Essay
Books
Culture
5 min read

How C.S. Lewis used myth to supercharge storytelling

Great stories allow ideas to be experienced rather than merely thought about.

Simon Horobin is Professor of English Language & Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford University.

A steel sculpture of a male lion.
Aslan sculpture in Belfast, Lewis' birthplace.
K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

‘I’m tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading’. That is how C.S. Lewis described himself to a class of Fifth Grade pupils in Maryland who wrote to him in May 1954. An exhibition this summer at Magdalen College, Oxford, entitled C.S. Lewis: Words and Worlds, includes this letter along with a variety of personal objects, letters, books, manuscripts and audio materials relating to one of its most famous fellows.

As well as answering questions about plot details and forthcoming books in the series, Lewis corrects their view that everything in the Narnia books represents something in our own world. As he notes, that is indeed how Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress works – a reference which may have been lost on his ten-year-old correspondents – but that’s not what Lewis intended in the Narnia stories. Instead, Lewis explains that he set out to write a ‘supposal’ rather than an allegory. He began by asking himself the question: ‘Suppose there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, what would happen?’   

For Lewis, the great value of stories is the way they allow their readers to experience ideas rather than simply think about them. In an essay called ‘Myth Became Fact’ he notes the impossibility of feeling an emotion such as pleasure and simultaneously studying it. But if you aren’t roaring with laughter, how can you genuinely understand humour? If you are suffering from toothache, you will be unable to write. But once the toothache has subsided, how could you write a book about pain? Lewis explains this paradox using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was permitted to lead his beloved wife out of the underworld, but the moment he looks back at her, she disappears. We can draw an abstract truth from this story about the impossibility of simultaneously seeing and experiencing, but it is not the only truth that this myth can communicate. If it were, it would be an allegory.  

Instead of presenting the reader with a single message needing to be unlocked, myths instil a sense of longing for something much less tangible 

As such, an allegory is like a puzzle that must be solved by the reader to reveal its hidden meaning. Its one-dimensional characters straightforwardly signal the qualities they represent, as in Bunyan’s Mr Despondency, held captive in Doubting Castle by a giant called Despair. Unlike allegory, myths are stories from which numerous truths may be abstracted. Instead of presenting the reader with a single message needing to be unlocked, myths instil a sense of longing for something much less tangible – ‘like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place’. Lewis considered allegory to be a limited medium, since authors can only insert ideas that they already know, whereas a myth is of a higher order, since authors can fill it with ideas of which they are not yet conscious.  

Lewis was fascinated by myths from his first encounter with the stories of Asgard and the Norse deities as a young man. As an atheist, one of his key objections to the Christian faith was that it was just another version of the myth of a dying god who is resurrected, similar to those he found in the stories of the Norse god Baldr, whose death was brought about by Loki, the trickster god. Following entreaties by Baldr’s mother, the goddess Frigg, Hel agrees to release him from the underworld, on the condition that everything on earth weeps for him. But Baldr’s return is ultimately blocked by one creature, a giantess, presumed to be Loki in disguise, who refuses to mourn him.  

Why was Christianity different to this myth, or others, like the Egyptian account of Osiris or the Classical story of Adonis? It was a lengthy night-time conversation with his friends Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien in the grounds of Magdalen College in September 1931 that helped him overcome this objection and embrace Christianity. What Lewis came to recognise is that, when he encountered a god dying and being revived in pagan myths, he found it profoundly moving, suggestive of meanings beyond his grasp. But, when he met a similar concept in the Christian gospels, he was unmoved. What he took from his talk with Tolkien and Dyson was an openness to accepting the Christian story as a myth, with all its mystery and suggestive implications, but with one key difference from the Norse, Egyptian and Classical myths: it really happened.  But, by becoming fact, he argued, Christianity did not cease to be a myth: ‘that is the miracle’.  

Lewis wrote the Narnia stories to help children like Eustace become open to the possibility of a reality beyond the strictly material world. 

In writing the Narnia stories Lewis was engaged in what he and Tolkien called ‘mythopoeia’ – the act of myth-making – communicating Christian truths in ways that would inspire children to grasp something of its mystical and mythical qualities. As he noted in his essay ‘On Stories’, reading about enchanted woods does not make children despise real woods, but instead makes all real woods a little bit enchanted. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the children meet Ramandu, a retired star who is being restored to his former youth so that he can rejoin the great dance in the sky. ‘In our world’, says Eustace Scrubb, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas’. ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of’, Ramandu retorts. Eustace, we are told at the beginning of the story, had wasted his time at school reading only books of information about exports and imports, so it is no surprise that he can only comprehend a purely materialist definition. If he’d only read more fairy stories, he might have been able to grasp this reality, as well as being better prepared for his adventure on Dragon Island.  

Lewis wrote the Narnia stories to help children like Eustace become open to the possibility of a reality beyond the strictly material world. Since God himself is mythopoeic – after all, isn’t the sky itself a myth? – shouldn’t we therefore be mythopathic, that is, receptive to myths? For Lewis, Christianity offered the marriage of Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact, which should be met not solely by love and obedience, but also by wonder and delight. 

  

Simon Horobin is Professor of English Language & Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford University. He is the author of C.S. Lewis’s Oxford (Bodleian Publishing, 2024) and co-curator of C.S. Lewis: Words and Worlds. The exhibition runs until 11 September 20024, in the Old Library of Magdalen College, Oxford. Check opening times

Review
Books
Culture
Identity
Sport
4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.