Inklings on Myth

One of my current fascinations is mythology, particularly as it relates to the thoughts of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Jung and Joseph Campbell as well as apocalyptic lit. and narrative theology.

Anyway I came across this comment about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings that I thought some of you may find interesting:

You have to look very carefully indeed for specific references to Christianity in Tolkien’s fantasy. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as C.S. Lewis or Charles Williams, he did not attempt to defend Christian doctrine directly. "It is against my nature." he wrote. "which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths". One need look no further than The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien requires no "God" in this story: it is enough that he suggests at every turn the kind of pattern in history that speaks to us of God’s Providence. Aragorn and Gandalf need not be called Christ: it is enough that they represent that hope and strength of kingly power, including the miraculous return from the dead which occurs in the "Resurrection" of Gandalf. And Frodo is not specifically Christian, nor does he need to be. It is his action that reveals inner meaning of Christian living. Furthermore, it is not Frodo who saves Middle Earth, nor Gollum, but One who works through the love and freedom of his creatures, and who forgives us our trespasses "as we forgive those who trespass against us. In the end we witness "eucatastrophe". Not merely the triumph of Providence over Fate, but also the triumph of Mercy, in which free will, supported by grace, is fully vindicated. Through these fantasy and mythical novels peopled with hobbits, dwarves, and strange magical creatures. Tolkien imperceptibly helps us to experience the Truth that:

"We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall." (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter, Ch. IV, 1977)

And ultimately came across this commentary about Lewis, Campbell and Narnia which is what I was really looking for:

C. S. Lewis’s view of myth and its relation to his stories is complex, and would find some agreement with Campbell’s, but fundamentally he disagrees on a number of crucial points. Lewis had been brought up on the materialist construct of Freud and Frazer in the early twentieth century and had believed for many years that all religions were mythic, i.e. unhistorical, in a very similar sense to Joseph Campbell’s belief. Many of his earliest discussions with J.R.R. Tolkien, when Lewis was still an unbeliever, though already a theist, were about this very thing. Eventually, Lewis came to believe in a Christianity that held onto both myth and history and incorporated them both into a belief that Christianity is a myth, but more than a myth because it actually tells of real history and a God who, in space and time, became Incarnate, a word so important to him, he almost always capitalizes it.  

In many places, Lewis lays down his ideas on the subject; one of the best is at the end of a brief essay in God in the Dock, entitled "Myth Became Fact." It will be helpful for us to quote it at some length: 

"Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. 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." 

"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. The modernist—the extreme modernist, infidel in all but name—need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life…" 

"Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded…that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. 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 mythopoeic—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 chilled, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher."

Having recently been invited to a Joseph Campbell study group by NeoPagan friends I am finding Tolkien, Lewis and William’s engagement with mythology to be absolutely fascinating. Not that I haven’t loved Tolkein and mythology for ages but there’s depths and depths that remain to be explored here. Actually, if the truth be known, my previous post on the Emperor archetype in the tarot is bubbling up from the same place.

2 thoughts on “Inklings on Myth

  1. Matt
    One of the best formal statements from Tolkien — and one that helps us to better understand his own fictional writings — is a lecture he gave called “On Fairy Stories” (delivered at St Andrews Uni in Scotland in 1938).
    This lecture was published in Essays Presented To Charles Williams, edited by C. S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press, 1947). The book was prepared initially to give to Williams once he relocated to London at the cessation of the War. Unfortunately Williams died after an operation in May 1945, and so the book became a posthumous celebration.
    This book was later reissued by the US publisher William B. Eerdmans in 1981. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”, also appeared in a slightly modified version in the collection of short stories by Tolkien called Tree and Leaf.
    In his essay Tolkien explores the role of fairy stories and fantasy writing and their possible connections with mythic symbols. Near the end of his discussion Tolkien remarks:
    “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath. It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed … Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused … The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them.” (pp 83-84).
    It is this raw material from the Inklings that you refer to that has stimulated my own work on discovering the Christian symbolism found in the tarot (and hence the story-telling that can work out from this), and in the technical theory that I put forward in 1998 essay about “mythic apologetics” (which in turn was based on Montgomery’s earlier work that he called literary apologetics).

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