On 30 January 1945, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher about the ‘beauty’ of the Christian story. Regarding the ‘Eden “myth”’, Tolkien thought a worrying consequence of people jettisoning Genesis’s creation account in the face of modern ‘science’ was that it caused one to forget ‘the beauty of the matter even “as a story”’. He told Christopher that
[C.S.] Lewis recently wrote a most interesting essay (if published I don’t know) showing of what great value the ‘story-value’ was, as mental nourishment—of the whole Chr. story (NT especially). It was a defence of that kind of attitude which we tend to sneer at: the fainthearted that loses faith, but clings at least to the beauty of ‘the story’ as having some permanent value. His point was that they do still in that way get some nourishment and are not cut off wholly from the sap of life: for the beauty of the story while not necessarily a guarantee of its truth is a concomitant of it, and a fidelis is meant to draw nourishment from the beauty as well as the truth. (‘96 To Christopher Tolkien’, 109)
Tolkien is probably thinking of Lewis’s 1944 essay ‘Myth Became Fact’, a profound and moving exploration of the relationship between myth, fact, and the gospel story. Lewis guessed that
A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it. The modernist . . . need not be called a fool or hypocrite because he obstinately retains, even in the midst of his intellectual atheism, the language, rites, sacraments, and story of the Christians. The poor man may be clinging (with a wisdom he himself by no means understands) to that which is his life. (‘Myth Became Fact’, 67)
Neither Lewis nor Tolkien was denying the historicity of the Gospels. Instead, both wished to emphasize the mythical beauty of the story itself, which as Tolkien wrote is ‘not necessarily a guarantee of its truth’, but yet is ‘concomitant of it’. ‘Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied’, Lewis thought,
but Christians also need to be reminded . . . that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. . . . We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic . . . shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight . . . (67)
Returning to Tolkien, the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a prior letter to Christopher he clarified:
Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)
The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).
Travis Buchanan is a PhD candidate in St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. His research focuses on the potential value the theological principles of ‘sacrament’ and ‘incarnation’ may have in illuminating the significance of myth or story as understood by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Lewis, C. S. “Myth Became Fact.” In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper, 63–67. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1944/2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-stories.” In Tree and Leaf, by J. R. R. Tolkien, 11–70. London: Unwin Books, 1947/1964/1970.
———. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981/2000.
 Tolkien did not wholly discount the historical veracity of the creation account, either. Later in his letter to Christopher he wrote: ‘I do not now feel either ashamed or dubious on the Eden “myth”. It has not, of course, historicity of the same kind as the NT, which are virtually contemporary documents, while Genesis is separated by we do not know how many sad exiled generations from the Fall, but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth’ (109–10).