Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Is the magic in fairy tales and fantasy books a problem for Christians?

Someone wrote me recently about being admonished by a friend for recommending that her friend’s daughter read the fantasy books of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The books contained magic and witchcraft and her friend felt that this would only encourage an interest in such things.

I told her about a man who came up to me at our exhibit booth at a conference and asked me if I knew of any good educational computer programs that taught certain subjects. He clearly thought that education technology was a good thing. Near the end of our discussion, he looked down and saw that we carried The Hobbit. “Oh,” he said, “I would never use that book with Christian students.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it has magic in it,” he said.

“But you approve of technology?”

“Of course.”

“Well, books like The Hobbit have what I call ‘fairy tale magic’ in them, which is just using some process, the exact nature of which is a mystery to you, to manipulate nature. What’s the difference between magic in this sense and technology?”

Fairy tale magic is the fanciful kind of thing that happens in many fairy tales. When the pumpkin and the rats in Cinderella are turned into a coach and horse, and six lizards into footmen; when the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty and she awakens from her deathly sleep; when Jack plants his magic beans and they grow into a giant bean plant that reaches the clouds; when Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold.

It is this kind of “magic” that Chesterton declares—in his great essay, “The Ethics of Elfland”—if imbibed as a child, helps to inoculate us against the scientific materialism of our age because it helps us to see that what lies behind the world is not a “law” (as the scientific materialist would say), but a Will.

Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What he meant was that advanced technology does the very same thing that fairy tale magic does: manipulate nature using a process which you do not understand.

The man I was talking to said something about the fact that even though technology may be a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to scientists who have a natural explanation for it. I responded that that does not change the fact for those of us who are not scientists who use technology: It’s still magic to us.

And besides, even scientific explanations are not explanations, but descriptions―descriptions which themselves appeal to an order which even to scientists is still a mystery. Using an incantation to open a door in a fairy tale is no more magical than using copper to conduct electricity in the real world. And to say that copper conducts electricity because its outer electrons are not localized just begs more questions, since we have only explained one mysterious procedure in terms of another (Why do materials whose electrons are not localized conduct electricity?)

In other words, not only is any advanced technological process magic for us, but ultimately it is magic even to the people to whom we appeal to explain their magic. In the final analysis, it’s even magic to them.

So one way of responding to this objection to fantasy literature is to ask the person if they have a microwave oven in their home or a cell phone in their pocket. If there is a problem with fairy tale magic, then there is a problem with technology. But there is no problem with technology, therefore there is no problem with fairy tale magic (the logical rule of Modus Tollens).

In addition, the kind of “magic” you find in fairy tales―and in fantasy literature like that of Lewis and Tolkien―is not the kind of magic that is prohibited in Scripture. What is prohibited in Scripture is necromancy in particular and fortune-telling in general. It is the consort with specifically demonic forces that is prohibited, as when, at the behest of King Saul, the Witch of Endor calls forth the spirit of Samuel from the dead in the First Book of Samuel.

Again, if you interpret demonic forces too broadly (the occultic), you indict technology. Any definitional net with holes small enough to capture fortune-telling and demonology and large enough to let technology through will also be large enough to allow fairy tale magic through.

Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf does not have dealings with evil spirits, nor does Lewis’ Aslan.

The holes in the net are going to have to be so small as to capture fortune-telling and necromancy, but large enough to let through Joseph’s interpretation of dreams and Daniel’s prophecies. All of which is to say that the problem is not the manipulation of natural things, but the demonic itself. And there is nothing demonic about fairy tale magic of the kind that you find in Lewis and Tolkien. They are simply not calling upon evil spirits to do what they are doing.

And, in fact, it is clear that necromancy is portrayed as evil in The Lord of the Rings, as evidenced by the references to the evil character Sauron as “The Necromancer.” Tolkien certainly seems to recognize this distinction.

The problem is that the people who make this kind of argument want to go way beyond what the Scriptures prohibit. There is a distinction between the use of the word “magic” (in any sense) that is broad enough to encompass fairy tales and fantasy on the one hand, and witchcraft proper on the other.

People who protest Lewis and Tolkien need to have these distinctions pointed out to them.


simplemusing said...
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simplemusing said...

Love Ethics of Elfland. I wonder though, if this justification is even necessary with regards to people reading Lewis, Tolk, or any other literature. As far as I know the Bible makes out necromancy and witchcraft to be evil but why would it follow that you can't read fantasy about those things? Violence, lust (for adults), lies, and betrayal ought to be avoided in reality but they make for the best ever stories (just look to Homer and Shakespeare). What seems important to me is that, at least for kids, these elements are presented tastefully.

Lisa said...

What is your opinion of the Harry Potter series? I have read that it is incantational magic (fairy tale magic), but I've also been warned against it for its invocational magic. I have read the series and like it, but I was wondering what you thought of it.

Martin Cothran said...


I was hoping that I had answered just that question in this post. I think the view of people who do believe that Tolkien and Lewis are problematic in this way are mistaken for the reason most people are mistaken about most mistaken beliefs: They don't make basic distinctions. I tried to outline here the distinctions they were not making.

Martin Cothran said...


I think the Harry Potter books fall on the same side as Lewis and Tolkien. However, I have not heard the distinction you make here between incantational and invocational. Etymologically the first term means "insinging," and the second "incalling." But I'm not familiar with their usage. I would love to know if there is a history there.

But I think that, clearly, the magic practiced (at least from the few books I have read) is of the fairy tale kind. If there are cases in which the protagonist calls on the demonic, however (in some later volume I have not read), I do think that would be a problem.

I remember there being some issues with those books in regards to what means is appropriate to the end being pursued, but it's been so long since I've read them that I would have to go back and look at them again.

But the deeper symbolic underpinnings of those stories don't seem to be a problem.

Lisa said...

Thank you for responding to my question. I was referring to John Granger, who has written about the Harry Potter series, and his use of the two terms. (I haven't read his books, but two of my children have read some of them.) Incantational magic is the type you described. Invocational magic is calling up spirits. The characters in Harry Potter use the former type of magic. As I said, I enjoy the books, but in our Catholic group, well, I really don't want to advertise that fact. I was hoping to get some reassurance from the man who knows logic (and isn't afraid to use it). If you ever finish the series, I'd be interested in what you have to say about it.