Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”[i] Douglas Adams has expressed a common viewpoint among an ever-rising generation of people who have cast off religion all together. The average Christian might consider retorting that Christianity is based upon historical fact and should not be compared with fairies or make-believe. A similar response is often given in regards to the common claim that Christianity was pieced together from a common reoccurring pagan myth of a dying and rising god.[ii] What is striking, though, is that C. S. Lewis does not respond in the same way as the average Christian might expect him to. In fact, as it shall be shown, Lewis claims that Christianity is the true myth. It is myth become fact, and he denies the commonly held division between those two categories. With the help of some of his friends and influences, we shall explore this concept of Christianity as the true myth.
What is Myth?
Before we can analyze what exactly Lewis means when he says that Christianity is a true myth, it must be known what exactly a myth is. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary provides the two most common usages of the word “myth”. First, myth could be used to talk about, “a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” It can also be used to refer to “a widely held but false belief.”[iii] Most of the time in the popular mind these two meanings are related, even if somewhat blurred. Today, if someone says, “You just believe in a bunch of myths,” they would be claiming that what you believe is fantastical and not based upon reality.
Definition is the first point of departure for Lewis. In the chapter “On Myth” in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis gives myth six defining characteristics. First, myths are extra-literary, meaning that it is the tale itself—not one particular version or retelling of the story—that makes it the myth. There is something to be received out of the myth, something more than just a good story. Secondly, myths do not get their appeal or longevity from narratival tricks like suspense or surprise. Thirdly, readers do not identify ourselves with the human characters in the story, but the characters function archetypally at a level that is true of humanity in general. Fourthly, myth is supernatural and fantastic. Fifthly, myths are either sad or joyful, but never comedic. Finally, myths produce a sense of numinous awe in the reader.[iv]
Lewis notes that the human mind is overly fond of abstractions. Even when it is not dealing with abstractions, such as when one experiences pain or laughter, the person is not in the process of intellectually analyzing that experience. When one does begin to analyze it, it is only one particular instance of pain or laugher. Lewis notes that a person cannot both experience something and analyze it at the same time—just like to explain a joke is to kill the joke. Myth, then Lewis posits, is the solution to this dilemma.[v] How? Lewis notes that myth is not just quite terribly inaccurate history, nor is it from the Devil or the lies of priests. Myth for Lewis is, “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”[vi] So, while something like philosophy appeals to the intellect, myth appeals to the imagination. Tolkien helpfully notes that imagination is not only the ability of “forming mental images of things not actually present” but also of giving something “the inner consistency of reality.”[vii] Imagination takes difficult concepts or incredible descriptions and visualizes them in our minds and gives them the appearance of reality. In this way Tolkien says the author becomes a “sub-creator:” through our imagination we enter the world he as created.[viii] Lewis notes, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.” What we experience then from a myth are truths about something in reality.[ix] For example, a myth of a knight slaying a dragon can enable us to experience in our minds bravery, courage, fear, and a host of other things. Myths thus create images in our minds, “images of goodness—virtues such as courage and self sacrifice—and render them attractive, making them something to which we can aspire.”[x]
“I define myths,” Lewis says, “by their effect on us.”[xi] So then, myths do not simply serve the purpose of exercising the imagination, they impact us. That is what the sixth characteristic of myths at which Lewis mentioned is aiming. The effect on us is a sense of numinous awe. It is that glimpse of the divine which myths give us, that Lewis also thinks is important. To explain this concept, Lewis uses the example of a man who says there is a tiger in the next room. One might justly be afraid because a tiger is dangerous. However, if told that there was a ghost in the next room, and the person had reason to believe it, he or she would be afraid, not because it is dangerous, but because it’s uncanny.[xii] “This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.”[xiii] This is that non-rational and non-moral sense that there is something, or someone, beyond the limitations of this world.[xiv] It is the feeling we have when we get a glimpse of the supernatural or divine. So, Lewis believes that myths can, “give us inklings that there is something more to existence, something beautiful and unearthly, perhaps a foretaste of our true spiritual home, a glimpse of holiness.”[xv]
The Salutary Use of Myths and Fairy Stories
Closely related to myths are fairy stories, or as we tend to call them, fairy tales. Both Tolkien and Lewis link these two together.[xvi] So, after discussing what a myth is for Lewis, and before moving on to talk about Christianity and myth, it will be good to look at the benefit of reading and enjoying this type of literature.
The movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, contains a scene which paraphrases a conversation between Frodo and Sam and places it slightly earlier in the course of events. However, this adaptation of the conversation into the form of a speech given by Sam contains a brilliant summary of Tolkien’s conception of the enduring value of myths and fairy stories. In the scene, Frodo is feeling the weight of his burden as “ring-bearer” and feels like he can no longer go on. Sam replies,
I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.[xvii]
In this particularly moving speech, one can also see what Tolkien means by the term “eucatastrophe”. Eucatastrophe is that point when the shadow is darkest, the reader thinks all hope is lost, and then suddenly the dawn comes and chases away the darkness. It is “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’”[xviii] Just as catastrophe is the essence of the Tragedy, so euchatastrophe is the essence of the Fairy Tale. It is that eucatastrophe that can give the reader a sigh of relief, or even touch his heart. It is the event which makes the “happily ever after” possible. As Samwise says, when we are in a period of darkness, it is tales like these that really matter, which give us a brief taste of that final numinous joy.[xix]
G. K. Chesterton, with whose work Lewis was familiar, also wrote about the benefits of Fairy Tales and myths. Some concerned parents could object that myths and fairy tales are scary. Chesterton notes however, that “fear does not come from fairy tales; fear comes from the universe of the soul.”[xx] That is, children already have fear before they read these stories because they realize better than we do that the world we live in is a scary place. What Fairy Tales and myths do then is not to introduce dragons to children, but they introduce the concept that dragons can be destroyed, witches can be defeated, and curses can be broken. They teach us that evil can and will be defeated. Without these stories, Chesterton contends, “you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone.”[xxi] What is more, Chesterton also notes that fairy tales and myths teach us another two things. First, they teach us that the world, instead of being ordinary and boring, is a weird, strange place which could have been very different than it is. Secondly, instead of seeing the laws of nature as causing things, we are taught that they are only descriptions of what is happening. Our world runs the way it does in effect by spells and enchantments which we are to submit to and accept.[xxii]
Lewis himself also notes what to him is a benefit of myths and fairy tales. Going back to the idea of myths bridging the gap between abstraction and experience, Lewis notes that the power of the myth or the fairy tale is “to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience”. They can “give us experiences we have never had and thus instead of ‘commenting on life’, can add to it.”[xxiii] So there are sometimes certain inhibitions which a propositional presentation can invoke. We often resist when we are told what to do, in terms of moral or spiritual obligations. Mere abstraction, claims Lewis, can freeze feelings and create walls. Thus, by putting these abstract concepts into an imaginary world, the defences go down. A story can convey a moral or spiritual concept in such a way as to move the person better than a simple command or doctrinal formulation could. A biblical example of this very practice is Nathan’s story of the ewe lamb when confronting David regarding his sin with Bathsheba. Veith also notes that the value of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, sometimes exceeds Mere Christianity for this very same reason.[xxiv] By so doing, “could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”[xxv]
Christianity as the True Myth
“This is all well and good,” one might object, “but the fact remains that myths didn’t historically happen, and fairy tales especially didn’t historically happen. So this is not a valid category to apply to Christianity.” However, Lewis notes that when exposed to the similarities between pagan and Christian mythos, certain of the Fathers claimed the similarities were due to a diabolical attempt to replicate what God had done. There are also other Fathers who claimed that there were diabolical, human, and divine influences at work.[xxvi] So then, Lewis responds that Christianity is a myth because it has all the characteristic of myths, but it is also historically true. The Christian confession has always included “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate” to make the very point of the historicity of it all.[xxvii] “By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”[xxviii] Lewis draws the parallel between the pagan “dying and rising god” myths and Christ. Christ should not be reduced to their level; He is exceedingly more than they are. “God saw the crucifixion in the act of creating the first nebula,” and thus it is in the very fabric of the universe.[xxix] If the Christian mythos indeed has the ring of truth, then we should expect there to be hints, similarities, and shadows in the pagan myths. For Lewis, the relationship between myth and fact in Christianity is incarnational. Christ is, “Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact.”[xxx] Thus, “Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes fact.”[xxxi]
A few months after Lewis published “Myth Became Fact” Austin Farrer, a friend of Lewis, presented a paper called “Can Myth Be Fact?” He felt Lewis’ concept needed a bit of expounding.[xxxii] To defend the thesis that Christianity is both myth and fact, Farrer cites the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas says that in the Bible there are words which convey historical truth and facts. Of course, those historical truths and facts thus convey a concrete Divine truth. This is possible because while humans use words to express meaning or truth, God has the ability to shape real people and historical events to express a Divine meaning or truth. So then, God has prepared a myth using, not words, but historical events and facts.[xxxiii] What is more, the Christian faith cannot be just bare historical fact, but the historical events have to interpreted. It is the fact of their interpretation that leads to Christianity being a true myth. These events tell us what God is doing and has promised to do.[xxxiv] Thus, “We call Christ’s birth, life, and death and resurrection a myth not in words, but in the flesh and blood of human history.”[xxxv]
Tolkien also notes that the eucatastrophe points ultimately towards the reality of Christianity. The eucatastrophe is the “far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.”[xxxvi] Tolkien’s point here is that the good news, the Gospel, has within it all the characteristics of a fairy tale. “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.”[xxxvii] Thus Tolkien also notes that Gospel can be true and historical without ceasing to be mythical or allegorical. The numinous joy we experience from its tale is not lessened because it is history. Thus, all legends, myths, and fairy tales in having a eucatastrophe and a “happily ever after” anticipate the final Christian “happily ever after.”[xxxviii]
How do Lutherans Respond?
While there is much to commend this particular understanding, there are some areas where Lutherans might become uncomfortable. Lewis states that if someone did not believe in the historicity of the Christian story, but fed on and enjoyed the Christian mythos, Lewis suggests that perhaps that person would be more spiritually alive than the opposite person who believed in the fact of Christianity but not the myth.[xxxix] What is more, Lewis seems to think it possible that what divine truth there was in the pagan myths might have been enough to save someone like Plato.[xl] The problem with this is that it implies that for Lewis, what really matters and counts is the mythos. The historical fact then seems almost unnecessary at that point. Why does it need to be fact at all if someone can be more spiritually alive by being fed on the mythos apart from its veracity? It is not an just any dying and rising god which saves, but it is the dying and rising Jesus of Nazareth, a concrete historical person. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty; you are still in your sins”[xli] If Christianity is all myth and no fact, then God has really left us all by ourselves.
This objection can be extended into Lewis’ treatment of Genesis 1-11. Lewis, based on his definition of myth, has no problem accepting the scholarly opinion that Genesis 1-11 is derived from ancient near eastern pagan creation myths, like Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, or Enuma Elish. However, he notes that the difference is in how a story is told. Lewis notes each re-telling of a story either is identical to the version which came before, or there are changes which the re-teller introduces. Using this idea, Lewis believes that the author of Genesis, under the direction of God, has retold the ancient near eastern pagan creation myths to suit God’s own purposes.[xlii] So he notes that the Hebrew’s mythology was the mythology which God chose to use. So, the Hebrew mythology became a vehicle of Divine truth, and this truth ends up becoming completely historical in Christ.[xliii]
The problem here is the same as before, just how much of Genesis is historical, then? Lewis in both The Problem of Pain and in Reflection on the Psalms advocates an interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in line with Theistic Evolution.[xliv] This is problematic for Lutherans. If indeed Christianity is myth became fact, then Genesis also must be “myth become fact”. While we indeed need to come to grips with the parallels to the ancient near eastern creation myths, and while it is quite true that how we view the world today is different then Moses did, without an underlying historical reality, the veracity of Scripture is brought into question. Hummel comments on Genesis 1-11, “Neither are the accounts adaptations of older Near Eastern legends and myths. The many undeniable formal parallels point in the opposite direction: the extra-Biblical tales are garbled reflections of the Biblical accounts.”[xlv] It should be noted here that Hummel is all fact and no myth. There is something which Lewis has and which Hummel is lacking. There is something to categorizing Genesis 1-11 as myth which someone like Hummel needs understand, and something about categorizing Genesis 1-11 as fact that someone like Lewis needs to understand.
We, as 21st century people, exposed constantly to science and the world of fact, can learn from Lewis. We need to be able to appreciate the mythos of Christianity and the Bible. If we simply categorize it in a fundamentalist fashion as all literal history, then we will miss to what Lewis is trying to draw our attention. In doing so, we will miss the uncanny, supernatural, numinous nature of Scripture.
[i] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1997.)
[iii] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), “myth”.
[iv] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism. Kindle Edition. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 42-44.
[v] C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. (United States: Eerdmans; First American Printing edition, 1984), 65-66.
[vi] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 218.
[vii] J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, Expanded Edition with Commentary and Notes, Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. (United Kingdom: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 59.
[viii] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 59. Cf. “What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” (Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 52.)
[ix] Lewis, Myth Became Fact, 66.
[x] Gene Edward Veith, The Soul of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” (United States: Victor Books, 2005) 19.
[xi] Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, 45.
[xii] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 5-6.
[xiii] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 6.
[xiv] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 9-11.
[xv] Veith, The Soul of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” 21.
[xvi] C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. (San Diego: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 38.
Tolkein, On Fairy-Stories, 78.
[xvii] Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, (Los Angeles: New Line Cinema, 2002), DVD.
[xviii] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 75.
[xix] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 75.
[xx] G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles. Kindle Edition. The G. K. Chesterton Collection [50 Books]. (United Kingdom: Catholic Way Publishing, 2012), XVII The Red Angel.
[xxi] Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, XVII The Red Angel.
[xxii] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Kindle Edition ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 54, 61.
[xxiii] Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said, 38.
[xxiv] Veith, The Soul of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” 201.
[xxv] Lewis, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said, 37.
[xxvi] C. S. Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms, Kindle Edition, (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 1986), X. Second Meanings.
[xxvii] Lewis, Myth Became Fact, 66-67.
[xxviii] Lewis, Myth Became Fact, 67.
[xxix] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 80.
[xxx] Lewis, Myth Became Fact, 67.
[xxxi] Lewis, Miracles, 218.
[xxxii] Edward, Henderson, “Austin Farrer: The sacramental imagination” in C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of the Imagination. Kindle Edition. David Hein and Edward Henderson, eds. (United States: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011.)
[xxxiii] Austin Farrer, “Can Myth Be Fact?” in Interpretation and Belief, Edited by Charles Conti, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), 167.
[xxxiv] Edward, Henderson, C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of the Imagination, “Austin Farrer: The sacramental imagination”.
[xxxv] Farrer, Can Myth Be Fact, 169.
[xxxvi] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 77.
[xxxvii] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 78.
[xxxviii] Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, 78-79.
[xxxix] Lewis, Myth Became Fact, 67.
[xl] Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, X. Second Meanings.
[xli] 1 Corinthian 15:17 LEB.
[xlii] Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms, XI. Scripture.
[xliii] Lewis, Miracles, 218.
[xliv] Lewis, Problem of Pain, 72ff; Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms, XI. Scripture.
[xlv] Horace D. Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh: An Introduction to the Origin, Purpose, and Meaning of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 64.