Chalcedon received a challenging letter from a reader named Marcia recently. Let me quote from it:
After reading Lee Duigon’s article on Christian Reconstruction … and Fantasy?, I am wondering if Mr. Duigon could write an article about fairies. Tinker Bell is a popular fairy in Walt Disney’s works. Another interesting concept might be the magic in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and other popular children’s stories. Personally, I don’t like any of it, but I am not sure exactly why.
Fairies … I must admit I hadn’t given them any thought, even though I’m Chalcedon’s in-house fantasy novelist. But fairies have been abundant in fantasy literature for hundreds of years, and in folklore for thousands. Maybe I should consider them.
But first I have to backtrack to a more relevant starting point.
Fantasy is very popular in our culture, especially in Young Adults Fiction. I write fantasies by which I hope to regain some of this cultural territory for Christ’s Kingdom.
Why not? Fantasy can establish a vantage point from which we can see something old as new and fresh, looking at it from a brand-new angle. This is what C. S. Lewis did with his Chronicles of Narnia (see my review of The Lion’s World by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in “Faith For All of Life,” Nov./Dec. 2013). Fantasy also, like poetry, can reach places in the reader’s mind not easily accessible to other kinds of literature. So why not write fantasy in the service of the Kingdom?
What is “Magic”?
In my Bell Mountain novels, I’ve made a point of allowing nothing that the Bible doesn’t allow. Therefore, the characters in my stories do not have magical powers, nor can they “do magic.”
Here I think I ought to clarify what I mean by magic.
By “magic” (in quotes) I mean an acquired ability to circumvent the laws of nature—which, of course, are God’s laws governing and maintaining His creation. You acquire “magic” by studying and learning certain procedures—as Harry Potter learned at Hogwarts, the wizards’ school—or by obtaining “magical” items like a crystal ball, a flying carpet, or the magic beans that Jack had, that grew into a special kind of beanstalk.
This is very close to what the Bible calls witchcraft, a sin deemed worthy of the death penalty. But what I find very little of in the Bible are examples of witchcraft that actually works. We have the Egyptian magicians duplicating the first few miracles wrought by God through Moses, then throwing up their hands in despair. We have the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28; but she seems surprised and frightened when the apparition of Samuel seems to materialize in response to her mumbo jumbo. The point is, when miraculous things are done in the Bible, they are done by the power of God, not man.
We do find persons who pretend to have magical abilities. In Acts we meet “a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one” (8:9); and “a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus” (13:6); and when St. Paul was in Ephesus, “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them” (19:19).
I think when we read that these persons “used” magic, that what they did was to deceive people into thinking they had magical abilities. But we do not read that any of them really succeeded in doing anything that was outside the bounds of nature.
So, Marcia, “magic” has been with us for thousands of years. If it has never been real in the sense that it was advertised, it has still been a cultural reality.
Are Fairies Magical?
Another aspect of “magic” is that the uninitiated can’t understand it. Only the wizard understands why the flying carpet flies.
What if it flew because he had invented a secret new technology that made it fly—little discs, say, woven into the fabric where no one would notice them? It wouldn’t be a magical carpet, then: it would only seem like magic to the uninitiated (even as my computer seems like magic to me).
Which leads us back to fairies.
What is a fairy? It’s impossible to say, because folklore offers us a bewildering array of definitions and descriptions. They’re tiny; they’re as big as humans. They’re spiritual beings; they’re an ancient race of people living underground. They’re spirits of the dead, or vacillating angels trapped between heaven and hell, or inhabitants of a parallel universe—and those are just the definitions from Welsh folklore.
This is strong and persistent folklore. Indeed, fairy sightings in the British Isles are alleged to continue even up to this day (for a list of such sightings, http://www.paranormaldatabase.... ). In 1917, when two young girls used cut-out figures to create “real photographs of fairies,” many people were taken in by the hoax—including even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes ( http://www.squidoo.com/cotting... ). The girls admitted to the hoax in 1981.
Disney’s familiar Tinker Bell resembles the fairies in the 1917 photographs, as well she should: both belonged to the Victorian tradition of how to portray fairies—very small, quite pretty, and able to fly with wings.
As Disney presents her, Tinker Bell uses “pixie dust” to give humans the power to fly. Although fairies have wings, the Disney fairies can’t fly very far without a sprinkling of pixie dust.
Because there’s no way a human body can be made capable of flight, pixie dust qualifies as a magical item. When Harry Potter and his friends fly around on brooms, playing “quidditch,” they’re using magic. Otherwise there would have to be some way of constructing a broom so that it would transport a rider through the air. Both Tinker Bell’s pixie dust and Harry Potter’s broom violate the laws of the physical world, and are therefore magical.
Is this what Marcia doesn’t like? Maybe. After all, if people or fairies really could do magic, our world might become a most dangerous and unstable place. How often can you violate the laws of nature before they stop being laws at all, and anything can happen?
Is It “Magic” or “Alternate Reality”?
“Magic” is taken for granted in most fantasy, as if it were just another specialized skill, like auto repairs or tax preparation. Indeed, “magic” in these stories is often used to get things done that could be done by ordinary means—which makes life easier for the writer. This displays not only laziness, but shallow thinking.
In The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany looked more deeply into the implications of “magic.” Dunsany’s Elfland is a parallel universe which operates under a set of physical laws different from ours. The characters in his story try to import some of Elfland’s magic into their own little corner of our world—with disastrous results. The two universes are not compatible.
Fantasy blogger Matt Dellar, posting on my blog (http://leeduigon.com), explains, “The way I see magic in fantasy as opposed to the pre-set laws of physics is that, in the alternate realities in which many fantasies exist, the God or gods of those worlds must have made magic possible within that world’s laws of physics, or else it wouldn’t happen … I think one of the great flaws of magic in fantasy is calling it ‘magic’ in the first place … Because in the world those characters occupy, it wouldn’t be [magical]. To our ancestors, clap-on lights would be magical, unreal … If another sentient species came to our planet, they may well be absolutely fascinated with this super power we have that we flippantly call ‘empathy,’ or the magical ability to put oneself into another’s mind and feel, to an extent, what they feel” (posted as a reply to “Why I Don’t Use Magic,” Feb. 11, 2014).
And so, Matt says, what looks like magic to us, in our world, may be only “alternative universe physics” in another world. And to the inhabitants of such a world, aspects of our reality, that we take for granted, would seem magical to them.
Thus in Narnia, it’s normal for animals to talk, but not in our world. Here, for an animal to talk would be either a miracle wrought by God, as when Balaam’s ass spoke to him, or else a sign that someone’s doing witchcraft—or skillfully practicing a deception on us.
God has created many animals that can do things we can’t do. If fairies really existed, and they had wings like birds or butterflies, and could fly—they would be as God created them, and not magical, any more than a dragonfly or a seahorse is magical.
As I go about explaining it all away, I wonder if I’ve allayed Marcia’s uneasiness about the whole business. Probably not.
Beyond Tinker Bell is Peter Pan. My imagination will stretch to accepting the fairy as a natural creature, had God chosen to create little flying humanoids: but not Peter, the boy who never grew up. That’s not natural. Nothing about him is natural. If he is a boy, and alive and in the flesh, then he must age, he can’t fly, and he can’t lose his shadow and get it sewed back on. All of that is strictly magical, the product of storyteller J. M. Barrie’s imagination.
That leads us to another question regarding fantasy.
Is it wrong for us to use our God-given imaginations to conjure up visions of things that are simply impossible? To use it to provide idle entertainment?
Certainly all fiction is not sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ told parables, which were not about real people.
In my Bell Mountain stories I have tried to go beyond boilerplate fantasy: to create, in the words of the advertising blurb, “faithful fiction that reveals the Kingdom of God.” The books are, as it were, extra-long parables—a description which I think applies also to much of C .S. Lewis’ fiction, and to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I don’t compare my books to those, except to point to a tradition of using stories of imaginary worlds to augment the reader’s understanding of that part of God’s creation in which we live our lives.
What I Don’t Like in Fantasy
Is it always wrong to allow “pure magic” into a fantasy?
I enjoyed Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, which is nothing if not magical. Here, a man named Mortimer has the impossible “ability,” totally beyond his control, to transport into our world characters he reads about in books—which causes persons here to be transported into the world of whatever book he happened to be reading. This makes his life exciting, complicated, dangerous, and stressful.
What I like about this book is its emphasis on love and family, and its celebration of the art of storytelling. Those are not bad things to write about, and I have no objection to the author’s use of magic—without which, the story simply could not go.
Let me tell you what I don’t like in fantasy.
I don’t like stories in which “magic” is used as a shortcut, or thrown in because so many other writers do it. For a genre whose very existence rests on the imagination, fantasy literature exhibits a staggering degree of unoriginality.
Even more, I don’t like fantasy that’s pitched to young readers and uses “magic” as a temptation. You know the kind of story I mean—teenage girl acquires magic spell which enables her to ensnare the boy of her dreams; boy discovers he’s the son of a Greek “god,” and that he has all sorts of super-powers. I think this might be the kind of fantasy I hate the most. This kind, as well as the lazy, copycat variety, shows persons violating the laws of nature by using magic for trivial, selfish purposes—and never with any adverse consequences.
Is this what puts Marcia off? The subtle message that you can break God’s laws and get away with it? I think I may have put my finger on it. We don’t like fantasy that tells us you can break God’s laws and get away with it.
There’s all too much of this in fantasy. It may be that fantasy and pornography are the only kinds of literature that routinely perpetrate this sin.
The difference is that pornography has to sin, but fantasy doesn’t.
Whether we sin through laziness and carelessness because so many other writers do it, or because we have been tempted to seek out wickedness and try to gain by it, in a fallen world that honors evil over good, each and every fantasy writer must bear the responsibility for which kingdom his work shall serve—Christ’s Kingdom, or the world’s.
I hope that helps you, Marcia.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.