What place is there in our modern world for the myth? What are some of the implications of our callous disregard and, in many cases, our wanton destruction of myth? These are two questions that are in need of consideration as we watch the men and women of our time rage against themselves, against our heritage, our inheritance, and our traditions. As with most things, what is understood as myth is grossly oversimplified and gravely misunderstood. One hears the word and immediately calls to mind fantastical images, which, to the modern mind, are ludicrous for no other reason than because they are not, indeed, fact. Because something is not fact, because it is not verifiably true or empirically measureable, it has in the modern world no value. Ours is a materialistic age – everything that can be, must be, and whatever is quantifiably not, isn’t. Everything must produce, and therefore has value, thus if it does not produce it must be valueless. Myth stands athwart such ideas and says nay.
What does it say about a people who have no myths? A people who see no value in the mythological? Further, what does it say about a people who actively discourage myth making and telling? All throughout history up to our modern age, the role of myth in a given society was significant, and this role remains significant for many a society much older than our United States. Perhaps it is because the U.S. was born just prior to the onset of the modern era, when myth was replaced by machination, and thus did not develop in the same way as, say, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, French, or Germanic tribes. Each of these peoples swims in a wellspring of myth. They have for so long informed these groups on their identities – what sets them apart. As such, until the onset of the globalized world order, whereby national identities are increasingly demonized, such myth-centered identities were sources of pride and, more fundamentally, unity.
First, what is myth? A myth is a story. One hears the word and likely will call to mind fairies and dragons, knights and sorcerers, and all manner of other fantastical elements, and so he should. Yet, those are just that – elements, and not the core of what a myth is. According to Tolkien, what myth is – interchangeable with the word “faerie” or fairy – “cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.”[i] However, Tolkien does offer some understanding of the world of faerie:
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.”
To the modern mind, the myth is a story that never happened. One reads or (more likely) watches the story of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Beauty and the Beast, and takes them as charming tales but, because they are not true stories, perceive their value very lowly. Yet, Tolkien understood in both a felt as well as an academic sense what countless people inherently knew before him, namely that myths were not simple tales, but were much more. He understood that a myth need not be real in order to be true. Dr. Bradley Birzer writes,
“Indeed, for Tolkien, myths expressed far greater truths than did historical facts of events. Sanctified myths, inspired by grace, served as an anamnesis, or a way for a people to recall encounters with transcendence that had helped to order their souls and their society. Myth, inherited or created, could also offer a “sudden glimpse of Truth,” that is, a brief view of heaven. At the very least, sanctified myth revealed the life humans were meant to have prior to the Fall.”[ii]
Along these same lines, Tolkien’s famous friend C.S. Lewis wrote:
“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. A man who disbelieves 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.”[iii]
It is well known by now that myth played a critical role both in Tolkien’s efforts to convert his friend C.S. to the Christian faith, as it did to C.S. in reasoning through his conversion. It was Tolkien who made the famous suggestion to Lewis, in the presence of mutual friend Hugo Dyson, that Christianity was indeed a myth, but unlike all others, Christianity was a true myth. Lewis took to this idea, later writing to his friend Arthur Greeves, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth… One must be content to accept it in the same way, remember that it is God’s myth where others are man’s myths, i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there.”
So is revealed yet another important piece of the puzzle to understanding myth. As Lewis wrote, it is God revealing Himself through the images found in the minds of those through whom he has moved. Thus it becomes clear that a myth is a true story, though not necessarily factual. Such a distinction is a stumbling block to a materialist age which cannot conceive that such a dichotomy may be, in fact, perfectly suitable and allowed to stand.
[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. (year). On Fairy Stories, 2
[ii] Birzer, Bradley. (year). J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 24
[iii] Lewis, C.S. (year). Myth Became Fact