Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One

File:Hero 1000 faces book 2008.jpg For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I’ve been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology and history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly “The Hero’s Journey” is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas’s Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

Prometheus Unbound (83).jpg
BYU Experimental Theatre Company's production of _Prometheus Unbound_

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung’s revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example).

And the collective unconscious is a kind of shared subconscious mind… a repository of pre-existent information that is spiritually or psychologically hard wired into human beings and acts as a kind of unseen guide that assists them through the human drama.
Carl Jung

If  Freud is the psychologist for the atheist, Carl Jung is the psychologist for the spiritual believer. Jung puts a lot of faith in religious or spiritual experiences, which rather than making one disturbed psychologically (as many psychologists would be apt to attribute), rather he believed that they made one more psychologically healthy. “Here we must ask,” Jung wrote in The Undiscovered Self, “Have I any religious experience and immediate relation to God , and hence that will keep me, as an individual, from dissolving into the crowd?” To Jung, religious experiences, perhaps even “supernatural” experiences, fulfilled an innate need in the human subconscious and communicated something very important about the nature of man. Campbell draws a lot from these Jungian ideas of archetypes and universal consciousness in his concept of a “Hero’s Journey.” There is something in the human psyche (interesting that “psyche” translates to “soul”) that creates these spiritual patterns in our stories.


I dealt with many of these concepts in the play I wrote about C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, Swallow the Sun. C.S. Lewis struggled with these re-occurring patterns he saw in his passionate reading of early world mythologies that he loved in his early life. Lewis loved Norse mythology, Greek mythology, the old stories which caused this difficult to define “joy” to spring up in him. However, this same pattern in the “dying god” myths who would have a kind of glorious resurrection (such as the Greek Prometheus, the Egyptian Osiris, or the Norse Baldr), he also saw in the story of Christ. This led him to believe that Christianity was no different than these other myths… Christianity may have had many things going for it, but originality was not one of them.

New Play Project's 2008 production of _Swallow the Sun_

This was a major stumbling block for Lewis and one of the causes of his fall from his childhood faith and his subsequent period as an atheist. It would be many years and many spiritual guides before his road led him back to a faith in some sort of deity, but eventually when he conceded to some sort of God, it wasn’t necessarily a Christian one at first. Again, there was that pesky pattern. Why was Christianity so similar to other myths? Was it simply spiritual plagiarism?

Fortunately for all we lovers of C.S. Lewis’s Christian fiction and apologetics, two important friends were attached to Lewis’s life. J.R.R. Tolkien (the yet to be author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) and Hugo Dyson (a University professor and an expert on Shakespeare). These two men were major causes of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity when the three friends and future Inklings took a long walk one night and discussed these major issues that were bothering Lewis. Tolkien and Dyson addressed this similarity between these narratives not by talking around them or ignoring them, but plainly accepting them as part of the religion. Christianity was the “true myth” they said. Christianity was the truth that all the other myths were pointing to.

I don’t know whether these three men were familiar with Carl Jung (although it’s not a shot in the dark that they may have, since their later commentary and work indicates that they were familiar with Jung’s associate Freud), but the line of reasoning they took at that point in C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was very Jungian. Like Jung, their reasoning acknowledges that there is a kind of pre-existent memory, a “collected unconsciousness” that we all share in common. Whether it’s hard wired genetically, spiritually, or psychologically, the result is the same. Human beings inherently know the same story… when they create their stories, their myths, their movies, many of these components of that story tumble out unbidden, for it’s a natural impulse, it’s written on our bones, etched in our spirits, embedded in our psychology. And in this case, that story pointed to the reality of the Christ, the Savior Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there. It is also the story of Joseph Smith. And it doesn’t stop there either. It is the story of Buddha, and Jean d’Arc, and Abraham Lincoln. It is the story of so many people and so many places, so universal in its application that it can be called the Human Story.

In the next part of this essay, it is this story that I aim to tell. Or Re-Tell, for it’s been told many times in many places by many people, connected by nothing but a common humanity and a spiritual spark.

5 thoughts on “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One”

  1. I would suggest “A Hero With A Thousand Faces” as a must read non-Mormon book for Mormons. This is especially the case for those who have attended the Temple and wish to understand it better. One of a handful of books I will read over again outside of Scripture to increase my faith in the gospel.

  2. While Campbell is considered the seminal work in this area (and the one that is most popularly tapped for understanding the archetypal journey), it’s not — in my view — the best source, at least partly because Campbell doesn’t really have much respect for religion as a separate realm of experience (in my opinion). For him, the value of religious stories about the archetypal journey is that they illustrate individual psychology. The true master narrative, for him, is a psychoanalytic one.

    Personally, I prefer the works of Mircea Eliade (a comparative religionist), particularly The Sacred and the Profane and Rites and Symbols of Initiation. The Sacred and the Profane, in particular, is probably the work that has most deeply affected my understanding of the temple.

    When it came time for me to write my master’s thesis (about coming-of-age among hobbits in The Lord of the Rings), Eliade was useful because he situated archetypes and initiation within a context of becoming part of a community. For Campbell, influenced as he was by psychoanalytic perspectives, the goal of life was to become a fully individuated person more or less independent of social expectations and constraints. For Eliade, on the other hand, growing up wasn’t a journey outside the community but rather something that took place within the community. That’s a better fit to life as most of us experience it.

  3. Not long after Tolkien’s seminal conversation with Lewis, he wrote a poem titled “Mythopoeia” that included some of his thinking on the subject. The core meaning is embodied in the following lines:

    The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
    but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
    and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
    Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
    Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
    and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
    his world-dominion by creative act:
    not his to worship the great Artefact,
    Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
    through whom is splintered from a single White
    to many hues, and endlessly combined
    in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
    Though all the crannies of the world we filled
    with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
    Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
    and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
    (used or misused). The right has not decayed.
    We make still by the law in which we’re made.

    That last line suggests to me (along with parts of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and his allegorical story “Leaf by Niggle”) an apology for poetry as a lawful and worshipful imitation of God which I think works even better with LDS theology than with Catholic theology. There’s an essay I’m hoping to write about that one of these days…

    Note: You can find the complete poem (with a few typos) here.

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