Recently I read an essay by C.S. Lewis on the 19th Century fantasy writer George MacDonald. Lewis was a great admirer of MacDonald’s and was deeply influenced by him. He said that reading MacDonald’s Phantasies as a young man “baptized my imagination”.
“I have never concealed the fact that I regard MacDonald as my master, indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”
But Lewis also admits, somewhat defensively, that MacDonald is not a terribly good writer.
“If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank -- perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic, acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”
Literary critics have made the same charge against Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and against Lewis himself and against many authors of fantasy: “Yes, but they’re not good writers!”
(If you want to start a fight some time, just mention Harry Potter in a room full of lit teachers).
To which Lewis counters, “What he [MacDonald] does best is fantasy -- fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic.”
The term “mythopoeia” comes from the Greek and refers to the process of creating myths. Tolkien was fond of the word and used it as a title of a lengthy poem he wrote to Lewis early in their friendship defending the practice of myth-making.
Lewis had a deep, abiding love of myth, especially the Germanic and Scandinavian myths that he associated with “northerness”. They contained a mysterious quality which stirred something deep inside him, something he called “Joy”. It was his own search for “Joy” and his attempts to analyze and understand it that, by his own account, led him back to Christianity.
Here, in his essay, Lewis is not just talking about inventing gods and artificial cosmologies; he uses “mythopoeia” to refer to a story which moves the audience in the same way that our ancestors, and sometimes we ourselves, are moved by a myth. To use Joseph Campbell’s phrase, it’s a modern story which conveys the Power of Myth.
“We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version -- whose words -- are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of any one’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember has told this story supremely well. … What really delights me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all -- a mime or silent film. And I find this to be true of all such stories.”
Lewis vindicates MacDonald by raising the Plot and the inventiveness thereof over the Prose by which that plot is conveyed.
“In a myth -- in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters … any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, ‘done the trick.’ … To be sure, if the means of communication are words, it is desirable that they be well-chosen, just as ot is desirable that a letter which brings you important news should be fairly written. But this is only a minor convenience, for the letter will, in any case, go in the waste paper basket as soon as you have mastered the contents and the words … are going to be forgotten as soon as you have mastered the Myth."
He goes on with an example.
"Of this I had evidence some years ago when I first heard the story of Kafka’s Castle related in conversation and afterwards read the book for myself. The reading added nothing. I had already received the myth, which was all that mattered."
I know of writers who would object strongly to this point of view. After all, writers live by their words; ideas are a dime a dozen by the writing is what puts money on the table. And arguing Plot versus Prose completely overlooks Characterization, which in my book is just as important as the other two. But to be fair, Lewis is talking solely about Myth.
But the essay made me think about what our modern myths are:
The last son of a dying planet is sent by his parents to Earth where he uses his extraordinary powers in a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.
A child watches his parents be gunned down by a thief and vows to dedicate his life obliterating crime; and since criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, he strikes fear into them in the guise of a giant bat.
A geeky, gawky adolescent gains amazing abilities as the result of a lab accident. When his early attempts to use his abilities for personal gain leads to tragedy, he learns that with great power must also come great responsibility.
None of these stories may be great literature; but they are great myths. They lie in our cultural DNA along with Jason and Hercules and Robin Hood and Tarzan; they have a quality which resonates in our popular imagination.
Which is what good myths do.