Magic By Any Other Name

I know this is a touchy subject, and I hope to handle it carefully.

Image courtesy of SuperTrooper at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of SuperTrooper at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As a Christian, the topic will sometimes arise on how I can justify writing stories that include or involve magic, specifically if I am portraying it as something being used by a hero or heroine character. It is a worthy question, one deserving of a thoughtful answer. This discussion has been percolating in the back of my mind for over two years now, but it’s such a huge topic that I’ve always felt rather overwhelmed by it. However, Fantasy February seemed the right time to pull it out. 

There are numerous passages in the Bible that refer to magic, sorcery, enchantments, the use of magical remedies, soothsayers, and the like. If you look up the words used for “magic” or “enchantments” or “witchcraft” in the original Hebrew and Greek, you will find a list of words such as “chartom,” “cheber,” “keceth,” and “pharmekeia” and “pharmakos,” all of which tend to go hand-in-hand with idolatry, human sacrifice, deceptions, demonic forces, poisoning, and the ilk. In every instance, these things are shown in a negative light and warned against… as well they should be.

Supernatural powers do exist in the real world. And those powers come from one of two places. God or Satan. When people in the Bible were practicing divination or sorcery or using magical remedies or fortune-telling — and the Bible says that they were actually doing these things, not just performing sleight-of-hand or tricking the masses in some way — they were always doing so through the help of a demonic power. It was not a power inherent within themselves, it came directly through the aid of demonic forces.

All of this to say, I truly believe that supernatural forces are at work in our world, and that if the power doesn’t come from God, then it hails from a much darker place and should not be messed around with.

So, as a Christian, how can I even contemplate portraying magic in my stories in a good light?

Part of the answer is really quite simple. Fantasy magic simply does not exist in the real world. It’s fictional. 

Can I repeat that for a moment and let it sink in? Fantasy magic is. not. real.

But more than that, the magic depicted in most fantasy stories is not a power that one receives by calling on demons, but rather is generally portrayed as something that is inherited as either a racial or genetic trait… a talent one is born with for whatever reason, because it’s useful or interesting for that character and the progression of the story.

A dear friend of mine put it this way:

The fantasy genre was founded on the idea of relating and comparing the abstract to the mundane in order to unpack difficult themes. C.S. Lewis created an allegorical world to help readers grasp the concept of salvation. J.R.R. Tolkien longed to remind his Oxford students of the mystery and wonder of the ancient Celtic and Nordic cultures. John Bunyan wanted to demonstrate the life of the Christian with all of its ups and downs.”

~ Kaycee Browning
Author of Ember Flame and Esprit de la Rose 

Forest Path

I could go on with examples from these and other books, but let me speak to the question at hand and share examples from my own writing. 

In The Minstrel’s Call, for example, there is a Creator, and he has created certain races to have and wield a magical power. Wizards and wizardesses, for example, are not human – though they can intermingle with humans, and this can cause some humans to have inherited certain powers and abilities, but again, it is a genetic trait, given to that race of people by the Creator. Some use it for healing, some use it for other purposes. But magic in my world is neither good nor is it bad. It is the user who defines the power’s morality. Just like a person born with an amazing amount of strength can use that power for good or evil, or a person with a rapier-sharp wit and a command of language can use their talent to build up or eviscerate, magic in the stories I write is the same.

One of the first times I really spent a lot of time thinking about this subject was right before I started writing Stone Curse for the Five Enchanted Roses Contest a little less than two years ago – since the magical “curse” was kind of central to the entire story. When I received the galley proofs back, I discovered that one of my lines had been tweaked slightly to read that when Karyna walked into the Throne Room she was hit by the smell of dark magic. I asked them to please change that back to “decaying roses” or something musty instead – partially because I don’t think magic would have a smell – but mostly because “evil magic” or “dark magic” is not something I include in my writing. They graciously accommodated my request.

Also in Stone Curse, one of the characters wields magic with harmful intent and toward evil purpose. The character herself is not an evil person, but she allows her emotions to get the better of her and uses her magic to wreak destruction… which I used to highlight the cautionary theme of how our emotions can affect others and that we should be careful with what we say and do when we are in the midst of feeling hurt, angry, bitter, or betrayed. It also lends depth to the ultimate theme of forgiveness in the tale. But again, it is not the magic that is evil there, in that realm that is not to be found anywhere on Earth. It is the user who again determines the morality of the power.

Lest we grow concerned that there is no Biblical evidence for God giving certain humans amazing abilities, let me point out a brief line-up for you: Samson had amazing strength, Daniel and Joseph could interpret dreams, Elijah was given power to call down fire from heaven, control the weather, and run ahead of a horse-drawn chariot for 17 miles, then later was caught up in a chariot of fire and taken to Heaven, Elisha called down a curse on a group of disrespectful boys and two bears appeared out of the woods and killed 42 of them, trees and forests fought on the side of David’s army, Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff (and many more incredible things,) Elijah and many of the apostles brought the dead back to life…. I could go on for pages. All of these are examples of mighty acts of God’s power which God allowed to be acted out by mere men.

I understand that some people have a very knee-jerk reaction to the word “magic” in general, and I’d like to respectfully point out a problem with that reaction. You see, “magic” shows up in a lot of fiction, not just fantasy. It also exists in a lot of sci-fi… but it isn’t called “magic” there – it’s disguised as technology, or science, but if it doesn’t exist and can’t exist in the real world, it’s really just magic by another name. The teleporter in Star Trek? Magic. The Force in Star Wars? Magic. (Also the ability to travel through hyperspace and lightsabers themselves…) A blue police box that travels through time and space and sort of has a mind of its own? Magic. A screwdriver that somehow uses sonic technology to open locks (but doesn’t work on wood)? Magic. The very difficult to understand Battle Station that has gravity in some places and not in others in the Ender’s Game series (also the faster than light communication technology)? Magic. Any time you encounter a talking animal in fiction? Magic! Superman’s abilities fueled by the sun? Magic. The Flash’s superhuman speed? Magic! (okay, we’ll just go with all superheroes with the exception of Batman = some element of magic and leave it there, or this already ridiculously lengthy post just might never end). But my point in all of that is just this: it seems that sometimes the negative reaction people have to “magic” in fantasy stories has far more to do with the label being used than the actual idea behind the story device.

Keep in mind, none of these examples I just shared are real or possible in the real world. They are fictional. Nobody is going to learn how to wield the Force or create a TARDIS or tame a dragon or fly on a broomstick or heal a gaping wound, or gain superpowers (please don’t go jumping into vats of toxic waste!) by reading these stories or watching these movies. They are fiction. They are not based in OUR world or constrained by the scientific laws of our world. They are plot devices meant to entertain, often meant to underscore a deeper theme or question about humanity or relationships or faith.

If this is a deeply personal conviction for you, I understand. I really do. And this blog post is not even remotely intended to argue with you or change your

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

mind. If this is a stumbling block for you, I know of lots of non-fantasy stories that are quite excellent and I will happily recommend them to you. But please realize that what is a deep personal conviction for some may not be a law everyone else has to abide by. I read a blog post a while back by an individual who said she had to stop reading stories with magic in them because she was convicted by God that magic was wrong, especially stories with dragons in them… and that it was very difficult because she really wanted to like dragons, in fact, she was completely obsessed with them, but reluctantly relinquished reading stories about them. She then went on to lambast all books that contain dragons or magic and say they were evil… but she never once admitted that perhaps the reason God called her to give up those kinds of stories was because she had become obsessed with them and they were turning into a kind of idol for her. I laud her for listening to God in her specific situation, but I fear that she learned the wrong lesson.

As a Christian, I pray over my stories and my writing and what I post on my blog. Even (especially!) this particular blog post. I ask the Lord to bring glory to Himself through the writing talent He has given me. I ask Him to show me if there is anything in my writing or stories that I should remove or change that would be the opposite of glorifying to Him. I have never felt convicted to remove magic from my fantasy stories.

I think we’ve gone a bit long on this one. I’d love to spend some time on why I enjoy reading fantasy novels that do contain “fantasy magic,” but alas, I shall have to leave it to another post.

So, dear Reader, what say you? I welcome discussion, but please keep your comments respectful and kind, we can certainly disagree, as long as we can do it without name-calling or unkindness.

~ jenelle

28 Comments

Chris Morcom

That’s…one of the best explanations I have seen yet. I particularly appreciate the comparisons to other fictional ‘scientifically impossible’ things in fiction. It’s actually quite similar to the explanation I have given before:

“But magic is evil.”
“In this world, sure. But I’m not writing about this world, I’m writing about a different one. The world might look a lot like ours…or it might be a flat world orbited by its sun, situated in a vast Crystal Sphere floating in the infinite Phlogiston. I’m already designing a different world with different governments and races and species, possibly governed by a different set of laws of nature…If I want there to exist an intangible power that allows people to perform impossible (by Earth standards) feats that is neutral in nature…basically just another natural force…I can. I could call it anything I like: Essence, The Power, Vaulkreit, Signs, The Force, Charms, Aura, Semblance, Alchemy, Manipulation of the Aether, Worldsinging, Makes-Physicists-Weep, Ki, and so on. But…because it is the term people are most familiar with…people are going to call it ‘Magic.’ But, just because something shares a name with something else in our world…doesn’t mean it is the same thing. Just like you wouldn’t accuse everybody with the last name of Mussolini of being an Italian fascist dictator, just because there was someone else with the same last name who was.”

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DJ Edwardson

I appreciate the thoughtful approach you’ve taken here. It’s one of the better treatments I’ve read on the subject. Many times we come to the bible and project out own experience onto it and thus misread it. The same can happen with fiction. If magic only ever means “that which the bible condemns” then of course we would be wrong to include it in stories. But if one is willing to allow for different or secondary or alternate meanings then really the problem resolves itself.

For instance, I doubt any husband who tells his wife after a romantic dinner, “That was such a magical evening,” is envisioning warlocks and witches stewing toadstools and eye of newt over a cauldron. Magic in fantasy, when done properly, is more like the former and less like the latter. It’s more Gandalf’s fireworks and Alice’s shrinking potion and less Percy Jackson’s demigods and Harry Potter’s numerology, clairvoyance, and astrology.

I think the point about superheroes and scifi is well taken, though with scifi, the idea is that since much of what we now know is possible, i.e. flight, space travel, wireless communication, and tv would have been considered “magic” in the past we sort of give science a pass and say they will have figured out things like the transporter, interstellar travel, and photon torpedoes if we give them enough time. But the Force and the TARDIS, I’m definitely with you on things like that. That’s just magic with a techy veneer.

Interestingly, few Christians seem to have a problem with Lewis, but if you read “That Hideous Strength” there is definitely dark, cultish magic in that story and yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. Perhaps because it’s only used by the bad guys.

If you think about real magic, though, at it’s heart the actual sin behind it is not that it seeks to use the power of demons, but that it seeks to circumvent the will of God (and the powers of darkness are merely a means to that end). People drawn into it believe that if they just perform this rite or sacrifice this animal they will get what they want. And in that sense, the impulse to control, the will to power, to use any means necessary is as much alive in romance novels and historical fiction as it is in fantasy. It’s just that the bad kind of magic in fantasy is less subtle about it.

Thanks for writing this. It’s a topic that certainly needs to be thought through for any serious reader or writer of fantasy literature.

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Chris Morcom

I may be misunderstanding, but I would actually disagree with you that you shouldn’t have magic like demigods or HP-style magic in fiction. For, again, the same reason: it isn’t real. You could easily write a story in a world where such things are normal and in no way tied to evil or defying the will of God. I can easily imagine a world where Astrology and Divination are systems woven into reality that allow humanity to glimpse the will/plan of the Creator by methods He created.

Or, as I mentioned, it could be a world where Magic is a completely neutral, natural force. It is no more good or evil than fire is good or evil. Either can be used for tremendous good or tremendous evil, depending on who is using them. It is simply another natural force that mankind has learned to harness…possibly in place of technology.

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DJ Edwardson

Hey, thanks for reading my comment and responding Chris.

The problem I have with using the “but it’s not real” as a carte blanche is that it allows an author to write whatever they want. Half-demon offspring? Fine, they’re not real. Burning children at the stake for supernatural power? Sure, it’s not real. Murderous, psychotic rampages? Go for it. I think you get the point. If that is indeed your philosophy then you can effectively never have anything wrong with any story because all fiction, by definition, isn’t real.

My objection to the demigods and occult practices I referenced are tied in with my explanation of the real danger of magic, i.e. it’s not the “form” per se, it’s what’s behind it. When astrology, or demigod connections, or anything for that matter (someone’s ability to romantically exploit another person) is used to gain power, hidden insight, or manipulate others (as is the case with actual magic), even if it’s to beat the bullies or do some other “good”, whenever the primary focus is on “getting what you want by any means necessary” that is the real danger of “magic” or what I’d call the “will to power”. And that is a very real thing indeed.

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Chris Morcom

I definitely understand where you are coming from…but the thing that is always real in a world I create or a story I tell is morality. It may be a little fuzzy to tell what side someone is on (like it is in the real world), but evil is always treated as evil. To me, the ‘mechanics’ of the world are fluid, and can be anything I want them to be…but good is good, and evil is evil. Burning children at the stake for supernatural power may be something that works in that world…but it is an unquestionably evil act. Same deal with the murderous, psychotic rampage.

I don’t judge morality based on the morally-inert tools that someone uses (if Magic is a natural force, it is, by definition, morally inert), I judge it based on what they do with it. It’s the same as I do not judge a knife to be evil just because it can be used to gain power or manipulate others, I do not judge supernatural abilities to be evil just because they could be used for evil.

It’s always about the person…the sentient being who is making a decision as to how they will use the tools that exist at their disposal. Yes, some forms of power lend themselves more easily to corruption than others. It’s a lot easier to find destructive uses for explosives than it is to find constructive ones.

But, you could very easily have a character who is clairvoyant, and uses their powers to call people who are about to commit suicide to convince them to not go through with it. It’s simply a question of motive…if you have a character who is determined to get what they want by any means necessary, then they will do so with whatever tools you give them. If you have a character who wants to use what they can do to help others, they will do so with whatever tools you give them.

I certainly understand (and partially agree with) your thought that magic is definitely one of those powers that lends itself well to corruption and abuse…but I don’t think that’s a reason to cut the tool out of a story…it might just make for a more compelling one.

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jenelle

I’m loving the conversation this sparked!

As far as the sci-fi comment goes, I do understand the “pass” we give to sci-fi, and some of the technologies that are portrayed there may one day come to pass… but so long as it still isn’t even remotely possible… I stand by my label: magic. ;)

Personally, I don’t have a problem with stories that utilizes a pantheon from mythology (or makes up its own), as the gods and goddesses of Greek, Roman, or Egyptian mythology are not actually worshiped by anyone today and are generally accepted as mythology. Also, having studied a lot of that mythology in English classes, I feel that as a literary device they just go to show how inept and feeble the “gods” are that we create for ourselves in the face of the One True God.

As far as Harry Potter goes, that doesn’t bother me either. Though it is sort of set in our world, 1) magic is again a trait one is born with – non-magical characters can attempt to create a potion until they’re blue in the face and all they’re going to end up with is a kettle of really nasty-smelling goop – and 2) most of the story takes place in areas that non-magical creatures cannot reach… so it feels more as though the magical and non-magical world are linked as in the Chronicles of Narnia… though the doors to the magical world in Harry Potter are more reliable. I understand why it’s such a contested series, but I don’t necessarily agree that it ought to be.

I do believe Christian authors in the fantasy genre do need to give careful thought to why they are writing a story with magic in it and how it is portrayed… this is definitely not a blanket argument to be able to write whatever one wants… but I would say the same to any Christian writing ANY genre. I think there are some wonderful Christian authors who have toed and even crossed the line of what is acceptable in the romance category, but aren’t called on it for various reasons. We writers can make powerful use of our words. We need to use that power with care. (And now I’ve got the Spiderman line stuck in my head)

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Nancy Walker

This was extremely helpful and clarifying for me! Thank you so much for this post! (And of course, your mama always loves it to know her “kids” are striving to glorify God in whatever they do! Colossians 3:23) :)

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Serena

Thank you so much for writing this incredible post! I’ve read many articles and blog posts condemning magic and explaining why the magic in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings is ok while that in Harry Potter is not — and to a certain extent I can understand and respect these perspectives, but on some level I feel like it’s just a way of saying, “All magic is bad — except for this kind.”

I really appreciate how you point out the stark difference between fantasy and reality, and that often in fantasy, magic is not inherently evil or good — it’s how it’s used that matters, and that it’s often portrayed as a talent/ability/gift, and not something that can be learned, like witchcraft. And you made all of your points tactfully, I thought, without attacking anyone and with full respect for other opinions and convictions.

This post was so refreshing to read.

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Abbey

I enjoyed reading this post and the comments. Whether or not fantasy magic is okay is always in the back of my mind when I’m reading (or writing) books with magic, but I’ve never given significant thought to it. Thank you for this post as it has made me think and has made me consider some things that I hadn’t thought about before.

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Claire B.

Great post! I think you handled it really well. I love reading about magic and dragons in fantasy books, because, like you said, it’s just that. Fantasy. It takes me to a place that’s not “ordinary” or just plain different that what I see every day.
I tend to be careful about writing magic into my stories, just because I know some people might disagree with it. But I also tend to use it more of a supernatural “gift” from the God figure or the devil figure.
Anyway, that’s my two cents. :) Again, great post!

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madelinejrose

Amen! This was very well said and I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s not the magic that’s bad, but what the people choose to do with it, at least in my stories. Thank you for writing about this subject! :)

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Allan James

Careful, thoughtful, sensitive presentation. Well-done, Jenelle! My favorite magic in your stories is the stuff Kiernan Kane uses………………to absolutely………..perplex, annoy, and confound……………Brant!!!!!

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Stefanie

EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS.

I love this post. I have struggled to put into words how I feel but you’ve managed to. I’m a Christian and I read Harry Potter! Oh no! If someone feels convicted not to, that’s totally fine, but I really dislike being called a fake Christian over a fake book with fake magic!

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Shantelle

This was a really great post, Jenelle! I loved hearing your thoughts on magic, and the information you had to share! Very neat; especially explaining a little how you do magic in your stories! :)

I definitely see what you’re saying about people getting too concerned with the word “magic”. I feel like the same goes for “wizard”. Just because someone is called a wizard, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a wizard as in what wizards in the Bible were like. Gandalf, for example. He’s called a wizard, but I think he’s actually more an angelic being.

So wonderful thoughts! I’m still not sure what my exact thoughts are on magic, but I pray about my stories too! Praying that they’ll bring glory to God! And anything He wants me to take out, that He’ll show me! I try to just walk with the Lord each day, and if I read a magical fantasy that I’m not comfortable with, I put it down!

Blessings! :)

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jenelle

Yes, Gandalf is one of the Maiar, which are like lesser angels. But then, nobody who hasn’t read the Silmarillion knows that ;)

Glad you enjoyed it!

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jenelle

I do understand that, but by and large, those ancient religions are accepted as mythology by most of the western world. I read your two links and I am sorry that you cannot see the difference between allegory and occultism, but can we both agree that Jesus is Lord and leave it at that? I will not try to convince you of the beauty that can be found in Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia or the powerful themes of Christ’s redemptive power in the face of great evil and betrayal or the truths that can be gleaned from within many fantasy books/stories, and you will not try to convince me that they are the works of Satan? Because we will get nowhere and end up frustrated. I have no interest in getting into a divisive argument with a fellow believer, nor do I wish to create a stumbling block for anyone. But I honestly believe that all truth is God’s truth, and that both Lewis and Tolkien wrote their books prayerfully and thoughtfully and in an attempt to give God the glory, as do I. When an author says that a story has gotten away from them or run off with them, it is not an indication that Satan has taken control of the story, it is an expression we writers use to mean that our God-given imaginations can sometimes seem overwhelming, and that we often feel like we do not have the time to get all our ideas and thoughts down on paper.

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E.F.B.

Oh, wow, this post! I found this through your “Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag post” and I’m glad I did! As a fantasy writer myself, I’ve grappled with the idea of including magic in my stories. I just had to stop in (five months late :p) and say that you and I couldn’t possibly be more similar in our thinking when it come to this subject! I agree with literally everything you said and I’ve handled my inclusion of magic in my stories in much the same way as you: with careful thought and prayer. This post was so refreshing to read. Thank you for taking the time to write it!

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