The Opposite of Magic

"Is... Is that magic?" Alfred stammered.
Laylah's eyes flashed, but her tone remained gentle. "No. It's the opposite of magic. ...I merely proclaim God's will rather than trying to impose my own. That is why this is the opposite of magic."

I wrote earlier that a purely literary device (a.k.a. a gimmick) such as magic or aliens needn't encourage belief or experimentation. While there are aspects of the Harry Potter books I find troubling, magic isn't one of them.

But should Christians have magic in their stories? If the magic is based on reality, then like any other sin, it's fair game--if it doesn't encourage readers in a harmful direction. It can even serve as a warning against the counterfeit miracles of magic and bring out the dictinction between true miracles and false.

Even literary magic can have useful qualities. In the Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's Middle Earth Stories, witches are not positive characters, ordinary humans either can't work magic at all or make matters worse when they do, and most magic is limited to naturally magical creatures such as elves. There is magic, but it's off-limits to us readers.

So the options appear to be

1. Real magic (demonically based power) presented in a way that discourages imitation;

2. Divine gifting, which may be contrasted with 1) above, and which operates at God's direction, not ours, as in the quote at the beginning of this article; and

3. "Supernatural" magic, where the "magic" is actually another set of natural laws that can be made to supersede the usual ones. In this case, the "magic" is no more evil than regular science: it may be misused, but it is neutral, a mere tool.

I don't care for the last option as a rule, though it crops up a lot. It is basically the basis for Narnian magic, though "magic" there often (especially as an adjective) means "numinous." It is also (very roughly) the explanation for magic in my short story "At the Mountains of Lunacy" (coming February 2007 in Light at the Edge of Darkness), though the proper explanation is far more involved.

I reject the quasi-naturalistic form of magic because it reinforces the dangerous modern tendency to reduce everything to formulas. "If there are natural laws, there must be supernatural laws"--and if we can manipulate phsical laws via physical machines, why not manipulate supernatural laws via supernatural machines? A lot of writing about prayer, spiritual warfare, and prophecy is an attempt to build such machines so we can take control never promised to us--but all for the glory of God, of course!

This is what magic really is: an effort to impose our will rather than God's. There's a lot of it around, even outside of fiction. In real life especially, we should be sure what we do is the opposite of magic.

Tune in next time for "It's Life, Jim, But Not as We Know It":

"Greetings, Earthling! How would you like to play 'Probe the human' on my saucer?"
"You can't fool me. There are no aliens. You're probably just a demon or something."
"I've been called worse, Earthling. Why do you say there aren't any aliens?"
"Because in his new book, No, There Aren't Any Aliens, Idiot, Rev. Whimsy proves there aren't. See, I've got the 'For Dummies' edition and everything."
"I believe the reverend is singing a different tune these days."
"Yeah? Why?"
"Because I let my apprentice do the probing. The reverend swears like a sailor when you get the probe crosswise..."


Frank Creed said...

Agreed on all points, Steve. I've been both looking forward to this topic, and also dreading it. I *think* I'm in good shape.

The main characters of my novella, Lest Ye be Judged, the only Biblical contribution to Tales for the Thrifty Barbarian: An Anthology of High Fantasy, are a bard and a knight. Both use "manna" in their vocations, while only the antagonists, wizards, use "magick". That we all may learn, here's an excerpt for your consideration. In this scene the knight, a physical adept, is preparing for a public duel, and considering the use of a new sword. I invite your public dissection of how I've handled magic (my iMac loses italics when I blog, so please assume it was italicized):

Fialt dressed, strapped on his sword-belts, and went out onto the verandah, scattering sparrows. There was not time enough to find a sparring partner, but he could employ a technique he’d learned over his Outpost years. Between Ascension patrols time could turn leaden. A few knights werked to perform their manner and fewer still achieved the mark. Contrary to rumours that all Logos could perform their manner, most failed. Becoming required endless days of study in the Essentia to feed the spirit, dueling shadow opponents to occupy the body, and both performed whilst in prayer to cleanse the mind. Performing one’s manner bestowed not the ability to shape manna into enchantments, that was for parsons and bards. The Essentia has this to say regarding adepts:

"In the age of the covenant of law, manna had been forbidden to both humanes and inhumanes. But after the Absolute’s sacrifice, and after the Paraclete was loosed upon our plane on the Day of the Tongues, then began the covenant of grace. When adepts perform their manner it is no longer a failing. The Paraclete fills the performer with manna—His energies that cover all creation—that they may become, in creation, that which He had created them to be, replete with supernal speed, strength, and stamina. Consider the animals. Cats glorify Demiourgos by being, in creation, the best cats they can be—living lives as he created them to be lived."

Fialt performed his manner, but only to to clear his mind. He did not become, as using one’s manner in a duel would breach The Code.

He drew both swords to compare them, his own weapon in his right and the Lord-Mayor’s gift in his left. The direct contrast was weight. The muscles in his right arm knew his blade, but strained to keep the tip up. The new weapon bore amazingly light—a third the weight of his old sword, which he resheathed. A weighted pommel flawlessly balanced its long white-iron blade. He flipped the new sword to his right hand, but rather than catching, he bumped his fist’s back at its crossguard. As it fell, his wrist slid the blade’s flat, seeking a poise-point. When his fist forted the crossguard, the weapon teetered. Its ornate pommel afforded for a heavy hilt that delivered astonishing speed and control. A balanced blade meant for less lethal wounds, but this metal abrogated because of its inability to be blunted. Even at arm’s length, the white-iron blade thrust smoothly without wrenching his shoulder. After whole sparrow-songs of shadow parry-and-thrust, Fialt passed judgement: either this sword had been forged for him, or Demiourgos made him for this sword.

Yet a doubt remained. Could such a subtle blade stand heavy iron’s blow? Re-drawing his blade, he werked shoulder sockets and clanged blade flats. Then, both arms swinging large circles, Fialt clashed their cutting edges. Upon examination of both, his old sword’s edge bore a critical nick, while a triple inspection of both flats proved white-iron unscathed. He left his old weapon on the feather-bed, and at the Hall of Virtue he would learn the prudence of this action.--Lest Ye be Judged, Frank Creed

In the world of Rhylannor, the Holy Spirit (Paraclete), may choose to fill an adept, bard, or parson, who "performs their manner", with divine energy, restoring somewhat of an un-fallen state. Antagonist wizards break the law, and tap-into existing divine energy on their own. I wrote "manna" to be answered prayer of a devout believer, well traveld on the road of sanctification. Hit me with both barrels--magic is tricky and we all need to know more.

His will be done,
Frank Creed
Home: http://www.frankcreed.com
Book Review Blog: http://afrankreview.blogspot.com/
Lost Genre Guild Site: http://www.lostgenreguild.com/

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering why you "don't care for" the last option. It seems, as you say, to crop up a lot. As I recall, Galadriel, I believe it was, said that she didn't understand what hobbits and humans meant by magic, and what she did seems to have fallen into your last option -- another set of natural laws. For another example, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, the magic is mostly of the third type. There is some magic done for evil purposes, perhaps powered by some evil spirit, but mostly, the mages in these books are working on another set of natural laws.

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

My comments will be exceedingly short tonight, Steve. But that is not meant to detract from the great blog you've presented!

Here's my comment:
I LOVE your sense of humor!!!

**giggles** deb

Andrea Graham said...

*giggling behind her, er, paw* who me, I'm not laughing, no siree...

Seriously, Mr. Rice, an interesting piece, and I can find no disagreement. My only nerve on the subject matter concerns mere terminology. The bible has nothing good to say about witchcraft, so, while supernatural elements can be portrayed as good in some cases, it's wrong to use a word that biblically can never be good to describe this "good magic." The sort of balancing of opposing forces you have with a "good witch versus the bad witch" scenario springs from taoism, actually.

Daniel I Weaver said...

Steve, you make some great points. I'm sort of surprised at your take on option 3 as well. It actually seems the most reasonable, because it encompasses both 1 and 2.

The supernatural exists. We accept that God is supernatural. We accept that angels are supernatural, and therefore that their counterparts are supernatural. So, we have angels and demons that exist with "laws" of their own outside of our reality. How do we know there are laws, well we have to assume it...but there is biblical evidence.

For example, Hell. If demons and satan himself can be restrained, then there has to be some kind of law. If angels can chose to appear to humans as "men" then there has to be some kind of law. If demons can appear to men as angels of light, then there has to be some kind of law.

Now, where I agree with your take is that when people assume there are laws, they assume those laws can be manipulated. We have no control over the supernatural outside of the control God gives us. We have been given the power to command demons, but only in Christ's name and certainly only within His will. The idea that by simply praying we can control supernatural forces is absurd. God chooses what prayers He will answer in accordance with his will.

My take, in all of my stories, has sort of leaned toward a blend of your concepts. Any human "magic" has always been shown as either a result of faith (which has the power to move mountains, uproot trees, transport man across water, heal, etc. etc) or else demonic influence (all of the dark scary things that people do beyond explanation). But both, in my view, are simply extensions of a supernatural plane. I don't see mankind having any control over that plane outside of the control He gives us.

As usual, I love your posts and your sense of human. They are always thought-provoking and amusing. I look forward to the next.

God Bless,

Anonymous said...

I too am curious why you don't care for the third option much. Admittedly, this is the slant I tend to approach in most of my fantasy stories, as I enjoy developing the different sets of laws or manners in which magic intersects another world, or another life. I can understand why this may seem "unmagical," since magic is something that is supposed to be beyond understanding. But my take on that is the "physics" that I develop for a world are more for my understanding and ability to plot the story so I don't get mired in a limitless puddle of possibilities (therefore, a lot of the magical backstory, in a sense, doesn't show up for the reader). Unless there are some restrictions, even in a fantasaical world, then anything can happen. And if anything can happen, then the potential for tension and conflict is stunted.

Just my take.


Steve Rice said...

To begin with, I could argue that Tolkien's magic is actually type 2, which is why you pretty much have to be magical to use magic. If it were simply another type of science, it would likely be more widely available. Even a divine gift can be greatly misused, as Samson's was.

As to option three, a point I didn't mention is that it essentially means we're merging with sci-fi, and I simply prefer clearer boundaries.

But when I wrote of supernatural laws, I wasn't talking about the application of moral law to the spiritual world. I think that instead of thinking of "laws" at all it is more reasonable to think of "procedures" or "privileges." These can be misused, but they can't be harnessed mechanistically, which is the thinking back of our modern, formula-oriented teachings.