C.S. Lewis On Why Myth Matters
The Faun's Bookshelf: C.S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters | Charlie W. Starr | Kent State University Press
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Reviewed by Carla Galdo
Readers who have wandered through the wardrobe into Narnia with Lucy, sailed to the World's End with Caspian, and rocketed to prelapsarian worlds with Ransom will relish Charlie W. Starr's meticulous and creative study of mythology throughout C.S.Lewis' oeuvre (fiction and non-fiction) in The Faun's Bookshelf: C.S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters . Starr, an expert on all things Lewis, begins his book with a whimsical framing device. He imagines a wondering Lucy, who, while waiting for her curious faun-host to set the table for tea, peers at Mr. Tumnus' bookshelf in an early chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy discovers four representative titles—non-existent books found only upon the fictional bookshelves of Narnian forest dwellers: The Life and Letters of Silenus, Nymphs and their Ways, Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers: a Study in Popular Legend, and Is Man a Myth? Starr uses these titles as a springboard for revealing the pivotal relationship of myth not only to Lewis' Christian faith and his writing, but to every Christian believer as well.
As the book unfolds, it becomes clear that for Lewis and his Inkling companions, myths were not merely invented stories for interested literary hobbyists. Many today might claim “myth” to be simply that which is primitive or untrue, and therefore easily dismissed as irrelevant in discussions of truth and meaning. However, beneath modern culture's facile dismissal of the genre, there simmers a longing for myth Starr sees as expressed in the resurgent popularity of Star Wars, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books and their film adaptations, and even the comic-superheroes-turned-film-stars trend of recent years. Modern man is divided against himself, longing for transcendence in a world that has evacuated meaning from all manner of things which used to inspire awe: stars are simply balls of gas, not beacons that draw forth men's dreams; our bodies are mere fodder for manipulation, not the holy dwellings of our souls; our children are commodities chosen, rather than gifts received. Scientific materialism's tidal wave of cold rationality has washed over and washed out modern existence. This is no small problem for Christians, in particular those who depend upon the grace conveyed through sacramental matter, and who look forward to eternity as the dwelling of glorified, embodied souls.
Starr points out, in his musings upon the fictional title Nymphs and their Ways, that Lewis was fully aware of these modern trends when he crafted his tales. Starr links Lewis' interest in mythology to his belief that the resolution to modernity's dilemma of meaningless matter turns on the centrality of the Incarnation—for Lewis, the “grand miracle” par excellence. If the divine Word has united itself with the physical world in Christ, not only man but all of nature is engaged in the movement towards redemption. Matter itself has been glorified in the Ascension and thus cannot be empty of meaning. Starr posits that this unification of the divine with the world is echoed in Lewis' tales of mythological creatures like nymphs, said to be the indwelling spirits of trees and springs. Such creatures, imaginary though they may be, are an oblique reminder to moderns that matter can be “permeated by spirit” and that our “universe is far more organism than machine.”
Myth is also, for Lewis, an important way of knowing. It has “epistemological value” for “providing knowledge (in ways that other methods of communication cannot).” In one of the more challenging portions of The Faun's Bookshelf, Starr addresses Lewis' fascination with Owen Barfield's book Poetic Diction, which he uses to make the point that a myth is not a rational articulation of an abstract point, but rather a primal experience. For modern readers, experiencing a myth the “right way” is closer to the visual, non-verbal experience of a film, or the appreciation of a symphony, in which meaning is conveyed without words and understood without articulation, at a deep human level, prior to, and separate from, the experience captured by linguistic analysis. Lewis described his own experiences of this dynamic while he was reading Norse myth or wandering through nature as being “stabbed by joy,” a feeling he later identified as a foretaste of the glory of God. This enlivening of the imagination by myth, nature, or poetry was key for Lewis, pivotal not only in his own conversion, but, as he asserts in various texts, is a crucial complement to theological reason on the journey of any Christian. Hearts ill-trained in relishing that which, on the natural level, precedes or even exceeds articulation, may indeed struggle to engage on the supernatural level in a life of genuine prayer—in swimming freely with the Spirit between verbal address, meditative pondering, and contemplative indwelling.
Starr (and Lewis himself) does not shy away from the more controversial elements of mythology. He admits it has potential to be taken over by that which is at worst, evil, and at best, distracting. He discusses how Lewis maintains the integrity of Scripture while not dismissing all pagan mythologies out-of-hand. He sees pagan myths as a preparation for, and a movement towards, truth: “If my religion is true, then these stories may well be a preparatio evangelica, a divine hinting in poetic and ritual form at the same central truth which was later focused on and . . . historicized in the Incarnation.” In the Gospel, “myth becomes fact” when the divine enters into history.
Those conversant in Lewis' fiction and essays will likely not find many surprises here, although Starr's expertise in Lewis' manuscripts yields some new discoveries with which most casual readers of Lewis are likely to be unfamiliar. While a thorough reading of all of Lewis' non-fiction is not necessary to appreciate Starr's book—his distillation of the salient points of Lewis' non-fiction essays and books is clear and well-done—it is perhaps best appreciated by those well-versed in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, The Pilgrim's Regress, and The Great Divorce. Starr wields notes on plot, character, and setting from all of these books without regard for “spoilers,” and with a working assumption that most readers will be familiar with C.S. Lewis' fictional worlds, their histories, and their happenings. Starr has done a remarkable job setting down an overarching vision of C.S. Lewis and his work on mythology. However, the truest understanding of why myth matters to Lewis is best grasped by taking a literary dive into any of his mythological worlds, and experiencing first-hand that inarticulate sense of longing, nostalgia, and wonder that such stories evoke.
Carla Galdo is a graduate of the Washington, D.C. session of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family. She is a contributor to Humanum, an online quarterly review of books of the JPII Institute's Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research, and the publications of Well-Read Mom, a nationwide movement of women endeavoring to cultivate the moral imagination through the attentive reading of literature in the Western and Christian tradition. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband and five children.
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