thinky thoughts on magic

superversive has a lengthy and thought-provoking post up, asking why we hanker for magic. It’s many things in passing, including a deconstruction of ceremonial magic and a literary analysis of several founding fathers of fantasy, but for me, the two most interesting bits are further in.

First is the summary of Steven D. Greydanus’ “seven hedges” which “serve to divide the magic of fantasy from the magic of curses and occult powers.” I find these fascinating, honestly, because they seem to arise out of a set of concerns that, well, don’t concern me. Greydanus (and superversive) are writing in the context of Catholic theology, and more broadly Christian theology; it’s the same context Tolkien was writing in, and he, too, had to address those concerns. What does it mean to write about magic when you believe magic is either real and bad (because then you are circumventing God) or fake and bad (because then you are wasting your time on a delusion)?

And I find that I’m not concerned with that question. Maybe I should be, and it’s a failure on my part to ponder the deeper implications of fantasy. I read the summary of the seven hedges, and found myself irritated by them. Why should I limit magic to non-human, already-trained wizardly supporting characters in another world where magic is entirely known, and lard the tale with cautionary road signs? I don’t think superversive thinks I should, but it might be that Greydanus does. (I didn’t have the enthusiasm to read his piece myself.) But those restrictions are predicated on a certain assumption of the connection between magic-in-fiction and magic-in-life, and while I haven’t thought through all my feelings on that matter, off the cuff, I’m fairly sure my feelings are not his.

Anyway, that’s one thing I’m chewing on. The other is the excellent Old English proverb superversive quotes: Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile. “A man does what he is when he can do what he wants.” Magic as a means of dipping human will in myth . . . that’s a mode of thought I can get behind. Looking at my own writing, I can see how some of the magic-facilitated turning points in my stories are expressive of the characters’ inner selves, more directly than mundane action could show. (In fact, I’m tempted to write an essay explicating some examples of that, but it would be spoilery as hell — especially since one is drawn from Midnight Never Come.)

So. Thinky thoughts on magic. Go forth and think!

0 Responses to “thinky thoughts on magic”

  1. janni

    Huh. I hadn’t read all the way through to the hedges–interesting stuff. My reaction is much like yours, and it’s tempting to do a post looking at which ones I have in place if only to gripe about them a little, though I wonder if I’d be missing my point in doing so. As it is, I only really have hedge #2 there; #4 is a false (or maybe just simplistic) my characters have to get past, and #1 and #5 were actively swept away by the magical War that let the story in in the first place (the same War that made #2 true).

    The temptation is to see if it’s possible to write a story with none of the hedges in place. πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      Not only is it possible, it’s been done; the Harry Potter series only glancingly brushes any of them, and it wouldn’t be difficult to scrub even that tenuous connection away. And I don’t buy into the notion that such an approach makes it less meaningful of a story.

      • janni

        Or more threatening a story, no.

        But then, it’s the rare reader, in my experience, who doesn’t get that the magic in books isn’t real, but a tool for telling stories.

        • Marie Brennan

          That didn’t stop me from trying things when I was a kid. <g>

          I wonder if the essential link in the chain of logic expressed over there is the acceptance of Tolkien’s view of fantasy as sub-creation. If you view the act of writing fantasy in that particular metaphysical light, then yes, the depiction of magic there has relevance over here.

          Otherwise I’m left wondering what the heck my depiction of magic has to do with the price of peas in Paraguay. It’s fiction, yo. Exploring a world in which the protagonists do magic and don’t get corrupted by it is just as valid a thought experiment as any other.

          • mindstalk

            Fiction that tempts children to try things, as you did. The concerns seem to be about sin at least as much as about “meaningful stories”. The concerns expressed about Harry Potter aren’t that magic makes the plot meaningless, but that having a teen protagonist who studies magic as part of a secret society will induce people to identify with and seek out magic. A temptation weakened by the 8th hedge of the magic just being so fantastic, and simple in application, vs. “Buffy” where you can watch a seance or a lengthy spell. (Plus both Potter and Buffy pretty much ignore Christian theology, occasionally making fun of it.)

          • Marie Brennan

            But the desire of children to try things takes on an entirely different cast if you’re not operating from within that framework (as I am not). I derived no harm from playing out things I read in books, even if you want to describe that as “self-delusion;” it was a natural part of my imaginative faculty flexing its muscles.

  2. wldhrsjen3

    Meh. I enjoyed some of his points and found it very thought-provoking, but in my very humble opinion it is overly simplistic to categorize magic as either circumventing God or being a delusion. He glosses over the wide variance in pagan/occult traditions by assuming that they are all against God or that they all rely on spirits and demons and such. There are a number of pagan traditions that view magic (in either a real or allegorical sense) as a gift from the divine – their practice sees it as an affirmation of the divine rather than a denial of God.

    And those hedges irritate me too – I doubt most people view magic in a book as an instruction to do magic in the real world, for one thing. I certainly wouldn’t try to cook up a potion just because I read about Harry Potter’s lessons with Snape. πŸ™‚ But I suspect a reader’s reaction to magic in a book is largely colored by their personal religious convictions – and if they’re opposed to any hint of the occult, I’m not going to worry about “hedging” the magic in my story just to make it more palatable.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, the framework is explicitly Christian. (And I just got hit by an overwhelming desire to know enough about Japanese onmyoji to write a magic system like that, just to thumb my nose at Western models.)

      With your last comment, though, I’m not sure if you’re talking about just your own work, or the notion of hedging in general. I do think it’s an oversimplification to say the hedges are merely “to make it more palatable.” Especially in Tolkien’s case — and clearly that’s one of the authors Greydanus has in mind — those qualities emerged as a result of a deep and thoughtful working through of the philosophical and ethical implications of his ideas. On the other hand, if an author followed those seven guidelines just to make it more palatable, would Greydanus prefer that text (because it fits the moral framework, however superficially), or one that does its own thing with equal thoughtfulness?

      • wldhrsjen3

        Yep – that’s what perplexes me. I completely understand that Tolkien struggled with his personal convictions and therefore carefully designed a magical system keeping those considerations in mind. But it almost sounds as if Greydanus is now holding that up as a model for all other fantasy authors. Maybe I’ve misread or made the wrong assumptions myself, in which case I apologize.

        In my own opinion, I’d much rather read (and write) stories that examine magic from *other* perspectives and within different frameworks. (And Japanese onmyoji? That sounds fascinating!)

        • Marie Brennan

          I didn’t bother to read through Greydanus’ article, so your guess is as good as mine. πŸ™‚

        • mindstalk

          Greydanus would feel that positive and “realistic” portrayals of the occult are equally dangerous, whether the author is Christian or not. So would ideally see all fantasy authors using such hedges, and failing that, Christians should guide themselves and their children away from hedgeless works, lest they thereby be tempted to traffic with the occult.

  3. sora_blue

    Well, from the brief description here of the thoughts behind their theory, it’s pretty limiting. I mean, there are a lot of cultures where “magic” is internal and godly. Plus, this isn’t all Christian places. Latina culture feels magic is part of their daily lives.

    • mindstalk

      Yeah, but those cultures are wrong. πŸ™‚ To the showcased Christian mindset, at least.

      The authors may not know much about Latina culture. I don’t. But I’d wonder what exactly you mean by magic in that context. Occult forces they can control, or mysterious forces that act upon them? My dim memory of magical realist books was more the latter. The hedges thesis, after all, isn’t that the occult doesn’t exist, it’s that the occult does exist, and it’s wrong to seek it out for aid and enlightenment. One should pray to God, not traffic with spirits, or attempt occult practices which open one to the subtle influences of evil spirits.

      My own reaction to the pieces was to muse briefly about how the “magic vs. technology” and “fantasy vs. science fiction” questions look from the Christian side. To the hard ScF fan it’s a question of what’s real; to the Christian it seems as much as a question of what are legitimate ways to impose one’s will on the world or predict the future.

      • Marie Brennan

        I suspect Greydanus (and maybe ; I don’t know) would therefore be utterly uninterested in the follow-on questions that fascinate me — because I reflexively operate from a perspective of cultural relativism, and want to know how these issues would work out within other moral/religious frameworks.

        • mindstalk

          Which are the questions that fascinate you here?

          But yeah, I think there’s a huge metaphysical gap between those essayists and you and probably many of your readers; I don’t see much direct utility beyond a primer in how to think like an occult-interested Christian, so you can put on that perceptual filter at will. For me, “do I agree” is almost besides the point, since the root of disagreement is a zillion assumptions back.

          • Marie Brennan

            Oh, a broad swath of curiosity as to how magic-in-fiction relates to the real world for people not operating from the Christian/Catholic base assumptions. But since those people are Wrong (from the Catholic pov), spending time dissecting that would probably be uninteresting to those invested in said pov.

      • sora_blue

        Well, I’m not qualified to speak on the Latina culture, but from the little bit I understand… there is a mystic element to it. The magic realism panel that I went to seemed to imply–and again I could be misunderstanding–that it was like the older English traditions of the healer woman you’d go to for herb lore.

        Oh, the panelist did mention you could buy candles to light to win the lottery.

        • mindstalk

          I’m sure Europe has had its folk magics as well, even if American Baptists don’t seem to at the moment. (?) But that wouldn’t mean such magics are theologically approved of.

          • Marie Brennan

            They often weren’t, historically speaking. I don’t know about present-day beliefs.

          • sora_blue

            Well, last time I checked, I wasn’t allowed to burn witches. I believe there are still countries where stoning “sinful” people to death is endorsed, but I had thought America wasn’t one of them. πŸ™‚

          • mindstalk

            That’s totally unrelated to whether the theological authorities of say Catholicism approve of folk magics

          • sora_blue

            It wasn’t my intent to be offensive. I apologize if you found my comment to be in bad taste.

            What I was originally trying to express is that while I understand the disapproval of a Catholic authority, I don’t feel it can “justly” be applied to a magic that has its basis in, say, Buddhist theology. This doesn’t mean the Catholic Authority can’t disapprove of that magic, just that a Buddhist authority is going to approve because it’s part of their theology.

            The Latina culture was a poor example.

          • mindstalk

            I wasn’t offended, I just didn’t really see the point to what you were saying. Yeah, other authorities will disagree, but the Christian authors won’t care. They’re not relativists, and for them can “justly” apply it to Buddhist magic. If you’re an atheist, even the original analysis looks silly, if anthropologically interesting.

          • sora_blue

            Acknowledged. It’s pretty lonely at the relativist table, but I can’t manage to get up and leave. πŸ™‚

            As for the comment about the witches, it’s not directly connected, but I’ll try to explain what I was thinking:

            In the past, people who practiced folk magic were often branded witches. There’s a time when the Catholic Authority had the power to have those people burned at the stake.

            The Catholic Authority no longer has that power. So even if they disapprove or don’t want to acknowledge other theologies, the disapproval doesn’t carry the same weight.

            That being said, if we as fiction writers put magic in our work, the Catholic Authority can disapprove, but that disapproval shouldn’t stop us from writing things we enjoy or feel passionate about. (Unless they regain the ability to have us burnt as witches.)

  4. moonandserpent

    “Magic as a means of dipping human will in myth . . . that’s a mode of thought I can get behind.”

    Yes, join the dark side, yesss… we have cookies and fun stories.

  5. drydem

    I presented a paper on magic in the Buffyverse awhile back that is about the way in which Magic represents in some ways the human longing for a meaningful universe. the principles of sympathetic magic(present in all magic systems I’ve ever seen) focus on the link between symbolic representation and real world effect.
    I need to revise that paper and shop it about.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’d be interested in seeing it, since “longing for a meaningful universe” is a topic I find fascinating.

      And, y’know, I like Buffy. <g>

  6. anghara

    HAH! Synchronicity!

    I just posted an entry on MY blog, on the same subject and inspired by the same original post…

    (And I really have to go out and get me a copy of “Midnight”. Are you going to be at Wiscon this year?)

  7. frostfyre

    Definitions of magic and their influence on people

    “But Tolkien and Lewis, though they wouldn’t have been familiar with either of the above examples, would have appreciated the fact that there is (a) little enough likelihood of young devotees of Star Trek or Spider-Man ever attempting actually to develop warp technology or spider powers; and, more importantly, (b) no obvious danger even in the event that any of them should actually seek to do so. (In the forty or so years since the creation of Spider-Man, I haven’t heard of a single child deliberately incurring a spider-bite, radioactive or otherwise, in an effort to acquire spider-powers; but I have heard of many children experimenting with the occult.)” -Greydanus

    Sitting in Silicon Valley, shirking work by reading all this lovely stuff, and glancing at the communicator, er, Motorola Startac on the table, I am reminded of the late Arthur C. Clarke’s laws, #3 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” There are a bunch of “ion drives” and other seemingly magical gadgets – I’m certain someone is looking for a way to break special relativity to get us that Warp Drive. DARPA is funding “stealth” and invisibility technologies.

    By Clarke’s definition, magic is real, and requires only inspiration, long study and hard work. Ages ago there was a fantasy universe wherein the protagonists are sucked from the college D&D game into a fantastical setting. The “wizards” are the enemy, and have the ability to strike down men with a note on a flute, or even summon thunder. The reveal is that the wizards are scribes, and have invented guns & blowdarts in that universe. I sadly can’t recall the title or author.

    Magic and technology are great expressions of human will, be they fictional or real and present. Without those flights of fantasy humans might never have conquered the skies or reached the moon. While Tolkein & Lewis struggled with its presentation due to their faith, the myths they created have inspired generations of scientists and technologists. Isn’t the power to dream one of the great strengths of humanity?

    ah well, thanks for the thought provoking links – it was entertaining πŸ™‚

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Definitions of magic and their influence on people

      I actually don’t much like that Clarke line, except insofar as it expresses the reaction of people to an advanced technology they don’t recognize. My take on the difference between magic and science is that there is a difference, so long as you look at what’s actually going on.

      Good point about the effect of SF, though. In that sense, there may be more danger there — kid reads about planet-destroying technology, grows up, develops the technology. I’m more worried about that than I am about anybody messing with the occult.

      • frostfyre

        Re: Definitions of magic and their influence on people

        Nice write up, it “feels” right. Though even in some scientific pursuits, such as software engineering, a lot can depend on the practitioner – while its true that the same set of steps should produce the same results, programmers often are defining those steps themselves, and there are multiple ways to get to the same end.

        Given that we’ve already invented ways to destroy our world a thousand times over, I hope that the kids read about something that will help to save us from ourselves; Be it philosophy, magic or science, its always good to plant a hopeful seed.

        The question from a creative standpoint (in my view) is whether detailing out steps in a process make the story better or not.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Definitions of magic and their influence on people

          Oh, I won’t pretend that the division I outline in that essay creates a perfectly clear distinction. But as a rule of thumb, it works better for me than any other I’ve tried.

  8. mirrorred_star

    Would this suggest that Tolkien, Lewis, et al. were trying to have their cake and eat it too?

    Should there exist a God who rules over Middle-Earth, wouldn’t he rule over all beings and thus his laws regarding magic-using being the gateway to bad would apply to all beings, should we suppose that Tolkien would model such a force after He That Shouldn’t Really Be Named? (*apologises for HP reference*) This isn’t really about making sure one’s theology matches one’s literary works (unless all one’s fantasy magic is used for nefarious purposes) as much as keeping it out of and away from our world. And it the assumption that one can make magic, or anything, cross over from fiction into not-so-fiction is made of many shiny little peices

    I think his initial reference to hankering for magic is rather amusing- you want it because you don’t have it, silly! Its forbidden and thus pretty! More seriously, though, I do think there is a connection between magic and meaning, that there’s a greater sense of meaning in fantasy than in the reality of the everyday world. And I agree with what he said about magic being the means with which one could do whatever they wanted, and then have to deal with the fallout of that. It really give the author greater scope to get everything and everyone in trouble- an epic scope for it, in fact πŸ˜›

    • Marie Brennan

      I also think he has a good point about using magic to do things that you would know are wrong if you were doing them by mundane means. People tend to forget that morality sometimes.

      Though it reminds me that in Roman law, witchcraft was treated as a crime only via its effects: if you killed somebody’s cow with the evil eye, well, you were guilty of killing a cow.

      • mirrorred_star

        Shouldn’t that be kind of obvious, though? Magic is only a means to an end, just like everything else. Like money, but with more potential.

        It occurred to me last night that few of those hedges would stop someone who’s determined to put the unreal into reality- I’ve heard of a group of witches doing a ritual based on the Silmarillion, and found a website where someone discussed how one could use Quenya as a ritual language. The second definately, and the first most likely, had holes that needed to be filled in, but someone did it.

  9. m_stiefvater

    This should be a problem for me, as I’m a Catholic and an urban fantasy writer, but it just never seems to be. So I guess it’s time to explain why it isn’t.

    For starters, even though I draw from myth, when I read my novels, I don’t see anything that argues with my faith. I mean, I’ll say right now — they aren’t Christian fiction in terms of the genre and could never possibly be construed as such. But at the same time, I don’t see how the existence of magic, faeries, and horned entities with mysterious domain over the unblessed really conflict with Christianity. Science exists alongside religion, doesn’t it? We don’t call a light bulb unChristian despite the fact that it “lets there be light”, do we?

    Okay, maybe I’m getting a bit facecious here, but really, Christians who tell me they won’t let their kids read HP because it’s unChristian just annoy me. It’s fiction. Fantasy allows us to explore metaphors and the longing for something more than the ordinary in a very direct way. For me, reading and writing that connection to ancient myth makes it seem more important and real — a connection to history and to human consciousness.

    Or something. I need breakfast.

    • Marie Brennan

      The lightbulb fits into the existing hierarchy, though. It was created by men, who are subordinate to God. If you start pulling in faeries, then you have to ask where they fit in. And if they fit in by being in opposition to God (as certain horned entities with mysterious domain over the unblessed might), then it is not righteous to petition them for help. It isn’t so much whether they do what God does; it’s whether God is okay with them doing it.

      • m_stiefvater

        Welll . . . I think the lightbulb fits into the hierarchy because we’ve chosen to believe that it does. The whole science-religion debate rages on quietly, etc. The existence of the light bulb could easily mean — man invented this seemingly magical thing — what else could man do without God? Is there one? etc.

        So I think that faeries and horned entities can be treated the same way. They could conflict — but they also might not. I think it’s interesting that the default setting for faeries is mysticism/ paganism when really . . . they can fit quite nicely into a very suburban variety of Christianity.

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