On faith and fairy stories, part 4

This is the fourth and final installment in a series on faith, myth and allegory. If you’re just landing here, read post No. 1 here.

What is it about myths that make them so engrossing and entrancing? Charlie W. Starr wrote an essay titled, “The Silver Chair and the Silver Screen: C.S. Lewis on Myth, Fairy Tale and Film.” Starr opens his essay with a description of Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” and how it describes the “real world” and how mankind lives in a life of illusions, a life viewing shadows on a cave wall.[1] They are imperfect pictures of a reality that does exist outside of the cave. Lewis wrote about the difference between abstraction and experience. He described it as the difference between thinking and experiencing. Lewis believed that experiencing enables us to understand things concretely instead of simply knowing of something but never experiencing it.[2] One can know or believe that New Zealand is beautiful, but until a visit is made, it is a beauty that lives in abstraction. Breaking a bone hurts, but until an individual actually breaks a bone, the knowledge of this is second-hand. Someone can know poverty exists, but until he or she meets someone who lives in utter poverty, the deep-seated compassion that comes with seeing firsthand did not exist. Starr uses the example of Eustace, a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace was an example of someone who was all thought and no experience. Eustace needed to experience reality – he was too far in the abstract. “He needs a higher reality, a world of the fantastic far more real than his own,“ Starr wrote. At the end of the book, Eustace realizes what he had been missing.[3] Myths draw the reader in to another world where experiences abound and lessons are learned alongside the story’s characters.

Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” describes how there is no abstraction in heaven. Everything there is truly, life in color, but here in the Shadowlands, life is still lived in abstraction.[4] Lewis would say that myth helps with this. Myth is the abstraction realized into the reader’s experience. It is a story of experience that one can engage in. It is the tale of something bigger than an individual but it is something everyone can relate to and relates truth to the individual in an experiential way.[5] In Lewis’ The Last Battle, the characters of the former books come in to Aslan’s country. Aslan’s country was similar to Narnia, but it was different, better, more beautiful and perfect. It was what Narnia was striving to be. “The heroes of Narnia have entered Lewis’ version of Plato’s most real world. Digory explains that the old Narnia was not the real one and so will pass away. It was only a copy of the real Narnia which never had a beginning and will never see an end,” Starr writes.[6] Christians have glimpses of heaven; yet, he or she is not currently residing there. There are glimpses of this ‘more real world’ similar to the glimpse Alice gets through the looking glass in Wonderland. Brochures frame things and make them look different than they are in real life.[7] This happens sometimes with travel photography. One can look at a photo and think, “I’ve been there, wow, that looks … different … from what I remembered…” When individuals watch movies, everything is magnified and amplified into something that looks more meaningful than the drudgery of everyday life. The world is projected onscreen and mirrored. Everything seems to look deeper and better on screen.[8] Scenes that happen on screen often happen in everyday life – weddings, or hikes in the woods, or airplane rides — but somehow they are more exciting on the silver screen than they are in real life. Lewis would say this is because we live in the Shadowlands.[9]

Images on TV and in these “mirrors” seem to mean more. Starr asks, what is meaning? Meaning comes from more than just words; it is in the seeing and experiencing. “Lewis believed that imagining was as important as reasoning. We don’t normally associate imagination with a practical search for knowledge, but Lewis did,” Starr writes.[10]  Imagination needs to take form, for true meaning and understanding to happen. Imagination takes its form, many times, in myth. When reading a great myth, the reader needs to experience meaning and truth instead of simply knowing it exists.[11] However, one must be careful not to simply read myths, scouring the pages looking for abstract meanings.

It would stop being a myth to us and become nothing more than an allegory …. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state this principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely.[12]

When the meaning is pulled from the myth, it is turned it into an abstract idea. This might be the reason why Tolkien moved away from calling The Lord of the Rings trilogy a mirror of the Bible. He did not want the story became an abstraction or simple allegory and the entirety of the myth be lost. “When we leave the meaning in the myth and do not try to turn it into language statements, the meaning remains a concrete experience.”[13] Starr uses hobbits to illustrate this. When someone says hobbit; an image forms and the individual thinks about and experiences hobbits at the exact same time. “When we receive myth as story, we are experiencing a principle concretely. Only when we put the experience into words does the principle become abstract.”[14] An individual can hear a song for the first time and it resonates with him or her. There are feelings that are not easily communicated. After reading the lyrics, the reader comes to understand the meaning behind the words.[15] Before this the reader knew what the song was about or the meaning behind it, but they had not really matched words to it yet. “The analysis of the lyrics was your reasoning self becoming aware of abstract, propositional meanings that your experiential self had not encountered … To use Lewis’ terminology, you first tasted the song, then you came to know it.” [16] A similar effect happens when reading the Bible, the reader might encounter the text as a child, and as he or she grows into maturity and reads and analyzes the verses, the meaning comes alive in their current circumstances and he or she find what the verses truly mean. The meaning from Bible stories needs to be applied to an individual’s life, not simply thought of in abstraction. “Fairy tales are like that; they’re like the songs we hear that break out hearts with joy, the sunsets that make us cry happy tears, the mountains and canyons that fill us with wonder.”[17] Even more so, the Gospel is like that. The story of Christ’s sacrifice hits to the core—that God would die for man is a concept not many can comprehend. That the entire narrative of the Bible is God’s redemption of man causes happy tears. The beauty of creation leaves man and woman in wonder of the God who created everything for His glory. In reading myths like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, mankind is reminded of the truths that unite, the truths found in the Bible.[18]

The characters from Narnia and Middle Earth are seen differently from the characters in the Bible, but these characters, the Lucy’s and Frodo’s, could be the very reader who reads them. Reepicheep, who “seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” should be everyone one of us.[19] Edmund represents every man and woman who Christ died for. In reading about Sarumon, we see how good was corrupted similar to the manner in which Lucifer was corrupted. Reading about Gollum, the reader finds that even the most sinful creature can find forgiveness. In Frodo, the reader see a tainted character who is obedient to a higher calling. In these stories, we are reminded of Adam, or Eve, of Lucifer, of Paul. We are reminded of who we are, who we could be and who we should not be. The ultimate myth, the original myth, is the Bible, and nothing else compares.

Thanks for reading!

[1] Starr, 4.
[2] Lewis, 2-4.
[3] Starr, 9.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 9-10.
[6] Starr, 6.
[7] Ibid., 5.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 7
[12] Lewis, 3.
[13] Starr, 10-11.
[14] Ibid., 12.
[15] Ibid., 12-13
[16] Ibid., 13.
[17] Starr, 13.
[18] Ibid., 14-16.
[19] Montgomery, 111.
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