What is Magic?
- Tuesday, January 10, 2012
MAGICAL CONFUSION IN FANTASY LITERATURE
I think some of this confusion about magic as a term is part of the divisiveness regarding magic in fantasy literature. So set some Biblical guidelines for the discussion. In both Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses “religious scruples” (a concept I first heard about at seminary). Romans 14 suggests that such disagreements must be resolved by a patient love for each other. What makes 1 Corinthians 8 relevant is that Paul is discussing meat sacrificed to idols, so the incident provoking his comments deals with supposed supernatural forces, similar to our dilemma about magic. Paul's rule of thumb: follow your conscience – if you believe eating meat sacrificed to idols violates your faith, then don’t. If you don’t believe idols are real, and therefore don’t associate meat sacrificed to idols with the demonic, then you are free to partake – as long as you don’t harm the conscience of someone else (I realize this is tricky stuff – sometimes both reading the Bible and living the life of faith are more like an intricate dance than driving along a one-way street).
Why do I mention all this? Well, because I believe that the “magic” in some fantasy writings (i.e., Tolkien, Lewis, and even the Harry Potter series) is not “real.” It is simply a kind of fantastical technology. If the books were science fiction, instead of fantasy, some futuristic technology would be the tool used to accomplish something instead of a magic wand.
A thorough discussion of this topic would be ill-informed if it did not look to J. R. R. Tolkien’s personal letters for guidance.2 In a letter which distinguishes between the so-called “magic” of the Elves and the magic of the Enemy, Tolkien reminds the reader that the Elven queen Galadriel has to correct a hobbit who confusedly uses the term "magic" for both the art of the Enemy and of the Elves, explaining that the object of Elvish magic is art and not power. The Elves do not seek “dominion” or a “tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (146). Why do I recount this? To underscore an earlier point: those who would use the supernatural to dominate the free will of others are the evil magicians of Tolkien, Lewis, and J. K. Rowling. Like Uncle Andrew or Jadice in The Magician’s Nephew they consider themselves free from the moral laws that constrain humanity. This same concern for objective morality is an issue in Harry Potter.
Another example about confusing “magic”: although I have heard believers object to Christians reading fantasy literature, I have never (personally) heard anyone object to a staged magic act as a gateway into the occult. Why isn’t stage magic a threat? I suggest the reason for this is a kind of unstated agreement between stage magician and audience members where the audience allows themselves to be “tricked” without attributing the stage magician with supernatural powers.3
So there are two points of necessary application here. First, if the reader understands the "magic" in a fantasy novel to be a literary device, a metaphor for inborn talent, power, and choice, then I say no harm done. But I add this caveat - if reading about magic in a fantasy novel creates a longing for the non-fictional occult, then we have a problem.
My second concern is even greater. Sometimes fiction creates a universe without morality, where what we would typically call "evil" is simply a matter of personal convenience rather than moral conviction. Worse yet, some literature may even suggest that greed, jealousy, and betrayal are positive things to be practiced whenever needed and without fear of any kind of judgment. Although I am comfortable with fictional magic, I am not comfortable with fictional amorality. When fictional characters profit from amorality without any consequences, I get very uncomfortable (and while I do allow my children to read books that include fictional magic, I do not allow them to read books with an amoral universe).
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