?

Log in

No account? Create an account

The taste for magic

« previous entry | next entry »
Apr. 29th, 2008 | 4:58

Why do we hanker for magic? That is a question that the large-C Catholic fantasy writer must squarely face, and the small-c catholic reader ought at any rate to find interesting. The practice of magic as such, whether effective or not, is explicitly forbidden by scripture and canon law, and even too strong a theoretical interest is rather frowned upon. The Catholic attitude towards magic in fiction is more ambiguous. I was absurdly surprised to find, when I myself was converted, that every sort and condition of Christian, practising or pinchbeck, that you can find in the innumerable denominations of Protestantism, can be found in the Catholic Church. We, too, have our would-be book-burners, our crusaders against Harry Potter, our excessive literalists and excessive metaphorists; we even have churchgoers who look like 17th-century Puritans and loudly say ay-men after a prayer, though everyone else in the room is saying ah-men. It is a sufficiently odd mixture.

What I mean is that the same problem faces every fantasy writer in a more or less Christian or post-Christian society, regardless of denomination; it is only that Catholic writers, if they take either their writing or their religion seriously, have less room to shirk the issue. J.R.R. Tolkien wrestled with the question in a nocturnal agony of the spirit. In ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and ‘Leaf by Niggle’ he tries to show that fantasy as such is a thoroughly Christian, even a salvific, activity; but Smith of Wootton Major is a cry from the heart of a man who has lost his confidence, and some of Tolkien’s last writings on Middle-earth almost amount to a confession of heresy. He wasted endless hours trying to uproot the Two Trees of Valinor from The Silmarillion, because he could not reconcile his beautiful and moving myth of the Sun and Moon with post-Copernican astronomy, and (which was for him the salient point) because he could not pretend that the God who made the Elves would allow them to believe a legend so obviously contrary to scientific fact. Yet that legend was the heart of the whole work. For similar reasons he worked and re-worked the story of Galadriel, thinking to make her perfect with emery and holystone, but in truth only reducing her to a plaster saint. The legendarium that he meant as a profound expression of his faith fell to pieces at the rude touch of his theology.

As with the greatest, so with the less. The circle of a penny has as many degrees as the circuit of the heavens. If this were a less romantic and credulous age, there would be no trouble about fantasy, as there was no trouble about elf-shot or ‘Here be Dragons’ in the Middle Ages. When mediaeval Christians played at magic, with the unfortunate exception of astrology, it neither conflicted with their professed faith nor replaced it. But it is truly said that we live in an age of improved means to deteriorated ends. The average modern will believe any damned thing, because he has ceased to believe in holy things. I have known people who took the Necronomicon as a compendium of sober fact, who flatly refused to believe me when I explained that it was merely an excellent literary joke carried too far. I have even known a creature, a man to all appearances, who claimed that he could jump off a tall building and fly without wings if it were not for the ill-wishes of all the earthbound mundanes who did not want him to succeed. He could have done, for a few seconds; then the earth itself would step in to disabuse him. It will do the same for birds, if they forget to flap their wings, and nobody wishes them to fail.

There are people in this world who think they are elves; there are people who think they are Jedi knights; likely there are people who think they are soft-boiled eggs, and derive some ersatz certainty and comfort from their self-conceived globosity. If these people are honestly deceived, I pity them. I pity them still more if they are not. If they play at being fairy-tale creatures as a substitute for an honest philosophy, they are wasting their reason; if they play as a substitute for religion, they are wasting their spirits. Worst of all, they waste their faculty of imagination, which grows stronger and more delightful with the breadth and complexity of the thing imagined. Instead of eggs and fairies, which are very dull and homely objects after all, they could play at something more wonderful than any fantasy writer has invented: they could pretend to be men and women. A life without fantasy is a poor thing, but a life founded upon fantasy is nothing at all. Tolkien knew the tension and the danger as well as anyone:

If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
(‘On Fairy-Stories’)


James Branch Cabell, who had it in him to be a very great storyteller if his genius had not been warped by cynicism, believed that the general run of men really were in that state, or wished to be. Mundus vult decipi was the motto of his land of Poictesme and the Leitmotiv of his work. He wrote a story, ‘The Thin Queen of Elfhame’, which is the most naked and horrifying exposition I have read of man in the grip of Morbid Delusion. Anavalt of Fomor, after a life of great deeds full of suffering and joy, turns his back on reality because he prefers to court delusion. This is the ending of the story:

She took the red bonnet from her head and turned. She flung her bonnet fair and high. So was courteous Anavalt assured that the Queen of Elfhame was as he had hoped. For when seen thus, from behind, the witless queen was hollow and shadow-colored, because Maid Vae is just the bright, thin mask of a woman, and, if looked at from behind, she is like any other mask. So when she faced him now and smiled, and, as if in embarrassment, looked down and pushed aside a thigh-bone with her little foot, then Anavalt could see that the Elle Maid was, when properly regarded, a lovely and most dear illusion.

He kissed her. He was content. Here was the woman he desired, the woman who did not exist in the world where people have souls. The Elle Maid had no body that time would parody and ruin, she had no brain to fashion dreams of which he would fall short, she had no heart that he would hurt. There was an abiding peace in this quiet Wood of Elfhame wherein no love could enter, and nobody could, in consequence, hurt anybody else very deeply. At court the silken ladies wept for Anavalt, and three women were not ever to be healed of their memories; but in the Wood of Elfhame, where all were soulless masks, there were no memories and no weeping, there were no longer two sides to everything, and a man need look for no reverses.

‘I think we shall do very well here,’ said courteous Anavalt as yet again he kissed Maid Vae.


It is prettily told, but also, perhaps, the ghastliest confession of failure and futility to be found in modern literature outside of the French Existentialists and perhaps Dostoyevsky. Cabell’s strength and weakness, as Ursula Le Guin has said, is that ‘He doesn’t believe in his dreamworld, but he doesn’t believe in us, either.’ As a writer he was the mask of a Virginia gentleman questing for the mask of a Thin Queen, and he never found anything better than he sought. He is the stylistic opposite and thematic twin of Lovecraft; the one casts a courtly veil over the despair at the heart of his creation, the other strips it naked and ravishes it in orgies of cosmic weirdness; but the despair is the same in either case. It is the anguish of a common twentieth-century type, the disillusioned rationalist who has kept his reason after his faith in reason has died.

Cabell and Lovecraft also represent the two poles of reaction to cosmic despair. If you believe with all your empty heart in the meaninglessness and horror of the universe, you can either devote your life to hiding it from view, or worship it openly. The modern world on the whole has chosen the first mode, but there is in many people a disturbing tendency to slip into the second as soon as misfortune strikes. Comfortably well-off people like to repose their unexercised faith in the pop-cultural gods of Affirmation, Self-realization, and Positive Thinking. To believe that you can ask the universe for anything and the universe must give it is, of course, utter nonsense, the same nonsense that afflicted our friend the would-be flyer. But it is a great aid and comfort to the smug. If you are rich and successful, it is because you have the right kind of mojo; if you are not yet rich and successful, you will be as soon as you perfect your technique; and as for the poor and suffering, you have no obligation to help them or even think about them, because they brought all their troubles upon themselves. (One of the authors of The Secret is actually on record as saying that the victims of the Holocaust died, not because the Nazis killed them, but because they had negative thoughts that ‘attracted’ genocide. If the word evil does not apply to this kind of moral abdication, we might as well abandon the word.) But when you yourself are struck by hardship, you change your tune. What you thought was light has failed you; now you turn to what you know is darkness. Behind the mask of the religion of Self-Help is the grinning face of La Santa Muerte.

Some years ago, in a puckish moment, I bought a little volume called The Wordsworth Book of Spells, originally published in 1911 as The Book of Ceremonial Magic by Arthur Edward Waite. Waite was a past master at sarcasm. In the course of explaining the theory and alleged practice of Hermetic magic (the kind whose devotees feel compelled to spell magic with a K), he withers it with scorn and devastates it with logic, so that any thinking person who makes it to the end of the book must be convinced beyond doubt that this form of magic is utterly bogus. He makes short work of the incantations, the circles and sigils, the phony names of arch-devils, the bogus experts and authorities who supposedly derived their ineffable wisdom from the Kabbala, the pagan past, or the mystic East. It is fair to say that nothing he writes about will stand the slightest rational scrutiny, and he scrutinizes it to tatters and rags.

This is all good fun, but the most interesting part of his book by far is the passage where he asks the obvious question: Why would anyone believe in such manifest nonsense? This is not the fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism, where to beat your opponent in an argument, you ‘assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly’. Waite plainly demonstrates the silliness of The Key of Solomon and suchlike drivel, and only then goes into the psychology behind it. Waite was well versed in fin de siècle occultism; he was a Rosicrucian, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an authority on Tarot (he is the same Waite who helped to devise the Rider-Waite cards), and so on. He cannot be accused of dismissing the magical arts without a thorough and sympathetic hearing. But he was a harder-headed man than almost any of his modern counterparts, and had no patience with the fools and knaves who have always constituted the great bulk of the magick-peddling profession. Here is his verdict on ceremonial magicians in general:

To give riches, to kindle love and lust, to discover treasures — as these were the sum of ambition, so they were the qualifications in chief demand from the spirits. The class of people to whom such considerations would appeal were those obviously — and as I have otherwise indicated — who could not obtain their satisfaction through normal channels — the outcasts, the incompetent, the ignorant, the lonely, the deformed, the hideous, the impotent and those whom Nature and Grace alike denied.

This is the category into which the modern psychic mind would enter unwittingly, could I suppose for a moment that, outside such purlieus as Paris, there has been any revival of Ceremonial Magic in the nineteenth or twentieth century. The typical occult student is preposterous enough in his preoccupations, but when he takes the Grimoires seriously he has usually some assumption as to a meaning behind them — not that they are allegorical writings, but rather that they are the final issue in abuse and travesty of something that looms to the intelligence like real knowledge. . . .

As part of the root-matter out of which comes the lying art of spirits there stands forth the hypothetical efficacy of adjuration, prayer and ceremonial acts of worship in connection therewith. But in Magic that efficiency can be manifested only over things trivial or abominable, because it is obvious that for any higher purpose we should have recourse thereto through the ordinary channels of religion. If the hypothesis of prayer is true, Magic is out of court on the side of holy things because there is a more excellent way of obtaining the great gifts, the good gifts and the gifts that do not pass away. But if it is not true, Magic is out of court also because it depends from and comes down to the earth with that false assumption which is at its basis.
(The Book of Ceremonial Magic)


The Key of Solomon and the other works Waite so entertainingly abuses are full of invocations to supposed devils, compelling them to one’s will by the ineffable power of the supposed names of God or His principal angels — names not to be found, I need hardly add, in any reputable theological text. The other method of black magic, of course, is the appeal by direct propitiation and bribery. Either way, the desire is the same: to get from the Devil what you know you will never get from God, either because it is bad for you or because it harms others, and very often both. It is the same impulse that gives rise to the ghastly cult of La Santa Muerte, as expressed by Homero Aridjis: ‘She is a Virgen de Guadalupe in negative: That which one can't ask of the Virgen, one can ask of her.’

In this context, the reason for the Church’s prohibition of magic is plain enough. In any given instance — we need not make assumptions about generalities — it either works or it doesn’t. If it works, it is a way of circumventing the will of God by enlisting the infernal powers; if not, it is a way of wasting one’s effort on self-delusion. The first is clearly undesirable to anyone who believes in God; the second ought to be undesirable to anyone short of a Lovecraft or Cabell.

The trouble is that we have so many third-class Lovecrafts and fifth-rate Cabells among us. The modern practitioner of ‘magick’ — not so different from what Screwtape called the Materialist Magician, who believes in ‘forces’ while denying the existence of spirits — operates from a decidedly post-Christian set of axioms. To justify dealing with spirits who can grant unwholesome wishes, she denies both God and the Devil; this allows her to think of these spirits (and her spells) as morally neutral, or better yet, to shirk moral questions altogether. To cover up the fact that her rites are largely based upon a travesty of Christian rituals, and make little sense without that context, she pretends that they are derived from the Old Religions, which Christianity merely aped and perverted. These assumptions granted, she can do as she likes without troubling her conscience.

I have known practitioners who saw nothing wrong with putting curses on each other, casting spells to compel someone to love them, or asking spirits to reveal other people’s secrets to them, which it was no business of theirs to know. If they had tried to do these things by ordinary means, they would have had a harder time justifying them; they might even have had twinges of remorse. But as Aslan said to Lucy, ‘Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way.’ Whether the method is effective or not, the intention is mean and shabby. That it is generally done in secret, or at least in the absence of the intended victim, only makes it worse. If you punch your enemy in the nose, you expose yourself to his retaliation; this requires courage, which is a virtue in itself, and partly disinfects the evil of your intentions, though it does not justify them. At the very least the element of danger will restrain you from distributing punches on the nose too freely. If you cast a spell to make your enemy’s nose break out in boils, you risk nothing, you can nurse your hatred in secret, you need never risk taking a punch yourself, or what might be worse, having an honest argument and making up with the one you hate. Whether the spell works on your enemy or not, it works on you, by leaving you to nurse your hatreds in safety and secrecy. They will grow, they will gain power over you, and in the end they may devour you. All this the Church quite rightly forbids, and no person of honest morals, Christian or not, could endorse it.

Of course, the typical use of magic in fantasy is not much like that. The more obviously fantastical a display of magic is, the less dangerous it is; that is, the less it will incline the reader or viewer to take an unwholesome interest in the kind of arts that Waite justly condemned. The critic and apologist Steven D. Greydanus, in his interesting essay ‘Harry Potter vs. Gandalf’, identifies seven ‘hedges’ that serve to divide the magic of fantasy from the magic of curses and occult powers. Greydanus cites Tolkien and Lewis as writers who conscientiously employ all seven hedges, and lets J.K. Rowling in for some criticism because she does not bother with such precautions. Here I offer a précis of Greydanus’s own text where he describes the seven hedges:

1. The pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation is restricted to wholly imaginary realms, unconnected with our own world. [This is not strictly true of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which is represented as our world at some unspecified epoch of prehistory; but we are not meant to take this seriously, so it might as well be an imaginary world.]

2. The existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science.

3. The pursuit of magic is confined to supporting characters, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify.

4. The author includes cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on the protagonists.

5. Magical powers occur naturally only to characters who are not in fact human beings.

6. Magic is the safe and lawful occupation of characters who embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, etc.

7. The author gives no narrative space to the process by which magicians acquire their powers. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in encouraged to dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic.


In addition to these, Greydanus mentions an eighth hedge, which Rowling definitely does use. That is to make her magic obviously fantastical, so that nobody could be fool enough to suppose it would work in reality (or if they were, they would quickly be disabused). Anyone can tell that an incantation like Wingardium leviosa is no more a real spell than it is real Latin. (There are some very minor spells, not to be found in the Harry Potter books, that are bogus Latin but have some real effect ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’. Illegitimi non carborundum, for instance. That may not help you overcome your problems, but it will either make you laugh or, if you have heard it too often, give you something different to be annoyed about; and a change, they say, is as good as a rest.)

Few of the present generation of fantasy authors make much use of hedges, though #1 is popular simply because ‘Secondary Worlds’ (and even ‘Fantasylands’) are handy for other reasons. If you want to write about dragons, it is very difficult to fit them in with the flora and fauna of twenty-first-century Earth, and even the distant past is no longer a suitable habitat. They have been quite thoroughly banished to the Perilous Realm ‘beyond the fields we know’. Some writers, like George R.R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay, make so little use of magic as a plot-engine that the question of hedges does not really arise. On the other hand, a number of writers — Katherine Kurtz was a classic example, during her productive and lucrative period — do real live research into the occult to lend their magic systems an air of verisimilitude, which is the very opposite of Greydanus’s eighth hedge. There is still more than enough work that focuses on magic done by the protagonists, learned in the course of the story, and treated as morally neutral or even beneficent. Some of the worst of it is clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.

(It is rather a pity, from a strictly literary point of view, that D&D no longer attracts much criticism from the sort of people who see Satanism under every bed; for it gets almost a free pass otherwise, and I suspect that many people who would heap scorn upon it refrain for fear of being lumped in with the Fundamentalists. The influence of that game upon fantasy fiction, by encouraging writers to spin out stylized and derivative yarns, and by generating a large captive readership that has hardly heard of better stuff, has been hugely baleful. But I digress.)

There are, of course, all kinds of middle positions between the scrupulous purism of Tolkien and Lewis and the flatulent permissiveness of D&D. Few writers use all seven of Greydanus’s hedges, and some use methods not on his list to signalize the fictitious nature of their magic. Stephen R. Donaldson, in his Thomas Covenant books, uses #1, 2, and 7 regularly, #3 and 5 for certain types of magic, and makes #4 almost the whole burden of the plot. Frank Herbert uses a variation of #5 in Dune: Paul Atreides may be of human ancestry, but as the Kwisatz Haderach he himself is something more (or less) than human. George Lucas’s introduction of ‘midichlorians’ into the later Star Wars films may have been a clumsy attempt to use hedge #5 against the sort of idiots who think Jedi powers work in real life. (Lest anyone quibble, neither the Bene Gesserit nor the Jedi have anything to do with science fiction; their powers are pure magic, and to that extent those stories are straightforward fantasy.) I myself use hedges #1, 2, and 4, and disregard the others; but then I make it clear that the origin of magic in my stories is in the nature of a divine gift, that it can be tapped for certain purposes and not for others — and to go beyond its limits requires the sort of deals-with-devils that Waite and St. Paul agree in condemning.

The fact that such hedges are necessary, and that so many fantasy writers (and nearly all of the best ones) feel it necessary to use them, brings me back to my first question. If magic is so devilishly tricky, and has to be handled with such an elaborate apparatus of kid gloves and protective goggles, why use it at all? What do we stand to gain, as readers or writers?

Certainly there are great names in the field who hardly use magic at all. Kay’s Sarantium books contain scarcely a whiff of the supernatural, except in his invented religions, which are mere papier-mâché stand-ins for Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Martin confines the magic of Westeros to a few mysterious artifacts like his gigantic wall of ice, plus a couple of religions whose most mysterious quality is their nearly total failure to have the slightest influence on anybody’s conduct. Even Monty Python’s King Arthur knelt to praise God after vanquishing the Black Knight; but Martin’s protagonists never kneel for anything, and one has to wonder how the ‘septons’ make their living. Here we see a sort of inverted fantasy, in which the author is too afraid of his own hard-boiled rationalism to allow even the amount of supernatural influence that most people still take for granted in this world. Westeros is not more magical than its nearest historical model, England during the Wars of the Roses, but less; it is even less magical than England today, which takes some doing. But that is a matter calling for detailed treatment, so I set it aside for now.

On one level certainly, for many writers and perhaps most writers, it is enough to say that magic is simply fun. The same childlike impulse that made us play cops-and-robbers one day, and cowboys-and-Indians the next (in the days when such politically incorrect pastimes were allowed), leads some of us even as adults to play elves-and-orcs or knights-and-dragons, which have the advantage of not treading upon the sensibilities of any real ethnic or cultural group. But as that insufferable scold Tasso used to tell us, a poet’s job should be not only to please, but to instruct as well; and few authors, even hacks, can quite resist the urge to wrap up a lecture in a story, and to impart to the reader their wondrous wisdom and understanding of the world. In fact it is impossible for anyone to exclude his world-view entirely from his fiction, even by the most rigorous effort; our philosophy, or lack thereof, comes across in every choice we make of what to tell stories about and how to tell them.

In practice, then, a writer is bound to have an ulterior motive for the use of magic. For Tolkien, the One Ring was in the first place a handy MacGuffin to get Frodo into enough trouble to keep the story rolling; but it quickly attracted all sorts of thematic force and resonance, and became bound up with his deepest meditations on the seductiveness of power and the desire for deathlessness. The critics who suggested that the Ring symbolized the atomic bomb had it exactly wrong. Nuclear weapons are a clumsy reification of the destructive urges that the Ring embodies in ideal form. If the Manhattan Project could have forged a Ring of Power, they would never have bothered with anything as inelegant as a bomb.

Few other fantasy authors have been quite as forthcoming about their motives and obsessions, or rather, their thoughts have not been revealed because their private letters have not gone into print. But if one wants to examine the contents of a mind en déshabille, there is always one’s own. If anyone were to ask me why I include magic in my work, I should have to give an answer something like this:

There is an Old English proverb, Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile: ‘A man does what he is when he can do what he wants.’ Of all the devices invented by man to make his will effective in the physical world, magic is the purest and most direct. There is no better way to show what a man is really made of than to grant his wishes. What things will he wish for? Will they be good or evil? Will he take care and forethought in his wishing, or will he be swept away on a flood of unintended consequences, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? And above all, what will he do when he is faced with the outcome of his desires? Having made his bed, will he lie on it, or try (in vain) to shift the responsibility? And if he has done harm to himself or to others, has he the character to clean up after himself? These questions are at the very heart of character, both in fiction and in life. In reality they are never unambiguously answered, because our means are inadequate to our ends, and most of our wishes are beyond our power to enact. But in fantasy, where wishes are horses, we can ride wherever we will. We can see the naked moral act and judge of its quality.

H.G. Wells had a fatal habit of mistaking means for ends, and judging the character of men by their power. His ‘Men Like Gods’ were, as Orwell calls them, ‘a race of enlightened sun-bathers’ who, having such great power over nature that they could solve all their problems and fulfil all their desires, had nothing better to do than sneer at the impotence of their ancestors. But sometimes he discovered the use of magic, and then, too frightened to face it honestly, covered it up again. His short story ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is a case in point. Here he found the perfect way to expose the character of a man. His Mr. Fotheringay could do literally anything he wished — but he had to live with the consequences. Unfortunately Wells got caught up in the fun of examining the consequences, and had Fotheringay make such a mess of his wishes that he ended up wishing his power away. In effect, he stuffed the genie back into the lamp and threw the lamp in the sea.

The creators of Superman likewise stumbled upon a good thing and did not know how to use it. The powers they gave their superhero, while not quite amounting to unlimited wish-fulfilment, could have made a wonderful way of exploring the limits of choice and freedom. Even for Superman, it is impossible both to do a thing and to leave it undone; and the one power Superman did not have was the power to be in two places at once. High and moving drama could have been made out of this: the Man of Steel doing triage, deciding whom to save and which evils to fight, since even he could not deal with them all. (Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, in the first film of that series, had to make a truly agonizing choice of just that kind; but with the sort of can-do optimism that used to be thought typical of Americans, the writers gave him a way to save both the crowd of innocents and the woman he loved.) But this was a level of drama that Siegel and Shuster either were not equal to, or did not dare to attempt, or thought their readers would not appreciate. So they gave Superman an old-fashioned limitation, so that the drama of choice and necessity could be transmuted into the melodrama of slugging it out against enemies. They gave him Kryptonite, and took away his soul.

One reasonably honest attempt to explore the possibilities of unfettered magic can be found in the film Bruce Almighty. Though marred by adolescent silliness and cotton-candy theology, the film did at least try to take the question of magic seriously. The title character is a selfish ass, and he shows it in the ways that he chooses at first to exercise his powers. He is short-sighted and careless, and shows that in the shoddy and unhelpful way that he grants prayers. But he is not unteachable; in time he learns better, and begins to face the real and inherent tragedy of a world where not all prayers can be granted at once. It could have been high art if it had not bogged down in jokes about Bruce inflating his girlfriend’s breasts and toilet-training his dog.

Science fiction can deal with such questions in a limited way, by proposing a particular technological breakthrough to remove a particular limit to our powers. It is the literature of the particular what-if. What if we could travel faster than light? What if we could accurately foretell the future? What if we could become immortal by uploading our minds into computers? And so on. But such stories all too easily turn into games about details. John Varley’s ‘Overdrawn at the Memory Bank’ is one of the first major treatments of the uploaded-brain idea, and Varley goes some distance with the questions that naturally arise about epistemology and the value of reality versus fantasy. But he spends a lot more of the story dealing with the limitations of the technology, and the way that his protagonist’s sanity slowly breaks down as he compromises the integrity of the containing system. In the end the larger questions are answered with a firm nolle prosequi.

Magic in fantasy has the power to remove the technical quibbles and reveal the whole picture. There is no real need, apart from the author’s own timidity, to shrink back from the philosophical questions that naturally arise; there is every incentive to deal with them by dramatic demonstration. Frodo chooses self-restraint, at least up to the point where no merely human will could resist the temptation of the Ring. Paul Atreides chooses vengeance. Dorothy chooses to go home from Oz. When they can do what they like, they reveal who they are. All the other apparatus of plot and setting serves merely to build up these choices, to make them vivid, to make them look real; it is the choices themselves that give shape to the story, using the device of magic to turn character into destiny.

The function of fantasy in general is to rekindle our sense of joy and wonder at the world, by showing how the things we take for granted need not have been so. The most joyless cynic can bring this out as easily as the starriest-eyed dreamer; it is inherent to the medium. Even the Thin Queen of Elfhame, horrific as she is, gives us a hearty appreciation of the contrariness, the stubborn individuality, the quiddity of the real women in our lives. The function of magic is to bring that same sense of wonder to our power of choice. For we all make choices, even if we choose to believe that we are helpless pawns of circumstance; and our choices have real consequences. In his review of The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis wrote:

By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.


Magic, both in the real world (whether it works or not) and in fantasy, is our way to dip the human will in myth. By turning it loose to inflict change on the world for good or ill, we see more clearly how strange, how potent, how nearly supernatural is this power we have of making choices. Good and evil, peril and anguish and joy, when touched by magic, become as real and concrete as bread and apples. In science we do experiments to isolate one factor among many: so we learn the effects of gravity, electricity, or heredity. Where we cannot do experiments with real bodies, we settle for thought-experiments, like Einstein thinking about travelling at the speed of light, or Adam Smith thinking about perfectly free trade. As long as we do not mistake our abstractions for reality, we can learn much about the forces that they represent. Magic, the kind of magic we find in fantasy, is a thought-experiment, a valid way of exploring the sciences of psychology and ethics. It is worth doing; it is even worth doing badly; but it deserves to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and well.

That, at least, is why I choose to do it. And now it behooves me to get back to work and do some magic.

Link | Leave a comment |

Comments {93}

Page 1 of 3
<<[1] [2] [3] >>

(no subject)

from: nancylebov
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 12:18 (UTC)
Link

It's good to see you back.

Tim Powers doesn't seem like a genre fantasy writer to me, and that's because (at least in most of his books that I've read) he presents magic as intrinsically bad for people. This is probably related to him being a Catholic.

As for why people like magic, there's another reason-- the feeling that there's something fascinating behind the visible universe.

What do you think of Diane Duane's fiction?

Which reminds me of another safety factor: Magic requires resources which are obviously not available. This would cover the languages in Stranger in a Strange Land, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the So You Want to Be a Wizard series, and the ability to see and manipulate the threads that connect things in Zelazny's Madwand/Mindwand.

There's a category of real world belief in magic I don't think you've covered-- the daoist and reiki strain, largely used for healing. It isn't as megalomaniac as The Secret and its predecessors, and it doesn't involve the utter foolishness of trying to command demons.

Sidetrack: Have you read Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy? It's the only modern fantasy I've read in which magic consists of controlling demons. The magicians are as unpleasant a bunch as you'd expect. I've only read the first book, so I don't know how the series turns out. If you have, I don't mind if you spoil the ending-- I doubt I'm going to read the other two.

I don't know what's going on with people who identify as vampires or elves or whatever. I suspect they have too narrow an idea of the range of possibilities for being human.

I would say that the (late medieval? early renaissance?) Catholic belief in malevolent witchcraft shows a certain amount of destructive credulity.

Wiccans believe in the threefold law-- that what you send out magically comes back to you three times over-- and they avoid malevolent magic.

Thanks for the Cabell quote: the Thin Queen is a fine match for Wentworth's succubus.

I've heard Katherine Kurtz say that she never put malevolent magic on stage in her books because she knew some of her readers would try anything she described.

Have you read Bujold's The Curse of Chalion and its sequels? They're set in a world where what looks like magic is entirely the result of a human letting the gods act through him or herself.

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: nancylebov
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 12:20 (UTC)
Link

What do you think of Pratchett? He presents magic as subject to the same moral constraints as any other action.

Edited at 2008-04-29 12:22 pm (UTC)

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)

Sherwood Smith

(no subject)

from: sartorias
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 14:02 (UTC)
Link

Fascinating--what I can understand past a smog headache.

Which hedge is magical realism? (the magic of the absurd, or surrealism?)

Reply | Thread

Tom Simon

(no subject)

from: superversive
date: Apr. 30th, 2008 1:31 (UTC)
Link

Really I’d say that magical realism is a misnomer of the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ class. Properly I should call it a branch of surrealism, which is decidedly not realism, but does not partake of the particular nature of magic either. (G.K. Chesterton wrote brilliantly about it in his various defences of fairy-tales.)

Above all, it seems to me, from the little magic-realist work I’ve read, that the supernatural element consists of impossibly strange and absurd things that happen to one, rather than anything one can actually do. There’s no question of trying to emulate the protagonist of a Borges story, because really all he generally does is react to the weirdness around him. (But I haven’t read a lot of Borges, and no doubt my Kind Readers will provide all manner of counterexamples that I didn’t know about.) The idea of magic as an art that one can practise and eventually master seems not to be a common motif in that field, and it’s that idea that one wants to set up hedges around.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

(no subject)

from: jamesenge
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 14:43 (UTC)
Link

Thanks for this. It's all great, but the penultimate and climactic paragraph has a special crunch.

Reply | Thread

brownnicky

(no subject)

from: brownnicky
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 14:49 (UTC)
Link

I write about magic because of the 'what if', the fun of it and I have had problems with it in every book where I've used it. The last one was most awkward because it was set at the court of a Christian King where magic was outlawed.Shoe horning magic into that is very uncomfortable for a Christian writer and I am not entirely convinced that my get out was very effective.
However my guilt at using magic in fiction probably manifests itself in the kind of magic I end up inventing; it is never that much fun and in the end people are inclined to renounce it.
I am kind of reassured that other writers battle with the same problems.I am also interested to note that I don't use any hedges except perhaps #4 and not all the time. Mmm perhaps my problems and this fact are in some way connected?
Anyway my current book does not involve magic and I'm steering clear of religion too for a change.

Reply | Thread

arantzain

(no subject)

from: arantzain
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 15:13 (UTC)
Link

Maybe I'm reading too much into a chance comment, but it almost seems as though you believe good fantasy must employ hedges.

I hope I'll have something more intelligent to say after these papers. One thing I will say: yours is a fascinating perspective, even if I disagree and often vehemently.

Reply | Thread

Damien Sullivan

(no subject)

from: mindstalk
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 20:25 (UTC)
Link

I think your reading is correct, wherein "good fantasy" includes "does not tempt the reader into experimentation with occult forces and identification with real world secret elites". It's not just about telling a good story, qua story, but about real moral interaction with a living theology. If you don't share that theology, if you don't feel there's a moral danger to playing with astrology and Ouija boards, then I think you won't get much more out of the essays than an interesting perspective filter to try on.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Erik Amundsen

(no subject)

from: cucumberseed
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 15:27 (UTC)
Link

Fascinating. I'll need to digest and return.

Reply | Thread

mrmandias

(no subject)

from: mrmandias
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 16:21 (UTC)
Link

Have you read Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages? He argues that the three approaches to the patent failings of the world are either asceticism (renounce the world), utopianism (try to perfect the world), or play-acting and fantasy. He spends most of his time discussing this last category, which has obvious parallels to your essay, but I can't do it justice here.

Reply | Thread

arockr

(no subject)

from: arockr
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 16:43 (UTC)
Link

I can only say ditto to everyone else in saying fascinating. It really is (fascinating) to look into the subject of magic in such a way, and to break it down like that. I'll most definitely be sharing this with some friends to see what they think.
I have never thought of hedges, but now that you've pointed them out, I can finally see clearly why I don't like Harry Potter. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but this did it. It never made sense to my friends that I could like other fantasy stories with magic but hated HP, this hit the nail on the head. haha.

Reply | Thread

M. C. A. Hogarth

(no subject)

from: haikujaguar
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 17:35 (UTC)
Link

Wow. O_O

Reply | Thread

al_zorra

(no subject)

from: al_zorra
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 19:04 (UTC)
Link

Wonderful post -- linked to it via Sartorias.

Among the many of the desperate and desperately poor, 'magic,' whatever it is called in their cultures, for good (cool-white), and for ill (hot-black, or red), literally keeps them going -- along with music and other bits of prized, still-possessed culture. Equally, it is a force of internal oppression.

For every positive in a force, there's a negative it seems.

What you've written about Cabell has me musing further on something I read this weekend, a pronouncement by a hot young handsome Brooklyn author, Keith Gessen, that irony is "an end-run around a class-based problem of sentimentality."

Love, C.

Reply | Thread

Angelic Eye for the Gendered-Species Individual

(no subject)

from: rysmiel
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 19:09 (UTC)
Link

I think, on reflection, part of why this essay, beautiful and powerful though it is, rings philosophically hollow to me, is that it seems - and please do correct me if I misread you on this - to exist in a context of a defining polarity between the Christian worldview (in its various forms) and what you characterise as "cosmic despair", and of people's philosophies in general arising as responses to one or other.

I should be very interested, then, in your thoughts on use of magic in fantasies embracing a hope in humanity, a faith in humanity and virtues on the human scale, that are not backed either by despair or by a Christian worldview; of which the paramount example to come to mind is John M. Ford's The Dragon Waiting.

Reply | Thread

Tom Simon

(no subject)

from: superversive
date: Apr. 30th, 2008 1:38 (UTC)
Link

The thing is, in this culture (in either its North American or European manifestations), most people’s ideas of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology have been profoundly influenced by the Christian tradition, whether they acknowledge it or not. All too often, rejecting Christianity (or Judaism) turns out to be an exercise in sawing off the limb one is sitting on. A lot of European intellectuals have been facing that fact squarely for the first time in recent years, and their consternation is sadly amusing and entirely predictable. George Orwell, no friend to Christianity himself, foresaw it all sixty years ago, but greeted the false dawn of Democratic Socialism as if it could fill the void left by faith.

I haven’t read John M. Ford, so I haven’t got any useful thoughts on that subject. It seems to me that by far the most usual attitudes are in fact derived either from theism (Judaeo-Christian, Islamic, or some varieties of Hindu and Amerindian) or from cosmic despair in more or less attractive guises (Buddhism, ascetic Hinduism, the more philosophical varieties of paganism). I have yet to see anyone develop a third way that could well stand the rigours of philosophical analysis.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Kilerkki

(no subject)

from: kilerkki
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 19:45 (UTC)
Link

Here via sartorias's link, and I must say that after I read this the first time I then spent the next several hours rummaging through your LJ for the rest of your essais. It certainly delayed my plans for the day, but I've done a lot of thinking!

On the topic at hand, though, my interest is piqued by Greydanus's hedges, and I wish you'd explained them a little more in your introduction, though I do very much appreciate the link. It's interesting to see, as you noted, how some of them play out in other works; for example, although the protagonists in Susanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell do practice magic, hedge #4 certainly comes into play as we see them suffer under the influence of a power that is, in the end, just like any other mortal power in its corrupting tendencies. Likewise, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind seems well on his way to finding that using magic creates even more problems than it solves.

I consider that the use of magic in fantasy is very parallel to the use of fantastical religions; we're not all Lewis, and we can't all set up Christianity in our secondary worlds (I, for one, would find it vaguely blasphemous; even Tolkien is very careful about his religious elements, and while he has Christ-figures, his people are emphatically not Christian). But I find it even more appalling to set up Paolini's sort of atheistic world-view, where fantastical creatures who do not themselves abide by laws of science refuse to believe in anything else. Some writers get by with vague references to gods; some set up highly elaborate systems wherein the gods are nothing more than a thinly veiled Greek pantheon, with nothing inherently divine except immortality and invincibility. Many of the arguments that you use about magic seem to apply here. Constructed religious systems can, I think, tell us as much about human will and choice as magic can. Do they carry the same danger of mistaking abstraction for reality?

Reply | Thread

Damien Sullivan

(no subject)

from: mindstalk
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 20:17 (UTC)
Link

I haven't read Paolini, so I don't know what exactly you're referring to, but I see no contradiction between fantastical creatures and an "atheistic" world. They need not abide by *our* laws of science, yet might abide by others.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

(no subject)

from: dsgood
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 20:20 (UTC)
Link

Science fiction also uses magic -- except, of course, that it's almost always called something which sounds scientific.

Reply | Thread

(no subject)

from: swan_tower
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 21:08 (UTC)
Link

That statement bugs me a little, I'll admit, because it implies a definition of magic I don't agree with -- "things that don't really work" or "hand-wavy stuff we don't have a real explanation for" or something along those lines. And though I don't know if you meant it this way, it's usually deployed in a fashion derogatory to magic (and fantasy), hence it raising my hackles.

Reply | Parent | Thread | Expand

Wendy S. Delmater

(no subject)

from: safewrite
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 20:46 (UTC)
Link

You had me from, "... it is truly said that we live in an age of improved means to deteriorated ends." Well, okay. From before that but I love that line, and many others. (Do I scent a whiff of Schaeffer in this post? *smile*)

Marvelous as always, Tom. I'm linking this to help it get the exposure it deserves.

Reply | Thread

asakiyume

(no subject)

from: asakiyume
date: Apr. 29th, 2008 21:17 (UTC)
Link

Fascinating on so many points, both for your own thoughts and for the people you cite. I thought this quote from Waite was very, very insightful:

But in Magic that efficiency can be manifested only over things trivial or abominable, because it is obvious that for any higher purpose we should have recourse thereto through the ordinary channels of religion. If the hypothesis of prayer is true, Magic is out of court on the side of holy things because there is a more excellent way of obtaining the great gifts, the good gifts and the gifts that do not pass away.

And I really liked your Anglo-Saxon quotation as well--the trueness of it hit right away.

Thank you, as always.

Reply | Thread