Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Magical Happenings (Part 2)

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Shortly after publishing last week’s column, I was trapped into a corner by a mob of angry literature students and sustained significant paper cuts after being repeatedly clubbed by various works of fiction and literary criticism.

Well, not really. They were actually quite polite and respectful in their disagreements and suggestions. But the various opinions I encountered over the course of the week illustrated an important point about magic. Each person has his own idea of what magic is, how it works and ought to work, and when and where it ought to be included in literature. At times, the competing definitions concurred, overlapped, conflicted, and otherwise didn’t line up nicely like they were supposed to. 

It would seem, much to the chagrin of poor Alice, that we might have to respond that “yes, a word can mean so many different things.”

Humpty-Dumpty, Magician Extraordinaire


The way people view reality tends to affect the way they use words. A person who believes that reality is nothing more than particles hitting each other in a particular way might use the phrase “the natural world” to mean things governed by the laws of physics, while using “the supernatural world” to refer to a wholly fictitious dimension of reality consisting of God, the devil, angels, demons, and other “non-physical” beings. 

A Christian, on the other hand, might recognize that, being an eternal soul, he is a point at which the immaterial and the material worlds intersect and use the word “natural” to refer to the world that we experience tangibly on a day-to-day basis. He might walk around and say hi to immortal souls every day, but the interaction is, well, “natural.” Supernatural beings are not “non-physical” (angels, after all, could be seen), but rather “above what is natural.”

Add to the mix the fact that magic itself doesn't divide cleanly into separate categories. In last week's blog post, we considered two different forms of magic: the first involved appeals to the supernatural and the second involved alterations to the way reality worked. 

Suppose, however, that in our work of fiction, we take an eye of a newt, the tooth of a wolf, a lotus blossom, and a radish, mix it together under a full moon, and then pronounce an incantation upon it, at which point a mysterious shade blows through the window, enters the potion, and causes it to begin glowing green. What just happened?

Well, that depends to some extent on the rules the author has crafted his universe to run on. But in many cases, it's safe to infer that we've just seen the fusion of the two forms of magic – an appeal to the supernatural combined with certain properties natural to that universe.

We might be tempted to throw our hands up in despair and insist that there's no way to muddle through such a complicated, magical mess. I, for one, am quite skeptical that someone could give a definition that adequately captures all the different variations of magic we encounter in literature. But I do think there are a few principles that Christian authors (and readers) can apply to their understanding of magic.

First of all, magic is not morally neutral, but it can be either good or evil. Even if you’re just using sophisticated pharmaceuticals to make your character a strength potion, that character can then use his extra power for good or for evil. Magic can be a very useful tool for inquiring into the nature of power; it is very common to see characters in literature acquire an immense amount of power through magical means and then need to learn how to use it responsibly. It can also be used to demonstrate the unintended consequences that come about by meddling with the order of Being by which the universe is governed.

Second, bear in mind that Scripture portrays appeals to the supernatural a certain way. Literature ought to correspond to that usage. In Faust, for example, the protagonist makes a deal with the devil which grants him immense power on earth but ultimately results in his undoing (no spoilers, go read the book). If there is an appeal to the forces of good (say, for example, there is an Elijah-like character calling down fire from heaven), the work of literature ought to take care to reinforce that the magician is the servant of God and not make God’s actions subject to the magician’s whims.

Finally, the author ought to be clear with what he’s doing. It’s okay to wait and tie stuff up at the end, or use an interesting plot twist to make a point, but it’s particularly easy to slip into calling good evil and evil good. When the reader sets down the book, he ought not have been led astray (this is a credible objection to the Harry Potter series, by the way – it can blur the line between good and evil by dressing up a lot of things that would otherwise have been perfectly fine in the trappings of witchcraft and other unpleasantries).

Well, I’ve by no means claimed to have conducted an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but I hope this is sufficient to make good on my promise. Questions? Comments? Complaints? Send the latter on over to Joel and the rest in the comment section below.

By Nick Barden
Picture: The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, by Joseph Wright (1771).

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