I’m sure literary critics have systematic explanations for magic in literature. And now that I’m thinking about it, perhaps I should look them up; I think I’d probably enjoy reading about it. But abject ignorance has never kept me from voicing my opinion on this blog before, and it won’t begin to do so today.
Last Friday, after six years of reading (and twenty years of anticipation before that), I finished Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Gone now are the magic castles and charmed armor, the sorceresses and hippogriffs. As my thoughts have revolved around these magical elements, how much I’ve enjoyed them, and how much I look forward to visiting Ariosto’s fantastic world again in a few years, I find myself wondering why Ariosto incorporated magic, what advantages it brought to the tale, and what I got from it.
First, and most obviously, magic in literature is fun. Astolfo rides a Hippogriff to the tallest mountain on Earth, where he finds John the Evangelist, and then rides on Elijah’s chariot to the moon to find Orlando’s lost wits. That sequence is wonderful in both the literal and usual senses of the word, and the clutter of lost things on the moon is simply one of the most vivid scenes I’ve ever read. But this isn’t an isolated instance; magical devices and creatures and actions fill the book. Monsters and people turned to stone and prophetic sculpture (funny how the prophecies mostly look forward to Ariosto’s patron, Ippolito d’Este) and love potions keep the pages turning.
Second, while unrealistic in a sense, magic seems normal to us since most of our earliest stories involve magic. We know that secret formulas become known because we know the story of Ali Baba. We know that no good will happen when a protagonist buys a magic item from a stranger because we know about Snow White. On the other hand, we know that if someone complains about the magic item bought from the stranger, it will do good in an unexpected way, because we know about Jack the Giant Killer. These familiar dynamics bring a sense of comfort that outweighs any aversion or disorientation we might experience from the exotic elements themselves.
Third, magic shows us that the world is more than it appears. Some of Tolkien’s circle told him they feared his Lord of the Rings would make people disappointed in the real world. He responded by saying he hoped, on the contrary, that readers would find the real world more alive than ever before, that they would learn from his book to see the tree in their yard and think of the ent inside. His hope is fulfilled in me.
Fourth, literary magic shows a world in which humans are not in control, a lesson we all need. The heroes have magic armor and magic weapons, so they can’t very well take credit for their victories. Can we in fact even call them heroes? Yes, in the sense that Ariosto’s paladins must accept these weapons as gifts of grace and use them. The virtuous path is neither to take credit for what the magic weapons accomplish nor wallow in self-doubt or debilitating thoughts of being undeserving. But even with the knowledge of having been chosen to bear mystically empowered implements, the magical hero can still take nothing for granted: what happens when the infallible sword meets the invulnerable shield? Even people with powers of magical manipulation within them don’t have control in Ariosto’s world. Melissa, a prominent and ambivalent sorceress in Orlando, explains near the end of the book that once a week she is turned into a snake for a day and that during this day the heavens don’t listen to her wishes.
Finally, it seems to me that in the hands of a Christian writer, magic can stand in for God’s power. How does a writer of fiction dare to represent God as a character? If I write a story about Cora and Rudy, I have no qualms about deciding what my protagonists would do in a particular situation. But how can I presume to declare what the wise Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the Universe would do with a certain hypothetical person in a given hypothetical case? Yes, representing God’s providence by means of magic coins and swords only substitutes one set of symbols for another. But just as a painter may without sin (I believe and hope) symbolize by the image of a beam of light the God who demanded no graven images, the extra layer of symbolism in fiction also seems much less blasphemous.