The Truth of the Matter: How Fiction Makes Sense of Reality

In this latest reflection, David Cappella examines the association between language, meaning and truth.

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”

-C. S. Lewis

Is truth in fiction? If so, how is it expressed and how can we learn from it? If truth resides in fiction, it must be expressed in language. My own understanding of language draws from Owen Barfield (a close friend of Tolkien and Lewis), who wrote, “language…appear[s] historically as an endless process of metaphor transforming itself into meaning. ” (Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning). Barfield claims that imagination combines with metaphor in language to express meaning. The best example of this for modern readers is Shakespeare, who pioneered whole classes of new meanings for words through imaginative use.

If we accept that truth is expressed in fiction, how then do we learn it? As Robert Frost suggests, “Society can never think things out: It has to see them acted out by actors” (A Masque of Reason). Fiction teaches us in powerful, yet clandestine ways. Early 20th century writer G. K. Chesterton knew this when he wrote: “I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly , if we simply thought of them as people in a story” (What I Saw in America). Fiction has the power to compel us and challenge how we act toward one another, this intimately connects fiction, truth, and ethics.

But how can what is not literally true still have something to say about truth metaphorically? The key lies in finding true values in fiction and reinforcing them with innate moral sentiments, agreeable to reason. This argument is expounded upon in C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man: “The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man.” Not only does Lewis support building solid moral sentiments, but passionately defends the metaphorical use of language, claiming that objects do not merely receive, but also merit approval, disapproval, reverence, or contempt; this is a critical component of how fiction teaches us.

But enough of abstract argumentation, what is an example? J. R. R. Tolkien, as usual, does it best. In The Lord of the Rings, the wizards Saruman and Gandalf possess fundamentally opposing views. Saruman has lost the desire for truth, claiming that only power will prevail under Sauron. But Gandalf is adamant about sticking to the moral sentiments that drive his actions and the truth he believes lies behind them.

This is best summarized by a quote from the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” Gandalf not only teaches us to seek moral truth in pursuit of values and strengthening of reason-based sentiment, but that ultimately this path is more rewarding.

In our society, fiction is often derided as untrue, but a closer look reveals that the best stories reveal truth in astonishing, even unexpected ways.

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