Myth equals a truth that cannot be explained by mere fact. A fact is utilitarian: It demands verification and replication. A myth can emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life.
Myth holds an estranged place in the modern world. But this is the modern world’s fault, not myth’s. Indeed, myth might just save the modern world from its innumerable follies. The Oxford don and profound myth-maker, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote in his poem “Mythopoeia,” echoing the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced)
Myth, as Tolkien argued, equals a truth that cannot be explained by mere fact; myth is in essence a greater truth than finite science can provide on any single question. A fact is utilitarian: It demands verification and replication. Non-utilitarian, a myth can—if used properly—emphasize the beauty of God’s creation as well as the sacramental nature of life. “Our time, sick nigh unto death of utilitarianism and literalness, cries out for myth and parable,” American novelist and political philosopher Russell Kirk explained. “Great myths are not merely susceptible of rational interpretation: they are truth, transcendent truth.” Both Tolkien and Kirk believed that myth could teach men and women how to be true men and true women, as God intended them to be, and not mere cogs in a vast machine. And of course, for both Tolkien and Kirk, their “boss was a Jewish story-teller.”
The great English writer G.K. Chesterton, who served as a significant source of inspiration to a much younger Tolkien, once explained myth in a way that only Chesterton was capable of:
But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images of shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.
Equally important, myth plays a vital role in any culture, binding together members of its various communities. “It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad,” Chesterton concluded in Orthodoxy. Communities, political theorist Don Lutz has explained, “share symbols and myths that provide meaning in their existence as a people and link them to some transcendent order. . . . The shared meaning and a shared link to some transcendent order allow them to act as a people.” The man “who has no sympathy with myths,” Chesterton wrote, “has no sympathy with men.” One cannot, it seems, separate men from myths. Just as men are born into authority and community, they are also born into myth, and may, if blessed, become a part of it.
Myth and history, though, are not in opposition—but are tied together. The historian Christopher Dawson explained the connection in his own life. “The old road [of myth] which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.”
Yet many in the modern world have rejected the importance of myth. For the modernist, imbued with Jamesian and Deweyite pragmatism, myth is a lie. One cannot, after all, see, feel, smell, taste, or hear myth. It remains just beyond our material and physical senses, and we most certainly cannot scientifically verify it. But because myth is essential to man as Chesterton rightly contended, modernity has simply watered-down all of reality, creating in its place, bogus and cheap counterfeits. “In this new sphere[,] things are no longer directly detected, seen, grasped, formed, or enjoyed; rather, they are mediated by signs and substitutes,” Italian-born German theologian Romano Guardini wrote in the mid-1920s. The modernists readily dismiss religion as merely a convenient myth, a comfortable and entrenched lie. For the post-modernist, myth represents simply one story among many, purely subjective, signifying nothing of transcendent importance.
For Tolkien though, even pagan myths attempted (but almost always failed) to express God’s greater truths. True myth has the power to revive us, to serve as an anamnesis, that is, to return us to right reason. But, myth can be dangerous, or “perilous,” as Tolkien usually described it, as well if it remained pagan. Therefore, Tolkien argued, one must sanctify it, that is, make it Christian and put it in God’s service. One only has to think of the example of an intrepid early medieval saint such as Boniface of Crediton. His story (most likely a “mere myth”) claims that while evangelizing the pagan Germanic tribes in north central Europe, he encountered a tribe that worshiped a large oak tree. To demonstrate the power of Christ as the True God, Boniface cut down the oak, much to the dismay of the tribe. Rather than the pagan gods striking down St. Boniface for his crimes against their tree, an evergreen sprang up on the same spot. So that Boniface could continue preaching to the astounded pagans, his followers placed candles on the newly grown evergreen, and, hence, it became the first Christmas Tree.
Whether true in fact or not (and it cannot be true in fact, of course, as it cannot be explained or replicated; a miracle, after all, requires “the suspension of the Natural Law”), Christians repeated the story of “sanctifying the pagan site” in a multitude of ways during conversions in Europe and throughout the world. Other examples of sanctification include the holidays of Christmas and Easter being placed on high pagan holidays; St. Paul’s attempt to convert the Athenians with their statue of the “Unknown God”; St. Augustine’s sanctification of Plato and Cicero; St. Aquinas’s sanctification of Aristotle; and even the Catholic monks who built their monastery on top of the highest mound/temple in Cahokia, Illinois, the former site of the priest-king of a vast Indian Empire. Indeed, churches throughout Europe and North American sit on formerly sacred pagan sites. They, in essence, baptize the corrupt ground, just as Augustine and Aquinas baptized pagan ideas. As St. Paul told the Ephesians, they must “redeem the time.”
On another level, though, the baptism or sanctification of the pagan reflects the baptism and sanctification of the self. Like the former pagan sites, the Christian person too goes through a process of being lost, baptized, and sanctified. One is reminded of the disciples on Easter morning. The two women who find His tomb empty experience bewilderment. At their encounter with the risen Christ, they are overwhelmed with surprise and then, upon understanding, joy. The story of Easter morning serves as an allegory for all baptism or sanctification.
It is mythical in that it reaches the depths of our being; it tells us truth, and no factual science could ever repeat the death and resurrection of Christ. Or, for that matter, any of the Christian mysteries. But humans themselves—because of the Incarnation—are part of the Christ story. Tolkien once described each human person as “an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”
Myth, when used for God’s glory, makes us real.
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The featured image is “Crossing the River Styx” (between 1520 and 1524) by Joachim Patinir, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.