Where Have All The Good Stories Gone?

Just as speech is invention about ideas, so myth is invention about truth. 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.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Most evenings my children–pajama-laden and surrounded with beloved stuffed animals–will settle into their beds to listen to our latest read-aloud. We read together all day: history and science, biographies and nature guides, but our bedtime reading is always a book I’ve chosen because it can be categorized as a Good story. You know the kind, the ones where you find you’ve been holding your breath in waiting, hopeful yet uncertain as to how the protagonist will escape the clutches of evil; where your eyes are drooping closed but you beg for another chapter; where you are enchanted and invested and feel this unnamable longing and delight–these kinds of stories are Good in the greatest sense of the word.

But what is it about certain stories that can captivate us so?

I suspect what draws us to stories, to write them, to read them, and to relive them again and again, is more than mere entertainment. Perhaps we are drawn to The Lord of the Rings and invest in Frodo’s dark, and seemingly suicidal, saga because often the plight of our finite lives feels just like his. We find ourselves drawing strength from his story because when we get to the end, we see, though his task seemed impossible, his efforts, resistance to all-consuming evil, and his unremitting commitment to good, are worth it. In the end, evil is vanquished, and good really does win.  Maybe we are drawn to Beauty and the Beast because we sense that love can actually see beneath the surface of things, and it can civilize and beautify us. Perhaps the reason Harry Potter enchanted an entire generation is because we were refreshed to see self-sacrifice amplified as the greatest good, and evil as truly evil (maybe we’ve grown tired of it being explained away when we sense that it exists, and it does not apologize for its existence). There is something about these thematic imaginings that beckons to our internal sense of things. 

Stories seem to be a categorically human thing, every epoch and nation has had stories; sagas and myths and fairy tales. To be human is to be a storyteller, or at the very least, a story-lover. The infamous psychologist, Carl Jung, theorized that our need to tell stories and the existence of a repeated metanarrative is based on our mind’s way of freeing ourselves through self-actualization. And it seems like our age has taken him at his word. Our culture has come to believe that our stories are about us in a very narrow sense: once we used storytelling to inform and move our imagination and to understand things outside our experience, now it seems we’ve employed a kind of storytelling that rests on a dogmatic insistence that our experience is ultimate. 

I’m not a historian, anthropologist, nor literary expert, but it seems to me that as we have made our personal stories dominant, we seem to have lost our ability to tell Good stories. Maybe this is why we have lost novel fairy tales, settling only for rewrites and bland modernizations. Our modern stories tend–with few truly wonderful exceptions–to be narrow and literal, without virtue, and lost in a nihilistic vacuum that betrays our internal sense of meaning. The more we’ve obsessed over “self-actualization” and acknowledging only that which we can taste, touch, see, and hear, the more our stories have suffered. Many of our stories distort the truth, not because they aren’t factual, but because they rely too much on facts, in the sense that we can only look at what is right in front of us. These are the stories that distill themselves to almost a science, where, as John Updike writes, “people are meat,” and “love a secretion”. Where evil can only exist as a result of poor circumstance, tragedy must be faced with stoicism, and suffering has no meaning outside of the imminent framework. These bad stories are, in a way, stories we deserve. They’re the pages birthed from an Enlightenment/Jungian affair.

While I think Jung’s observation of our archetypes and metanarrative are apt, he, as he was prone to do, missed the meaning. In variation from Jung’s theories, the storytelling genius, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that we tell stories because we were made in the image of the creative God. We create because we were created.* Stories then are not about our self-actualization, but a way in which we mirror God. and so it isn’t so surprising that the further we drift from acknowledging any sort of power outside our narrow human frame, the worse our stories have become. In a way our imagination has suffered. Faith seems to help imagination flourish, and in a symbiotic relationship, it may be that imagination helps our faith.

Stories, particularly those that are woven in the realm of the fantastic and inventive serve to excite and broaden our imaginations. C.S. Lewis believed that imagination itself was crucial to faith, or at the very least his faith. He believed it was his years of reading myths and fairy stories that helped him have the ability to imagine the transcendental realm, to escape the unimaginative vision of materialism, and to ultimately put his faith in the “True Myth” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.**

Imaginative stories, then, seem to be both the result and cause of some kind of faith. Not always Christian faith, but a faith at least in something outside of ourselves. They tell the truth, not as fact or fiction, but in the sense that they speak to our sense of reality, transcendence, and meaning. Good stories are drawn from a transcendental framework, and they also broaden and strengthen our imagination to help us understand more than what is imminent.

Ultimately Good stories rest on the metanarrative of the best story, the one written by the Author and Perfecter of our faith. When we tell Good stories we build imagined worlds, we weave meaning beneath the surface of every event that occurs, we reveal the horror of evil and its unapologetic existence, we uncover the power of love to pursue, change, and beautify even in the face of insurmountable obstacles. In a Good story, nothing happens without a purpose, and as we create these meaningful narratives we find we long for the slaying of the dragon and the return of the King. These archetypes excite, embolden, and ring true to us because they are the story we are living. We are under the dark sky of Mordor, clinging to an objective that feels impossible; we are traitors who sold our loved ones over to death for Turkish Delight (or 30 shekels of silver); we’re the people who heard Merlin’s prophecy and wait in desperation for the king who will defeat our oppressors and bring a just and good kingdom; we are the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the man who finds a treasure so priceless, that he sells everything he has to acquire it. We are storytellers because we are stories ourselves, written into existence by the Word himself, and looking forward to an ending that will reveal every thematic flourish and beautiful metaphor; and the happily ever after of a Bride and her long awaited Bridegroom, who has given everything for her, and returned triumphant over the evil he has crushed beneath his foot, scarred as it is by Roman nails. 


*Tolkien’s literary essay, On Fairy Stories, is worth reading in full. His theories on myth and fairy tales are invaluable towards understanding the human dynamic of storytelling

**Lewis expressed this idea in a letter to a friend after many conversations with Tolkien about myths, imagination, and faith. For further exploration of Lewis’ ideas on imagination and faith see his Literary Essays, and Joe Rigney’s Lewis On the Christian Life.

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