Dipping into Myth

Lucy takes us through the wardrobe, we learn later, to experience a story that helps her believe again in what has become pedestrian in her world. The tale begins in a spare room and absorbs her entire world by the end of it.

In much of his writing, Lewis is wanting us to be re-enchanted. The collection of essays by Lewis simply titled, On Stories is one gathering place. In it we get a fuller range of how and why stories engage us. For example his essay, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” closes with an observation all of us experience inside Middle Earth and Narnia alike:

The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. I do not think he could have done it in any other way.

“Dipping them in myth” is baptismal. We go down as the old naysayer only to come up out of the water in newness of life, with a new way of seeing.  It’s these stories, Lewis explains in another essay, that, “produce (at least in me) a feeling of awe.” The awe he feels is for the adventure itself but also for the designer and keeper that is orchestrating the adventures. Lewis’s interpretation of an epic tale, whether his own or Tolkien’s or the Greeks, combines both wonder and a knowledge of something beyond the pilgrim’s control that moves them. We see, “how destiny and free will can be combined, even how free will is the modus operandi of destiny,” Lewis says. It’s what makes his view of myth Christian and an invitation into finding out the fuller story – the “further up and further in”.

Lewis discusses how best to write for children in an essay titled “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” He immediately clarifies his numbering, stating his belief in just two good ways and one, “that is generally a bad way.” The bad way is to include bits of allurement that the writer automatically knows a child would want, like a gadget that would produce ice cream or a puppy. It plays into the desire too much, like many of the teasing books prepared in the same fashion for adults. As for the good ways: (1) allow the child in the story to grow into his or her likes instead of a cliched listing; (2) write the children’s story because it’s the best art form, not for any other reason. Lewis spends the rest of the essay defending the fairytale in particular, especially as it’s presented to children. Why? As the writer he says he’s a subcreator, filling journeys with dwarves and fantastic beasts; as the readers, it allows imagination to find a home in the everyday. It dips us in myth.

In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.

Lewis allows his own stories to usher in belief, but, for the most part, he adheres to his two points of good story, and, the most convincing argument in support is that children and adults alike continue to read his stories.

There is more in this great collection On Stories. Make sure to read the essay “On Science Fiction” that is included, where Lewis gives a mini-history of the genre’s origin and also his critique. There is also an essay on Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and several essays in literary criticism.