The Morality of Magic in Fantasy
Magic is central to fantasy. Fantasy is, after all, defined (loosely) as the element of story which breaks the rules of our world, and much of this rule-breaking involves ‘magic’ of some kind. For us as Christian readers, though, this definitional issue poses a significant problem. The Bible forbids witchcraft, which is often considered synonymous with magic. Yet, if you’re a Christian and reading Refracted Light (not to mention the books reviewed on it!), chances are you don’t believe that all magic in fantasy is wicked. However, you probably don’t think it is all good, either. (I certainly don’t.) What, then, makes some fantasy magic acceptable for the Christian reader while some is not? What makes Rose and me give some books a moral ‘F’ for reasons related to their magical content, while others with magical material just as prominent receive an ‘A’?
Please note that this question is huge. I plan to explain my fundamental rationale for judging magic in fantasy, and hopefully offer convincing arguments for my position. But I realize that I will be able to cover only the basics of this significant and multi-faceted issue. I also realize that there are many grey areas regarding this subject. There are books that, while containing some questionable magical elements, can still be edifying for Christian readers. There are books which contain no magical problems, but have other serious moral flaws. And there are books in which it’s nearly impossible to tell for sure whether the magic is portrayed rightly or wrongly. The individual reader must use his own discretion in judging books. All I offer are guidelines. I hope they will be useful.
What is magic? For the purposes of this essay, I will define magic as that which breaks real-world rules or the laws of nature in our own world. Anything ‘supernatural’ — that is, outside of the natural way of things in our universe — counts. (Notice that under this definition, miracles such as Jesus performed are ‘magic’.) For fantasy which takes place in our own world, anything outside real-world natural rules is magic. In high fantasy — fantasy which takes place in another world altogether — magic is still that which breaks the rules of our own world. However, it may or may not break the rules of the imagined world. For instance, in the Redwall books, talking, anthropomorphized mice, rats, weasels, and various other animals carry on what are for them quite normal lives. These are ‘magical’ beings for us; however, in their imagined world their existence is not magical but normal: all such animals talk in that world. Their lifestyle does not break the laws of nature within their world, because there is nothing super-natural about their ability to speak. This sort of magic exists naturally, and is therefore not inherently evil. It can, of course, still be used for good or evil purposes, just like our own power of speech can be used sinfully. But it is not in itself evil; perhaps it’s not really good either; it just is.
In some high fantasy, however, the magic at some level breaks the rules of the universe in which the fantasy takes place. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring’s powers of evil and destruction are not normal. All rings do not do this. It is shocking, frightfully out-of-the-ordinary, that this Ring has these dreadful powers. This sort of magic, within the context of the story, may or may not have spiritual elements to it, but it must certainly be unnatural. It is magic such as this — magic which breaks the rules of the universe in which it exists (whether our own or an imagined one) — which must be discussed in this essay.
In the real world, we as Christians know that witchcraft is evil. What are the definitional characteristics of real-world occultic witchcraft? It is, quite simply, forbidden supernatural power derived from a spiritual source. In our world, witches get their un-natural power from demons or ambiguous spiritual forces, and they seek this power contrary to the command of God. In some small part of fantasy literature, the magic portrayed is extremely similar or identical to the real-world occult. Usually such a story takes place in our own world and the magic is in form and source the same as the witchcraft forbidden from the Bible. Such magic is obviously evil. Note, though, that all parts of the definition must be met for this sort of magic in fantasy to be automatically classified as bad. The supernatural power must be obtained from a spiritual source in a forbidden manner. (In a small subset of fantasy literature, usually written by Christian authors less as ‘fantasy’ than as ‘Christian supernatural thriller’, the supernatural comes into play exactly as we might speculate it could do in actuality. In these books, ‘angelic’ or miraculous supernatural power — given to the characters by God — is often also present to counteract the demonic power of evil magic.)
“Okay,” you may be saying, “well, duh.” Distinguishing the good from the evil in reference to this sort of real-life magic is not so very difficult. So, what about the vast majority of fantasy literature, where the magic is not spiritual, or not forbidden, or both? We, along with all Christians, believe that magic and wizardry are evil in the real world, because they come from Satan. However, in most fantasy worlds, independent magic is the significant factor that defines these worlds as fantasy — the one major thing that is different from the real world. Therefore, in most fantasy, both white and black magic exist. Magic is good, or (more commonly) good and evil both, depending on who is wielding it. How should the Christian reader of fantasy distinguish, in the context of a fantasy world, between good magic and magic that is parallel to the powers of the occult? What guidelines can we use to judge the morality of magic in fantasy?
From a Christian perspective, the difference between moral and occultic power, in fantasy, is a distinction in source. Good magic is that which is granted. Bad magic is that which is grasped. This distinction holds true in the Bible. Miracles — supernatural and therefore, according to my definition of the term as that which defies the rules of nature, ‘magical’ acts — result from power granted by God. Moses performed signs before Pharaoh in Egypt, but God gave him the power to do it. On the other hand, the arts of the occult are, by the term’s very definition, hidden, and therefore not meant to be sought out. God forbade their use, and condemns those who, in spite of his command, grasp at this occultic power. In the most basic Biblical contrast between granted and grasped un-natural power, Christ was granted all authority by God, while Satan tried to seize God’s power for himself.
This distinction rings true in books that are respected by most Christians (including myself). In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, for example, Lucy uses her magical cordial to heal the sick and the wounded — but this healing power was granted to her by Aslan, through Father Christmas. The White Witch, on the other hand, is trying to grasp power that doesn’t belong to her, in attempting to overthrow Aslan’s rule over Narnia and rule it herself. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf was created one of the Maia, with inherent and very great magical powers, which he uses throughout the trilogy; on the other hand, if a person grasps at the power of the Ring, no matter how good his intentions are, he will always turn to evil.
In our western society, which is at its root Christian, we can see this mindset surfacing even in our perspectives towards natural power. In the United States, our elected leaders have been granted power by the people whom they rule, and we consider this power legitimate; if a person were to seize political or military power in our nation without the electoral process or the people’s acquiescence, we would consider him an illegitimate and immoral ruler.
In fantasy, then, good and evil magic can usually be distinguished not according to appearance, but according to source. This distinction can hold true even if the magic performed in the fantasy world is not distinctly spiritual in source (Silmarillion readers know that Gandalf was created with his power, but his magic in Lord of the Rings is moral even without that specific knowledge) or in nature (Lucy’s cordial appears to have no spiritual properties). Spiritual magic is inherently more questionable, because of its greater similarity to real-world occultic magic, but in a fantasy context can easily be legitimate power — Gandalf’s power is definitely spiritual, for instance, as he is, as one of the Istari, in fact an embodied spirit.
It should be noted that granted magic is not always granted in its final and fully-developed form. Some fantasy novels employ the concept of magic as a gift which must be learned, developed, and practiced — a person is born with or given a natural propensity for magical power, but must practice the art or be tutored in its nuances. This sort of magic may at first resemble grasped magic, in that those who use it must work to acquire its full power. However, it is not the magic itself that they work to obtain, but the knowledge of the proper use of it. Magic in this case is like any natural power in the real world — the power of speech, for instance — a person is born with it, but must develop its use through practice and tutelage.
A final point needs to be considered. What about magic that just exists? What about a world where the characters live and act surrounded by magic, in which they do not participate as much as exist? This is the magic of myths and fairy-tales, and it is highly ambiguous. Within the tales in which it plays a part, it is of itself neither good nor evil; and it is to the characters who inhabit the tales both attractive and dangerous. Its draw is that of Faërie (as Tolkien names it), the ‘otherworld’ of myth and legend, and people are naturally attracted to it, yet it can be perilous in its enchantment.
Modern fantasy rarely incorporates this traditional element of magic at all strongly; it is rather the magic of Lord Dunsany and his forerunners, the traditional ballads. The concept of Faërie and its ambiguous magical elements is, while not a particularly Christian one, probably harmless. For one thing, this magic is usually not ‘worked’ by the main characters so much as just existing (although it is at times embodied in other characters). In this way it is like the magic discussed at the beginning of this investigation, and its morality may not require judgment; it is, however, definitely un-natural in some sense.
This sort of magic is also very traditional, and evidence of its harmlessness can be found in its use in many strongly Christian traditional tales. For example, the anonymous medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight takes place in a world distinguished by a strong element of Faërie — the Green Knight’s characteristics are certainly otherworldly and unnatural — and yet the poem is written from a strongly Christian worldview, which suffers nothing by the presence of the fantastical and ambiguous magical elements. Again, however, since this magic is not ‘worked’ by the hero of the story, we are perhaps not required to investigate its moral significance.
In sum, most magic in fantasy can be judged moral or immoral based on its source — is it grasped or granted? Do the characters who work magic do so in rebellion or in conformity with some greater natural or supernatural power? Magic which is strongly parallel or identical to real-world magic can be judged according to those parallels — and also according to the grasped/granted distinction, which obviously holds true in real-life situations as well as fantasy ones. The reader must always remember, of course, that good and bad magic may (and even arguably should) both be present in a moral piece of fantasy literature; it is only imperative that they are distinguished and portrayed as good and bad respectively. Good and evil must be both present, but their definitions must not be confused.
This distinction is helpful and fairly universal, but there are of course confusing conditions. It is at times difficult to decide whether a particular character is grasping at power or has been granted it, or if an author means for a magical action to be real-life witchcraft or imaginary Faërie-like power. The Christian reader must practice discretion in judging such questions on an individual basis.