The Feast of the Magicians

Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, when it is traditional to wear masquerade. (The various antics of disguise and mistaken identity in Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT reflect this the theme of the day, hence the name of the play). And it is also the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates, among other things, the adoration of the Magi of the Christ child.

Who and what the Magi are is unclear. They may have been devout Jews from Babylon, astrologers, or may have been the Magi of the Zoroastrians, who are the ruling priest class of ancient Persia. Ironically, Zoroastrianism is a faith that utterly rejects the use of magic or divination, but such is the wisdom for which the magi of old were known, that our word ‘magician’ comes from them. So it seems, for several reasons, a good day to discuss magicians in their various disguises.

I frankly admit that I am sick to death of vampires as portrayed as protagonists in stories. They are properly villains and vermin, antagonists to be exterminated, not friends afflicted with angst and waiting to be understood. I am weary of friendly werewolves, and disgusted by friendly dragons, and I wonder about friendly witches, particularly when none of them are old crones.  And, in honor of the day, I should admit that while I am not sick yet of friendly magicians, I am suspicious and annoyed by stories where magic is treated like a technology, that is, like an art which is lawful and harmless to practice, a thing without a terrible price.

If I were only slightly shallower obscure midlist writer, or had slightly more time on my hands, I would write a new literary manifesto and start a new literary movement. It would be something like the “Mundane SF” movement in how significant and world-shaking it could be: namely, something halfway between a joke and an unsightly spasm of self-importance. Writers have no business writing manifestos. Our business is not to improve the world, but to entertain it.

But since I am a speculative fiction writer, allow me to speculate. If I were to write a manifesto in favor of mundane fantasy, the cause I would pick would be the “Retro-fantasy” movement, also called “Yesterday’s yesterdays.” Catchy, huhn?

The “Mundane SF” movement was the idea that we writers should write science fiction set in a future where there are no scientific advances in spaceflight, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and no discovery of intelligent life on other planets, and, in effect, we write science fiction with no science fiction in it.

Mine would be a mundane fantasy movement where, instead of the warlocks and witches and werewolves and vampires and monsters and dragons being the good guys, like they always are in modern (and postmodern) fantasy books, these archetypal and ancient symbols of evil would be treated as they were treated in older stories, as bad guys, or, at least, unglamorous.

This mundane fantasy movement, known as Retro-Fantasy, would deal with fantasy themes and tropes in an old-fashioned way, and eschew the new-fashioned way.

Now, you might be thinking, “But, wait a minute, slightly shallower obscure midlist writer! Is not fantasy already ‘retro’? Sword and sorcery is basically nostalgia for the Bronze Age, with its virile paganism, and High Fantasy is basically nostalgia for the Middle Ages, with its manly chivalry.

“The whole modern fantasy racket was started by William Morris in rebellion against the ugliness of the modern era, and helped along by writers like A. Merritt and E. R. Edison and Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien, by editors like Farnsworth Wright and Lin Carter, and given a second wind in the New Wave by writers like Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock and Ursula K. LeGuin and Roger Zelazny, all of whom have different, sometimes opposite, reasons for their discontent with modernity, and all of whom are penning escapes in the imagination from the gray factories and satanic mills of our daily lives, the bureaucracies and tax forms and eight-lane highways, into a wild, older, elfin and perilous realm where unicorns prance and dragons soar and eldritch magic walks beneath the midnight stars! Is not all fantasy everywhere nostalgic and backward-looking?

“Is not ‘retro-fantasy’ a redundancy?”

And you might be thinking, “What is wrong with Wizards and Dragons as the good guys? In some of my favorite stories, Wizards and Dragons are good guys! Retro-Fantasy is a stupid idea!”

Also, you might be thinking, “But, mate, my heart is sore for Christian diet. You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly—and woke up again, and here I were.”

Well, these are all important thoughts, so let us deal with them in reverse order. A toasted cheese sandwich made with feta and blue cheese is a fine thing for a light lunch on the quarterdeck, I will admit. And what is cheese but milk gone sour, hard and lumpy? It is a rotten food, but out of rottenness comes sweetness.

Which brings up an important argument against any hypothetical retrofantasy movement. The most dramatic stories of all, the ones that consistently top the bestsellers lists in the modern age, and have won immortality throughout all prior ages, are stories of salvation and redemption. The most uplifting of tales is a tale of a bad man going good. It has been this way since the moment in the ILIAD when the wrath of Achilles is overcome by pity for Priam, the father and leader of all his foes, and he gives the body of Hector back to the king.

Like cheese, a bad guy is a rotten guy, but it is all the tastier when it repents and becomes tasty. (I am definitely entering that last sentence to BAD METAPHOR magazine (“where the darts of metaphor fly like fruit flies!”) to see it I can win their worst metaphor of all time contest.)

Which allows us to turn to the second point. Some of my favorite stories, including ones I have written myself, have bad guys as good guys. Indeed, some of the most beloved superheroes of the comics are basically bad guys dressed up as bad guys doing good guys stuff: the Batman and the Shadow both favor long black capes. One is garbed as a bat for the express purpose of terrifying cowardly and superstitious criminals; and the other laughs a laugh so maniacal that the crooks of gangland jump headfirst out of upper story windows to escape it. Both of these, frankly, are devils who fight on the side of the angels.

In fantasy, the bad guys take the forms and shapes of mythical and legendary monsters, wizards and witches and hobgoblins and so on, and so the idea of a fantasy monster using his powers to fight for the side of right is no more unexpected than the idea of Zorro wearing a black hat in a Western.

But here we are talking about something slightly different. The reason why I am sick of dragons as good guys is not because of a surfeit of books by Anne McCaffrey and Ursula K LeGuin. I am not sick of their dragons, not tired of Kalessin of Earthsea nor weary of Ramoth of Pern. And, technically speaking, Ramoth is a dragon-shaped intelligent alien, not really a dragon any more than Dr Who on Gallifrey is a human; likewise, Kalessin is not a dragon but a long (龍), a celestial rain-serpent of the Orient, who were dangerous but not malevolent.

No, what wearies me, and what would become the archfoe of the hypothetical Mundane Fantasy movement, is the idea that there are no bad guys, no such things as “good” or “evil”. This is the idea that all truth is relative, all truth is myth, all truth is false: The only thing that there really is, once you penetrate the illusion of good and bad, and debunk the myth of vice and virtue, is the evil self serving lie or bigotry of discriminating between good and evil on the one hand, and the tolerance of lacking that discrimination on the other. In technical terminology, this philosophy is called “nihilism.”

Now, does this mean that all stories where wizards and vampires and dragons are good guys are nihilistic? No, it does not. Michael Moorcock wrote many memorable stories in his ‘Eternal Champion” background that was indeed nihilistic, and deliberately so. There was no good and evil in Moorcock, there was only Law and Chaos in eternal hence meaningless conflict, either of which, when taken to extremes of tyranny and anarchy, were bad for humanity. But even in Moorcock, magic is not a neutral technology without moral consequences. Elric of Melnibone, for example, was mortally addicted to his demon sword Stormbringer, and his dabbling in the dark arts were portrayed by the author as darkening the sorcerer’s soul. Getting addicted to a demon blade and slaying your Sancho Panza is still “bad” in the Moorcock Multiverse. So even here, we do not see total nihilism.

What does it mean? Ah, now we approach the crux of the matter. I suggest the hypothetical “retrofantasy” movement is as doomed at the outset as the “Mundane SF” movement is doomed, because both are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the genre.

I submit that Fantasy, that is, the movement started by William Morris and popularized by Robert E Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien and, yes, popularized by Gary Gygax, is not like the epics of old nor like the medieval romances from whom they take their inspirations and forms.

Fantasy novels are novels, and follow the naturalistic conventions of novel-writing. So when the anonymous author of BEOWULF puts onstage a dragon or a water-breathing hell-dame to fight our doomed hero, there is no attempt at naturalism, no attempt to make the action realistic. Beowulf draws a deep breath, plunges into the haunted swamp of the moor, and wrestles with Grendel’s Mother for a day or so, before taking up a sword from the time of the giants, slaying her, and rising to the surface with the titanic head of her son in his hands. Then he draws his next breath.

To use a clearer example, when the dragon of Beowulf attacks him, the dragon’s motives are wrath that a nameless slave stole and ancient cup from a long-lost burial mound of a forgotten people. The dragon exchanges no words with the hero: he merely bites and burns him, until Beowulf and his one loyal retainer Widlaf manage to stab the creature to death with a knife.

Contrast this with Smaug in JRR Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT, who is modeled on the dragon of Beowulf, slumbering on a horde of gold, even down to the motivations for his rage, the theft of a cup. Smaug not only talks, he has some of the best lines. “My armor is like tenfold shields! My teeth like swords! My claws, spears! The shock of my tail, a thunderbolt! My wings, a hurricane! And my breath … death!”

Now this is naturalistic fiction, despite its unnatural protagonist. Smaug talks like you or I would talk if we were a dragon full of wrath and greed, boastfully, bravely, and magnificently. Smaug is a person with a person’s personality and shortcomings in the way a mere monster like the dragon of Beowulf is not a person.

Let me draw your attention, reader, to two other facts which you may already know. The pagan morality as exemplified by, for example, Aristotle, tended to see the world divided into good and civilized men versus bad and uncivilized men, whose only useful destiny in life was to be slaves. Medieval morality divided the world into the saved and the damned, and the stories tended strongly to be allegorical: in the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, there is nothing like the modern novel conventions of plot and character development. The dragon there, like the Leviathan in the Book of Job, is a demon, a symbol of pride.

However, the Christian religion holds as a matter of principle that anyone, no matter his station, can fall to damnation, aye, indeed, even the brightest of angels, and holds that anyone, no matter her humility, can be assumed or elevated to a position above all queens and above all angels, aye, even the humble virgin wife of a cabinet maker in a conquered country.

Tolkien and Lewis, and many a modern fantasist following in their footsteps, cordially disliked allegory, rightly seeing that allegory detracts from naturalistic drama. If a dragon acts wrathfully because it is a symbol of wrath, there is no plot motion and no dramatic tension. If a dragon acts wrathfully because it has the same burning pride that a man has in his heart, and someone has stolen the smallest possession of his useless hoard, and the thief exchanges riddles with the monstrous being and gives it a chance to boast, this is naturalistic fiction at its finest.

I would go so far as to say that Tolkien accomplished the perfection of naturalistic fiction, making his characters and their world seem so real and so solid, that, just like the real world, even the myths and melancholy of lost tales and forgotten times and the figures of ancient legend echoing in the memory of the world were in Middle Earth. It was so real it also contained myth. Writers who attempted the “realism” so beloved of the modern literati could not accomplish this, and did not try, and so their realism is unrealistic.

Now then, one of the principles which naturalistic fiction, which is a type of fiction unique to the West, that is to say, to Christendom, adopts as part of its drama is the internal conflict or character growth of the character. We all, even those sad souls who reject their Christian fathers, inherit a cultural assumption that each man has a conscience. And even those sadder postchristians, Marxist and behaviorists and materialistic dunces who freely choose to think men are nothing but computers made of meat and programmed by their genetics and upbringing,  even they find no drama in their assumptions, and take their entertainment from stories where the opposite assumption, the sovereignty of the conscience, is the operative assumption.

This is because stories of redemption are the most exciting stories of all, and at the core of redemption always comes a moment when a man freely turns from the darkness toward the light, and makes an irrevocable decision. This is why the moment when, in STAR WARS Han Solo dives out of the glare of the sun, returning unexpectedly to save Luke the space-farmboy, is one of the best moments in the movie; and why the moment when Darth Vader slays the evil emperor is so memorable. Even determinists like STAR WARS.

Now, in the wake of Tolkien, comes Gary Gygax. His game is based on the naturalistic assumptions of the modern fantasy novel, and these are based on the Christian assumptions of the sovereignty of the conscience. If you want to play a lawful good orc in Dungeons and Dragons, most moderators will allow it, or an chaotic evil elf. The readers of modern fantasy and the players of modern fantasy games recoil at the notion that one’s alignment or moral loyalties are determined by race. We are all secretly Cartesians, thinking the soul and the body are two separate substances, so that a good soul can be housed in an evil looking body, and visa versa.

There is nothing wrong, and, indeed, many a good and sound moral maxim to be found in the art of looking at the Beast and seeing the prince inside which the kiss of the Beauty will release. There is a strong argument to be made for teaching children not to judge a book by its cover, nor a man by his color, nor a dragon by the fact that it is a devil from hell in the shape of a worm bent on the destruction of mankind.

But, like anything, when overdone or overused, the trope gets shopworn, and, as far as drama is concerned, boring. I myself, who think that dabbling with magic is like sticking a fork in a lightsocket, share the typical Christian distaste for glamorizing the occult sciences of magicians. I like the magician in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, because the terrible price the demon of darkness pulled out of his soul each time he called on his dark magic was made visible in his aging. I almost like the way Willow Rosenberg, in one of the weaker story arcs in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, was tempted by black magic, and it began to corrupt her ego. But Joss Whedan, albeit a genius in many ways, is hampered by his Leftwing myopia, and chickened out. Leftists do not think arrogance , which they call self esteem, is a sin. But they do think drug abuse is a sin. So Wheden portrayed the corruptive power of black magic by giving it the same side effects as drug addiction. It was a cop out. But at least the magic there was not merely a technology, not merely morally neutral.

The retrofantasy movement can never come into being, because all fantasy is based on the premise that the writer is going to take the symbolic and allegorical images and creatures from myth and fable and portray them naturalistically, as if they were real. In reality, bad men can do good deeds, and the war between darkness and light cuts through the hearts of every man.

Is there a danger from portraying wizard as heroes, and magic as having no price? I would say there is at least some. Almost every witch I know personally was born in a Christian household and turned to the occult because of the glamor of books like Tolkien’s. Ironically, he did more to make belief in magic mainstream than any writer I know.

And evil disguises itself as good. On this day of masquerade, let us also remember that. Magicians are not merely wise men and prophets, for some of them practice black magic, but the black magic always presents itself as white to the unwary.