The Poet and the Magician – A Postscript

Time to grade my work!

To my chagrin, it was brought to my attention that the question  addressed in a recent column of how the Christian poet, without disservice either to The Virgin nor to The Muses, can portray fairytale and fantastical powers of wizards, psychics and superheroes in a lawful and licit fashion, has already been address by wiser heads and more cunning pens than mine.

I admit chagrin because I had in fact read both the wonderful essay of Tom Simon, the best living essayist of this generation, and seen the list by Stephen Greydanus, but misplaced my recollection in the messy filing cabinet of my mind, and so I did not compare my conclusions with theirs. Hence my conclusions both repeat some of theirs, or overlook them, with a result that is less clear than otherwise could have been.

I had shoulders of giants to stand on, but instead merely peered and squinted from a wormseye view.

But did I reach the same conclusions as these gentlemen?

Here is the trenchant essay from Tom Simon:

And he quotes and summarizes critic and apologist Steven D. Greydanus, in his interesting essay ‘Harry Potter vs. Gandalf’.

Greydanus identifies seven ‘hedges’ that serve to divide the magic of fantasy and fairy-tale from the magic of curses and occult powers.

It is said that great minds think alike, but I would like to add the less adroit apothegm that lesser minds think like great minds, albeit less concisely and clearly.

I am curious to see which of the seven or eight precautionary “hedges” listed neatly here are parallel to what I call exceptions to make otherwise doubtful material licit for Christian pens to write.

I note before I begin a fundamental difference of approach. I was asked about the spiritual dangers of such works. My answer begins by assuming the danger is real and such stories are by default assumed to be illicit, as glamorizing the occult; but that, like the law against hearsay evidence, so many exceptions and so large exist, that what actually runs afoul of the rule is quite limited.

I did not state, but my answer implies, that if any longstanding tradition of Christian or pagan poet used a such an element, so may a modern. If tales of Superman, for example, cannot be condemned without likewise condemning those of Hercules and Sampson, then they cannot be condemned.

Following Tom Simon, the ‘seven hedges’ of Greydanus might be summarized as follows:

(1) The magic is restricted to wholly imaginary practices, unconnected with our own world, and bearing no resemblance to real occult practice.

Greydanus uses the example of Gandalf using fireworks to bedevil goblins, or Bilbo using a magic ring to turn invisible, in contrast to Willow the Witch from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, or the witches from the teen-angst movie THE CRAFT.

The difference here being that there are no flying broomsticks to tempt the unwary into true occult dabbling, but there are tarot cards and magic circles and mystic chants eagerly provided by New Age types or Wicca or Hotline Psychics eager to promote their craft, or their faith, or their shams, as the case may be.

Greydanus makes the point that someone wishing to mimic Gandalf my igniting a stick with a magic word has nowhere to go to learn how.

Greydanus moreover remarks that the magic in Rowling’s world is even more emphatically imaginary, even further removed from real-world practices, than that of Tolkien or Lewis; with their broomsticks and magic wands, the Hogwarts students are instantly recognizable as the same ilk as Broom Hilda, Sabrina the Teenage Witch from Archie Comics, the Wicked Witch of the West from Oz, and Wendy the good little Witch of Casper the Friendly Ghost fame.

Tom Simon adds: “Rowling definitely [makes] her magic obviously fantastical, so that nobody could be fool enough to suppose it would work in reality … Anyone can tell that an incantation like Wingardium leviosa is no more a real spell than it is real Latin.”

My answer did indeed mention this as what we might call the Doctor Strange Exception: “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.”

This is what I like to call the Halloween-Land exception. Halloween-Land is the place were people who are not fans of fantasy fiction, not students and anthropology, and not students of the occult park their notions of what spooky things are and how they work. Witches have pointy hats, for example, or fairies have magic wands, in Halloween-Land, and even the Muggles (as we science fiction people call the Normals) instantly recognize them.

Doctor Strange himself does call on the names of supernatural entities to power his spells, but these are mere ‘abracadabra’ and ‘alikazam’ names with no reference to the real occult (with the one unsettling exception of when he called on Sathannish — a name that sounds distinctly diabolical, but may have been selected because the author needed a rhyme with ‘vanish”). His magic is more akin to the powers of the Human Torch or the Invisible Girl, except that his fingers do not shoot flame, but bolts of mystic energy, and his force fields are called ectoplasmic.

(2) The existence of magic is an openly known reality of which the inhabitants of those worlds are as aware as we are of rocket science.

Examples of this approach can be found in Robert Heinlein’s novella MAGIC, INC.(1940),  or in Lyndon Hardy’s MASTER OF FIVE MAGICS (1980). Another example is  fantasy detective television film CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991) starring Fred Ward as hardboiled gumshoe Harry Philip Lovecraft.

These are alternative worlds or timelines, where, unlike ours, magic is as open and obvious as electricity, plumbing, or rocketry, depicted as morally neutral, a craft that manipulates forces already present in nature.

Ironically, even in the most neutral seeming versions of such tales, there is also supernatural horrors, the devil in hell, or the Old Gods of Cthulhu, lurking in the background.

The most extreme example of the idea of magic as merely alternative technology is in  Randall Garrett’s ‘Lord Darcy’ stories, where the detective uses the strict and unchanging scientific rules of magic to deduce the identities of crooks and spies and hidden enemies of the Crown.

This is what I call the Alternative Technology exception. They so wholly differ in flavor from occultism simply because, in their story worlds, the things are not hidden, not occult. Being a wizard is as rare and unusual as being a rocket scientist, and as able to accomplish wonders or horrors as launching an ICBM or landing a man on the moon.

(3) The pursuit of magic is confined to supporting characters, not the protagonists with whom the reader is primarily to identify.

This is what I call the Fairy Godmother exception. It is also the traditional way to portray the supernatural in fairy stories: Merlin the Magician does not, in Mallory, float above the battlefield on a broomstick shooting fireballs from his Gatling-rod, but acts more the role of a prophet or wise advisor.

A better example is Glinda the Good from Oz, who, in the movie, sends Dorothy on her way, and only once intervenes to save Dorothy from a spell of the Wicked Witch of the West, by sending a snowfall to quell the poison of a field of enchanted poppies.

In such stories, the hero cannot call on wizards to use their wizardry to wizard their problems away. As stated in the column, “It is 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.”

(4) The author includes cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on the protagonists.

This is what the column calls the traditional way of depicting wizards and witches in fairy tales and adventure stories. It is not an exception to the Christian prohibition of glamorizing the works of satanists and mountebanks, because these are cautionary tales against them. No occultist, seeing the stone guest in Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI is likely to be tempted to summon up the lordly dead, not of the sequel of such ghostly visitations is to be dragged living into hell by hordes of singing spooks. Or, to use an example closer to home, the voodoo doctor in Disney’s PRINCESS AND THE FROG receives the classical wages of trafficking with unclean denizens “from the Other Side” when they come to collect the debt promised in the contract.

(5) Magical powers occur naturally only to characters who are not in fact human beings.

This can be called the Homo Magus Exception, as used by Zatanna and Zatarra from DC comics. The witches and warlocks there are explicitly nonhuman hominids living in secret among humans, a race to whom magic is not forbidden by canon law.

Though never explicit, the same exception seems to apply to the magical in-laws of Samantha the housewife from BEWITCHED; these are not mortals who studied forbidden arts, but magical creatures, no more human than the Genii from I DREAM OF JEANNIE or the uncle from MY FAVORITE MARTIAN.

In passing it is mentioned in my column that, for example, Coriakin is a fallen star, and Gandalf is an angel — but since I was answering a question about temptation, not about theological precision, the fact that these characters (who look and act just like humans) technically are a different sub-species is neither here nor there.

Had the question been about the temptation to lust, the fact that Barbara Eden in her skimpy harem-girl outfit is portraying a nonhuman babe, or Daryl Hannah or Gemma Ward is portraying a mermaid, or Yvonne Craig as a green skinned Orion slavegirl is not portraying a homo sapiens, would not make cheesecake images of these curvaceous female forms less problematical to someone with a weakness in this area. If anything the temptation is more dubious, because, technically, this is miscegeny, if not bestiality.

Likewise, if anything, the fact that the chosen ones are born into a race granted powers denied humans would enflame the envy of the would-be magician even more so.

(6) Magic is the safe and lawful occupation of characters who embody a certain wizard archetype — white-haired old men with beards and robes and staffs, etc.

This is what I call the “Three Wise Men” exception.  Christian objections to astrology do not apply, for example, to THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, a stop motion animation retelling of the nativity account in Luke.

As said before, a figure like Shazam or Merlin or Gandalf, is called a wizard, but if he 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.

(7) The author gives no narrative space to the process by which magicians acquire their powers. Although study may be assumed as part of the back story, the wizard appears as a finished product with powers in place, and the reader is not in encouraged to dwell on the process of acquiring prowess in magic.

This is the one point I did not raise, because that was not the question I was asked.

Had I been, I would have answered that the presence or absence of an origin story scene explaining how the wise old wizard gained his powers has any effect on the allure or the danger of occultism.

If the young would-be magician wants to be like Merlin, it does not increase his infatuation to inform him that Merlin studied under Bleys, nor does the desire to command Gandalf’s power diminish by discovering he comes from the sacred sunset paradise of the elves from beyond the western rim of Middle Earth.

Indeed, both WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and HARRY POTTER not only show the sorcerers’ apprentices learning magic, but the majority of the book centers around a school where mages learn their craft. And yet I would dismiss the fears of Christians seeing children exposed to these books as exaggerated.

The idea, these days a tired trope, upon a time was an original and daring conceit, invented by Ursula K. LeGuin, who remarks: ““Back then, in 1967, wizards were all, more or less, Merlin and Gandalf. Old men, peaked hats, white beards. But this was to be a book for young people. Well, Merlin and Gandalf must have been young once, right? And when they were young, when they were fool kids, how did they learn to be wizards?”

But the schools thus portrayed have more in common with an ashram of Buddhists or a monastery of Benedictines than with anything sick and wild and secret and forbidden; and Hogwarts, as the name implies, is a lighthearted take-off of the English boarding school from TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS. From LeGuin, the child reader is more likely to learn that nature must be held in balance, including the shadows in one’s own soul, than to learn a thirst for occultism. From Rowling, the child reading is more likely to learn the lesson that one must be true to one’s school chums and stand up to bullies.

I am not myself prone to the urge to dabble in mystic powers. When I was living among (and mooching off of) my neopagan friends in my youth, nothing they did or said or practiced had even the smallest allure to me. It might mention that, in the same point in my life, I was working as a bartender, even thought I am a lifelong and strict teetotaler. The cases are parallel.

But if I were, I would venture to say that if magic is a skill than can be learned like bricklaying or boatbuilding, or, more to the point, like harp-playing, where perhaps certain innate talent is a prerequisite, it is not a cheat code, not easy, not the very thing the would-be magician wants — a way to dominate and hurt the world that holds him to be of lesser value than his sullen soul tells him he is.

I would venture to say that if a young schoolgirl wants a love charm to ensnare the senses of a dashing older man, telling her this requires a period of study, training, internship, and graduate studies before she can get her doctorate in magic, is likely to dash cold water on the daydream.

On the other hand, the idea that the discipline is long and hard and closed to the eyes of the benighted, is the very thing that would allure our secret priest-kings and gnostics. The very fact that the dark arts are difficult means that they are closed and secret, which is the primary allure of the occult — as word, after all, that simply means hidden.

All in all, I think that Mr. Greydanus, Mr. Tom Simon, and whatever muse of art or daemon of philosophy whispered my ideas to me, are mostly in agreement.

Which may dishearten them, but pleases me.