The friendship between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien is well-known, as is Tolkien’s role in bringing Lewis to Christ. Less well-known (unless you dig a bit further) is Tolkien’s role in bringing Lewis out of a rigid and flat understanding of the world and into the rich possibilities afforded by “myth.” Without this conversion, Lewis would likely not have become a Christian, and certainly would not have authored the fiction that is loved by so many. It is deeply underappreciated though it goes to the heart of both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s faith. They were not only Christians, they were Christians whose hearts were deeply touched and sympathetic to the power of myth. Through it, they gave us worlds that continue to entertain. However, most are entertained by their stories in the same way they are entertained by any action drama. The mythic character of their work is passed over and reduced to little more than “children’s fantasy.” Professor Digory says it well: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato; bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
The early conversations between Lewis and Tolkien were not about Christ, per se. They were about myth and the character of reality. Tolkien wrote a poem for Lewis (they both loved poetry), entitled “Philomythus to Misomythus” (“Lover of Myth to Hater of Myth”). One stanza reads:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of the argument turned on the relationship of myth to reality. Lewis had said: “Myths are lies, even though breathed through silver.” Tolkien saw in mythic stories not lies, but a revelation of the very character of reality that could not be known or expressed in another manner. Modernity is fond of saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which is another way to say, “Beauty is merely subjective and not real. Beauty is a lie.” Modernity dismisses Tolkien as another fantasy author.
Tolkien once said, “If God is mythopoetic, we must become mythopathic.” Understanding this statement goes to the heart of Lewis’ Christian conversion and all of his subsequent work. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis (after his conversion) believed myth to mean “stories that are not true,” or mere “primitive efforts to explain what is not known.” Both were struck, not by the fictional aspect of myth (all myths), but by their profound insight into the nature of human existence and the world in which we live.
There is a reason, for example, that we discuss a certain kind of self-centered personality disorder as “Narcissistic,” making reference to a character in Greek mythology. Oedipal, erotic, cupidity, stygian, the Midas Touch, martial, and a host of other terms within our language make reference to ancient “myths,” not as an effort to be obscure, but because the stories within the myths carry a weight and a meaning that mere clinical language, devoid of such reference, lacks.
But both Lewis and Tolkien have something much more profound in mind. Lewis’ whimsical reference to Plato points to this fact. Somehow, myth is not just true, but real. The nature and character of the world cannot be described properly without reference to something more. That something more has a nature that gives shape to the stories labeled as myths. They are not just any story, a sub-genre of fiction. Indeed, even stories that would otherwise be labeled “true” and “real” (in the literal sense) have significance precisely in their mythic character.
Those who are “misomythic” are not necessarily anti-religious. However, their religion lacks power, beauty, and substance in that it is flat and empty. What modernity labels as “fact” is insufficient for human existence.
I have encountered such religion from time to time in a mindset that prides itself on the literal character of its faith. It will admit interpretations (of Scripture, for example) that have an allegorical or typological character (both of which seem to me to be sub-genres of myth). But, in fact, they are nominalists, granting such readings nothing more than a mental status, a literary trick. Such “tricks” are given some leeway in that they abound in the writings of the Fathers (and in the New Testament itself). But they deny that these readings are actually there: they are merely inferred.
When I have argued for the use of allegory or the “mystical” reading of Scripture, it is with reference to the actual character of reality and of the text itself. The universe is “one-storey,” something in which all that might be called mystical or mythical actually inheres. It is to be discerned.
St. Porphyrios said that in order to become a Christian, one must first become a poet. Poets, and “mythopoetic” above all else. Reading Lewis and Tolkien is not an exercise in literary fiction. Both, in different ways, understood themselves to be creating myth. Tolkien engaged in what he called an act of “sub-creation.” We feel it when we read him, with a strange aching sense that though we do not believe in his elves and orcs, they are, nonetheless, hauntingly real. I would say they have a sacramental character, embodying something that is real, but which we can only express in mythic form. Reading Tolkien should change how you see the world around you.
Lewis’ fiction is mythic in a different way. For Lewis, the primary “myth” (I would even say “Myth”) is that of Christ. He wrote:
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 form 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…We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.
For many, the “mythical radiance” has been lost. What has taken place is the privileging of the secular account of reality. It is felt that we must win on the ground defined by secular materialism. The result is a modernized faith, even if the “facts” embraced are antique. My argument is like that of Tolkien and Lewis. God is mythopoetic. To understand Him requires that we learn the language in which He speaks and hear even the silence into which the Eternal Word is spoken.