Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 4: True Myth

Doctor WHO?

Doctor WHO?

Check out part 1: The Nature of Time
And part 2: Cabbalistic beliefs about words
And part 3: Coinherence and Exchange

I hope you’re all set to enjoy the opening of Doctor Who season 9 this evening! Here are my thoughts on the theme that I enjoy the most in this show: the idea of TRUE MYTH.

I’ve blogged about this before, on my first blog Islands of Joy, when I wrote a series called “The Doctor Diaries” in which I blogged all the way through the David Tennant years. In those posts, I was “reading” Doctor Who through two sets of lenses: English-teacher glasses, and Christian glasses. I look at them the same way I look at carefully-crafted works of literature, searching for literature devices, structure, cultural significance, mythical resonance, and theological implications.

Now today, we will add to that a comparison to the topic of this blog, Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling. I have previously written about true myth here, here and here. Inklings scholar Holly Ordway talks about it in this podcast. Several people talk about the idea in this article on C.S. Lewis.

Put very, very simply, True Myth is the idea that all the myths that preceded the birth of Christ, and those that originate in cultures that do not know the Gospel, point to or foreshadow the Christian story in some way. This concept was very important to Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson, and played an important part in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. You can read about it here. Longer excerpts from Lewis’s letters to a friend about this topic are available here.

What I find fascinating about Williams is that he seems to have come to this belief, that all other myths point to the Christian story, independently of the other Inklings, as it appears in his work long before he met them. I have not worked out where he “got” the idea, although he was perfectly capable of reasoning (and imagining) something like that out for himself. I wrote about this before, in one of my posts on Poems of Conformity, in which he makes Mary into a fertility goddess. This is essentially True Myth working backwards, and comes dangerously close to saying that Christianity is merely an amalgamation of previous religions, rather than the fulfillment of them.

doctorwho0208The idea of True Myth is most explicit in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series two. But here, instead of being about God, it’s about the Devil:

The Doctor: You get representations of the horned Beast right across the universe in myths and legends of a million worlds. Earth, Draconia, Vel Consadine, Daemos… The Kaled god of war, the same image, over and over again. Maybe, that idea came from somewhere. Bleeding through, a thought of every sentient mind…
Ida Scott: Originating from here?
The Doctor: Could be.

That is the theology of True Myth: the idea that there “really” is a Devil, trapped on an Impossible Planet, generating all of the myths and doctrines about him all across the universe. Then later on, when The Doctor talks to The Beast, here is their exchange:

The Doctor: If you are the Beast, then answer me this: Which one? Because the universe has been busy since you’ve been gone. There are more religions than there are planets in the sky. The Arkiphetes, quoldonity, christianity, pash-pash, new judaism, Saint Claar, Church of the Teen Vagabond. Which devil are you?
The Beast: All of them.
The Doctor: Then you’re… what? The truth behind the myth?
The Beast: This one knows me.

In other words, Yes. This Beast is the truth behind all the legends, myths, and teachings about The Devil.

But there’s more to the idea of True Myth that this. There is also the idea of the METANARRATIVE, the Big Story, underlying all other stories, including the planet’s own story of summer—harvest—winter—death—spring—rebirth. This plot occurs over and over throughout literature and film, where it is the ubiquitous Creation Fall Redemption story, which is also the Birth→ Death→Resurrection story. It could be argued that this is the oldest, most wide-spread, and most powerful plot arc. When combined with a strong, admirable main character, especially when that main character chooses sacrifice, it is one of the most moving.

The ubiquity of the Creation→Fall→Redemption/ Birth→Death→Resurrection narrative could present a problem to Christian belief—and it was a problem to C. S. Lewis, his main obstacle to becoming a Christian—because it occurs in so very many other religions, including ones that appear to have developed before or independently of Christianity. In other words, if this is such a common human story, what makes the Christian one any more likely to be true? How can the Christian story and all these other stories be so similar, if there were no obvious cultural or literary imitations from one to another?

There are several possible answers.

  1. Somebody came up with a Birth→Death→Resurrection story way back in the beginning of human history, and it got passed around by word-of-mouth from culture to culture, so all the others are just copying that one.
  2. There is something in the human imagination, perhaps something like Jung’s “collective unconscious,” that makes us all love the same stories, regardless of our culture, education, reading, or anything—so we all come up with the Birth→Death→Resurrection story, independently.
  3. The early Christians and the writers of the Gospels were copying one or more of the older stories.
  4. Jesus’ Birth→Death→Resurrection really happened, and it’s just a coincidence that this pattern resembles so many earlier stories and stories from other cultures.
  5. God planned all along that Jesus’ life would follow that pattern, so He planted the Birth→Death→Resurrection story into the human imagination, intending for lots and lots of poets to tell the story all over the world before Jesus came and acted it out for real, so that then people would be primed and ready to accept it.
  6. There is something so inevitable about the Birth→Death→Resurrection pattern that the universe just has to follow it. That is the way things are, on the personal level, in history, and on the divine scale. Even if Jesus’ life had not happened yet, it would eventually have to happen just that way, because Birth→Death→Resurrection is the only way things can possibly unfold.

There are some possible answers. Can you suggest some others?

Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are the most commonly believed in American culture just now, I would say.

perelandraTheGreenLady1#5 is C.S. Lewis’s. He writes about this in Surprised by Joy, saying that when he came to the realization (helped by Tolkien) that God was using these previous myths to prepare the human imagination, he was able to move towards belief himself. C. S. Lewis explored this idea most fully, as he often did, via fiction. On Malacandra, Ransom met a creature he took to be the original of Cyclops; on Perelandra, he met a dragon, mermaids and mermen, and finally Mars and Venus themselves. He wondered, “Were all the things which appeared as mythology on earth scattered through other worlds as realities?” (Perelandra 45). He proceed to develop his theology across other planets, embodying it in characters, events, and landscapes.

#6 is Charles Williams’s. He wrote in He Came Down from Heaven that the Incarnation was so essential to the human story that if it hadn’t happened yet, it would at some point. He also wrote that if it hadn’t been essential to humanity’s salvation, it still would have been necessary for our art.

archeI suggest that #2 is Doctor Who‘s. Russell T. Davies, in particular, seems to believe that there is something deep in the human imagination that makes us all love the same stories, and that the story of self-sacrifice is one of the deepest.

Many episodes employ the most profound archetype of all: the Christ-figure. The entirety of Doctor Who is arguably “about” how the Doctor is a symbol of Christ. [I’m not the only one to write about this, by a long shot: Check out this whole blog called Doctor Who and Jesus.]

To take just one episode example: “Gridlock” makes its christological references very obvious: the thematic association between the Doctor and Jesus becomes as clear as it can be without a character yelling out, “He’s like Jesus!” (Although one little girl does shout that out in this great post, “Jesus, Doctor Who, and My Preschooler”). It’s made clear by the music. The characters—and-the audience—listen to “The Old Rugged Cross,” whose lyrics are just about a clear a statement of the Gospel as you will find. Surprisingly, they take the hymn seriously. Martha starts to cry. She even sings along. And then later, Martha made the statement that created an explicit analogy between Jesus and the Doctor. She shouted to the residents of New New York: “You have your hymns and your faith. I have the Doctor!” In other words, they have the same thing (literarily speaking).

It is not only the Doctor who sacrifices himself and serves as a literary Type of Christ. The Companions also do that, over and over and over. Clara, our most recent companion, makes this most explicit, when she chooses to jump into the Doctor’s time stream and become the Impossible Girl, giving herself over and over and over, dying to save him again and again, here in “The Asylum of the Daleks”:

Here, in “The Snowmen”:

And here, first of all, or last of all, in “The Name of the Doctor”:

Speculative fiction, then, is a perfect genre for communicating the deeper truths about humanity, because it can use the wildest physical metaphors imaginable, not being restricted by a particular set of historical events or a narrow segment of current science. Speculative fiction also taps into the most profound traditions of fantasy and mythology, which means it uses the collective human imagination’s most enduring archetypes to communicate emotionally and spiritually.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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10 Responses to Charles Williams and Doctor Who, part 4: True Myth

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    Two other possible sources of Lewis’ idea of the true Myth:

    1. Augustine’s remark that there has always been only one religion in the world and after Jesus came it was called Christianity. (I shall have to look up the source of this.)

    2. Lewis, like others of his generation, must have read, or read in, Frazer’s Golden Bough, which claims Christianity as another version of the dying god motif. See his chapter on The Crucifixion on Christ – which he omitted from the 1922 abridgement of his book. Frazer meant this as a demolition of the claims of Christianity. I think Lewis read it as showing the pre-Christian beliefs as a praeparatio evangeli. The idea is indeed close to Jung – to whom Lewis was sympathetic. The relevant chapter is included in Robert Fraser’s 1994 abridgement of The Golden Bough in Oxford World’s Classics. There is a good chapter on Frazer in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature.

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  2. I’ve really enjoyed this series. It’s nice to see a theology of literature done so freely. Williams view of the Incarnation is fascinating. Does he refer to Scotus or anyone else in the Franciscan school when he writes about it?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I think I first encountered a discussion of the possibility of the Incarnation as Divine intention distinct from and prior to Redemption from the Fall in Williams prior to anything connecting it with Scotus, but I can’t remember where, exactly. Nor can I remember Scotan references – but they may well be there! One way and another we know a lot of what Williams read (in part) and so can see whether there are places he certainly might have read about Scotus and the Franciscan school. One interesting glimpse of some of his reading is The New Christian Year (see the link at the Williams Society homepage for online work connected with it – including a list of authors drawn upon, though I do not know how complete this work is).

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Something Patristic which Lewis explicitly refers to and offers his suggestions as (partially) alternative to, is the idea that there are parallels demonically promoted or constructed to attempt to seem to ‘discredit’ the Incarnation before it occurred by making it look ‘borrowed’, etc. I think there is also wider (and earlier) Patristic attention to non-Hebrew praeparatio evangeli than St. Augustine. Eric Voegelin makes a point of this, somewhere but I can’t immediately remember which Fathers he mentions as examples – I think (St.) Clement of Alexandria was one. St. Justin Martyr seems to me another in some ways.

    Voegelin developed a sort of double preparation in Israel in terms of revelation and the ‘pneumatic’ and in the Greek world in terms of the ‘noetic’. (In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” Tolkien has something interesting about the development of philosophy from “southern mythology” because of its inadequacies in addressing “the monsters”: after note 23.)

    An interesting modern phenomenon is mythography and mythologizing to escape seriously addressing Incarnation, and to debunk, eclipse, etc., it. Frazer is one example, and I think in certain ways Jung is another – as are, variously, the projects of Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves – but also, for example, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (both when he was approving of Schopenhauer in The Birth of Tragedy and when he was rejecting him later!). Lewis on anthropocentrism in the Intro of his OHEL volume is interesting in this context, too.

    I think your #6 in fact shares with #5 God’s willing it and creating the creation – the cosmos – the way it is (the givenness is #2 could be seen as creaturely in this way, too, but I think Jung shies away from accepting or even folly addressing that – though my reading in his works is pretty limited).

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It would be interesting to know more about the authorial and directorial aspects of the matter both in the 2006-15 and the 1963-89 Dr. Who series – for example, what consistencies or inconsistencies, what shifts in emphasis, assertion, denial, and so on.

    Lewis, for example, works out a preeminence of the Incarnation for all Solar-system planetary ‘worlds’ – how that is extrapolated to the ‘worlds’ which include those of Narnia and Charn, for example, is a related but perhaps distinct question.

    Could Dr. Who, on his ‘pangalactic’ level, get things wrong about the Incarnation in a way analogous to Simon in All Hallows’ Eve or Considine in Shadows of Ecstasy?

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  5. pennkenobi says:

    No time for a more thoughtful response, but a few thoughts. I would side with a slightly revised version of Lewis’s answer although I’m not clear just how yet. CW’s answer has a tad overly Eastern flavor to it. No time to elaborate on that just now. And Lewis’s answer makes room for recent scholarship calling into question of the ubiquity of the birth-death-resurrection motif in the first place. Lewis’s response to this might be that it was ubiquitous enough among Near Easter mythologies (if not elsewhere) so as to indicate the hand of Divinity. CW would be left either with the onus of showing how the pattern is inevitable in spite of the recent scholarship or that the scholarship itself was flawed.

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    • pennkenobi says:

      This presents the question, is (was) Williams leveraging ubiquity theories to support his position in the first place?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      The Chapel of the Thorn (1912), now very happily available thanks to Sørina, is interesting in this context – though everything said is by one or another character and often ones in conflict with each other! – not least because it is early (pre-personal acquaintance with Lee, Nicholson, and Waite, much less FRC membership).

      With it in mind as well as later works (though I have not reread any before saying this), how might we talk about the pattern in Williams’s thought? I don’t think he relies on universal evidence of the motif. I think he relies on universal experience, of bodily existence, beauty, love, making things, and suffering and continuing to suffer, brought into contact with Christian understanding of Creation, including its being Sustained, its Mutability, Incarnation – Divine Union with that Creation, and Resurrection – Transformation of that united Creation, not excluding Fall and Suffering and the need for Redemption. That suffering is, in fallen experience, as radical a part of things as ‘dukkha’, yet it is not ‘dukkha’ and there is no ‘maya’ given the nature of Creation and Incarnation and Resurrection/’making all things new’. I think Williams sees this as interpreting – including, correcting as much as necessary – everything else, such as Amael’s mysticism in The Chapel, or Gregory’s satanism in War in Heaven or Hinduism and Buddhism in their variants. Consider, in this context, Prester John’s exchange with Lionel about annihilation near the end of War in Heaven.

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  6. Has anyone yet found that reference from Augustine? I would like to know it. I don’t claim to have found the idea of the true myth independently of the Inklings as CW did but it was in reading Dickens a few years back that it struck me that all that I liked best in his work seemed to honour the story of Christ and yet when he actually wrote a Life of Christ it was pale and dreary by comparison with the vibrancy of his novels. I began to wonder if all the best stories (and all the best music?) or at least the stories that I want to read seem to honour the best story of all. That Dickens was only able to do that when he was not trying to do so explicitly impressed me greatly. It suggested to me that the best of Christian faith was a quite unconscious matter within him.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    One of the places I had in mind with Lewis was in Reflections on the Psalms, ch.10, beginning, “The early Fathers (or some of them), who believed that Paganism was nothing but the direct work of the Devil, would say: ‘The Devil has from the beginning tried to mislead humanity with lies […] the more closely they imitate truth the more effective they will be”. (See the whole passage.)

    It occurs to me that it would be interesting to consider how (including, how far) Lewis works with this in givn fictional instances of demonic temptation – in Screwtape, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, and The Last Battle – how far do the devils Lewis depicts venture on mythopoesis as a method? (Sauron certainly does in Tolkien’s developing accounts of the corruption of Numenor, as a point of comparison.)

    Both the Tash cult of Calormen and the ‘Tashlan’ Calormene-Shift ploy in The Last Battle seem clear examples, but Lewis goes on to a subcreational critique and the whole (controversial) experience of Emeth, there, too.

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