I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said "There's no place like Narnia." It could also have been "Middle Earth," "Earthsea," or any of the other sundry places we have journeyed to in story. The point of the bumper sticker is this: Middle Earth is a real place. I have walked its paths, climbed its mountains, breathed its air. I know its inhabitants; some are my friends. I have passed with them through great dangers and perils, through suffering and loss, until, in the end, we have emerged into the poignant leave-taking that is part and parcel of life. I have dreamed about my time there, and I feel its draw again and again. Middle Earth is real. And Middle Earth is myth--modern myth of the highest order.
Myth is a problem for our age. Myth means unreal, false, non-existent. This is the legacy of Freud and science: what is true is empirically verifiable and quantifiable. And this "scientific" understanding has seeped slowly into the way that we all think.
If you, God forbid, don't already own "The Lord of the Rings," you can find it in the bookstore under fiction, or science fiction, or, more likely, under that dubious classification, "fantasy." Such a classification is narrow and foolish. Consider the classification "non-fiction." Does that mean what's inside is real? What about "non-fiction" that denies the Holocaust? Or a book by, say, Rush Limbaugh. (I am exposing my personal politics here; bear with me for the sake of argument.) These are both nonfiction, and fantasy of the worst sort (there I go again.)
It seems to me that the reverse is true as well. There are a number of works--"The Lord of the Rings" is simply a preeminent example-that, while not empirically verifiable, move into the realm of reality. The proper classification of those works is myth, a form of literature that offers us a glimpse of life and reality beyond our experience and knowledge, beyond the trappings of our lives, our concepts and history.
In part, the divide between truth and fantasy is a question of quality. The above definition, some might say, could encompass bad fantasy books, the thousands upon thousands of paperback books cranked out by numerous authors. But great myth has a quality that is impossible to fake: the story and the characters have lives of their own.
This same quality is in truly great works of fiction. Think of "Madame Bovary." The life and thought of Gustave Flaubert's heroine has a three-dimensional quality that gives Emma a life of her own. As Flaubert lay dying, he cursed at the fact that "that whore" would continue to live past his death.
But myth, written as such, is more than convincing fiction. The monumental assertion of Tolkien, his friend C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings, as their circle at Oxford was known, is that myth is real. This isn't to say they believed in the existence of hobbits, or lions who talked. They saw myth as another way of looking at the world, a way of looking at the bones of reality: that which lies beneath skin, sinew and muscle. In Tolkien's understanding, reality is tremendously complex and multifaceted. Knowledge can't be condensed into simple physical reality.
This is not to say we should read Tolkien in precisely the same way we read the Bible. The Bible is made up of a number of archaic books with different authors and purposes, and if the Christian message is to be believed, it is in some way inspired by, shot through with God. That should affect every reading of the Bible. "The Lord of the Rings" lays no claim to divine inspiration, nor did Tolkien allow much interpretation. It is simply a story.
But both Tolkien and the Bible elude a reading that is historical, critical or rigid. Both demand a reading which is not external, but internal, which sets the echo chambers of the self shaking and shimmering. Both ask, not "What is real about this text?" but "What is true about this text?"
If the Bible is treated as myth, as Tolkien and others treated it, one is freed from having to defend or assault the Bible's verifiability. The Gospel transcends actual possibilities, and indeed when one encounters it, there is no question as to its truth.