The True Myth

I include this conversation between J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis with little comment. These two great thinkers and writers have far more to say than I, plus they say it far better. The occasion was a meeting between three men and would lead to Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Tolkien argues that truth and Truth (revelation) can sometimes be expressed only in myth: 

This is a 1967 photo of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien is the author of "The Lord of the Rings" and an Oxford University Professor. (AP Photo)lewis

This meeting, which was to have such a revolutionary impact on Lewis’s life, took place on 19 September 1931 after Lewis had invited Tolkien and Dyson to dine at his rooms in Magdalen College. After dinner the three men went for a walk beside the river and discussed the nature and purpose of myth. Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths, but that they were ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths were ‘lies, even though lies breathed through silver.’

No,’ Tolkien replied emphatically. ‘They are not.’

Tolkien resumes, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. ‘We have come from God [continued Tolkien], and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of true light, the eternal truth that is with God.’ Since we are made in the image of God, and since God is the Creator, part of the imageness of God in us is the gift of creativity. The creation — or, more correctly, the sub-creation — of stories or myths is merely a reflection of the image of the Creator in us. As such, although ‘myths may be misguided, . . . they steer however shakily towards the true harbour,’ whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.

. . . Listening almost spellbound as Tolkien expounded his philosophy of myth, Lewis felt the foundation of his own theistic philosophy crumble into dust before the force of his friend’s arguments.

. . . Tolkien developed his argument to explain that the story of Christ was the True Myth, a myth that works in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened — a myth that existed in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth. In the same way that men unraveled the truth through the weaving of story, God revealed the Truth through the weaving of history.

. . . Tolkien . . . had shown that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth. Yet, most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.



See also: Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura, 187-188, who quotes from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Joseph Pearce, 2013.