To help us more clearly understand Tolkien’s use of Myth as the basis for “reality in fantasy,” let’s turn to his fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, and his “myth retold,” Till We Have Faces. Lewis considered this work a favorite among his writings, though he acknowledged it was probably the least read. Inklings scholar Thomas Howard provides some insights regarding Lewis’ classic tale that can be helpfully extended to Tolkien’s work as well, particularly regarding the nature of Myth.*
Till We Have Faces is subtitled “A Myth Retold” (even though most published versions and many reviews call it “A Novel”). Howard considers the distinction essential. As a particularly “modern” literary form, novels “do not concern themselves with ultimate reality.” While they may raise existential questions, their primary focus is on social manners and mores and on psychological nuances exemplified by characters navigating their world. Myths, on the other hand, “see the lives of men as over-arched by the gods” who are there and “call us to account” over against Realities that are simply “there” (and not of our own making). “There are lines you cannot cross,” Howard points out, “there are laws you cannot break, and things before which you must bow.” (And, by inference, unavoidable consequences for failing to do so).
Myth, then, at its most “artful” (as it surely was in the hands of Lewis and Tolkien), does not “represent” Realities, it embodies them in an almost incarnational sense. In this fashion it differs (importantly) from allegory, which presents symbolic representations as “stand ins” for correlating realities. In Myth, there are no “layers” of meaning; as Howard puts it, “something is what it is,” and in being so it embodies a reality that is “there.” The Hobbit’s “Necromancer,” more fully unveiled as Sauron in L.O.T.R., does not represent evil, he embodies Evil. As Tolkien writes in “Mythopoea”: “and of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.” This Primary Reality (and by its converse, that “evil lies not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes”) is what comes through in the powerful narratives crafted by these two masterful myth-makers.
Myth, Tolkien believed, is a vehicle through which we can “know” Truth through the faculty of imagination. Imagination, in turn, is Humanity’s Gift, given by our Creator to help us find ourselves in Him and to understand our proper place in His Reality. In Fantasy, we weave layers of reality into Secondary Worlds that (at best) may artfully point us toward Realities in the Primary World (the World of God’s Creation). But such stories also can (and often do) confuse us with illusions that are pleasing to our “crooked eyes” and leave us stranded in the half-truths of secondary worlds.
In Mythic Fantasy, artfully crafted and rightly understood, we are presented incarnated Realities with which we are called to align ourselves. We are, as Tolkien puts it in his “Mythopoea,” “renew from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.”
*Thomas Howard quotes are from an interview with Ken Myers in the Mars Hill Audio Conversation, “Till We Have Faces and the Meaning of Myth (www.marshillaudio.org)