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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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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 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.

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