Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil & The Power of Myth

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. I suppose it is so. Truth, coming from the infinite store of God’s reality, carries with it an unbounded ability to surprise, mystify, and challenge the assumptions of our limited receptivity. Fiction, the creation of man’s finite imagination, limited by his verbal inadequacy, must construct its wonders from the stuff of God’s reality, rearranging and recombining it in ways reminiscent of, but inferior to His creativity.

However, fiction, one of the languages of man, is not devoid of all truth. Indeed, myth, rightly used, approximates truth, points to it, illuminates it, imitates it. It is an attempt to convey by other means, realities, stubbornly ignored, or ignorantly overlooked by those inured to them by constant exposure. Myth can be a gateway to understanding, guiding us to age old realities by means of “made-up tales.”

The wisest among us have always known the power of myth; have crafted stories and created characters so vivid that they inhabit our world on a par with real history and real heroes. Hamlet, Lear, Frodo, Scrooge, Linus, Charlie Brown, Aragorn, the Prodigal Son, all walk our streets as surely as any of us, speak to us, inspire us, amuse us, almost daily. We refer to them as though they were lifted from the pages of history. We call them by name, quote them, even validate our ideas by their words.

It was said of Jesus that he only spoke to the people in parables (stories, myths). By doing so he assured that those who were capable of belief would understand, but those who despised myth would be left in the dark. So it has been with balladeers, storytellers, dramatists, even children’s writers through the years. So it was with black slaves, crafting sermons and songs that seemed to convey the Christian hope, but to the knowing said even more.

Still, in this time, we need prods to remind us of the truth – about ourselves, about our society, about the world in which we live. The raw truth is unbearable much of the time. If it were not for the myth-makers we might have long ago ceased to care about the Truth. Shakespeare’s mythical Hamlet said it well, “The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.” And Shakespeare must have had in mind, the prophet Nathan who, with a myth, captured the conscience of another king, David of Israel.

Perhaps a time is coming when we will no longer need myth to tell us the truth; perhaps we’ll see then, face to face, and know as we are known. There is a moving passage in the third book of Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I think it is in the third book, I’ve been unable to relocate it.) In The Return of the King one of the elves is contemplating his departure from middle earth, going to the final abode of the elves. He laments the fact that, according to rumor, in that place to which he was going, the Malorn tree, which he had seen in Lorien, and come to love with its golden leaves, did not exist.

We who have found much comfort under the boughs of the Malorn-myth tree, learning truth there, will someday live in a land where it does not grow. Looking from this direction, having come to love it, we are tempted to grieve its loss. But when we stand in Eden’s garden, in sight of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we won’t miss the Malorn-myth tree at all.

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