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The Relationship between Fiction and Spirituality

By Lily G. Stephen

Since the most ancient of days, powerful insights have been imparted through the storyteller. Stories were sometimes the news sources in ages past. It’s understood that according to bardic and indigenous native traditions, news was delivered with truthful adherence. It’s also known that since ancient times, heroic romances, epic poems, and music of the minstrel contained stories that added flights of fancy and, at times, added profound conclusions to otherwise unresolved circumstances.

Stories gave birth to an array of structures that have become our maps by which to navigate—from understanding the powerful earthly elements, through developments of impulses we now regard as religious, right through our awakening to the true nature of reality. Ancient mythology is woven throughout human intuition, evolution, and aspiration.

One of the foremost insightful teachers in the sphere of story and myth is Joseph Campbell, called by Bill Moyers “the man with a thousand stories.” Moyers reminds us that Campbell points to myths as clues to our deepest spiritual potential.

A good many of us know by now that when we see films like Star Wars, Close Encounters, Wizard of Oz, Titanic—to name a few—we participate in emotions or wishes so common they may be considered universal. This is deeply connected with mythology. Yet generally we regard going to a movie as an escape or an amusement.

So enters the novel, since most films evolve from stories found in novels. We often read reviews and recommendations about the coolest story to take to the beach, the latest page-turner, or the current epic everyone’s reading. While this kind of hyperbole may have fiction sounding like a close relative of the old dime novels hack authors were known to turn out by the dozen, what it really indicates is a specific doorway that story provides into a life or world or perspective different from our own. This gives another slant to the word “escape,” which may sound negative, especially to someone on a spiritual path. In general, spirituality encourages presence in the moment, however our life’s setting has evolved. “Escape” might indicate dissatisfaction with the moment. The positive take on that is a bid to broaden our perspectives and to open our lives to higher possibilities.

An expression of this function was beautifully articulated by the New Zealand-born author Katherine Mansfield, as she neared death from tuberculosis during 1922 in the Fontainebleau chateau of G. J. Gurdjieff. She reflected upon the obstacles her colleagues D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster faced in confronting methods such as those presented there in The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. And then she probed into the heart of the writer’s highest objective:

“Suppose,” she used to say, “that I could succeed in writing as well as Shakespeare. It would be lovely, but what then? There is something wanting in literary art even at its highest. Literature is not enough.

“The greatest literature”, she said, “is still only mere literature if it has not a purpose commensurate with its art. Presence or absence of purpose distinguishes literature from mere literature, and the elevation of the purpose distinguishes literature within literature. That is merely literary that has no other object than to please. Minor literature has a didactic object. But the greatest literature of all—the literature that scarcely exists—has not merely an aesthetic object, nor merely a didactic object, but, in addition, a creative object: that of subjecting its readers to a real and at the same time illuminating experience. Major literature, in short, is an initiation into truth.” (From On Love by A. R. Orage, Samuel Weiser, N.Y., 1972. Used by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser.)

As Katherine Mansfield expresses her views on the greatest of all literature, it’s important to keep in mind that life, spirituality, and literature are all multi-level. We have only to recall personal advancement in our lives, whether professionally, philosophically, or otherwise, to understand this. The most important lesson throughout is to maintain a “cosmic viewpoint,” one that embodies compassion and wisdom. Since we have all passed through “lower levels” of understanding and behavior, we can empathize with others who operate within them. Taking this approach helps our inner critic to avoid sneering at lesser literary efforts and those who enjoy them while saving our applause for the finest.

Our deepest and highest spiritual insights come about, sometimes, when least expected. The publishing industry has ridden the crest of self-help and religious book sales. Yet the storyteller’s approach shouldn’t be discounted. We have only to recall how reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings somehow touched us, and usually more than once during our journey through his fantasy world.

As an author of evolutionary fiction, I appreciated finding Tolkein’s trilogy classified as a “modern myth” in a recently read book, The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons. From the inception of my own latest novels in The Third Verse Trilogy, I perceived them as modern mythology and adopted the nomenclature.

Loy and Goodhew’s The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons offers an exploration of several great stories in modern fantasy, including Michael Ende’s Momo and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels.

Collectively the works which Loy and Goodhew discuss have underlying themes of desire for immortality, understanding of the passing of time, and principles of nonviolence. Their recommendation, in the authors’ words, is “they enlighten us as they entertain us.”

Personal libraries of spiritual practitioners reveal many jewels of fiction. Just a few titles with evocative names of authors sometimes forgotten in the twenty-first century are worthy touchstones: Ardath and A Romance of Two Worlds are just two by Marie Corelli; Dwellers in the Temple of Mondama, by Chris Herwer; Myriam and the Mystic Brotherhood, by Maude Lesseuer Howard; Zanoni and Alice or the Mysteries are two of many titles of Bulwer-Lytton; Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, by P. D. Ouspensky; After Many A Summer Dies the Swan, by Aldous Huxley; The Glass Bead Game and Steppenwolf, just two by Hermann Hesse; and 2150 by Don and Thea Plym.

How can spiritual wisdom become intense and real for us? One way is through some of the finest fiction that resonates with us because of its profound expression of who we are and about what’s really important. Evolutionary storytellers lift readers up away from common themes into consciousness of our interconnectedness, enlarging upon human potential, and sometimes—through the written word—going beyond what words can express.

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