J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis on the True Myth of the Gospel

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.[1] 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.

Works Cited

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.

[1] 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).

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  • Travis Buchanan completed his MLitt and PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews. Currently, he is Assistant Professor for Theological Studies, Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, CO, USA

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  1. says: Eric J. Kingsepp

    This sounds very similar to what G. K. Chesterton says in The Everlasting Man about the early myth-makers as seeking God primarily through Beauty, while philosophers sought him primarily through Truth (and prophets through Goodness?). We tend to study mythology as if it were a theology, i.e., a systemized body of truths taught about God, man, etc. But really the myths were a form of art – the earliest texts describing them seem to be mostly poems.

    Perhaps seeing such things as forms of art and expressions of imagination allowed early Christians to feel comfortable “baptizing” pre-Christian customs, and might help Christians today feel more comfortable embracing sincere artistic expression they encounter. It takes courage to follow the artistic impulse wherever it leads.

    1. says: Travis Buchanan

      In response to the question, ‘What Christian writers have helped you?’, Lewis once said, ‘The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man’ (‘Cross-examination’). So no doubt Chesterton’s views on the subject were very influential on Lewis, as were Tolkien’s and Hugo Dyson’s, and influential on Lewis’s eventual conversion from theism to Christianity in latter September 1931 (see Lewis’s letter to Arthur Greeves on 1 October 1931 in Vol. 1 of Hooper’s three volume collection, p. 973).

      As for your comment about myth as a form of art, I think that is true though I would wish to qualify it. While discussing poetry in An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000) Lewis remarked, ‘The arts, as they develop, grow further apart. Once, song, poetry, and dance were all parts of a single dromenon. Each has become what it now is by separation from the others, and this has involved great losses and great gains. Within the single art of literature, the same process has taken place. Poetry has differentiated itself more and more from prose’ (96). I think its proper to understand early myth–story-telling–as part of a single fabric of human making, which only later would become (with definite losses and some gains, as Lewis points out) separated out and differentiated, such as between arts and crafts, or between the various branches of the ‘fine arts’. Also a related factor is the history of language. In his view of homo sapiens as essentially homo faber, for example, Tolkien owes something in the way of influence to Owen Barfield, whose opinions on this matter—distilled in the book Poetic Diction (1928)—find echo in subsequent published thoughts of Tolkien’s such as ‘The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 25).

      Your comment on baptizing pre-Christian customs would be interestingly pursued in the example of the Beowulf poem, I think. If you haven’t read it, I recommend Tolkien’s essay on ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’.

      Lastly, thanks for your encouragement to follow the artistic impulse, which Christianity could certainly benefit from a healthy dose of.

  2. says: Jim Watkins

    Hi Travis, thanks for this very interesting and thought provoking post. You suggest that the concept of a true myth might influence the way that one conceptualizes and interprets scripture. Do you think it also has consequences for the way that Christians write theology? Might Tolkein’s and Lewis’ understanding of the gospel as a true myth justify and encourage theologians to make use of their imaginations to a greater extent?

  3. says: Travis Buchanan

    Thanks Jim. The short answer is yes, I do think ‘Tolkein’s and Lewis’ understanding of the gospel as a true myth justify and encourage theologians to make use of their imaginations to a greater extent’, as you say. N. T. Wright’s inaugural lecture here at St Andrews (26 October 2011) actually emphasized this same point for theology and biblical studies, interestingly enough. ‘Along with music and the visual arts, narrative is a primary human means of stimulating the imagination. And this is precisely, I suggest,
    what the four gospels are aiming to do’ (8), Wright said. Arguing for more ‘right brain’ imaginative thinking in theology and biblical studies, as opposed to the ‘left brain’ domination the disciplines have suffered here in the West, he concluded his lecture thus:

    This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom. One of the reasons I was excited to be invited to come to St Andrews is because this is already one of the very few places in the world where the imagination is taken seriously as part of the whole theological discipline. I hope and trust and pray that we will be able to work together at the challenging but richly rewarding tasks of imagining the kingdom in such a way that will simultaneously advance the academic understanding of our extraordinary primary texts and enrich the mission and theology of tomorrow’s church. It is just as difficult today as it was in the first century to imagine what the kingdom of God might look like. Rigorous historical study of the gospels and the other early Christian writings has a proper role to play in fuelling, sustaining and directing that imagination, and in helping to translate it into reality. (‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’, 16)

  4. says: Uri Brito

    Permission to re-post this at Kuyperian Commentary (kuyperian.com) under your name as guest author.

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