Mythopoiea: Writing Truth Through Fiction – Part 1

In my last post on writing Christian fiction, I asked whether or not we had abandoned the biblical basis for writing fiction in the modern-day philosophy of not preaching in Christian fiction.

It is true that there exists a spectrum of approaches to writing Christian fiction, but simply noting what exists does not answer the question of how we ought to write. Some Christian authors appeal to Tolkein as their justification for writing fiction that is not overtly Christian.

Certainly, in a letter dated September 18, 1967 to Miss Elise Honeybourne, J.R.R. Tolkien, stated:

I wrote The Lord of the Rings because I wished ‘to try my hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.’ As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving; and it has been a great pleasure (and a surprise) to find that so many other people have similar feelings.”

One could point out that the authority of the Bible far outweighs any one particular human author’s feelings; however, as it turns out, this is not the entirety of the matter.

It is important to note that Tolkien also made sure that Middle Earth was consistent with Christian theology. In a December 1953 letter to Fr. Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote:

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981), p. 172)

Many Tolkien scholars, such as Bradley Birzer, attest to this fact:

“Tolkien felt the difficulty of creating an internally consistent and believable secondary world that was still theologically in line with orthodox Christianity. The success of The Lord of the Rings only increased his determination to mesh the mythological world of Middle-earth with Christian theology.” (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, p. 47)

So Tolkien wanted to make sure that Christianity was reflected in the symbolism of Lord of the Rings and he wanted to make sure it consistent with Christian theology. He even revised it to make sure this happened, so it wasn’t just a case of a Christian author writing fiction and hoping a Christian worldview shone through automatically.

On the other hand, he denied it was an allegory or message fiction of any sort. In the Foreword to the Second Edition, he wrote:

“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor typical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches: but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

The real war [World War II] does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion….

Other arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

So while Tolkien purposefully made sure his story was consistent with a Christian worldview and Christian doctrine, he also avoided overt allegory and message. When he said he preferred the lessons of history, even fictional history, he included myth-making. Tolkien’s truths were discoverable by the reader, but were subtly hidden; like the writing upon the One Ring which could only be revealed by fire, Tolkien’s themes and allegories were only intended to be revealed through the personal interpretation of the reader.

In our next article, we’ll discuss Tolkien’s method of storytelling, which he termed mythopoiea, and explore how it applies to modern Christian fiction.

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