In 1931 a conversation was had between two Oxford professors. The matter was on fairy stories, myth and legend. It may sound like a juxtaposition or a mockery to their profession, dabbling in what supposedly belongs in the nursery, but this deeply serious conversation began something eternally life changing. The two professors were atheist C. S. Lewis and Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien. In this conversation, Tolkien made an evangelistic move by opening up a debate with this as its banner: Fairy stories aren’t simply an underlying reality pointing to Jesus, but Jesus and the gospel is the underlying reality to which fairy stories point. Rather than fairy stories being ‘lies breathed through silver’ as Lewis had remarked, Tolkien explained that the gospel is everything that moves us about a story.
In this article I want to explain how and why fictional stories are so important and thus why the church should support Christian novelists who are writing and engaging within this powerful genre. Do not assume that as adults we are too far above the ‘child-like’ myth-making or story-telling of the fantastic, in fact as a secular and modern society we are consumers of it in film and literature.
In Tolkien’s lecture from 1939 On Fairy Stories, he discusses two forms of belief: Primary and Secondary. Primary Belief is based on the factual that can be deduced from the real world, that which we see. If someone tells you a story that you know really happened and is a reliable account then that is Primary Belief. However, if someone tells you a story that you know isn’t true but is told so well and the characters are so well developed that regardless of it not being true you get drawn in and emotionally involved, then that is Secondary Belief.
Tolkien explains that we, even as a modern and secular society, still crave a kind of story. We’re fascinated by a tale that depicts a supernatural world, sacrificial heroism and where death is cheated. We crave the kind of story where evil is destroyed, where the threads of plot and adventure end in victory and joy. Inevitably, leading figures of modern literature find those kinds of stories distasteful and immature, shelving them as meaningless and unrealistic, yet Tolkien argues that humanity has a deep longing for stories that evoke this Secondary Belief which draw us into a world where love triumphs.
We as humanity are in a strange predicament. On the surface we believe what we see or are told, that life ends in death, we are trapped in time, we will lose loved ones and evil often triumphs. And yet we don’t tend to choose for our own pleasure high literature that’s nice and nihilistic because that’s just the way life is. We say, “well maybe it is but it shouldn’t be!” That is why popular stories tend to look very much like fairy tales, and why we pay money to watch and read well-told fantasy.
Tolkien observed that we have been duped to believe that ‘myth’ is synonymous with ‘lie’. Instead, myths and stories convey the essential truth, the primary reality of life itself. Materialists have claimed and lead many to believe that all there is are three dimensions, five senses, four walls, and thus humanity has written literature to escape from its prison. We know we were created for much more than what we see, feel or know.
Yet rather than fairy stories simply being a lie breathed through silver, beautiful and comforting but simply unrealistic and untrue, Tolkien explained that these tales are insights pointing toward something far deeper and truer than we could imagine. The gospel brings together the pieces and fragments of these tales that reflect humanity’s deep-set longings: a love that triumphs over evil, heroic self-sacrifice for love, and death defeated forever. This story is not just another film which grabs our attention and moves us deeply, yet eventually ends with credits and the lights brighten for us to enter again the real world. This is a story of resurrection breaking into our world, shattering our prison and kicking down those four walls. This is the story to which fairy tales are pointing.
The world of novels depicting the fantastic is so crucially important for the church to understand rather than dismiss as child’s play. It is likewise just as important for Christian writers to cleverly engage with and create within such a genre. Like Tolkien, we need to be able to uncover for unbelievers how these are glimpses into the Truth. Novelists and directors of fiction are opening up conversations for us, whether intentionally or not, to engage with this kind of debate. Moreover, the church must support Christian writers who are creating stories for the purpose of doing just that.
Literature of fawns, elves, hobbits or princes is one way our world has engaged with this sense of a cosmic gulf from a reality that we feel alienated from and yet so connected with. Yet from the beginning of time God vowed to cross that gulf which we created, to no longer need stories in order to make us feel in touch with something lost, but to be joined eternally with a Person where we finally exhale “I am found.”