Tolkien and Lewis: Masters of Myth and Tellers of Truth
In the face of faithless and irrational disenchantment Tolkien and Lewis have blessed us with powerful works of re-enchantment.
“I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself. “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions – with the aid of my five senses.”
I have since learned that there is no such world, but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue.
Charles Ryder’s thoughts upon leaving Brideshead for what he thought would be the last time, and his own later judgment on those thoughts, convey a great deal about the nature and supernature of the reality to which we are all subject. Like the young and naïve Charles Ryder, materialists insist that the supernatural is merely an illusion; only when we have “left behind illusion” are we able to see all that there is to see, the world of three dimensions – with the aid of our five senses. The problem, as Charles Ryder would come to realise, is that such a world is itself an illusion. There is no such world. The real world, as Hopkins reminds us, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” There is simply no escaping His powerful omnipresence. “For God’s sake,” exclaims Charles Ryder to the Jesuitical Bridey, “why bring God into everything?” Ryder’s question strikes the dauntlessly (theo)logical Bridey as “extremely funny.” Whether Ryder knows it or not, God is in everything and “into everything.” He is inescapable. Unavoidable.
It is the inescapable and unavoidable presence of God that makes myth such a powerful conveyer of reality. If the essential ingredients of reality, of life, are not physical but metaphysical, it follows that true stories must reflect these metaphysical realities. If goodness, truth, beauty and love are at the heart of all that is truly real, and if these things transcend the three dimensions and the five senses, it follows that stories must convey this essential transcendence in order to be real and true. Any story that fails to convey this mystical transcendence and remains solely within a world of three dimensions and five senses will not only be lacking in reality, it will be dead. Lifeless.
And so it is that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are tellers of truth and masters of myth. The Ainulindalë in The Silmarillion is a hymn of praise to the Great Music of God’s Creation, as is Aslan’s singing of Narnia into Being in The Magician’s Nephew. In their powerful and poetic evocation of the beauty and harmony at the heart of the cosmos, Tolkien and Lewis are singing in creative harmony with Dante’s vision of Paradise and Lorenzo’s reverence for the Music of the Spheres in The Merchant of Venice:
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Tolkien, Lewis, Dante and Shakespeare share the knowledge that it is Love that moves the sun and the other stars, and that the cosmos is the first and greatest Love Song. These great writers live in an Enchanted world which has been sung into existence. And here we need to remind ourselves that the word enchantment derives from the Latin cantare, “to sing,” as in Gregorian Chant, and has nothing to do with the modern corruption of language which has made enchantment synonymous with bewitchment. (To hell with the Devil’s deconstruction of language and heaven preserve us from his post-modern disciples in the academy!) And while we’re on the thorny subject of language-abuse, we should insist that history is not about “superstition” and “enlightenment” but about “enchantment” and “disenchantment.” The superciliously self-named “Enlightenment” was hardly enlightened in its rejection of the realism of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas in favour of the nominalism of William of Ockham. It was, however, disenchanted. It rejected that the cosmos had been brought into existence by a beneficent Creator, the Prime Mover, First Cause and Great Composer of the cosmos, and insisted instead that it was all a highly unlikely accident! It was not meant to happen, it was not made to happen, it simply “happened.” There’s no purpose, no meaning, no music. There’s only the monotony of matter, a world of three dimensions perceived by our five senses. Such a world does not exist in reality, as Charles Ryder came to understand, but its non-existence does not prevent the credulous from believing in it. Such believers in Nothing have no music in their souls, no harmony in their hearts and, as Lorenzo reminds us, cannot be trusted:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
In the face of such faithless and irrational disenchantment Tolkien and Lewis have blessed us with powerful works of re-enchantment. They remind us that disenchantment is the False Myth, the ultimate Lie that denies the very cause and source of things, whereas, in contrast, re-enchantment reawakens us to the True Myth and the Great Music. This is true reason, and it is for this reason that Tolkien and Lewis, as masters of myth, can be trusted as tellers of truth.