In a recent episode of the “Ask Andrew”feature of the CiRCE Institute’s podcast, Andrew Kern addressed a question from a reader that asked, in summary, why the magic in Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works was permissible and not occultic. In other words, books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings feature wizards, witches, elves, and a vast array of other mythical creatures who employ magic as part of the narrative. How is the magic employed in these stories different from the magic that is forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:10 or Leviticus 19:26? Is reading Tolkien and Lewis encouraging one to dabble in the occult?
I think it’s a fair question, and one I have heard time and again from my own circle of friends, particularly when I have shared my deep love for Narnia, Middle Earth and even Hogwarts. As a Christian who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, I wrestled to articulate what seemed to me to be an obvious difference between the magic of fairy tales and the magic of witchcraft, even when the character in the fairy tale was a witch.
In the past, I have made the same argument that John Granger makes (which, I am almost certain that he borrowed from C.S. Lewis, but I was unable to track down Lewis’ essay prior to publication of this post): that there is a profound difference between incantational magic and invocational magic. The first is the kind of magic employed in literature that can still be deemed wholesome; the latter is the type of magic biblically forbidden and is not present in Lewis, Tolkien, or even Rowling.
I have also made the argument that the magic described in fairy tales and other wholesome literature like Narnia and Harry Potter is the type of magic that is fanciful and outside of the realm of reality. Despite my best efforts, I simply cannot hop on a broomstick and make it fly. Or put on a bracelet and become a dragon. The type of magic utilized in fairy tales exists strictly in a world of one’s imagination. Transforming a girl into a cat with a magic potion (impossible) is a totally different thing than provoking spirits or summoning dark powers (not only possible, but dangerous and explicitly forbidden).
I expected Kern to rattle off these types of standard arguments. And, while he did hint that there are different kinds of magic, he went in a totally different direction than I was anticipating. And although I was initially confused by the approach that he took, I really should not have been at all surprised that he would take us back to the place that he almost always comes home to: Jesus Christ and Homer.
He asserts that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all things, and that He is reconciling all things to Himself. ALL things. Therefore, we cannot categorically dismiss anything (even magic) as patently evil, but instead exercise judgement, because all things are under subjection to Christ. In other words: In the beginning, God created the world and it was good. He made man and man was a glorious creature, created to be the image of and in relationship with the eternal, transcendent God. He created man to reflect that image and desire that relationship for man’s eternal joy. But then man fell, and he became a fallen, broken human. But he did not ever cease to be human. And all of those human desires, longings, hopes, and God-given abilities were still there, but now corrupted. Instead of seeking God, as we were created to do, humans now seek to find fulfillment in other areas and fail to glorify God as we should. And everything–even literature–reflects both the brokenness of man and the glory of man as he was originally created.
One of the areas where both man’s brokenness and his God-given humanity are best revealed, according to Kern, is in Greek mythology. The Iliad, for example, is a story of man seeking honor. But instead of seeking the honor that we were created to seek–the “well done” from Christ and the seat at the table in the Kingdom of God–Achilles is seeking for eternal honor and glory to be bestowed on him by man. So when we read The Iliad, our souls recognize Achilles’ craving for an honor that cannot be lost, because we have that God-given ache too. But we, a 21st century reader, are fortunate to possess something that eluded Achilles: the Gospel. We know that Christ has come to reconcile us to Himself through his death, burial, and resurrection. We have the promise of eternal life and restoration of the fellowship with God that He originally created us to enjoy. So although pagan literature does contain moral elements that a Christian would find objectionable, we know that the stories are not (in Kern’s words) “doctrines of demons.” As Kern says,
“demons can’t make things out of nothing. Only God can do that. So if they are doctrines of demons– if we accept that– then we can still, with the wisdom of Scripture, and the wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the church, we can still look at those doctrines and figure out ‘what are they corrupting?’”
When we ask that question, we discover that there is still truth contained in the literature about our own humanity. And that truth, when confronted honestly, can lead us to the One who IS the Truth. Just like it did for C.S. Lewis, who came to Christ by way of a mythological road. As he explains in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, mythology created a longing in him that could never be satisfied. He saw the truth of his humanity in the Greek and Norse myths, but after reading he was left with an ache or a thirst that he couldn’t slake. It was only when J.R.R. Tolkien explained the Gospel to him one late night at Oxford University that Lewis finally understood what Tolkien was saying: “All myths are true. The Christ Myth IS Truth.”
And the same is true for fairy tales as it is for Greek mythology. These ancient folk tales are stories that may seem pagan or occultic at the outset because they are centered on magic, witches, spells, and the sort. But when you exercise judgement and truly examine a good fairy tale (not a modernized, watered down version), you discover that they are telling the ancient tale imprinted onto our souls that we have long forgotten: we are, in actuality, royalty in disguise or exile, waiting on our god-parent to come and perform the miraculous on our behalf and rescue us. Kern asserts that the magic in a good fairy tale is always a symbol for the miraculous. And that magic or power for its own sake in fairy tales is a symbol of the corruption.
When listening to this episode today, I couldn’t help but think about how N.D.Wilson elaborated on Kern’s way of thinking about this in the latest episode of the Read Aloud Revival Podcast. He stated that
“the first wizard duel in literature is Moses versus the magicians and pharaoh. And he is the precursor to Gandalf and all these other wizards where the authors consciously imitated what Moses was doing. An old man walks out of the wilderness with a big beard leaning on a stick…Moses is the one who calls down the angel of death. Moses is the one who turns the river to blood. And in any fantasy book, that would be black magic. It’s like immediately, that’s on the wrong side. He turns his staff into a serpent and it’s like is he a black magician? Is he Voldemort? It’s like, ‘No, he’s not. He’s the prophet of God and he’s been given authority to do this.’ And the difference between good and bad is: has God given it to you or have you stolen it? Is it a task and a burden, an authority, or did you climb the wall and thieve it? Are you manipulating your way into this and conniving, or is this something that Elijah receives? Or Elisha receives in double portion? And the thing you see through scripture when all these guys are heroes– and really superheroes–they’re all precursors of the Messiah. When they get given what they’re given, it comes with authority and it’s always a burden and it’s always a curse.”
Wilson’s view about power given versus power stolen is why, Kern asserts, that Gandalf would not have the ring. It was not given to him; the power and authority and burden of the ring was given to Frodo. And he sacrificially gives up that power to destroy evil and redeem Middle Earth. Therefore, despite whether Tolkien intended for it to do so or not, Lord of the Rings whispers a hint of the Gospel. As does Narnia. And Harry Potter. And the Wingfeather Saga. And The Green Ember. And fairy tales. And, yes, even Homer. Because, although there are imperfections in all of those great tales, they were penned by one made in the image of God, one desiring relationship with Him, and that truth pervades every aspect of our being and our creativity. The Truth is written on our hearts. And although our expression of that Truth is sometimes overshadowed by the brokenness– praise God–He is reconciling ALL things to Himself through Christ.
Yes, even magic.