We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.
We are a civilization of creators. Or, through the eyes of The Lord of the Rings author, we are sub-creators. Our histories are deeply marked by the devices we create. From the wheel to the atomic bomb to the microprocessor, humans carry an innate propensity to create tools and devices to make our lives easier and help to further the development of the human race. We as beings want to create.
Indeed, as Tolkien recognized, our desire to create is one of the ways we are made in God’s image. And while this desire can be twisted just like any other, we are tasked to bring glory to God through the things we create. From children building with Lego, to landlords building quality stairwells, to architects designing massive complexes or engineers imagining innovative vehicles, our ability to create is a gift bestowed, and a responsibility imbued.
But this sub-creation goes so much further than the creation of physical objects. There may be no sector more crucial to our common life than the literary sector. It is here, underneath the roots of our music and our film and our technological aspiration, that the sub-creation by unsung actors can in fact shape entire cultures. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are now household names, but they began their labours in quiet toil, inventing stories according to the callings they felt.
We can create music, or theories on politics or science, or games for passing time. But the inspiration and the sharpening and the plausibility of this work can in many ways stem from what is planted in us from are childhoods: the sub-creation of the story-tellers in our midst.
In “Why Bother with the Humanities in a Time of Crisis?” from Comment last year, Deborah Bowen describes the power of story for changing lives. After listing several contributions from as early as 1624 and as late as 1988, Bowen writes:
None of these pieces tells students what to think; all of them require careful reading, thoughtful contextualization, and considered response. None of these pieces is contemporary; all have resonance for contemporary citizenship.
Surely this escape from the tyranny of the immediate is one of the key goods of education. In a culture of instant gratification and instant communication, young people increasingly need help to contextualize: to recognize that the world beyond their own immediate lives is real, interesting, and “relevant,” not only on their own doorstep but also in other parts of the world, and in the past of their own civilization and that of others. Reading widely in the literatures of the past is not generally going to offer immediate practical solutions to present social problems. But this kind of reading is set fair to create a more thoughtful, sensitive, and articulate public sphere where awareness of past crises, their contexts and the rhetoric around them, will inform and broaden present response. If the humanities can’t save us, they can surely and beautifully help us to see what salvation might truly involve.
And isn’t that the highest calling of an author—to help us see what salvation might truly involve?
Lewis and Tolkien, while both creators of stories, were also academics. Perhaps there could be no greater addition to the literary sector than the story-teller steeped in the humanities, one eager to both recover the art of story-telling and to give their tales deep and lasting context.
“. . . [N]o one doubts the crisis-ridden times,” writes Bowen. “Even in countries where the warfare is not literal, there is ideological or economic warfare going on.” May these words be a clarion call to myth-makers in every sector, but particularly the aspiring novelists and poets toiling in quiet.