On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5

Unfortunately, this will be my last post in Lewis’ book, at least for the time being. Why? The book is due back to the library tomorrow and I’ve already renewed it twice. But weep not, my friends! For this is one of the more important chapters for understanding what people like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (hereafter grouped together as the Great Trio) meant when they spoke of myths and fairy stories.

You see, it’s so dreadfully hard to define the word myth, in its deepest sense. Obviously we are not using the word to mean merely “an untrue story,” as you hear the Mythbusters use it. We are using it closer to the cultural sense: the Greek myths, the Egyptian myths, the Scandinavian myths, the Chinese myths, and etcetera. And yet, not completely in this sense. The Great Trio tend to accord the kind of story called myth a reverence and awe which I do not see in many of the stories I read in my classics and ancient history courses. The story of Ares and Aphrodite getting caught, mid-coitus, in Hephaestus’ net and exposed to all the deities of Olympus seems more akin to a medieval fabliau than Eros’ wooing of Psyche.

And indeed, Lewis himself admits this disconnect:

If we go steadily through all the myths of any people we shall be appalled by much of what we read. Most of them…are to us meaningless and shocking; shocking not only by their cruelty and obscenity but by their apparent silliness—almost what seems insanity. Out of this rank of squalid undergrowth the great myths—Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, the Hesperides, Balder, Ragnarok, or Ilmarinen’s forging of the Sampo—rise like elms.

Those great myths—the ones we remember most strongly and poignantly—clearly have a different nature than their lesser cousins. They are retold in endless variations, they are alluded to in poetry and literature, they become reference points even in everyday speech, and they provide subjects for art all through the ages. The thing is, we can find similar kinds of stories that have been written even in recent times, by specific authors rather than anonymous cultural entities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for one, and A Christmas Carol for another. We might call these stories “mythic,” because they share a certain nature with the great myths.

But what is this nature after all? While acknowledging the difficulty and even subjectivity of myth, Lewis puts forward five characteristics all its types have in common:

  1. They are “extra-literary.” Meaning, their power lies in the plot or the central idea, and not in the particular words used to tell the story. Those who encounter the myth of Eros and Psyche separately from Apuleius, Robert Graves, Thomas Bulfinch, and C.S. Lewis will nonetheless have a shared mythical experience; the power the story works on them will be much the same from these various sources, so long as the plot is preserved. But those who encounter the same story through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet encounter only the same plot, not the same power, because the words of Shakespeare and the style of Baz Luhrman dominate the plot.
  2. They carry the weight of inevitability. Their power may be in their plot, but not in plot twists, suspense, or surprise…at least not in the conventional sense, where wondering how a story will turn out is most of the fun. But myths do not grow stale after you know the ending. They are meant to be contemplated, or meditated on. They are meant to work on you long afterwards. In fact, sometimes a myth is just an idea, not an actual plot at all. “The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story. The Hesperides, with their apple-tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Herakles to steal the apples.”
  3. We don’t relate much to the characters. Not in the way we do when reading a novel or a play, certainly. We do not go into their heads, nor feel their innermost emotions. They are less specific people, and more universal representatives for the human race. Oh, they may have personality traits – they need not be blank slates. “The story of Orpheus makes us sad; but we are sorry for all men rather than vividly sympathetic with him, as we are, say, with Chaucer’s Troilus.”
  4. Myth always has a supernatural or magical element.
  5. The mythic experience is always grave and serious in some way. It may be joyful or sorrowful, warm or cold, but it is never comic.
  6. And not only grave, but numinous. It is awe-inspiring and awful in the original sense. It feels weighty and important, both in general and to us personally, and no allegorical explanation of it will fully satisfy us (or should not). A true myth reminds us of the spiritual realm, which is larger than us.

Looking at this list, Lewis and I both notice the same thread running through it: he is describing myth based on its effect on us. The application of the label myth to any particular story must then have some element of subjectivity to it. Imagine the tip of an iceberg. We know there is a great something floating beneath the arctic waves, and but we are not concerned with it. We are concerned with the tip itself as an object worthy of contemplation. Likewise there is much that can be said about the psychology behind mythical stories, why they affect us and how they have developed, and those studies are fine. But they are irrelevant here. We are concerned with how people read, and specifically with how they experience stories. And a lover of a myth loves the myth no matter how he receives it, even if it is through a bad storyteller.

But wait! Didn’t Lewis earlier accuse unliterary readers of attending exclusively to the plot and ignoring the words by which the story is told? Yes. But the lover of myth uses this “procedure” where it is appropriate, and only because the very nature of myth provokes it. Of course, a myth can be told through superlative literature. Frequently they are. And,

…[the lover of myth] will then delight in that literary work for its own sake. But this literary delight will be distinct from his appreciation of the myth; just as our pictorial enjoyment of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is distinct from our reactions, whatever they may be, to the myth it celebrates.

But an element of subjectivity remains. And here comes one of Lewis’ most important warnings:

We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book.

Some books are more likely to produce excellent experiences than others, but two people may read the same book, and one enjoy it only as entertainment, while the other walks away deeply moved and forever changed.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

10 thoughts on “On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5”

  1. The solution to this problem is simple: buy the book. 😉

    I am sort of trying to write a retelling of the Orpheus story. Though now considering what Lewis says about myth, I feel like I’m probably not up to it. Me, dare retell a myth? But it’s because I’ve always been kind of annoyed with Orpheus. Couldn’t he follow one simple direction? I mean, the love of his life was on the line!!!! So, I was thinking of reworking it a bit, and putting it into my modern pantheon continuum (to join Serenity and Mayhem). But I haven’t found quite the right voice for it yet.

    1. Not to mention, I have no idea how to portray an underworld that would be narratively satisfying yet consistent (or at least, non-clashing) with a Christian understanding of death.

    2. Aye, but there are no book stores close to me anymore, since Borders closed. +( But there’s always online.

      Oo, keep working on it! I’ve always been annoyed by that part too, though that lingering frustration is probably part of the story’s power. But it’s ripe for a retelling. I’d love to see your take on it. Don’t demand a masterpiece of yourself, but seek a story that clearly should be told. And yeah, writing voices are hard. That’s part of what’s slowing my SAGA entry: my first sentence was different from my normal style, and threw off my inspiration so I couldn’t continue. I’ll probably go back to a more familiar one, but eventually I’m going to have to train myself to branch out, so I’ll have a variety of voices to suit different stories.

      As to an underworld…well, remember that Lewis set Till We Have Faces in a pagan world, or one strongly hinted to be so. I don’t think it’d be wrong to write an underworld that’s different from what the Bible describes if you use it to make a true spiritual point, or to bring out a theme that is still Christian in nature. I don’t know what your story will need, but I’m sure you can do it. I know the difficulty, though. I still haven’t figured out the cosmology of Trufan (the land where Dankai and Mattri live). Inventing my own deity figures and faiths just seems weird and impossible to do right, seeing as I know the one Truth, but it’d obviously be too jarring to have these fantasy characters talking about Christ by name.

  2. Hi David, I am currently reading An Experiment in Criticism and feel like I have more questions than I have answers. I’ve grown up with my nose in a book, but not always books Lewis would consider to be challenging or good literature (don’t tell him I said that).

    I was reading through your posts about each of the chapters and was wondering if you could help clear up some of my confusion. This chapter explaining myths has been particularly difficult for me to understand. I can see how A Christmas Carol might be considered a myth (except I would say that I very easily relate to the characters!), but I’m having a hard time classifying Romeo and Juliet as such. It’s interesting that you compared the nineties version to the original because I was just talking about the movie with a friend this past week. Would you mind elaborating on your comment a little more?:

    “But those who encounter the same story through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet encounter only the same plot, not the same power, because the words of Shakespeare and the style of Baz Luhrman dominate the plot.”

    I can see how Luhrmann’s style would dominate the plot, but I’m not sure what you mean by Shakespeare’s words doing the same. And how is this story a myth?

    Pardon my ignorance, but I do mean this question sincerely. I’ve read this chapter a couple of times, but it is still confusing to me. Maybe the real confusion lies in his first point as to what classifies a story a myth. “Extra-literary” has thrown me for a loop…

  3. Hi Flowers! Thanks for the comment. Don’t worry about your confusion. There doesn’t seem to be any ignorance on your part. It is a tricky chapter; I seem to remember even Lewis struggling a bit with the definition of myth.

    Reviewing this post and the others in this series, I see my writing isn’t always the clearest. I was using “Romeo and Juliet” as an example of a story that is not a myth, in contrast to the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Wherever the story of Cupid’s wooing and marriage of Psyche is told, there is a certain power that remains, whether you read it in the original Apuleius, or in C.S. Lewis’ retelling Till We Have Faces, or in Wikipedia’s summary. In me, at least, it provokes a yearning and a desire that seems to express something deep within me.

    In retrospect, I’m not completely sure that the Romeo and Juliet story doesn’t operate in the same way. After all, the basic story of starcrossed lovers from feuding groups whose tragic deaths bring an end to strife is a pretty iconic one. It’s been retold countless times in different settings and media. It does seem to be something of a reference point for similar stories. So perhaps it does qualify as myth in Lewis’ sense after all.

    I think the reason that – in the post – I didn’t call it a myth is because whenever I think of the story apart from Shakespeare’s beautiful words, it shows some weaknesses that bug me. I’ve never been able to stomach Romeo as a character; he’s so fickle, so frustratingly immature and inconstant, so far Juliet’s inferior. And she, though far more sympathetic in my mind, nonetheless seems to take all leave of her senses to throw away her life for that no-good fool. Yet the story, as told by Shakespeare and in most retellings, seems to glorify their love as a wonderful and pure thing, when in fact it is destructive and unhealthy. Which is why I said that style tends to trump substance in tellings of the Romeo and Juliet tale. Shakespeare’s masterful words overshadow the plot’s weaknesses. Baz Luhrman’s manic, magnetic directorial style also does much to inject the story with a sense of grandiose fate and overpowering emotions. (I’m not really a fan of Luhrman, by the way, but his films aren’t boring.) Likewise West Side Story‘s incredible song-and-dance routines. Yet when I consider the story’s bare facts, it fails to move or impress me. All I can think of is how stupid those two kids are, ignoring all wise advice and leading themselves and others into doom because of it. It takes a very strong storytelling style to overshadow that for me.

    Of course, we circle back now to the reminder that an individual’s experience and definition of myth is very subjective. Many people find the basic story of Romeo and Juliet powerful enough by itself, and aren’t so distracted by the things that I am.

  4. Mmm. Good food for thought. I am battling that old foe whispering in my ear that my work is crap and that my efforts in creating something worth reading are doomed to failure. This helps, somewhat, in that it reminds me WHY I have this hunger to write, and that the hunger won’t go away even if I put down my pen. Either I have to gather what shreds of courage I have, and push through, or else let the desire burn through me and prove my cowardice. *rubs face* ugh.

    You should track this book down again and finish this series. I know you’ve got other things yammering for your time, but perhaps digging into this, again, will prove inspiring. 🙂

    1. Hm, perhaps you’re right. I’m juggling several books right now (quite a feat to do so and type at the same time! +P): “The Dreaming Tree” by CJ Cherryh, “Two Men Called Adam” by Arthur Custance, “The Sympathy of Christ” by Octavius Winslow (what a name!), the audiobook of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars,” my second read of “The Silmarillion” parallel with a friend, not to mention by regular Bible reading and another valiant attempt to make it all the way through Malory’s “Le Morte Darthur.” There’s a couple others that also count as started, but haven’t been picked up in too many months for me to really count them as in progress anymore. But as family members start asking for Christmas ideas, I’ll remember to put “An Experience in Criticism” back on their lists for me. +)

      How’s the writing going? I’ve done a little myself, but just a little; I certainly have battled that same voice before, and I hate it. Push through, friend, and write. Write for joy, for your health, for the glory of God! And then let me read the stuff so I can heap more praise on you, okay?

      1. That is an impressive feat, juggling so many books AND typing. Tell me, are you also drinking tea or something? Because that would be spectacular.
        One can never have too many of Lewis’s works. 🙂

        It’s creeping along, but at least that is movement. I’ve been struggling with a rocky friendship, and that sort of emotional drain makes my Muse sick. I sometimes envy the hermits of old, and the monks and nuns in Orders and positions that gave them leisure to contemplate and write. But on second thought, I would miss too much in seclusion.
        Even so, I must find some way to slow down and to focus my energy, if I am ever to produce something coherent and complete to publish. I get better at it, but I’m still not as productive as I need to be. I am grateful for the encouragement. I’ll send you stuff to read.
        Do you have anything you are willing to send me? I miss your writing.

        1. No tea as I was typing, although I did have some today. I’m not yet to professional book-juggler level, as I tend to drift slowly through them, and may spend months in the same four or five. But I like a bit of variety.

          I can relate to that sort of emotional drain, and I do hope it turns out well for you. I have prayed that this rocky friendship find peace and reconciliation, as the Lord wills.

          I’m not the most prolific guy, but I’m pretty good at giving praise and encouragement to friends. +) So I’ve been told. I’ve replied to your email, and yeah, I suppose there is something new-ish I can send you. Short-ish, too, so that’s convenient. Check your email soon!

  5. Reblogged this on jubilare and commented:
    I’m struggling with that old demon of doubt that tells me I can’t write worth crackers… stale, moldy crackers, at that. It whispers that every effort I make is doomed to failure, and I’d better stop trying. But I am not ready to throw my pen down yet. I may, one day, find that I wasn’t up to the task, but if that day comes, I want to have tried my best.

    My friend, David, posted this series on Lewis’s “An Experience in Criticism” a while back. He did not finish it, but this is the last installment he did complete. Reading it has helped me a bit, reminding me that a) I am not alone in my reactions to certain kinds of stories, and b) that stories, themselves, may be more worth telling than the writer knows.

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