Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Magic, Fantasy, and Allegory (Part Four)

Today I hope to conclude our discussion of magic and fantasy. That's an ambitious thought, but we shall see if it is carried out. Four final issues today:

1. Beasties and Yugglies and Turnover Uglies and Things That Go Bump in the Night
(Credit goes to Lee Hammond for the title.) I hope that all of us who read Tolkien and Lewis have wondered from time to time how to handle talking animals and elves, and goblins, and such creatures. To be honest, I don't know about elves at this point and time. Goblins, etymologically, are of evil origin, and should be on the side of evil if they must be included at all. No converted goblins, please. So today we're only going to discuss talking animals. Note that by talking animal I am not referring to fauns, naiads, or centaurs, only animals in their original animal form that talk. The others will have to come later (perhaps when we get around to dissecting Narnia).

Talking animals--to be honest, I've come to the conclusion that they're not an entire deal-breaker for me. After all, animals do talk. Every form of wildlife has some audible means of communication with others of it's kind--whether chirps, barks, mewing (for the cat-loving bibliophiles) and various noises. They express many of the same things that we do--love, pain, pleasure, etc. In such books as The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh, the fantasy of talking animals merely portrays communication between the different kinds, which does actually happen, though not to that extent. It's not talking that makes us different from the animal kinds. For instance, our talking enables us to understand other humans clearly. Then, we learn the general meaning of the sounds that dogs, birds, and cats make. True we don't know exactly what they mean by it, but we can make an educated guess. Animals also learn our general meaning when we speak to them. They can register tones of praise and rebuke, even sometimes of sadness. So it's not communication in itself that makes us different from the animal kind, (though granted, our forms of communication are different according to the biblical kind) but the fact that we have immortal souls made in the image of God.
In the case of the talking animals of Narnia, the only point that makes them different from regular animals is that they use the human form of communication. Now while I probably wouldn't write using this technique myself, and I don't totally endorse it, it's not completely evil to think about--at least, to my understanding at this point and time. However, the general rule of thumb to sift through such books should be that any form of animal in the fantasy/allegory genre must be in subjection to man. Talking or no, man is  the higher creation, and in Genesis 1 God gave Adam dominion over the animals.  While I wouldn't recommend a intense diet of talking animals, the animals are only put on our level when they portrayed as having immortal souls, or put on the same authority level with humans, not necessarily when they have human speech.

[Side Note: This section is not meant to address the issue of whether or not animals go to Heaven. That's another topic for another day.]

#2. Concerning Witches
So where do we draw the line on witches? Well, firstly we shouldn't read too much about them. Witches are under demonic influence, and it's just not healthy to make that a normal part of your reading diet. "Whatever is good, pure, lovely, etc." Witches are none of those things. But, in the case where evil is fought against so that the world may be returned to what is good, pure, and beautiful, it may have some merit as illustrating triumph over evil. After all,
 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
--Ephesians 6:12

We do wrestle against demons, against spiritual wickedness, against the devil himself. Not against flesh and blood. And in some cases, books may properly illustrate this. But not in every case. I don't know enough to give you a three step test judge this out. But I would imagine that every one of you possesses at least one copy of God's Word. It's there to be used, the God will give you wisdom in applying it. My only suggestion at this point is that if witches are used in the book, you probably shouldn't be able to "see" from the their perspective. Just as we can't see what Satan and his minions are thinking, so in books of this nature we should only be able to see from the perspective of good working to overcome evil. Because that is what we do, and therefore, that's what our literary friends should do.

#3 White Magic and Black Magic

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! -Isaiah 5:20

When an author calls evil "good or white", then you have a problem. We've already discussed this in the terms of "good" witch and "bad" witch. For that reason I'm not a fan of several old classics. Misused term or not, it sends the wrong message. But how about white magic and black magic? It really depends. Here's a few thoughts that may be helpful: Good and evil must be different--in other words, the good guys must be using a different kind of power than the bad guys. Not merely a different name; it must be different entirely, and it must derive from the highest source of power in the story. The "God" figure of the fantasy or allegory. The human characters cannot be a power unto themselves, and they cannot change the fate of the nation through their own strength. I'm not talking about a group of men turning the tide of the battle, here. I'm saying that the human figures in the story must acknowledge that, whatever the outcome of the crisis they're facing, they themselves cannot choose what it will be. That means that Frodo can't control the outcome at Mount Doom, and Tirian has no power to eliminate Tash from his foes. If the story properly represents human/God relationships, then the characters must be vulnerable-- their "magic" can't control the outcome. Also, human "magic" should not have power over human life. If someone dies, it should be from a clean bullet or sword slice--a tangible means. Otherwise, the God-figure of the story must be clearly shown as taking his people Home. Third, (and finally) I am much more comfortable with the winter-that-never-ends and violent thunderstorms that I am with drowsy eyes and feelings of horror. While I don't particularly like either reaction, I would rather the black magic be evidenced in the natural world, and not in physical bodies.
Generally, if magic is being used, the evil side should be the one relying on magical powers, and the good side should be relying on their God-figure. That, I think, is a more biblical presentation of good and evil.

There may be such a thing black magic, but if the other side is "white" then I strongly doubt you can use magic in the same breath.

#4 Why would I accept one book containing magic and not another?
You may be wondering why I read and enjoy Tolkien, but not a book containing magic like Michael Phillips' Angel Harp. Good question. Part of it is the fact that if magic is going to be used, I would rather see it in the realm of hobbits and elves than read of it's being used in the 21st century with human beings. It's called protection, partly. It's called conviction, partly. But in the end, books like these come down to gut feeling. (That's really the best way I can find to express it.) If they give me the wrong kind of "creep" factor, or make me feel uncomfortable, or my mind is sending up giant red flags, then I know that something's wrong. I realize that our hearts are deceitful, but the Holy Spirit's conviction is not, and God uses feelings of discomfort to drive us away from dangerous things. After I set the book down, He always gives me concrete direction on why I shouldn't read it, or why I should save it until later. I'm not recommending a mystical feel-the-book-and-see-if-its-good evaluation. God's Word has clear-cut principles that do not bend to different circumstances. But the application of those principles call for individual prayer and insight, and that's where we come to different conclusions. Some people may get the same warning signals reading Tolkien, etc. that I get reading Angel Harp. In that case, you shouldn't read it. In a genre like this, we can't lump all the books together and make a mass evaluation. They have to be taken and judged individually.

Well, friends and fellow bibliophiles, that's all for today on Magic, Allegory, and Fantasy. Next time we'll conclude with a post on allegory and final wrap-up. While some of the points I've mentioned today may be negotiable, or not fully threshed out yet, I am merely telling you where I stand right now. I am sure that my perspective on this will grow and expand as the Lord teaches me more. I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on this topic as well. :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady B,
    Wonderful post! So, do I sense a Narnia post coming up? Hhhmmmm..... :D :D ;D ;D
    You're doing a great job on threshing out these issues.
    Love, Sister

    1. I think that we will sometime, Sister. ;) But probably not right away. I'm tucking it away for future use.

      Love and cuddles...

  2. Thank you for your prudent advice, Lady B. As far as discerning which "books with magic in them" are "safe" and which are not, some of us here were speculating that the author's perception of magic and the sense in which they use it may often be the deciding factor. To be a Christian, of course, one must accept and embrace the reality of a spiritual world and of the supernatural...our God is the Author of miracles. The times when those "red flags" go up for me are often when I encounter stories dealing with real witchcraft portrayed in a neutral or positive light, or when good characters display unnatural supernatural powers that are either unexplained or from a questionable source. In fantasy it is often harder to judge, because the nature of the story requires that the setting be essentially different from our own. Still, a wholesome book has a wholesome flavor, and poison is poison, whether it is encountered in Ancient Greece or 21st Century America or a fantasy "otherworld".
    Thank you for making Scripture the basis of your judgments as much as possible....
    With appreciation,
    The Philologist
    P.S. Animals talking with divine authorization (i.e. Narnia) does not bother me...after all, God wrote a talking donkey into Scripture. :)

    1. I totally forgot Balaam's donkey. ;) Very true, thank-you, Philologist.

      I liked what you said here: "real witchcraft portrayed in a neutral or positive light, or when good characters display unnatural supernatural powers that are either unexplained or from a questionable source." Excellently put. :D

  3. Very good post, Schuyler! I have been actually keeping up with your magic, fantasy posts and have found them very good (though I might not have commented on most if any of them... sorry about that!).

    I especially appreciated what you said about seeking the Holy Spirit in really knowing what He wants us to read/watch or anything else in life, besides also seeking His Word in that regard.

    Thank you for sharing!


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