Christian faith and higher imagination:
The Influence of
Christian Faith and Higher Imagination: Williams, Lewis and Tolkien
“As evangelical Christians living at the dawn of the 21st century, we often lack a method and a language for addressing the challenges of our current age. Yes, we have the will and the passion to defend our faith, the biblical knowledge to support our arguments, and often the Christian charity to couch those arguments in love. Yet for all our passion, knowledge, and love, something in our approach is lacking; something about our vocabulary is deficient. We seem powerless to convict, engage, and transform the secular world” (Markus).
According to Louis Markus, our current examples of modern and postmodern literature “are fast dethroning language and the arts as bearers of divine meaning-or for that matter any meaning”. He goes on to write that only a “brave few” have broken from this tendency and have championed “a more traditional view of art that is grounded in the Incarnation”. Modern Christians have forgotten the art of story-telling, and this has been a significant loss.
However, not so long ago, there was a different sort of writer inhabiting the green and vibrant lands “across the pond”. From Middle-earth to Narnia, from The Place of the Lion to Aslan the Lion, on to Mordor and back to the Shire, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Charles Williams called upon their readers to “re-enchant the cosmos”, by keeping alive the “myth that transcends thought” and the “Incarnation that transcends myth” (Lewis, Edwards).
three men of mid-twentieth century
One example of a Thursday evening Inkling meetings suggests the kind of heady discussions that married the theological and the mythological with the literary. One of the members of the Inklings is wondering aloud what Tolkien’s story of The Lord of the Rings really means. Lewis fiercely defensive explains, “But that’s the whole point! It doesn’t mean anything, in the sense of abstracting a meaning from it. Tollers may regard it fundamentally as “about” the Fall and Mortality and the Machine, but that may not be how I read it. Indeed it seems to me (with due respect) a great mistake to try and attach any kind of abstract meaning to a story like his. Story-or at least a great Story of the mythical type-gives us an experience of something not as an abstraction but as a concrete reality. We don’t “understand the meaning” when we read a myth, we actually encounter the thing itself.” (Carpenter).
Lewis, Tolkien and Williams had a divine view of myth; a Trinitarian view of myth that evokes beauty, love and reason. Although, our modern world may have forgotten how to think, it still has the innate capacity to respond to beauty and love which provokes every soul (other than an Orc or a Gollum) to be able to reason. As Lewis said, “We don’t “understand the meaning” when we read a myth, we actually encounter the thing itself.”
Lewis argues for the “true myth” in this way, “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 (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle…… God is more than 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 be nervous about "parallels" and "pagan Christs": they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic?” (Lewis).
Mythopoeia is a word that was originally invented and used by Tolkien; however, it was subsequently used very frequently by Lewis and the other Inklings. Now, the word is found in the dictionary to mean “to make myth”. It is also considered a separate genre of literature. In making a myth, in writing mythopoeia, one is acting as what Tolkien referred to as a ‘sub-creator’, in that he is under God, THE Creator. Therefore the myth-maker is “fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light” (Carpenter).
first wrote about Mythopoeia as a poem, in response to the argument
Lewis, before his conversion, that myths were "lies and therefore
worthless, even though breathed through silver" (Carpenter). However,
knew the power of myth, “when he read
stories about Balder, Adonis and Bacchus, he was prepared to ‘feel the
profound and suggestive of meaning beyond my grasp even tho’ I could
not say in
cold prose “what it meant”(Wilson). Tolkien explained to Lewis that
this was an
“imaginative failure on Lewis’ part”; Lewis should understand that “the
of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way
others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened:
must be content to accept it in the same way” (
It was through these discussions, with not only Tolkien, but also with Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield, in which Lewis finally realizes that he had been wrong to not believe the Christian story as true myth. However, Lewis still could not see how the story of Christ was really relevant to him; he said to Tolkien, “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now-except in so far as his example could help us” (Carpenter). He then asks Tolkien if the death and resurrection of Christ is just the old “dying God” story all over again. Tolkien responds that it is the “real Dying God”; the old myth has become a fact. Tolkien encourages Lewis to enjoy the Christian story in the same way he would read, enjoy and draw nourishment from the old pagan myths, “if God is mythopoeic, man must become mythopathic” (Carpenter).
According to Humphrey Carpenter, Lewis wrote a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves twelve days later explaining his conversion from Theism to Christianity, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ-in Christianity.” This is an illustration of the divine myth evoking reason from both beauty and love. For Lewis it led, not only, to his conversion; but also, to become a well known Christian apologist and Christian “myth-maker”. Lewis writes of the importance of myth in our Christian understanding in his essay, Myth became Fact, “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 . . . 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, 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.”
illustrated the power of story, even those that are not true myth. If,
society, we are not steeped in the story of the Bible, we would have to
that the false myths are especially powerful. However, our need to
orient all our
beliefs in terms of story is how our Creator decided to create our
thinking, and our reasoning. If our society is to recover a right
of God, then it is vital that we teach the Gospels as story.
According to Douglas Wilson, “Propositions extracted from
the story are not the truth; they are dehydrated truth…we need to add
Douglas Wilson argues that ever since the Enlightenment, the “Christian
has been busy trying to take the scriptures apart, to find the
version; we want the “essence of the gospel”. “When we try to separate
propositions from the story, it does not matter which of the two we
keep. The conservatives want to keep the truth of the propositions,
unencumbered with story. Liberals want to keep the story, unencumbered
troublesome questions about whether it actually happened or not. But
separate them like this, they both die” (
From the epilogue of JRR Tolkien’s essay, On Fairy-Stories, he articulates the union between the Christian faith and higher imagination, “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels- peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [the joyous moment after the catastrophe; for example, Redemption after the Fall]. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Crucifixion. The story of the Incarnation of Christ begins and ends with joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, the Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”
The difference between the works of Charles Williams and those of Lewis and Tolkien is rather interesting. Williams does not sub-create a Middle-earth or a Narnia. Instead, “he starts with the familiar, matter-of-fact world, and he never leaves it” (Walsh). Williams writes about the world as we know it, with characters that are recognizable to us, living lives that are similar to our own, “with Williams one does not escape to a different world, a new logic, but rather copes with strange powers….within a completely familiar world”(Walsh). This “strange power” describes the supernatural world that challenges the reader, “to face ultimate moral and religious choices”.
Williams blends Christian mysticism with the genre of detective-mystery in his numerous novels. His “supernatural thrillers”, or what he called, “psychological thrillers”, are certainly not for the faint of heart, “his demands are too severe”, and they can be difficult to understand. Even JRR Tolkien admits that “reading Williams can be a challenge”. However, Tolkien expresses deep admiration for Williams’ skill at discerning and describing the supernatural (Glyer).
Williams’s exploration of the paranormal and of a “realm in which magic, both white and black, functions” takes me out of my comfort zone in a way that I don’t find in the writings of Tolkien or Lewis. Not that Williams makes magic the Ultimate power; he doesn’t, “magic is real, magic is powerful, but in Williamsland it is not ultimate. In a clearcut contest with spiritual power, mere magic loses” (Walsh). But he forces the reader to see a reality of the world that we may not want to see; his works are for those who are willing to risk a frightening look at the skirmishes in the battle between good and evil.
Though Williams is probably best known for these Christian “psychological thrillers”, he also wrote books on theology and a great deal of poetry. He was considered the greatest twentieth-century poet to take the Arthurian legends for his theme. C. S. Lewis wrote of his poems, 'They seem to me, both for the soaring and gorgeous novelty of their technique and for their profound wisdom, to be among the two or three most valuable books of verse produced in the century.'
Williams integrated his religious faith with his imagination so completely that it is difficult discern where they may actually separate. Walsh writes about Williams, “One has the impression, uncanny at times, that he simply pictured what he himself saw. He seemingly saw a world in which the Nicene Creed operated as surely in human affairs as the law of gravitation. The feeling produced by his novels is that he has not replaced one reality with another, but simply forced our eyes wide open, so that reality becomes a bigger world, and we recognize what has been there all along, but unseen because of our poor vision”.
This “literary Trinity” of Lewis, Tolkien and Williams had many differences in their literary styles, their views on religion and even in the way they felt magic, or the supernatural, should be used in their writings. However, they are three pieces of a legacy, each representing different pieces of the whole. Their similarities and their differences are equally important, because they both contribute to a greater purpose. These men worked interdependently within a creative community that was bound by a strong foundation in the Christian faith and high imagination that expresses itself in myth. Lewis, Tolkien and Williams knew how the art of story telling. In addition, they told their readers about divine realities, while engaging us in their story, so that we might “transformed” by the true myth of the Incarnation.
Carpenter, H. (1979) The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Kilby,C.S., Kirk, R.,
(2007). C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.
(1970) God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans:
Markus, L. A. (4/23/2001) Myth Matters: Why C.S. Lewis's books remain models for Christian apologists in the 21st century. Retrieved from: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/april23/1.32.html