CS Lewis and Tolkien on Myth and Knowledge

Roger Peck FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

Fr Roger Peck, assistant priest in Leamington Spa, offers a fascinating overview of some of the key thoughts of the Inklings discussion group. He shows how they adopted what our November 2010 editorial depicted as the Indo-Greek epistemological affirmation of tension between physical sensation and spiritual reflection. However, they did not feel that this "incurably abstract" manner of knowing was how "we were meant" to know. Myth points the way to a proper harmony between the two, and Incarnation, the foundation and fulfilment of myth (and, for Faith movement, of everything else), enables this "recovery".

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were members of a literary discussion group known as the Inklings. According to another of its members, Owen Barfield, the Inklings shared a Weltanschauung - a world outlook[1]. The members of this literary association were all Christian and their common worldview was what C.S. Lewis might have described as "supernaturalist".

Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering about what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think... The other view is the religious view. According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe... to produce creatures like itself- Imean, like itself to the extent of having minds.[2]

The Need for a Third Eye

Although this mind "behind the universe" is not something that can be seen, touched, heard or smelt, according to Aquinas all human knowledge originates in sense-perception[3]. Knowledge of the imperceptible must, therefore, originate in the perceptible. The material universe must somehow be able to point beyond itself and we must develop a "third-eye" that enables us to see what it is pointing to. This "third-eye" is not the eye of the senses or the eye of the mind; it is the eye of the heart[4].

Originally intended simply as a pun on the word "Ink"[5], Inklings is an apt name for a group of writers who saw in the written word an important vehicle for communicating inklings of the truth. In particular the Inklings recognised and understood the important role that myth and fairy-story[6] had to play. Lewis was particularly influenced in this by the authors George MacDonald[7] and G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton said of fairy-stories (or "nursery-tales") that:

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.[8]

Recovery of Wonder

This is the essence of what Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories[9], calls recovery. By placing the familiar (or over-familiar) in an unfamiliar setting we see it, as it were, for the first time. We see it afresh. Tolkien, in the same essay, provides his own example:

We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses - and wolves.[10]

Tolkien's reference to "ancient shepherds" seems to carry with it an implicit criticism of "modern" and "urban"; that modern man, surrounded by concrete and reliant on mechanical devices, has lost touch with nature. In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien likens the way we take things for granted to hoarding. We have appropriated those very things which once attracted us "by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape" and locked them away in our hoard; and having acquired them we have ceased to look at them. Having gained them we have lost them; but creative fantasy can help us recover them. Creative fantasy can open up our hoard so that the locked things may fly away, so that in losing them we can regain them.

Recovery enables us to see things anew; or, as Tolkien puts it, "as we are (or were) meant to see them - as things apart from ourselves".[11] An example from Tolkien's own great work of mythology, his Middle Earth Literature[12], would be the decision made by the elven princess, Arwen, to forgo the immortal life in order to cleave to Aragorn (a man)[13]. This motif casts in a new light the precious gift of self that we bestow on the other when we utter those words "I do" at the altar. Through Arwen's sacrifice we perceive "anew" within our hearts the nobility and beauty of the gift. Aragorn's relationship with Arwen is pure and chaste and hersacrifice is very real. She must "renounce the twilight" of her people; condemned to wandering the woods of Lothlorien in grief at the passing of Aragorn until the end of her days. This sacrifice speaks of the nobility and permanence of her choice; for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

Myth as Recovery

In his book An Experiment in Criticism C.S. Lewis considers the case of the Greek myth Orpheus. Lewis summarises the story:

There was a man who sang and played the harp so well that even beasts and trees crowded to hear him. And when his wife died he went down alive into the land of the dead and made music before the King of the Dead till even he had compassion and gave him back his wife, on condition that he led her up out of that land without once looking back to see her until they came into the light. But when they were nearly out, one moment too soon, the man looked back, and she vanished from him forever.[14]

Lewis suggests that there is an extra-literary quality about the above outline "set down in the first words that came to hand" that transcends the particular presentation. The fact that Virgil's account of this myth is framed in words far more poetic than Lewis', detracts little if anything from this. A synopsis of, say, an Alistair McLean novel, on the other hand, would not translate in the same way. Reading a synopsis of Where Eagles Dare would not have the same impact as reading the book itself.

That aspect of the Orpheus story that we perceive and feel in the summary just as much as in the original is its mythological character. A myth, contrary to popular usage, is not simply a story that isn't true. A myth is truth communicated in story-form. Furthermore, the truth that the Orpheus myth communicates is, according to Lewis, a truth about the nature of myths. Orpheus is self-referential; it is a myth about myths! Lewis explains this in his essay Myth Became Fact?[15]

In Myth Became Fact [16] Lewis examines the difference between knowledge and experience. Whilst the human intellect is "incurably abstract" our experience is always of the concrete and the real.

While we are loving the man, bearing pain, enjoying pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality. When we begin to do so, on the other hand, the concrete realities sink to the level of mere instances or examples: we are no longer dealing with them, but with that which they exemplify. This is our dilemma -either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste - or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it... You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? 'If only my toothache would stop, I could writeanother chapter about Pain.' But once it stops, what do I know about pain?[17]

To taste and not to know, or to know and not to taste, this was the dilemma facing Orpheus; for he could be assured of his wife's presence only so long as he didn't caste his loving gaze upon her. As soon as he looked, he lost. But for Lewis myth provides a partial solution to the dilemma. "In the enjoyment of a great myth", he says, "we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction."[18] When, for example, we read of Arwen's great gift and sacrifice to (and for) Aragorn we are moved by it. We experience it rather than think it or know it. We taste it. But the thing that we taste is not a concrete reality but a universal principle. We can, of course name it but when we do so the mythcollapses into allegory.[19] "It is only", says Lewis, "while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely".[20] This is perhaps why Tolkien, as he admits in a letter to Milton Waldman,[21] dislikes allegory. Allegory appeals to the intellect and the head, but myth appeals to the heart.

Although Tolkien identifies myths and fairy stories as means of recovery he makes the interesting observation, almost in passing, that they are not the only means of recovery but that "humility is enough".[22]

Incarnation as Founding and Fulfilling Recovery

In his essay Bluspels and Flanasferes Lewis makes the distinction between meaning and truth. He writes:

Meaning... is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth but its condition.[23]

An idea is either true or false but both true ideas and false ideas must be meaningful, and it is imagination that makes them meaningful before reason makes them either true or false. For Lewis the imagination is the organ of meaning as reason is the organ of truth. But myth lives in that middle ground between truth and meaning, experience and knowledge, abstract thought and concrete reality, reason and imagination, head and heart. And as myth transcends thought, says Lewis, "Incarnation transcends myth".

He writes:

Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Orsis, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.[24]

Salvation History is not so much history as His Story - God's story. The Gospel is a story just as surely as God is its author. Myth truly did become fact without ceasing to be myth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The Gospel is a myth that we can both know (as truth) and experience (as life) because we can both know of God and know Him. We can experience truth as well as know it because truth is a person. St. Jerome said that "ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ".[25] Lewis puts it slightly differently:

To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.[26]

The Gospel is a myth; but it is the myth that became fact. It is not just a story to be read or a fact to be learned, it is also a drama to be enacted. Jesus is the way because we are part of the story, characters in the divine drama. We don't just know it and experience it, we also live it.

C.S. Lewis's essay Myth Became Fact concludes:

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, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.[27]

Recognising the Creator

A universe that is the result of random forces of nature is not purposed; and meaning requires a mind in which to inhere. When God called Abraham, a people were given a future; and somewhere along the way those people would inevitably look back to discover that they also had a past. Looking back they could see God's hand at work in the events of history. God places us in the cleft of the rock and covers us with his hand until his glory has passed by. Only then can we see Him (cf. Ex 33:22). The mythological character of this passage is clear. We live life forwards but understand life backwards. Day unto day takes up the story but night unto night makes known the message, (cf. Ps 19:2-3) We cannot see God face to face but we can see His back (cf. Ex 33:23). The wheel of life has beenstraightened out and become a story. Choices matter, things serve a purpose and life has meaning; and it is the logos, the mind of God, the creator of all that is and the author of history, who provides the necessary context.

But to understand (to stand under) the logos requires imagination. Instead of feeling things psychically or observing them scientifically we need to appreciate them poetically.


[1] Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 83.

[2] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 29-30.

[3] cf Aquinas, T., Summa Theologies, trans. McDermott, 547, ST 3a 60 4.

[4] This idea of a "Third-Eye" is from Peter Kreeft's audio talks available online down www.peterkreeft.com

[5] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 79.

[6] Tolkien saw no essential difference between Fairy Story and Myth ("the higher and lower mythologies") for "the inhabitants of Olympus and Faerie live by the same life just as in the mortal world do kings and peasants", and this life is breathed into them by their author. "The gods may derive their colour and beauty from the high splendours of nature, but it was man who obtained these for them, abstracted them from sun and moon and cloud; their personality they get direct from him; the shadow or flicker of divinity that is upon them they receive through him from the invisible world, the Supernatural" Tolkien, The Monsters, 123.

[7] Indeed Lewis said of MacDonald's Phantastes that it had "baptised his imagination". C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald An Anthology, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), xxxviii.

[8] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 59.

[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy-Stories. In The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollins, (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 109-161.

[10] Tolkien, The Monsters, 146.

[11] Tolkien, The Monsters, 146.

[12] The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

[13] cf Tolkien, The Return of the King 306-309.

[14] Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1961; 21992) p 40.

[15] C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 138-142.

[16] C.S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact, in Essay Collection: Faith Christianity and the Church, ed. Lesley Walmsley, (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 138-142.

[17] Lewis, Essay Collection, 140.

[18] Lewis, Essay Collection, 140.

[19] Barfield makes the distinction between Allegory, the hypostatisation (ascribing material existence to) of ideas, and myth; "the true child of Meaning, begotten on imagination." (cf. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, 201).

[20] Lewis, Essay Collection, 141.

[21] Tolkien, The Letters, 145, no. 131.

[22] Tolkien, The Monsters, 146.

[23] C. S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flanasferes, in Rehabilitations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 157-158 cited in Charlie W. Starr, Meaning, meanings and epistemology in C.S. Lewis, available from https://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary\_0286-30887538\_ITM; accessed on 12th February 2009.

[24] Lewis, Essay Collection, 141.

[25] Jerome, Prologue of the commentaries of St. Jerome on the prophet Isaiah in The Divine Office: The Liturgy of the Hours to the Roman Rite, (London: Collins,1974) vol. Ill, The Second Reading for the Feast of St. Jerome, 30 September, p 301*.

[26] Lewis, Essay Collection, 141.

[27] Lewis, Essay Collection, 142.

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