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.

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
This entry was posted in Drollery, Fancies. Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to The Feast of the Magicians

  1. Stephen J. says:

    I always thought the price of magic in Middle-earth struck me as a very realistic and discouraging one: You either became things like Sauron, the Ringwraiths or the Balrog, or you got drafted to spend your existence fighting them.

    On a broader level this could be a truth applying to anyone finding themselves in possession of a needed and rare skill that mystifies others: You either abuse the power it gives you, or you build your life around the vocation it demands of you; but either way, living your life as if that power didn’t exist isn’t an option, especially once others realize you have it and start importuning you to use it for their sake.

    I myself find magic most interesting when it is examined in enough detail to start, if not necessarily finish, perceiving and disentangling the internal differences within it between that which is “natural” and “scientific” about it from that which is “unnatural” and “occult”. LeGuin’s Earthsea series does this marvellously, I think; the idea of the True Speech, the Balance and the idea of practical magic’s biggest danger being the Unexpected Consequence (“Rain in Osskil may be ruin and drouth in the West Reach, unless you know what you are about.”) contrasts hauntingly with the black Unnaming of Cob the necromancer and the rip in the walls between life and death caused by the young Sparrowhawk. “Magic” as a theme lies in that mysterious space where you are not sure if the person working his wonders merely knows rules you don’t, or is violating nature to break rules you do; and it is all the more interesting to me when magicians themselves are confounded by this difference, when the wise man is frightened and baffled by realizing what he still does not yet know — to realize that there is another curtain behind the man behind the curtain, and he does not know what’s behind that second one.

    “Are there names in the dark places?”
    “The Archmage Gensher said there are not. My master Ogion said otherwise.”
    “‘Infinite are the arguments of mages’,” quoted Vetch with a somewhat grim smile.

  2. vanderleun says:

    Long ago, when I was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, I used to attend various SF conventions and hang out with the SF editors in their rooms and suites. Late night I learned one of the drinking songs of the SF editors:

    Give us DAW books!
    They’re not so bad.
    We want the future
    That we’ve always had.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    This essay made me think of that Macdonald essay over at Jordan’s place, where at the end Macdonald concludes that fantasy can be misused and misunderstood by specific readers, but that its good to readers in general (ie, getting people thinking and imagining) is very good indeed. (And it seems likely that both Lewis and Tolkien had read it, because it seems the unspoken prolegomenon to some of their more famous essays on fantasy.)

    The odd thing is that, if you are a very grounded person, you can entertain more odd ideas than someone who is more off balance. If you know who you are, you can play with your sense of self more than someone who is confused. So yeah, somebody as normal as St. Isidore of Seville is much more likely to tell you all about the obscure Biblical titles of the Church and Jesus as including some extremely shocking ones, because he’s just laying out what exists in his usual encyclopedic way, and because Biblical paradoxes are all kinds of meditative fun. In our impoverished times, we’re lucky to get taught the most normal ones.

    The problem is that, of course, it’s kinder to provide the inexperienced with milk rather than meat. But OTOH, it’s insulting to Truth, Who is Our Lord, to provide less than the full meaty truth of things. So I don’t think we can ever say that dragons are always to be bad in the stories, because they weren’t.

    Also, St. Albert the Great says that, although he never saw a living dragon and was a bit doubtful about their existence despite their attestation in ancient literature, he had seen the alleged bones of one in a cliff wall (in an area now notorious for dinosaur skeletons) and been told by the villagers that their legends said dragons were darned good eatin’. (Or at least, that they’d eaten off it for more than a week. It’s in his book on animals, the same one where he tells us that he kept antlions as pets when he was a kid.) This would suggest that dragons were considered more like non-sapient critters to the medievals in his day, because nobody’d admit to cannibalizing a lizard-shaped person or chowing down on a demon.

  4. Mary says:

    “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.”

    eh, what other depiction of blood-suckers preying on innocents do yo expect in a society where sucking on the blood of the innocent — a.k.a. the welfare state — is considered an honorable way to support one’s self?

  5. Mary says:

    ” 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.”

    Hmm. I must note that I swallowed some extract of willow-bark this morning, which once would have been deemed magic.

    And that in the Middle Ages the Church formally anathematized the notion that using herbs and jewels for medical purposes was traffic with demons.

    Nowadays we know that Magic does not work except through trafficking with demons. That is because when we find Magic that works, we call it Science. Time was when it was all unexplained causality.

    The idea that trafficking with spirits is bad I am all behind. The idea that all powers derived from laws of nature that conform to what people used to think the laws of nature were are necessarily corrupting, less so. Except, of course, insofar as all power is corrupting (to humans) by nature. To be sure, depicting power’s corrupting nature is a trick for most writers to pull off, and having those who are drawn to magic and so to power be more corrupt is one way to do it. Or, of course, have the magic use obviously evil technique (you have to be evil to cast something that requires desecration to work) or obviously evil effects.

  6. Lisieux says:

    Small pedantic point, which doesn’t really affect your overall argument: Tolkien indeed claimed to dislike allegory (though Leaf by Niggle is nothing if not pure allegory), but Lewis loved it: his first book as a Christian was the explicit allegory of The Pilgrim’s Regress, and he made his name as a scholar with The Allegory of Love, a study of the mediaeval courtly romance.

    • I beg to differ. Allegory includes works like PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, where characters like Mr Worldly-Wise of Vanity Fair will represent nothing but the vain wisdom of the world, and nothing but. Allegorical characters have no life of their own. Niggle is a character, not merely a symbol moving like a puppet.

      I stand corrected on Lewis. Of course his first book was an allegory, and indeed, one based explicitly on PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and an homage to it. Some of the minor characters in Narnia — I am thinking of Bacchus in PRINCE CASPIAN — are entirely allegorical.

      • Mary says:

        The point of allegory is have the symbol as a character. That many allegories made them puppets is not a slap against the genre, any more than some of the cheaper forms of SF are a slap at it.

        Besides, Leaf By Niggle is an allegory for the simple reason that I’ve never managed to read anyone who made sense of it without realizing that it was about an artist who had to die.

        • Does the use of symbolism make a story an allegory? I thought that to be an allegory, the character had to have only one meaning, and nothing deeper than the surface symbolism.

          I confess the only stories I ever read which I would call ‘allegory’ were PILGRIM’S PROGRESS by Bunyon and PILGRIM’S REGRESS by CS Lewis. So if LEAF BY NIGGLE is an allegory, what does the imposing neighbor represent?

          • Mary says:

            Symbolism doesn’t, but “Leaf By Niggle” does not merrily contain symbols. It makes no sense until you realize that it is the story of an artist’s life and death.

            Parish — note the name– represents the surrounding society with which the artist has to interact, to his annoyance, but nonetheless to the benefit of his work, which is why Niggle thinks that the heavenly tree has many leaves in colloboration with Parish.

            As for the “nothing deeper” — yes, you will hear people describe it thus. You will also hear people describing SF and fantasy as unfit for anyone adult. Always be wary when people condemn an entire genre. A genre which produced a work that lasted as long as The Divine Comedy — which is, allegorically, a trip through the human mind — probably has something going for it.

            • I have never heard anyone describe the DIVINE COMEDY as an allegory. Indeed, the only section (at least that I recall) that is allegorical is the pageant of the car pulled by a griffin at the top of Mount Purgatory.

              As best I can tell from context, you are using the word “allegory” to mean anything with any symbolic content. I have not heard the word used that broadly before, and that was not the way I understood J.R.R. Tolkien to be using the word when he decries it.

              Websters defines allegory as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.” Either your definition or mine would fit the Websters definition, dependence on the degree of symbolism (I define allegory as meaning “nothing but symbolism” and you seem to be defining it as “even a scintilla of symbolism) — but we are talking about two different things.

              • Mary says:

                I’ve heard scads of people describe it so. Dante described as allegorical. Dorothy L. Sayers, discussing Inferno, points out that it does no good to dismiss it on the grounds you do not believe in that kind of Hell, because it is an allegory of the human mind, in which everyone believes.

                As for “even a scintilla of symbolism” — I have not said that. I have explicitly denied it. “Symbolism doesn’t” make it an allegory. Everything in an allegory has a symbolic meaning. It’s your flattening it out to mean “nothing but symbolism” that’s problematic.

                • Sorry, the idea that the Inferno is somehow a symbol of the human mind is a new idea to me, and not one that strikes me as very serious. If the INFERNO were truly an allegory, the actions and events would make no sense unless one understood what the allegorical symbols represented, as is the case indeed in Pilgrim’s Progress. If Dante’s inferno symbolizes anything, it symbolizes the Aristotelian (and Thomistic) scale of the degradation of vices in their order.

                  I am not saying your definition is wrong, merely that it is unusual; and that it does not fit the sentence by J.R.R. Tolkien we are discussing. If he meant the word the way you understand it, then he is merely a hypocrite, and an unconvincing one at that, using allegory while claiming not to. If he meant the word the way I understand it, then his statement is perfectly reasonable, and his method of writing is not contradicted by what he says about it.

                  Even if Professor Tolkien was using a “flattened” or problematical definition of the word, his statement is still best understood under that definition.

                  • Suburbanbanshee says:

                    “Leaf by Niggle” isn’t an allegory. It’s the perfectly straightforward story of an individual person dying, going to Purgatory, and going to Heaven, and how his salvation-journey works together with the salvation-journey of somebody he knows.

                    Now, if you were using Purgatory as a symbol of, say, becoming mature as an artist or going to a sanitorium, that would be an allegory. But if you’re a character experiencing Purgatory as something sanitorium-like (or as something like running around a town as an angel with sooty wings and a techie halo), it’s a real event. Your perceptions may be analogical to the true nature of the place, thus sparing both you and the author and allowing drama; but they aren’t allegorical in the least.

                    And Dante is primarily telling the story of a journey from Hell to Heaven that is really taking place and is meant to save the main character’s soul; only secondarily can you take it as a psychological journey through a poet’s psyche, and only because fictional-Dante is controlled by poet-Dante.

                    • Agreed. I read LEAF and INFERNO in much the same way as you did, as naturalistic narratives describing what they seemed to be describing, with symbols redolent with echoes of other meanings, but not merely an allegory or parable.

                      Indeed, I am a little surprised to hear either described as allegory, as surprised (and as unconvinced) as I would be to hear WAR OF THE WORLDS by Wells called ‘allegory’ because the Martians invading Earth were parallel the English invading Tasmania, or perhaps temptation invading an unprepared soul.

              • lotdw says:

                Dante was attempting to write a poem (the first such, to his mind) which could be interpreted as the Bible was interpreted, according to the four modes of literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. See the famous (disputed, though less so today) letter to Can Grande della Scala:

                http://www.westernciv.com/greatminds/dante/danteallegory.shtml

                But it should be noted that it was not “only an allegory,” which is often how we see allegories today.

                • There are clearly allegorical meanings in Dante, as they are in the Bible, and, for that matter, in Orlando Furioso (see the commentary of the Elizabethian translator, Huntington). But it is not an allegory.

                  PILGRIM’S PROGRESS does not have any literal, moral and anagogical meaning. The “City of Destruction” in PILGRIMS PROGRESS is not Ilium or Minas Tirith, a mythical or invented place with a personality and character aside from its leaden and obvious allegorical meaning.

                  Contrariwise, the Uttermost West of Valinor is heavenly but it is not heaven. It serves an allegorical purpose and represents heaven, but it is as redolent of the Hesperides and the Island of the Young as it is of heaven.

                  Again, I am given to understand that my definition of ‘allegory’ is too narrow. Nonetheless, Tolkien’s mistrust and dislike of allegory makes no sense if the word means any story with symbolic echoes, but that includes all stories of any stature. I thought he meant PILGRIM’S PROGRESS and the like, where the symbolism is obvious and one-to-one.

          • lotdw says:

            You’ve never read Animal Farm or any of the Arthurian Grail stories?

            • Ah! A touch, I do confess it. Yes, ANIMAL FARM would be an allegorical tale, I suppose. It seems to have escaped the limitations of the form by giving the animals something of a personality and drama.

              Grail stories, no. Myths are not allegories, not even close.

              Certain parts of THE FAERIE QUEENE by Spencer are heavily allegorical, as are many passages of ORLANDO FURIOSO.

  7. bear545 says:

    “Ironically, he did more to make belief in magic mainstream than any writer I know.”

    Very ironically, as Gandalf uses less magic than any other wizard I can think of. Most of his ‘magic’ lay in his wisdom- which is a virtue more disregarded than any other in our society, with the exception of chastity.

    • Gandalf was like Merlin the magician. In Mallory, Merlin is a wise man, one who knows where to find the sword in the lake, for example, or who knows the fabulous properties of the sheath of Excalibur, but he does not know enough Jack Vance style magic spells to unleash the Excellent Prismatic Spray to save himself from a handful of churls harassing him.
      Likewise, Gandalf seems to know Ignite Pinecone, Summon Giant Eagle, Open Doors of Moria, Wizard Lock, Shatter Bridge, and Fall to Doom. he does not seem to have a proper Sleep spell or Web or Cure Light Wounds. My D&D magician from my Freshman days, Aradan the Logician, seems to have had more oomph than an Istari. At least he could throw a lightningbolt.

      • bear545 says:

        My old magician from back in the day likewise had more obvious magic than Gandalf. Of course, we had DM’s who woul overload every quest with magic items, so my magician had so many wands he carried them around in a golf bag. I always wanted to get a caddy to go with it.

        • Mary says:

          Robert E. Howard often endowed his sorcerer villains with Plentiful Amounts of Stuff. Perhaps that was the source. To be sure that was often ingredients and not magic items — and no doubt about how evil the sorcerers were, once you heard about their Stuff.

          Except the one appearance of good magic in the mythos, when Conan gets the phoenix on his sword. That did not involve Stuff.

    • Mary says:

      Especially since he, like everyone else who practices magic in Middle Earth, is not human.

      • lotdw says:

        You have to exclude the Numenoreans from humanity first, which you kind of can since they’re part Elf. A number of the Black Numenoreans have (black) magical abilities, including the Mouth of Sauron. There’s the Witch-King too – though he’s debateably human, he seems to have had magic before he turned Nazgul. And Tolkien himself notes that Aragorn’s healing abilities could be called magical in one of his letters. Of course all of this is open to interpretation because magic is much more loosely defined in Tolkien (and thus better and more ‘realistic’ than in D&D).

  8. DGDDavidson says:

    I’m not bothered much by friendly dragons or friendly witches. I am bothered by friendly vampires, but mostly because I never found vampires particularly interesting even as monsters.

    What does bother me is when a writer tries to beat me over the head with the message that if I think vampires or werewolves or dragons are monsters, it’s analogous to racism. I’ll think whatever I like about nonexistent creatures, thank you very much!

    We seem to be permanently stuck in bigot witch-hunting in our culture, to the point that it saturates even our flights of fancy, so if someone holds to the opinion that the dead, when they rise from their graves to suck the life from the living, are monstrous creatures that ought to be destroyed, he is said to be too “judgmental.”

    • deiseach says:

      Vampires are my monster, and I have to agree with you on this one. Oh, goodness, the literary criticism that loves to see Stoker’s “Dracula” (and other vampires) as: Victorian repression of female sexuality, vampirism as a metaphor for sexually-transmitted diseases, vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, vampires as The Other and representative of more minorities, sub-groups and sexual orientations than you can shake a stick at, and more.

      Vampires as folkloric monsters that make a good Big Bad Villain for the purpose of a Gothic horror doesn’t seem to strike anyone as a topic (or maybe it’s just too obvious for academia to treat seriously). Though almost as bad are the modern horror and fantasy media that try to keep the supernatural aspect of vampires but within carefully subscribed boundaries, so that if you do have a bad vampire, you rush to your nearest friendly Wiccan practitioner-cum-private detective or your local shaman or wizard, because they know the rituals to protect you, but under no circumstances must you look up the Reverend Smith or Father O’Hara for help because that would be privileging Christianity as working, which would mean treating it as true, which means that it is superior to witchcraft or shamanism, which is a concept we must avoid at all costs. Using Buddhist sacred threads or Taoist fu charms to foil a vampire is perfectly fine and works on its own terms, but brandishing a cross (and not even a crucifix, which is too Catholic) only works if you believe it works because it depends on your willpower and not any external objective reality.

      If you’re going to go that path, then I prefer the attempts to make vampires non-supernatural and treat the condition as akin to a virus, or they’re another humanoid species which preys on us, or aliens, or any SF explanation that completely avoids the supernatural.

      • Mary says:

        Well, there has to be some reason that they took a monster much closer to the zombie in zombie apocalypse movies — not in Haitian folklore — and made him elegant, suave, sexy, in Victorian times and after. So thoroughly that they had to steal the name zombie to bring back the older vampire.

      • DGDDavidson says:

        There is one novel I know of that does a vampire story while thumbing its nose at Christianity, and in my opinion actually does a good job of it, which is high praise from me, since I am a Christian and don’t care for vampire stories.

        That novel is The Keep.

        It works because one of the main characters is a Jewish doctor forced by Nazis to hunt a vampire for them, and who has a crisis of faith when he finds out the vampire is repelled by crucifixes.

        About the only thing the book does wrong is the ugly, gratuitous sex scene in the middle.

      • RachelK says:

        Dracula is possibly my favorite novel of all time (it’s between that and Ender’s Game), and because of that, I loathe good vampires. Any attempt to create a good vampire is completely missing the point of Stoker.

        In terms of the literary criticism that goes nuts over the sexual imagery in Dracula, I think we can blame it for a lot of “good” vampires nowadays. There is definitely sexual imagery in Dracula–no question. The scene where he forces Mina to drink his blood is horrifically replete with rape imagery. But we can’t possibly have that be bad, can we? If Dracula was giving sexual pleasure to all of these repressed Victorian women, then surely he must be the secret hero of the novel. To say otherwise would be dour and sex-negative, dontcha know. Our taming of the vampire goes hand-in-hand with our taming of sex. (On a related note, I utterly despise any attempt to make it seem like Mina and Dracula were an item–I’m looking at you, Francis Ford Coppola. Dracula is her rapist, not her lover.)

  9. Curubethion says:

    I do note that the morality of orcs is something which Tolkien wrestled heavily with, not happy with the idea that a race which possesses a modicum of reason could be universally considered evil. On the other hand, the splash-fantasy approach of D&D (I think that “splash-fantasy” is probably the most apt term here) is indeed silly, because it doesn’t force the confrontation of certain realities.

    If I may digress for a moment into tangent-land, this reminds me of the solution which the roleplaying game Burning Wheel took. It aims to model Tolkien’s fantasy in a true manner (I’ve heard that Gygax actually disliked Tolkien), and the outcome of orcs is one evident consequence. Orcs in that game are entirely slanted towards evil, but not deprived of choice. They tend to learn skills which can easily be turned to evil, and they are able to conveniently pour their hatred into destructive acts, to their own benefit. It’s also a substantial struggle for them to be around the good and beautiful, because it naturally causes them loathing. So, yes, you could play a heroic orc, but it’s going to be akin to playing an addict or otherwise scarred individual–it requires an overwhelmingly titanic effort to stay sane and virtuous. Nature plays a huge role. (All of which is actually enforced by the game.)

    Side note as well–I’m afraid that D&D (and thus many other games) suffer from the misappropriation of the term “race”. I find it a dubious term when racial differences amongst humans are almost never as significant. The difference between two men of different races tends to be that of skin tone and bone structure (along with cultural inclinations); the difference between what are now termed “fantasy races” tends to be some manner of supernatural distinction, such as immortality (elves), nonpareil greed (dwarves), and loathing for the world (orcs).

    One final and horrendously disjointed thought–are you familiar with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files? On the one hand, they portray many of the trappings of the occult as window dressing for what are in that universe human abilities–the ability of a wizard to use his will to evoke a blast of fire, for instance. On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of good and evil. The core rule of magic (and supernatural power, in general) in his world is “you cannot do anything you don’t believe in to some degree”. So, a necromancer will by nature be a nasty piece of work, because they have to be a nasty person to use that type of magic.

    The protagonist himself winds up going into some pretty morally grey territory at best, although it should be noted that this is very typical of a film noir mentality (one of the inspirations for the series), and that he tends to regret what he does. There’s also some veritable moral bastions in the series (to wit, Michael Carpenter, a Catholic Knight of the Cross who wields a sword with a nail of the True Cross worked into it) who are portrayed very positively, so I think the series is quite honest with itself there. Good is good and evil is evil, and a lot of people are caught in between. Ah, and the ones who are caught in between find it to be an uphill battle to stay good, because their monstrous natures (for instance, those who are on the path to vampirism, but who regret or otherwise don’t want it) are a constant pull on them. “Temptation” is an understatement.

    …yeah, I just did a search on the blog to find that yes, you have indeed read the books and are quite pleased with them. I’ll search beforehand next time.

    • I have and LOVE the Dresden Files. It is Film Noir with magic at its best. And magic is not without its price in that world. Indeed, he is the only writer I can think of who treats the difficult subject of magic both as what I call an ‘alternate technology’ and as a ‘dark art’ that imperils the soul. That is a difficult wirewalking act.

      Like Neal Stephenson, I think that if Mr Butcher is not a Christian, he is at least sympathetic to our cause. Mr Butcher does what Joss Whedan would have done in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER had Mr Whedan not been controlled by Leftwing pieties, namely, had angels as well as devils in his background.

      • Curubethion says:

        That is a very, very apt way of putting it, particularly down to the wirewalking bit. “Consequence” seems to be a big thing. (Oh dear me, the consequences wrought by Harry’s desparation…I’m only halfway through Changes and yet I can already see Very Bad Things looming on the horizon.)

        • CPE Gaebler says:

          MWAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!!! There are, indeed, Very Bad Things on the horizon. You are in for a treat!

          Sadly, I am still number 3 in the holds queue for Book 14. :(

      • Stephen J. says:

        “Mr Butcher does what Joss Whedon would have done in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER had Mr Whedon not been controlled by Leftwing pieties, namely, had angels as well as devils in his background.”

        I remember my delight and joy during the fourth season of the show Supernatural when the character of Castiel, and the angels of Heaven, were introduced as a faction in the supernatural world that monster-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester lived in. I even appreciated the fact that these angels were presented as terrifying and powerful and (initially) unironic.

        (Those who still want to watch the show and haven’t gotten to this season yet should stop reading now.)

        And I remember the slow dismay and horror of watching them get eviscerated, dramatically, as a respectable set of characters: as it gradually comes out that most of them have never talked to God, that they think almost as little of human beings in general as the demons they fight do, that they are eager for the Apocalypse and care not at all that the world will be destroyed, and that God Himself has essentially walked away from the whole mess millennia ago and does not appear. (I later found out that Eric Kripke, the show’s creator, apparently launched that whole arc by walking into his writers’ room and announcing, “Okay, guys, season four–angels! But they’re d*cks.”)

        From a dramatic point of view there is a good argument to be made for making sure your characters can’t obtain more than brief and occasional deus ex machina happy endings, of course. And Castiel himself actually sums this up admirably when he says to Dean at the end of season five, “Which would you rather have, Dean? Peace? Or freedom?” But I have become immensely tired of people who think working out their issues with authority figures by representing traditional religious entities as Gnostically misotheist @$$holes is cool and edgy and some form of “speaking truth to power”, and have always enjoyed Jim Butcher’s willingness to give the angels their due.

        • “Okay, guys, season four–angels! But they’re d*cks.”

          This is essentially what Alan Moore in SWAMP THING and Neal Gaiman in SANDMAN did. It is also the governing philosophy in role playing games involving angels and demons like NOBILIS.

          In this article (here http://johncwright.livejournal.com/48028.html) George Orwell reviews CS Lewis’ THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH. Mr. Orwell (or Mr. Blair, take your pick) makes interesting comments, but only one really betrays the typical limitations of his secular philosophy: “When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid. ”

          Come now: is Milton’s PARADISE LOST without drama? We know Adam is going to win, don’t we? He has supernatural aid in his struggle against the devil, doesn’t he? Or how about little Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom? The One Ring would not have come to him if he were not meant to have it. That means a mysterious supernatural fate is assuring him of victory in his struggle against Sauron, right? Ergo there is no drama in the story. The miracle of Gandalf’s resurrection, the miracle of Aragorn raising and commanding the Hosts of the Dead–all this robs the tale of interest, right? There is no drama in the ILIAD, look at all those gods peopling the tale; and none in CINDERELLA, because how can a girl with a fairy godmother lose?

          Bah. What utter humbug Orwell says. Some people suffer from fairy-story deprivation, or something, and hence do not know what real life is about.

          • valancycarter says:

            I experienced great suspense while reading 1776 by David McCullough despite knowing the Revolutionary War ends!

          • deiseach says:

            Well, in that sentence (“When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win.”), Orwell was nearer to orthodoxy than a good many others, including some who should know better, who represent God and the Devil as equals – either both struggling to win over humanity, or even worse, both partners in a conspiracy where they are willing to divide up humans along the lines of ‘you get these and I get those’.

            I forget where I read it or who said it, but the truth is that God is not the opponent or rival of the Devil, St. Michael is. So Orwell is correct in that, eventually, the Devil is defeated. Indeed, the Devil is already defeated and overthrown by the death and resurrection of Christ, and we are in the end-phase of the long defeat waiting for the Second Coming.

            Besides, he did recommend Lewis’ novel as worth reading, particularly in comparison with other modern novels, so whatever his own philosophy, he was able to be impartial when it came to reviewing duties :-)

            • Mary says:

              It’s another C. S. Lewis, that line about Michael

            • I had heard that Lucifer’s main rival (up until the Apocalypse, that is) is the Virgin. That makes for an interesting image: a young virgin jewish girl trampling with her dainty foot the head of a dragon able to dethrone the stars from their orbits.

              • Suburbanbanshee says:

                “Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?”

                But St. Michael not only fought the devil and his angels, but did escort duty for souls of the dead, as seen in medieval stuff. So yeah, plenty of fighting.

                But he’s a general and Mary’s the Queen-Mother, so there’s a nice clear command structure. :)

        • CPE Gaebler says:

          The tendency to have angels be either just as bad as people, or at the very best completely and thoroughly callously aloof (such as, I gather, the “Powers That Be” in the Buffyverse, which don’t really give a hoot), seems to be connected to a particular complaint I have heard from Leftists, namely, that if God and His angels are so powerful, why don’t they just wipe out evil in like two seconds? The only options that present themselves to a certain simplistic mindset are that either the angels are not powerful enough, and are thus too busy holding the demons at bay to interfere with mortal affairs (I gather this is how Gygax had it), or that they do not care. Y’know, the old Problem of Evil canard.

          One reason I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Wright’s assessment of Butcher re: Christianity is that he completely avoids this, and in a way that seems to be ripped straight from the Catholic Catechism. Especially so in some of the later books.

          • Mary says:

            And yet they want to be called “liberals” — you know the root word there means “liberty.” A metaphysical hatred of liberty explains their political hatred of it, but the irony that lies in that name. . . .

        • deiseach says:

          I loved the initial introduction of the angels, because they did get the notion of ‘these are not humans at all’ correct. Then it went the usual route of ‘to be interesting, the good angel characters have to become humanised or even human’ which is not particularly interesting for those of us who know what it’s like to be human and would prefer to see the non-human angle.

          Oddly enough, the series was very good about what Hell and devils and demons are like – it’s not fun, it’s not good, it’s not nice and you will not like it, and making bargains with demons never works out well. The episode with the pagan gods was also unexpected (“Hammer of the Gods”) where Lucifer with no difficulty at all cuts a swathe through the assembled members of various pantheons and is extremely disdainful of them. I would have expected either the gods to be presented sympathetically (and they’re not; they have the human guests of the hotel in storage to eat them!) or for Lucifer to make alliance with them in his fight against Heaven (and he doesn’t, and he disapproves of them, their motivations, and their pretensions to be rulers of the world). So that was odd to see in a modern fantasy/horror TV show.

          I won’t even touch what they did with Purgatory and Limbo except to say “No!” very loudly.

    • lotdw says:

      “I do note that the morality of orcs is something which Tolkien wrestled heavily with, not happy with the idea that a race which possesses a modicum of reason could be universally considered evil. ”

      Interesting, I’ve always wondered about that – where did you find this?

  10. TheConductor says:

    At the risk of burlesquing an important theological concept (I apologize in advance if anyone thinks I am doing so)…wouldn’t it be terrific if, in the final once-and-for-all confrontation of good versus evil, the Lord saw to it that all the good guys, real and fictional, were arrayed against all the bad guys, real and fictional? In other words, the good guys would include not only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and the like, but Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Flash, the Shadow, the A-Team, Columbo, MacGyver, Magnum PI, Elvis, Santa Claus, the little dogs from the Disney “Buddies” movies (not to mention That Darn Cat and Herbie the Love Bug), and on and on; while the bad guys would include not only Hitler, Stalin and my eighth grade gym teacher, but the Joker, the Riddler, Lex Luthor, ghosts, witches, Nosferatu, the Omega frat guys from the Animal House movie, and so forth.

    (Hey, this post WAS tagged as drollery.)

  11. Pingback: There are many reasons I love John C. Wright

  12. Speculativereason says:

    Outstanding post, John. Your strongest point was the dramatic emptiness of technocratic, consequence-free magic. I’m loath to call extra-mundane powers of non-transcendent origin “magic” at all (see The Wheel of Time series or any electronic RPG).
    Magic, as clasically understood, is anti-sacramentality. Sacraments use mundane substances to achieve supernatural ends, whereas magic uses preternatural agencies for worldly ends. Being sin, dabbling in magic entails its own penalty.
    One point of contention: ascribing the “sovereignty of conscience” to Christian thought is excessive. Christian moral doctrine doesn’t teach that the individual conscience is sovereign. My conscience can be misinformed and is only sound to the degree that it corresponds to natural and divine law. That said, your point on the importance of individual conscience to the western literary narrative is indisputable.

  13. Pingback: Faustian Bargaining | Brian Niemeier's Web Journal

Leave a Reply