Magic In The Story: The Two Faces Of Magic
Welcome to part 2 of our series on Magic in the Story. Last week we pondered if any and every mention of magic was outright evil and completely off limits for Christians writing fiction, or if there was room for the fantasy genre to employ magic as a means of representing something else. If you are just joining us, I invite you to start by hopping back to last week’s post and catching up to speed with what has been said to date. As a quick reminder, we’ll be referring extensively to Narnia throughout this series as it seems to be the most visible, liberally executed and well-known example of magic in the Christian fantasy fiction genre.
Part 1: Magic – What’s the Big Deal?
Part 2: The Two Faces of Magic <—you are here
Part 3: It’s Written in the Stars (next week)
This week we delve deeper into the mysteries of ‘Magic in the Story’ and find ourselves confronted by the fact that there are two faces of magic in Narnia. That is to say not all magic is equal. There is good and evil magic in Narnia – the use and abuse of magic is perhaps one of the stronger evidences that Lewis himself understood that there was indeed a fine line between safe and dangerous magic. Consider this sequence from Silver Chair wherein Eustace and Jill find themselves seeking an entrance to Narnia.
‘You mean we might draw a circle on the ground – and write things in queer letters in it – and stand inside it – and recite charms and spells?’
‘Well,’ said Eustace after he had thought hard for a bit, ‘I believe that was the sort of thing I was thinking of, though I never did it. But now that it comes to the point, I’ve an idea that all those circles and things are rather rot. I don’t think [Aslan would] like them. It would look as if we thought we could make him do things. But really, we can only ask him.’
One of the things I most loved about Narnia was the reverent fear every character holds when it comes to the lion himself. Good or bad, they knew that all things must pass through Aslan – the supreme being of Narnia. But this poses a question, isn’t there evil magic in Narnia? How can that be, and what makes magic good or bad? What do we do with these?
It is true, there are two faces of magic in Narnia, and it’s time we took a closer look at them both.
When it comes to Narnia, Deep Magic, as we’ll call it, belongs to Aslan alone – they are the supernatural, often misunderstood, rules by which the world works. This magic is not something other characters can fully explain or control because it is not theirs to tame, just as Aslan cannot be tamed. I contend that in the case of Narnia, Deep Magic is used as a metaphor for the good spiritual and supernatural things we encounter and engage in our life – divine power, faith, prayer, miracles & wonders, and the Word of God itself. We see this kind of story magic employed throughout the series. We see it when Aslan’s roar awakens the trees, when he restores Reepicheep’s tail and, of course, when he sings Narnia into being.
“Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.“―Aslan at the creation of Narnia
In all of these instances Aslan is fully in control of the magic at work and most people have no trouble seeing the good in that. It is a symbol of power belonging to the King and Creator alone. This kind of magic seems right and Scriptural. After all, we serve a Sovereign God, right?
“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control…” Hebrews 2:8
If Sovereign magic (Deep Magic used by the Christ-character) was the only magic employed by Christian fantasy fiction we would likely not be having this discussion.
But, alas, this is not the only magic we find in Narnia.
If Deep Magic in its purest form is a symbol of God’s supreme power, love, and freedom, then the Dark Magic of Narnia, such as the White Witch’s, is often a symbol of abuse of power, of oppression, enslavement, addiction. But here’s the rub. Dark Magic does not come from a source of its own. It has no power outside of the Deep Magic’s control. It is merely a twisted reflection of the divine order of things. Simply put, the evil magic is corrupted Deep Magic. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Isn’t this the nature of all evil – to mimic and twist the truth?
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:22-25)
Dark Magic is the power by which Pharaoh’s magicians deceived him to believe they were as powerful as God. It is the same magic from which Simon the Sorcerer and the witch of Endor performed their wonders in the Bible.
The point I’m trying to make here is that in each and every case, the ultimate source of Dark Magic comes from an abuse of something originally good.
It isn’t anything new. Evil has been doing this for ages. It is sin. It is also subject to the Sovereign authority of something greater – namely God.
That is why I am so baffled by Christians who shudder at the thought of an evil sorcerer or witch in fiction, but are perfectly fine with murder mysteries. Why? Are they not both representations of evil? Are not both demonstrated in the Bible?
If a villain raises his scepter and performs a seemingly miraculous or magical sign it is almost certain to raise a few eyebrows. The question will be asked if the story is intended to glorify the occult – luring young, impressionable readers to attempt the same. In some cases, it may be – and we must flee. But in many (dare I say most) fantasy books, the twisting of good magic never takes on an appealing form. It is almost certainly ugly, depraved and self-centered. If it is alluring for a time, it is almost always revealed for what it truly is…a deception.
For this reason, I have no trouble with the evil magic of Narnia. I have no issue with the blood sacrifice of the witch at the Stone Table. I am not offended by the hag and werewolf performing a ritual in hopes of resurrecting the White Witch. Why should I be? Evil exists in our world as much as it does in the world of a fantasy. Dark magic is just another way of showing it. Whether by incantation or by murder, evil is being done.
The allure of Dark Magic is one of the potent examples of the temptation of sin. It is, at its root, a selfish power.
In The Magician Nephew, Uncle Andrew is a good example of this. We see him as a self-absorbed and somewhat creepy man, but in the end we come to pity him. Why? Because we are able to see a part of ourselves in him. He ‘dabbled in dirt of the Magical kind’ and we see the effects it has on the person. There was no joy in it. Lewis refers more than once to magicians and witches as being ‘terribly practical people’ who only see the value of things in relation to themselves and the achievement of their own selfish ends.
Handled correctly, the occult and Dark Magic can be wonderful imagery to use in fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the occult is a very real and dangerous threat to teens (or anyone, really) looking for something to believe in. Lewis knew this first hand too. In fact, in his wonderful book Surprised by Joy he shares how in his own pre-Christian life experience he was strongly tempted by the occult but was ultimately protected from going down this dark path. In his own words:
There is a kind of gravitation in the mind whereby good rushes to good and evil to evil. This mingled repulsion and desire drew towards them everything else in me that was bad. The idea that if there were Occult knowledge it was known to very few and scorned by the many became an added attraction to me… That the means should be Magic – the most exquisitely unorthodox thing in the world, unorthodox both by Christian and by Rationalist standards – of course appealed to the rebel in me… If there had been in the neighbourhood some elder person who dabbled in dirt of the Magical kind (such have a good nose for potential disciples) I might now be a Satanist or a maniac.
In actual fact I was wonderfully protected, and this spiritual debauch had in the end one rather good result. I was protected, first by ignorance and incapacity. Whether Magic were possible or not, I at any rate had no teacher to start me on the path. I was protected also by cowardice… But my best protection was the known nature of Joy… Slowly, and with many relapses, I came to see that the magical conclusion was just as irrelevant to Joy as the erotic conclusion had been… If circles and pentagrams and the Tetragrammaton had been tried and had in fact raised… a spirit, that might have been… interesting; but the real Desirable would have evaded one.
Later in the book he concludes his thoughts on the matter by saying, ‘I had learned a wholesome antipathy to everything occult and magical…Not that the ravenous lust was never to tempt me again but that I now knew it for a temptation.’
I think it’s safe to say whatever Lewis intends by the magic in his books, it is clearly not the Occult.
So we have the two faces of magic – Deep and Dark.
Discerning the Difference
Many Christians define magic as only Dark Magic. They dismiss the idea that anything with the name “magic” could possibly be deep. Call them wonders or miracles and we’re perfectly fine but the moment we say “magic” it falls into another category altogether. I think the concern among Christians isn’t really the existence of the two faces of magic, but rather discerning the difference between the two.
Even having defined the two archetypes of magic in Narnia it is not always so simple to determine what magic is at work.
In the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy is given a task to enter a mansion and recite a spell to turn Dufflepuds and a wizard (and even Aslan himself) visible again. Lucy enters the mansion and finds the spell-book, a ‘book of incantations’ which holds many spells for all kinds of ailments. It is never specifically mentioned where this book finds its origin, but its very existence requires someone to recite the words for them to work. After misusing one of the spells to her own advantage, Lucy does find the passage to make the invisible visible and in both cases the magic works. What are we to think of that? What magic was at work here? Deep or Dark?
This is one of the most controversial passages in the entire series.
Perhaps the narrator, Lewis, gives us a hint when shortly before this he eludes to the fact that he himself is not a magician and that the Book (capital B) is not unlike that of the Bible (one of the only references to the Bible in the entire series). Lucy misuses the Book to eavesdrop on her friends and becomes very irritated in what she hears. Guilt ridden, she overcomes the temptation to continue her misuse of the book (Aslan’s book even, as we will soon learn) and turns the page. To her relief, Aslan has provided a ‘spell’ for soul-refreshing just when she needs it. Perhaps this is a symbol of Aslan ‘leading her beside still waters’ like Psalm 23? Aslan knows her immediate need is for comfort and refreshing. He introduces a spell ‘for the refreshment of the spirit’ which is a story so refreshing to her soul it reminds us of the Gospel story (literally a ‘god-spell’ or ‘good-spell’, the origin of the English word ‘gospel’).
But here’s the kicker!
When Aslan appears after Lucy has spoken the spell for making hidden things invisible, he says that it is Lucy’s spell which has made him visible and crucially asks ‘Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?’. The spells, the magic, in the book, obey Aslan’s rules; it is all ultimately Aslan’s (or God’s) Deep Magic.
Lucy and we, the readers, are learning that perhaps Deep Magic is really the only magic there is. It can be abused and in doing so be thought of as Dark Magic. But all of it belongs to Aslan. After all, it is not what is outside of a man but what it inside that corrupts him. So too, it is the intent of the heart that makes a thing wicked or not. One may love another person and it would be a good thing. But if the love becomes perverted by selfishness it is no longer love at all, but an obsession. What good is selfish love? I propose it is Dark Magic.
Like Eustace and Jill learned(in the excerpt from Silver Chair I began this post with), in Narnia, the rules are simple – magic must be ordained by Aslan alone. Anything else would be a deception.
Next week we’ll take a peek at the use of Astrology in fantasy fiction.
Also, thanks for all the wonderful comments last week. I’ll try to do a better job at responding to them this week.
I’m going to be the annoying purest and point out that the Magician’s House is only invisible in the terrible movie. It was always completely visible and totally normal. It was only the inhabitants who were harder to see!
The whole group of them even spent the night in the house, for no one would ask someone to go upstairs at night, the Duffulpuds tell Lucy when they first inform her of the task.
You are right, of course. My memories confuse the two. Thanks for helping point that out.
** Edit – I corrected it in the blog post now that I am back at my computer. Thanks! **
Excellent, excellent article! I’ve tried to write a similar article, but I lack the depth to pull it off. Now I can just link to this one.
Link away, and thanks for taking the time to read it.
I guess my only question is why we use the word “magic” to describe both good and evil supernatural power. It’s like calling married relations and unlawful relations “adultery.” Does that make sense?
Thank you for discussing this controversial topic!
Thanks for your response.
I guess if we were to limit the use of any word that can be abused for negative purposes we’d have to also limit quite a few. The word “worship” would be one depending on who or what you are worshiping.
I don’t believe the word itself is evil in any way. It is the context in which it is used that gives it meaning.
Thanks for replying! Your explanation makes sense, and yeah, words can be abused. But my question was: “why use the name of Satanic power in our world to refer to both evil and good power in a fantasy world?” Not abuse of the word, necessarily, but why it has a double meaning in fantasy worlds.
Just mulling everything over here…
I’d ask who called Satanic power in our world “magic.”
So why should we do what they say? They’re pagans.
Even if we knew the Devil does use the label “magic,” well, he lies. He’s the Devil.
Furthermore, Christians often overestimate the Devil’s power or influence, and how much fantasy-world magic reflects that. While demons certainly can cause negative influence on people, that is never without personal invitation, and never over and against a person’s willingness — e.g., “demon possession” in the sci-fi body-taken-over-by-an-entity variety does not happen. Even more confidently can I say that many “magic” acts some Christians suspect are real — including family curses, “infested” objects, or even flying brooms or effective spells — are not within the Devil’s power. Satan’s chief deception is in getting people to delude themselves, or to believe that he has more power than he does.
Wow, I never considered it that way. Now I have a lot of pondering to do, and that’s one reason I so enjoy these discussions! Thanks for replying!
Adding to what Christopher wrote about, my simple response would be:
Because Scripture never forbids this.
I never thought of that. Thanks for replying!
Scripture may not say, “Don’t use the word magic when you tell stories about God’s power.” But Stephen — we have a good example in Scripture, don’t we? Doesn’t the Word make a distinction?
I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but off the top of my head, it seems that there is always a difference. The wrong use of supernatural powers is referred to as witchcraft and sorcery… the proper use is called something else. Miracle, etc.
Hmm… then again, “signs and wonders” have been attributed to both good and bad folks. And prophecy has been on both sides “false prophets” and true. Curses seemed to be used on both sides, too.
But still, I don’t think “magic” was ever attributed as a good, Godly thing. The implication was always that “magic” (sorcery, divination, witchcraft) was outlawed and drew its power source from evil spiritual beings.
Which is exactly why the Christian world is somewhat divided on the topic of Narnia and whether it is “of God” or “beneficial as Christian entertainment” or not, since it is not very precise in its use of the word “magic”. Just think how much division and controversy could have been avoided if Lewis hadn’t chosen that word or used it so loosely.
I’m not saying it can never be used in a positive light… just thinking out loud about pros and cons.
Is it not more like calling them both sex?
I don’t think so (personally) because magic is forbidden for all people in all circumstances–whereas sex between a married couple is sacred and not evil in and of itself (although it can be abused). Does that make sense?
Makes perfect sense, though I don’t fully agree with the premise of your argument.
The Bible never outlaws the the word “magic”, especially in regards to storytelling. Or, to use your example, neither does it prohibit us from writing about characters who engage in sex outside of the confines of marriage (the Bible itself refers to this many times) – Samson is one that comes to mind.
Daniel seemed unconcerned to be given the title of ‘chief of magicians’ in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. One might think if the Bible wanted us to be more concerned about the use of such names in storytelling it would make this point a bit clearer. He didn’t have trouble refusing the red meat, why not the title of magician?
Proverbs 17:8 says “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.” (I’m using the ESV)
One might also say when Christ tells us “if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” a certain kind of magic is at work. If I didn’t know better (and I do) his example might conjures images of a wizard more than an apostle. Why not say “nothing is impossible for God” instead of “nothing is impossible for you”? The way he words it, it might feel a lot more like ‘magic’ than a miracle. Speaking to a mountain and it responds? (To be clear: I know it is an allegory about faith, not magic or miracles)
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying God wants us to be magicians (in the Occult sense of the word) anymore than he wants us to be actual fools (in the mental sense of the word) but I also don’t see the word or concept of magic (when used under the authoritative headship of Christ) as being wrong – especially in the presuppositional use of fictional storytelling.
We should be careful not to make ourselves slaves to a standard of living that Christ does not call us to. If we do, we are no better than the Pharisees who heaped unnecessary laws and restrictions upon the people of God.
Oh…and please don’t think I’m comparing you to a Pharisee, that isn’t my intention at all. Their hearts and intentions were wicked and I believe you are genuinely concerned about the use of magic in stories. The spirit of discernment is not something to be taken lightly and I thank you for continuing the discussion and for sharing your points of view. I always enjoy hearing from those who may disagree with me.
Praise God he is with us to help us through our wrestling with Scripture.
Thank you for replying! As I said to Mr. Burnett above, you’ve given me a lot to think about. 🙂
And by the way, I’m all for living in freedom and not legalistic standards!
Nicely methodical argument. 🙂
One element you drew out of the collective body by implication is the idea that Magic, whether Deep or Dark, is a matter of understanding. Paraphrasing here, but Aslan says in LWW that the White Witch didn’t understand the Deep Magic engraved on the Stone Table. He allows this misunderstanding so that he can not only rescue Edmund, but ultimately triumph over her. Throughout the series, there is running suggestion that if we understood more, we would be better. Lewis seems to have been consistent with this, but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate.
We have all met people who do not repent of their “transgressions.” They haven’t done anything wrong. If they can explain enough, if you understood their point of view, you would see that they haven’t really sinned. They are excused from any need to repent or face consequences, because it’s not their fault. You just don’t have enough information yet to understand. This kind of argument sounds “human”, but it can be shown to be demonic as well (Gen. 3:4-5). I’m not saying Lewis is evil in this argument, but there are plenty of people with good spiritual compasses that say, “No excuses here.”
Not a lot of fantasy lovers in that group, I’m afraid. We’re often very ready to say, “No, let me explain. You just don’t understand yet.” We want, I think, others to share our perspective, rather than submitting ourselves to having God’s perspective. Lewis made invitations to that viewpoint in Narnia, but more like he was leading an expedition to a rare waterfall than like he had arrived and was relaying step-by-step instructions. Some of us, it seems, would rather follow a map than create a new one.
I do agree that Lewis tried to give very clear illustrations of the difference between the power of God and the magic of Satan. One is true power, the other a cheap counterfeit. As are all of Satan’s temptations to distract people from the good gifts God offers.
Thanks for your reply Lex.
I’m not entirely clear as to which side of the point you are trying to make. So I’ll just address my perspective and see which side we both land on.
Ignorance of evil is not an excuse for sin. One can be sincere in their beliefs and be sincerely wrong. If I hold a gun to my head, believing the chamber to be empty, and pull the trigger…I will die. There is nothing (apart from miraculous intervention) that will keep that bullet from entering my skull.
Likewise, the Bible seems to be very clear about the natural state of all men’s hearts. Romans 3:10 declares that there are none righteous – not even one. If this is true it is equally true that there is no way to “explain enough” as you have said above, “to see that they haven’t really sinned”. For all have, indeed, sinned.
That’s the hardest part of the gospel to grasp – but the first and most necessary. Until one recognizes the state of their nature (that their hearts are marred by sin and unable to enter the Kingdom of heaven) they will have no chance of redemption.
I’ll admit, Lewis and I would not likely see eye-to-eye on every theological subject we chose to discuss. I’m pretty sure he denied belief in “total depravity” though in other writings he would declare “we all sin” and are “in some respects a horror to God” and “vile.” Even so, when it comes to the freedom of stories to explore wondrous impossibilities, and the reality that God is supreme over all (even the darkest hour of humanity)…he and I agree.
Good article! I like your thoughts on the magician’s book; that has always been a confusing and troubling part of Narnia for me.
We had a guest pastor this Sunday who made a point about magic during his sermon which I thought was excellent. He pointed out that God makes contact with man on His terms, usually through prophets He appoints, but sorcery/the occult/witchcraft is man’s attempt to manipulate the divine (or supernatural) for their own purposes. It’s an attempt to control God and have power over Him or the things in His world, and that is why it is so wicked.
Great point! It helps to have talking points for times when this sort of discussion comes up. This sort of parallel is very helpful for drawing people out of long-ingrained mindsets.
So happy to see your conclusion towards the end — that ALL “magic” is really sourced in the Deep Magic. There is no supernatural power without Him. Even the demons were originally angels He created.
Many times I come back to the scripture in Romans that states “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” With the understanding that “faith” is the absolute trust and belief-to-the-point-of-action in what God has said, then to me it becomes obvious how this applies to “magic”. When we take matters into our own hands out of fear that God will not come through, it’s a problem. In mundane or in supernatural activity, when our motives are selfish it is still wrong.
Part of the challenge, I think, when it comes to the Occult, is that the body of Christ is not united in the belief that God has a superior alternative to the power that can be wielded by those involved in witchcraft. Some Christians understand that occult stuff is real, and they know it’s dangerous. They sometimes even admit the appeal that it has because of the promise of power.
But it saddens me to see that many do not believe that there is a superior miraculous power at work in the earth today. In the power of Jesus, people are being raised from the dead, prophecies are spoken that come true, people operate in knowledge they gained purely through hearing from God, physically impossible miracles occur that defy science (things appearing or disappearing or transporting miraculously, etc).
It’s not “mainstream”, so not everyone believes it’s actually happening. But to me, it’s obviously a reality. The terms “natural” and “supernatural” are scientific terms that are sourced from a mistaken belief that there’s a difference. Supernatural things are perfectly natural to those who are used to it being a part of their lives. There is no “spiritual” and “physical” — it is all part of one fabric. Layered. Maybe call it “multi-dimensional”. Separate, perhaps, but not completely unrelated. Land and sea are very different — but they are both part of one planet. We just don’t have enough of the whole picture to see how “natural” and “supernatural” fit together.
Anyway… rambling now. Thanks for the great article and discussion!
I find Acts 16:16-24 a great inspiration when realizing that all magic (even the evil kind) is granted its power from God himself. It’s not like there is some “new power” being called on that is bigger than or equal to God. He is always in control of it. He can take it away from them in a snap.
All power and authority under heaven is given to him.
What’s always odd about this is that people focus on Narnia, but That Hideous Strength never seems to come up. In that book, the plan is for an awakened Merlin to channel the powers of the roman gods planetary oyarsa to destroy the fascist organization taking over all of Britain. Merlin is an odd character; a devout Christian, yet also a pagan sorcerer and there’s themes where magic at one time might have been somewhat lawful to use, but not now. Merlin is a man good enough to use, and not good enough to be a saint. If I had a copy, I would quote lines.
You could have a field day with the symbolism on that one, and the rules that it breaks. I think we forget though that Lewis was classically educated, and for them there wasn’t the whole divorce from the idea of pagan antiquity as some form of pre or proto-christianity. Things like the idea of the virtuous pagan, and sort of a friendliness with myth as myth are things modern Christians really don’t have today. Like in Narnia, the pagan is seen as kind of a natural virtue in itself, but always subservient to Aslan. It is only at Aslan’s command do the wood and river gods rise up and conquer the Telmarines in Prince Caspian.
edit: it’s hard to explain. Sort of paganism that exists, yet bows the knee to Christ. Maybe one of the more erudite who read the blog could do a better job commenting on it than I.
I’ll be delving into Lewis’ use of mythological gods in future posts. I must admit, I’ve never read That Hideous Strength in one sitting. (blushes in shame)
Looking forward to your comments in the future.
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