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.


  1. “We … 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.”

    I don’t know if you have had a try at Owen Barfield (Lewis’s best friend) yet? This is a place where I think he went deeper than Lewis. Yes, we want the above – yet this wanting is for a kind of fusion, and if we got it we would lose our-selves – by losing our consciousness. I mean, if we really became part of beauty, we would forget that we were part of it.

    Well, maybe we could retain just enough awareness of our-selves as to know that here and now were were fused with beauty – but not enough awareness to know the past or future. But this is more like Nirvana Bliss than the Christian Heaven. Christians want to be like the resurrected Jesus, and he was not in this kind of state…

    Barfield termed the situation described by Lewis as Original Participation, and realised that it was not attainable (neither on earth nor in Heaven) – but that something else was; and that it to join with beauty in creating, which is to join with God in the work of creation – i.e. ‘Final’ Participation.

    FP is, of course, a part of CJCLDS theology (which neither Barfield nor Lewis knew anything about); where it is what happens at the highest degree of glory – becoming a full co-creator (including procreator of spirit children).

    My personal inference is that we cannot have this as a permanent mode of Being in mortal life, but we Can potentially experience it briefly and intermittently on earth; and can learn from the experience – not least that this is how we most hope to live beyond the gates of death.

    1. Excellent! Yes, I included the Lewis quote not for what it actually says, but for the feeling I had when reading that section, which is not what he actually said.

      Lewis’s actual words do seem to be about becoming a part of Nature, but what I meant in this essay was more like becoming a Ranger or Druid—a friend of Nature, with place there(even if we often don’t take it), rather than an intruder. And trusted—to the point of obedience.

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