The truth of myth

Myth: why is this such a big bad dirty word for peo­ple today? I grant you, the com­mon ver­nac­u­lar usage is pejo­ra­tive: we read it as indi­cat­ing some­thing that is “just made up”, and so not fac­tu­al, not true at all. But this is a recent response, a prod­uct of the Enlight­en­ment that has seeped down into the bot­tom lay­ers of our pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. The equa­tion of ‘fact = true’ in our 21st cen­tu­ry thought is, to me, an unfor­tu­nate intel­lec­tu­al habit, and a rad­i­cal­ly mis­guid­ed one.

If we look at even a basic dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion, this pop­u­lar under­stand­ing is not the first that is pre­sent­ed. The one I have to hand leads with “a tra­di­tion­al sto­ry, esp. one con­cern­ing the ear­ly his­to­ry of a peo­ple or explain­ing some nat­ur­al or social phe­nom­e­non, and typ­i­cal­ly involv­ing super­nat­ur­al beings or events.” If we are lim­it­ing our­selves to the less tech­ni­cal, new­er ver­nac­u­lar usage, we are lim­it­ing our­selves as read­ers, too, depriv­ing our­selves of the effi­ca­cy of the term as it is prop­er­ly applied to bib­li­cal or oth­er his­toric (in the sense of orig­i­nat­ing in the past) texts.

A myth, as my Old Tes­ta­ment pro­fes­sor here has repeat­ed­ly told my class­mates and me, is a sto­ry which attempts to explain why things are the way they are. So, for exam­ple, the the craft­ing of the first human being from the dust of the earth in Gen­e­sis 2:7 can be seen as a myth­ic expla­na­tion of why human bod­ies decom­pose back into dust after the breath of life ceas­es to fill them. To put it anoth­er way, to tell a sto­ry in a myth­ic genre is just that: anoth­er way of telling a nar­ra­tive, just as our quite recent idea of sci­en­tif­ic his­to­ry is a way of telling a nar­ra­tive. To inter­ro­gate a myth­ic nar­ra­tive with a heuris­tic of ‘fact’ proves noth­ing. And to priv­i­lege one over the oth­er is to ignore that the two gen­res are not com­pet­ing in an equal con­test; they are about very dif­fer­ent tasks, with very dif­fer­ent ends.

When I pon­der the mean­ing and impact of myth, I always recall the famous sto­ry of the con­ver­sion of British writer Clive Sta­ples Lewis. Hav­ing long repu­di­at­ed the Ulster Protes­tantism of his youth, Lewis was drawn back hes­i­tant­ly into a renewed engage­ment with Chris­t­ian faith lat­er in life, and reached the tip­ping point over the course of a con­ver­sa­tion with two of his Oxford col­leagues, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, who con­vinced him that yes, as he was argu­ing, the Chris­t­ian sto­ry was a myth — but it hap­pened to be a myth that was true. In our com­mon under­stand­ing of the word, this seems a ridicu­lous and non­sen­si­cal thing to say. But it is not, and that needn’t be our reac­tion.

The pow­er which myth, as a genre, has to cap­ture and inspire the imag­i­na­tion is a key aspect of all our tra­di­tions — both as a reli­gion and as a civ­i­liza­tion — and I for one am glad to embrace it. As a schol­ar and believ­er, immersed as my life has always been in the philo­log­i­cal and mythopoe­ic genius of Tolkien, it will be the nar­ra­tive force of myth which will always most strong­ly con­vey truth and mean­ing for me.

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