Rediscovering Reality

In his review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis contemplates how stories assist in the rediscovery of reality.  He says,

The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores them to the rich significance which has been hidden by “the veil of familiarity.”  The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow.  And the child is wise.  The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat.  If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror.  By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality; we rediscover it.  As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.  This applies to the treatment, not only of bread or apple, but of good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys.  By dipping them in myth, we see them more clearly.1

Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were adamant that myth was not an escape from reality, but to reality, or rather, a rediscovery of reality.  C.S. Lewis demonstrates this clearly in the quote above.

Part of the wonder of a story is manifested when the reader emerges from it.  Having been in the world of the tale for a time, the reader’s eyes, accustomed to the light of the story, see it superimposed on his own world.  He hears echoes of it everywhere and sees everything as though it were a real version of the story he just read.  Others may see this as a rosy, unrealistic view of the world—those infected by it may be said to need “waking up” or “given a dose of reality.”  But if what C.S. Lewis writes is true, then these so-called “enchanted” individuals are those most awake and in-tune with reality.

I can testify to having such experiences of enchantment myself.  How the world—especially the trees—became ever bigger, fuller, deeper, quieter after each tramp through The Lord of the Rings.  How laughter and colour and joy were suddenly so much more important after rereading The Chronicles of Narnia.  How, after awaking from Phantastes, my ear became attuned to the pool of stillness in my back garden and the singing of the birds.

I know I am not alone in this.  I delight in seeing the light in another’s eyes and the ring in their voice when they tell me of a story-echo they have heard.  I remember specifically a young friend enthusiastically writing to me of the lamppost in front of their new house which was “like the lamppost from Narnia.”2  No story leaves the reader unchanged—for good or ill. 

Now tell me, friends, of a time when a tale you read lifted “the veil of familiarity.”


1C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

2Personal letter

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