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Magic Realism, Part 1

One speculative fiction genre points us to what truly matters, by refusing to draw a solid line between the everyday and the fantastical. Welcome to the world of magic realism.
| Nov 4, 2011 | No comments | Series:

What do you see when you first wake up in the morning? How do the colors of the world come together—as they are, or as they aren’t quite? What about the shadows of night, or the short-circuiting flicker of an overtired mind?

Perception is broken. Nonetheless, it’s accurate enough that we are capable of recognizing the existence of truth. Somewhere between the brokenness and the certainty is something artists call a lost edge: a blending of the one into the other.

In visual art, this happens for a powerful reason: to bring the most important details into focus. The place where things begin to blur away is a frame of reference that points the eye to what matters.

In fiction, one speculative genre accomplishes this by refusing to draw a solid line between the everyday and the fantastical. Welcome to the world of magic realism.

Magic realism or magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought. It is a film, literary and visual art genre.

From Wikipedia’s entry on Magic realism

Is this the same as when an angel steps into a Christian story to change everything? Not exactly. Magic realism offers no justification or explanation for its strange or even utterly implausible events, and that’s something that’s almost never done in Christian fiction. Our religious culture is so laden with crosscurrents, preferred emphases and paradigms, and even outright disagreements over How To Be Godly, that it’s de rigueur to express the supernatural with a fully realized context and definition. All the lines sketched firmly in place.

And this need for definition may indeed contribute to accusations of two-dimensionality in Christian fiction. In art, the lost edge is what makes things lifelike.

In Christian writing, supernatural fiction tends to define its events through overt statements or through very clear context. Christian fantasy in particular tends to lean heavily on the strict parallelism of allegory in order to ensure all’s interpreted as prescribed.

Magic realism? Forget the contextual requirements. Forget the careful definitions. Forget the rules. It just is, regardless of whether anyone believes it.

Those who define everything that exists as the natural haven’t told us anything of significance. I could just as easily define everything as hablabadaba. It would mean the same thing and deliver the same informational content. Customarily, the word natural is invoked to describe a realm of energy, space, time, and matter, and any other conceivable or unknown physical entity, whether it be a part of this universe, or a detached natural realm outside the spatio-temporal universe we inhabit. Anything outside the natural realm, as commonly thought, would be supernatural, preternatural, extranatural, or the like.

But perhaps those who do this are not offering a definition. Instead, maybe they are making a claim about the way things really are, as in nothing exists outside of the natural. Here, however, we receive a check…. Where does this leave our non-omniscient naturalist? In a state of agnosticism, presumably, though many will call it atheism.

From Less Real than we Think, More Real than we Want by Marc Schooley

Christians accept their sense of the spiritual realm as something that exists. It’s part of the Christian definition of the “natural,” in the sense that we don’t exclude it from our reality. In many ways, our sense of the supernatural is tidily codified into what Schooley refers to as “a detached natural realm outside the spatio-temporal universe we inhabit.”

This approach, while comfortable to the modern Western mindset, is both at odds with the original context of the Bible and also risks degrading the supernatural through an imposition of pragmatic naturalism. This is how Western Christians become practical atheists all the while invoking heaven and hell, angels and demons. Those things are somewhere out there, to be encountered according to the categorical rules we’ve invented for a detached natural realm—“the spiritual.”

Whether the rules are wild or tame, nonetheless we have rules for these things, and by the rules do we define our truths and lies. Nothing exists outside of that.

But this is not lifelike in its presuppositions about the lost edge of truth and perception. Magic realism presents a unique window on the epistemology of awareness and the unsterile mess within the human heart and mind. And then it conjoins that mess with the intrusion of the spiritual upon everyday life.

As t.e. George has discussed, there is much unexplainable and unexplained; there are many moments where the light shifts strangely as we wake or fall into sleep. Do we then acknowledge them, or shove them out of the box of religious naturalism to be ignored?

Was it not Blaise Pascal who said, le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point?

The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing…this is a truth of the biblical paradigm, where hearts are deceitful and desperate, and yet can indeed ring true against all our tidy, self-serving rationales.

However, American evangelical writing has only just begun to make a place for the role of magic realism. We seem to be standing on the cusp of many things in Christian publishing, where either everything is growing, or everything is falling down. We are not sure which.

It could be both. There are things that happen. And anything is possible. These may or may not be truths; what’s certain is that they’re not exactly comfortable thoughts, depending on how one perceives them.

Sitting in my bed, I saw shiny black and rippling silver scales flash in front of me. I could see them clearly. In my joy of this miracle, I got out of bed and did not question where this creature was taking me.

I followed its beauty and compelling voice through dark hallways and out to the courtyard. Although it was winter, I did not feel the cold. The strange creature settled under the cherry tree’s naked branches.

The creature slithered and curled into the branches of the tree. “Come up here, Wen Ming,” it said.

“I will stay here, where I won’t fall.”

“Then you will miss a beautiful sight.”

“I cannot see. So I will miss it anyway.”

“What if I promised you that you would be able to see clearly all the way to where the earth and heaven join?”

I peered up at it. When I looked at it, I saw clearly. When I looked away, all was dark again. But I had not lived my life as an orphan for nothing. I did not give my trust easily. “Why should I want to see that?”

Lucky Baby, by Meredith Efken (Howard Books, 2010)

Cathi-Lyn Dyck has been a published writer and poet since 2004, and a freelance editor since 2006.

She can be found online at ScitaScienda.com.

C.L. Dyck is a freelance editor of award-winning Christian speculative fiction. She wrangles words on behalf of writers through Scienda Editorial.

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Sherwood Smith
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Sherwood Smith

A lovely, thoughtful article (though you might want to correct the spelling of de rigueur)

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Correction appended.

Christian
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Christian

Cathi, that’s a quality article, thanks for sharing! Yes, Magical realism is writing the extraordinary as if it were commonplace.  I would love to see more of this in Christian fiction or even just fiction written by Christians’. One could argue that Dean Koontz ‘Odd Thomas’ series belong to this genre. Odd’s encounters with the supernatural are written in a low-key, everyday manner. Still, it’s very easy to sometimes forget that there is a truer reality beyond the physical world around us. I struggle with that sometimes but I think it’s a healthy form of doubt, one to be explored prayerfully. As for the French wordings you used, I don’t understand them and never have (yes, I’m looking at you, Agatha Christie!) Care to explain them? Cheers.

Tim George
Guest

Very good take on the genre of magical realism. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what is missing in Christian fiction and this is it. It isn’t the whole edgy debate over language or how much sex. Smoke screens in my opinion. Instead, what we followers of Christ seem to avoid in our writing is the absolute mystery and wonder of it all. 
Cliff Graham does a great job with this in his new series about the life of King David. In Day of War there is a scene where an Israelite warrior is rescued from certain death by a warrior of a tribe he does not recognize. From our New Testament backward looking perspective we probably see this strange warrior as an angel. No such commentary given in the novel. Instead, we see this rescuing warrior through the perception of an Old Testament quasi-believer. It is what it is. Real or magical? Real to the warrior rescued. But, the whole incident is so mysterious, the saved soldier never relates the event to anyone else.

Kaci Hill
Member

Cat said:

“We are taught so heavily by the theology of sin not to trust our own perception. There’s some validity to that…but taken too far, we cannot trust at all that our faith in the theology of sin and salvation is a correct perception in itself, so the very concept of epistemology becomes self-defeating. There has to be room for mystery in the gap.”

I think he over-reliance on the human intellect is also partly to blame. Anyone who’s ever written a villain knows the human mind can make anything sound logical and justifiable.
 
Miscellaneous comments:
There’s also a Proverb that goes: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.  As the heavens for height and the earth for depth,  So the heart of kings is unsearchable” (Proverbs 25:1-3).
And there’s plenty in Scripture that just doesn’t have any explanation.  Ever wondered what the ‘deep’ was that the Spirit ‘hovered’ over, or what “The earth was void and without form” means if it hadn’t been created yet?   Ever wondered why Enoch and Elijah were swept into Heaven alive (much less that everyone seems to have understood it as that, and not as them going missing somewhere)?
 
Ever wonder why the men and women in Scripture weren’t shocked by the existence of angels, but by the angel speaking to them? Or why the Hebrews were less concerned about whether or not the booming voice on Sinai and all the smoke was aliens or an enemy than whether or not they should approach the mountain? Or why “God listened to a man” and made the sun stand still for three days? (Cuz, really, he didn’t have to.) Why the witch of Endor isn’t freaked out that she summoned a ghost, but that the ghost was Samuel? No one questioned, in Jonah, that the storm was caused by someone’s displeasing their god; nor did anyone question the accuracy of the lots cast. 
Ever wonder why Abraham didn’t question the source of the voice telling him to sacrifice Isaac, or why Gideon and Joshua listened to some of the most absurd battle plans ever drawn?
Course, the ‘mystery,’ from Paul’s angle, in some respects, was also the inclusion of Gentiles as part of God’s people. That whole concept seemed to leave him perpetually in amazement.
 On experiences…. The character’s experience is that it’s true.   Let’s pretend there’s a character named Tim. Cuz we can. Let’s say that Tim was raised in a home in which to eat meat was evil (because I want to keep it simple). Then, he happens to meet Jesus, and Jesus invites him to dinner and makes fish and chips.   In that case,  Tim’s experience (Jesus eating fish and encouraging Tim to do the same) and his perception of the experience (Jesus ate fish, therefore he must be evil) is real. And, in a world where eating meat is sin, that would be true.  You first have to change Tim’s world–his perception of his experience– before you can make him see Jesus isn’t evil.
But my understanding is magical realism doesn’t usually go that route. I read “The Old, Old Man with Very Large Wings,” which is about a family who discovers….you guessed it…an old man with wings. “A Curse Dark as Gold” might count, where it’s a real-world setting wherein the MC doesn’t question the odd Jack Spinner (although she resents him). They’re kinda cruel to him, if I remember.
At any rate, the point is that the experience does matter, because each experience we have is bound by the lenses through which we see. Experiences color perspective; perspective in turn colors experience.
 

Kaci Hill
Member

Addendum: I thought I might add that, above all, Christian characters shouldn’t be so jarred when something unexplainable happens.

C.L. Dyck
Guest

Indeed. Religion, at least, has recourse for the unexplained. Atheism can only shrug or put on the blinkers.

Galadriel
Guest

I have read exactly one magic realism novel- -Bless Me, Ultima, by …Well, I can’t remember right now, but I really enjoyed it. The blurring of lines, so much fun

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

Would George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind or other works be considered magic realism? Where the magic and the reality lay side by side and bleed into each other from time to time?
 
I think the prologue in Lewis’s Perelandra really goes into this, with the POV character seeing the Oyarsa, recognizing it as an angel, and being completely undone. Because the reality we tamely talk about in church is nothing like the symbols we use to  grasp it, and if we could glimpse that true reality, we would go mad.

DD
Guest

MacDonald’s fantasy works fit the bill. I’m amazed that so few know of them now.  Lewis cited them as an inspiration. MacDonald also encouraged Lewis Carroll and his fantasy. When’s the last time you’ve run across GM in a Christian book store? Not likely to see Tolkien there either. Or the Space Trilogy. Classics in fantasy, Christian or otherwise.  With such a legacy, I often wonder why fantasy and sci-fi so rarely figure into Christian publishing.  Hopefully what I am reading here and elsewhere are signs of change.

Christian
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Christian

I’ve never seen MacDonald’s works in Christian book shops but then again I’ve never seen them in any books shops. I’ve seen Tolkien’s works there though and The Cosmic Trilogy (as it’s called in Australia). But the quality magical realism books are few and far between.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

Okay, good, I just wasn’t sure if I understood what magical realism was. Now I understand it.
 
And it is a shame that MacDonald isn’t sold in Christian bookstores. I’ve heard that he wrote more realistic fiction (romance novels, I think it was?) than fantasy, and they’re great, but you can’t find them anywhere.  I always wanted to give them a shot.

Kaci Hill
Member

I’ll say more when I’m coherent, but I wanted to say thanks for this.   It really helped solidify some things and put voice to what I’m trying to do with my current project. 0=) I’m open to a reading list if you’ve got one.
 
Btw, Tim, the post she cited turns up on the front page when I run a search on ‘magical realism.’ Hehe.

Tim George
Guest

Hooray for strong SEO content 🙂
 

Marion
Guest

The two of the most well known magical realism novels are:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude
Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (one of my all-time favorite novels)
Also, the works of Charles de Lint and John Crowley have been labeled as magical realist fiction as well.
I must admit I have found this genre much more appealing than traditional fantasy (Christian and Secular) and to me it has a more realistic sense of the supernatural happening in every day life.
Marion

MS Quixote
Guest
MS Quixote

We have a name for a being who encounters or knows no mystery: God.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Further thoughts tomorrow, but I’m not content to let the emergents/liberals, that is, the abusers of the term “mystery,” hijack the term (next they’ll come after “transcendence” anyway). It would seem that we can definitely know a truth about God, a That, such as that He is Three Persons, one God, and yet not know the How of this That.

And that’s a Transcendent Mystery, while still a Revealed Truth — a Mysterious Truth.

Marion
Guest

Becky,
I have read Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission.
Here’s the review from my blog:
http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/book-review-9-lost-mission-by-athol-dickson/
I enjoyed a lot and recently bought River Rising by him as well.
Marion

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Because folks seem to be mentioning it a lot, I thought I’d point out that Lost Mission is one of the books in the growing Spec-Faith Library of Christian-visionary titles.

Thanks for your review, Marion! Somehow this title leaped out to me in the Library, and now I hope to check it out sometime — especially because it seems the topics you mentioned, anyway, don’t often get addressed (definitely not directly) in Christian fiction.

Do note that we hope to have as many reviews, or excerpts from/links to reviews, in the Library as we can. 😀

Tim George
Guest

If anyone is interested, here is my review of Lost Mission from when it first came out. 

Marion
Guest

Stephen,
Thanks for your kind comments about that review.  I had read awhile back from Becky (from her blog I believe) that Lost Mission was a must read.  So I decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
I totally agree with Tim’s review that reading Athol Dickson is not a straight road to take in one setting.  It was definitely a winding highway! LOL!   Also, I appreciated the fact that he didn’t give any neat and pat answers for his characters and their issues in Lost Mission
Tim, I just bought Athol Dickson’s River Rising and I will be reading it in the next few weeks. I have some other books I need to read first.  But, I’m looking forward to reading it.
Marion