Surrounded by an Ironic culture in which many denizens of both Oxford and Cambridge had been swayed by modernism, secularism and even communism, C. S. Lewis had abandoned his childhood Christian faith and become a materialist. But, like T. S. Eliot later, he was to undergo a personal ‘eucatastrophe’ which was to affect the culture of the Twentieth Century.
During my early teens, I discovered that C. S. Lewis, author of one of my favourite books The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, which I had first read and fallen in love with in 1974. Tolkien and Lewis shared a lifelong love of ‘Northern-ness’, ancient mythology and many other things. I wondered deeply what it was about their books that I found so fascinating and whether or not their friendship had anything to do with it.
In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, there is a part which describes the still night upon which Lewis and Tolkien went out on a walk together, discussing profound religious concepts with their friend Hugo Dyson. Lewis had by this time slowly come round to the idea that there must be a God, but he was not yet convinced of the relevance of Christ. The conversation turned to the power of Myth. As they wandered through an Oxford college in the middle of the night, Lewis said to Tolkien that myths were lies, though, he admitted, ‘lies breathed through silver.’
Tolkien said, simply, ‘No. They are not lies.’
The wind stirred some leaves as he said it, and his words had a significant effect upon Lewis. Tolkien later wrote a poetic response to Lewis’ assertion and started a long dialogue with him that resulted in Lewis’ eventual return to Christianity.
Tolkien’s central idea was that we live inside a myth. If we consider Christianity to be a ‘true myth’, then humanity is within it. As a Catholic, Tolkien believed that the world was created by a loving God and was tangibly blessed: myth was not just ‘invented fiction’ but a real and potent way of perceiving reality that possessed incredible symbolic and multi-layered power. The Christian Gospel had been the prevailing myth of the West for over a thousand years, affecting the way that men and women viewed the world around them. At the very heart of the ‘myth’ of Christianity was the assertion that it had actually occurred in an historically verifiable way, and Tolkien identified the Incarnation and the Resurrection as the key turning points in the whole human story.
In terms of our overall argument, this ‘turning point’ indicated a shift from drifting towards the dark pole as exemplified by Irony to gravitating toward the light. For Tolkien, this was a personal experience that one could directly engage with through the sacraments, but was also reflected in the broader movements of cultures and societies. His fascination for mediaeval literature and ancient languages was not a mere foible but part of a focus back to a culture which had been more orientated to the light.
Tolkien argued that human beings were ‘little makers’, ‘sub-creators’. Art and literature were not, as Irony would have it, the random impulses of a material, chemical brain but came from God. Inspiration wasn’t meaningless, but a prompting to fulfill our nature as subcreators. In Tolkien’s huge Epic, The Silmarillion, the God figure, Ilúvatar, creates the angelic Ainur and then gives them each a theme to play. These themes weave in and out of one another, eventually giving rise to a new vision which Ilúvatar then gives a being all its own. This becomes the world as we experience it. This pattern of lesser beings creating something which is then imbued with higher power extends throughout Tolkien’s works: we see it in Feanor’s creation of the Silmarils using the light of the Two Trees; we see it in the Elves creation of realms of their own using the Rings of Power, and so on.
But a central part of Tolkien’s Christian hope was that his own humble sub-creations were not just the ramblings of his own mind but were instead mysterious worlds that might one day have more than just a subordinate reality. This belief gave momentum to what he communicated to Lewis. Lewis, accepting Christ as his personal saviour, went on to write extensively about his newfound faith, to broadcast about it, and to act as an apologist for it. Through Lewis’s works, millions of people have become familiar with Christian concepts, and many of them have become Christians themselves. Through Tolkien’s works, and the multi-billion Tolkien ‘industry’ which stemmed from it, including the Hollywood films which reached millions internationally and the entire genre of ‘fantasy fiction’ which was spawned largely by Tolkien’s success, we can see the tremendous impact of a move in the culture away from the dark pole towards the light pole as suggested by Myth.
This is not to say that the culture as a whole is somehow emerging from the modernist Irony phase. The broad movement that developed in the mid- to late-Twentieth Century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism has been called ‘postmodernism’ and is characterised by its rejection of grand narratives/meta-narratives and ideologies. Anything that suggests that there might be some kind of objective reality, morality or truth comes under attack from postmodernists, who assert that any such value systems are merely products of particular political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Think moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence for anything ‘conventional’.
Postmodernism has infiltrated literature, music, science, economics, linguistics, architecture, and almost every aspect of culture. In terms of our argument about Myth, this breaking down of stability or structure can be seen as another aspect of Irony, which seeks to invert or subvert anything ordered or stable. In other words, though moving away from the dark pole and up to the light may be possible as we can see through the work of Tolkien, Lewis and others, it is not inevitable: humanity hovers on an event horizon, poised in seemingly perpetual orbit around the black hole which is at the bottom of the mythic scale.
What this eclectic journey has shown us, though, is that Myth has very much to do with the ‘Now’. The act of making something, as we asserted earlier, is the act of pulling something out of an ultimate Non Existence into some kind of Existence. Before you begin creating something, the theory goes, there is nothing. Artistry, creativity, imagination, something, pulls some kind of creation into the light. And this creation by definition has a kind of polarity or dichotomy: its constituent parts seek to move towards one pole or another.
This applies to storytelling; it applies to history and culture; and it applies to Life. All of fiction, of whatever mode, is about the interplay of elements and entities as either one pole or the other pulls things into its orbit; a study of history shows something of the same thing happening globally; and a look into any individual’s heart reveals much the same.
What Myth teaches us about Now has been underestimated not because its influence is subtle: its influence was too large to be noticed.
Myth and the ‘Now’?
Myth is the Now.