Congratulate me, for the first draft of my latest book, GREEN KNIGHT’S SQUIRE, was finished last night.
It is my first attempt at a juvenile, and tells the story of Gilberec Moth, a sixteen year old from North Carolina, who is unpopular with students and administrators alike because he tells the truth fights for the weak, but does not inform on his fellow students. He also can understand the speech of birds and beasts. He is expelled for fighting, and must find honest work. At the advice of his dog, Ruff, he decides to become a knight.
Even though there is really not that much call for knighthood in the modern age. He follows the dog into the woods, and far from the fields we know.
He finds a one-eyed bear and a mermaid, and an elfin feast, an Arthurian monster and a monstrous saint. He enters places on the globe forgotten to normal men, unseen by satellites and mapmakers, and not a small spot either, but whole citadels, cities, mountains taller than Everest, a third hemisphere. In this untouched, hidden continents are skies where passenger pigeons still fly, plains where American Indians still hunt, jungles where Aztecs still sacrifice, and battlefields where elfish knights adorned in glory fight over which misfortunes to impose on their slaves and cattle, mankind.
And I just wrote the last word of the curtain line last night. Pop the corks and blow the horns!
Now, the first thing to ponder, of course, is the question any Christian fantasy writer must sooner or later encounter: Whether the portrayal of magic powers in his fantasy tale step over the bounds into glorifying occultism?
At one time, I held it to be absurd to worry about the portrayal of magic in books like Lord of the Rings. I thought only that fretful Christians with too much time on their hands, the kind who worry about whether Dungeons and Dragons is satanic, held such knuckledheaded ideas. But then my mind changed (and grew knuckleheaded) in college I met not one but several practicing neo-pagans, modern witches, who listed Tolkien’s work as their primary inspiration for an interest in the supernatural, which led to an interest in manipulating the supernatural by any means that presented themselves, that is, occultism.
To me, it matters not one whit whether occultism actually was real or all elaborate self delusion: worshiping devils and bowing to pagan gods in return for health and happiness, victory in battle or good crops is not so bad, but when you start asking for money and power, revenge on your enemies, curses and diseases, and even the alleged ‘white witches’ who seek only the good of others are reduced to a grinding hatred for their foes and hearts hard and pitiless, that is very bad, and that is precisely where the road of witchcraft lures.
I am not here arguing the point; I am speaking from experience. I have seen people, friends of mine including my closest, who are a good and kindhearted as any man alive, on an instant turn into sniggering, swaggering, sneering bundles of paranoia, malice and malignancy in a fashion that looks like demonic possession; and this is due (as far as I can tell) in their dabbling in occult forces they think they understand, but don’t. It is freaky.
It is also immensely stupid, like watching the intern pick up radium in her hand without donning gloves or protective goggles.
Nonetheless, the abuse of the imagination should not lead to the banning of the imagination, but to its healthy and proper use.
We exiles from Eden know as if by instinct that the material world is not all that there is, and the span between life and death is not the whole story, or, rather, a story of grinding fury, futility, mocking irony and final despair. If it is the whole story, it is senseless, absurd, and ugly. For the Exiles to dream of the realms where glory and power arising, singing, in the vales of endless light is no more contemptible than a muddy soldier in a foxhole clutching the photo of his fiancée, seeking comfort in the image of his true love to whom he will one day return.
To extend the metaphor, if the captain sees some soldiers carrying a picture of a girlfriend, allowed by army regulations, and others carrying a Playboy centerfold that is clearly pornography and against regs, he has to make judgment about pinup girl photos of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth.
To do this he has to list the ways in which the first case is like or unlike the second, and if it is too like the second case, it falls into the rules applied to the second case.
Now, those puritans who would throw out the girlfriend’s picture along with the Playboy bunny, be off with you. I need not hear your argument and will not.
There are Christians who eschew Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Tinkerbell for the same reason the monstrous Cromwell banned Christmas and burned violins and smashed stained glass windows.
Anyone who would throw away Narnia for fear of the occult is throwing away a book that saved more souls than their sour rigorism ever did. I am not giving up my Christmas Tree and not given up my D&D. You may, if this forms a particular temptation to you, you give them up, but not everyone need be teetotalers just because you cannot hold your wine.
For the rest of us, there has to be a judgment made between the harmless use of magic as a metaphor for real miracles and the harmful use of magic as a lure toward the occult.
So what are the two cases when it comes to fantasy magic?
Miracles display the power over nature Adam before the fall knew in Eden, and which prophets and martyrs are allowed in crucial moments to display. Occultism is the false promise by devils to give man such powers for the sake of accomplishing those evil works one dare not carry to heaven in prayer. Lucifer promises he will grant your will for filthy, mundane, and shameful things the magician would not dare insult the Virgin to grant.
Miracles in fairy stories are like the blessings of the fairy godmother in Cinderella. The theme of that story is the same as in the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary: He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
The fairy godmother is a childhood stand-in for the real Mother Mary in the same way that Santa Claus is a stand-in for the real Saint Nicholas, patron of Mariners and protector of children.
Such stand-ins are less prone to mislead the misleadable if certain fences or hedges are placed about the way magic is portrayed in fantasy stories.
The critic and apologist Steven D. Greydanus, in his essay ‘Harry Potter vs. Gandalf’ (http://decentfilms.com/articles/magic), identifies seven possible hedges that serve to divide the magic of fantasy from occultism. Here is the summary by Tom Simon, whom I quote to provide me with an excuse to link to his excellent essay ‘A Taste for Magic’ http://bondwine.com/2008/04/29/the-taste-for-magic/
- The pursuit of magic as a safe and lawful occupation is restricted to wholly imaginary realms, unconnected with our own world.
- 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.
- The pursuit of magic is confined to supporting characters, not the protagonists.
- The author includes cautionary threads in which exposure to magical forces proves to be a corrupting influence on the protagonists.
- Magical powers occur naturally only to characters who are not in fact human beings.
- 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.
- 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.
I am going to add my own hedge 8 beneath this: does the magic in the story act or feel like what real occultism does or pretends to do? Is the character turning to a magician to learn the outcome of a business deal, buy a love potion, lay a curse on a foe? Does the magic involve a rituals mocking of real Roman rites, including bad Latin, and mystic passes, calls and responses, mockeries of baptism or anointing and so on? Does the magic involve open or implied supplications to demons or dark powers, or is it just a superpower or psychic power like the Mind Meld of a Vulcan or Supergirl’s ability to fly, which might as well be a hitherto undiscovered branch of science and technology? Because if the wizard is an adventurer who throws fire from magic wand like a gunfighter blasting away with a sixshooter, in the fashion of Harry Dresden, this is about as occultic as the magic ring of the Green Lantern, which is to say, not at all.
So, the whole world from pole to pole is no doubt breathless and dazed and suffering stomach cramps of wonder and astonishment over the question of how my unpublished manuscript that no one has read lines up with this rather haphazard list of hedges against occultism. Well, gasp with brain-dazzled wonder no more!
Some very mild spoilers are below, but no one has read this manuscript, so it does not matter. Let us step through the list.
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