The Poet and the Magician

A Mr. Benthow asks whether portraying “science magic” in science fiction and fantasy is dangerous to the public mind, where “science magic” is the use of non-spiritual powers and energies to perform fantastical feats, such as in most superhero fiction.

The question depends on what the danger to the public mind is, and what is included in the non-spiritual powers under discussion.

Ultimately, the question depends on how these two come together, and in what sort of mind.

Any innocent pastime can be an occasion of temptation. Reading love stories might provoke lust in a schoolgirl, or reading war stories or pirate yarns might make a boy slothful of his chores, and so on.

The dangers that follow all idleness are not the question here. Rather, the question here is a particular danger unique to tales of the fantastic, to which Christians should be sensitive: namely, the spiritual danger that comes of tempting the reader by glamorizing occultism.

The Church teachings cover two points. First, even such allegedly harmless things as tarot cards and Ouija boards, or consulting spirit mediums or astrologers, all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

Second, and more to the point, all practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others are condemned, even when done for the sake of restoring health to the sick. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons.

I hold that a Christian author of fantasy stories should avoid glamorizing the occult for the same reason a Christian author of true crime stories should avoid glamorizing criminals, and a Christian author of romances should avoid glamorizing adultery and fornication.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of stories to tell which do not run this risk, including tales about Merlin, Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, or Moses, or Roland, despite them being a magician, a highwayman, an adulterer, a murderer, and a madman.

None of their tales glamorize these things, or, at least, I have never heard of anyone being inspired by Exodus to go out and kill an Egyptian, or moved by Child’s ballads to take up a life of robbery in the great greenwood.

To cast a glamor means to portray the wicked pleasure of the sinful act, but never to show the real cost, the suffering of the victims and bystanders, or the internal cost to the soul. In all the cases here mentioned, the cost is clear: Merlin’s magic is turned against him by his student Nimue, who traps him in eternal slumber beneath an oak tree. Robin Hood’s robbery is not robbery at all, but the return of unjust taxes by an usurping king to the honest poor. The murder of the Egyptian forces Moses to flee into exile.

The decision what type of tale to tell and how to tell it cannot therefore be reduced to a simple formula like those found in the Hayes Code or the Comics Code. Some nicety of judgment is required.

If the non-spiritual powers under discussion is limited to those such as are typical in superhero stories, I dismiss any fear of glamorizing the occult. One need not fret about stories of men with the strength of Superman or Hercules as posing any spiritual danger, because, if so, stories of Sampson would as well.

I suppose in theory the fact that Captain Marvel (the real one) gets his powers from saying the name of the Wizard Shazam might border on calling on supernatural spirits, including pagan heroes and gods like Achilles, Zeus and Mercury, but the Big Red Cheese also gains the wisdom of Solomon. In practice, Shazam is no more a wizard than the little blue men from planet Oa who give Hal Jordan a magic ring.

Likewise, comic book heroes whose powers come from radioactive spider bites, gamma radiation, cosmic rays, favorable mutation, super-serum injections, power armor, spy training, or dressing like a bat cannot be condemned without condemning their medieval and ancient archetypes from Gilgamesh to Galahad to Gulliver.

But what of superheroes whose powers clearly issue from magical sources, or are manifestations of pagan gods?

Here I would say we are on ground that calls for more caution, but, in general, the superheroic way in which the material is handled is meant to provoke awe and wonder, not curiosity about forbidden things. I submit that if Dante can use pagan mythical creatures in his Divine Comedy, then all the cluttered wonder tales of pulps and graphic novels, from Amazon women and Kings from Atlantis are also kosher.

On the other hand, the comic PROMETHEA from the pen of writer Alan Moore is merely a textbook on occult symbolism and practices. Christians should avoid this. Fortunately, the work is as boring a textbook, and is a sad commentary on what fate overtakes an author, once an energetic and visionary, when he ceases story-telling and turns to preaching.

The Christian can read Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s tales of the Mighty Thor for the same reason he can read of Beowulf or of Odysseus. Only a reader particularly vulnerable and tempted by such material has cause to restrict himself.

For the same reason, I would argue that there is no spiritual danger from fairy tales or Oz books, or other such wonder tales, even when a fairy godmother and or the Good Witch of the South is portrayed as benevolent.

The occult hunger for control over destiny and nature is not present in older books, where such benevolent magical creatures are portrayed as clearly otherworldly, and, more to the point, not something Cinderella or Dorothy Gale can summon in need. Such fairy helpers are seen in older books as rarely as the visitation of a saint or angel. In effect, they are symbols of the miraculous, scaled down to childrens’ versions of such things.

But what of more modern versions, written in the fashion of a realistic novel, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? The magic there is more obviously magic; the wizards are actually wizards.

In general I would say that if a character, such as Shazam or Merlin or Gandalf, is called a wizard, but neither casts spells nor calls on spirits, the name is merely there for flavor, to tell the reader that this is a wise man, a holy hermit, or a prophet, or, perhaps, as in the Book of Tobit, an angel in human guise.

Characters handled in this way fall under the exception Christians should grant to the Three Wise Men, the Magi of the East, who knew how to read omens in the stars. I have never heard of a Christian so strict about occultism that he would not tell his children the story of the Bethlehem Star for fear of tempting the child into curiosity about astrology. That does not seem a realistic fear to me.

Nonetheless, there is cause for fear. I know two people who became fascinated, then obsessed, with the occult because of Lord of the Rings, but, at the same time, I know two occultists, practicing witches, who became Catholic because of Lord of the Rings.

Contrariwise, I know of no one whose beliefs in the real world were changed by the Lensman series, or radio plays where The Shadow has the power to cloud men’s minds.

This leads me to conclude that the question of where the danger rests is not one we can answer by looking at the results and reasoning backward to say what books cause or do not cause such results. No one can predict what will make the supernatural look alluring to a mind open to such a temptation.

For the same reason, an author dealing with romantic material cannot predict with certainty what will stimulate an impure mind to impure thoughts.

On the other hand, despite the uncertainty, anyone can tell the difference between a classical nude, such as Michelangelo’s David or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and a playboy centerfold. The inability to define the difference in lawyerly precision does not excuse the honest man from using sound judgment and prudence.

Nudes in girly magazines appeal to a prurient interest, and are meant to do so. Nudes in classical art and sculpture appeal to the aesthetic and to the sublime. The first is selfish, the second induces self-forgetfulness. The intent differs, as does the effect on the pure of heart.

Of the impure, only prudes too strict and libertines too lascivious can look on classical nudes and find them erotic. The world can perhaps use prudence to protect them, but we cannot hide all high art because of their low thought. The impure must guard their own eyes.

The exact bounds even jurists cannot define with a hard, bright line, no more than the exact minute when night turns to day can be identified during a foggy dawn: yet not even a fool conflates day and night.

Likewise, is our uncertainty here: if the story has supernatural elements involved, psychic powers, or witchcraft, does it create an allure that would lead an unwary soul toward occultism, and away from heaven?

The strict Christian inquisition or censor who would ban Narnia and Middle Earth and Grayhawk and Star Wars from the imaginations of the young err in the same regard, albeit in the opposite direction, as the would-be magician who seeks satanic power by sacrificing housecats to Sauron or to the Dark Side of the Force. To the impure, all things are impure.

As with classic art, abolishing Michelangelo from public view is not an option, but neither should the artist act imprudently to expose the impure to the occasion of temptation.

So where does the line fall between licit and illicit portrayals of psychic powers or so-called white magic in fantastic literature?

With all due respect, I think the theological nicety of making nonhumans immune from the Christian prohibition on the use of supernatural powers does not necessarily render the work immune from criticism.

For example, the wizard characters in Narnia or Middle Earth, since they are technically not human beings (Coriakin is a fallen star, and Gandalf is an angel) technically do not violate the Christian teaching against witchcraft. (I use a similar sleight of hand myself in my MOTH AND COBWEB stories).

A human reader who envies their nonhuman powers over fate and nature has the soul of a magician, which is  a hungry soul, and may be tempted into curiosity about the occult in the same way, I suppose, a classical nude of Venus rising from the waves will stir a lustful heart to impure thoughts. In this particular case, the authors would be blameless, and for the same reason that Botticelli is not Hugh Hefner.

The way Tolkien and Lewis handle the elements of magic in their tales never deviates from a strict moral purpose. Gandalf is a figure not noticeably different from Merlin or Malagigi from medieval ballads. Coriakin’s magic book, indeed, reveals more about the temptation to what makes an unwary heart curious about magic than any scene I can bring to mind, when Lucy of Narnia is reminded that eavesdropping with magic is no better than eavesdropping.

Dumbledore of Hogwarts is problematical less because he portrays magic as a harmless and useful skill, and more because the author retroactively and publicly declared him to be a sodomite. I doubt this awkward ex-post-facto bit of tokenism will tempt young minds to want to be magicians, albeit, and equally as dangerously, it may tempt them to adopt the antichristian standards of modern political correctness.

Far different are characters like John Constantine of DC comics, or Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock. These are men who dark magical powers are clearly depicted both as unlawful, and as admirable, and both men dwell in the universe where there is no clear difference between good and evil, only a war between law and chaos.

Even if we cannot define a clear rule in words, I am confident than any reader, even very young, can see the creepy allure toward glamorizing the occult in works by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, versus the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis.

I doubt a complete list can be made. Some elements stand out: if the work portrays angels from heaven as neither frightening nor glorious, but merely demons working for the other team, this should raise one’s suspicion. Likewise, if wizardry solves problems, and the wizard routinely outsmarts malevolent supernatural entities, and so escapes scot-free, this is also suspicious.

So rather than reducing the answer to a rule, let us see if we can map out the outlines of a standard of judgment.

Let us always keep in mind that the disposition of the heart and soul of the reader, and whether he has what I call the heart of the magician, inclines him to be tempted by what, to a pure-minded reader, is no lure.

Magic in stories, particularly in speculative stories, has two roles: the first is symbolic, the second is literal.

Magic stands in as a symbol or parable for everything that seems miraculous and enchanting in life from sunrise to springtime to childbirth to healing of the sick to baptism of the unbeliever — things never expected, too good to be hoped, things that make us cry.

Magic also stands as a symbol for everything eerie and haunting and unchancy, spectral and unearthly, as when you hear a soft call near at hand while walking through a foggy graveyard on a moonlit midnight, and turn to see what is behind you.

Magic also, when used in the traditional sense, represents anything we do in secret, to cheat or seek revenge, or whatever we cannot do honestly and openly. Prizefighters doped with painkillers are like black magic, an alchemy that lets them win unfairly. Lies and propaganda are like black magic: you speak words and suddenly an illusion is cast in the mind of your victim. Seduction is like black magic, a love charm. Assassination is like necromancy, like asking a devil to kill your victim for you. Stealing the teacher’s answers before an important test is like astrology or palmistry, for it is getting inside answers denies to other students.

What is the difference, after all, between consulting Samuel the prophet to hear the hidden things the future holds, and visiting the witch of Endor by night to summon up Samuel’s shade for the same purpose? It is only the difference between eating the fruit of the garden of paradise provided by God for you, and eating the forbidden fruit to provide for yourself, and become like God.

The difference between a murderess who uses arsenic to assassinate and the witch who uses alchemy is a small one. As a symbol in a story, particularly one told in the traditional way, magic is the use of secret knowledge to cheat.

Witches and warlocks, in all traditional tales, are bitter and creepy and horrible people, poison-brewers and fornicators with succubae and apothecaries who chew odd roots to induce visions. Merlin is an exception almost unique, and even he has something of the scent of brimstone about him.

Traditionally, we do not use the word witch as a term of endearment for elderly ladies, even if, on the contrary, we do say young ladies are bewitching. In old stories, told back when everyone in the audience was likely to believe in witches, the symbolism of someone who goes to the devils, or calls on the old gods, is a symbol of a cheater, a poisoner, an assassin.

Old stories retold in modern settings sometimes treat these elements in the traditional way and sometimes not.

If you have seen the final climax in Disney’s 2009 THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, and what becomes of the voodoo withdoctor after his spell is broken, you have a good idea of how magic should be treated, in a story treating it in the traditional way.

Likewise, if you have seen Willow the witch from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, the spiritual danger of witchcraft was treated, at first, in the traditional way, with properly fearful warnings about attempts to raise the dead, and dreadful prices meddling in supernal things exacts. Unfortunately, thereafter Joss Whedan, the writer, fumbles with his pen, and makes the madness of pride involved in necromancy turn into something as mundane as a drug addiction.

I have no qualms, nor as author nor as Christian, with using magic in a story in any of these symbolic ways, or more. If one wishes to represent a diabolical power in the metaphor of an evil space emperor with mind powers, or to represent angelic power in the figure of a wizard of Middle Earth or a lion of Narnia, the supernatural nature of these symbols is no bar.

Magic, when taken as  a symbol, is not occultism, and it is too useful a metaphor for poets to forswear.

The second role is speculative. Magic taken seriously and literally appears solely in the modern fantasy genre, including the scientific fantasies we call science fiction, and there is a paradox involved. The matter here is not so clean cut.

As a science fiction author specifically, I am willing to postulate that there are as yet undiscovered physical forces that men of old mistook for supernatural, which are psionic or para-psychological powers.

I have no qualms about heroes and villains erecting thought-screens to stop telepathic rays, or manipulating the psychokinetic band of the gravitational-psionic spectrum to make objects fly around the room. These are merely speculations about alternative technologies based on counterfactual laws of nature, no different from a time machine of a faster than light drive.

More to the point, in such Lensman type stories, no one is trafficking with unclean spirits. The powers in such stories are portrayed as something like gravity or magnetism, a natural force that can be manipulated to do work by engineering.

But here we run into a delicate problem. How do we treat stories where the magic is meant to have the wonder and flavor of magic, even if we call it psionics?

Likewise and opposite, what of stories where the magic is treated as an utterly mundane art, no different, really, than carpentry or archery, as in a party of adventurers in a Dungeons and Dragons type story? In such typically modern adventure tales, the youthful wand-waving spell-throwing adventurer is no different, really, than the youthful thief who backstabs or the youthful fighting-man who hacks.

I call the problem delicate because it is twofold. If the author establishes that the magician is technically not doing magic, merely utilizing previously unknown faculties of the brain to manipulate previously undiscovered psychic energies and influences, but the story gives a glamor and an allure to such dark arts as we have here in real life which lead perhaps to the diabolical, to properly judge the work, we must distinguish the in-world speculation from the real-world the presentation.

Or, again, if he author establishes that the character is a wizard, with stars on his duncecap and fairy-fire shining from his staff, who calls on hidden powers of the night world, the Vishanti and the Hosts of Hoggoth and the Flames and the Faltine (or whatever) but the whole thing is handled as if he were a martial artist or superhero who is merely shooting laser beams from his fingers, the problem is the same.

The paradox I mention above is this: the temptation posed by literal portrayals of magic in stories most vexes those who think the matter is not literal.

Fantasy as a genre exists only the modern world, because only in the modern world is a mundane, materialistic, scientific worldview the default view any audience is expected to know and believe, and meanwhile this varies sharply with the medieval and classical worldview of our forefathers, from whom all our literary traditions come.

When we put the supernatural into our wonder tales, either we make it fit (roughly or smoothly, depending) into the scientific worldview, and set the tale in the future, or in extraterrestrial spaces, and this is called science fiction; or we deliberately write such a tale in the world of our forefathers, not as we see the historical past, but as they saw their mythical present, haunted by demons and watched by angels, with elfs waylaying travelers in dark woods, and mermaids luring sailors to their doom, and this is called fantasy.

Older fantasy, as seen in works by William Morris and his epigones, followed the ancient models, and witches and wizards were, as in fairy tales, unearthly and dangerous, even when, as rarely happened, they are portrayed as benevolent.

But fantasy is portraying a worldview the author and the audience, by and large, agree is false, even if a nostalgic aura surrounds it.

I know of no one who is a worshiper of Thor who reads Thor comics for religious inspiration. A neopagan of the Asatru persuasion might read, say, the Havamal or Prose Edda for inspiration, but if his taste runs to comics, he will no doubt welcome Jack Kirby’s Thor into his imagination for the same reason he welcomes Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man: entertainment.

Myself, I do not see any uniquely Norse lore elements in such comics, whereas I do see uniquely Christian insights and comments, for example, in Narnia stories or the mysteries of Father Brown. Experience says I can learn of Christ more deeply by reading G.K. Chesterton’s whodunnits, but I doubt a neopagan following Norse models learns anything about the real Thor and Odin by reading Jack Kirby.

I suggest the comic bookish or pulp fantasy handling of supernatural elements, as the snake-worshippers of Conan stories, for example, or sinister cultists in the Cthulhu Mythos, are simply too false in their portrayal to form a dangerous temptation, except to such people already so fascinated by the occult that they would see satanism hidden in Harry Potter or Doctor Strange.

But the danger, yes, even from such children’s literature as Harry Potter and Doctor Strange, is exactly at the point where the old worldview of the medieval and classical world is correct, and the modern world is the false one.

Reading about, for example, the psychic powers of some character in a Larry Niven “Known Space” story carries no least hint of the type of glamor and allure of which I speak, since the author portrays his world as thoroughly secular and materialistic. A lucky Teela Brown or a mind-controlling Thrint Slaver or a psychokinetic Gil Hammond is not going to provoke a fascination with tarot cards, any more than rewatching movies like GHOSTBUSTERS or BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.

The danger is where the make-believe supernatural acts and smells a bit too much like the real supernatural. And a particular and special danger is in those areas where the real supernatural, at least those beholden to the Dark Lord, make an extra effort to pretend they do not exist, or, better yet, that they are inanimate forces open to control by the enlightened and the promethean, by rubbing crystals or some discipline of meditation.

Harry Dresden from the Jim Butcher’s brilliant books at first seems to be a borderline case. He uses what is uncomfortably close to real occultist practices, and the hero is so glamorous that the only thing which could make him more cool and more appealing is if he actually wore the hat the cover artist put on Dresden’s image on the cover.

And yet, thanks merely to the presence of Michael, and one or two other elements, the portrayal of a real spiritual battle between light and darkness, with real spiritual consequences, makes the world of the story real enough (to my thoroughgoingly supernaturalist eyes) not to make the dark world appealing to the reader.

Contrariwise, the greatest allure that most glamorized the mindset of the magician was in the vampire books of Anne Rice from my youth, or the urban fantasies of Anita Blake.

Because, at the root, it is the mindset of the magician that is the danger.

In real life I have known those who attempted to gain the powers of magic. (Indeed, not long ago, I knew more neopagans than I knew practicing Christians). Their mind set was precisely what the Church warns against: a desire for power over fate, over nature, over their fellow mind, combined with a contempt for the bounds of what is lawful, natural, or sacrosanct. It is a power hunger of someone who suspect there is a “cheat code” to escape the limitations that hinder lesser men, and seeks it.

Magicians are moved by a sense of injured merit. If prayers will not grant what life owes them, or so this particular state of mind whispers, then darker and more hidden paths, more gruesome deeds, might waken darker, but more useful, spirits. If Mary does not answer prayer said on the sabbath day, Mephistopheles may perhaps be conjured during a black sabbath.

Self-pitying vampires and self-righteous super-harlots, who are gifted with powers setting them above the norm and freeing them from mundane restrictions, greatly appeal to the mind of the magician. This is their literature.

On the other hand, the girlish fairy-princess Ozma of Oz, has no such appeal. She is a figure of delight, not one of satanic pride, and she is not of their literature.

Figures like Merlin and Gandalf are like prophets or angel-guides, and are figure of self-sacrifice, images of Christian hope.

In the end, it is not the in-world explanation of where the special powers originate, nor how they are portrayed.

It is whether or not a dark theme that portrays self-absorption as the norm, because this appeals to the sense of injured merit, the towering pride, that underpins the secret powerlust driving the lost souls toward occultism.

In sum, I do not worry about Coriakin or Dumbledore or Harry Dresden. These are either wise or self-sacrificing or Chicago tough. The dark glamor of self pity simply does not hang about them. I worry about Elric of Melnibone.