Mything the Point: Why Some Stories Strike True and Others Fall Short [Part Two]

George MacDonald speaks of the true essence of a meaningful fairytale in his classic essay, “The Fantastic Imagination”:

[A fairytale] cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another… A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.[1]

MacDonald argues that truth, consciously or unconsciously intended by the author, lies at the heart of any great work of art. The greater the art, the more truths it embodies and the myriad of ways it can be read and understood by its readers. A work of great art matched with a reader who is willing to surrender to that art, to let it “do its work” on him, is what produces the experience under examination here: one of awe, wonder, and transformation that happens between reader and text. Lewis describes this experience as a contrast between a reader asking “Will the hero escape?” and “I [the reader] shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.” [2]

The last aspect to examine is what happens to the reader when he re-enters the Primary World after experiencing the transformative power of the story. Again, just like the mystery of how reader and text relate, the response to the text may be varied. What is almost certain, if he is an honest reader, is that he will look at the world with fresh eyes, and want to share what he has found with others. The best and truest stories cause readers to, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “love their beloved land all the more.”[3] Tolkien calls this phenomenon “recovery” in which we as readers are now “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.” [4]

Lewis gives a concrete example of recovery here:

The value of the myth[5] is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity’. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. By putting [elements of reality] into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. … By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.[6]

And so those readers who see the world anew after dipping it in story act as excited men stumbling from the dark cave of Plato’s allegory into the sunlight of Reality. The remaining prisoners think the escapees are insane. The readers tug on the chains of the other prisoners and point to the book responsible for their release saying: “Take this and read. Here is light and life.” But the magic does not work the same way on everyone, and the mysterious combinations of reader, text, and author’s craft cannot be defined by any scientific equation.

Has a story revealed sunlight to you? Try surrendering yourself to the next one you read and see what happens.

Laura Schmidt is the archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center, and welcomes all lovers of story to a seat by the fireplace in our book-lined reading room.

Further Reading on the Power of Story:

Chesterton, G.K. “The Ethics of Elfland.” Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990, pp. 42-63.

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

—. “Christianity and Literature,” “On the Reading of Old Books,” “On Science Fiction,” “Different Tastes in Literature,” “On Stories,” “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said.” Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces. Ed. Lesley Walmsley. London: HarperCollins, 2000, pp. 411-420, 438-443, 450-460, 466-471, 491-504, and 526-528.

MacDonald, George. “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture” and “The Fantastic Imagination.” The Heart of George MacDonald. Ed. Rolland Hein. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1994, pp. 416-428.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966, pp. 33-99.


[1] MacDonald, George. “The Fantastic Imagination.” The Heart of George MacDonald. Ed. Rolland Hein. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1994, p. 425.

[2] Lewis, C.S. “On Myth.” An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969, pp. 48-49.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, p. 345.

[4] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966, p. 77.

[5] While I’ve tried to avoid using the term “myth” as it can cause confusion for some people, it has snuck in with a few quotes. For those unfamiliar with Lewis’s use of the term, I recommend reading his essay “On Myth,” which is quoted in this piece and cited in the additional works at the end. You may safely, in this context, substitute the word “story” for “myth” and come to the intended understanding.

[6] Lewis, C.S. “The Dethronement of Power.” Time and Tide, October 22, 1955.

 

4 Comments

  • Jono says:

    Laura I enjoyed your post! “…what happens to the reader when he re-enters the Primary World after experiencing the transformative power of the story.”

    N.T. Wright said in his book on virtue, “Comedy or tragedy, epic or romance, we watch characters developing and unfolding, facing and making choices, and slowly reaping the consequences; and unless we are deaf in our hearts and souls, we learn how these things work and become sensitive to the same questions and challenges in our own lives.” With the “fresh eyes” you spoke of we are equipped to respond in fresh ways to the “questions and challenges in our own lives.” I love how stories have the ability to enhance our appreciation for what we have let become mundane (like the buffalo meat story). I was hoping however to talk about the misuse of the transformative power of story- specifically the misuse by the reader. Those readers who leave the cave and can’t ever seem to get their eyes to adjust to the sunlight. I am not a big Freud fan but I thought this quote was relevant. In his general introduction to psychoanalysis he writes, “He is one who is urged on by instinctual needs, which are too clamorous; he longs to attain to honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women; but he lacks the means of achieving these gratifications. So, like any other with an unsatisfied longing, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and all his libido to, onto the creation of his wishes in the life of fantasy, from which the way might readily lead to neurosis.” What can storytellers do to help those who would prefer to read about the sunlight from the darkness of the cave? Those who don’t “recover” or go back through the wardrobe?

    Happy Holidays!

    • Laura Schmidt says:

      Thanks for your comments, Jono. You raise some really good questions here. I have often thought about those who would rather live in the fantasy realm than return to our world. I personally think that the more Truth a story holds, the more a reader is encouraged by the story to live afresh in Reality. The Director of the Wade Center (Dr. Christopher Mitchell) said recently in a lecture on why reading Tolkien is important in today’s world: “Who can help but have a new appreciation for REAL trees after having visited Middle-earth? The story doesn’t draw you away from them, it points you to them.” So that “help” by the storyteller would be his or her ability to paint real Truths using OUR world’s palette in a fictional realm. It also helps to ask “which desires is this fantasy world fulfilling for the reader?” to determine if the story is life-giving or life-taking. Do you want to run around using a big sword to feel powerful, or are you inspired to be a braver person after you’ve read the story? See the difference?

      Of course the response of the reader also carries with it a large degree of free will no matter how artful and Truthful the storyteller is. A reader’s worldview may greatly sway them towards a number of responses. People may start worshiping the sun or Apollo and miss the Creator altogether; glorification of the storied place rather than having it apply back to your own life. That scenario puts to mind one character in Charles Williams’s book “The Greater Trumps” who becomes transfixed by the personification of Beauty (a butterfly in the book) and consequently dies to the world around him. Forcing someone to give up their mud pie in return for a slice of chocolate cake is not possible if they are unwilling to do so. You can only feed them bits of cake and hope they’re convinced it is indeed the better choice.

      On the flip side, speaking from a Christian perspective which Lewis echoes in several of his essays, it is often a good sign that fantasy can stir up longings which this world cannot wholly satisfy. It is a pointer that we as humans were originally created for a less broken version of the world around us, and ultimately Somewhere Else. 🙂

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Laura,

    Thank you for your thoughts about why some stories might make a deeper impression on its readers than other stories. You pointed out several key factors that make for a ‘powerful’ story: the reader surrendering to the story, the author creating a secondary world, and the story’s capacity to transform the reader’s perception of the primary world. Do you think these factors are universal, or do you think that the influence of a great story is also determined by culturally relative factors?

    • Laura Schmidt says:

      Jim,

      Thanks for your response. May I respond “both” to your question? 🙂 Truth is universal, and the better it is told by a storyteller the more universally it is received. That’s why you begin to have books lasting decades on into centuries and translated into dozens of languages. Humanity continues to tap into the Truth that is there.

      On the other hand, to create a “believable secondary world” it needs to be in understandable terms for the reader. This includes language, setting, and a host of cultural details that have to be not just relevant, but communicable. The more a story is dependent on these cultural factors to be understood, the harder it is for a variety of readers to grasp it. Haven’t we all seen a TV clip or tried to read something that was completely over our heads because it was so “dated?” Some people feel that way about Shakespeare too (more’s the pity there).

      In one way, that is one advantage fantasy stories have over other stories. The world is created fresh for the reader and EXPLAINED in fantasy stories. That (hopefully) puts more readers on a level playing field when they enter and makes it more timeless. You as a reader are guided by, say, Narnian culture rather than 21st century American, Indian, or Chinese culture in order to understand the story. And at the base of any culture is a code that should be universal for all humanity – as Lewis explores in the Appendix to his book “The Abolition of Man” titled “Illustrations of the Tao,” and which I highly recommend in further response to your question. It’s a great read!

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