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On faith and fairy stories, part 3

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

The Chronicles of Narnia contains strong biblical allegories, “woven into their very fiber.”[1] The theme, Montgomery states, is the redemption of mankind through Christ. “To Tolkien and to Lewis, tales such as the Narnian Chronicles can, by their very nature, serve as pointers to the great theme of Christian Redemption. Moreover, they will establish in the hearts of the sensitive reader and appreciation of, and a longing for, the Christian Story.”[2] Montgomery writes that Lucy, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, comes across a story in the book of a Magician and she tries to remember the story. She is distraught that she cannot remember. She eventually does, and remembers the lessons she learned from Aslan. “A good story—one which will remind the reader of the One who was nailed to a trees on his behalf, and who now guides the believer, expects great things of him through faith, and waits to receive him into his everlasting kingdom when his work on earth is done.”[3]

Tolkien thought Lewis’ writing in The Chronicles of Narnia was too explicitly an allegory. Historian and literary critic Edmund Fuller agreed that Lewis is more explicit in his biblical allegory. He said that the Christian message is present in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it is deeply buried.[4] “Yet I believe that the relative explicitness of the Narnian books is a positive merit and value in them. It is not so clear that a completely uninstructed child would know it for what it is. But even for the uninstructed, it would lay down a foundation for understanding the Christian mystery in all its basic elements”[5] However, both authors’ writings have connections to Christian theology. Mariann B. Russell said her doctoral dissertation that the stories of Lewis and Tolkien, all “shared a belief that the thrill of adventure could be related to the romantic experience which in its turn could be related to Christian theology.”[6]

The Chronicles of Narnia are brimming with connections to the Bible. Author Lawrence Watt-Evans writes that, “In some ways, the history of Narnia parallels the biblical account of the history of our own world. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while ostensibly a fairy-tale adventure, retells in its way the Passion of Christ.”[7] In The Magician’s Nephew, the reader watches as Aslan creates Narnia. All of the elements are there, the garden, the forbidden fruit and the snake, which in the book, is Jadis. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund and in doing this, he mirrors Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. The Last Battle is the story of the Apocalypse. The other books in the series continue with biblical connections.[8]

Tolkien wrote that the mind has the capability to create and add meaning to life. The human mind can observe, for instance, that grass is green, and can add meaning to occasions such as births, anniversaries and deaths. The human mind also has the power to imagine things to move. With the mind’s capabilities to create, Tolkien wrote that man is a sub-creator.[9] God is the ultimate Creator, Tolkien believed, but man becomes a sub-creator as an author and myth writer.[10] Tolkien was a sub-creator when he created Middle Earth. Authors, like Tolkien, create a “Secondary World” that one can enter in to mentally.[11] For a moment, when the reader reads the book, he or she believes what the secondary world shows, then, doubt enters and the reader re-enters the primary world, Tolkien wrote.[12] Tolkien acknowledges that human writers, as creators, transpose the stain of sin onto the characters in their tales. Not all fairy tale characters are good as is seen in the case of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. The beauty of the Gospel is that God has redeemed the fallen characters, redeemed the sin that is so inherent in characters.[13] God is the ultimate and original Creator and He created the universe. Aslan’s breathing Narnia into existence is similar to God bringing our world into existence. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth is an example of a creator giving life to a world.[14]

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not just biblical allegories. Tolkien said that since he is a believer, this affected the standpoint from which he wrote. Kilby thinks that Tolkien shied away from saying The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is an allegory of Christ’s redemption because he thought that the “allegorical dragon might gobble up the art and the myth.”[15] The stories from Middle Earth, are “a story to be enjoyed, not a sermon to be preached,” Kilby writes. “Yet I think it is clear enough that for many readers the story deeply suggests the sadness of a paradise lost and the glory of one that can be regained.”[16] Redemption is a tangible theme in The Lord of the Rings. Through reading about the genesis of Middle Earth, the reader sees that evil was not always present and that the evil characters did not begin evil, they made a choice to choose the dark side.[17] “The basis for The Lord of the Rings is the metaphor, God is light.”[18] There are many symbols of Jesus in The Lord of the Rings. Kilby says that Gandalf’s struggle with Balrog, where he falls into a pit is similar to when Christ descended into hell. “After Gandalf’s resurrection—it is plainly called a resurrection—the Fellowship gazed on him with something of the same astonished joy that Mary Magdalene and others found at the tomb of Christ.”[19] The examples and connections to biblical themes in The Lord of the Rings abound.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

[1] Montgomery, “The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader,” 109.
[2] Ibid., 115.
[3] Montgomery, “The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader,” 109
[4] Fuller, 91.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.,131.
[7] Lawrence Watt-Evans, “On the Origins of Evil.” In Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth, and Religion in C.s. Lewis’ Chronicles. ed. Shanna Caughey. (Dallas, Tex.: Smart Pop, 2005), 27.
[8] Kilby, 27.
[9] Tolkien, 8.
[10] Ibid., 12.
[11] Ibid., 13.
[12] Ibid., 12.
[13] Ibid., 23.
[14] Montgomery, 108-111.
[15] Kilby, 141.
[16] Ibid., 143.
[17] Ibid., 137-138.
[18] Ibid., 130.
[19] Ibid., 133.

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On faith and fairy stories, part 2

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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?”[4] Tolkien says the Gospels include a fairy story; it is “a story of a larger kind that embraces all the essence of fairy stories.”[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] Christ’s birth was the eucatastrophe of the history of man, Tolkien wrote. The resurrection was the eucatastrophe of the incarnation.[8] 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.[9]

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.”[10] 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.”[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] “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.”[15] 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.[16] “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.”[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.”[22]

Stay tuned for the next installment.

[1] Ibid., 3.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Edmund, Fuller, “After the Moon Landings: A Further Report on the Christian Spaceman C.S. Lewis.” In Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: an Interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton [and] Charles Williams. ed. John Warwick Montgomery. (Minneapolis,: Bethany House, 1974), 90.
[4] Tolkien, 23.
[5] Ibid.,
[6] Ibid., 24.
[7] Clyde S. Kilby, “Mythic and Christian Elements in Tolkien.” In Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: an Interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton [and] Charles Williams. ed. John Warwick Montgomery. (Minneapolis,: Bethany House, 1974), 134.
[8] Tolkien, 23.
[9] John Warwick Montgomery, “Apologist of Eucatastrophe.” In Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: an Interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton [and] Charles Williams. ed. John Warwick Montgomery. (Minneapolis,: Bethany House, 1974), 29-30.
[10] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” 3 [article on-line]; accessed April 15, 2013; article available from http://sunnybrae.org/sites/sunnybrae.org/files/MythBecameFact.pdf. Internet.
[11] Lewis, 3.
[12] Ibid., 4.
[13] Evans, 62.
[14] Ibid., 59.
[15] Ibid., 63.
[16] Evans, 61
[17] Ibid., 62.
[18] Tolkien, 13.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Charlie W. Starr, “The Silver Chair and the Silver Screen: C.S. Lewis on Myth, Fairy Tale and Film.” In Revisiting Narnia: Fantasy, Myth, and Religion in C.s. Lewis’ Chronicles. ed. Shanna Caughey. (Dallas, Tex.: Smart Pop, 2005), 20.
[21] Lewis, 3.
[22] Ibid.

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