Are myths fiction? The stories they tell aren’t true. Are they, therefore, lies? Are they worthless? Nothing but “beautiful lies”? Nothing but fairy tales?
This interplay, while fictional, is intended to capture the essence of the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien as Lewis was transitioning from the materialism he embraced as a young man to theism. At this point, he is wrestling with doubts that were arising in his mind about the truth of that materialist world view he had intellectually embraced.
Lewis had been raised on a diet of classical Greek and Latin literature that he learned to read in the original languages, along with Celtic, German and other literature filled with myth, allegory and symbolism that he adored as a child and young adult. His embrace of materialism was clashing with a profound undercurrent of something “real” that appealed to him in that ancient literature. The reality Lewis was confronting is no different than a love of art, beauty, poetry and love itself that the materialist enjoys in common with more metaphysically minded men.
Is materialism all that exists, threatening to undermine the sublime reality we all intuitively “know” and sense in classic, timeless literature and art?
Tolkien’s fictional response is this:
Myths are not lies! In fact, they are the very opposite of a lie. Myths convey the essential truths, the primary reality of life itself.
We have been duped into using the word “myth” as synonymous with a lie because we have been duped into accepting the first lie of materialism… – the hideous claim that there is no super natural order to the universe. The materialists have imprisoned us in a world of mere matter, of physical facts divorced from and devoid of metaphysical truth. I say that they are the ones who have come up with a false myth. Their world doesn’t exist. It is merely a figment of their imagination…. They have convinced us that it is true, that this is all there is – three dimensions, five senses, four walls….
The four walls of materialism are the four walls of a prison, and the materialists are our jailers…. They don’t want us to discover what there is outside of the four walls of their philosophy, and, worse than that, they think that any attempt to escape their four walls is an act of treason.
“Wouldn’t it be an act of intellectual treason to think otherwise?” asks a thoughtful Lewis.
How can it be wrong for a prisoner to think of things that exist other than walls or jailers? Doesn’t the fact that the prisoner is able to think of things outside the walls suggest that, perhaps, things do exist outside the walls? After all, if the prison really is all there is, how are we able to picture things that exist beyond the prison?
This is where myths come in. Myths exist outside the prison. Myths allow us to escape from the prison. Or, if we are not allowed to escape, at the very least they allow us to catch a fleeting, but powerful glimpse of the beauty that lies beyond the walls….
Myths show us a fleeting glimpse of the truth itself.
“What is this truth?” Lewis asks….
Are myths just arbitrary inventions of fiction? Do we pull them out of thin air?
We make things by the law by which we are made. We create because we are created. Creativity, imagination, is God’s image in us. We tell stories because God is a storyteller. In fact, He is The Storyteller.
We tell our stories with words. He tells His story with history. The facts of history are His words, and providence is His storyline.
“Are you telling me that all of history is some kind of divine myth?” asks Lewis.
We are all part of His story. This very dialogue is part of His story. Christianity is not merely one story among other stories. It is not just a myth; it is the true myth. Christianity really happened. Jesus really existed…. It is the true story that makes sense of all the other stories. It is the archetype. It is the story in which all the other stories have their source, and the story to which all the other stories point. It has everything. It has catastrophe and its opposite – what we might call euchatastrophe. It has the joy of the happy ending, the sudden joyous turn in the story that is essential to all myths. It has to a sublime degree this joy of deliverance, this evangelium, this fleeting glimpse of the real joy to which all other joys are but an echo.
Christianity has the catastrophe of the fall and the euchatastrophe of the redemption. It has the catastrophe of the crucifixion and the euchatastrophe of the resurrection. It has everything man’s heart desires because it is being told by the one Who is the fulfillment of desire itself. It is a story that begins and ends in joy.
“Just because a story brings joy doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s true”, retorts Lewis. “They are many joyful stories. They all seem rather flimsy to me, and rather false.”
And yet this story has the inner consistency of reality. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
“Perhaps, it’s just a very well-written artifice”, says Lewis.
This story has the supremely convincing tone of primary art, not fiction, but of creation, and to reject this is either to darkness or wrath. And, in my own life, it has led me from darkness to light.
This exchange never took place, of course, at least not exactly like this. It is the product of the imagination of the person who scripted it and the men who acted it out. The essence of it is true, however. Tolkien was influential on the materialist, turning agnostic Lewis when they met and became friends at Oxford University.
Perhaps, the skepticism of Lewis that is exhibited in this exchange of Lewis about the power of myth is not quite as true as the interchange suggests. Lewis was powerfully moved by the literature he loved and taught, even as a materialist. It became a nagging pull away from that materialism that he embraced as young man when he gladly threw off any sense of a Cosmic Interferor, as Lewis penned in his autobiographical account of his journey from atheism to agnosticism to Christian theism – “nagging” in the sense of a sublime “joy” that prompted Lewis to re-examine materialism that left him wanting, “nagging” in the sense that materialism was utterly unable to explain that sublime glimpse of something transcendent that he could not deny.
Tolkien was Christian when he and Lewis first met. Lewis was not, but he was increasingly having trouble holding on to his materialism. He was not willing to ignore the reality that he sensed through the medium of the literature he read and his own life experiences that suggested something else was up. Lewis would go on to become a greater champion of the myth of Christianity as the supreme reality than Tolkien, influencing generations of skeptical men even to the present day.
The two of them told their own stories that are as timeless as any of the classic myths from which they drank deeply in their search for truth. Those stories stand on their own merits, as do the classics from which they got their inspiration. Behind those stories, transcending them, stands the Divine Myth to which all other myths having transcendence owe their substance.