Myth, Worldview, and Identity in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books—Part I

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” —Romans 8:16-17

As a young child, I was baptized and received First Communion in the Roman Catholic Church, but honestly cannot tell you I knew what this meant. I don’t remember thinking much of my Creator, and I don’t recall Christianity being discussed at home much at all. Looking back, I felt similar to how C.S. Lewis felt when returning to the faith in 1931 when he confessed, “you can’t believe a thing while you are ignorant what the thing is.”1 I do not recall one rapturous moment when I pledged my life to Jesus. After my parents divorced and my mother remarried, I paid no attention to God. Then, my mother was in a terrible car accident and flatlined in the hospital. Thanks to God, she was resuscitated and survived. For multiple reasons, her second marriage ended shortly afterwards, and we found ourselves traveling back to Florida when I was in high school. My dad graciously helped mom and me move and we ended up living around the corner from him. Throughout those years, I would bounce back and forth between their houses. She gave up great paying jobs and her own plans to keep me rooted.

Around this time several providential things began happening. First, the Holy Spirit began drawing my mom back to Christianity, though at the time she did not realize the preachers she was listening to were proponents of the prosperity gospel. Nevertheless, I saw my mom get up early each day to read Scripture and pray. Second, I started to run the opposite direction: I began consulting online psychics and taking an interest in tarot cards. Third, my older brother, Chris, began reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring to me and I was hooked—especially since Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring was on the near horizon. Finally, God began to do a great work in me, drawing me to himself through the renewed faith of my mother, and (though I did not know it at the time) through the mythology of Tolkien.

I am willing to wager that you enjoyed having a story presented up front in this article for what you most likely believed would be a very abstract and propositional academic essay. The reason for this is because we are made in the image and likeness of the Storyteller—God. Matthew 13:34 tells us that Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable,” but have you ever wondered why he did this? For most Christians, the word “myth” causes great consternation, yet Lewis tells us that we “must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance which rests on our theology.”2 We must not, he says, “in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome” to a God who has deliberately chosen to disclose himself to mankind imaginatively through mythology. Here is another word that causes many Christians concern: “imagination.” Are you saying Christianity is false? That it’s all in our imaginations? Certainly not! In the same essay, Lewis tells us that “what has become Fact was a Myth,” and “that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth.” Myth…fact? Which is it? Lewis would deeply sympathize with our puzzlement as “myth” has come to mean a misleading, outrageous, and outright false narrative, or at least, a beautifully contrived narrative which exists to communicate a moral lesson. The original meaning of the Greek word mythos was practically the equivalent of another Greek word, logos, both of which can be translated “word,” “account,” or “true story.”3 Gradually, mythos came to mean truth communicated through narrative and logos came to mean truth communicated propositionally, or indirect communication as opposed to direct communication.4 Sadly, other meanings accumulated upon these Greek words over the ages, especially during the Hellenistic period and later again during the Enlightenment. Mythos came to mean “false narrative,” just a “story,” because it was associated first with Homer and later with religious thinking, and logos came to mean “truth” because it was associated with reason, mathematics, and eventually the scientific enterprise.

The reason for this is because we are made in the image and likeness of the Storyteller—God.

Due to certain philosophical presuppositions, only certain ways of knowing were “true” and other ways of knowing were “false.” After the Enlightenment, only rational, empirical, propositional statements about reality were deemed “true” (truth being defined as “that which corresponds to reality”), and poetic, metaphorical ways of knowing were deemed “false.” This Enlightenment narrative is just that—a narrative. It is a myth, a story, about reality, and it cannot live up to its own standards for two major reasons. First, this myth is framed by presuppositions that are non-empirical, non-rational, and non-scientific and cannot be proven by using empirical, rational, and scientific epistemologies. Second, this narrative saws off the branch it is sitting on by reducing all knowledge to matter, which means thinking itself is divested of all meaning—including the thought that thinking is purely materialistic.

A proper understanding of mythos and logos, however, requires that we do not bifurcate them, for the Greek verb mythologeuo (where we get our word “mythologize”) means to “relate word for word.”5 Meaning that both ways of knowing reality are combined in a myth! The form of mythos communicates logos (propositional truth) indirectly, using “a veiled or provocative form of expression instead of presenting a simple and straightforward message.”6 Why did Lewis believe myth is the “partial solution” to our “tragic dilemma” which is either “to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste”? It is because, as thinkers, we are “cut off” from what we think about, and the deeper we are inside an experience (“tasting”) we cannot think clearly. We experience reality concretely and think about it abstractly. However, we cannot do both simultaneously unless we are inside a “great myth.”

Lewis was living inside this Enlightenment myth up until 1931, when J.R.R. Tolkien told him that “myths are not lies.” Tolkien continued, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”7 Thus, we can recognize why Lewis would later write: “We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth-makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth.”8 Tolkien showed Lewis that part of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) entails that we are “sub-creators” (myth-makers) because God is the Storyteller—and the Author of the “story of reality” which is disclosed in the Bible. Indeed, mythos is the prominent biblical literary genre, and according to theologian Brad Young, parables make up one-third of the Synoptic Gospels.9 According to Lewis, pre-Christian myths are “dim dreams and premonitions” of the myth which became fact (Christianity).10

Tolkien showed Lewis that part of being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) entails that we are “sub-creators” (myth-makers) because God is the Storyteller—and the Author of the “story of reality” which is disclosed in the Bible.

There are three important corollaries which flow from this argument that I’d like to leave with you. First, because all human beings are made in God’s image, and God is “mythopoeic,” we must recognize that we are “mythopathic.”11 What is meant by mythopoeic is that God is the author of reality (literally the word means “creator of a story”) and what is meant by mythopathic is that humanity is homo narrans, that is, we are narrative creatures that understand best through story. All of us are, as Tolkien said, “sub-creators,” or myth-makers, because we were made in the image of a Maker.12 This means that, in order to be effective apologists, we must recognize the power in proclaiming Christianity as a myth—a “narrated worldview.”13 It also means recognizing that the best way to understand God is on mythic terms—through image, metaphor, and story. In fact, a closer examination of this insight shows that it is the primary way we can comprehend God.14

The Bible discloses that reality is God’s story and that we are all active characters in it.

Second, returning to the above quotation from Lewis’s essay “Myth Became Fact,” we must learn what it means that God is “mythopoeic.”15 The Bible discloses that reality is God’s story and that we are all active characters in it. Moreover, when we look at the form that salvation took—the Incarnation—we can only comprehend it through story, for that is who Jesus is: God’s Parable. According to writer Benson P. Fraser, “the incarnation—embodying God in the person of Jesus Christ who lived at a specific time and space—is clearly a form of indirect communication; one does not expect God to be a man.”16 Myth is a form of indirect communication, and God ultimately chose to disclose the climax and completion of the story of reality indirectly. This is what Tolkien meant when he wrote, “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”17 Thirdly and finally, all Christians need to take myth more seriously. God created us with a mythic nature, thus we must understand that myths are not lies but are instead the primary mode of communication God uses. This means that the chief goal for all Christians is to learn the story God is telling—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. God’s metanarrative tells a more imaginatively and intellectually capacious story of reality than any other story. The Christian story is not one story among many, it is both The Story that makes sense of why we tell stories and simultaneously the story that fits within all other stories.

In my next article, I’ll apply what I’ve outlined above about myth to how Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings communicates mythically to us about Christian identity. For my primary example, I’ll be looking at the “Nine Walkers” (who were set against the Nine Nazgul), led by Gandalf and Aragorn, as a biblical type for both the Incarnation and the Church. I’ll also discuss what the Fellowship can show us about our identity as “fellow heirs with Christ.”

Michael T. Jahosky is an assistant professor of humanities at St. Petersburg College in Florida. He routinely incorporates the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien into his humanities classes’ curriculums and has written The Good News of the Return of the King: The Gospel in Middle-earth.