Tag Archives: eucatastrophe

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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On Frodo and Fairies

There’s nothing quite like curling up in a recliner or in the warmth of your bed with a great book that, in a way, draws you in through the cover into the pages and transforms you into something like an invisible observer of the plot — think Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. A good story, J.R.R. Tolkien would say, births desirability. This is a desire 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 “On Fairy Stories,” there is a part 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.

I love this quote,

“Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them [characters from fairy stories] in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. The dweller in the quiet and fertile plains may hear of the tormented hills and the unharvested sea and long for them in his heart. For the heart is hard though the body be soft,” J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.”

I think in many of us, there is a thirst to be involved in something that has risk and danger and adventure. We want to be the Frodo who is involved in a grand adventure to say Middle Earth. The fantastic thing about fairy stories is the Eucatastrophe – a phrase Tolkien coined that describes when, right at peril’s edge, there is a sudden change of events that keeps the protagonist from ultimate peril. We imagine this scenario, the eucatastrophe, carrying out in our lives too. And, really, it has. Jesus’ birth is the eucatastrophe to man’s history. The resurrection was the eucatastrophe to the incarnation.

Myths and fairy tales have a power to move and inspire.

“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,” Charlie W. Starr writes.

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 us 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, we are reminded of the truths that unite us, the truths that we find in the Bible. We see them in different characters than in the Bible, but these characters 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. Edmund is the human, who Christ died for. In reading about Sarumon, we see how good was corrupted. In Gollum, we find that even the most sinful creature can find forgiveness. In Frodo, we 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. We can all find similarities with the characters in the Bible.

I know I personally feel the conflicting desire to be safe in the warmth of my own home, but at the same time I have the yearning to go out into “the tormented hills and the unharvested sea.” I think it is the desire to be a part of something that is bigger than your self and be a part of something that matters.

And, we readily accept that there may be danger involved, because if there wasn’t, could it really be considered an adventure and sacrifice?

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Life in Color

Living life in color. Bursting out of the seams of the Shadowlands. That’s what we, modern-day Narnians, long for.
OneRepublic’s “Life in Color” I think can be borrowed to describe what C.S. Lewis writes about in “Myth Became Fact.”

From the darkest grays
The sun bursts, clouds break
Yeah, we see that fire
From the streets of Babylon
To the road that we’ve been on now
The kaleidoscope claims another

Whoa oh oh oh
Well this is life in color (color)
Today feels like no other (other)
And the darkest grays
The sun bursts, clouds break

Whoa oh oh oh
Well this is life in motion (motion)
And just when I could run this race no more
The sun bursts, clouds break
This is life in color

You’ve seen my worst
Yet you see some hope in me
The black and white sets us free
Like the queen to the rook
Your decision is a sure thing
Honey yeah, a sure thing
No wonder I feel
Like I’m missing a heavy load
But no matter what daylight brings to us
We all know

Whoa oh oh oh
Well this is life in color (color)
Today feels like no other (other)
And the darkest grays
The sun bursts, clouds break

Now, I seriously doubt whether Ryan Tedder, the front man for OneRepublic, intended the song to mean what I’m going to make it mean for this post. He does comes from a family of missionaries and pastors, but, I’m not sure he had in mind the connections to Lewis and Tolkien that I am about to make.

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 we live in a life of illusions, a life viewing shadows on a cave wall. They are imperfect pictures of a reality that does exist outside of the cave.

In Lewis’ The Last Battle, the characters of the former books come in to Aslan’s country. Everything there looks similar to Narnia, but is more real and perfect, the way it should be. This is similar to Plato’s real world, Starr writes.

Starr writes that we get glimpses of this more real world through looking glasses – like in Alice does in Alice in Wonderland. Brochures, Starr says, frame things and make them look different than they are in real life. Starr said this is because it is in a frame. I’ve noticed this happens sometimes with travel photography. I’ve looked at a photo and thought, “I’ve been there, wow, that looks … different … from what I remembered…” The photo “frame” tends to make the place look better.

Movies, pictures and brochures make things look more real and more beautiful than they do in real life, Starr says. When we watch movies, everything is magnified and amplified into something that looks more meaningful than the drudgery of our days. In movies, our world is played back to us and mirrored to us – everything looks deeper and better.

Scenes that happen on screen often happen in our everyday lives – like weddings, or hikes in the woods, or airplane rides — but somehow they’re more exciting on the silver screen than they are in our lives.

Lewis would say this is because we live in the Shadowlands. We have glimpses of Narnia; yet, we are not residing there.

Things on TV and in these “mirrors” seem to mean more. But, 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.

Imagination needs to take form, for true meaning and understanding to happen.

In “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis writes about the difference between abstraction and experience – thinking versus experiencing. Lewis writes that experiencing enables us to understand things concretely instead of simply knowing of something but never experiencing it.

I can know or believe that New Zealand is beautiful, but until I’ve been there, it’s a beauty that lives in abstraction. I can know that breaking a bone hurts, but until I actually break one, my knowledge of this is second-hand. I can know poverty exists, but until I walked through the slums of India, I didn’t really have the deep-seated compassion that comes with seeing firsthand.

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. Starr writes. 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,“ Star wrote.

At the end of the book, Eustace realizes what he’d been missing.

Starr mentions Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and how there is no abstraction in heaven. Everything there is truly, “life in color.”

But, here in the Shadowlands, we are still living life in abstraction Starr writes.

Lewis would say that myth helps us with this. Myth is the abstraction realized. It’s a story of experience that we can engage in. It is the tale of something bigger than us but it is something we can relate to and relates truth to us in an experiential way.

The line in the One Republic song I mentioned above –  “And just when I could run this race no more / The sun bursts, clouds break / This is life in color.”

Tolkien would perhaps call a “eucatastrophe.” Tolkien coined this word in his essay “On Fairy Stories” to describe the intervention or turn of events that saves the protagonist from imminent harm. In Lord of the Rings, it might be when Frodo and Sam are saved from death the eagles, Clyde S. Kilby wrote in an essay on Tolkien.

Tolkien writes that Christ coming to earth was the eucatastrophe to the fall of man and the resurrection was the eucatastrophe to the incarnation.

Just as the OneRepublic song says, or sings, just when we thought we could run the race no more, the Son bursts forth through the clouds—we are saved by His sacrifice, and we can truly live life in color. We can live, because we’ve experienced the saving grace of God made flesh, when we choose to let Christ save us — that is our eucatastrophe. We’ve experienced and we leave the life of abstraction into a life of color and vibrancy.

As I mentioned previously, in The Last Battle, the Narnian characters enter Aslan’s country. It’s similar to the life of color they’d already experienced, but, it was different, better, more beautiful and “more perfect.”

“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.

As believers, we have the promise of entering God’s kingdom. It will see no end and be a richer, fuller and more beautiful place from anything we’ve experienced. We will finally and forever leave Plato’s cave we will truly be living life in color, worshiping our Savior and God. That day will truly feel like none other.

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