So. I've recently read two excellent books by the biographer Humphrey Carpenter. The first is about the Inklings, aptly titled The Inklings. The second is a biography of my man J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Carpenter is a skillful biographer, spinning story out of facts and letters. Since Tolkien was one of the Inklings, and very close to C.S. Lewis, these books overlap in certain areas. One of these overlapping regions is Tolkien's poem "Mythopoeia", which means myth-creation. This poem has a lot of backstory, so forgive my long-windedness -- but this is a subject about which I am very passionate, and in order to do it justice, it needs some explanation. When Jack Lewis (so he was known to almost everyone) was young, he discovered Norse mythology. He read a few lines about the Norse god Balder, and he was instantly hooked. Instantly were conjured up to his mind images of a cold sky and a brisk wind and mountains. Accompanying these images, he experienced an intense longing for he knew not what, such as he had never felt before. This is something I can identify with: how many times have I experienced a passionate yearning for adventure? What I call the adventure-longing, Lewis called joy (this, by the way, is the entire premise for his autobiography Surprised by Joy). For the rest of his life, Lewis was entranced with this idea of "Northernness." It was what led him to friendship with Tolkien.
In Lewis' autobiography, he says that when he was young (he was raised as an Irish Ulster Protestant), he had been warned (implicitly) never to trust "a Papist" (a Catholic), and when he entered the faculty of English Literature at Oxford, he had been warned (explicitly) never to trust a philologist (a language scholar). "Tolkien was both," he says. Lewis and Tolkien were not too fond of one another at first, but they soon became fast friends. Indeed, Tolkien, a lifelong Christian and devoted Catholic, played a large role in Lewis' eventual conversion to Christianity. Lewis had abandoned his Christian faith in God when he was a young boy; when he met Tolkien, he had arrived once more at a belief in a God, or a higher power, or whatever he wanted to call it -- but he did not believe in Christ. Carpenter records that Lewis didn't see the point. He couldn't see how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus applied to him in the here and now. He happened to be walking one evening with Tolkien and their friend Hugo Dyson when he mentioned this to them.
Okay, this is where it gets really good.
Tolkien and Dyson showed Lewis that he was making "a totally unnecessary demand." They pointed out to him that when he encountered the tale of the "dying god" in his Norse myths, he was deeply moved by it -- he had been moved by it since he first read the story of Balder. Tolkien and Dyson told Lewis that he was requiring a clear meaning behind the Gospel account, where he did not require any kind of hidden meaning behind the Norse myths. Couldn't he transfer his unquestioning acceptance of myth to the true story?
Lewis scoffed at this. Myths are lies, though lies breathed through silver. They're lies, even if they are beautiful ones.
No, said Tolkien. They are not.
At about this point in my reading, I pulled up short and gave my book the biggest frown possible. Hold up, I thought. Did they just equate the Gospel with myth? I have a massive problem with that. But I kept reading, and soon I discovered one of the most beautiful chapters I've ever read.
Tolkien's poem "Mythopoeia," which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, details what he said to Lewis (in poem form, obviously). The entire poem is beautiful -- read it here! -- but I will only paraphrase. You see a tree (he says), and you call it a tree. But it was not a "tree" until someone gave it that name. You see a star, and you label it a glowing ball of gas millions of miles away. But by calling it that, you are only saying what you know or think about it. "By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth." In other words, just as the words and names we use for things point to reality, the stories that we tell point toward the truth.
These stories may not always be totally true. In fact, some of them may have only a small sliver of truth in them, if any at all. But the myths that Lewis and Tolkien loved, the Norse myths -- these pointed to the truth about God.
We have come from God, Tolkien said, and therefore all the myths that we weave will contain a splinter of the "true light," the eternal truth of God. "Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor".
A light turned on in Lewis' head. You mean to say, he asked, "that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened?"
Why, yes. Yes, indeed.
Like I said, the first time I read this, I kind of freaked out. I was nervous at what I thought was the implication that the Gospel account didn't actually happen. But that implication doesn't even exist. It wasn't what they were saying at all. Upon a careful reading, I learned the gorgeous things that they were saying. Not only that: but I felt the truth of them in my heart.
We are made by God. We are His handiwork. We were made to create in our own turn. Look at what we spend our time doing: music-making, painting, writing, farming, cooking, healing, designing, hypothesizing -- we were made to create. We are, as Tolkien put it, sub-creators of the one Creator. And since we come from God, we have no other truth source to which to turn. Therefore, all good things that we create will have some of the truth about God in them. They are merely shadows of His creation and His ability and His truth, but they point in His direction. They do not arrive at His truth, but they indicate it. We can't help it. We're made by the Creator to create.
I grew up receiving a classical education, so I studied a ton of Greek myths (seriously: all of eighth grade). We also spent some time studying ancient Mesopotamia and other similar cultures. I remember very clearly all the stories that these people groups would tell. All of them hearkened back to the Scriptural accounts I had heard my entire life. For example, every culture has a flood story. Every. Single. One. And similarly, almost every culture has a Dying God story: one in which God (or one of the gods) comes down and sacrifices Himself for the sake of humankind. The ancient Greeks had Prometheus. The Norse had Balder.
Where do you think these myths came from? Where do you think they originated if not with God?
Each culture has these myths, and they speak so deeply to us because they are true. They stem from the truth of God. Not only that, but the dying God myths express our deep longing to be saved, to be rescued -- to be redeemed. Lewis experienced the longing for God and called it joy. I experience it and call it something else (well, sometimes I call it joy. I digress). But our souls crave God. We have craved Him since we first separated ourselves from Him. The pagan myths of the God that rescues us speak to us on a soul level, because we long to be with the God Who made us.
And now we come to Christianity. The account of the death and resurrection of the Incarnate Christ has the same deep soul appeal as the myths of the Greeks and Romans and Norse and Mesopotamians. The only difference?
The story of Christianity is true.
Lewis saw it. All his world was suddenly illuminated. Christianity appeals to us in the same soul way that many myths do, only now the myth isn't a myth. It's solid Truth. But the myths that we have heard -- the stories that have been told down through the centuries -- they have an inkling (no pun intended) of the truth and point us straight back to the God Who made us -- and Who also died to be with us.
God came down and died and rescued us. He made a way for us, in the way that every culture, every people group has craved since the downfall of humankind. Our souls have begged for this, and now they answer with a resounding Yes!
This is what we have longed for.
And so we create. The redeemed create. We tell stories and make music and care for our people and teach and work and make and design and create. What we create is still broken and messy, because we are broken and messy. But because we come from God, and because we have been redeemed by God -- oh, then, my friends, what we create has a little piece of light in it, and it is this piece of light that points back to the God Who made us.
Rejoice. The cries have been answered. The longing has been fulfilled. And our God works powerfully through the beauty of Story, because He has made Story, and He uses it to lead us straight to Him.
P.S.: If you're interested in reading about this idea some more, here are the books from which I drew my quotes:
The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter (the chapter titled "Mythopoeia")
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter (the chapter titled "Jack")