Friday, March 12, 2010

Fantasy Magic and the Christian Author

In the course of my work with young people at my parish, not infrequently parents seek my advice on the issue of fantasy fiction, especially when dealing with the existence of "magic," as in the Harry Potter novels. I myself have never read Harry Potter; I know some Catholics are adamantly opposed to the books, while others (such as the contributors of Gilbert magazine) praise the Potter books as being full of Christian virtue. Having never read them, I can't say.

However I can speak to this issue as one who has read a lot of fantasy fiction in my life and who has also written fantasy fiction. Thus I offer my reflections here on the issue of magic in fiction more from the standpoint of an author than as a theologian or a moralist, though my opinions will of course be shot through with Catholic moral and theological thought.

The issue of magic is an sub-category of the subject of fantasy fiction. While magic is not strictly necessary to make a story "fantasy," it is almost ubiquitous in most fantasy fiction today. What role will it play in the fantasy world? How will it be utilized, and will the manner in which it is utilized say anything about the worldview of the creator of that world? This makes the difference between whether the presence of the magic is benign (as in Tolkien) or perhaps malevolent and damaging to the mind of the reader.

There are really only two options when dealing with the issue of magic: either magic is a craft that can be learned and mastered by any person who applies themselves, much like any skill in the natural world, or it is something that must be innate within a being, something one is born with, not unlike the concept of the Jedi in Star Wars. Wizards are either made or born. Is any one of these options more appropriate to the writer trying to incorporate magic into his world in a way not harmful to Christian morality?

J.R.R. Tolkien adopted the latter model, that of magic being innate. The elves possess magical powers by virtue of their nature, which they understand not as magic but as part of who they are - "magic" is what the human peoples of Middle Earth refer to it, a reflection of their lack of understanding of the powers and nature of the elves. The wizards also use magic, but as any Tolkien fan knows, Gandalf and Saruman are not truly men; rather, they are powerful angelic beings called istari who only appear in the forms of men, and their powers are as natural to them as angelic powers are to the angels. The Dunedain possess a kind of magic, but only by virtue of the elven blood in their veins. Thus, there is really no opportunity on Middle Earth for any one to "become" a wizard if they choose: magic is the prerogative of the elves and the Maiar exclusively.

The Dragonlance Chroncles of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman adopted the former route of magic being learned: anyone who wanted to become a wizard was able to, provided they passed the training, which included a rigorous life or death struggle in a sort of magical "academy" called the Tower of Wayreth. Thus the popular book The Soulforge, which tells of the endeavors of Raistlin Majere to overcome his weakness and become a mage. Having not read Potter, I'm not sure which category Harry falls into, but I think it is a mixture of the two: wizards are born, and once identified, are taken to Hogwarts to train and hone their skills, not unlike the situation of Professor X's school in X-Men.

While I don't think that either approach is strictly moral or immoral, I do think that from a Christian perspective, the concept of magic as learned is more problematic than magic as innate. Christians accept the existence of angelic beings, and therefore also the existence of angelic powers. If we believe and angel can disguise himself as a human, and in that form use the powers natural to him (either for good or ill), then it is no ideological jump to posit some like beings in another universe that operate in a similar manner, which may or may not be called "magic" by the uninformed human populace. In Middle-Earth we see this in the elves, who are superior beings from beyond the sea that have extraordinary powers which mere mortals would call magical or even godlike. I can see nothing objectionable in this form of "magic."

The other approach, treating magic as a skill to be mastered, is a little bit more difficult for a Christian to deal with. A Christian acknowledges that there is only one God, and that all supernatural power must come ultimately either from that one God, or from His nemesis, the devil, who is a very powerful fallen angel. Now, God dictates that mankind not attempt to contact or harness magical abilities, which leaves us in the real world with no other option than that all magic, both black and alleged "white" magic, are diabolical in origin. Christianity does not deny that magic can be mastered, but asserts that all magic is from the evil one. This means that it is intrinsically evil; there is never a time, place or situation in the real world when it is licit for a person to attempt to use magic.

All fine and good within the real world, but how does this transfer into a fantasy world?

This is a dilemma, for once we acknowledge that in the real world magic must always be viewed as an intrinsic evil, this puts the Christian fantasy author in the dilemma of possibly taking something intrinsically evil and making it neutral or even a positive good within the context of the fantasy world (here's a parallel - imagine a fantasy world where adultery was a positive good). There really is no conflict if we retain acquired magic but reduce its use to evil mages (for evil men may in a fantasy world attempt to harness magical powers just as much as evil men in the real world); but the true difficulty arises when a character that is supposed to be a hero or morally upright person is required to acquire or use magic. Can this ever be licit? One could see in it the equivalence of making an otherwise "good" character commit adultery or theft and present it as justifiable. To present an intrinsic evil as justifiable, even in a fantasy book, is sinful, mortally so if it leads the reader to conclude that those evil acts are permissible based on what he reads.

Ursula K. LeGuin in her famous "Earthsea" novels came to a middle position, in which magic was able to be acquired but which consisted not in developing or harnessing any powers from within the agent, but in expanding knowledge of the "names" of all things, which represented their underlying reality as opposed to their external phenomenon. Thus, one became a magician by learning the true names of all things and gaining authority over reality, to manipulate it according to one's will. This gets us past the difficulty of communing with an evil power, but it does so at the expense of presenting a very eastern, almost Buddhist worldview, in which the present world is somewhat illusory and can be overcome by contact with the "real" underlying reality, which is unity as opposed to the multiplicity of the world, and can be manipulated according to the will of the wizard. Though this is an interesting approach, I do not see it as any more consonant with Christianity than the other approaches.

I think there is some mitigating factors depending on the role of magic in the fantasy realm. For example, in our real world, magic is proscribed precisely because it goes outside the boundaries of what God has decreed for mankind. But if magic is an acceptable and normative part of the fantasy world, this position would likewise change. Another parallel - we may not agree with the worship of Athena or Zeus, but once we read the classics and accept thematically the existence of a world and culture in which Zeus and Athena are presented as real, then we must not be surprised nor appalled if consequences follow thematically from this accepted premise. I don't think most intelligent readers (and I leave a large gap here for those outside the category "most") read fantasy and decide to try to practice real magic because of it, anymore than we go off looking for real elves and dragons after reading Tolkien. The real question regarding magic is a contextual one: "What is the origin of the magic in the novel, and how does it conform (or not) with the context of its place in the larger fantasy world? Is this overall context one that is edifying or damaging to faith?"

The best thing to do, from a Christian standpoint, is to avoid the difficulty by not creating any magician protagonists. In fact, it is best to avoid the problem of magic by minimizing its importance; I do not have a taste for these modern fantasy stories whose whole plot revolves around magic or its uses. From a purely stylistic point, too much magic ruins the "fanastical" mood; we are more excited to see a world where magic is possible than where it is normal. If magic is made the norm, it is no longer magic, but simply the way things are. This may be permissible thematically, but it is not as exciting to read. But morally speaking, if one chooses to adopt a world where acquired magic is possible, I think I have come up with two solutions to minimize the negative impact of such an approach to the point of making it acceptable to the Christian reader (and soothe the conscience of the Christian author!).

First, if magic is used, make it about effects over process. What I mean is that the focus of the magic should be on effects of the magic in the plot instead of a preoccupation with the process of bringing it about. It is enough, when I write about a mage, to say that he "cast a spell" and that as a result of this, a fireball came shooting out of this hand and consumed a party of goblins. The reason for using the magic is to come up with the fireball. Now, instead of saying that the mage cast the spell, suppose I say he sat down inside a magic circle, got out a ritual bowl, started mixing ingredients and chanting mystical words; suppose I even translate some of those words into the book and describe the gestures that the mage goes through before finally consummating his spell and casting the fireball. Well, I still get my fireball, but now with a more (in my opinion) unhealthy focus on the process of casting the spell. I can seldom think of a reason why an author would need to include details about the procedure (unless the character was evil and this was a method of bringing out his evilness), and the procedure is what kids who are attracted to magic will want to emulate. If you just say that the character "waved his hand and shot a lightning bolt," you detract attention from the process and focus it where it should be, on the effect of the magic in the story.

Second, use of magic should be sparse and mages should seldom be used as protagonists. Morally, this protects against the implicit notion that magic is a normative means of getting out of difficulties or obtaining what one wants (contrast this with the Harry Potter books where magic is the normative means of operating in the world). This is more a question of emphasis - less magic means less attention drawn to magic. But it is thematic, too; a single, well-placed and well thought out placement of magic in the story might create more of a mystique or fantastical quality about the story than a ton of episodes of wizards shooting lightning at each other until it is as commonplace as an Indian shooting an arrow or a bat in a cave.

These two methods render the concept of acquired magic more acceptable. By refusing to go into the procedures for becoming a wizard or casting a spell, you deprive the audience of anything to possibly mimic and draw the reader's mind to what is important: the furtherance of the plot. By making the use of magic rare but strategically placed, you reinforce the idea that magic is something "fantastical"; i.e., doesn't exist in the real world and can happen only in a fantasy world, which is where it belongs. Both methods allow for a broad literary use of magic while minimizing the possibility that it will "bleed" into the real world. Taking into account also the simple overarching context that in a fantasy world, many things can happen that are not necessarily affirmed about the real world (for example, a fantasy world can have a differing but really existing set of "gods" without the author personally affirming the existence of any such beings in the real world), I think we can affirm a moderate and acceptable way to incorporate acquired magic, if it is necessary.

I don't know if this helps, but it is interesting to ponder. If you want some good, non-standard fantasy in the epic tradition, please check out my book, available here.


Tony W. said...

Dear Boniface, I've not read Harry Potter either, but I get the impression that its content is hardly conducive to the formation of the Christian virtues. And I'm not talking about the mere fact that the novels mention magic. I found this article published by the SSPX particularly interesting:-

It seems to identify in the HP books some of the faults you mention in the post. And again, the behaviour noted by the article hardly seems virtuous.

Steve Hayes said...

I've read the Harry Potter books, some of them several times. I recommend them. I suggest you read them and see whether and how the fit your thesis.

But there is something else. In African traditional religion, there is no devil. The personification if evil is the witch. And the witch is usually someone whoe magical abilities are innate and malevolent, and they may not even be aware of them.

In some cultures there are also sorcerers (the English distinction is made by anthropologists) for whom magic is learned. Some cultures have two words, others have one. But the problem with the view of an innately evil witch is that there is only one way of dealing with them -- kill them. There is nothing that compates with the Christian view that there is no sin so great that one cannot repent of it.

Kalessin said...

C.S. Lewis distinguished wisdom and magic by saying (iirc) that the wise man conforms his desires to nature (i.e. virtue, given his own nature), while the magician wishes to conform nature to his wishes. Clearly the former would be superior both as wisdom and virtue, and would involve a lower risk of corruption. Either learned or innate magic (like any power) would be susceptible to such problems. Magic of either kind could function as an amplifier of Christian stewardship responsibilities in the
'spiderman' style ("With great power, etc.")

But your concern in Christian fiction is mostly with the metaphysics, if I read you correctly. I think this is the basic issue. Any useful kind of 'magic' will involve a complex manipulation of reality that requires superhuman intelligence and capability (e.g. curing a cancer). To say that differently, there is no such thing as 'magical forces' or energies, only magical beings, which I think equates to supernatural beings. If a cancer is removed who actually does the work of excision and repair? That may be a better line into the ethical questions.

Boniface said...

Yes, but there must be an ethical way to include not just magical beings but normal beings with magical powers. My whole point is that, while magical beings are less problematic than magical powers, if we do choose to go the route of having magical powers, the focus ought to be on the effect of the powers over the process itself. For me, the primary factor here is whether or not the magic portrayed will lead kids to imitate it. If it is something that cannot or will not be imitated in real life, I have less problem with it, which is why depictions of magic that contain graphic details of "how" to do spells are more troubling.

Henry Bartholomew said...

What do you think about Eragon? My parish priest has not read the books and can give me no advice.


From your article on Avatar I assumed you had read the books. if this is not so, sorry for bothering you.

Boniface said...


Unfortunately, I have not read the Eragon books, though I did see the movie. What I know of Eragon is taken from talking with kids in my high school writing group about it.

Karl said...

Boniface, I'd very much like you opinion on this.

I've been seeing more and more supernatural fiction pop up in television and in books, and it's always innovative, ie "no, crucifixes don't work ha-ha silly old stuff", and the monsters are just people who try to get by like everyone else, and silly things like this. This has made me want to write a book myself, a real dark and bitter book where monsters are monsters with lots of garlic and holy water everywhere and on everything. I'm a good writer (in my native language), but I got caught up on something, similar to this post.

I just wondered if it's moral to write something about supernatural fables like this and tie it so closely to real, religious things. When it was old fairytales it was fine, but it's a different, more serious time today. I can't figure out on my own if it's entirely correct to write, as a Catholic, a book about Catholics fighting, say, vampires, in a secular society like this, where they'll go "ha-ha, it's all such nonsense" - more about the Catholic things than the mythological big baddies.

Do you understand me? I hope so. I can't make myself more clear at the moment.

Boniface said...

Karl, I'd say go with it. That's what we need - something where good is good and bad is bad.

InTerramDiligereEstPati said...

I occasionally write fantasy stories in my free time, and after much thought, here is my solution to the magic issue:
If good people have "powers", I call those powers "gifts" implying that they recieved those powers from a higher power (ie.,God), somewhat like the preternatural abilities of angels. Only evil people use real magic.
And of course, even those powers are used very sparingly.

R.C. said...


At any rate, in the fantasy genre some folks can innately do magic. That means they don't have to mess about with demons in order to achieve these effects. And that means that the thing which makes it wrong in our world, isn't necessarily a factor in theirs.

Of course, it might still be: One's own magic powers might be limited unless augmented by demonic assistance. In that case, the moral injunction would be against using magic with demonic assistance. No using magical "steroids," so to speak.

But the comparison from magic to adultery is bad, I think.

For persons in whom magic is an innate power, the comparison would be between magic and sexual reproduction: Innate powers with great consequences, easily able to be abused...but with possible good outlets, also.

In all likelihood, the use of a power so consequential would have been rolled up into a sacrament -- as with marriage -- and accompanied by social restrictions and religious ceremony -- as with marriage.

Finally, an author should make use of distinctions recognized by C.S.Lewis:

#1 - When using supernatural power, Our Lord acted "in the family style," doing only what He saw the Father doing. He did not turn stones into bread, but he multiplied fish and turned water to wine: Things the Father does all the time, through natural processes and at a slower rate.

I would expect good use of magical powers, and evil use, to have a similar character of imitating what happens in nature rather than entirely departing from it. Purifying unclean water or healing the sick: Good magic. The Father does that. Turning persons (even bad persons) into frogs: Evil magic: The Father doesn't do that.

#2 - Functioning magic and "technological advances" are twins: Both are attempts to manipulate what exists to our convenience. But this leads often to an attitude of treating people as things; e.g. to be mind-controlled by magic or drugs. I expect that "good magic" would largely preserve the dignity of whatever entity it touched, thereby establishing a fitting relationship between the magic user and the other entity. A "good magician" with respect to animals would strike us as a St. Francis or Noah or Horse Whisperer kind of person. But a person who used magic to "control" animals would impose his will violently, treating persons and animals as impersonally and un-humanely as if they were rocks to be shoved about.

Unknown said...

Hi Boniface,

I have read Harry Potter and I think that readers may form Christian values depending on their Christian background.

In relation to magic, my 11-year-old son just completed reading a book on magic and math, Libellus de Numeros (The Book of Math) by Jim West. The book just made math fun and relevant through magic. Please see goodreads for great reviews.

Cecilia said...


First of all, thank you for writing this post. This was exactly the sort of discussion I was looking for, and I'm glad it popped up on my Google search.

I realize that this post was from 2010, so I'm not sure if you will see this comment, but I would love to get your opinion on something. I am in the process of writing a novel for older children, around the eleven- to fifteen-year-old range, and I am concerned about the magical elements that drive the plot. It is a comedy, although I try to address serious themes as well, and magic is simply a part of the characters' lives that they cannot control; there are magical creatures, magical locations, and sometimes random occurrences that can only be explained with magic. There are also people who can practice magic.

I have been trying to make a clear distinction between good and evil when it comes to magic. There are some people (none of the main characters, but some side characters) who are born with magical abilities, and who may study magic in order to learn to control those abilities. These people may be either good or evil. There are also people who, regardless of whether they are born with magical powers, attempt to harness magic, but they almost invariably become power-hungry and overstep the boundaries of what magic should do. Generally, these people are evil (or at the very least, misguided), because they want the power for their own gain, and often use that power against others. They also must use some sort of object in order to control their power (a staff, a jewel, etc.), and the process by which they perform their spells is given much more description, whereas the "neutral" magic-users usually just wave their arm.

Because magic is as real to their world as gravity, there isn't generally any ritual to it, unless one is practicing the "evil type" of magic. I have been trying to tweak it further, in order to make sure I am not inadvertently promoting the occult, but I was wondering whether you could see any potential moral issues in what I have described. I would be very grateful!


Boniface said...

Hi Cecilia! That all sounds fine to me. You are obviously taking great care with the way you form the plot.