The taste for magic

Why do we hanker for magic? That is a question that the large-C Catholic fantasy writer must squarely face, and the small-c catholic reader ought at any rate to find interesting. The practice of magic as such, whether effective or not, is explicitly forbidden by scripture and canon law, and even too strong a theoretical interest is rather frowned upon. The Catholic attitude towards magic in fiction is more ambiguous. I was absurdly surprised to find, when I myself was converted, that every sort and condition of Christian, practising or pinchbeck, that you can find in the innumerable denominations of Protestantism, can be found in the Catholic Church. We, too, have our would-be book-burners, our crusaders against Harry Potter, our excessive literalists and excessive metaphorists; we even have churchgoers who look like 17th-century Puritans and loudly say ay-men after a prayer, though everyone else in the room is saying ah-men. It is a sufficiently odd mixture.

What I mean is that the same problem faces every fantasy writer in a more or less Christian or post-Christian society, regardless of denomination; it is only that Catholic writers, if they take either their writing or their religion seriously, have less room to shirk the issue. J. R. R. Tolkien wrestled with the question in a nocturnal agony of the spirit. In ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and ‘Leaf by Niggle’ he tries to show that fantasy as such is a thoroughly Christian, even a salvific, activity; but Smith of Wootton Major is a cry from the heart of a man who has lost his confidence, and some of Tolkien’s last writings on Middle-earth almost amount to a confession of heresy. He wasted endless hours trying to uproot the Two Trees of Valinor from The Silmarillion, because he could not reconcile his beautiful and moving myth of the Sun and Moon with post-Copernican astronomy, and (which was for him the salient point) because he could not pretend that the God who made the Elves would allow them to believe a legend so obviously contrary to scientific fact. Yet that legend was the heart of the whole work. For similar reasons he worked and re-worked the story of Galadriel, thinking to make her perfect with emery and holystone, but in truth only reducing her to a plaster saint. The legendarium that he meant as a profound expression of his faith fell to pieces at the rude touch of his theology.

As with the greatest, so with the less. The circle of a penny has as many degrees as the circuit of the heavens. If this were a less romantic and credulous age, there would be no trouble about fantasy, as there was no trouble about elf-shot or ‘Here be Dragons’ in the Middle Ages. When mediaeval Christians played at magic, with the unfortunate exception of astrology, it neither conflicted with their professed faith nor replaced it. But it is truly said that we live in an age of improved means to deteriorated ends. The average modern will believe any damned thing, because he has ceased to believe in holy things. I have known people who took the Necronomicon as a compendium of sober fact, who flatly refused to believe me when I explained that it was merely an excellent literary joke carried too far. I have even known a creature, a man to all appearances, who claimed that he could jump off a tall building and fly without wings if it were not for the ill-wishes of all the earthbound mundanes who did not want him to succeed. He could have done, for a few seconds; then the earth itself would step in to disabuse him. It will do the same for birds, if they forget to flap their wings, and nobody wishes them to fail.

There are people in this world who think they are elves; there are people who think they are Jedi knights; likely there are people who think they are soft-boiled eggs, and derive some ersatz certainty and comfort from their self-conceived globosity. If these people are honestly deceived, I pity them. I pity them still more if they are not. If they play at being fairy-tale creatures as a substitute for an honest philosophy, they are wasting their reason; if they play as a substitute for religion, they are wasting their spirits. Worst of all, they waste their faculty of imagination, which grows stronger and more delightful with the breadth and complexity of the thing imagined. Instead of eggs and fairies, which are very dull and homely objects after all, they could play at something more wonderful than any fantasy writer has invented: they could pretend to be men and women. A life without fantasy is a poor thing, but a life founded upon fantasy is nothing at all. Tolkien knew the tension and the danger as well as anyone:

If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

—‘On Fairy-Stories’

James Branch Cabell, who had it in him to be a very great storyteller if his genius had not been warped by cynicism, believed that the general run of men really were in that state, or wished to be. Mundus vult decipi was the motto of his land of Poictesme and the Leitmotiv of his work. He wrote a story, ‘The Thin Queen of Elfhame’, which is the most naked and horrifying exposition I have read of man in the grip of Morbid Delusion. Anavalt of Fomor, after a life of great deeds full of suffering and joy, turns his back on reality because he prefers to court delusion. This is the ending of the story:

She took the red bonnet from her head and turned. She flung her bonnet fair and high. So was courteous Anavalt assured that the Queen of Elfhame was as he had hoped. For when seen thus, from behind, the witless queen was hollow and shadow-colored, because Maid Vae is just the bright, thin mask of a woman, and, if looked at from behind, she is like any other mask. So when she faced him now and smiled, and, as if in embarrassment, looked down and pushed aside a thigh-bone with her little foot, then Anavalt could see that the Elle Maid was, when properly regarded, a lovely and most dear illusion.

He kissed her. He was content. Here was the woman he desired, the woman who did not exist in the world where people have souls. The Elle Maid had no body that time would parody and ruin, she had no brain to fashion dreams of which he would fall short, she had no heart that he would hurt. There was an abiding peace in this quiet Wood of Elfhame wherein no love could enter, and nobody could, in consequence, hurt anybody else very deeply. At court the silken ladies wept for Anavalt, and three women were not ever to be healed of their memories; but in the Wood of Elfhame, where all were soulless masks, there were no memories and no weeping, there were no longer two sides to everything, and a man need look for no reverses.

‘I think we shall do very well here,’ said courteous Anavalt as yet again he kissed Maid Vae.

It is prettily told, but also, perhaps, the ghastliest confession of failure and futility to be found in modern literature outside of the French Existentialists and perhaps Dostoyevsky. Cabell’s strength and weakness, as Ursula Le Guin has said, is that ‘He doesn’t believe in his dreamworld, but he doesn’t believe in us, either.’ As a writer he was the mask of a Virginia gentleman questing for the mask of a Thin Queen, and he never found anything better than he sought. He is the stylistic opposite and thematic twin of Lovecraft; the one casts a courtly veil over the despair at the heart of his creation, the other strips it naked and ravishes it in orgies of cosmic weirdness; but the despair is the same in either case. It is the anguish of a common twentieth-century type, the disillusioned rationalist who has kept his reason after his faith in reason has died.

Cabell and Lovecraft also represent the two poles of reaction to cosmic despair. If you believe with all your empty heart in the meaninglessness and horror of the universe, you can either devote your life to hiding it from view, or worship it openly. The modern world on the whole has chosen the first mode, but there is in many people a disturbing tendency to slip into the second as soon as misfortune strikes. Comfortably well-off people like to repose their unexercised faith in the pop-cultural gods of Affirmation, Self-realization, and Positive Thinking. To believe that you can ask the universe for anything and the universe must give it is, of course, utter nonsense, the same nonsense that afflicted our friend the would-be flyer. But it is a great aid and comfort to the smug. If you are rich and successful, it is because you have the right kind of mojo; if you are not yet rich and successful, you will be as soon as you perfect your technique; and as for the poor and suffering, you have no obligation to help them or even think about them, because they brought all their troubles upon themselves. (One of the authors of The Secret is actually on record as saying that the victims of the Holocaust died, not because the Nazis killed them, but because they had negative thoughts that ‘attracted’ genocide. If the word evil does not apply to this kind of moral abdication, we might as well abandon the word.) But when you yourself are struck by hardship, you change your tune. What you thought was light has failed you; now you turn to what you know is darkness. Behind the mask of the religion of Self-Help is the grinning face of La Santa Muerte.

Some years ago, in a puckish moment, I bought a little volume called The Wordsworth Book of Spells, originally published in 1911 as The Book of Ceremonial Magic by Arthur Edward Waite. Waite was a past master at sarcasm. In the course of explaining the theory and alleged practice of Hermetic magic (the kind whose devotees feel compelled to spell magic with a K), he withers it with scorn and devastates it with logic, so that any thinking person who makes it to the end of the book must be convinced beyond doubt that this form of magic is utterly bogus. He makes short work of the incantations, the circles and sigils, the phony names of arch-devils, the bogus experts and authorities who supposedly derived their ineffable wisdom from the Kabbala, the pagan past, or the mystic East. It is fair to say that nothing he writes about will stand the slightest rational scrutiny, and he scrutinizes it to tatters and rags.

This is all good fun, but the most interesting part of his book by far is the passage where he asks the obvious question: Why would anyone believe in such manifest nonsense? This is not the fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism, where to beat your opponent in an argument, you ‘assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly’. Waite plainly demonstrates the silliness of The Key of Solomon and suchlike drivel, and only then goes into the psychology behind it. Waite was well versed in fin de siècle occultism; he was a Rosicrucian, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an authority on Tarot (he is the same Waite who helped to devise the Rider-Waite cards), and so on. He cannot be accused of dismissing the magical arts without a thorough and sympathetic hearing. But he was a harder-headed man than almost any of his modern counterparts, and had no patience with the fools and knaves who have always constituted the great bulk of the magick-peddling profession. Here is his verdict on ceremonial magicians in general:

To give riches, to kindle love and lust, to discover treasures — as these were the sum of ambition, so they were the qualifications in chief demand from the spirits. The class of people to whom such considerations would appeal were those obviously — and as I have otherwise indicated — who could not obtain their satisfaction through normal channels — the outcasts, the incompetent, the ignorant, the lonely, the deformed, the hideous, the impotent and those whom Nature and Grace alike denied.

This is the category into which the modern psychic mind would enter unwittingly, could I suppose for a moment that, outside such purlieus as Paris, there has been any revival of Ceremonial Magic in the nineteenth or twentieth century. The typical occult student is preposterous enough in his preoccupations, but when he takes the Grimoires seriously he has usually some assumption as to a meaning behind them — not that they are allegorical writings, but rather that they are the final issue in abuse and travesty of something that looms to the intelligence like real knowledge. . . .

As part of the root-matter out of which comes the lying art of spirits there stands forth the hypothetical efficacy of adjuration, prayer and ceremonial acts of worship in connection therewith. But in Magic that efficiency can be manifested only over things trivial or abominable, because it is obvious that for any higher purpose we should have recourse thereto through the ordinary channels of religion. If the hypothesis of prayer is true, Magic is out of court on the side of holy things because there is a more excellent way of obtaining the great gifts, the good gifts and the gifts that do not pass away. But if it is not true, Magic is out of court also because it depends from and comes down to the earth with that false assumption which is at its basis.

—The Book of Ceremonial Magic

The Key of Solomon and the other works Waite so entertainingly abuses are full of invocations to supposed devils, compelling them to one’s will by the ineffable power of the supposed names of God or His principal angels — names not to be found, I need hardly add, in any reputable theological text. The other method of black magic, of course, is the appeal by direct propitiation and bribery. Either way, the desire is the same: to get from the Devil what you know you will never get from God, either because it is bad for you or because it harms others, and very often both. It is the same impulse that gives rise to the ghastly cult of La Santa Muerte, as expressed by Homero Aridjis: ‘She is a Virgen de Guadalupe in negative: That which one can’t ask of the Virgen, one can ask of her.’

In this context, the reason for the Church’s prohibition of magic is plain enough. In any given instance — we need not make assumptions about generalities — it either works or it doesn’t. If it works, it is a way of circumventing the will of God by enlisting the infernal powers; if not, it is a way of wasting one’s effort on self-delusion. The first is clearly undesirable to anyone who believes in God; the second ought to be undesirable to anyone short of a Lovecraft or Cabell.

The trouble is that we have so many third-class Lovecrafts and fifth-rate Cabells among us. The modern practitioner of ‘magick’ — not so different from what Screwtape called the Materialist Magician, who believes in ‘forces’ while denying the existence of spirits — operates from a decidedly post-Christian set of axioms. To justify dealing with spirits who can grant unwholesome wishes, she denies both God and the Devil; this allows her to think of these spirits (and her spells) as morally neutral, or better yet, to shirk moral questions altogether. To cover up the fact that her rites are largely based upon a travesty of Christian rituals, and make little sense without that context, she pretends that they are derived from the Old Religions, which Christianity merely aped and perverted. These assumptions granted, she can do as she likes without troubling her conscience.

I have known practitioners who saw nothing wrong with putting curses on each other, casting spells to compel someone to love them, or asking spirits to reveal other people’s secrets to them, which it was no business of theirs to know. If they had tried to do these things by ordinary means, they would have had a harder time justifying them; they might even have had twinges of remorse. But as Aslan said to Lucy, ‘Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way.’ Whether the method is effective or not, the intention is mean and shabby. That it is generally done in secret, or at least in the absence of the intended victim, only makes it worse. If you punch your enemy in the nose, you expose yourself to his retaliation; this requires courage, which is a virtue in itself, and partly disinfects the evil of your intentions, though it does not justify them. At the very least the element of danger will restrain you from distributing punches on the nose too freely. If you cast a spell to make your enemy’s nose break out in boils, you risk nothing, you can nurse your hatred in secret, you need never risk taking a punch yourself, or what might be worse, having an honest argument and making up with the one you hate. Whether the spell works on your enemy or not, it works on you, by leaving you to nurse your hatreds in safety and secrecy. They will grow, they will gain power over you, and in the end they may devour you. All this the Church quite rightly forbids, and no person of honest morals, Christian or not, could endorse it.

Of course, the typical use of magic in fantasy is not much like that. The more obviously fantastical a display of magic is, the less dangerous it is; that is, the less it will incline the reader or viewer to take an unwholesome interest in the kind of arts that Waite justly condemned. The critic and apologist Steven D. Greydanus, in his interesting essay ‘Harry Potter vs. Gandalf’, identifies seven ‘hedges’ that serve to divide the magic of fantasy from the magic of curses and occult powers. Greydanus cites Tolkien and Lewis as writers who conscientiously employ all seven hedges, and lets J.K. Rowling in for some criticism because she does not bother with such precautions. Here I offer a précis of Greydanus’s own text where he describes the seven hedges:

  1. The pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation is restricted to wholly imaginary realms, unconnected with our own world. [This is not strictly true of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which is represented as our world at some unspecified epoch of prehistory; but we are not meant to take this seriously, so it might as well be an imaginary world.]
  2. The existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science.
  3. The pursuit of magic is confined to supporting characters, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify.
  4. The author includes cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on the protagonists.
  5. Magical powers occur naturally only to characters who are not in fact human beings.
  6. Magic is the safe and lawful occupation of characters who embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, etc.
  7. The author gives no narrative space to the process by which magicians acquire their powers. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in encouraged to dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic.

In addition to these, Greydanus mentions an eighth hedge, which Rowling definitely does use. That is to make her magic obviously fantastical, so that nobody could be fool enough to suppose it would work in reality (or if they were, they would quickly be disabused). Anyone can tell that an incantation like Wingardium leviosa is no more a real spell than it is real Latin. (There are some very minor spells, not to be found in the Harry Potter books, that are bogus Latin but have some real effect ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’. Illegitimi non carborundum, for instance. That may not help you overcome your problems, but it will either make you laugh or, if you have heard it too often, give you something different to be annoyed about; and a change, they say, is as good as a rest.)

Few of the present generation of fantasy authors make much use of hedges, though #1 is popular simply because ‘Secondary Worlds’ (and even ‘Fantasylands’) are handy for other reasons. If you want to write about dragons, it is very difficult to fit them in with the flora and fauna of twenty-first-century Earth, and even the distant past is no longer a suitable habitat. They have been quite thoroughly banished to the Perilous Realm ‘beyond the fields we know’. Some writers, like George R. R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay, make so little use of magic as a plot-engine that the question of hedges does not really arise. On the other hand, a number of writers — Katherine Kurtz was a classic example, during her productive and lucrative period — do real live research into the occult to lend their magic systems an air of verisimilitude, which is the very opposite of Greydanus’s eighth hedge. There is still more than enough work that focuses on magic done by the protagonists, learned in the course of the story, and treated as morally neutral or even beneficent. Some of the worst of it is clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.

(It is rather a pity, from a strictly literary point of view, that D&D no longer attracts much criticism from the sort of people who see Satanism under every bed; for it gets almost a free pass otherwise, and I suspect that many people who would heap scorn upon it refrain for fear of being lumped in with the Fundamentalists. The influence of that game upon fantasy fiction, by encouraging writers to spin out stylized and derivative yarns, and by generating a large captive readership that has hardly heard of better stuff, has been hugely baleful. But I digress.)

There are, of course, all kinds of middle positions between the scrupulous purism of Tolkien and Lewis and the flatulent permissiveness of D&D. Few writers use all seven of Greydanus’s hedges, and some use methods not on his list to signalize the fictitious nature of their magic. Stephen R. Donaldson, in his Thomas Covenant books, uses #1, 2, and 7 regularly, #3 and 5 for certain types of magic, and makes #4 almost the whole burden of the plot. Frank Herbert uses a variation of #5 in Dune: Paul Atreides may be of human ancestry, but as the Kwisatz Haderach he himself is something more (or less) than human. George Lucas’s introduction of ‘midichlorians’ into the later Star Wars films may have been a clumsy attempt to use hedge #5 against the sort of idiots who think Jedi powers work in real life. (Lest anyone quibble, neither the Bene Gesserit nor the Jedi have anything to do with science fiction; their powers are pure magic, and to that extent those stories are straightforward fantasy.) I myself use hedges #1, 2, and 4, and disregard the others; but then I make it clear that the origin of magic in my stories is in the nature of a divine gift, that it can be tapped for certain purposes and not for others — and to go beyond its limits requires the sort of deals-with-devils that Waite and St. Paul agree in condemning.

The fact that such hedges are necessary, and that so many fantasy writers (and nearly all of the best ones) feel it necessary to use them, brings me back to my first question. If magic is so devilishly tricky, and has to be handled with such an elaborate apparatus of kid gloves and protective goggles, why use it at all? What do we stand to gain, as readers or writers?

Certainly there are great names in the field who hardly use magic at all. Kay’s Sarantium books contain scarcely a whiff of the supernatural, except in his invented religions, which are mere papier-mâché stand-ins for Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Martin confines the magic of Westeros to a few mysterious artifacts like his gigantic wall of ice, plus a couple of religions whose most mysterious quality is their nearly total failure to have the slightest influence on anybody’s conduct. Even Monty Python’s King Arthur knelt to praise God after vanquishing the Black Knight; but Martin’s protagonists never kneel for anything, and one has to wonder how the ‘septons’ make their living. Here we see a sort of inverted fantasy, in which the author is too afraid of his own hard-boiled rationalism to allow even the amount of supernatural influence that most people still take for granted in this world. Westeros is not more magical than its nearest historical model, England during the Wars of the Roses, but less; it is even less magical than England today, which takes some doing. But that is a matter calling for detailed treatment, so I set it aside for now.

On one level certainly, for many writers and perhaps most writers, it is enough to say that magic is simply fun. The same childlike impulse that made us play cops-and-robbers one day, and cowboys-and-Indians the next (in the days when such politically incorrect pastimes were allowed), leads some of us even as adults to play elves-and-orcs or knights-and-dragons, which have the advantage of not treading upon the sensibilities of any real ethnic or cultural group. But as that insufferable scold Tasso used to tell us, a poet’s job should be not only to please, but to instruct as well; and few authors, even hacks, can quite resist the urge to wrap up a lecture in a story, and to impart to the reader their wondrous wisdom and understanding of the world. In fact it is impossible for anyone to exclude his world-view entirely from his fiction, even by the most rigorous effort; our philosophy, or lack thereof, comes across in every choice we make of what to tell stories about and how to tell them.

In practice, then, a writer is bound to have an ulterior motive for the use of magic. For Tolkien, the One Ring was in the first place a handy MacGuffin to get Frodo into enough trouble to keep the story rolling; but it quickly attracted all sorts of thematic force and resonance, and became bound up with his deepest meditations on the seductiveness of power and the desire for deathlessness. The critics who suggested that the Ring symbolized the atomic bomb had it exactly wrong. Nuclear weapons are a clumsy reification of the destructive urges that the Ring embodies in ideal form. If the Manhattan Project could have forged a Ring of Power, they would never have bothered with anything as inelegant as a bomb.

Few other fantasy authors have been quite as forthcoming about their motives and obsessions, or rather, their thoughts have not been revealed because their private letters have not gone into print. But if one wants to examine the contents of a mind en déshabille, there is always one’s own. If anyone were to ask me why I include magic in my work, I should have to give an answer something like this:

There is an Old English proverb, Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile: ‘A man does what he is when he can do what he wants.’ Of all the devices invented by man to make his will effective in the physical world, magic is the purest and most direct. There is no better way to show what a man is really made of than to grant his wishes. What things will he wish for? Will they be good or evil? Will he take care and forethought in his wishing, or will he be swept away on a flood of unintended consequences, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? And above all, what will he do when he is faced with the outcome of his desires? Having made his bed, will he lie on it, or try (in vain) to shift the responsibility? And if he has done harm to himself or to others, has he the character to clean up after himself? These questions are at the very heart of character, both in fiction and in life. In reality they are never unambiguously answered, because our means are inadequate to our ends, and most of our wishes are beyond our power to enact. But in fantasy, where wishes are horses, we can ride wherever we will. We can see the naked moral act and judge of its quality.

H.G. Wells had a fatal habit of mistaking means for ends, and judging the character of men by their power. His ‘Men Like Gods’ were, as Orwell calls them, ‘a race of enlightened sun-bathers’ who, having such great power over nature that they could solve all their problems and fulfil all their desires, had nothing better to do than sneer at the impotence of their ancestors. But sometimes he discovered the use of magic, and then, too frightened to face it honestly, covered it up again. His short story ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ is a case in point. Here he found the perfect way to expose the character of a man. His Mr. Fotheringay could do literally anything he wished — but he had to live with the consequences. Unfortunately Wells got caught up in the fun of examining the consequences, and had Fotheringay make such a mess of his wishes that he ended up wishing his power away. In effect, he stuffed the genie back into the lamp and threw the lamp in the sea.

The creators of Superman likewise stumbled upon a good thing and did not know how to use it. The powers they gave their superhero, while not quite amounting to unlimited wish-fulfilment, could have made a wonderful way of exploring the limits of choice and freedom. Even for Superman, it is impossible both to do a thing and to leave it undone; and the one power Superman did not have was the power to be in two places at once. High and moving drama could have been made out of this: the Man of Steel doing triage, deciding whom to save and which evils to fight, since even he could not deal with them all. (Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, in the first film of that series, had to make a truly agonizing choice of just that kind; but with the sort of can-do optimism that used to be thought typical of Americans, the writers gave him a way to save both the crowd of innocents and the woman he loved.) But this was a level of drama that Siegel and Shuster either were not equal to, or did not dare to attempt, or thought their readers would not appreciate. So they gave Superman an old-fashioned limitation, so that the drama of choice and necessity could be transmuted into the melodrama of slugging it out against enemies. They gave him Kryptonite, and took away his soul.

One reasonably honest attempt to explore the possibilities of unfettered magic can be found in the film Bruce Almighty. Though marred by adolescent silliness and cotton-candy theology, the film did at least try to take the question of magic seriously. The title character is a selfish ass, and he shows it in the ways that he chooses at first to exercise his powers. He is short-sighted and careless, and shows that in the shoddy and unhelpful way that he grants prayers. But he is not unteachable; in time he learns better, and begins to face the real and inherent tragedy of a world where not all prayers can be granted at once. It could have been high art if it had not bogged down in jokes about Bruce inflating his girlfriend’s breasts and toilet-training his dog.

Science fiction can deal with such questions in a limited way, by proposing a particular technological breakthrough to remove a particular limit to our powers. It is the literature of the particular what-if. What if we could travel faster than light? What if we could accurately foretell the future? What if we could become immortal by uploading our minds into computers? And so on. But such stories all too easily turn into games about details. John Varley’s ‘Overdrawn at the Memory Bank’ is one of the first major treatments of the uploaded-brain idea, and Varley goes some distance with the questions that naturally arise about epistemology and the value of reality versus fantasy. But he spends a lot more of the story dealing with the limitations of the technology, and the way that his protagonist’s sanity slowly breaks down as he compromises the integrity of the containing system. In the end the larger questions are answered with a firm nolle prosequi.

Magic in fantasy has the power to remove the technical quibbles and reveal the whole picture. There is no real need, apart from the author’s own timidity, to shrink back from the philosophical questions that naturally arise; there is every incentive to deal with them by dramatic demonstration. Frodo chooses self-restraint, at least up to the point where no merely human will could resist the temptation of the Ring. Paul Atreides chooses vengeance. Dorothy chooses to go home from Oz. When they can do what they like, they reveal who they are. All the other apparatus of plot and setting serves merely to build up these choices, to make them vivid, to make them look real; it is the choices themselves that give shape to the story, using the device of magic to turn character into destiny.

The function of fantasy in general is to rekindle our sense of joy and wonder at the world, by showing how the things we take for granted need not have been so. The most joyless cynic can bring this out as easily as the starriest-eyed dreamer; it is inherent to the medium. Even the Thin Queen of Elfhame, horrific as she is, gives us a hearty appreciation of the contrariness, the stubborn individuality, the quiddity of the real women in our lives. The function of magic is to bring that same sense of wonder to our power of choice. For we all make choices, even if we choose to believe that we are helpless pawns of circumstance; and our choices have real consequences. In his review of The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis wrote:

By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.

Magic, both in the real world (whether it works or not) and in fantasy, is our way to dip the human will in myth. By turning it loose to inflict change on the world for good or ill, we see more clearly how strange, how potent, how nearly supernatural is this power we have of making choices. Good and evil, peril and anguish and joy, when touched by magic, become as real and concrete as bread and apples. In science we do experiments to isolate one factor among many: so we learn the effects of gravity, electricity, or heredity. Where we cannot do experiments with real bodies, we settle for thought-experiments, like Einstein thinking about travelling at the speed of light, or Adam Smith thinking about perfectly free trade. As long as we do not mistake our abstractions for reality, we can learn much about the forces that they represent. Magic, the kind of magic we find in fantasy, is a thought-experiment, a valid way of exploring the sciences of psychology and ethics. It is worth doing; it is even worth doing badly; but it deserves to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and well.
That, at least, is why I choose to do it. And now it behooves me to get back to work and do some magic.

Comments

  1. Stephen J. says:

    One of your best essays, and a personal favourite.

  2. I note that if the situation is set up to rule out the philosophy needing to be answered — the characters often dismiss it out of hand without a first instead of without a second thought.

    Even in so simple a case as when your villain ally kills the man who killed your girlfriend and was begging for mercy. When does the hero wonder what he would have done?

  3. Arakawa says:

    Another (far riskier) possibility for taking magic seriously would be to intentionally discard the hedges (except for #4 and Rowling’s #8), set the story in a world resembling our own in the most important details, develop a form of magic that is primarily technological rather than demonic, yet face squarely the question of why an all-purpose technology for affecting reality would be the kind of thing to fall under the condemnation of the Church.

    Magic in this scheme would indeed be a morally questionable enterprise, of a similar valence to usury or fornication (both depressingly common pastimes nowadays), or perhaps to old-style paganism or shamanism (which, confusingly enough, are things that have a certain primeval dignity, and offer a relative improvement over the sins of the modern-day). Or perhaps magic is not definitively evil, but it provides such a fertile occasion for sin that it’s obvious why it would be condemned or suspicioned by morally sober people.

    This does not correspond very well to real-world ritual occultism (which does not deserve much general attention), but it does correspond to the moral risks of modern technology, which are far more common and far more difficult to resolve than a simple matter of refusing the occult (“a sordid way of fulfilling sordid wishes — not worth bothering with”). Computers, for instance, are a technology undeniably useful, yet powerful and mysterious, effectively a programmable familiar spirit or intelligence (a notion reflected, sometimes, even in real-world terminology such as the ‘daemons’ of UNIX) and there are a lot of ways to misuse them that inevitably come along even with the proper benefits of the technology; the good comes mixed with a lot of evil. And there is a type of creature — a subspecies of the Singularitarian, I believe — for whom computers provide a vehicle for quite horrifying degrees of Faustian self-confidence: “A sound magician is a mighty god.”

    I don’t know; as someone whose primary field of expertise is in computers, I have had to ponder a number of temptations which led me to understand why a Device of Power would merit religious condemnation, yet at the same time (being attached to my career) I am in need of a more discerning answer to such moral dilemmas than a blanket anathema of the whole field. (But I do have a sense that, for instance, it is crucially important for a talented computer programmer nowadays to discriminate in the matter of what kind of masters they work for — and to discriminate far more than their mere desire for glory or money would prefer.) I imagine similar issues arise in other fields of science, technology, and engineering, but I write primarily of the field that I am familiar with, and probably one where the issues are most pronounced.

    I am pretty sure I could attempt a story-world in which magic would be approached from the same sort of angle. The key difference is that, whereas magic is readily imagined as an individual pursuit where the magician can afford to develop staggering advances and then keep them secret from his rivals, technology is *always* the product of a massive collaboration, and that softens the corrupting effect of the untrammelled power that the persistent pursuit of technology gives. Only for a brief period with such people as Edison and Tesla did we approach the individualist arrogance and mutual distrust that magicians would habitually have exhibited for centuries. The popular image of these men is that they are, indeed, very American magicians; their mighty feats are owed neither to gods nor devils, and that in itself can be a moral pitfall.

    • That is a brilliant (and frightening) idea, and I should certainly like to see someone attempt such a story-world. If you do, please let me know.

      • Well, I happen to currently be 52,140 words into a total of , for a story which does happen to cover the basic idea, though not unfold it entirely. You may have to wait quite a while yet to see it, unless you really like other people’s raw drafts….

        I have to confess that I wouldn’t have got thus far if it weren’t for the Tolkien & fantasy literature commentaries both on Bruce Charlton’s blogs and on your website, so it seemed a matter of due diligence to let you know at some point.

  4. Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS (2009) has one character among its Leonard-Hofstadter-goes-to-Hogwarts cast who is an “observant Christian”: http://tinyurl.com/l8zw38z. This is apparently rare among magicians, yet “Richard” has a theological justification for what he does (that God made the universe, and He left His tools lying around for humans to use) – although other characters debate him on it, vigorously.

  5. Brilliant essay. Some of the sentences have a Chestertonian cleverness and clarity to them. “The circle of a penny has as many degrees as the circuit of the heavens.”

    “Whether the spell works on your enemy or not, it works on you, by leaving you to nurse your hatreds in safety and secrecy. They will grow, they will gain power over you, and in the end they may devour you”

    “Even Monty Python’s King Arthur knelt to praise God after vanquishing the Black Knight; but Martin’s protagonists never kneel for anything, and one has to wonder how the ‘septons’ make their living. Here we see a sort of inverted fantasy, in which the author is too afraid of his own hard-boiled rationalism to allow even the amount of supernatural influence that most people still take for granted in this world. Westeros is not more magical than its nearest historical model, England during the Wars of the Roses, but less; it is even less magical than England today, which takes some doing.”

  6. See, essays like THIS are the reason that you are my absolute favorite non-fiction writer currently living (let’s not dispute with Lewis and Chesterton just yet). Utterly brilliant.

  7. sdorman2014 says:

    hello, Tom. have you read the inkling charles williams’ “spiritual thrillers”? what would you think, i wonder, of the use of magic in his works? or (if it is so and you know) in his life?

    • Hello! I’m afraid I haven’t read much Williams. For the longest time, that was because his works (unlike those of several more famous Inklings) were rarely reprinted. Nowadays, it’s chiefly a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; but also, I think, I have been influenced by the fact that Tolkien did not much care for the ‘spiritual thrillers’. My range of tastes is wider than Tolkien’s, but not unlimited even so. But I begin to see that it is at any rate a needful step in my education to check them out. Thanks for mentioning them.

      • Andrew Parrish says:

        They are very odd, and I for one would quite like to see what you thought of them. I have very limited exposure to his work, but what I did read read like a slightly deranged Chesterton – same love of paradox and indifference to strict narrative rules. His prose is unfortunately a nearly impenetrable Victorian forest which strikes sourly on the modern reader and was probably on the edge of good taste even back in the day.

  8. Paulo Pereira says:

    “Here we see a sort of inverted fantasy, in which the author is too afraid of his own hard-boiled rationalism to allow even the amount of supernatural influence that most people still take for granted in this world.”

    How do you account for dragons in Martin’s series? Or shadow babies or skinchangers or zombies or ice wights?

    • The dragons and ice wights are strictly off-stage, where the main stage is Westeros, for five books so far. They nibble at the edges of things, but have zero effect on the main storyline (if it can even be said that there is one). Zombies and skinchangers didn’t appear in the first roughly 2,000 pages of the series. The vast bulk of the series is nothing but Machiavellian political intrigue and butchery among a group of families that make the Borgias look like saints. The only fantasy involved in that is that Martin expects us to believe that a society could be built on such a crazy foundation.

      • Paulo Pereira says:

        “The dragons and ice wights are strictly off-stage, where the main stage is Westeros, for five books so far. They nibble at the edges of things, but have zero effect on the main storyline (if it can even be said that there is one).”

        I would have to disagree here. The dragons are a pretty big plot point in Daenerys Targaryen’s arc. And the White Walkers (which I incorrectly referred to as wights) weigh in pretty heavily at the Wall. I do agree that there is no apparent central story arc to speak of so far.

        “Zombies and skinchangers didn’t appear in the first roughly 2,000 pages of the series. ”
        There is a zombie (or wight) fairly early in the series. As for skinchanging, this does take a while to get going but hints of it (as well as “green seeing” appear in the first book.

        “The vast bulk of the series is nothing but Machiavellian political intrigue and butchery among a group of families that make the Borgias look like saints. The only fantasy involved in that is that Martin expects us to believe that a society could be built on such a crazy foundation.”

        Surely they’re not ALL as bad as that. Some families are worse than others while certain members of these families are better than other members.

        • I would have to disagree here. The dragons are a pretty big plot point in Daenerys Targaryen’s arc.

          The problem there is that Daenerys’s story has (so far) absolutely nothing to do with anyone else’s. It might as well be a separate novel; it might have been better off as such.

          A good rule of thumb that I was taught long ago: If you can remove the fantasy elements and still have substantially the same story, it didn’t need to be written as fantasy. (Ditto science fiction, which is where the rule originated.) A Song of Ice and Fire, based on what is available to the public at this date, is a badly slanted and vulgarly nihilistic historical novel with a couple of fantasy gewgaws stuck on it to appeal to a wider audience.

          I understand that it was Mr. Martin’s intention eventually to tie the fantasy elements in with all the endless political hugger-mugger; but my latest information is that he has abandoned the series to the tender mercies of the Game of Thrones showrunners and has no intention of finishing it. So we have only the existing books to judge by, and considered as fantasy, they make a pretty poor showing. The dragons and White Walkers might as well not be there, for all the effect they have on the fifteen-ring circus in Westeros.

Trackbacks

  1. […] a sorceress. While I cannot object to the former, the latter is potentially objectionable, c.f. here and here. While Jason remains a relatively skilled but otherwise mortal swordsman, Rachel is a […]

  2. […] But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily. The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.) […]

  3. […] But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily. The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.) […]

  4. […] But while Og needed only entertain his tribesmen for a few minutes, and Dante used Odysseus as a symbol of the inadequacy of mortal powers, the modern speculative fiction author does not get off so easily. The questions for the fantasy author have plagued the genre since Tolkien. They arrive like rubberneckers at the world’s construction site, incessantly pestering the author. If there is a fictional pantheon, are those gods “real?” Are they angelic like the Valar of Valinor, or noble beings like the Overcyns of Skai? Or are they mere frauds as Tash—a safe choice, but then Tash actually appears at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia and the issues are immediately raised. Add magic and ethical issues enter immediately, and whole essays have been written on the topic (see the excellent one by Tom Simon.) […]

  5. […] was a mildly amusing movie with an incredible amount of potential that it never quite lived up to. As Tom Simon pointed out in that treasure trove of brilliance, “The taste for magic”, if “Bruce […]

  6. […] “The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon is a great read (though if you’re of a pagan bent, you’ll need a thick skin to get through the middle and the harsh— albeit second hand— critique of occultism) that I think offers some deep insights into the moral implications of magical systems from a Catholic perspective.  And if you don’t think that’s quite relevant, you probably don’t think Tolkien or Lewis are relevant, and I can’t help you. The money shot is this graph: […]

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