Breathing a Lie through Silver

"Old Tree Wallpaper" | Art by Deligaris. Used with permission.
A philosophic argument is one of the best things that can happen to a friendship. Verbose disagreement with a healthy dose of name calling between jolly friends as they enjoy a choice drink: this is an ideal evening, in my opinion. It is in such a setting, at any rate, that I imagine the conflict between Lewis and Tolkien, a debate in which their philosophic understanding of myth stood at polar opposites.

It was September of 1931 at Magdalen College in Oxford when Lewis told Tolkien that myth and fairy story were “breathing a lie through silver.” Tolkien strongly disagreed. He believed his “kind and confused friend” committed a grave error in saying this.

Tolkien would later capture the essence of this error in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien felt strongly that myth creation, whatever it was, was something more than a lie, even poetically laced with silver.

A lie is generally a negative thing. Tolkien maintained that the power to create myth and story was not negative but something positive, and even more. It was not only a human right, but a divine right. In the essay, he argued that humanity creates because our image mirrors the creator.

A whole world is created with doors to new vistas that tell me about the world I live in.

This perspective of myth making was important to Tolkien as it brought a legitimacy to creating myths in a time when fairies and their tales was left primarily to children. Tolkien’s idea was both important and relevant to the criticisms of that day, and it still applies in this century.

I would even apply his principle in broader strokes. When I enter a land of someone else’s creation—whether it’s a book, a movie, a video game—I have a chance at co-creation. There is an active imaginative effort in being a good audience. The creator opens his or her created mythos to the audience and in a subtle shift the audience becomes elevated from spectator to co-creator.

What does it mean to be a co-creator of the art we enjoy? What does it look like? How do you do it?

In these worlds created by others’ imaginations, I go someplace new or a place I have forgotten. I see something for the first time. I find new perspective and hitherto clarity. When I watch Sword Art Online I don’t just wonder what it would be like to live in a video game, but I’m reminded of life’s daily value. When I read Harry Potter, I marvel at the true meaning of friendship. When I enter stories like these, I hear the confessions of a broken heart; other times it’s my heart that breaks. A cracked mirror is held to my face and I see the world in a new way.

Sorrow and joy live around each corner of fairy, and all I have to do is turn that corner to find it. This is how I view co-creation.

If, as I believe, Tolkien’s arguments for myth making can be extended to this co-creative aspect, then so too can his warnings.

Tolkien said myth making could be corrupted by the people using it. He said that men can twist it for evil uses or to shape delusions. Creation can be abused and mishandled; it can go terribly wrong.

Sorrow and joy live around each corner of fairy, and all I have to do is turn that corner to find it.

“But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true?… [people] have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice.”

Obviously there is danger in this extreme, but I feel this wonderful thing is subject to a more subtle danger I see in my own life. It’s the sometimes quiet, the sometimes loud push to mere consumerism. To use fairy as a means to shut down the mind, to pass the time in mere stupor, to remain unengaged in the opportunities presented by the myth.

Yet abuse and misuse does not let us dismiss the divine gifts. Rather it is a reminder that, like all that is good in the world, it is a thing to be both cherished and nurtured and kept from evil.

When I take seriously that art of co-creation, when I engage it thoughtfully and with discussion, the myth becomes something more than lies breathed through silver. A whole world is created with doors to new vistas that tell me about the world I live in. It is beautiful, it is breathed through silver, shimmering and reflecting its author, like a mirror. And in this we do like our Father does and act as children of a god.

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Chris and his wife survive the Montreal winters with help from Harry Potter audio books and summer dreams. Chris enjoys many different books and his current reading obsession is split between G. K. Chesterton and Guy Gavriel Kay.
Christopher Johnson

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