So what do you mean when you say myth?

Last week I posted what I thought would be just a tidbit of food for thought.  Since I have been talking about myth and C. S. Lewis for the past six months at least, I really was not prepared for the response I got concerning what I mean when I talk about myth. So I thought that today I could shed a little more light on the concept of myth, which is not only a philosophical term, but a historical and literary term.  Sometimes the distinctions between the different disciplines that use myth become blurred, but there are some things about myth that are universally true…

G. S. Kirk defines myth with the understanding that religious rites and rituals are revealed, explained or understood through the myth (Myth Its Meaning and Function 23).  Even though “something really ‘higher’ is occasionally glimpsed in mythology: Divinity, the right to power (as distinct from its possession), the due worship,” myth is still something other than religion (Tolkien, “On Faerie” 51).  Indeed according to Tolkien and Andrew Lang, “religion and mythology (in the strict sense of that word) are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance” (Tolkien 51).  However, Tolkien and Lang missed the connection and power of revelation in myth and how it works with the religious convictions and practices of the culture.  Lewis also embraces Kirk’s concept of myth as Gibson in his book, C. S. Lewis Spinner of Tales: a Guide to His Fiction, insists:

Lewis did not believe that all pagan religions were completely empty of truth.  In an essay titled ‘Religion without Dogma’ he speaks of the mass of mythology which has come down to us as having many sources mixed together—from history, allegory, ritual, and so on.  But he suggests that some of the sources may also be supernatural—in fact, both diabolical and divine.  The latter, he says, may be a praeparatio evangelica, a divine hint in the ritual or poetry which shadows forth the central truth declared clearly and historically in the incarnation.  As already noted, he refers to these divine hints as the ‘good dreams’ which God had sent to man prior to the full revelation in Christ.  (232)

Lewis and Kirk understand divine revelation as the key to what makes myth, myth.  It is not magic but divine inspiration that set a myth apart from a fairytale.  Tolkien and Lang are right to assert that mythology is not religion, but that does not mean that myth cannot share aspects of the religious practices with culture and give understanding and meaning to mysteries not fully revealed.


5 thoughts on “So what do you mean when you say myth?

  1. Personally, I’ve always loved Lewis’ passage in Mere Christianity where he talks about the True Myth. I’ll never forget when I first read Lewis say that Christ was a corn-king (i.e. a mythical deity of the harvest, seasons, and rebirth). I was shocked to read such an admired christian author say such a thing. And then he continued, that Christ wasn’t just A corn-king, but THE TRUE Corn-King, which all other corn-king mythos tried to copy. Likewise, Christ is a sea god, but not just A sea god, but THE TRUE God of the Sea, and God of Fire, and God of the Sun, and God of Anything and Everything Else You Care to Name.

    What a revealing statement! How much larger of a God is this than what most churches worship.

  2. That’s what makes Til We Have Faces so amazing, really. Lewis took a myth that, as you say, is linked to the True Myth simply in its existence as mythology, and restored it to the True Myth by presenting a retelling of the original myth.

    Only Lewis…

  3. Always interesting to note places where Lewis and Tolkien differ. The respective sub-creations of the two men reflect the difference you noted: Middle-earth is almost entirely devoid of religious rites and worship, while in Lewis we see them frequently.

    1. While it’s true that Tolkien’s world is devoid of rituals and worship, the world itself could not exist if there were not an Iluvatar. That is what the Silmarillion makes abundantly clear (as well as Christopher’s notes along with Tolkien’s letters), that instead of making a myth that infers the True Myth, Tolkien developed a world that cannot exist without the Truth, and so in its every aspect implies God.

      1. Absolutely, Erik. We get in Tolkien an explicit creation story (a majestic one), and a collection of stories where the superintendence of God’s wise and good providence is as evident as it is in, say, the book of Esther — while Iluvatar is rarely named in Middle-earth, His action is evident, playing in His children and other creatures.

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