Tag Archives: C. Stephen Evans

On faith and fairy stories: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on myth and the gospel

This is post No. 1 in a series on faith, myth and allegory. The series was originally a paper submitted in its entirety for an Apologetics class.

There is nothing quite like curling up in a recliner with a great book that, in a way, draws the reader in through the cover into the pages and transforms him or her into an invisible observer of the plot, similar to the character “Scrooge” in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A great book leaves the reader positively changed and with a lesson learned. Myths have enraptured generations of readers and left an indelible mark. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are the modern-day masters of myth. A good story, Tolkien would say, births desirability. This desire is to be a part of the journey and the adventure. It is almost an ironic balance; the reader is pleased to be in the comfort of his or her home, safe from dungeons and dragons, but as Tolkien writes in his article, “On Fairy Stories,” there is a part of each of us that wishes we could enter the dangerous unknown world. After all, as Tolkien says, the heart is harder and stronger than the body.[1] Myths identify psychological, metaphysical and historical truths that are important today. Myths present characters that all can relate to and offer the opportunity to take part in an adventure of growth, learning and pleasure. The Bible, as the ultimate and original myth, is historical, presently applicable and a divine, eternal story meant for all to read, learn from and transform through reading.

As an atheist, C.S. Lewis saw the stories about Jesus as mere fairy stories. Upon his conversion to Christianity, he realized that yes, they are fairy stories, but they are fairy stories that are historically and theologically true. It is an incarnational story that has all of the functions of a myth but it is also historically true.[2] As C. Stephen Evans writes in his book The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History, the incarnational narrative not only delivers truth, it actually happened. “On Lewis’s view, a myth is a story that captures universal, abstract truth in concrete form,” Evans wrote.[3] Using the word ‘myth’ in connection with the Gospel can be dangerous, Evans admits, because the common definition skews the real meaning of myth.[4] Myth has come to mean fictional story, but it should mean a story that conveys a truth. “If God or gods exist and can act in the natural order—then there seems no necessary reason why a narrative with the structure and one or more of the functions of myth might not be historically true or at least contain historical elements.”[5] The English word for myth comes from the Greek mythos, which means story or narrated word.[6]

The root of mythos is mm (pronounced “mu” and meaning “to make a sound with the mouth”). The proto–Indo-European root for mm is mu, a primary first sound made by most babies. The making of meaningful sounds in the form of storytelling is a peculiarly human practice, something that identifies us as a species. Over time, of course, we have differentiated between ordinary stories and myths, the latter being stories of primary significance to cultures, particularly in relation to origins and religiously identified significance. In practice, mythos is closely related to the Greek concept of logos, the defining logic of the universe, usually translated as the “Word.” Thus in the famous King James Bible translation of the Christian creation of John, we find the words “In the beginning was the Word.” When we put mythos and logos together, we get mythologia, or our mythology, meaning the study of myths or a particular cultural collection of myths.[7]

Not all myths are created equal. Nor do they all attempt to achieve the same end. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes three kinds of myth: the mystical supernatural, the magical toward nature and the “mirror of scorn.”[8] Some myths are fictional stories only, but there is a higher myth, dubbed by Richard L. Purtill as original myth. Purtill‘s book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, aids the understanding of myths and how Tolkien understood them. Purtill defines how the Gospels are myth. He writes that the Gospels are literally and historically true and they hold these beliefs in common: they possess religious and moral significance for the teller and the audience, they come in a variety of literary forms and they have connections with ritual.[9] Purtill interprets the Gospels as original myth. Original myths convey truth in story form, but, unlike other forms, the Bible’s stories are historical events that occurred in an actual space of time.[10] Calling the Bible original myth sets it apart from the other accounts, perhaps alleviating the worries of Søren Kierkegaard and other hesitant philosophers.

Purtill describes two other forms of myth: literary myth and philosophical myth. These are the forms most people think of when they hear myth mentioned. Literary myth employs mythical characters that serve a literary function. In this case, neither the author nor the readers think that the story is true. There are moral and spiritual lessons to learn but they are not conveyed in the same way as in original myth.[11] The philosophical myth expresses philosophical opinions that utilize metaphors and allegories. Purtill says that the ideas and truth that are expressed in these philosophical myths are true, but the historicity or the actual events in the stories are not.[12] Plato’s stories can be categorized as philosophical myth.

Evans takes this further, claiming there is so reason why a myth cannot embody multiple characteristics.[13] To understand myths, a detailed look at the function of myth is important. Evans writes about the various functions of myths. He says some point to the function of myths as pre-scientific accounts for why and how our universe came into existence and operates. Another function is to explain ritual and highlight the identity of a people in a certain time.[14] A third function would be their communication of psychological truth. This function does not pay special attention to dates but highlights the truths that are communicated. This function relates to Purtill’s philosophical genre of myth. The last function that Evans mentions is the ability myths have to relay metaphysical truth.[15] Myth can be seen as a combination of the above. Evans moves forward to argue that myths can have the above functions and still be historical. “On this view a myth could be historically true, as well as possessing psychological and/or metaphysical truth and performing various sociological functions.”[16] Evans utilizes Lewis’ writings about myth and the Gospel to make his argument. Lewis argued that myths contain combinations of truths, metaphysical, psychological and historical.[17] Tolkien and Lewis use a combination of the aforementioned characteristics in their books.[18]

Tolkien says that fairy stories can be categorized as, “the magical nature kind.” If we use Purtill’s categories, they would fall under literary myth. While they are a literary myth, Tolkien was attempting to create an account that was as close to original myth as it could be.[19] Lewis did the same in The Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien and Lewis’ myths – the story of Narnia and Middle Earth – are a mirror of the original myth, the creation and redemption of mankind we find in the Bible. Lewis’ mirroring is more overt. Aslan breathes into life the world and makes the ultimate sacrifice for those he loves, just as God created the world and Jesus sacrificed His life for mankind.[20] The characters in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings play out a divine mirroring as well though the non-Christian reader might miss it if he or she was not originally aware or looking.[21]
Stay tuned for the next installment.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13 [article on-line]; accessed on April 15, 2013; available from http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf. Internet.
[2] C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: the Incarnational Narrative as History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1996), 51.
[3] Evans, 55.
[4] Ibid., 52.
[5] Ibid., 51.
[6] David Leeming, Oxford Companion to World Mythology: 1st (first) Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 127.
[7] Leeming, 127.
[8] Tolkien, 9.
[9] Richard L. Purtill, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 2.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Purtill, 2-3.
[13] Evans, 52.
[14] Ibid., 49.
[15] Ibid., 50.
[16] Ibid., 51.
[17] Ibid., 52
[18] Purtill, 2-3.
[19] Tolkien, 9-11.
[20] John Warwick Montgomery, “The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader.” 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), 109-110.
[21] Purtill, 2-4.

Leave a comment

Filed under Apologetics