Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Threads of Magic

In a post today Mark Shea linked to this article discussing Christian fantasy. Unfortunately, the Washington Post article seems to take the position that these books are merely being written as a Christian "alternative" to the Harry Potter books, and that the niche market they appeal to are those people who refuse to allow any books containing magic, witchcraft, or other fantasy elements into their homes.

I'm not intending to hold a huge discussion of the Potter books here, other than to say that I concur with those Catholics who do not think the books are inherently evil, and that provided parents take their responsibilities seriously they may be appropriate for some young adults to read. As far as the dangers of any of the thematic elements, I fail to see them as being considerably more dangerous than other books written for the young adult market, or indeed, as more dangerous than books written for adults which young adults may begin to read by the time they reach high school.

But the one thing the Washington Post article points out is that as far as many of our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters are concerned, the Bible's prohibition on magic pretty much forbids any and all fictional representations of magic or the elements of fantasy, not excluding fairy tales. But to believe that fairy tales are forbidden for Christian children is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that fairy tales were written for Christian children; it is also to misunderstand the type of fiction known as the allegory.

To quote this website, an allegory "... is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy.
Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning."

I think that nearly all of what may be loosely termed "imaginative fiction," that is, fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, certain types of epics, and so on, contain elements of allegory, on a level greater than than which occurs in more realistic fiction. Fairy tales in particular are often allegorical, and many of the great works of fantasy, such as the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, hearken back to the form and language of the fairy tale in many ways.

Which means that if we want to understand how the notions of magic operate in fantasy books, we first have to understand what they mean in fairy tales.

Does the fairy tale writer, for instance, really believe that magic exists in the everyday world? Does he further believe that some magic is good, and some is evil?

Those who told the stories that were eventually collected as fairy tales, as well as those who wrote such stories down, would probably have answered the first question in the affirmative. They would have know, however, that the magic that exists in our everyday world always comes about as a result of a collaboration with evil. They would, perhaps, have shuddered at the stories of the woman at the end of the village, reported to collect herbs at the full of the moon, who turned her evil eye on some poor fool just before all his troubles began--and though in the case of the village woman such tales may have been calumnies, it didn't mean that there weren't those who sought to bypass God's will by attempting to take control of dark and superstitious powers.

So the writer of the fairy tale, just like the writer of the modern-day fantasy, did know that there truly is evil magic in the world, and that seeking to gain such magic is a hideous sin against God. He also knew that there was no such thing as "good magic." But this didn't stop the imaginative writer from creating a mythical world in which it was possible for magic to be either good or evil.

What does this mean? To me, it means that even those who wrote and told fairy tales were well aware that the glittering threads of magic they embroidered into the tapestry of their stories was a device, and even an allegory. When the evil wizard trapped the hero in a magical oubliette, and the good fairy dissolved the bars of this enchanted prison with a touch of her feathered wand, they were not either of them in league with the devil to produce such effects (though the bad characters were as much in league with the devil as every bad character in every book, poem or play ever written). The rules of the world in which they operated allowed such enchantments merely to be, and to be accepted as being.

But if magic is an allegory, to what does it allude? What power does it, in the end, represent?

Let's take two well-known fairy tales, and examine them in this regard.

The fairy godmother in Cinderella appears, transforms Cinderella's appearance, and sends her to the ball. In many early versions of the tale there are actually three balls, and this transformation occurs three times; each time Cinderella is able to go to the ball.

The first transformation causes Cinderella great consternation. Will this unusual godmother really be able to change such humble things as pumpkins, mice, and indeed, her own dirty self, into someone who may pass unnoticed among a crowd of the rich and noble? Is it magic or faith that makes the girl venture forth?

The second transformation occurs like the first. Does magic, or hope cause the change?

The third transformation is the grandest of all. Magic, or love?

To examine evil magic we need look no further than Snow White's stepmother's mirror. Pride, envy, wrath, hatred--what is not reflected back at the wicked queen? Which of these lacks the power to change a once-lovely woman into a hideous hag--which of them will not spread deadly poison that seeks to destroy any image of goodness or purity around her?

Any good writer of modern fantasy books knows that the lifeblood of the fantasy novel flows from these simple tales. Such a writer will seek to create similar metaphors of good and evil, love and hate, humility and pride, forgiveness and wrath, generosity and greed, sacrifice and selfishness. The presence of magic elements in a story does not in any way mean that the writer of the story condones the wicked practice of evil and superstitious idolatry in the real world any more than the writer of the fairy tale would have wanted his readers to attempt to conjure a carriage out of a humble vegetable. Though it is sadly true that plenty of foolish people in the world seek to engage in occult practices, it is not the heritage of stories of magic to feed such people's sinful silliness any more than the medieval stonemasons who carved demons among the angelic faces on the walls of a church sought to encourage people to worship those graven images. Like those oddly interesting allegories in stone, stories that use the allegory of magic to teach lessons about good and evil capture the imagination and order it toward an appreciation of the good.


Opal said...

Well, I appreciated a very long essay written about the different "magic" in these books HP vs LOTH etc.

I do see a difference in these books and I personally would not place HP in the same category as Cinderella or LOTR. HP pursues magic and uses it where LOTR has magic in the story making me think that is allegorical and the other....well...not worth my time, IMHO.

Long essay but worth it.

Red Cardigan said...

Opal, I appreciate your opinion. Having read Mr. Greydanus' article, though, I'd actually have to disagree with him about five of the seven "hedges" as they relate to HP; that is, I think Rowling doesn't violate all seven, but only two, and even those are probably debatable.

Opal said...

For us, we will have to be an old stick in the mud because we are cautious. I have not read the HP books. I find it amazing tho, that this is a charged and hot topic and those that do have valid concerns, are treated (not in your blog) as hypocrites. I do resent that. Our children face this everyday, our catholic cousins who are visiting are TODAY, going to see a HP show while our children have to go to another movie b/c of our backwards view.

I just don't see it as something worth messing with, and that is our judgement as parents.

Red Cardigan said...

Parental judgment is definitely paramount here! Only parents can decide what books are appropriate for their children, at each age level. My oldest DD couldn't read stories that had any reference to war in them for a long time because she was very sensitive to the subject matter. Some parents may have similar concerns re: their children's exposure to magic, or to science fiction, or to any other sort of book, and we should all respect each other in that, IMO.

Opal said...

I know you linked to Shea's website and this is not your main topic...but do you really think he sums up HP and those that don't like HP as Pharisees? I feel he misuses Biblical reference to support his opinion.

Red Cardigan said...

I wouldn't presume to speak for Mark Shea, Opal, but I think his point on that thread was not to characterize *everybody* who dislikes HP as Pharisees, but to target a specific type of person who thinks that if there's anything even slightly off about a book, movie, t.v. show, video game etc. then it's a sin to read or watch or play such things. I'd characterize it as a neo-Puritanism, myself.

For example, I know someone who thinks that if there is a single four-letter-word in a book, the book is "bad" and should not be read by Catholics. When I tried to point out gently that this would remove most of the great literature of the west from a Catholic's reading list (including Shakespeare, Chaucer, and more modern authors like Flannery O'Connor) her reply was that if the books used swear words or off-color references then they couldn't be called "great" literature anyway, and we'd be better off without them.

I find that attitude rather extreme, and not at all the same as someone being slightly uncomfortable with HP or some such book. I would guess that it's that attitude as it's applied to HP that Mr. Shea finds exasperating.

Opal said...

I see your point. Mark Shea is beyond exasperated, in my opinion. And just to be frank, another reason we have reservations is because the book is soo popular that things have become a little nutty.
Where we are, most children do not have the benefit of a solid foundation in faith (referring to Catholics I know). This concerns me. Some come from broken homes. They do not have the benefit of Shea as a daddy who can explain it all. This concerns me.