There’s been some pretty furious debate for many years about the presence of magic in modern fantasy literature for kids, even as the bookshelves have literally exploded with new releases for young adults and children alike, many containing magic as the driving factor of their premises. Some parents have restricted their kids from picking up any books including the ‘m’ word in their descriptions, most notably the “Harry Potter” series, while others have seen absolutely nothing wrong with giving their kids an unlimited supply of not only Rowling’s infamous books, but everything from Jonathan Stroud’s demonic “Bartimaeus” trilogy to Rick Riordan’s paganistic “Percy Jackson” series, all featuring a young protagonist with the use of magical abilities. 9 times out of 10, the parents that are more restrictive base their decisions on their faith.
Now, this being a faith-based blog, you’d expect me to side with those parents, right?
Well, the issue is a bit more complicated than just simply cutting off all access to ‘magical’ fantasy literature.
The Danger of Magic
You see, among the many types of fantasy literature out there, both for kids and adults, magic is used and portrayed in a variety of ways. In some it’s not used at all. Other books portray magic as being used secretively and apart from the rest of society. And in still others, magic is used openly and freely. Some characters are born with the ability to use it (like Riordan’s Percy Jackson above). Others have to learn to use it and practice at it (like Nathaniel in Stroud’s “Bartimaeus” trilogy). In some books, the magical powers are limited in the scope of what they can do. In others, the magic can be cataclysmic in nature. And the variations go on and on.
But one thing that is very often not seen, in today’s fantasy literature for children and young adults, especially, is magic, or the supernatural, portrayed in a light that shows both its otherworldliness, and its danger. Children are shown worlds where magic is used and practiced by anybody who wants it. They see children like themselves picking up the supernatural and handling it just as casually as if they were petting a cat. Not only that, but they see not only children that are like themselves, but adults as well, taking pride in their abilities and using them as a weapon of vengeance against their enemies.
As adults, we know that this kind of hocus-pocus nonsense doesn’t really exist, and that what does exist is something much darker, much deadlier, and much more terrifying than any light-hearted, straight-forward, cause-and-effect ‘magic’ that is portrayed to children in books. We know there is such a thing as the supernatural, and as adults we understand (the majority of us, anyway) that we cannot control it, and that to try to control it is akin to spiritual suicide.
But children do not know that. They don’t understand that. And reading about worlds where this kind of power is prevalent and easy to come by does not lead them to a right understanding of this. “Remember that children do not have the same critical ability that adults have,” says Fr. Casimir Puskorius, CMRI. “They read fantasy much differently than we do: they read it in a believing way.” And because children read believingly, they are much more easily led to try what they read about, or look up the words that they see: ‘sorcery,’ ‘witchcraft,’ ‘spells,’ and the like.
And there’s one main reason why children will go on to look up these terms and jump around the house with a chopstick yelling ‘spells’ at their siblings and burn something on the stove in the name of ‘making a potion.’
In all of these books for children, magic is portrayed as a good.
Magic in Spiritual Fantasy
But then, you have books like the “Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis. Magic is an integral part of the theme of the entire series. But it is portrayed very differently from the way books like “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” portray it.
Notice that in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the character Lucy stumbles upon the wardrobe which is actually a gateway to the wintry world of Narnia. She goes into Narnia, meets Mr. Tumnus, and then comes back. But when she wants to show her siblings, the gateway is not there anymore. This is something outside of her control. No matter how many times she shuts the door, goes around the back of the wardrobe and knocks, or spins around with her eyes closed, the gateway will not become the gateway again until something beyond her decides it should. This is, of course, much to her frustration, as her brother Edmund pokes fun at her about it. But the key thing is this: as a book for children, it does not place the supernatural in the hands of the children. The supernatural happens, and the children become part of the tale because of it. Nor do they ever possess magical powers during their entire presence in the series. The power is always in the hands of Aslan, who is the highest being in the series, an allegory of Our Lord.
When we see it in the hands of another, Jadis, the Witch, we see that it has corrupted her and turned the world of Narnia to ice and snow, devoid of warmth and light and joy. It is portrayed as the utmost evil for her to have these powers. And when we see her using them, we see things very contrary to the way Aslan uses it. We see her turning creatures to stone, killing them, or making seemingly tempting treats from the snow. We see the emptiness of the treats she offers Edmund in the film when her slave throws them against a tree and they shatter back into snowflakes. This deceptive, poisonous and death-oriented use of magic sends a clear message that Jadis is not meant to have it, because it has corrupted her and everything she touches with it.
Aslan, however, is always seen breathing life into things. His very presence in Narnia begins to melt the winter created by the Witch. We see this life-giving power most notably when, towards the end of the film, he goes with Lucy to free Mr. Tumnus and the others who have been turned into stone by Jadis. He simply breathes on them, and they return to their natural forms. This clearly shows that the power he possesses is part of who he is, not a stolen addition like Jadis’, who has to use her powers through a staff. We also see the greatest representation of his power, and a clear allegory to Christ’s rising from the dead, when Aslan comes back alive to the Stone Table after being killed in Edmund’s place by the Witch and her cronies. However, he references the “Deep Magic” in his conversation with the Witch in one part of the movie, which gives us some insight into how the land of Narnia is built.
Jadis: “You have a traitor in your midst, Aslan.”
Aslan: “His offense was not against you.”
Jadis: “Have you forgotten the laws upon which Narnia was built?”
Aslan: (roars) “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, witch. I was there when it was written.”
Jadis: “Then you’ll remember well that every traitor belongs to me. His blood is my property.”
We see from this exchange that Aslan has been around at least longer than Jadis has, and that he was present when the Deep Magic governing Narnia was written. We also see that, although Aslan has power of his own, he cannot or will not refuse to obey this Deep Magic, which seems to have been written by a power even higher than Aslan himself (the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, perhaps?), or at least a power he is or feels bound to answer to.
This kind of representation stands in high-contrast to the kinds of literature floating around in libraries and bookstores today, filled with arrogant, wand-waving middle-schoolers who treat magic like it’s a play thing. If even Aslan, who is the figure of Our Lord in the Narnia series, does not play around when it comes to the Deep Magic that governs Narnia, and the heroes of the story, the Pevensie children, don’t need magic to win their battles against the evil Witch, what does that say of Harry Potter, who creeps around in the Restricted Section of the Library looking for spells and potions well beyond his ability and skill to successfully produce and use? What does that say of the reason why he went creeping around there in the first place, to try to incriminate his enemy Malfoy in the string of basilisk attacks on the students of Hogwarts?
The Catholic View of Magic
The Catholic view of magic in fantasy literature, comparing the works of Lewis and Tolkien, can be summed up in this excellent quote, found in an interview of Michael O’Brien, a Catholic author and artist.
“Tolkien is especially clear on [the danger of magic]. In his great epic, The Lord of the Rings, and in his foundational work, The Simarillion, he shows that powers that do not rightly belong to man always have a corrupting influence on man. Only higher ranks of creatures in his imagery would exercise supernatural powers, and then only as a gift of God. The evil characters in the tale have corrupted these gifts, or else — in the case of humans — they have tried to seize them as personal possessions, only to be deceived and finally destroyed by them. Moreover, the ’magic’ in Tolkien’s subcreation does not really resemble magic practices in the real world. He makes efforts to explain this in his collected letters, where he expresses some concern that his intention might be misinterpreted by readers.
“In his fantasy series for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, and in his cosmic trilogy for adults, C.S. Lewis also repeatedly demonstrates the seductiveness of powers which are not rightly man’s, especially when they are seized as a form of Gnostic quest for power. Both of these Christian writers firmly underline the fact that defeat of radical evil depends on humility, courage, love, self-sacrifice—in short, our natural human virtues.”
Magic or No Magic?
In short, magic and the supernatural are not ‘bad’ when portrayed in fantasy literature. But there is a way to do it, a careful way, and one that conforms to the moral law that all Catholics must know and follow. They must be portrayed as an evil when they are stolen or manipulated by those who are not meant to have them. And they must be portrayed as good only when those who are equipped or gifted with these powers use them in the way that they are meant to be used. But the most important thing is that whenever it is portrayed as a good, it must not in any way resemble the forbidden, deadly, and occult practices of the real world. If there are any similarities to these occult practices, or if the intention is to show their evilness, they must be portrayed as evil in your fantasy world.
We can learn from studying the examples of authors who have done this well before, authors like Lewis and Tolkien, and build on the legacy they have left us of solid, spiritual fantasy literature that portrays magic and the supernatural correctly, yet in a way that does not leave their fantasy worlds bland or their conflicts without some major sparks.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the next ship in!
Tell me your opinion: What fantasies have you read lately that have portrayed magic differently than the mainstream? What did they do that was different? Was it similar to Tolkien or Lewis? You can leave your answer below in the comments.
O’Brien, Michael. “Why Harry Potter Goes Awry: Zenit Interview.” 2001. Interview.
Puskorius, Fr. Casimir. “Harry Potter Is Dangerous for You and Your Children.” CMRI.org. CMRI, 16 Dec. 2001. Web. 19 July 2015