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Volume 14, Issue 2: Tohu

The Meaning of Magic

Jared Miller

The practice and description of magic does not alarm me; more alarming is the fact that we possess a category for "magic" in our heads and don't have the foggiest idea of what it means. If the use of magic in literature is to become a bone of contention in Christian circles, we at least had better know what we are talking about.

Perhaps we could think of it as any means of control or knowledge which makes use of "supernatural" beings or forces. Necromancers consult the dead; witches conjure familiar spirits; special words, objects, or substances exert mysterious influences. Such an idea is as problematic as the idea of "supernatural" itself—we so often assume that nature is an inflexible, frictionless atom billiard-table, cheerfully banging away until some observing spirit (possibly a human spirit) doesn't like what he sees and intervenes, causing a brief jumble until the machinery takes over once more. If this is the case, as Lewis once pointed out, you would be performing magic every time you move your hand or think a thought. The Christian, who believes in concurrent Providence, must also admit on this definition that everything is magical, because all events and causes are a direct exertion of the power and will of a supernatural God—but what good is a term that denotes "everything"? Furthermore, how can this view distinguish "magic" from "miracle"?
We might escape these difficulties by excluding actions of the human spirit (though we can't escape having it initiated by human will), conveniently ignoring Providence (ultimately, of course, God does it all), and by stipulating that magic involves only evil spirits or dead souls. In other words, magic is nothing more than "a miracle done by the wrong sort of person."1 Though this seems rather artificially ad hoc, it is at least more clear. Unfortunately the term has not been consistently used in such a narrow sense in the corpus of history or literature, as medieval romances and folk-tales are full of beneficent magic, and many instances of recognizable magic do not involve personal supernatural beings at all. It still does not escape the problems of generality and the supernatural. Prayer to an idol is a prayer to demons; such prayer is a means of power; so then is all wrong worship to be construed as magical; or conversely, does any use of magic reduce simply to idolatry or heterodoxy, rendering the extra terminology useless? And a rigid nature/supernature distinction reveals that we have already swallowed the billiard-table nature, rather than accepting the seamless organic unity of all creation and insisting only on the more biblical Creator/creature distinction.
Let us then free ourselves from supernaturality in magic; it turns out to be at best vague and superfluous, and at worst unbiblical. Magic must be defined as the use of impersonal occult (read: hidden or secret) forces in order to obtain knowledge or power. Such is the well-known "sympathetic magic" of aboriginal cultures (popularly described as "voodoo"—objective transference of symbolic actions), and the phenomenon of magical words, objects, or substances in the ancient and medieval Western world. But a brief examination renders this definition, too, hardly satisfactory. Consider the premises: there is some kind of force in the world; it is understood only by a small group of initiates; it is morally neutral except in application; it is harnessed by the human will in a predictable and repeatable way, by means of procedure and apparatus. It is, in fact, no different from our modern science. What is the difference between "sympathy" and electromagnetism? Incantations and equations? The scientist would reply that magic was primitive science which, lacking a rigorous logical and experimental foundation, "didn't work." Magic in fiction may reduce to a higher science, but in history it reduces to scientific heterodoxy, just as in our earlier definition it reduced to religious heterodoxy.
Any use of the word magic to refer to historical phenomenon is thus extremely problematic, and depends heavily on the reigning orthodoxy. Jesus himself was a magician in the eyes of ruling-class Judaism, being to them the "wrong sort of person" to perform miracles, although the people accounted Him a prophet.2 I would argue that we can only really think of magic, in a historical sense, as a heterodox liturgy of power, whether it depends upon what we call "natural" or "spiritual" forces, and entirely relative to whatever the current orthodoxy and heterodoxy might be.
This is all very well, but what of magic in fiction? As one might expect, much of the magical phenomenon in literature is merely a reflection of the culture's perception of magic in the historical sense: thus Faust and the clichéd Shakespearean witch. But we also find misfits: fairies, elves, Merlin, Galadriel—representatives of an earthy, personal sort of power over matter and spirit, proceeding from both something good in itself but capable of corruption, something intuitive, creative, and artistic, which is neither a supernatural intrusion nor a mechanical lever-pull. It is something like a creaturely imitation of God's creation, providence, incarnation, and efficacious grace. Tolkien and Lewis took great care to distinguish it from "magic," and we should pay them the complement of believing them. They are not describing heterodox sources or means of power; they are translating orthodoxy into another realm, consistent within itself, so that we might experience it afresh. Their worlds, as symbol, remain orthodox, but benefit from the expressive range of magic. Only clunky literalism has a problem with middle-earth. In short, in Christian fantasy we find a stunning paradox: the magic of orthodoxy.

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