Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Magical Happenings

I was 10 when the first Harry Potter movie came out. I remember coming downstairs from where I'd been sent to bed and finding my older sister and parents sitting on the couch watching it. I was never the kind who wanted to be left out (I had previously insisted on watching The Fellowship of the Ring, even though I ended up freaked out by the time the Nazgul came and ran back to my room), so my parents left me stay up and watch it.

Now, see, the buzz at church and my homeschool group at that time was that Harry Potter was a stepping stone to witchcraft. Apparently a number of teenagers, enraptured by the Harry Potter universe, decided to cross on over to wicca and other sorts of dabbling in the black arts. Harry Potter quickly made it on the "do not watch list," and I quickly developed principled objections to it. My objections were slightly different, however. I just thought it wasn't that interesting.

Well, I was sitting in my creative writing club the other day, and, as often happens when homeschoolers and former homeschoolers hang out, the discussion quickly turned to fantasy. And once the fantasy discussion gets opened up, the conversation on magic follows shortly thereafter. About this point, I realized that I'd promised to write a column on the topic back in January, so I figured I'd better do it.

Supernatural Happenings?

Before you can actually start evaluating how to use magic in literature (I'm taking for granted that it can be properly used in some way, seeing as how Scripture itself describes magic in its narrative), you have to start working towards some definition of what magic is.

One place to start (and the place a friend of mine actually did start) is by splitting reality into two categories -- the "natural" realm, and the "supernatural" realm. According to this division, there are certain laws of science which govern the natural realm, and magic is considered an exception to the laws.

Consider group of particles A. They're nice and happy particles, they form electrons and protons and neutrons and move in nice uniform patterns, generally doing what they're told, moving along with particle groups B, C, D, E....Z, and so on ad infinitum. But suppose that a supernatural being intervenes, gives particle group A special orders, and whoosh! They all head off in a different direction. Magic!

The implication is that magic is an intervention of the supernatural into the natural, in order to pause the laws of nature and do something...well...weird. Like bring someone back from the dead. Or split apart a sea so that a group of people can walk through. Or conduct a seance to communicate with the dead. But beyond that, it says that if we, as human beings, are going to use magic, we need to contact some sort of supernatural being and access him in order to gain control over the "laws of nature."

I think this approach to the nature of magic has a lot to say, and definitely illustrates the problems with dabbling in magic. If you find that by saying certain words and by doing certain things, you can "control" supernatural beings, they're not going to be good beings, because God and his angels do not allow themselves to be controlled.

But I think that definition ultimately fails to do justice to the use of magic in literature for a couple of reasons.

First, of all, it presumes a sharp division between the supernatural and natural reality that actually may not exist. Consider it this way. I'm a person, and I have a soul and a will. I participate in a reality that is not wholly governed by the laws of nature. I can move my hand to the right, and when I move my hand to the right, I didn't have to do so. I could have moved it to the left. So what is it that makes particle group A move to the right, when, say, the laws of nature may have just left them sitting there? The fact that I am a supernatural being, and I interact with the natural world all the time. Magic!

But why not push that a step further? Conceivably, if the laws of nature are "violated" all the time by the actions of immaterial beings, and if we believe in a God that upholds all of reality by the word of His power, then perhaps it's less useful to view "the laws of nature" as inviolable laws and more useful to view them as God enjoying doing the same thing over and over again for the sake of consistency. Water doesn't run downhill because it has to. It does so because God told it to. Apples don't fall from trees because of an inviolable law of nature. They do so because they're bewitched.

In this understanding of the world, there is no division between the supernatural and the natural. The natural world does everything it's supposed to because the supernatural world (namely God) is constantly telling it to (for more on this school of thought, see this fun little bit by G.K. Chesterton).

"But okay, Nick," some of you might be saying, "that's a nice technical point, but does it really address the question? I mean, everyone knows what we're talking about, right? We're obviously using natural to mean 'the way things typically happen,' we're not actually trying to deny the existence of free will."

Fair enough. It is a technical point. I do think it's useful in adjusting the way we view the world, and is definitely important if you plan on going further into the field of metaphysics, but it's definitely splitting hairs. There is, however, another reason why I think the definition fails.

Fantasy is a pretty unique genre. It takes things outside of the normal operations of this world and allows us to look at them from a different perspective. What happens if we take human nature and split it up between orcs, elves, goblins, dwarves and hobbits? What would happen if people walked around with auras so that we could discern their personality? What would people do if we had the ability to control minds? And, most importantly, having conducted our grand experiment in alternate reality, what does it tell us about living in this world?

Part of being able to construct an alternate reality is being able to mess with the "natural" world in a way that's, well, magical.

Take magic potions for example. Suppose a character in my book gets an eye of a newt, the tooth of a wolf, a lotus blossom, and a radish, and cooks it all together into a nasty smelling liquid that gives him superhuman strength. He's not directly appealing to a supernatural being. He is simply mixing ingredients in accordance with that world's law of nature, much like a pharmacist in ours.

What about exerting control of the elements? A theme in certain genres of fantasy is the ability to control earth, air, fire, or water. Certain groups of people have a natural ability to bend one of these abilities to their will. It doesn't involve an appeal to a supernatural being, but is simply conforming to the principles by which that reality is ordered.

How about alchemy? Back in the middle ages, there were certain people who were convinced that it was possible to break down materials and recombine them in various ways. What if an author makes a decision that, in his universe, it actually is possible to swap protons, neutrons and electrons between atoms in a way that converts lead into gold? (Interestingly, C.S. Lewis in Perelandra uses the image of alchemy to describe salvation as a process of breaking down a person and reforging him into something radically different).

So coming back around to our definition of magic. I like the way the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Magic involves controlling or influencing the course of events by the use of mysterious or supernatural forces, and I would venture to say that once we take the concept out of our daily world and put them into another, the forces become even more mysterious and enjoyable. But isn't that part of the charm of fantasy anyways?

At about this point, I've realized that fleshing out the applications of this understanding of magic to the writing of literature is a whole other column. So farewell until next week. Leave thoughts and/or rotten tomatoes in the comment section below.

By Nick Barden


  1. This is the first post of yours that I haven't been lost in the vocabulary. I appreciate the perspective and will likely use this the next time I have the discussion of magic with a mom.

  2. Excellent article! Needs a sequel.