“It is the Myth that Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and the True Myth

Note: I will be presenting this at the Springville Library this Thursday at 7pm, so if you’re interested in coming, don’t read this and come hear it instead. Hopefully, I’ll be even more interesting in person.

Many people do not know that C.S. Lewis—the unapologetic Christian apologist, the author of spiritual classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, and Mere Christianity —was once an avowed atheist. It was during this early period of skeptical secularism that he went through an intimate, beautiful, and spiritual transformation that led him away from his secular atheism to the road that made him become perhaps the most celebrated Christian author and thinker of the 20th century. It was during this period of change when C.S. Lewis—who preferred the enigmatic nick name “Jack,” which  I will often be calling him by, so don’t get confused—took a night time walk in the woods with two of his friends: J.R.R. Tolkien, future author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; as well as Hugo Dyson, a capable Shakespearean professor and scholar. These three would later make up the core of what would become the celebrated literary group The Inklings, but that illustrious group was still a ways off. This night they were just friends engaged in a life altering conversation that would assist Jack on the last leg of his journey away from his secular past and into his spiritual future.

But Jack wasn’t going down (or up) without a fight. Even though Jack had recently had some powerful spiritual experiences that were leading him back to a belief in God, yet he still resisted the “myth” aspect of Christianity. “Christianity may have many things going for it,” he argued to his friends, “Originality is not one of them.”

C.S. Lewis… or, again, Jack as he preferred… saw Christianity as no different to the other “dying god myths.” The Egyptian god Osiris, the Norse god Balder, the Greek Titan Prometheus… they, too were stories of a god’s death and resurrection, and Christianity was the Johnny come lately to that kind of narrative. Jesus Christ was no different than these more ancient, imaginary gods. That was Jack’s position at the time, one which would change over the course of the evening’s walk in the woods, feeling the nighttime breeze whisper to him another answer.

But we’ll get back to that. Let’s cut to the future when Jack has not only long converted to Christianity, but is known as one of its most ardent defenders. Jack was once again engaged in a debate, this time taking the side of faith while his friend “Corineus” claimed the banner of the secularists. Corineus, not unlike the younger Jack who debated Tolkien and Dyson, accused modern Christians of only holding onto the shell of Christianity while slowly replacing its core doctrines with modern thoughts, making it Christianity in name only. He said it was much like the British monarchy was no monarchy at all, but rather a front for a much more modern government that had little to do with its original form. It was a myth that was only a front for inevitable modernism.

“Why not cut the cord?” asked Corineus. “Everything would be much easier if you would free your thought from this vestigial mythology” (God in The Dock, “Myth Became Fact,” p. 64).

There’s that word again: Mythology. The context with which that word is often used is not what I would necessarily call positive. Myths are parts of antiquated sytems of belief which have, in one way or another, proven untrue, right? Science has revealed that there is no Apollo in a flying chariot dragging the sun across the sky. There is no hammer wielding god named Thor creating thunder and lightning. There are no trickster gods like Ananzi or Malibu, tripping up our lives and causing havoc. Myths are nothing more than “lies breathed through silver,” as the young, atheistic Lewis said. Or at least that’s what he thought then, and what many modern skeptics think now. Myths may be fun to tell to children, or to entertain oneself with a little bit of escapism. They may even on one level be beautiful, a flight of fancy that has an aesthetic quality that one can appreciate on the same level one can appreciate high art. But that is as seriously as a person ought to take it. Myths are maps and systems of lies and errors, nothing more. They are for the gullible and the young, not for the seasoned mind of the intellectual or the thinker. They are not on any level to be seen as real.

So when people call Christianity a myth, there is a definite challenge there. When Jack challenged Tolkien and Dyson, and in return when Corineus challenged Jack, the accusation implied that Christians were intellectual light weights, superstitious folk, or ignorant children.

And yet. And yet, even in his atheistic days, C.S. Lewis was drawn to mythology and storytelling. One of Jack’s oldest childhood friends was a young man named Arthur Greeves. Although Arthur was a bit odd and a kind of imaginary invalid, he and Jack had hit it off when they were young because they both had a great love for obscure mythology, especially of the Norse variety. They were drawn to the Valkyrie, and Balder, and Thor, and Brunhilde… the cold, ancient beauty of those old myths stirred things in their souls which weren’t always explainable.

And they weren’t even just the classic myths that attracted Jack. He was more than capable of making up his own worlds and realms and mythologies. As a young boy, C.S. Lewis, or “Jacksie” as he re-named himself to the world as a child, made up an ornate world called Boxen, inhabited by talking animals. He and his brother Warnie would climb into their family’s wardrobe and tell each these stories. Children climbing into a wardrobe… sound familiar?

Let’s go there for a moment, that magical world in a wardrobe. In Jack’s more mature creation, Narnia, there is a tale that we call The Silver Chair. In this particular event of the history of that magical world, there were two children named Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole who were sent by the great Lion Aslan to find and rescue the lost Prince Rilian. The children’s guide and fellow traveler in this quest was a Narnian Marshwiggle named Puddleglum. Puddleglum, who had tall legs, thin, with reed-like hair, webbed feet, and an almost amphibious-like nature, was what we may term a pessimist. No matter what situation he and the children found themselves in, he was certain to see it in its worst possible light, although despite this cynicism, he was also perhaps the bravest and kindest of the company.

Also, paradoxically, Puddleglum was what we might call a creature of faith. When Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill finally found the lost Prince, the Prince was underneath the earth, in a cavernous terrain with no light or wind or true warmth. Here the Prince was the prisoner of a Green dressed enchantress, and soon the enchantress worked her magic upon the children and Puddleglum as well, with her lulling magic, almost convincing them that there was no Narnia, no sun, no light, no wind. Her kind of logic, touched with a sinister kind of magic, was certainly bewitching, and certainly not unlike the other challenges we have heard so far. Away from the sun, from the sky, from trees, from grass, from Aslan himself, brought down into a cavernous Underworld, all of those things had become only stories to those who lived there. They were mythology.

Even under the witch’s charms, though, Puddleglum makes an interesting, almost paradoxical argument for the existence of the world he had come from:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side, even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia” (The Silver Chair, Chapter 12).

Now when I first read Puddleglum’s argument, I remember it struck me in two ways. On one level, it was utter nonsense! Coming from the company’s resident realist, it was an odd thing to say that Narnia was real because it was more beautiful than the witch’s world. That’s not an argument at all! Beauty has no correlation with reality! You don’t believe something just because it’s beautiful, you believe something because it is a fact… even when those facts are cold, hard and uncaring.

Yet, simultaneously, something about Puddleglum’s argument struck to the most intimate core of me. I didn’t even understand it entirely at first, but there was an inner resonance, an ancient instinct awoken by Puddleglum’s words. It didn’t seem to be mere emotion, or wish fulfillment, or any other easy excuse like that. It was something ancient and something real.

In a lot of places in C.S. Lewis’s writing, you’ll find that he references this elusive thing he calls “joy.” He talks about feeling it as a child, when his brother Warnie brought him a tiny “garden in a biscuit tin.” This miniature piece of Eden was in no real way a garden, it was just a child’s imitation of one, but it created a sensation in Jack that would stick with him for the rest of his life. It was “joy.”

In his earliest Christian work after his conversion The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis creates an allegory around his protagonist John, who goes through a journey towards faith, not unlike Lewis’s own. In the book, this joy and longing is referenced often, and there is even a scene that may remind one of Jack’s childhood “garden in a biscuit tin.” In the book, John has a scene experiencing Joy, which he also sometimes called longing:

Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking of a string or one note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice—and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star.

The voice said, Come. Then John saw that there was a stone wall beside the road in that part: but it had (what he had never seen in a garden wall before) a window. There was not glass in the window and no bars; it was just a square hole in the wall. Through it he saw a green wood full of primroses: and he remembered suddenly how he had gone into another wood to pull primroses, as a child, very long ago—so long that even in the moment of remembering the memory seemed still out of reach.

“While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays, and out of the thickets peeped the pale, small-breasted Oreads, wise like gods, unconscious of themselves like beasts, and tall enchanters, bearded to their feet, sat in green chairs among the forests.

But even while he pictured these things he knew with one part of his mind, that they were not like the things he had seen—nay, that what had befallen him was not seeing at all. But he was too young to heed the distinction: and too empty, now that the unbounded sweetness passed away,not to seize greedily whatever it had left behind. He had no inclination yet to go into the wood: and presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, “I know now what I want.” The first time that he said it, he was aware that it was not entirely true: but before he went to bed he was believing it (The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 8).

C.S. Lewis often talks about the “longing” attached to this joy. If you’ve felt it, you know what he’s talking about… that ache that is both sweet and painful, that homesickness for a place you can’t remember; that desire for a relationship you don’t recall; a yearning that responds to a call you can’t hear, but which nevertheless vibrates within you with a realness and vividness that trumps all of your other so called “logical” experiences. Sometimes you get it at the end of a particularly vivid dream; or when a sudden pang of happy grief hits you that makes you want to cry in the middle of a crowd; or when you encounter an inexplicably beautiful song, or painting, or passage of literature that speaks to the most soulful part of you.

In his best book, Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis once again describes it:

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

Now this is all terribly romantic, a skeptic like Corineus would warn. Emotionalism that is misleading and certainly not going to lead you anywhere logically factual. It’s an experience for pre-Raphaelite painters, Romantic poets, Gothic novelists, and frenzied preachers, but certainly not for the calm, rational mind, untouched by such influences. And, rationally, don’t you think that Corineus would have a point? Isn’t that the “mythology” he is talking about, those flights of fancy ready to carry us away into “lies breathed through silver”?

During the first half of the 20th century in which Jack lived in, psychologists touting psychoanalysis like Sigmund Freud were in their heyday. And those psychologists certainly weren’t leading people to God, but rather using secular arguments to explain away the desires and fixations of mankind which they argued were byproducts of traumatic experience and psychic reaction, rather than anything attached to a soul, much less God. Such romantic feelings and thoughts were nothing but hiccups of the mind, complexes which mankind had to sort and wade through to get to any semblance of reality. Freud argued that mankind started with a tabula rasa, or a “blank slate.” According to tabula rasa, nothing is inherent, everything that was part of a person was written on her, everything was a reaction, there really was no such thing as a will, free or otherwise.

Yet there was a student of Freud’s, Carl Jung, who provided an alternative explanation, an explanation that is a vital component to our discussion tonight. Jung saw evidence for a “universal consciousness,” where all people seemed to carry a certain set of pre-existent information written in their minds or, if you want to be even more radical, their souls. Jung noticed trends in mythology, where the same patterns would crop up again and again, even in unrelated cultures that had no knowledge of each other. These patterns were called archetypes, universal truths that came tumbling out in the form of stories and myths. Other more recent writers like Joseph Campbell and filmmakers like George Lucas have also explored this territory, but they are all arguing the same thing. Although the myths and stories sometimes differed in details, the core story was the same. The Hero’s Journey. The Great Mother. The Wise Old Man. The Dying God. There was something inside of humankind that was transmitting these stories again and again and again.

This is where we find Jack’s “Joy.” Perhaps the longing that C.S. Lewis, and so many of the rest of us, have felt is part of that pre-existent memory we instinctually bring with us. Perhaps this longing that Jack felt so deeply, but which his reason resisted so long, which seemed so natural… perhaps it was not so illogical after all. Perhaps his deep responses to mythology, this yearning “joy,” this wild (but meaningful) imagination of his… perhaps there was purpose behind it after all.

It was this train of thought that J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson used on Jack during that influential night time walk in the woods. Again, Jack had recently had powerful experiences that led him to believe in a higher power, but he still resisted the “myth” of Christianity. “Lies breathed through silver,” he retorted to Tolkien and Dyson’s arguments. He would not be taken in!

Yet Tolkien and Hugo persisted. Christianity is the true myth, they said. It is what all the other myths were pointing to, what the collective unconscious was trying to communicate, what Jack’s “joy” was trying to lead him to. It was imagination made real, spirit made flesh!

The argument resonated with Jack, stuck with him, for it was the very same argument he used against his friend “Corineus” in his essay “Myth Became Fact”:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of 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 Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified… under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. 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.

The man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than the one who assented and did not think much about it (God in The Dock, “Myth Became Fact,” p. 67).

Again, in Jack’s autobiographical allegory that is called The Pilgrim’s Regress, Jack’s alter ego John has gone through an arduous journey from secular skepticism towards faith, and near the end of the journey John is faced with this argument of Christianity’s mythical nature once again:

Of all the people he had met in his journey only Wisdom appeared to him in the caverns, and troubled him by saying that no man could really come where he had come and that all his adventures were but figurative, for no professed experience of these places could be anything other than mythology. But then another voice spoke to him from behind him, saying:

“Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, also myth and metaphor: but since they do not know themselves for what they are, in them the hidden myth is master, where it should be servant: and it is but man’s inventing. But this My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your sense and for this end your imagination, that you might see my face and live. What would you have? Have you not heard among the Pagans the story of Semele? Or was there any age in any land when men did not know that corn and wine were the blood and body of a dying and yet living God?” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 169).

Perhaps it’s because I’m a playwright, a writer, but I find great sense in God’s title as The Author and Finisher of our Faith. Author, for the Father wrote the story, the monomyth of our existence.   Finisher, for Christ enacted that story, was the physical instrument of making it real. The myths which C.S. Lewis loved… there was a reason he responded so powerfully to them. It’s because those same myths were already written upon his mind, upon his bones, upon his soul. He responded so powerfully to the stories because he recognized them, he already knew them intimately, even though he hadn’t known that he knew them, it was buried deep, but still attainable, like a voice from the dust calling to him to unearth it. It was that true self, buried beneath a whole mountain of wordy escapes and reasoned dodges that kept Jack from discovering this pre-existent identity written upon his soul, much like his bitter heroine Orual in his masterpiece Till We Have Faces, based upon yet another myth, the story of Cupid and Psyche. Orual, the possessive sister of Psyche, blames her hard existence on the gods, only to discover this war of words she had collected to rail against them, ultimately fail her once she discovers her true identity:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all the time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (Till We Have Faces, p. 294).

Mythology informed C.S. Lewis’s work before his conversion to Christianity, but transformed it after his conversion. The myth now had meaning, it was more than just “lies breathed through silver”… it was silver still, but this time a mirror, providing a reflection of the soul. The question was raised to Jack after his conversion about how the reactions to his work would be impacted by his new found Christianity…whether the literary world would truly accept a vocal, practicing Christian. Jack couldn’t be bothered by that…he had a greater weight of glory to attend to. And attend to it, he did.

Whether it was Till We Have Faces, or The Chronicles of Narnia, one quickly realizes that Jack never abandoned this idea of the “true myth.” And perhaps it is in the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure which Jack is most famous for that shows us most clearly what Jack’s own “myths” were meant to do.  In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jack bares the purpose of his stories. Never lacking a directness and plainness of spirit in his writing, yet I always find Lucy and Edmund Pevensie’s sincere and heartfelt departure from Narnia in this story to be extremely moving:

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own home now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are—are you there too, sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 16).

It is in this spirit that Lewis wrote his work. His myths were crafted as shadows of a greater story. Just as the myths of his childhood had led him to the kneel, not before Prometheus, or Osiris, or Balder, but rather the Real Myth. So it was with Aslan. The story was not to be worshipped in an of itself, but it was meant to direct a person to Jesus Christ, Author and Finisher of our Faith.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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6 Responses to “It is the Myth that Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and the True Myth

  1. emily falke says:

    So wonderful. Thank you. You’ve given me much to ponder.

  2. Mark Penny says:

    I had a Puddleglum moment twenty-odd years ago. I walked out of the CNC library in Prince George, BC, looked up at the sky (which I remember being starlit) and thought, “God or no, that’s our destiny!” Desire is the key to election.

    This is a long post and I’m only halfway done. That’s my reaction so far. Thanks for the background on Jack.

  3. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Mark, that’s a lovely moment.
    And, yes, it definitely IS a long post, considering it was meant as a half hour presentation. :)

  4. Mark Penny says:

    And a very nice half-hour presentation it is. Interesting ideas.

    “Lies Breathed through Silver” may be my next poem, or at least the kernel of a poem sometime soon. Goes with “a charlatan of God”, gleaned from a video clip of Alex Caldiero I found while processing Tyler Chadwick’s recent post on Sonosophy.

    Your discussion of myth and fact reminds me of a blessing my father once gave me, in which he stated that the scriptures were meant as guides to life, not historical records. That in turn resonated with an experience on my mission in which, while reading Joseph Smith—History in a rattly cab on the way down a hill in Port-au-Prince, my persistent question about the truth about the message was answered with a vision of its goodness.

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