Monday, March 30, 2015

Magic in Christian Fantasy

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Is it okay for there to be magic in Christian fantasy? This was a question that never really crossed my mind until I began writing my first fantasy, Time Captives.

I grew up on Disney’s Cinderella and Snow White. I am quite possibly the biggest Narnia fan I know…and my friends would agree. I am a big fan of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, and Frozen. I have greatly enjoyed the works of E. Nesbit and George MacDonald. I have watched ABC’s Once Upon a Time since it premiered, and have recently begun watching the BBC’s Merlin on Netflix. Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles contain magic, as do Kendra E. Ardnek’s Bookania Quests. My love of these stories, though there have been several instances where the OUAT magic has made me uncomfortable, caused me to wonder why I was uncomfortable with writing magic. I have no problem with Narnian magic. Cinderella’s fairy godmother doesn’t make me uncomfortable. The “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” line in “Let It Go” bothers me more than Elsa’s ice powers or the creation of Olaf. But yet there is magic that makes me uncomfortable. The seer who told Rumple about his future in OUAT creeped me out (yes, the eyes in her hands was a factor, but it wasn’t the only one) and I don’t much like it when Emma uses magic, particularly under Regina’s tutelage. The question is: Why?

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When I first started Time Captives, I was absolutely convinced it had to have magic. It was fantasy, after all. Doesn’t all fantasy have magic? My earliest ideas painted Toarna as a witch, though she had no name and I can’t remember what she used her powers for. But as I wrote it, and forced in the magic because I felt like it was necessary, I realized more and more that I didn’t like writing it. Something just didn’t feel right. But I had a question.

Does fantasy have to have magic? I have discovered the answer is no. Yes, mainstream fantasy seems to require it. However, there seems to be a growing number of non-magical fantasy books, particularly within the Christian homeschool author community. Jaye L. Knight, previously published as Molly Evangeline (my favorite author) has chosen to omit magic in her fantasies. She is not against all magic in stories, as a big fan of Tangled and Wayne Thomas Batson, but she personally chose not to write magic in the traditional sense. Miraculous happenings still occur and creatures such as dragons[1] exist, but they are not termed magic. Nicole Sager also writes non-magical fantasy, and I have yet to encounter any magic in Claire M. Banschbach’s books. Non-magical fantasy exists, it is just not mainstream.

That begs the question: What qualifies a story as fantasy? Magic is certainly a qualification. I would say magic and the existence of the psammead are what qualify Five Children and It as fantasy. I don’t think you can really have our world fantasy without magic. If you don’t, it would be simply historical or contemporary fiction, or possibly science fiction, dystopian, or something of that sort. I believe that what qualifies non-magical fantasy as fantasy is that it is set in another world. It is entirely possible to create a fantasy world of which magic in the traditional sense is not a part. Dolennar and Ilyon are my particular favorites, though I’m sure my sister could add a few more. Even a non-magical fantasy world gives the author the freedom to use fantasy creatures. Dragons and sea serpents and centaurs and gryphons don’t have to be magical. They can perfectly well simply be natural ordinary creatures. Honestly, the physics of a fantasy world don’t even have to be the same. The sun could rise in the north and set in the south if you wanted (though that would most likely require a flat world). The world could be flat. Gravity could be skewed so that people live upside down. You could put a tropical island in the middle of the arctic. It’s still non-magical. Leaving out magic doesn’t take the creativity out of worldbuilding in the slightest degree. I personally adore mashing time periods together. Where else but a fantasy world could you have a culture that’s a mix of ancient Rome, stereotypical ante-Bellum South, and the medieval era? (One could argue that it could happen in “The Wedding of River Song” when all of history was happening at once, but that is a bit irrelevant.)

However, my story is portal fantasy. And, frankly, I don’t particularly want to give up my Narnia or Disney princess movies. So is it ever okay for there to be magic in fantasy? That was when I came across articles discussing the difference between magic in Narnia and Lord of the Rings and magic in Harry Potter.

I have never read Harry Potter, nor do I ever desire to (personal preference, it just doesn’t appeal to me). But I am unashamedly a big fan of both Narnia and LOTR. All of those stories contain magic. And the Bible clearly condemns witchcraft. I read several articles that clearly distinguished between different types of magic in stories. There are differences[2]. What is it that makes some stories acceptable and some not acceptable? And how does it apply to my own writing? These are the things I’ve learned from those articles.

I believe the source of the magic is the most important thing to consider in writing fantasy magic. Where does this power come from? Supernatural power exists. Without a doubt. There are spiritual forces at work. And there are spiritual forces of both good and evil. Remember in Exodus 7:10-13 where Moses turned his rod into a serpent and then Pharaoh’s sorcerers did the same? It was right and good for Moses to perform this, while it was wrong for Pharaoh’s sorcerers. Why? The source. Moses did it by the power and commandment of God. The only power by which the sorcerers could have done the same was that of the devil. It’s kind of scary to think about, actually. Satan imitated the plagues God sent on Egypt. He can do that to an extent. Writing this, it really does scare me. But my point is this: Both acts would, had they happened in a fantasy story, been considered magic.

Turning a rod into a serpent. Changing water to blood. Covering a land in frogs. All magical acts if you consider them from a fantasy story standpoint. Yet Moses was allowed and even supposed to do this, while it was a terrible sin for the sorcerers. All because of the source of the power. Similarly, prophecy and healing by the power of God are right and good, while imitations of such power by the devil are pure evil. That distinguishes “good magic” from “bad magic.”

Personally, while I do not see a problem with calling this “good magic” by that name, I do not think it is necessary. You may call it what it is: a miracle. By doing so, you avoid alienating those who do not read stories with magic. But should you use the word magic, I believe it is incredibly important to define the source. Now, your bad guys will not be using God’s power for their magic. They had better not, or else you will be turning right and wrong on its head. I did choose to remove magic from Toarna’s possession, but that was because I found evil magic, even used in its proper place by the bad guys, too creepy for me to want to work with.

Who uses the magic and how it is used are also important considerations. Using magic for selfish reasons or doing evil that good may come are clearly wrong. Using any power or ability in a wrong way that good may come is wrong. And who uses it. One welcomes pitfalls for readers when a protagonist uses magic, particularly if said protagonist is learning to use magic in the text of the story. Having a mentor character like Gandalf be the one using the magic is a much better route to go. I would probably say that characters like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother fall into this category. One might want to have a fairy godmother, but one is unlikely to try to be a fairy godmother.

Picture Via Pinterest Elsa’s powers are a bit tricky, but I would probably consider hers to be a natural talent, albeit an ability she cannot control. She was born with the ability to create ice, just as Mozart was born with the ability to create music. ABC’s Once Upon a Time does present some problems, and I wouldn’t say it should be watched without discernment. There are some instances in which the magic does bother me. But in general, the magic is something that is normal and accepted in the Enchanted Forest brought to our world like all the fairytale characters, and is out of place here and does not belong, though it does belong back home. Also, “all magic comes with a price.” Using magic is not without consequences. It’s definitely a tricky one, as is BBC’s Merlin. Merlin was born with the ability to use magic, and must keep it hidden only because Uther hates magic because he asked Nimueh to use magic so that Ygraine would bear a son (Arthur) not realizing this would cost Ygraine’s death. The source of the magic is not identified, but it is treated as a natural talent that can be used either for good or ill. I still watch both shows, but I can’t fully get behind them the way I do Narnia.

It’s difficult to create magical beings or characters that use magic in a way that is compatible with Christianity. However, that doesn’t mean characters in other world fantasy have to have the exact same natural abilities as people in our world. Tolkien’s elves have amazing healing abilities. “He needs elvish medicine” can be heard in the LOTR movies. But while some other races look on the elves’ abilities as magic, it’s just a natural ability for them. Similarly, my merfolk can exchange their tails for legs and vice versa at will, but it is just a natural God-given ability for them. Magic-free fantasy doesn’t have to be devoid of interesting abilities like this.

As Time Captives is portal fantasy, and as my characters are stuck in time Tuck Everlasting style, it doesn’t feel like non-magical fantasy. However, there is no magic in the mainstream fantasy magic sense, and not even any fairy godmother magic. The portal is much the same as the Ship of Divine Purpose in Across the Stars, only instead of being a spaceship sent to those who are meant to help in other parts of the universe, it is an attic portal the clues and instructions to which only appear to those who are meant to go through it. They are stuck in time because, as Camthalion says, “God has a reason. He has a purpose for you, and He has ways of accomplishing it, even if they seem strange to us….There is no other option.”

This leads into an important point: Strict non-magical fantasy should not be devoid of the supernatural. God does miracles. He is always working, always orchestrating things in amazing ways according to His will. Non-magical fantasy writers should not go out of their way to omit anything supernatural because it might to some have the appearance of magic. To do so, leaving out miraculous working, is, I think, to deny the nature of God. Do not avoid miracles because someone might think it is magic.

Now, it has to be well done. Do not insert a miracle just to insert a miracle. I can’t give any hard and fast rules for this, but if you write prayerfully and naturally, it will happen in the right place and in the right way. A miracle happened in Across the Stars. I had written a character into a rather fatal condition, and was stuck until, after praying and thinking about it for several days, I realized it had to be a miracle. The ending of The Experiment was criticized as “deus ex machina” by my cousin, but I have had more people say the ending was perfect and it couldn’t have ended any other way. Time Captives is less about big miracles and more about God working everything together perfectly, though the theme and message are different and something that happened naturally without my realizing it. I’m not giving it away, it would be less powerful that way.

Magic in Christian fantasy is an incredibly tricky subject, and I am still learning. It doesn’t have a single answer. There are many perspectives, and many extremes. I struggled greatly with the topic in my writing, and then about my reading and TV watching. I feel like my conclusion is sort of middle ground. I encourage you to research it yourself and come to your own conclusion.

I found many articles and discussion threads (strangely without Googling) in my search for answers. Here are the ones I can remember and still find.

Magic: Harry Potter Vs. LOTR & Narnia... And What God Says About It
Harry Potter vs. Gandalf
FRODO BAGGINS VS. HARRY POTTER: A Christian perspective on fantasy literature
Holy Worlds Fantasy Forum Topic: Magic

[1] I personally believe that dragons were truly dinosaurs, and that it is quite possible some could have breathed fire, though legends are likely much exaggerated, but that is a different topic of discussion.

[2] I do not condemn anyone who chooses to stay away from Narnia and/or LOTR, nor do I condemn people simply for reading Harry Potter. Each person has to decide for him or herself what is acceptable.


  1. Interesting post! I think magic can be overdone at times. I think I prefer it if abilities come from a more supernatural (god-given) standpoint rather than as just "magic".
    It's interesting to play with that dynamic in writing and decide the real source of the "power".

    1. It can definitely be over done. I definitely prefer God-given power to just "magic" too, though it can be hard to find stories that make that distinction.

      It certainly is an interesting topic!

  2. This is exactly what I was looking for. I too struggle being a Christian and wanting to write fantasy as well.

    Solid stuff for sure.

    1. I'm glad it was helpful to you! It's definitely a struggle to write Christian fantasy, but when done well, it's my favorite. I hope some of the links help you sort things out as they did me!

  3. I wanted to add a note about what you said about dragons being the medieval/fantasy equivalent of dinosaurs. I like that a lot.

    I was thinking about the firefly. If the firefly can have some chemical in it to allow it to momentarily glow then why not a made up being (dragon) having something in it not supernatural but in it's DNA to allow it to breathe fire. Of course it's not 100% it drains energy or maybe it has to recharge itself. So that way it's not constant.

    1. The dragon/dinosaur question is one that has fascinated me for quite some time. One interesting point is that the word "dinosaur" wasn't even invented until about 1840, while the word "dragon" has been around since at least the 1500s (it is in the 1599 Geneva Bible, so I'm sure it was around before then). So I think that it is very likely that what we today call dinosaurs were referred to as dragons before the invention of the word "dinosaur."

      The firefly is a good example. Another one I like is the bombardier beetle. It makes and stores chemicals inside its body, and when it feels threatened, it opens valves between the cavities holding them allowing them to mix, then releases these boiling hot gases through the abdomen, shooting whatever had threatened it. With creatures like that, it's not farfetched to think God could have created dragons that could, at least to some extent, breathe fire.

      Also, we saw in a documentary (I think it was called Dragons or Dinosaurs, Creation vs. Evolution, or something like that) that there are dinosaur skulls that have been found that have extra cavities in them that the scientists can't identify for any purpose. What they speculated in the documentary was that they could have been used for a defense mechanism similar to that of the bombardier beetle. That's the principle I built my fantasy dragons on. It's pretty cool to think there could have been fire breathing dragons once.

  4. Magic in Christian Fantasy is a tricky subject, and I do like how you address it here. As you mentioned, I do use magic in my writing, though not all of my worlds include it, and some worlds have more than other worlds. My personal approach is that I try to draw distinct lines, if only in my head, between the three kinds of magic. Because, honestly, the good vs. evil magic system is far too simple, and doesn't quite reflect how the world works.

    First of all, we have natural magic. This one is a pretty broad category, and it covers anything from slight-of-hand, to what is actually science, to things which are merely the differences from one world to another. Mermaids being able to exchange their fins for legs would fall into this, because it's something that the other races can't explain. Most of the Punny stuff in Bookania is Natural Magic. I also consider portals/doors to usually be part of Natural magic - even Laura's ability to control them, but I can't get into that now, because it isn't hinted at until book 3.

    Second, Supernatural magic. Magic that transcends a word's natural laws, and is a direct intervention of God himself. This is where miracles fall, as well as any powers of Good given to someone who wouldn't normally have them. There's quite a bit of this in my Rizkaland series. Also, the magic of the Fairies in Bookania is Supernatural, as they serve basically as prophets from the Author.

    Third, Unnatural magic. Witchcraft. Power from the Devil himself. Unnatural magic could have begun as Natural, or even Supernatural magic, but has been twisted away from God's original plan for it. Indeed, since Satan can create nothing new, this is usually the case.

    It's something I've had to think and pray about a lot over the years, since, like you, I begun writing fantasy thinking that it HAD to have magic. Now I know better (thanks to Jaye and Nicole, and a few other authors whose names I can't call off the top of my head.) However, I've also seen plenty of Christian authors who have shown me that Christians can use magic, such as Anne Elizabeth and Ashlee. It's all a matter of preference, and what you feel God is calling you to write.

    And, also, I wanted a Magic system that was open enough to transcend multiple worlds, occasionally genres, since much of my writing exists within the same mulitverse. (And even my mulitverses are connected. It's very complicated.)

    And yes on the dragon/dinosaur thing. I went through a stage when I wanted to be a Creation Science Evangelist, so yes, very much yes.

    1. Actually, your magic bothers me much less than Disney princess movies even. :) I like the way you make your distinctions. It makes sense both from a worldbuilding standpoint and from a Christian theological standpoint. I'm glad you shared your system, I think it adds a lot to the discussion.

      What you call natural magic is kind of freedom in the physics of a world. Other worlds can have portals, even if our world doesn't. My merfolk can exchange their fins for legs, too (I think we talked about that on FB a few weeks ago). It can be called magic or science and it's pretty much the same thing, and I don't have a problem either way. I think I have more creativity in my worldbuilding due to different physics than most non-magical fantasy writers, but I like both the more creative ones and the more solidly our world realistic.

      Supernatural and Unnatural Magic are, I would think, a little trickier to handle since it should be more distinct where the power is from than with Natural Magic, but it can certainly be done. The Bookania fairy godmother gifts don't make me the slightest bit uncomfortable, though I kind of doubt any of my characters will ever end up with a fairy godmother. My books somehow end up serious, even though there is still definitely comic relief. I envy other authors' abilities to write stuff that is just fun.

    2. That's just it. Natural Magic usually ISN'T magic at all, people just call it that because they can't explain it otherwise. In Bookania, it does lean more towards actual magic, but that's because Bookania itself is created from the stories and legends that our world tells, and with such imagination comes strange physics. And you had mentioned in this post the thing about your mermaids, which is why I used it as an example.

      Magic certainly isn't something to be taken lightly, and that's one reason that a few of my books are pushed to the back-burner, because the magic had been treated too lightly.

      And yes, I'd certainly love to talk about CSE.

    3. I forgot I had mentioned mermaids here. :P I wrote that part of the post weeks before actually publishing it. The physics of your worlds are pretty cool and very different.

      I definitely understand pushing stories to the back burner because theological issues are taken too lightly. I have a few of those.


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