Scholar’s Compass: Myth Made Fact

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

David Russell Mosley finishes his series on how human creativity participates in God’s creativity. Tolkien fans will enjoy Mosley’s exploration of the idea of subcreation, articulated in Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories.” Tolkien argued that human creativity is a gift from God to those made in His image, and that when a human writer imagines something, that writer is “sub creating,” crafting a fictional setting in a small and respectful imitation of God’s creative abilities. Today, Mosley explores Tolkien’s idea that God gave humanity hints of the Gospel through mythology and fairy tales, so that when Christ came His historical appearance fulfilled the desires expressed through human storytelling: Myth became Fact. 

Quotation

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way that is fitting to this respect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels––peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But the story has entered History and the primary world; the desires and aspirations of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. – J. R. R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf”

Reflection

I love reading fairy-tales and fantasy. That’s probably become evident from the very first devotion looking at creativity according to Milbank. There is a good chance that part of my love of these stories from the Perilous Realm, as Tolkien calls it, comes from my upbringing. I was encouraged to read from a very young age. My mother was reading The Hobbit to me while I was still in the cradle. I was raised as an only child and there were no kids in my neighbourhood, at least not after I turned 11 or so. Now I was not an only child. I was adopted by paternal grandparents at a year old. They had four children of their own before adopting me. My biological mother also had at least three other children from different men, but I was cut off from all of these. My adopted siblings were all considerably older than me and most lived outside of our hometown. My adopted siblings I’ve still never met and didn’t know much about them until I was a little older. So, my formative years were spent reading. I read some works of fantasy and science fiction, read the classics of English literature as my mother encouraged me, read Greek mythology, and more. I loved these stories. They formed my vision of the world. In fact, they were my only constant companions, at least until I became a Christian. Even then, I continued to read fairy-stories. By the time I hit college I had devoured most things written by C. S. Lewis, the main corpus of Tolkien’s works, and had begun to engage with authors like Chesterton and George MacDonald. These figures formed my vision of the world around me, but even more, they changed how I read the Gospel.

My training in the Bible was spent primarily in learning Hebrew and Greek, understanding the cultures in which the texts were written, understanding how they would have been understood by their original audiences, etc. What Tolkien (and the others) reminded me of is that the Scriptures don’t have human authors only, that they have a divine Author as well. However, this Author not only wrote the Scriptures (I’m not suggesting any particular version of inspiration, simply that we can call God an author of the Scriptures), but He is the Author of all that exists. When human creators create, we can make new things in Creation; God gives us these creations as gifts, but when God creates a story it is Creation. This is the Gospel, the myth that entered Creation, the myth that has become reality in a way humanity’s myths cannot. This is part of the beauty of the Gospel, that it is incredible (unbelievable) and yet true, nonetheless.

A final thought: In my first devotion, we looked at the role of human creators; in the second we really looked at the role Faërie plays in seeing the world around us; in this one, however, we have looked at how the Gospel not only contains elements of Faërie, but really, can be called the source for Faërie. Human history becomes a fairy-story. As Tolkien says, the Incarnation is the eucatastrophe of human history. For those unfamiliar with this term, eucatastrophe is a kind of happy accident, an unexpected and drastic overturning of all things, but one that is good. The Incarnation does this for human history: the Creator has entered creation as a creation. But even more unexpectedly, the story of the Incarnation turns to crucifixion and resurrection. This is the eucatasrophe from which all others (whether prior to it in time or after it) are derived. All eucatastrophes before it were foreshadows and all others after it participate in it and to one degree or another tell it. What this means is that when we do theology and when we write poetry or fiction, the story we are telling is ultimately sourced in redemption and deification, in the coming of Christ into the world. This too is good news.

Questions

How might Tolkien’s way of looking at the Gospel as fairy-story change the way you talk about it?

Prayer

God and Poet of all that is, bless us this day. Let us see your Creation as the Story it is. Help us to remember that the coming of your Son into the world is the eucatastrophe of all history, and that his resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. Help us to live as sub-creators, as people who see the world around us as enchanted, as people who live in the eucatastrophic reality of the empty tomb. Amen.

Further Reading

J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 88-9.


Image courtesy of David Iliff, The sanctuary of Arundel Cathedral looking east, in West Sussex, England. 

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David Russell Mosley

David Russell Mosley has a PhD in theology from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include patristic and medieval theology, sacramentology, liturgy, poetry, fantasy (literature), Christology, Trinitarian theology, deification, economics and theology, ecology and theology, and other areas of Christian theology. He is husband to Lauren Mosley and is the father of twin boys, Theodore Nicholas George Mosley and Edwyn Arthur Russell Mosley. In his spare time, David loves to read and write poetry and fairy tales, drink craft beer, smoke pipe tobacco, takes his notes with pen and paper, write handwritten letters, and generally likes to live at a slower pace of life. David keeps up a blog called Letters from the Edge of Elfland. He is also the author of the forthcoming books On the Edge of Elfland, a faërie romance which will be published by Wipf and Stock publishers sometime late 2016 or early 2017; and Being Deified: Poetry and Fantasy on the Path to God which will be published by Fortress Press.

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One Comment

  • jsire@prodigy.net'
    James W. Sire commented on February 12, 2015 Reply

    Thanks, David, for bringing attention to the notion of “myth became fact.”

    Long ago, say 1965, I had the privilege of visiting Clyde Kilby, then chairman of the English department at Wheaton and the second American scholar to write a book focusing on C. S. Lewis. He introduced me to Lewis’s yet to be published (in the US) “When Myth Became Fact.”

    It was just what I was looking for, for I was planning to write a book or long essay on “myth” in Lewis and literature in general. This was great fuel for my fire. But before my kindled flame had become a full fire, Corbin Scott Cornell published Bright Shadow of Reality, and I thought the topic had been dealt with adequately. So I laid those plans aside.

    But the idea introduced and exemplified by Lewis and Tolkien has greatly influenced my reading and interpretation of literature. When I finally turned, in my new book Apologetics Beyond Reason, to crafting a primitive “theory of literature,” I titled chapter 4 “Secondary Worlds” and prefaced it with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” The notion of “secondary worlds” is central to my “theory.” Later I’ve inserted second section from the same Tolkien essay.

    So thanks for highlighting a key concept from Lewis and Tolkien and, perhaps, introducing a whole bunch of new scholars to an idea that is much larger than a part of any literary theory.

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