A Christian perspective on fantasy literature
IV.F. The Use of Magic
One of the central issues (if not THE central issue) for Christians when discussing fantasy literature is the use of magic in these stories. Since the practice of witchcraft and other occult behaviors is directly forbidden by scripture (see Section 3C), any stories that seem to encourage such activities are clearly inappropriate. But does all use of magic or mention of magic in a story qualify as occult activity? Is Mary Poppins a witch? Are you going to condemn Alice in Wonderland or Beauty and the Beast?
Here is where I part company with many Christians. I do not have a problem with stories that contain "good" magic or even "good" witches depending on when the story was written and how the magic is used within the story.
Michael D. O'Brien, a Catholic author and editor has written a scholarly study of children's literature called A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. He defines the issue very well:
"Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world. True religion is the search of the soul for God in order to surrender itself to him. . . . False religion is the inverse. It makes a god out of oneself . . . True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control." 1Where then shall we draw the line? We can begin by asking a few questions:
1. Magic in The Lord of the Rings
What was Tolkien's attitude toward magic? He took its use in stories very seriously:
"Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. . . . its desire is power in this world, domination. . . . (T)he greed for self-centered power. . . is the mark of the mere Magician." 2
What then are we to make of the magic in The Lord of the Rings. Is it even "magic" at all?
a. The Heroes
Hobbits (like the heroes in most fairy tales) are not themselves magic. In The Hobbit Tolkien says, "There is little or no magic about them." And in The Fellowship of the Ring he repeats, "Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind."
But many Christians object to the character of Gandalf the wizard. Here a closer look reveals some interesting facts.
i) How does he function in the story?
Like the good fairies and good witches in traditional fairy stories, Gandalf guides and advises, but he does not teach magic, he does not confer magical powers and he does not solve the hero's problems for him. He functions very much like a guardian angel and indeed this is how Tolkien described the character in a letter to a friend.
In both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is absent for much of the story. Bilbo and Frodo in their individual adventures must solve most of their problems on their own with no help from magic - EXCEPT - and this is significant - for when they use the magic ring. And using that ring ALWAYS brings negative consequences.
ii) Is Gandalf even a "wizard" at all?
Here we have to do a little research by going to The Silmarillion, Tolkien's history of Middle-Earth. The book explains that Gandalf is one of the Istari, also called "The Wise".
"Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom Men called Wizards. They came (from) over the Sea . . . . they were the messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds." 3Notice that Men gave them the name wizards, not they themselves. The Lords of the West mentioned above are the Valar or the Archangels in Tolkien's universe. The Istari are messengers and the word angel means messenger. In other words, Gandalf i s an angel. A guardian angel. And he functions much as such beings do in the Bible. He does not solve problems, he stirs others to action.
Gandalf possesses the third elf ring, the Ring of Fire, and The Silmarillion tells us that it's purpose is not to control but to "rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill." 4
c. The Elves
Then what about the Elves who feature so prominently in the story? As mentioned in Section 3D, the Elves are a separate species from man. They are a little lower than the angels, but higher than Humans.
"For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural . . . whereas they are natural, far more natural than (us)." 5What Tolkien means is that the Elves do not practice "magic." Their natural abilities seem magical to men who do not possess those same gifts. It is as if a person born blind thought the ability to see were "magic", but it is not magical to those who are simply able to see.
Galadriel, the elf queen, expresses this idea when she says in The Fellowship of the Ring:
"For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the enemy." 6In other words, the skills and natural gifts of the Elves are not to be confused with the power-hungry manipulations of the Evil One. The elves do not obtain their abilities by appealing to a higher power. There are no incantations or rituals, no magic wands.
It is true that the mirror of Galadriel functions somewhat like a crystal ball and I could wish that Tolkien had not used that particular device. I will not defend it, but for me it is one of Tolkien's few lapses. (Although Galadriel does say, "I do not foretell for all foretelling is now vain." p. 487.)
d. Magical Objects
Magic wands figure prominently in the recent film adaptation, especially in the battle between Gandalf and Saruman. However, that scene owes more to cheap 1960s horror films starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee than it does to Tolkien. The wizards ' staffs do not operate that way in the novel.
However, there are crystal balls in the novel, but their use in the story is instructive. The magic balls give their owner the power to see many things, but they also give the Dark Lord power to see the watcher. In the same way, the Ring of Power makes Frodo invisible. But while he wears it, he can be seen by the Dark Lord.
In both cases, the use of magical objects makes the user vulnerable to the control of the enemy. The user temporarily has power, but in the long run he is ultimately destroyed. The Ringwraiths were once men, but they accepted power from the enemy. Now they are ghosts, zombies, slaves. It is an astonishing description of what really happens to anyone who dabbles in the occult.
2. Magic in Harry Potter
The use of magic in the Harry Potter books is very different from the magic in The Lord of the Rings.
a. The hero possesses magical powers
A defender of Harry Potter might argue that the stories are not very different from The Lord of the Rings. After all, Harry is born a wizard and the story sets up a separation between magical folk and Muggles or non-magical folk. However, Harry i s in every other way just an ordinary middle-class kid from suburbia. Harry exists in a world exactly like our own and his magic functions in that world.
In addition, Harry may be a born wizard, but he has to go to school to LEARN magic. He must develop his powers and will need 7 books (corresponding to seven years of schooling) to do so. Most of his time at school is spent learning magic. And what he lear ns, he uses to solve all of life's problems. Magic helps Harry get what he wants. It makes him popular. It gives him a purpose and hope.
b. The witches are the good guys
This may seem like a minor matter, but the Harry Potter books represent a major departure in the traditional treatment of witches in stories.
In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien tells us to look not at how stories are similar, but at what makes a story unique. ("It is precisely . . . the individual details . . . that really count." p. 46).
What makes Harry Potter unique? What is "new" about it that has captured the public's attention? In all other respects, it is a very ordinary story about a lonely orphan who goes to boarding school where he makes new friends, becomes a favorite of the tea chers and scores the winning touchdown in the school's big game. Harry is a superhero like Superman or Peter Pan. He flies. He defeats bad guys. Why then all the fuss?
The difference is this, all of the imagery traditionally associated with villains has been given to the "good" guys: flying broomsticks, pointed black hats, black cloaks, spells, magic wands, bubbling cauldrons.
Is it a minor thing that the witches are the good guys? Is it so wrong to set tradition on its head? After all, shouldn't artists have the freedom to experiment? Certainly, but what is the consequence of the experiment?
From a Christian perspective, we must remember that for 2,000 years Christianity has been fighting Paganism and the Occult. Our stories in western culture have, for 2,000 years, warned people away from witchcraft and the Occult. With Harry Potter, all t hat is changing.
"Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light and light for darkness." (Isa. 5:20)c. The magic in Harry Potter is disturbingly close to occult practices
But isn't it only fairy tale magic? Aren't they only fairy tale witches?
The magic in Harry Potter is very close to occult activity, much closer than even traditional stories where witches are the bad guys. And this for me is where the books cross the line. J.K. Rowling has done her homework. So well in fact that a book has been written, The Sorcerer's Companion by Allan and Elizabeth Kronzek with 272 pages of references for the occult names and terminology used by Rowling in the Potter books.
A few examples of occult acitivity found in these "children's" books:
It is na´ve to call references to witchcraft harmless because today witches exist outside of fairy tales. There are more and more people calling themselves witches. They practice a religion called Wicca. It is especially popular with feminists wh o want to worship a goddess and environmentalists who worship the creation not the creator.
Another troubling element in the Harry Potter books is the frequent occurrence of murder in the story lines, especially by children. In Book 1, Harry murders Professor Queril with his bare hands. In Book 2, Ron Weaseley's little sister turns out to be t he murderer (because she was possessed by the spirit of the evil Lord Voldemort). It is one thing to argue about violence in stories. It is quite another thing when children - the heroes - become murderers and frequently murder adults. Then suffer no punishment.
3. A Few Conclusions
Without decreeing any hard and fast rules, we can make some broad generalizations about the use of magic in stories.
Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Mark Spence