This series examines a tendency in many Christian circles to automatically equate real-life witchcraft and sorcery with the imaginary forms of “magic” found within fantasy storylines. I make the case that doing so is to compare apples and oranges – and it’s grossly unfair to sincere Christians who enjoy both reading and writing within the fantasy genre. My previous post on this subject was a brief overview of the terms “magician” and “magic”, showing that they have historically carried scientific implications as much as supernatural ones. I also stated that a “scientific” interpretation is the more applicable one when considering magic in its fictional forms. I will now expand on this thought.
Different Worlds, Different Rules
The first thing that has to be understood about fictional magic is the surrounding context. Most fantasy storylines take place within an imagined world that is deliberately designed to differ from our own. This takes the form not only of different histories, cultures, customs, creatures, etc. but also of entirely different physical laws and processes. The boundaries between “natural” and “supernatural” are often placed at entirely different points and sometimes exist only on a vague continuum. “Magical” phenomena functions as a stand-in for the miraculous, allowing events and plot devices outside of what we would experience in the real world. This gives the author freedom to explore various themes and ideas from a radically new perspective.
For example, different imaginary creatures (Elves, dragons, unicorns, etc) can have different abilities that are part of their nature as created beings. We see this principle in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium, which has an extensive background mythology detailing how its world and various races were brought into existence by a Supreme Being. Elves and Wizards (which in this universe are actually angelic spirits sent to Middle Earth in physical form) are the only beings with the ability (or authority) to perform “magical” feats. This characteristic distinguishes them from the mortal humans, dwarves and hobbits that also appear in Tolkien’s imagined world. Humans who practice “magic” in this world are evil sorcerers using power bestowed on them by the Dark Lord who is the antagonist of the series.
Another approach is to make “magic” so interwoven into the fabric of the imagined world that its characters do not even consider it as such. One book I recently reviewed (Lawless by Janeen Ippolito) features an imaginary world where everyone (human and otherwise) is born with a particular “Talent.” One person has the ability to control the winds, another the ability to shape metals into any form they want, another the ability to sense particular chemicals, etc. People in this world are simply created with a different nature than people in our world. It seems “magical” only because the world we live in does not have these things.
This brings me to what I consider the central point of my argument. Witchcraft, sorcery and occult practices of all stripes are evil because they represent rebellion against the laws (both moral and physical) governing Creation. As such, they require the aid of demonic spirits to accomplish things that are not possible under these laws. The fantasy genre, however, allows us to imagine worlds where the laws themselves are different.
Let’s take a possible real-world analogy. Nuclear physicists have the ability to unleash truly fearful and devastating amounts of power – arguably well beyond the abilities possessed by many real and fictional magicians. But they have arrived at this capability by completely lawful means – they are working with not against the laws of Creation in order to obtain it. The only spiritually significant question is how that power will be used – a nuclear bomb wiping out millions of innocent people? Or a power plant providing cheap and efficient energy for the homes of those very same millions?
Fantasy storytelling, incidentally, is a powerful medium for addressing those very types of questions. The use of a world with differing physical laws and differing creatures allows these themes to be presented in a way that seems fresh and new to us. A story presenting a dichotomy between lawful, natural “magic” and evil “sorcery” is a powerful allegory for the nature of divine boundaries – one can work within the laws and rules governing Creation or one can break them: the Tree of Life vs. the Tree of Knowledge.
“Magic” in Our World
Things do, of course, become slightly more problematic when we consider “magic”-based fantasy fiction set within our own world. One example would be the Harry Potter series (as many in the past have stated loudly and repeatedly). Didn’t we just get done saying that “magical” phenomena is effectively outlawed under the laws governing our world as opposed to those of imaginary worlds built from scratch?
Well… I would say yes and no. The term “magic” is still a very loose one, and many of the considerations about differing physical laws still apply when we consider stories set in our own world. Right now, I’m reviewing a book (Forged in Steel) by a Christian author (H.A. Titus) writing in the “urban fantasy” genre. The storyline is centered around Irish/Celtic mythology, the premise being that its legends are essentially true and the creatures mentioned within them are living secretly in modern society. Here is how one character describes “magic”:
“The way some fae [elves] react with their environment. It’s… hard to explain.”
“You humans always call what you don’t understand ‘magic’.”
Here again, we see “magic” being the preserve of imaginary creatures with different created natures from us (and who, incidentally, originate from a different world/dimension). This same principle to many “this-world” fantasy stories where human characters practice magic. Even the wizards featured in the Harry Potter series, for example, are born with the miraculous abilities that differentiate them from other human beings. Their knowledge of spells, enchantments, potions, etc (virtually all of which are pure gibberish with no effect the real world) is not based upon gaining power but rather properly using what is already present. Real-world witches, warlocks, sorcerers, etc. are not born with these abilities but seek to gain them by allying with evil spirits.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still many elements in a lot of secular fantasy (Harry Potter included) that are still extremely problematic from a spiritual standpoint. And some real-life occultists do, in fact, make the false claim that they are tapping into a pre-existent power that lies inside every human being. I could go on at length about why this idea is not true and is a dangerous one to literally believe, but that’s beyond my scope at this point. Rather, my intent in this less-than-exhaustive treatment has been to describe how magic is used within fiction and the surrounding context within which it takes place. More often than not, it’s something very different from the witchcraft described in scripture.
Suggestions for Christian Storytellers
I’m hardly the most qualified person to issue yet another set of “rules” or even guidelines for Christian fantasy writers (my genre of choice is science fiction), so I’ll try to keep this brief. As I’ve shown, the term “magic” is little more than an equivocal catch-all that encompasses various sorts of phenomena with radically different causes. I personally would advocate a greater degree of creativity when it comes to the storytelling process. Instead of relying on weak, buzzword-esque terminology like “magic,” “spell,” etc. why not adopt an approach similar to fantasy greats like J.R.R. Tolkien? Consider this passage from The Silmarillion describing the creation of the Ring of Power:
“Now the Elves made many rings; but secretly Sauron made One Ring to rule all the others, and their power was bound up with it, to be subject wholly to it and to last only so long as it too should last. And much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for the power of the Elven-rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency; and Sauron forged it in the Mountain of Fire in the Land of Shadow. And while he wore the One Ring he could perceive all the things that were done by means of the lesser rings, and he could see and govern the very thoughts of those that wore them.”
Clearly, from our standpoint, the ring is a “magical” artifact created by “magical” means. But those are not explicitly labeled as such nor are they even described with any detail. We are told only that the ring was created and the evil purpose its maker had for it – which arguably results in a far more compelling story. What is left unsaid is arguably just as powerful as what is actually said. That, at least, is the approach I would take should I ever enter write within the fantasy genre myself.
I invite you all to join me again as we continue our journey through the Uncharted Corners of Heaven and Earth.