The Role of Magic in Fantasy Literature: Exposing Reality through Fantasy



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The Role of Magic in Fantasy Literature: Exposing Reality through Fantasy

By: Martin Cahill

Submitted for Honors in English

University at Albany, SUNY

Directed by: Jil Hanifan

May 15, 2012

Chapter 1 – Magic: Breaking the Border between Worlds

There is no such thing as magic in our reality as we might find in fantasy literature. Instead, the “magic,” of our reality is more in line with theorist Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of the fantastic. Card play and parlor tricks, legerdemain and illusions: these are tricks created by human logic, and ingenuity. And even though we are aware of its falsity, we still hold our breath. This moment of hesitation is incumbent on Todorov’s signature definition of the fantastic: “The fantastic is the hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event,” (Todorov, 25). However, there is no explicit answer to that hesitation, which world the reader occupies, at least offered by the author. The readers must answer it for themselves.

There is a natural border between the realm of the real, and the realm of the fantastic. One is placed in the world we know, and the other occupies a space that is unreal. The reader’s hesitation between real and unreal helps define the border between these worlds, and also offers a path from one to the other; their uncertainty helps them cross between each world. Without the reader’s participation, without their moment of uncertainty and crossing of worlds, the purpose of the fantastic narrative is lost. That is, the reader does not hesitate, and so does not see the fantastic of the narrative.

Todorov’s definition of the fantastic is still relevant to modern fantasy literature. In a genre that is now branching off into subgenres ranging from urban fantasies to supernatural romance, Todorov’s definition of the fantastic affects and shapes all of them. Despite the label of their subgenre, a distancing from traditional fantastic narratives, these new narratives still produce the sense of unreality that Todorov’s fantasy is capable of creating.

Despite being labeled as a genre widely known for its stereotypes – wizards, witches, dragons – fantasy literature has a unique relationship to reality. Fantasy literature is able to utilize the reader’s hesitation to its advantage. Their uncertainty of reality lets fantasy literature highlight the world they actually live in. But because it is a separate world commenting on another, the commentary is safe, and comes from a place of unreality. In doing so, remaining a separate entity, fantasy literature can expose reality for what it is; by having an outside perspective, and utilizing various tools, fantasy literature is able to expose the truths of reality.

Ultimately though, the purpose of fantasy literature, in relation to reality, lies in what Rosemary Jackson says in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. As Jackson says, “Fantasy recombines and inverts the real, but does not escape it: it exists in a parasitical or symbiotic relation to the real. The fantastic cannot exist independently of that ‘real,’ world,” (Jackson, 20). Jackson points to an idea of fantasy literature that must be kept in mind when discussing the genre: it does not live in a vacuum. Even in its form, fantasy is still in some point of dialogue between itself and the rest of the world, even if it is just borrowing ideas or concepts. That relationship, according to Jackson, is parasitical or symbiotic. What Jackson is highlighting is that other fiction can exist independently of the real world, while fantasy literature cannot.

Jackson uses the image of a lens achieving paraxis in order to illustrate the position of fantasy literature in relation to the real. Paraxis is an optical term for an area where “light rays seem to unite . . . after refraction . . . Object and image seem to collide but in fact neither object or image . . . reside there,” (Jackson, 19). That paraxial area, Jackson posits, is the space in which the fantastic exists: “neither entirely ‘real’ (object), nor entirely ‘unreal’ (image), but is located somewhere . . . between the two,” (Jackson, 20). The uncertainty of the fantastic, much like Todorov asserted, is a vital concept. With fantasy literature playing in this ambiguous space, this border between definite real and unreal, authors use the parasitical/symbiotic relationship Jackson spoke of. Other fiction, which is able to function as the object or as the image, exists in a dialogue with itself; it is already grounded. Fantasy literature needs the reality found in other fiction, as a means of crossing over to the real.

That paraxial area, the border between worlds, not only grounds fantasy literature, but gives it access to reality. This grounding of fantasy in reality is what causes the break in reality, because by acknowledging what’s real, fantasy can expose it. “The fantastic is a spectral presence, suspended between being and nothingness. It takes the real and breaks it,” (Jackson, 20). Mainstream fiction literature can exist independently of our reality because it lives in our reality; fantasy literature does not have that luxury.

And despite the stereotypes that influence people’s expectations of the genre, fantasy literature has more than enough merit to accomplish this complex narrative agenda of exposing reality. Brian Attebery provides a definition of fantasy that affirms the importance of fantasy literature’s relationship to reality, and showcases exactly what fantasy literature can accomplish using the reader’s uncertainty. Attebery sees fantasy as existing in two states simultaneously: fantasy as a formula and fantasy as a mode. The first acknowledges the trend of fantasy as “a form of popular escapist literature,” (1), which lives comfortably in the world of generic fantasy tropes: dragons, wizards, young heroes, and more. The second states that fantasy as a mode is characterized with “stylistic playfulness, self-reflexiveness, and a subversive treatment of established orders of society and thought,” (Attebery, 1).

Fantasy literature as a mode, according to Attebery, fits perfectly within the sphere of legitimate fiction. It is a much more aware narrative than its cousin, the form. It can play with expectations, find ways to subvert the given tropes of the genre, and comes with a heightened sense of identity, capable of highlighting reality itself. In these ways, fantasy authors have an easier time relating their fantasy literature back to reality. Their awareness of the genre allows them to deftly cross the border between real and unreal. Since they are actively looking for what to discuss about our world, they can craft their fantastic narrative to expose reality, and explore what it means to them. Fantasy as formula caters much more to the tropes of the genre, rather than making a concentrated effort to create that break between worlds; while it may produce that uncertainty discussed before, it lives comfortably on its own, with the border between worlds remaining intact, if translucent.

Many fantasy stories, even those that take place within our reality, have elements and worlds that are greatly removed from the everyday. Fantasy authors therefore must create a means by which, as Jackson might say, fill in the paraxial space, between the real and the unreal. This filling of space not only acknowledges the relationship between reality and fantasy, it creates a means to break the barrier between the two; the various devices of fantasy exist as a means to expose reality for what it is.

Through its use of mode, and its paraxial relation to the real, fantasy literature has the unique ability to critique and analyze reality in a way that is both removed and immediate. Fantasy literature has many tools to implement this subversive treatment and/or commentary. The tools fantasy literature authors’ use for this commentary are numerous, ranging from character perspective, to allegorical narrative, metaphor, and awareness of its own expectations. However, one of the more powerful tools in the fantasy author’s toolbox to cross the border between realities is the device of magic, whose very presence punctures the membrane between worlds.

To define magic specifically, we must turn to the primary sources. Every author interprets magic differently, but all ask for some connection to the real world, or at the very least, a connection to a familiar, human concept i.e. scientific law, universal physics, sacrifice, secrets, etc. Kvothe learns in The Name of the Wind, that magic can let you, “impose your will on the world,” (Rothfuss, 78), giving us a glimpse into magic as a tool of agency. Wizard Harry Dresden of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, defines magic as “tap(ping) into the fundamental energies of creation and life itself,” (Butcher, 18), and that it, “comes from inside of you,” (Butcher, 20), showing us its form as a point of origin. The Unicorn of Peter S. Beagle’s novel, The Last Unicorn, says to a malicious witch, “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own and not expect to get it back,” (Beagle, 32), depicting sacrifice. C.S. Lewis, through the voice of Queen Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew claims that the most powerful magic can be called, “the secret of secrets,” (Lewis, 70), offering magic as a truth. And in N. K. Jemisin’s novel, The Kingdom of Gods, her protagonist Sieh says magic is a, “call to reality, and reality responds . . . we and existence are one and the same,” (Jemisin, 135), the ultimate connection between self and reality.

Magic exists as both a signifier of the genre and a device in which to explore real world concepts. Authors are able to introduce contemporary concerns and truths of reality, by breaking through the border of worlds and exposing certain aspects of reality through the device of magic. The majority of authors within the mode of fantasy utilize their magic and their story, as a means to ground their fantasy narrative with a real world influence, in order to glimpse the inside of this reality.

This thesis will present how fantasy authors, depending upon the context of their narratives, utilize the break in reality their magic creates in different ways. For authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, who write in secondary world narratives, utilize the device of magic to bring real world agendas – the introduction of Christianity, the horrors of fascism - to a fantasy world. Meanwhile, authors like Neil Gaiman and Jim Butcher, who work in Urban Fantasy narratives, utilize the device of magic to repurpose the fantastic elements of our reality – fairy tales, mythology – into a commentary on human narrative.

All of this research is being conducted for the benefit of a creative piece at the end of the thesis. As a young fantasy author myself, it is my hope to one day publish fantasy and other speculative work of my own. However, in order to do that, I need to have a deep, working knowledge of the genre I plan to work in. This thesis has been preparing me for a novel of my own that I have been working on: Candle. At the end of each chapter is an analysis of how each author has added to my creative piece. Finally, at the end of the thesis, there will be a creative piece from Candle, exploring how the previous authors’ works have contributed to how I think of magic and what my magic says about my views on reality.



Chapter 2 - The Magic of C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Exposing Modern Agendas

To understand the break that magic is capable of, one must begin with the classics. The study of magic in fantasy must begin with two of the founding fathers of classic fantasy literature structure: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien are authors responsible for creating some of the most instantly recognizable and influential works in fantasy literature: The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, respectively. In these worlds, magic as a border is represented in two very distinct ways. Lewis’ narrative and magic in The Chronicles of Narnia, are highly allegorical of Christ’s life, death, and rebirth, as represented by Aslan the Lion. Tolkien’s link back to the real world was formed in a post-World War wish for nostalgia, back to the times when the world was not ravaged by war and death. His land of Middle-Earth is in transition, as ancient, magical races begin to fade, and man comes into their own as a world power. While peace is eventually secured, it comes at a high price: the reign of man ensures the death of magic, and the birth of industry in the wake of war.

When reading these stories as a child, the authors’ ideas of Christ figures and pre-industrial nostalgia, did not cross my mind. The thing that spoke to me most at that age was the wonder and the magic of a new world. Both authors granted me something I could not get from reality itself. Tolkien’s character of Gandalf let me experience life as a powerful magician: wise and kind, intelligent and magical. Lewis’ story brought children from earth to a new world, and imbued them with weapons and wisdom, and magic.

Trying to understand magic is something that never crossed my mind when I was a child. It was there to provide a Todorovian sense of wonder, creating the uncertainty of which world I lived in. It was a way to distance myself from my own world without losing myself completely. Why it is there, how it works, why some can do it and others cannot; these were just window-dressings for me. For me at that age, magic helped create a sense of wonder, and it is what made fantasy literature so enticing to me.

Now older, magic in fantasy literature, has taken on a different meaning. Much like Attebery defines fantasy literature in two ways, both existing simultaneously, so too does the magic of Tolkien and Lewis act. On the one hand, they are devices used to enhance the wonder of a fantastic world and story: hobbits and giant lions, walking trees and powerful witches. But on the other, as much as Tolkien and Lewis celebrated the form of the genre – talking animals, wizards, dragons - they both had agendas, and issues with the real world that found a home in the mode of the genre, through their narratives and magic. Lewis worked to introduce Christianity to children in a way he never had when he was younger, using the form of the genre to work in his allegory. Tolkien worked to illustrate the death of nostalgia and innocence i.e. magic, to a world still reeling from the horrors and warfare of the World Wars.

The first thing we must look at it how their created worlds link to human creation myths, a crucial step in building a world familiar to their audiences. Lewis strictly ties himself to the Christian experience of world creation, just one monotheistic experience. As Wood says, Lewis’ stubbornness “leads him to use the Christian myth as a closure on human existence,” (Wood).

Lewis’ world creation is specifically geared towards this idea of the Christian myth antecedent. According to Hartt, “religion is not only looking backward; it is conformity to a predetermined order . . . (had) no capacity for the genuinely new, no real potency; neither can there be any celebration of other stories. Lewis’ world is closed off,” (Hartt). Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia, has recycled the story of creation, and of the bible; as a storyteller, he limits himself, cutting himself off from any sort of new idea or take on his story. His use of the Christian creation myth creates a narrow break, and hinders the reader’s ability to connect to the story. They are forced to view the story through a specific lens: a Christian viewpoint and that is all. The link from fantasy to reality is solid but it is not a strong narrative choice.

Lewis himself has no problem admitting his purpose in writing the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis felt the form of the fairy tale could “steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood . . . supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could,” (Lewis). Utilizing the form of the fantastic, Lewis was able to tailor his story, so that the frame of the form actually softened the impact of the mode, his Christian allegory, rather than intensify it. By embracing the signifiers of the form – talking animals, magic, epic battles – Lewis was able to weave his Christian allegorical work into his story underneath the form.

Magic creates a break in the border between worlds, and usually uses a character or device by which the real world counterpart can be recognized. Lewis’ uses the character of Aslan the Lion, whose role within the magical world of Narnia is both creator and savior. Aslan is such powerful conduit of the land’s magic that even at the mention of his name, there is an effect felt, like the answering of a prayer. At the mention of Aslan, who is nowhere in sight, “each one of the children felt something jump in its inside,” like when a strange word in a dream has, “some enormous meaning – either a terrifying one . . . or else a lovely meaning,” (Lewis, 74).

The effect of Aslan’s name is indicative of his status within the world. As Kaufmann says, Lewis is showing “that the human heart can recognize all sorts of wonderful things that are somehow present even in their absence. This would be true . . . of high things, of the things above us, supernatural and lordly, kingly, eminent, up and out-of-sight, the implied ideal. Aslan is the king of the beasts . . . a picture of the God who becomes incarnate,” (Kaufmann, 12-13). Aslan, as the god incarnate of Narnia, is everywhere and nowhere, and his presence, when written by Lewis, drives home his godly nature.

Aslan sings Narnia into being. Invoking Genesis, in the final moments of Narnia’s birth, Aslan sayss, “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters,” (Lewis, 138). It is a command given, much like the Christian God, and from then on, the world is alive. From the, “valley of . . . earth, rock, and water,” (Lewis, 119), to the “crumbled earth . . . from each hump there came out an animal,” (133), Aslan goes through almost every step of Genesis from the Bible. That is because for Lewis, as Hartt says, “the Christian myth is the key to an antecedent order in the universe . . . all of life is a movement back into this objective basis, an affirmation of order and control,” (Hartt). According to Hartt, Lewis felt that all stories must move back to this place of birth, as according to the Christian myth.

The exposing of reality his magic creates, is ultimately realized in the death and rebirth of Aslan, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Aslan sacrifices himself to save the Penvensie children from the Witch, invoking “a deep magic, according to which one life can be offered for another,” (Kauffman, 16). Willingly, he sacrifices himself for man, and so dies. However, after his death, he is reborn in the sunrise. When asked how he survived, Aslan tells the children, “there is a magic deeper still . . . if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time dawned . . . she would have known that when a willing victim . . . was killed in the traitor’s stead . . . Death itself would start working backward,” (Lewis, 178-79).

Aslan, though he mentions the concept of a deeper magic beyond space and time, is actually fulfilling a sacrifice of himself, to himself. In the same way Jesus Christ had to die before the gates of Heaven could stand open, Aslan is reborn through his sacrifice. However, it is clear that Lewis is drawing from the Christian myth, and transposing it into his own story, to complete the Christian cycle he has created.

Despite being a Christian himself, Tolkien did not evangelize his beliefs through his works. Rather, “Tolkien shared Lewis's conviction that God implanted natural law underlies everything created. Yet for Tolkien it was the imagination, far more than the reason, that discerns this divine order . . . He wanted his work to stand on its own intrinsic merits, to glorify God as a compelling and convincing story, not for it to be propped up with even so noble a purpose as evangelism.” (Wood, 4). Tolkien’s world is born of the idea that there are multiple stories, not just one mythos, and each can reveal a different facet of God. This ties into the universal human experience, and already, his narrative is more accessible to others. As Wood states, Tolkien used his world creation, “as an opening up of that (human) existence,” (Wood).

Tolkien wanted to tell a story with many possibilities, “in the confidence that a real story is even yet in making within the differentiated being of God,” (Hartt). Tolkien was smart to not just focus on one monomyth in the creation of his world and magic, but rather, drew from many different cultures. Tolkien’s ideas of nostalgia are the magic that helps expose reality; his magic is born of ancient races and the land itself, before it has been torn asunder by war and modern technology. Tolkien though, according to Wood, maintains that because he opted to go for more well-rounded inspiration of his world, he is able to appeal to, not only more readers, but to their sense of story. Tolkien is not forcing his readers to read his story in one angle. He is aware of the broad range of human experiences and moves to embrace that.

Magic has a temporal, racial element to it in Tolkien’s works. Of the non-human races, elves, and wizards have the most control over magic, being ancient races, of the land. Extremely reminiscent of Earth fairy tales and fairies, those of “Faerie in the West,” (Tolkien, 164), were the “Light-elves and the Deep-elves and the Sea-elves,” (Tolkien, 164), who “invented their magic and their cunning craft,” (Tolkien, 164). These are a people for whom magic is indigenous; it was born with them. They have not lost it, because they do not travel to the, “Wide World,” (Tolkien, 164), presumably the rest of Middle-Earth as a whole. Wizards belong to the same cloth as Elves; these peoples both have unique relationships to the earth and the magic therein.

Even races that cannot control magic are still bound by its natural laws, as they exist because of magic. When Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by the three trolls in The Hobbit, not one of the party bats an eye when, come the dawn, the trolls revert into stone. Because as everyone of this world knows, “trolls . . . must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of,” (Tolkien, 52). This magical transformation evokes a cyclical form of nature, much like water will convert to mist and then to rain and over again, there is a natural, magical lifecycle to these beings and this world, reminiscent of our own.

However, as man begins to thrive, magic begins to die. In The Lord of the Rings especially, as Hinlicky says, “The fulcrum of power in Middle Earth is shifting. It is no longer in the moral certainties and magical assurances of ages past. Now it is in the morally ambiguous governance of men, who shortly will take center stage in the unfolding drama of the planet. The Elves leave for the Grey Havens of their own volition, but the hobbits will be marginalized, the dwarves swallowed up by the earth, and even Tom Bombadil will be seen no more,” (Hinlicky). Magic is dying as the age of man arrives; the power of the old races, the Rings of Power, the wizards, the elves, all must make way for modernity, in an effort to destroy the evil of Sauron.

Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, plays the same role of Aslan in The Lord of the Rings, as he is reminiscent of a classic figure of our reality. Just like how Aslan played the role of Jesus Christ, so too does Gandalf live the role of Merlin, a major player in Arthurian legend. Gandalf, our agent of magic, must choose when and where he performs his magic to, “deflect attention from wizardry in order to emphasize the importance of working through ordinary human means,” (Riga). While he often has many companions, he is our primary glimpse into the magic of Middle-Earth.

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