Can a myth be true? Yeats, Lewis and Tolkien

Monday 28 September 2020 11:38

Recently in my paintings I have been exploring the romantic and mythic poetry of W B Yeats (see the paintings Cap and BellsSilver TroutPenny, Brown PennyHeaven's Embroidered Cloths, and The Departure of Oisín, shown here). The romantic is, of course, familiar territory; the mythic less so, and full of siren voices. My exploration was partly stimulated by reading C S Lewis's autobiography Surprised By Joy, in which he describes how, after abandoning Christianity (at least as he had experienced it in his childhood Belfast home), the encounter with pagan myth (including Irish myth) unexpectedly brought him into a realm of wonder and joy, quite at odds with his recent disbelief in realities beyond the purely material. 

Since Nietzsche, any ‘meaning’ there might be in a godless world—Camus thought there was none at all and that life is merely absurd—would have to be whatever dim light might glow from small lanterns we lit for ourselves. As Nietzsche had said (and Yeats followed him for a time), with the death of God in Eurpoean society the earth had become unchained from the sun, and was reeling and plunging in darkness; we would have to light our own little lanterns of values and meaning in mornings that never develop into full days illuminated by any external sun.  

Yet, for Lewis, the myth was, as it were, a blurred or dusty mirror, a wisp of some truth, a fleeting moment of Joy, difficult to see or experience properly. His earlier passage from his childhood Anglicanism to unbelief had emptied the purely material world of meaning ‘from beyond' and of enchantment.

At 32 a new vision of myth as truth changed Lewis's life forever.

When Lewis had met Yeats in Oxford he thought him one of the strangest people he had ever encountered. Yeats' Oxford apartment was full of arcane symbolism, kabbala, and the occult trappings of Madam Blavatsky’s theosophy (my father was a member of the Theosophical Society). Yeats held seances in Dublin with the writer George Russell, known as AE, and other members of the Theosophical Society, in a house opposite the present Royal Hibernian Academy (where my work has been exhibited regularly). In his epic poem The Wanderings of Usheen (inspiration for my painting The Departure of Oisín) Yeats presents the Immortal Lands across the sea to the west of Ireland (the faery world of Tir na nÓg, the land of eternal youth) as the opposite of Patrick's newly-arrived Christianity, as well as of Ireland's merely mortal cycle of life with its burial mounds and Neolithic tombs. 

Lewis, on the other hand, came to see that far from any similarities between pagan myth and Christianity being problematic for the latter, it was an elevation of meaning in paganism that the myths—at least some of them—did indeed reflect a deeper reality. Lewis sensed that Joy was real, like arrows being shot at him by an unseen Archer. Tolkien, one of the Inklings group in Oxford, had persuaded him that Christianity was the TRUE myth, or myths come to their full reality and meaning in actual historical events. The pagan myths of a god becoming man were, in a sense, an antetypea prefiguring of a fuller reality. Unlike the earlier myths, these events in human history had dates and times, and named Roman rulers, and known locations and buildings. The events had brought the blurred images of myth into the sharp focus of history in the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. When some writer might say to Lewis that the New Testament was just another myth, he wondered whether such commentators had ever read any myths at all (Prof Lewis’s own academic speciality). If these events could be compared to myths, then they were true myths, myths come to their true realisation. Lewis gradually came to the conviction that the Archer was Christ; what he was quite unprepared for was the Joy that followed the path from conviction that it was so to his encounter with the Archer.

Ludwig Feuerbach said that all gods are human longings and fears writ large on the sky, projections. It was, of course, just an assertion, and he made no attempt to demonstrate the veracity of his claim. Perhaps Feuerback was only 99% right.

Here's a short article by Michael Ward that explains more fully the meaning of a 'true myth’. In the meantime I travel the mythic path cautiously with both Yeats and Lewis.

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