From earliest times, Christians have argued about the role of pagan learning in Christian education. The debate has never gone away, but generally speaking, the church has preferred rather to use the learning of the pagans than to repudiate it.
An essential part of the classical Christian education that held sway in schools from the Middle Ages until fairly recent times was a familiarity with Greek and Roman mythology, a mastery of the history of these great civilizations, and an immersion in their literature. Medieval philosophers and theologians drank deeply from the well of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in their quest to make intellectual sense of and to articulate Christian truths. And Christian thinkers since then have not only availed themselves liberally of the classical heritage in history and literature, but have been on the vanguard of classical learning.
There are many examples of contemporary Christian thinkers who have professed a debt to the learning of the ancients, but none is more well known than C. S. Lewis.
Almost 50 years after his death, Lewis’ writings are still among the most widely read and discussed Christian works. Virtually all of his books are in print, and many of them are still bestsellers. His works of Christian apologetics remain among the most lucid statements of Christian belief ever penned.
Everything Lewis wrote bears the marks of a mind soaked and steeped in the classics of Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem—as well as the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic cultures that mingled with the Biblical and classical cultures to produce English and American culture as we know it.
But even many of Lewis’ most devoted readers do not know why Lewis became a Christian. It is a story that tells us much about the relationship between Christianity and the paganism it superceded.
In his book The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter tells the story of an after-dinner walk Lewis took in September of 1931 with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson on the grounds of Magdallen College, a part of Oxford. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature there, and he invited the two fellow professors over to the college. After eating, the three men strolled along the banks of the River Cherwell, and the talk turned to mythology.
Lewis was intimately familiar with the classical mythology of Greece and Rome, and was even more enamored of the Norse myths of Scandinavia and Iceland. Lewis believed these stories he admittedly loved to be lies, he told Tolkien, albeit beautiful lies—“lies and therefore worthless,” he said, “even though breathed through silver.” He was overcome by the beauty of the stories of the ancients. They appealed to the human imagination in a way that struck squarely at the heart.
And he was familiar even then with the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, accounts which he had no doubt at least claimed to be historical:
All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.
The problem for Lewis, however, was that, while myth harbored meaning and beauty (“Joy,” he would later call it), it was not true. History, on the other hand, while true, harbored no meaning or beauty.
But Tolkien protested. The myths were not lies, said the man who would later go on to write his own British mythology, published as The Silmarillion, from which he derived the stories that we now know as The Lord of the Rings. And as he said this, says Carpenter, a breath of wind blew through the leaves. “We held our breath,” Lewis later recalled.
Carpenter portrays Tolkien, his attention now turned toward the trees along the river, responding to Lewis by attacking the mechanistic mode of thought that Lewis espoused that saw the mythological view of the world as merely fantastic:
To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw them very differently. To them the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf-patterned.”
Tolkien saw that there is more than just impersonal, mechanistic law behind the world, and that there was no problem reconciling the imagination and the intellect.
But Tolkien had not finished.
Because man was made in the very image of God, he argued, man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert the things of God for his own ends, but he can never fully efface the image of God in him. He can never really be satisfied with lies. He can never escape who he really is. And for this reason, even the pagan myths retain a semblance of eternal truth, however corrupted. Ultimately, even in his imaginative creations, man is pulled back to the truths that answer to the call of his own true nature.
But it was late, and so the three men returned to Lewis’ rooms, where the talk now turned specifically to Christianity. And it was at this point that the course of Lewis’ life changed forever.
After sitting down and filling their pipes, Tolkien called Lewis’ notice to an interesting fact: the similarity of the Christian story to pagan mythology. If you look at the myths of pagan civilizations, they all seemed to have certain things in common. Late 19th century and early 20th century scholars like George Frazer and Otto Rank observed that there were certain mythological motifs that recurred across civilizations and across time: the Creation, the Flood, the Apocalypse. Joseph Campbell, the late 20th century writer, noted that all hero stories in all civilizations contain the same basic elements: a miraculous birth, a trial and quest, a descent into the underworld, a death and resurrection, and an ascension and apotheosis. George Lucas, an avid reader of Campbell, consciously included these elements in his Star Wars movies.
All these scholars had differing theories about what Rank called the “baffling similarity” in these myths, but they all seemed to agree that the similarity of the pagan myths to Christianity meant that Christianity was just another myth—perhaps more developed and advanced, but mythical (and unhistorical) just the same.
The idea that Christianity was just another myth had been addressed by Chesterton a number of years before. In 1904, Chesterton had engaged in a public debate with the British atheist newspaper editor Robert Blatchford, in which he addressed this argument:
Mr. Blatchford and his school point out that there are many myths parallel to the Christian story; that there were Pagan Christs, and Red Indian Incarnations, and Patagonian Crucifixions, for all I know or care. But does not Mr. Blatchford see the other side of the fact? If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the centre of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the centre have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?
The Blatchfordian position really amounts to this—that because a certain thing has impressed millions of different people as likely or necessary, therefore it cannot be true … I like paradox, but I am not prepared to dance and dazzle to the extent of [Blatchford], who points to humanity crying out for a thing, and pointing to it from immemorial ages, as proof that it cannot be there.
The story of a Christ is very common in legend and literature. So is the story of two lovers parted by Fate. So is the story of two friends killing each other for a woman. But will it seriously be maintained that, because these two stories are common as legends, therefore no two friends were ever separated by love or no two lovers by circumstances? It is tolerably plain, surely, that these two stories are common because the situation is an intensely probable and human one, because our nature is so built as to make them almost inevitable.
Tolkien tried to disabuse Lewis of the notion that the mere similarity of the Christian story with pagan myths was a reason to reject the Christian story. Like Chesterton, he argued that the case was just the reverse.
The first step in Tolkien’s argument was to show that the Gospel stories themselves (stories Lewis already believed to be historical claims) were themselves mythical in their imaginative appeal. He compared the Gospel story in this respect with a particular kind of myth: the fairy tale.
One of the things that distinguishes fairy tales from other myths, he argued, is something he called Consolation. Consolation is the joy of a happy ending. And the highest form of this Consolation is the kind of happy ending that surprises us. Tolkien coined his own term for this surprise happy ending: Eucatastrophe. At the end of the traditional dramatic tragedy, the protagonist experiences a sudden turn for the worse: a catastrophe. But euchastrophe is different. It is, literally, “the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn.’”
In his later autobiography, Lewis himself gives an example of eucatastrophe from the story of Odysseus returning home after ten years to find his house filled with suitors accosting his wife. She had been stalling, hoping against hope for the return of her husband. But what can he do against the over 100 men who have occupied his home? Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, arrives back at his dining hall, takes up the bow of Iphitus hanging on his wall, strings it, and, to the surprise and shock of the suitors drinking his food and his wine, he slaughters them all.
In Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings too, the journey of Sam and Frodo through Mordor and to the fires of Mt. Doom is perhaps the best example of eucatastrophe: Just as it seems that the entire quest has been in vain because of Frodo’s final decision, in the end, to keep the ring, Gollum steals it from him and unwittingly falls into the fire, destroying himself and the ring—and saving Middle Earth.
We don’t know exactly how the conversation went that night in Lewis’ rooms, but we know from the scraps of information given by both men that they discussed how the Christian gospel was the ultimate eucatastrophe, and a eucatastrophe that exceeded all others because of its historical truth. Tolkien articulates this in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” published some sixteen years later in a book that Lewis himself edited:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
But how did this answer Lewis’ objection? He had believed that fairy stories were meaningful but not real, while history was real but not meaningful. How could these two things—the real and the meaningful—be brought together? Tolkien continues:
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
Chesterton once said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” an expression which strikes the Christian ear wrong. Christianity has faced two Nemeses: the idolization of the intellect, which we see in modern secular rationalism, and the idolization of the imagination, which we see in ancient paganism.
The answer, however, is to see that Christianity is the fulfillment both of man’s intellectual and imaginative quests. The apostle John says in his Gospel that Jesus was the logos, a reference to the underlying principle of the cosmos which philosophers had been seeking since before Socrates. Lewis would realize this as well. But it was Tolkien who made him realize that, in addition to Christ’s fulfilling man’s search for the True, He was also the fulfillment of man’s search for the Beautiful—and that, in fact, they culminate in the same thing.
Christianity was a true myth—a story with all the meaning and beauty of a myth, but, unlike the other myths, it was one that had actually happened in history. The myths themselves, a testimony not to history but to human desire, were pointers to the culmination of history in the Gospel story.
Carpenter relates that Tolkien left his rooms, and that he and Dyson continued to talk until 4:00 a.m. In his autobiography, Lewis related his acceptance of God two years earlier. But this was a conversion “only to theism, pure and simple,” he had said, “not to Christianity.” But twelve days after saying goodbye to Tolkien and Dyson at Magdalen College, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity.”
Lewis came not only to accept, but embrace Tolkien’s view of Christianity as a true myth. And it was through this that, in his own mind, the True and the Beautiful “met and fused.”
Originally published The Classical Teacher Spring 2012 edition.