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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The early Christians and the writers of the Gospels were copying one or more of the older stories.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
#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.
I 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.