Magic, Pt. 2

Last post was kind of a doozy.  The salient points:

  • magic seems consistently connected to meaning, consciousness, names
  • In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, magic is (eventually) revealed to “work” by virtue of ancient alliances made with the land—the rocks, the rivers, the trees.
  • though it wasn’t mentioned last post, but probably ought to be to dispel any possible confusion:  There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved, than Jesus Christ.

OK.  So let’s continue this blog’s tradition of imputing eternal truth to works of pop culture (but the right pop culture, reader, and the right eternal truth) and consider Tolkien.

Tolkien had a thing for trees.  In a letter to the paper he wrote:

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

Thankfully the Jackson movies were faithful to this:

Machines are wonderful things.  If you know what you want, and you want it now, and without any fuss or backtalk—well, good news, that’s how machines work—and a certain kind of magic, even more so.  Both Sauron’s and Saruman’s methods are oriented towards shortening the distance between wanting and getting.  Sauron works through raw power, will, and coercion; Saruman sets up an assembly line to churn out warriors and weapons.  They get what they want, as efficiently as possible.

Gandalf, in contrast, spends most of his time riding around and talking:  warning, guiding, counseling.  Often it doesn’t “work” in that people don’t always do what he wants, as evidenced by Pippin’s misadventure with the palantir.

And this sets up the pivotal question of this post: Which is better, a tool or a friend?  If we have tools, do we wish they were more like friends?  If we have friends, do we wish they were more like tools?

True magic comes from the first, while the second kills it.

And this isn’t just me moralizing, either!  In a way, we already knew this—because we listed some traits of magic in last post.  “Unpredictable,” “understands things at our same conceptual level,” “cares about (and has) names,” “has some empathy for us.”  These things describe friends, not tools.

To be a magician, therefore, means to be friends with everything, even the (seemingly,  presently) inanimate. This is what Christ has done, and is doing, with us dust-creatures, after all.

And like Him, what we really want, at core, is not to control the world, but to speak, be heard, and have it speak back.  Tolkien, again, on the elves:

Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.

And Lewis:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

Notice how end and means are become one!  Friendship is both the means by which magic is accomplished, but also the reason. Someday the curse will be lifted, the scales will fall from our eyes, and the atoms will come running happily, like a dog to a master long away, now returned home.

Magic, pt. 1

The author of this blog has for a very long time wished to be a wizard.

(Warning, if it’s not obvious:  We’re going far afield here)

Or that’s how I thought about it at first.  I soon discovered I didn’t really know that meant.

Did I want to get into the occult?  No.  Did I want to delve around in old books?  Well, empirically, yeah, but I didn’t estimate the chances of old books -> fire from my hands being very high.  And who wanted fire from their hands anyway?  Sounded like it could go off at the worst possible moments.

I didn’t know what I wanted.  I just knew that I was a very big fan of The Lord of the Rings, and A Wizard of Earthsea, and that I played wizards in D&D with my friends.

None of these taught me how to, you know, do magic, but they did teach me some valuable lessons about what to keep in mind if I ever figured it out.  The Nazgul taught me that there are things worse than death, and that power could be a trap just like anything else.  Earthsea taught me quite a bit (it’s my favorite book for a reason), to the point that I’ll likely devote a later post to it.

At one point I came up with what I felt was a serviceable definition of magic:  that which we don’t understand.  But then I considered things that we actually don’t understand, like ball lightning, and I realized that didn’t seem like magic to me, so my definition must be off.

Some other miscellanae I collected:

– magic is always connected with meaning somehow.  Would-be magicians, or fictional ones, always phrase the effects of their works in human-level terms.  They deal with concepts humans are very familiar with:  fire, clothing, water, trees, weather, love, motion, animals.  No one makes a spell to change the spin of quarks, or to denature proteins!

names seemed to be a very consistent thread, as did language

– reinforcing the “connected with humans/consciousness somehow” thread, there is a service you can subscribe to called Magic, which consists of 24/7 available skilled human assistants who can do things like order flowers, send emails, book flights, etc.

– in software, something is often referred to as “magic” if it anticipates your needs, somewhat like a good genie

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

But I think I’ve made a bit of a breakthrough recently.  I’ve been watching the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about two men in Napoleonic-era England who undertake to “restore English magic.”  I had read the book a long time ago, but the excellence of the adaptation, plus Dr. Charlton’s blog posts (1 2 3), got me thinking about it again.

The eponymous Mr. Norrell is a somewhat timid creature—a landed country squire, ever a bachelor, who likes nothing better than sitting in a corner reading a book, and is likely to describe anything that disturbs his study as “irregular.”  Through years of study (and a near-limitless inheritance with which to buy books) he has reconstructed a system of magic which allows him to perform various feats.  Norrell’s magic is effective, but wooden; he avoids risk, and is very concerned with magic’s reputation in Society, as it has hitherto been disreputable:

“Mr Norrell,” said Sir Walter, “I cannot claim to understand what this help is that you offer us, but whatever it is I am sorry to say that it will not do. Magic is not respectable, sir. It is not,” Sir Walter searched for a word, “serious. The Government cannot meddle with such things.”

In contrast is the other protagonist of the book, Jonathan Strange, who, having devoured tales of the Old Magic, wants to duplicate (and improve upon!) those ancient feats, and is willing to consort with dangerous fairies to do so.  Upon summoning one, he asks it to aid him, saying:

“Such power! Such inventiveness! English magic today lacks spirit! It lacks fire and energy!  I cannot tell you how bored I am of the same dull spells to solve the same dull problems. The glimpse I had of your magic proved to me that it is quite different. You could surprize me. And I long to be surprized!”

(Analogies to tame men and tame lions, and what they ought rightly to be, are encouraged.)

Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange spend a good amount of dialogue wrestling with a question similar to mine, as they argue about what magic ought to be.  Norrell wants it to be practical, controlled, systematic; Strange wants it to be wild, wondrous, and spirited.  Norrell wants nothing to do with fairies; Strange knows that the greatest English magician ever, the “Raven King,” heavily consorted with them, and wants to follow in his footsteps.

The book is long, and much happens, but eventually Strange finds the secret of what magic is, at least within the world of the book:


“It is not so hard as we have supposed. Tell them to read what is written in the sky. Tell them to ask the rain! All of [the Raven King’]s old alliances are still in place. I am sending messengers to remind the stones and the sky and the rain of their ancient promises.”

The gist is:  long ago, the Raven King, having learned from the fairies to speak to the stone, the trees, and water of England, made alliance with them on behalf of all English magicians.  That was the source of the magic, and Norrell’s formulaic magic is akin to a child writing letters to distant servants in the hand of a long-dead father, thinking they are spells rather than messages.

I’ll end here for now.  Stay tuned!