Very few modern Christians who read English are unfamiliar with the writings of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Lewis’ expositions of Christian thought as well as his popular fiction (The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, etc.) have become modern classics. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has become something of an industry unto itself and has spawned an entire genre of literature. Many people know that the two writers were friends and colleagues, and some are aware that they belonged to a group of friends known as the Inklings. Few, however, are aware of the conversations and ideas that bound the Inklings together. They were not only Christians (for the most part), but committed Realists who struggled to put into words something of the world as they believed it truly exists. This is the deeper side (the Deep Magic) of their writings – a side I think that speaks to the heart of many in the modern world – though they don’t know why. I’m going to tell you why.
The Inklings were not a group of men who invented something. They were a group of men who had a shared affinity, something which brought them close to one another despite their differences (It is said that Lewis always had something of his native Northern Irish prejudice towards Roman Catholicism, a troublesome point for Catholic Tolkien). What they shared was a Realist view of the world – a belief that the material world is more than material, and that the symbols, meanings, values, etc. that coinhere within matter are more than ideas – they are real.
Beyond this theological/philosophical commonality, they also shared a belief about the nature of myth. And here I must be careful to define what is meant by myth. In popular usage, myth means a story that is not true, much like the popular usage that says that a symbol stands for something that is not present. For these men, myth was a form of story – but of a primal story, a shaping story. Myth was a story that is profoundly and deeply true, even if its various manifestations have deficiencies and discrepancies.
In the process of his Christian conversion, Lewis relates the account of an evening with a visiting atheist.
Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not-as I would still have put it — “safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?
Eventually this would become a core belief for Lewis. “It all happened once.” And so, he would eventually not only not be surprised that there should be other stories of dying and rising gods – he expected it. And he expected it, because the the death and resurrection of Christ are not just historical but also mythic. It is a primal story, even the primal story, one that shapes all stories.
Lewis again said that the ancient pagan myths were “good dreams sent to us by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.”
Tolkien said less about such things than Lewis, but they were equally part of his thought. His creation of Middle Earth, complete with languages, grammar and a back-story (The Silmarillion) that would rival the ancient epics of most civilizations, was not the hobby of an eccentric Oxford don. It was the life-work of a man whose instinct for the mythic required such an effort. On some level, certainly as an expression of myth in the way it is being used here (and as the Inklings themselves used it), the stories of Middle Earth are true. They are certainly far more true than any story found in the pages of a modern Newspaper.
Another member of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, was a lawyer by profession. However, Barfield was a former Anthroposophist and a profound Realist. His theoretical writings, such as Saving the Appearances, are much harder to read than the relatively popular works of Lewis and Tolkien. But both men thought of Barfield as the true theorist within their number.
Tolkien, reflecting on Barfields’s work, said, “If God is mythopoetic, then we must become mythopathic.” This is to say that if God’s primary mode of revelation is through the instrument of mythic stories and events, then we ourselves must be open to understanding such mythic expressions of realities. Strangely, myth (in their use of the term) is far better suited to expressing Realism than any possible materialist account.
And this brings us to my original point: Why do the imaginative works of Lewis and Tolkien speak to the modern heart as much as they do?
They do so because they are true! But the truth that they relate is a truth known primarily by the heart and it is this dynamic that gives myth both its nature and its effectiveness.
In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis introduces us to Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace has been raised by “modern” parents and has a thoroughly materialist view of the universe. This renders his character deeply problematic in the mythic world of Narnia. It is his inward change that forms the primary narrative of the novel. Becoming mythopathic in Narnia is more than a philosophical change for Eustace – it is salvation.
The same can be said for the rest of us. The assumptions and narratives of materialism (both in its atheist and Christian forms) are not only incorrect, they can be productive of bad character, leading us away from God. The mythic nature of the world (reflected in the Inklings’ version of Realism) is a reflection of the child-like innocence that Christ enjoins on his followers. Adults who are too “wise” to be fooled are always dangerous characters in Lewis’ novels.
In the life of the Church, there is a primary “mythic” experience: the Liturgy. Liturgical action is more than an antiquated manner for having a Church meeting. It is the ritual, sacramental and symbolic enactment of a Reality that might otherwise not be seen, understood, or experienced. That same reality, presented in a non-mythic manner, would be less accessible and probably misunderstood. Tolkien was right: we must become mythopathic.
The attraction of Lewis’ and Tokien’s writings are witness to the fact that there is a deep mythopathic part even in the modern heart. This is not a modern phenomenon – it is a human phenomenon. It is the anti-mythic character of modern culture that sets it apart from all human cultures that have come before. The reduction of the world to a narrow, materialist understanding of fact, is simply a world unable to communicate God.
Lewis used the term Tao to describe one aspect of this mythic Reality in his book, The Abolition of Man. He meant no particular version of Taoism – only that there is a deep Way (Tao) of things that anybody with any sense at all (to say it in a Lewisian fashion) should know. That so many no longer perceive the Tao of things is a testament to a world increasingly populated by versions of Eustace Scrubbs.
But even Eustace came to know the Tao of things. We may pray for the same.