Recently, John C. Wright considered the problem of magic for Christian fantasy writers in “The Poet and the Magician,” to which he posted a follow-up where he links to two essays that address the issue while comparing Rowling’s Harry Potter series to the fiction of Lewis and Tolkien. I recommend these essays.
“Harry Potter vs. Gandalf” by Steven D. Greydanus (2001)
“The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon (April 2008)
Simon’s article comments on Greydanus’ treatment, and Wright compares his own ideas to theirs. The lot of them makes for a fascinating read.
What the articles fail to explain, however, is what underlies the traditional Christian proscription of magic. They mention the dangers of power seeking and of not resting content with prayer, but this same argument sounds a lot like certain Protestant sects’ rationale for refusing modern medicine. Christianity does not require a passive stance toward the shifting circumstances of the world. We are called to act, and action requires the means of acting—power. Yet, certain types of power are off limits. Why? In Lewis, we get to see explicit parallels between ancient magic and the our own age’s magic of modern technology. Both appear to manipulate the world in order to accomplish desired ends. Where are the proper limits, though, of such manipulation? If witchcraft and necromansy are against true religion, why . . . and how do such rules apply to the Cartesian project of mastering nature? Wise minds in the Roman Church have carefully considered ethical issues when it comes to bio-technology, but they do not reject modern medicine completely or interdict advanced research in genetics. What makes the old magic so harmful?
I cannot remember exactly now, but I think that I read something by Lewis wherein he touched on this issue, having noted that the prohibition against magic was a safeguard for human beings whose spiritual faculties and maturity had become significantly enfeebled by the fall. There was something about the danger of allowing men to see the spiritual realm in their current state. I recall similar ideas concerning monastics, especially the great saints who entered aware into that arena. Normal men and women are still in the milk stage; they are not ready to digest unshielded encounters with spirits. Saint Anthony of the Desert, however, had upped levels and battled some big bosses.
Does magic, though, require intercourse with spirits? Couldn’t the mage simply know the nature of things and how to affect them according to that knowledge? If we consider Kristor’s theory about forms (metaphysically speaking) as angelic beings, then perhaps all magic, as all thought and action, involves spirits—but our normal methods, at least while we look through the glass darkly, keep us insulated from being overwhelmed. The magical way may remove some protective coating on that window. Even if Kristor’s idea is mistaken, perhaps using magic places one in a dangerous proximity to ghastly intersections.
Greydanus’ essay contains this delightful paragraph:
Moreover, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with such things as the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves; the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves; the ineffable stateliness, the sheer antiquity of the Ents; the battle-hardened majesty of Aragorn; the playful, fathomless mystery of Tom Bombadil; and, perhaps most of all, the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their unassuming, humorous, gregarious, homebody, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking, Shire-dwelling hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism. Here is the true center of gravity in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: not the world of magic, but the magic of the world.
Wonder is the proper initial response to seeing God reflected in his creation, followed by gratitude and praise. The magical—in fiction or in reality (meaning the spooky, the weird, the “supernatural” [a term which I loathe using] . . . not necessarily according to a strict, refined definition of magic)—elicits wonder, as do miracles and other wonder-working acts. However, an honest, perceptive consideration of the world as we experience it everyday should move us in the same way. How manifold are thy works; in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches! Our excitement in response to novelty in tandem with our nonchalant boredom with the marvels of daily life is a sign of our fallenness—of our decay and stupidity.
So, perhaps, such underlies Tolkien’s insistence that only certain races in Middle Earth wield magic. Men—and hobbits—are not among them. In this, they are not inferior but simply different. They have their own proper glories, their own marks of wonder in how they reflect Ilúvatar. This rings true; it is how the world operates—among species and individuals. We all have our special natures, our special ends, and it is a mark of sickness and depravity to desire another nature and another end than those bestowed by God Almighty. Maybe, magic simply isn’t proper to men. Instead, we have our own proper means to knowledge and power (in the neutral sense of being able to get that which is willed accomplished). Take, for instance, mathematics. That’s quite a gift . . . though we apparently must assume that any intelligent creature would also have access to mathematics. Maybe that is not true. Perhaps, following scholastic musings, numerical nature and relations are like demonstrative reasoning—proper to human beings but not to angels. I find that hard to believe, but maybe that is simply homo sapientive bias about the nature of sapiens.
This route would explain the difference in prohibitions with respect to magic and modern technology (or any human technology). God has given man the ability to become an engineer; (human) wizards, by contrast, are (in the current year’s woeful jargon) dynamically-appropriating another type of being’s way of life. Their enchantment is not your shortcut.