hold value and communicate truth. Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” holds value and lessons for the current reader. As mentioned before, there are different categories of myth and none of the literary or philosophical myths can match the ultimate myth of the Gospel. However, there are lessons and beauty to be enjoyed in other forms of myths. “I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed,” Lewis wrote. Lewis advocated for a vibrant faith, one lived in communion with Christ. Myths can enhance a believer’s relationship with Christ. Somewhat controversially, Lewis continued, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”
Stay tuned for the next installment.